One phenomenon that makes reading and interpreting scripture so interesting is what the author Charles Taylor called “the modern social imaginary.”
It is why we seem to imagine the world so differently, and why we often work with such different sets of criteria for truth and explanation.
In his book, Modern Social Imaginaries, Taylor explains that the way people see themselves fitting into the society as a whole and the way they understand normal life and social interactions is defined by an ongoing developing imagination that we all share in.
To speak of it as an “imaginary” is not to say it does not have any basis in reality. Rather, it means that human beings receive reality in a variety of contexts, and therefore imagine their social existence differently.
Taylor makes clear that the “social imaginary” people carry with them is not a theory that can be laid out in a detailed outline. It is an ambiguous and ever expanding acknowledgement of how things go in a particular social context or in society as a whole.
Despite not being a theory, the social imaginary is what provides a sense of coherence to one’s own actions and gives sense to the practices of a given community. In other words, it is what makes certain actions the unquestionably “right” action within a given community. It is what allows one community to take a “truth” for granted, while another community may raise all kinds of objections to this “truth.”
In short, it is how you imagine the world in a way that makes sense in your head according to the experiences, relationships, and formative stories of your life.
At the core of this social imaginary is the reality that the social imaginary is what establishes legitimacy. This is because differing communities and contexts will take different stories, legends, and images as normative for ideological discussion. It will be these stories, legends, experiences, and images that inform our understanding of truth.
A social imaginary includes “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (23).
It is not “imaginary” in the sense that it is made up in one’s mind apart from any other influence or source. Instead, it is deeply informed by the narration of history, experience, interpretation, repetition, and the compounding of these in particular social contexts.
Likewise, the social imaginary is not simply made up in the minds of a society in the way that laws are developed. Taylor explains, “humans operated with a social imaginary well before they ever got into the business of theorizing about themselves” (26). Therefore, the social imaginary is inherited and transforms slowly by the presentation of new interpretations and narrations of history, experience, ideas, and technology.
This is why we receive our “truth” as self-evident truth. We do not realize how context-laden our truth is. This is not to say that there is no absolute truth. However, truth is deeper than simply what we take for granted. We must understand what we take for granted before we can ever press deeper into truth itself.
WHY DOES ALL OF THIS MATTER?
All of this matters because often we bring our “social imaginary” with us to our reading of scripture. This is a completely normal and acceptable practice. In fact, how could we not? We do not know how to operate without it! The issue is that often we come without any awareness of how our own stories, experiences, ideas, relationships, allegiances, privileges, and technologies, among other things, influence our understanding of what is happening in the scripture we are reading.
There will be much more to come on this topic, but are we aware of the way our “social imaginary” is informing how we understand the stories we read? We may be reading our story into the story. Instead, we ought to be reading THE story in order to better understand our own story in light of it.
Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Public Planet Books. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.