Jack London (“To Build a Fire”) tells the chilling tale of a solitary hiker traversing the Yukon at 50 degrees below zero. “He was,” says London, “quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things, and not in the significances….The trouble with him was that he had no imagination.” He knew it was cold – knew, in fact, that it was fifty degrees below zero. But he did not then “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general… and from there … to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”
Here are two levels of imagination. Elemental self-preservation requires the first: “to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature.” Religion raises the second: “man’s frailty in general… and the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”
Religion is a sort of imagination. It is the study of significances. To be religious is to be alive not just to things but to their significances. It is a flight of fancy, but not fantasy. It is the positing of a connective tissue behind and beyond phenomena.
Until modernity, conversation was rife with religious imagination. When, by the seventeenth century, modernity pushed the scientific system for all it was worth, religion failed, at first, to keep up. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did religion finally make the necessary intellectual advances, and in many places, it has yet to do so still. Where it has matured, however, sophisticated religionists acknowledge the validity of both science and religion: the knowledge of things and the imagination of their significances.
But when science came into its own, religion lost its monopoly on the imaginative process. Art had always been in service of religion, but as religion paled, art – itself, potentially, an exploration of significances — sprung itself free. Many artists conscientiously eschewed the task of imagining significances, but others developed their own alternative systems of exploring what things mean, and in so doing, became, by definition, religious once again, but independently and maturely so.
Identity is the name we give to the allegiance we have to one set of significances over another: to music, say, rather than religion; or to sports or business, for that matter. Any given set of facts can “mean” different things. A devastating tsunami may mean the market will go down (business); God is punishing humanity through a flood (one form of religion); we must find meaning in mortality (another kind of religion) and unite as a human community to do what we can to save one another (religion, again, but with an ethical component).
London’s Yukon hiker is a fictitious anomaly. Most human beings cannot escape the search for some underlying system of significations. The only question is what set of underlying significations any one of us espouses.