Religion and the Historical Imagination: Esoteric Tradition as Poetic Invention

Abstract: In this contribution, it is argued that the concept of ‘imagination’
should be restored to the status of a crucial key term in the study of religion.
More specifically, attention is focused here on the importance of the historical
imagination as an object of research (as distinct from its importance as a factor
in research) and its relation to strict historicity. The dynamics of the historical
imagination can be analyzed in terms of a double polarity: factuality versus
non-factuality and poeticity versus non-poeticity. Historical narratives with a
high degree of poeticity tend to be remembered and have an impact on readers
even if they are factually inaccurate, while narratives with a low degree of poeticity
tend to be disregarded or forgotten even if they are factually accurate.
Against this background, four influential historical ‘grand narratives’ are analyzed:
(1) the Renaissance and predominantly Catholic story of ‘ancient wisdom’
through the ages; (2) its negative counterpart inspired by Protestant polemics, referred
to as the story of ‘pagan error’ through the ages; (3) the Enlightenment
story of progress through rational ‘Enlightenment’; and (4) its counterpart
more congenial to Romantic sentiments, the story of a progressive ‘education
of Humanity.’ Such imaginative narratives haveastrong impact because they
are able to engage the emotions, and hence we need to analyze how specific narratives
afford specific economies of emotionality. Because religious grand narratives
are the reflection of highly eclectic types of historiography, they need to be
countered by an anti-eclectic historiography that does not sacrifice factuality to
poeticity. And yet, it is at least as important for historians to accept the task of
telling new ‘true stories’ about religion too: narratives that engage the imagination
of their readers without sacrificing nuance, complexity, and factual