Religion begins in the imagination and in stories, but it cannot remain there. The stories which are our first contact with religion (“A decree went out from Caesar that the whole world should be enrolled…” “Early on the morning the first day of the week…” “And Jesus took bread and blessed it…”) are subject to rational and critical examination as we grow older to discover both what they mean and whether we are still able to believe them. Bethlehem becomes the Incarnation. The empty tomb becomes the Resurrection. The final supper becomes the Eucharist. These are all necessary and praiseworthy developments. Nonetheless, the origins and raw power of religion are at the imaginative (that is, experiential and narrative) level both for the individuals and for the tradition.

The doctrine of the Incarnation has less appeal to the whole self than the picture of the Madonna and child in a cave. The doctrine of the Resurrection has less appeal to the total human personality than do the excited women and the awestruck disciples on the road to Emmaus that first day of the week. The doctrine of the Real Presence is less powerful than the image of the final meal in the upper room. None of these doctrines is less true than the stories. Indeed, they have the merit of being more precise, more carefully thought out, more ready for defense and explanation. But they are not where religion or religious faith starts, nor in truth where it ends.

Catholicism shares these stories with the other Christian churches. However, Catholicism invests the stories with its distinctive sensibility, developing Easter lilies and Santa Claus and the Feast of Corpus Christi…. Most other Christian denominations do not engage in such devotions. Indeed, they dismiss them as superstition and perhaps idolatry. It is not my intention to defend Catholic devotional practices but rather to show that they illustrate how the Catholic religious imagination differs from the Protestant religious imagination….

The fundamental insight which guides this exploration comes from the word of David Tracy, especially in his Analogical Imagination. Tracy noted that the classic works of Catholic theologians and artists tend to emphasize the presence of God in the world, while the classic works of Protestant theologians tend to emphasize the absence of God from the world…. [T]o put matters in different terms, Catholics tend to accentuate the immanence of God, Protestants the transcendence of God. Tracy is consistently careful to insist that neither propensity is superior to the other, that both need each other, and, in my sociological terminology, the correlation between the two imaginations and their respective religious traditions is low level. Nonetheless, they are different from one another….

[If one] is willing to concede, based on the empirical evidence, that Catholics view reality somewhat differently, the question then arises as to how this comes to be.… How does one acquire a Catholic sensibility, a Catholic perspective on time and space and community and creation and salvation?

The answer is that a religious sensibility is passed on by storytellers, most of whom are not aware that they are telling stories because their narratives reside more in who they are and what they do rather than in what they say. Religious heritages are transmitted, not necessarily by official teachers and preachers, but more likely by intimates, those who are closest to us in our lives. The stories are told by the way in which they react to the ordinary and especially the extraordinary events of life—failure, disappointment, suffering, injustice, death, success, joy, love, intense pleasure, marriage, birth.

In our study of young Catholics, my colleagues and I tried to confirm this answer to the question of where the Catholic sensibility comes from, which is in fact the same as the more general question of how all religious heritages are transmitted across generational lines…. [O]ur Study of Young Catholics found that the Catholic sensibility is passed on first through the stories one hears at the dawn of consciousness and that slip, via images and pictures (the Madonna, the crèche), subtly into that consciousness during the early years of life. Then through the various socializing influences in the young person’s life—parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, friends, the parish community, the spouse, the liturgy, and religious and even theological reading. The playing field is tilted in favor of the Catholic sensibility from the beginning of consciousness and remains tilted—not perfectly, not necessarily permanently, more strongly in some than in others, but tilted nonetheless.

Thus, even well-educated and sophisticated Catholics have acquired their Catholic sensibility almost entirely through stories told by local socialization agents. The mistake of many Catholic leaders is to assume that what they say and do really matters or has ever mattered unless local socialization agents are willing to tell the same stories. Who has more influence on religious preference, the pope or a warmly loving spouse? If you are not sure of the answer to that question, then you are kidding yourself.

Andrew Greeley (1928–2013) was a priest, sociologist, and author

Selections from Handing on the Catholic Imagination Through Story (University of California Press, 2000), 4—5, 174–176, 179, 180.

Photo Credit: Andrea Mantegna’s 1457 Crucifixion