Walter Brueggemann: Pathetic Imagination

Since the publication of my book, The Prophetic Imagination, in 1978, I have returned to its theme many times. I have concluded that “prophetic imagination” consists in the capacity to host a world other than the one that is in front of us.  Thus the ancient prophets in Israel lived in a world that was propelled by money, power, wisdom, fear, and violence. But the world to which they bore witness was very different. That world, given mostly in poetic imagery, is a world where God governs with a will for justice and compassion. In that imagined world to which they bore witness, God has a ready, willing capacity to create joyous viable conditions for life. In that world, moreover, the greedy toxic ways of our present world stand under prompt judgment. The world they host is very different from the one in front of Israel that was managed, for the most part, in order to eliminate God as serious player and a real character.

The other day I was talking, yet again, about “prophetic imagination.” In a slip of the tongue I inadvertently said, “pathetic imagination.” That slip has led me to reflect in the following way about how “pathetic imagination” is very different from “prophetic imagination.” Pathetic imagination is incapable of hosting an alternative world and remains quite satisfied to have its sphere of possibility circumscribed to the small world in front of us. Thus in the confines of pathetic imagination, the claims of prophetic imagination are outrageous and incredible.

As I began to think about “pathetic imagination” and its severe limitations, I thought of a clear example of it in the Old Testament. In II Kings 6:8-23, the unnamed king of Syria, the perennial enemy of ancient Israel, is yet again at war with Israel. The king of Syria is convinced that Elisha, the prophet, is a spy in the service of Israel’s unnamed king. As a result, the Syrian king dispatches a mighty military host to surround Elisha’s house in order to seize him.

In the narrative Elisha’s aide looks out the window and sees the Syrian soldiers and horses. That is all he can see; and he is very frightened:

Alas, master! What shall we do? (II Kings 6:15)

The aide can see that he and Elisha are helpless, outnumbered and without resources, and therefore vulnerable to this military company. It turns out that the frightened response of the aide to what he saw out of the window is a compelling example of pathetic imagination. He can see only what is in front of him, enough to frighten him.

His faulty vision and his fear are countered by Elisha who, in an unflappable way, offers prophetic imagination. That is, he has a capacity to see otherwise. He reassures his aide:

Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them (v. 17).

The aide thinks that Elisha cannot count very well, or he is utilizing some “new math.” Through his prayer Elisha makes it possible for his aide to see what he now sees that had remained invisible to him:

So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (v. 17).

It turns out that according to this act of prophetic imagination the world was very different from the one permitted by the pathetic imagination of the aide.

We have no way of knowing what the reality of Elisha’s “revealment” was, but it was in any case enough to subdue the Syrian force and make it helpless. Elisha led the helpless Syrians to Samaria and presented them to the Israelite king. Prophetic imagination goes even further, because Elisha resists the intention of the Israelite king to kill the Syrians. Instead Elisha hosts a great feast and sends them home peaceably. In the narrative the prophet contradicts the pathetic imagination of both his aide and his king. The outcome is a long period of peace between Israel and Syria. We of course notice that the narrative does not “explain” anything. It leaves the narrative for us to ponder, and to consider how it might be that alternative imagination yields alternative historical reality and alternative historical outcomes. We may take the aide and the Israelite king to be representatives of pathetic imagination that fails, in fear and in dullness to reckon with a world in which the living God is an effective player.

In the New Testament we may trace, especially in the Gospel of Matthew, the pathetic imagination of the disciples of Jesus who are said four times to be people of “little faith” (oligopistoi):

  • Jesus chides his disciples for being anxious about food and clothing, when they are able to observe the bounty of God’s creation in even more transient things.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:30; see Luke 12:28)

Their anxiety is an outcome of “little faith,” that is, pathetic imagination that cannot host a world of God’s abundance when they are fixed on their own needs and deficiencies. The alternative to such anxiety is to be focused instead on the reception of God’s rule of righteousness.

  • The disciples are out on the sea in the midst of a great storm. They are very frightened and say, “We are perishing” (Matthew 8:25). Jesus reprimands his disciples for their little faith:

Why are you afraid, you of little faith? (Matthew 8:26)

If we understand the storm to be an instance of the threat of chaos, faith might have reassured the disciples that God the creator has got the whole world in his hands, including chaos. After his reprimand Jesus stills the chaotic waters, thus performing and exhibiting the ordering work of the creator. It is no wonder that the disciples are amazed to see that even the chaotic waters and wind obey “this man” who is the creator God among them. Their fear had overridden whatever faith they may have had in the creator God.

  • In a third text, the narrative features only Peter who faces the chaotic waters and a strong wind (Matthew 14:28-33). Again it is the force of the storm that frightens Peter and causes him to panic. Again Jesus rebukes him for his little faith, because he doubts the capacity of Jesus to master the wind and water. But Jesus rescues him and stills the storm. He is recognized as the “Son of God.” Those in the boat could readily recognize that Jesus had overridden the fear of Peter by acting as the creator who could order the wind. It is no wonder that they worshiped him!
  • In a fourth episode, the disciples are fearful because they have no bread (Matthew 16:5-12). It turns out that they had completely misunderstood Jesus and the figure in which he spoke to them. They are preoccupied with bread, but he was speaking of the “yeast” of his religious opponents. They had witnessed his two “bread miracles” earlier in the gospel narrative (Matthew 14:13-21, 15:32-39), but they were unable to make a connection between his actions and the teaching he offered. Given their pathetic imagination he scolds them yet again:

You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? (Matthew 16:8-11).

The narrative concludes with this laconic comment:

Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (v. 12).

Better late than never!

In all four cases the “little faith” of the disciples was evident because they were preoccupied with the world immediately in front of them:- worry about food and

  • worry about wind and storm;

  • worry about wind and storm, again; and

  • worry about lack of bread.

Their “little faith” and their preoccupation with immediate matters caused their pathetic imagination to miss the point about trust in the capacity of God—and more specifically trust in the capacity of Jesus—to provide what is needed for life. As a consequence, their little faith caused them to miss out on the chance to trust Jesus and to engage on behalf of the coming Kingdom of God. The disciples were as limited in their imagination as was the aide to Elisha before them.

Pathetic imagination is the assumption that the world immediately in front of us is the only world on offer. Thus all possible futures are contained within present observable social reality. This in effect means that there are no alternatives to what we have before us, and so no chance for change, no offer of alternative, no possibility of newness. Those who benefit from the world the way it is presently arranged have a great stake in the claim that this is the only possible world:

  • Thus predatory capitalism likes to claim that the deep inequality between haves and have-nots is inevitable. They readily misrepresent the words of Jesus: “You always have the poor with you.”
  • Thus white supremists can readily claim that racial superiority and racial inferiority are part of the “natural order,” and cannot be altered and so must not be altered.
  • Thus those who benefit from aggressive nationalism prefer to think that war is inevitable, and we must always be overspending and making preparation for war, because it is sure to come.

Thus concerning capitalism, racism, and war-mongering nationalism, plus a host of other issues, pathetic imagination serves to maintain the status quo on the assumption that present reality is beyond mutation. Against that, prophetic imagination can see that present social reality is a construction; it can for that reason be deconstructed and reconstructed differently. That is why, against the intransigent chaplains of the status quo, prophetic imagination always asserts that “the days are coming” when an alternative world will emerge among us. For good reason, there are dreamers and there are killers of the dream!

Such pathetic imagination leads to domestication of social possibility that limits options for the future. Such domestication in turn invites conformity, because the only way to get ahead is to go along. And such conformity eventually leads to resignation and despair, as we conclude that the present reality is our durable fate.

Of course such pathetic imagination readily impacts the church. It is easy enough for a local congregation to assume that what it sees before it is all that there can be. Such a view limits vision, curbs energy, and shrivels missional engagement. In the local congregation in St. Louis where I worshiped for a very long time we frequently played out the drama of domestication and conformity. Whenever we were ready to take a new missional initiative, “George,” an older member of the congregation, always stood up to say, “Be careful, the boiler might go out and require a big payment.” His cautionary word was designed to dissuade the congregation from engaging in any bold imagination, action, or expenditure. In the end such pathetic imagination limits the missional energy of the congregation. Eventually it will and does also serve to curb the proclamation of the gospel, so that the church’s proclamation is limited to the specificities that are in front of us. Such domestication, moreover, can skew the prayers of the congregation to be timid and anemic, not daring to sound either bold petition or insistent protest to God.

It is no wonder that the state, the church, and society more generally always want to “kill the prophets” because the prophets continue to remind us that the world in front of us in not the only world available to us. Such prophetic imagination intends to deconstruct our present world and to construct a new and different one. For some that work of deconstruction and reconstruction is emancipatory. For many others that work must be resisted. It is no wonder that Elijah, the most representative prophet in ancient Israel, was termed by King Ahab to be a “troubler of Israel” (II Kings 18:17). Prophetic imagination always troubles; pathetic imagination, to the contrary, submits to present reality and never disturbs.

Walter Brueggemann

February 19, 2023


Walter Brueggemann is one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.



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