Book Review: “Imaginative Apologetics”

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’.” Pretty much all philosophers, regardless of their other epistemological commitments, agree that the Cartesian project—the idea that we can find some foundational concept that we can prove, know for certain, and all agree on—has failed.

Post-modernism may have destroyed the ability of college students to acknowledge that moral absolutes exist, but it has at least kicked us in the butt and forced us into to accept a little epistemological humility. We can’t ever “prove” anything.

As someone presumptive enough to call myself an “apologist,” I still believe that reason and logic are universal and built into the structure of the world by God. I also believe that every new idea that comes along must be judged by whether it is internally consistent and whether it can actually be lived out in the real world.

However, I have been alive long enough (and I’m showing my age here) to know that while a logical, evidential defense of the Christian faith is necessary (Christianity must be able to show that it is at least as reasonable as any other worldview), evidence alone does not change hearts. God created humans with both intellect and emotion, and in order to affect head-to-toe, inside out transformation, both head and heart must be involved.

And honestly, the heart usually comes first.

Which brings me to my review of Imaginative Apologetics (Baker Academic 2012). Originally published in England, Imaginative Apologetics is a collection of essays by mostly British scholars, theologians, and clergy, who share a commitment to two ideas.  First, that reason necessarily includes an imaginative component, and second, that apologetics has, in the last century, sacrificed imagination on the alter of reason. As John Milbank says in the introduction, something essential was lost “with the assumption that the only reason which discloses truth is a cold, detached reason that is isolated from both feeling and imagination.”

In the Introduction, editor Andrew Davison quotes Thomas Aquinas (which is never a bad move). “Truth is something good,” wrote Aquinas, “otherwise it would not be desirable, and good is something true, otherwise it would not be intelligible.” Davison’s response is that “God satisfies both the intellect and the desire—he is both true and good—which is why apologetics should embrace both…The apologist may labor to show that that the Christian theological vision is true, but that will fall flat unless he or she has an equal confidence that it is supremely attractive and engaging.”

While this may sound a little too much like the seeker-sensitive mega-church model that chooses its sermons based on what the audience wants to hear, the writers here never fall into that trap. While they all argue that apologetics must appeal to both the intellect and the imagination, their vision of the imagination is much deeper and more complex than simply appealing to a person’s “felt needs.” They dive into the well of epistemology with confidence because they believe that the imagination is, in fact, a way of knowing.

John Hughes continues the conversation with his essay “Proofs and Arguments” by asserting that the idea of “proving” God only dates back to the Enlightenment, when Descartes changed philosophy forever by claiming that certainty was not only possible, but necessary. “This is what people sometimes call “foundationalism,” writes Hughes, “the quest to find a rational foundation behind all the different views people have with which everyone must agree.”

While this is as clear a definition of foundationalism as I’ve heard, what Hughes is saying about the Cartesian project isn’t new. I’ve only been studying philosophy for a few years and I’ve already heard about “the failure of the Cartesian project” probably fifty times. But Hughes also goes on to says that it was the Romantic movement that first recognized that if Christianity had to be proven by reason, then reason necessarily became the authority over faith. “The point that should be grasped,” writes Hughes, “is that the rationalist project of proofs has sold out the Christian faith to deism and turned the God of Jesus Christ into an idol of human reason.”

While I think that Hughes overstates his case when he claims that apologists’ have put reason above faith. (Every apologist I know uses reason in the service of Christ, regardless of whether they sometimes get a little too carried away with their desire to “prove” that Christianity is true), he does argue persuasively that the Enlightenment strategy of appealing to reason alone is effectively dead.

The strength of Hughes’ essay is his ability to recognize where his argument could lead, but his assurance to the reader that he is not going there. “Does this mean that we are all postmodernists now?” he asks. “Has reason had its day? It sounds like all we are left with is fideism, the arbitrary decision, the leap of faith” (It was here that I scribbled in the margins with my number two pencil “I hope not!”)

However, Hughes assures his readers that what he is suggesting is “that we take on board the postmodern critique of rationalist foundationalism, but not abandon reason altogether…Many of the more ancient arguments for the existence of God, whether Anselm’s or Aquinas’ can be rehabilitated within this more modest rationalism, not as unquestionable proofs, but as arguments that lead people…toward the idea of God.”

Hughes’ essay dovetails perfectly with my own conviction that while classical apologetics cannot argue someone into belief, what it can do is demonstrate that Christianity is at least as reasonable a worldview as atheism or any other religion. The other part of the equation—the conversion of the imagination—requires a different mode of communication that bypasses the head and goes straight to the heart.

Alison Milbank’s essay, “Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange,” begins by repeating the assertion (by now a truism) that the Enlightenment separated reason and imagination. However, her thesis is much broader than Hugh’s:

I shall seek to demonstrate that the imagination is a philosophical tool that helps us reason by providing epistemology, a way of knowing, that in inherently religious. For in apologetics we do not just want to convince people of the rationality of what we believe as if it were a fact about the population of the Galapagos Islands; we want to make them understand in a participatory way. And what we believe has implications for the whole way of experiencing reality.

I actually think I have found the topic for my master’s thesis in her first sentence, but her conclusion is equally paradigm-shifting as she sums up the two aims of imaginative apologetics. First, to “awaken the religious sense, that homesickness for the absolute” described by George MacDonald. And second, “to get non-believers to understand that Christianity is not narrow but a vision that includes everything, restoring the lost beauty of the world, the city streets or the natural world.”

While I agree with everything Milbank says, I am beginning to suspect that the goals of Imaginative Apologetics might be so different from traditional apologetics, that there needs to be more of a distinction between the two than just a name. I am still turning these ideas over in the windmill of my mind, so I haven’t come to a conclusion yet, but I suspect that traditional apologetics’ goal of using evidence and reason to demonstrate the validity of Christianity may be quite different than using imagination to experience a participatory reality.

But that’s another post for another day…

Donna Lazenby’s essay, “Apologetics, Literature, and Worldview,” begins to transition into more traditional cultural apologetics by arguing that apologists need to analyze popular literature (and I would add film and television) and discover what it says about the general spiritual longings of society. Her thesis is that if people are getting something from a certain kind of literature that they are not getting from the church, then the church needs to find out what that is and respond accordingly.

For the Christian apologist, two strong lessons emerge from this study of contemporary literature. First, religion is misrepresented in literature in ways that inform the popular consciousness, and the apologist needs to find ways to respond to this. Second, these literatures, claiming either overtly, or inadvertently, to cast religion aside, are not giving genuinely non-religious alternatives to their readers, but are actually reconfiguring human desires, aspirations and passions on their own religious and spiritual terms. (my emphasis) The apologist must find ways to expose this deceit, addressing people’s confusion around what the Christian faith is really about and the yearnings these literatures document.

This essay takes something that the seeker-sensitive church thinks it is already doing, but implies that they’re not doing it well enough. Sure, pastors are preaching sermons on pop culture, but are they digging into these trends to figure out what will bring more people into their church or to decipher what spiritual needs these trends are meeting that the church is not? In my experience, the answer is the former.

And what would a book on imaginative apologetics be without an essay on C.S. Lewis? Michael Ward, according to his bio, is “the foremost living Lewis scholar” and his assertion is that Lewis was successful as an apologist not only because he combined imagination and reason, but because he gave considerable thought to the relationship between the two.

When Lewis finally became a Christian, it was because he saw the connection between the pagan resurrection myths that fascinated him as a child and the “true myth” upon which they were based—the resurrection of Jesus. “To Lewis,” writes Ward, “pagan myths amounted to a sort of Christoypical preconfiguration” in which the pagan imagination recognized, albeit imperfectly, certain spiritual truths built into creation. (I see lots more fodder for my thesis here!)

Lewis was, however, also committed to keeping imagination from “running amok” by properly grounding it in reason. As Ward writes, “Without the controlling and clarifying effects of reason, imaginative efforts at apprehending God are always apt to lose themselves and turn unreliable or even rotten.”

Ward’s final point—that neither imagination nor reason can actually convert an individual—is the one thing I found lacking in many of the other essays. Ward reminds us that the final transformation from non-belief to active faith comes from the intervention of the Holy Spirit. But what apologetics can do, to employ an over-used metaphor, is prepare the soil. As Ward writes, “Rational argument does not create belief (not even rational argument most richly and sensitively supplied by imagination), but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

In order to limit the length of this review (which I have, unfortunately, already failed to do), I will not go into to detail about some of the later essays in the book. Although they are no less interesting, these essays deal more with actually using imaginative apologetics within Western culture rather than the theory behind it. As a result they are slightly less paradigm-shifting than the first few essays.

As I have said before, this is a fascinating time for apologetics. No one I know is suggesting that classical, evidentialist, or even presuppositional apologetics have passed their usefulness. Indeed, in a post-modern world, they are more necessary than ever. But what is becoming obvious is that we need to expand our understanding of what it means to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Truth can be apprehended through logic and reason, but for many people, imagination is also a necessary vehicle for knowledge.

What a thesis that will make…

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  1. Roy Kruse says

    Immensely helpful! I am new to the idea of needing to involve imagination in apologetics but I’ve also been aware of something missing in the traditional style of just using reason.

  2. says

    I’ve been wanting to ask you a question, Leslie, ever since I read your post on how evidentialism (if that’s the right word) is needed because just telling our stories is not enough in a post-modern age, then your post responding to that one critic of your position, and now this post, which covers some of the same issues.

    You argued that evidentialism (again, I may not be using the right word) is important because just telling our stories has its limits in a postmodern age: if we’re just telling our stories without offering arguments, then why would anyone adopt our belief system? What I got out of that is that somehow apologists have to prove that Christianity is right. But then you say that apologetics should not aim to prove that Christianity is right, but rather should try to show that it is as rational as other belief systems.

    But my question is this: How does arguing that Christianity is as rational as other belief systems avoid some of the problems that are in the “just telling your story” approach? In the “just telling your story” approach, people can listen to the story and may have little reason to conclude that they need to adopt the Christian belief system of the Christian telling her story. But if a non-believer is told that Christianity is as rational as other belief systems, why should he adopt Christianity, since there are other belief systems that are rational, too?

    In asking this, I realize that you bring other issues into the discussion, such as imagination and Christianity’s appeal to the desires human beings have (which I find debatable, but that’s not what I want to focus on in this comment).

    • lckeeney says


      I’m going to assume I understand your question, but if I don’t, please let me know and I’ll try again. :)

      What I (and many other philosopher/apologists) have given up is trying to “prove” through logic and evidentialism that Christianity is true. We can never really prove that a particular belief system is true or convert people through evidence, unless the Holy Spirit has already been working in their hearts. All we can do is demonstrate that (against what the New Atheists are claiming) Christianity is as reasonable at naturalism (or any other religious system).

      I can see why it sounds confusing, but what I’m suggesting is that the process of conversion, while unique to each individual, often begins with the emotions and/or imagination in which the person is drawn toward Christ. This can sustain them for a while, but in a post-modern world, unless they also have reason to support their intuitive beliefs, they cannot make any truth claims. And in a post-modern world which often denies the ability of ANYONE to talk about truth, this is important.

      When I say that my goal is to demonstrate that Christianity is as rational as any other belief system, I am assuming that the person already has a belief based on emotion or experience, but now requires a rational foundation that can stand up to the rational arguments for other faiths.

      Finally, while I’m trying to demonstrate a little epistemic humility here by showing that Christianity is as rational as other beliefs and expecting the Holy Spirit to do the rest, I still believe that of all faiths, Christianity is the only one that passes the test of being both internally consistent AND reflective of the real, fallen world that we live in.

      I hope that answered your question. If not, please let me know and I’ll try again.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful question.

      • says

        Thanks for your response, Leslie. I still think there’s a contradiction in what you’re saying—-and maybe that’s because I’m missing a nuance. On the one hand, you say that apologetics should seek to show that Christianity is as rational as other belief systems, which (to me) seems to imply that there are a variety of perspectives that are rational. But, on the other hand, you say that Christianity is the only faith that is both internally consistent and reflective of the fallen world. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’re saying about Christianity being as rational as other belief systems.

  3. says

    Wow, so much good stuff here Leslie. Thanks for taking the time to outline those essays. On the notion that reason and truth are inherently attractive, you reminded me of Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” True and Right are objective standards, while Noble, Pure, Lovely and Admirable seem subjective to me, but Paul has no difficulty bringing them all together in one proposition.

    And I really like the way you describe this: “Ward’s final point—that neither imagination nor reason can actually convert an individual—is the one thing I found lacking in many of the other essays. Ward reminds us that the final transformation from non-belief to active faith comes from the intervention of the Holy Spirit.” Lots of different people are drawn to God lots of different ways, but it is the same Holy Spirit who works it all out.

What do you think?