Touching the Golden Pool: Imagination and the Apologetics of Permeation

Perhaps there is no better way to end a conversation, initiate awkward silence or illicit blank stares at your next dinner party than to mention the term, apologetics, within the context of polite conversation. The consternation and agnosticism surrounding this theological discipline tends to be ubiquitous among both Christian and non-Christian audiences alike, deriving from either an unfamiliarity with its meaning and purpose or resulting from polemical straw-man characterizations.

Contemporary apologetics and its practitioners may indeed have warranted some of this critique by accentuating the Enlightenment’s excessive emphasis on rational argumentation and assent. However, apologists have historically incorporated a more nuanced approach determined by its audience in order to address both the mind and the heart in its defence and commendation of the Christian message. Thus, the apologetic endeavour must recapture its rich historical roots and modify itself, both in its internal emphasis and external application; not only to ponder the Gospel’s truthfulness by reason, but also to endorse its beauty and goodness through the imagination.

In order to understand a potential role for the imagination in apologetics, it may be beneficial to view an example through the lenses of both Reason and Imagination.

Observation of the natural world is an area that is often emphasized in apologetic praxis. Most current apologists present arguments for the Christian faith through the methodological optics of science and philosophy. As a result, a mechanical universe emerges to produce the deductive cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence. Due to the laws of causation and the universe’s intrinsic design, an intelligent Creator is posited to be the logical origin and progenitor.

In contradistinction, an appeal to the imagination produces an apologetic of permeation, in which God’s craftsmanship and creative presence pervades creation to the extent that it induces wonder and enchantment. The cold rationality of the microscope is replaced by the adventure of the storybook; a loving and gracious author displaces a transcendent, divine watchmaker. Chesterton captures well this deviation from the rational to the imaginative: ‘It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon . . . The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.’[1] Further regarding this approach, Alison Milbank points out, ‘The task is not to “sell” God as an object of credence so much as to offer a whole way of regarding our experience and beginning to reintegrate our experience.’[2] Hence, the initial step in this approach is to activate an individual’s sensus divinitatis beyond any Kantian subjectivism and to kindle an awareness concerning this divine permeation and otherness of the world beyond the self.

How might this approach move beyond the natural world and into encounters with the arts?

Unfortunately, the limited interaction between apologetics and the arts in the modern era is often analogous to an awkward dance between two partners who appear to have been recently introduced.

Instead of a symbiotic progression producing a symmetrical flow of majestic movement, one person tends to lead more than the other, often culminating in sore appendages, bruised egos and mutual regret. Consequently, the theology is apt to be either overtly didactic in its conveyance or rather immensely artistic to the extent that one needs an exegetical spade to unearth any inkling of divinity.

Perhaps one reason that apologetic engagement with the arts tends to be deficient is that it often projects a rationalist approach situated within a pseudo-imaginative framework. Instead of encouraging the audience to view the world anew by entering through the Looking-Glass, they are presented with a formulaic theology of a + b = c, or ‘Sinner’ + ‘Repentance’ = ‘Salvation’. While the message may be theologically sound, the medium is aesthetically impotent.

However, when an artist’s work is imbued with a balanced intersection between original creativity and theological understanding, it produces an apologetic much more convincing than formal argumentation. As C. S. Lewis noted, ‘I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more good by that than by any directly apologetic work.’[3] When an apologetic is done properly through a permeation of its artistic medium, it persuades the audience through subtle suggestion. Hence, an imaginative apologetic approach can be both germane and compelling in observing the natural world and commending the Christian faith through the arts.

Can this conjugal approach between rational and imaginative apologetics be successful? Chad Walsh, author and friend of C. S. Lewis, shared the story of how his own imagination was baptized upon reading Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra. He related that his Reason was half-convinced concerning the truth of the Christian message, but upon reading Lewis’s novel, he ‘got the taste and the smell of Christian truth. [His] senses as well as [his] soul were baptized. It was as though an intellectual abstraction or speculation had become flesh and dwelt in its bodily glory among us.’[4] 

As we transpose the higher gospel message through lower mediums of engagement, we may need to disperse the colors of imagination through an apologetic of permeation in order to paint a compelling image of the beauty inherent within the Christian faith. Thus, allowing the audience to briefly touch the golden pool of magic and enter into a sacramental realm filled with wonder and awe. Only then will we be able to move further on and further up into the truthfulness of the Gospel message.

And perhaps, in the end, there may indeed remain a glimmer of hope for our next dinner party and a preservation of our social graces.

 

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986 [1908]), 264.
[2] Alison Milbank, ‘Apologetics and Imagination: Making Strange,’ in Imaginative Apologetics , ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM Press, 2011), 34.
[3] C. S. Lewis, ‘Christian Apologetics,’ in C. S. Lewis Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 150.
[4] Chad Walsh, ‘Impact on America’ in Light on C. S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965), 107.

1 Comment

  • Amber Noel says:

    Thanks for posting this, Brett!

    Makes me think of good ol’ Thomas Aquinas, on whether it’s possible to prove the faith by argumentation. You can only get so far on that road, he says, before something falls dangerously or idiotically or helplessly apart.

    Instead, what Christians do is argue from the faith, rather than for it. Rather, we do argue for it, but not by trying to prove the foundations of what’s divinely revealed– Incarnation, redemption, creation, prophetic fulfillment of scripture, etc.– but by saying “Hey, we’re Christians, and this is where we start from, and now look at how rational, and beautiful, and sane, and interesting the world is when you look at it this way.” And in fact, the sectarian assumptions (i.e. the Creed) that we bring to table, with the Spirit’s handicraft, gives a entirely new meaning to words like “rational,” “sane,” and “beautiful.”

    When we turn to nature, or the arts, or even that wondrous (and often misused) invention, the microscope (a good scientist is one of the most wonderstruck, passionate people on the planet, don’t forget), we do it boldly bringing all our lumpy, inconvenient Christian prejudices with us. We don’t argue them into place, we spring forward from them into everything else, as expert divers from a diving board. God forbid we push and squeeze our gorgeous story through the Play-Dough pasta-press of what the times happen to think they rely upon for “proof” that something is true. Because the next generation will come along and rightly hold us in derision.

    Ah– wouldn’t it be great to have a Christian bookstore that offered art history classes, sold Field Guide to the North American Tree, and put annotated Summas in the Devotional section?

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    -A

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