Book Review: Imaginative Apologetics, ed. Andrew Davison

What would it mean for the Gospel if we were equipped with a full, rich, well-reasoned, and imaginative apologetics? The collection Imaginative Apologetics is a valuable contribution to the work of apologetics, offering a number of important insights and starting points for further work.

Christian apologists are fighting on several fronts. The New Atheists are garnering plenty of press – and frustratingly so. Why are they being taken seriously when their arguments are, quite frankly, so weak much of the time? A distressingly large number of people are apathetic, or content to be “spiritual but not religious.” And then there are the challenges of postmodernism and pluralism within the church itself.

Apologists have a lot of work to do – and yet our encounters too often end up with both sides talking past each other.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed when a fellow Christian has confidently declared that “we just have to beat those atheists down!” See, I used to be one of those atheists, and the rhetorical beat-down just doesn’t work the way we think it ought to work, from the Christian perspective. When I was firmly in the “New Atheist” mode, I wouldn’t have listened to even the best Christian philosophical and historical arguments. It wasn’t until I had imaginatively engaged with the Christian faith through poetry and literature – when I had a sense of what it was that this “faith” thing might be, even though I didn’t understand it – that I was able to consider the apologetic arguments and ultimately find them convincing.

Likewise, Christians in the postmodern-influenced emerging church movement may seem to diverge from Christian orthodoxy – but they also raise important issues about the church’s over-emphasis on propositions, logic, and arguments over against community, narrative, and participation. (As a particularly egregious example: the insistence that it is not enough to simply affirm that Christ died for my salvation, but that one must also affirm a specific theory of how the atonement works in order to be saved.) The Evangelical response to thinkers in the emerging church is generally to use arguments and logic to argue that the emergents are wrong. The emerging response, quite naturally, is “See? That’s the problem!”

Over the last year or so, I’ve been seeing the way that these challenges connect. Some people do not believe because they feel that it is irrational to believe; others do not share our orthodox Christian faith because they feel that what they have is more satisfying, more suited to their felt spiritual needs. In both cases there is a missing piece: the Imagination. (In my own case, I could not even consider that God might exist until I had imaginatively entered into a glimpse of what it might be like to have a relationship with that God (in John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God”). And I would have no reason now to care about theology if I did not find that it is a way of talking about lived reality. The Trinity is worth discussing as a doctrine because reality is Trinitarian.)

Imagination, CS Lewis wrote, is the “organ of meaning.” Reason and Imagination, too long separated, must be reunited if we are to have any chance of sharing the hope that is within us to a world that so desperately needs it – yet does not recognize its need.

Several important books have come out lately that have set forth arguments for, and analysis of, the role of the Imagination in the apologetic endeavor – Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry, (read my review here) of most note. Imaginative Apologetics is an important addition to this roster , as I hope to convince you in the rest of this review. (The short version of the review is that if you are at all interested in apologetics, you should read this book.)

The book’s subtitle is “Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition,” which may cause some hesitation on the part of Evangelical readers, so I will point out that if you think of “Mere Christian” in place of “Catholic,” you will have the right way to approach the book. The collection does have a distinctly Anglican flavor, which is one of its strengths; the authors’ perspective is just different enough from the typical Evangelical perspective as to bring new insights to the table (and to challenge hidden assumptions as well).

Imaginative Apologetics sets out its argument in four sections: Faith and Reason Reconsidered, Christian Apologetics and the Human Imagination, Being Imaginative About Christian Apologetics, and Situating Christian Apologetics.

I will begin slightly in reverse order, by considering the latter two sections. These are likely to be the most immediately accessible to the working apologist – though, as I will argue, not as critically important as the earlier sections. In the third section, Being Imaginative About Christian Apologetics, Stephen Bullivant focuses on the ways that the imagination can help with what he sees as the critical task: “we must preach the gospel – argue for Christ; constantly finding new, intellectually robust means of doing just that. But equally we must look to ourselves and strive, individually and collectively, to provide a fitting ‘backdrop,’ against which this proclamation will get a hearing, and seem plausible.” Craig Hovey follows by setting forth a case for the ways in which Christian ethics can be seen as part of the apologetic enterprise, drawing usefully on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. The final section, Situating Christian Apologetics, begins with Graham Ward’s consideration of cultural hermeneutics, in which he argues that apologists must learn to read the “signs of the times” in order to lead to effective evangelism. Richard Conrad provides a salutary overview of the history of apologetics from Pentecost to the present day, and Alister McGrath considers science and apologetics.

All to the good. But the real merit of this relatively slim volume lies in the first half of the book.

In the Foreword, John Milbank argues convincingly that we cannot pretend to a ‘neutral’ approach to apologetics – and that attempting such an approach often “accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world.” (Indeed – how often do we try to argue with the New Atheists on, essentially, their own ground?)

In the Introduction, Andrew Davison sets out the central claim of the book: “The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything… In this book we celebrate reason, but not so as to make apologetics rational in some cold or arid fashion. Apologetics should be a matter of wonder and desire, not least because reason at its most reasonable is itself a matter of wonder and desire.”

Stop for a moment and consider those words. In the arguments that we apologists make, how often is it the case that our words evoke wonder and desire in our hearers and readers?

Now let’s take a look at the essays in the first section of the book, Faith and Reason Reconsidered. These ought to be required reading for anyone engaging in the apologetic enterprise.

John Hughes begins by addressing the terms “argument,” “proof,” and “persuasion,” challenging us to recognize that our usual understanding of these words is not universal, but rather comes out of the project of modernity, and that “this rationalist foundationalism of faith” has “pernicious consequences.” Hughes doesn’t pull any punches: “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.” However, Hughes is by no means advocating a retreat into fideism. Rather, he believes that we can address both modern rationalism and postmodern irrationalism. Hughes argues that the arguments that convince us today will not function “by some irrefutable logic” but rather “by all the powers of persuasion, by their goodness and even their beauty… It may well be that these are the sorts of arguments that will be appropriate for a twenty-first century apologetics: not proofs, but critiques, geneologies and explorations, persuasive and attractive narratives that help us to make sense of our intellectual and cultural situation and inspire us to participate in them.”

Andrew Davison picks up on this line of argument in the next essay, “Christian Reason and Christian Community.” He directly challenges what he calls the “myth of neutral reason” and its expression in apologetic arguments of the type that work from a basis of supposedly universally accepted axioms such as the principle of non-contradiction. Davison takes aim at many of the cherished ideas of the apologetics world, and will likely cause some upset in readers in America, as his arguments suggest that we may be using our intellectual resources unwisely. For instance, debating atheists seems like a powerful apologetic strategy, but do debates today actually translate into any unbelievers moving toward Christian faith?

Consider, for instance, the current refusal of any more atheist intellectuals to debate William Lane Craig. Perhaps they are cowards, as some have said. I suspect, though, that they may simply have decided that these debates do little to change the convictions of the audience, and are thus not a productive use of their time. Might we consider that the atheists have a valid point?

Davison argues, and very convincingly, that we must reconsider our approach to apologetics: “Christian apologetics witnesses to a different sense of what is real. Since these convictions are basic or axiomatic, we do not argue to them. Instead, we show what difference it makes to think this way… Apologetics is as much invitation as argument: an invitation to ‘taste and see’ what it is like to live and think differently.”

But how do we do that? The contributors to the next section, Christian Apologetics and the Human Imagination, offer some ideas.

Alison Milbank argues that “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 indeed I can attest to the critical distinction between the two: in my own conversion process, when I accepted the rationality and indeed the truth of the Christian claim, I was not then a believer, for I still had to answer the question: What am I going to do about this?) Milbank draws on Tolkien’s insights on “recovery” in “On Fairy-Stories” and on the experience of the Eucharist as she makes the case for an imaginative apologetics that will “shock people into engagement with reality”; for the problem today, as CS Lewis put it, is that we desire not too much but too little. Milbank argues that “the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening this desire in others, rather than offering pre-packaged answers.”

In the next essay, Donna Lazenby picks up on the cultural task of the apologist, noting that the contemporary apologist must be able “to read the signs of the times.” She considers a number of examples from literature, pointing out that these are “diagnostic spaces” where we can “discover… what people are spiritually hungering for.”

The final essay in this section is Michael Ward’s “The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C.S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics.” If we have been reading and thinking carefully, at this point we should be convinced (if we were not already) of the value of the imagination in apologetics. But how does it work? Ward uses CS Lewis’ analysis of the role of imagination to build a convincing case for how imagination and reason are both necessary for the apologetic endeavor. He begins by considering Lewis’ own conversion experience: “When Lewis understood that the story recounted in the Gospels, rather than the commentary upon and outworking of that story in the Epistles, was the essence of Christianity’s meaning and that the Christ-story could be approached in a way similar to the way he approached pagan myths, it was a huge breakthrough for him.” The problem for Lewis was not that he could not understand the doctrines of Christianity; rather, he had not yet seen the more complete truth beyond them.

The difference between doctrine and divine reality is a critical point for apologists today who are so easily led into doctrinal debates with atheists about the nature of hell or the divinity of Christ; Ward writes, “Doctrines, though useful, are the product of analytical dissection; they recast the original, equivocal, historical material into abstract, less fully realized categories of meaning. In short, doctrines are not as richly meaningful as that which they are doctrines about.” (As a minor illustration, consider that if you want to know what a butterfly is, you will do better to observe one fluttering in the garden than a dead one pinned to a card, even if the latter can be examined more closely and is labeled with its scientific name.)

Ward goes on to point out that “It is no good arguing for ‘God’ or ‘Christ’ or for ‘the atonement’ or even for ‘truth’ until the apologist has shown, at least at some basic level, that these terms have real meaning. Otherwise they will just be counters in an intellectual game, leaving most readers cold. Likewise, apologetic arguments for the authority of the ‘Church’ or ‘the Bible’ or ‘experience’ or ‘reason’ itself, must all be imaginatively realized before they can begin to make traction on the reader’s reason, let alone on the reader’s will.”

(Think about that, and reflect on your conversations with skeptics. It is an insight that will, I think, help explain why so many Internet ‘discussions’ take up much time and produce many thousands of words but go nowhere.)

Ward goes on to move carefully through an analysis of the relationship between imagination and reason, arguing in some detail that “imagination is insufficient without reason” and that “imaginative reason is also insufficient,” and pulling the pieces together by exploring how “imaginative reason serves a purpose.” He concludes with what is effectively a warning as well as an encouragement for apologists:

“…imagination and reason together work not to serve themselves but to serve the will. The good serves the better and both the best. The best is the will, the heart of a person, and this must be reorientated by a meeting with the divine… The rationally imaginative explanations and defences of Christianity provided by the apologist (and supported by the divine) can only take one so far, and it is at the point where they fall short that the divine intervention already seen in the exercise of natural faculties may be supplemented, God willing, by divine supervention. The internal presence of God in the human subject may meet the external presence of the Holy Spirit in direct illumination, or, as may be, mediated through the more normal channels of preaching, sacrament, Scripture, prayer, absolution, fasting or other forms of askesis.”

And here we are reminded that the apologetic endeavor does not work in isolation, but rather in collaboration with the Holy Spirit and in the context of the whole outworking of the Christian life. A serious consideration of imaginative apologetics thus includes a reconsideration of the role of the imagination in the work of apologetics, a renewed vision of the way imagination and reason together facilitate the work of the Spirit, and an appreciation of the role of apologetics in the life of the church.

This is an important book – one that anyone seriously engaged in the work of apologetics needs to read carefully. Whether or not you agree with the specific points made in various essays is much less important than whether you take Davison and his fellow writers’ challenge to look seriously at the role of the imagination in the apologetic endeavor.

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About Holly Ordway

Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist on the faculty of Houston Baptist University, where she is Chair of the Department of Apologetics and teaches in the MA in Apologetics program. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an MA in English from UNC Chapel Hill, and an MA in apologetics from Biola University. She is the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (Moody, 2010) and frequently speaks and writes on the topics of literary and imaginative apologetics, with special emphasis on the work of CS Lewis and the Inklings. Her blog is Hieropraxis.com.