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How Your Imagination Can Help You Do Apologetics

Carl Olson

Robert Hugh Benson, in his 1903 collection The Invisible Light, has an elderly man explain to a younger man that the word imaginative is often used in referring to something unreal or untrue, which is a misuse of the term. “It seems chiefly,” the man asserts, “the function of the imagination to visualize facts, and it is an abuse of that faculty to employ it chiefly in visualizing fancies.”

More than a century later, the abuse of imagination—both as a word and a reality—continues. How often, for example, do we hear it said, “Let your imagination run wild!” as an exhortation to drum up fantasies and illusions that usually have nothing to do with things as they really are. Grand prize for such misappropriation goes to John Lennon, whose famous, treacly tune “Imagine” blithely urges listeners:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

That Lennon wrote this after decades of Marxist poison and Communist rule demonstrates how he lacked true imagination, which is always rooted in reality. As Dr. Holly Ordway argues in her splendid new book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, both “reason and imagination are modes of communicating and encountering truth.”

For men such as Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, “and other medieval scholars and theologians,” Ordway explains:

[T]he imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates “between sense and intellect” by conveying “data to the intellect.” According to St. Bonaventure, the imagination both stores images for later recall and also interacts with the intellect by supplying the intellect with sensory data that has been “put into a form that the intellect can act on and use to understand.” Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought as well as all artistic, or what we would call “imaginative,” exercise.

Ordway, who tells her full story in her book Not God’s Type, is a former atheist who became Catholic by way of Evangelicalism. As she explains, both

Tolkien and Lewis had been shaping my imagination for years. . . . Christian fiction and poetry gave me an alternative vision of the world, one that was meaningful and integrated in a way that my atheist view wasn’t. My conscious philosophy was that there is no such thing as objective truth and beauty, but Tolkien and Lewis said, “Yes, there is: come and see.” If there is no such thing as meaning and purpose, why should I be so deeply moved by these stories? My very enjoyment of literature undercut my atheism.

This vision of objective truth, goodness, and beauty is the focus of “imaginative apologetics,” which seeks to bring the faculty of the imagination into alignment with reason and fact, thus guiding the will toward Jesus Christ. One of the many strengths of Ordway’s new book is how it shows the many different and complimentary forms apologetics can take. Some approaches focus on facts about history and theology, whereas others have a more experiential and subjective quality, but always at the service of objective truth.

The fact is, most people aren’t convinced by facts alone; they need to see—to imagine!—those facts in the context of a story and a narrative. And this makes perfect sense, as we are relational creatures existing in time and space. We need to see how, for example, the fact of the Trinity and the Incarnation (which are the two central mysteries of the Faith) relate to us in the present day.

“The senses bring the data,” explains Ordway; “the reason makes the identification; the imagination mediates between the two.” One challenge, of course, is to get people to see and consider the data. Another is to encourage reason to be actually employed. Increasingly, the response to data and facts is to treat them as either political weapons—as “multiculturalists” often do—or subjective constructs—as the deconstructionists and their progeny are wont to do. Which is why reaching the imagination through story, narrative, art, and even music can be so helpful in subverting such pseudo-intellectual perspectives, which are often employed more as infantile defensive mechanisms than as rooted, coherent beliefs.

Since reason is actually dependent on imagination, works of imagination have the power to free us from our limited viewpoints and to consider other possibilities:

Through the God-given faculty of imagination, we can enter into other perspectives, and through the faculty of reason, we can assess the truth or falsity of what we discover. A holistic, fully integrated approach to apologetics helps people to make both those moves: first to enter into the Christian perspective, and then to recognize it as true (Apologetics and the Christian Imagination).

Essential to imaginative apologetics is a keen sensitivity to language and meaning, which Ordway writes about at length. As she points out in a new interview at Catholic World Report, apologists and evangelists must ask: “What do our words mean to the people who hear them? How can we help them appreciate the significance of our Christian words, so they aren’t just jargon?” Christians, more than anyone else, should appreciate the power and place of words, especially since we accept and proclaim the Word of God, while following and worshipping the Incarnate Word of God.

“The Incarnation,” observes Ordway, “has implications both for what we say in our apologetics and how we say it.” Apologetics and the Christian Imagination is a masterful, winsome explication of this foundational truth.

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