In the south transept of London's Westminster Abbey—where for a thousand years the kings and queens of England have been enthroned—sits a crowded collection of statues, plaques, and engraved flagstones. Geoffrey Chaucer, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Charles Dickens are buried there; dozens more are commemorated there. On November 22, 2013, 50 years to the day after his death, C. S. Lewis will join them.
Poets' Corner may seem like an odd place for a writer whose poetry is largely overlooked (though his first two publications were volumes of verse, and Lewis's poetry is far better than many remember or realize). But you needn't be a poet to join Poets' Corner. Musicians like George Frideric Handel and actors like Laurence Olivier mingle with Tennyson and Chaucer. The Corner is devoted to poets in the older, deeper sense of the word. They are "makers" who assemble words (or musical notes or dramatic performances) for artistic ends.
In this older, deeper sense, there is no place Lewis more rightly belongs. Indeed, perhaps we should think of the celebrated Oxford novelist, literary critic, and apologist above all as a poet. For Lewis believed that knowledge itself was fundamentally poetic—that is to say, shaped by the imagination. And his poetic approach to commending and defending the Christian faith still lights the way for us today.
Of course, everyone recognizes Lewis's great imaginative gifts. Often people will say that his great strength was his ability to present Christianity both rationally and imaginatively.
His rational approach is seen in The Abolition of Man,Miracles, and, at a more popular level, Mere Christianity. These works show Lewis's ability to argue: to set forth a propositional case, proceeding by logical steps from defined premises to carefully drawn conclusions, everything clear, orderly, and connected.
And his imaginative side, so the argument goes, is seen in The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and, at a more accessible level,The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These works show his ability to dramatize: to set forth an attractive vision of the Christian life, proceeding by means of character and plot to narrate an engaging story, everything colorful, vibrant, and active.
By these accounts, Lewis's rational works and imaginative works are different and distinct. They are two discrete modes in which he presented the faith. And it makes sense that we would think this way: The dichotomy between reason and imagination is how we have been taught to think ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Reasonable people don't need imagination. Imaginative people don't need reasons.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), the father of the scientific method, declared, "All that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptiness, let it be utterly dismissed." Clergyman Thomas Sprat, in The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, urged his readers "to separate the knowledge of Nature from the colors of Rhetoric, the devices of Fancy or the delightful deceit of Fables."
Like all of the most misleading ideas, there is some truth wrapped up in these statements. Fanciful rhetoric may indeed be used to disguise or confuse. It can certainly become a cover for "emptiness" and "deceit."
But are "similitudes"—that is, metaphors and analogies—always and necessarily bad? You couldn't find a view further from Lewis's own, for Lewis was far from an Enlightenment thinker.
"All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor," Lewis wrote in his essay "Bluspels and Flalansferes." Similitudes, seeing one thing in terms of another, finding meanings here which correspond with what we want to say there, are for Lewis the essence of meaningful thought. "For me, reason is the natural organ of truth," Lewis wrote, "but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination . . . is not the cause of truth, but its condition." In other words, we don't grasp the meaning of a word or concept until we have a clear image to connect it with.
For Lewis, this is what the imagination is about: not just the ability to dream up fanciful fables, but the ability to identify meaning, to know when we have come upon something truly meaningful.
Imagine for a moment that I take my car to the auto mechanic for its annual checkup. At the end, as I am about to drive away, I realize I have forgotten to check one thing. I roll down my window and call over my shoulder to Billy, the mechanic: "Is my rear turn-signal light working?" He responds, "Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes."
Billy's ability to perceive meaning is obviously limited. It's not absent—he knows the basic meaning of electrical circuits. He knows that when a light shines a connection has been made, and when a light goes out a connection has been broken. But he is lacking the ability to perceive that, in this case, a steadily flashing light means "turning," not "bad connection."
Billy can see the raw information—light on, light off, light on. But he cannot discern the correct meaning of the brute facts. Lewis would say that the problem is a deficit in Billy's imagination—what Lewis called "the organ of meaning." Billy can see the light, and even understand electricity, but his organ of meaning here is broken.
Lewis took this one step further. For Lewis, meaning is "the antecedent condition of both truth and falsehood." In other words, before something can be either true or false, it must mean something. Even a lie means something, and a lie understood as a lie can be very instructive. Reason, "the natural organ of truth," is our ability to discern true meanings from false meanings. But the meaning comes first. So, imagination has to operate before reason. Reason depends on imagination to supply it with meaningful things that it can then reason about.
Back to Billy and the car. Not every flashing light is in fact meaningful. Sometimes loose connections cause lights to flicker on and off at random. We should describe this as nonsensical: the connections are arbitrary, meaningless.
But if the connections were regular or patterned, we would likely conclude that they were significant, meaningful. What kind of meaning would they have? A true meaning, showing that the driver was about to turn onto a street? Or a false meaning, showing that the driver had forgotten to cancel the signal?
In Lewis's view, reason judges between meanings, helping us to differentiate those meanings that are true from those that are false. But until we have meaning, we have nothing to reason about. And for Lewis, the way you get to meaning is imagination. Reason can't work without it.
Imagination can work without reason, though. It can produce meanings that are simply "imaginary." Meaningful images flood our dreams at night, for example, but trying to rationally investigate them will get you nowhere.
What does all of this teach us about Lewis's legacy? It means that when Lewis took up the role of apologist, he didn't have to choose between rational and imaginative presentations of Christianity. There is just as much imaginatively discerned meaning in Miracles as in Perelandra, but of a different kind, put to a different end.
Not only is imagination as necessary as reason in Lewis's approach; in a sense, imagination is more important than reason, because it comes first. Reason depends on imagination in a way that imagination doesn't depend on reason. And certainly, in Lewis's own path to faith, imagination came first.
Discovering the 'True Myth'
Lewis's conversion was sparked (humanly speaking) by a long nighttime conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They were discussing Christianity, metaphor, and myth. In a letter to Arthur Greeves (dated October 18, 1931), Lewis recounted the conversation. It is clear that questions of meaning—that is to say, of imagination—were at the heart of it.
At that point, Lewis's problem with Christianity was fundamentally imaginative. "What has been holding me back . . . has not been so much a difficulty in believing as a difficulty in knowing what the doctrinemeant," he told Greeves. Tolkien and Dyson showed him that Christian doctrines are not the main thing about Christianity. Instead, doctrines are translations of what God has expressed in "a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection" of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is a lived language—the real, historical, visible, tangible language of an actual person being born, dying, and living again in a new, ineffably transformed way.
When Lewis realized this, he began to understand what Christianity meant, because he was already fascinated (he had been since childhood) by stories of dying and rising gods. Many ancient mythologies include characters whose deaths achieve or reveal something on earth: new life in the crops, for instance, or sunrise, or the coming of spring. Lewis had always found the heart of these pagan stories "profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp, even tho' I could not say in cold prose 'what it meant.'"
And so Lewis accepted that Christianity had to be understood in its own terms as a story, before being translated into codified doctrines. And in this way, he moved from an analytic to a religious perspective of the faith.
Analysis literally means "loosening up," while religion means something like "tying back up"—religamenting, if you like. Doctrines come from analytical dissection; they recast the original historical material into abstract categories. Because of this, doctrines are not nearly as richly meaningful as the historical material they reflect.
A Living Apology
And here is where Lewis had a breakthrough. He understood that the story recounted in the Gospels—rather than the outworking of that story in the Epistles—was the essence of Christianity. Christianity was a "true myth" (myth here meaning a story about ultimate things, not a falsehood), whereas pagan myths were "men's myths." In paganism, God expressed himself in a general way through the images that humans created in order to make sense of the world. But the story of Christ is "God's myth." God's myth is the story of God revealing himself through a real, historical life of a particular man, in a particular time, in a particular place—Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, crucified under Pontius Pilate outside Jerusalem, circa A.D. 33.
Pagan stories were meaningful but not true. The Christ story is both meaningful and true. Christianity is the true myth, the "myth become fact," as Lewis would come to call it.
A couple of weeks after his conversation with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis became certain that Christianity was true. But it's important to note: Before he could accept the truth of Christianity, he had to clear an imaginative hurdle. His "organ of meaning" had to be satisfied. Rational assent to Christianity cannot occur unless there is meaningful content to which the higher faculty of reason may assent. Reason can't operatewithout imagination.
And in this, Lewis, who called himself a "dinosaur" in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, is in many ways closer to our postmodern contemporaries than he was to his own. Our challenge in the post-Christian world is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning, that it is not gibberish. Unless people see that Christian terminology actually makes sense and is not a foreign language, they are unlikely to care whether it is also true. And what is needed is not just dictionary definitions or brief illustrations, but an immersive story in which aspects of the Christian life can take hold in a person's imagination.
Lewis wrestled directly with how much to focus on the arguments and abstract categories that apologetics requires, and how much instead to reframe apologetics as story. How much to re-present the narrative account of a person being born, growing up, teaching, dying, and rising again.
As an apologist, Lewis realized that debate, with abstract propositions designed to demonstrate and persuade, is less adequate than story, with its characters and plots and atmospheres. In a debate, the apologist has to thin down his language to communicate with opponents—since, almost by definition, they do not possess the imaginative embrace of what the apologist believes.
The apologist has to work at the university lecture podium or at the bar of the courtroom, all the while talking about something that goes on at neither place. How can the apologist turn the holistic life of faith—prayer, fellowship, Communion, reading Scripture, service of the needy—into an argument? It is like Mozart trying to prove his musicality not by writing a symphony but by standing gagged at a blackboard using only numbers.
This is what Lewis means when he talks about "the great disadvantages under which the Christian apologist labors." The life of faith is best communicated in its own terms, namely "life": the lived language of real human beings in real times in real places. Actions speak louder than words. If faith has to be turned into apologetic words, it is best to use a story, as in the synoptic Gospels, or words that are richly resonant and connotative, like the mighty nouns of John's gospel (Word, Light, Life, Way, Water, Glory, Vine, Bread). These words convey the meaningfulness of faith much better than do abstract arguments.
This is why Lewis did not limit himself to propositional, nonfiction apologetics. His most notable attempt was, of course, the Chronicles of Narnia. These stories have achieved more, perhaps, than any of his writings in communicating the heart of his faith. Chad Walsh, author of the first study of Lewis, Apostle to the Skeptics, wrote, "In these books where his imagination has full scope, he presents the Christian faith in a more eloquent and probing way than ever his more straightforward books of apologetics could."
The Great Wedding
Life is more like a story than like an argument. And so, all things being equal, a storied presentation of Christianity will always be more effective than an argued one. But, of course, things are not always equal, and therefore the church needs both methods. Different people will have different callings, depending on talents and context. But even propositional apologetics should be as concrete as possible. Narrative apologetics, meanwhile, is not just imaginary. It is imaginative, relating at all times to reason, "the natural organ of truth."
Both propositional and poetic apologetics point beyond themselves to the historical story of the incarnate God. It is that story, as G. K. Chesterton put it in The Everlasting Man, which satisfies "the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story."
In Christ, poetry and philosophy have met together. Meaning and truth have kissed. C. S. Lewis understood, like few in the past century, just how deeply faith is both imaginative and rational. That which God has joined, let no one put asunder.
Michael Ward is senior research fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Part of this article is derived from his contribution to Imaginative Apologetics (Baker Academic).
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