Try seeing it this way: Imagination and reason in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis
by Alister McGrath
Few would now dispute that C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. So what is his approach to apologetics, and why has it been so successful?
Many Christian apologists have assimilated Lewis to their own way of thinking, presenting him in thoroughly modernist terms as an advocate of rationalist defences of faith. Yet to get the most out of reading Lewis, we need to approach him on his own terms. Here, I want to explore Lewis’s distinctive understanding of the rationality of faith, which emphasises the reasonableness of Christianity without imprisoning it within an impersonal and austere rationalism.
I came to appreciate this distinctive approach when researching my recent biography of Lewis. For reasons I do not understand, the importance of Lewis’s extensive use of visual images as metaphors of truth has been largely overlooked. For Lewis, truth is about seeing things rightly, grasping their deep interconnection. Truth is something that we see, rather than something we express primarily in logical or conceptual terms.
The basic idea is found in Dante’s Paradiso (XXIII, 55-6), where the great Florentine poet and theologian expresses the idea that Christianity provides a vision of things – something wonderful that can be seen, yet proves resistant to verbal expression:
From that moment onwards my power of sight exceeded
That of speech, which fails at such a vision.
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Hints of such an approach are also found in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, whom Lewis admired considerably. For Chesterton, a good theory allows us to see things properly: “We put on the theory, like a magic hat, and history becomes translucent like a house of glass.” Thus, for Chesterton, a good theory is to be judged by the amount of illumination it offers, and its capacity to accommodate what we see in the world around us and experience within us: “With this idea once inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them.” In the same way, Chesterton argued, Christianity validates itself by its ability to make sense of our observations of the world: “The phenomenon does not prove religion, but religion explains the phenomenon.”
For Lewis, the Christian faith offers us a means of seeing things properly – as they really are, despite their outward appearances. Christianity provides an intellectually capacious and imaginatively satisfying way of seeing things, and grasping their interconnectedness, even if we find it difficult to express this in words. Lewis’s affirmation of the reasonableness of the Christian faith rests on his own quite distinct way of seeing the rationality of the created order, and its ultimate grounding in God. Using a powerful visual image, Lewis invites us to see God as both the ground of the rationality of the world, and the one who enables us to grasp that rationality: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” Lewis invites us to see Christianity as offering us a standpoint from which we may survey things, and grasp their intrinsic coherence. We see how things connect together.
Lewis consistently uses a remarkably wide range of visual metaphors – such as sun, light, blindness and shadows – to help us understand the nature of a true understanding of things. This has two important outcomes. First, it means that Lewis sees reason and imagination as existing in a collaborative, not competitive, relationship. Second, it leads Lewis to make extensive use of analogies in his apologetics, to enable us to see things in a new way…
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