As a philosopher, I love ideas. I poke and prod them all day long, in class with students, in writing during research, in the margins of books in study. Ideas are important. They have consequences, as philosophers like to say. But ideas are not all that matter. Images do too. So do the things we make, if Andy Crouch is right.
We often forget that ideas and images, reason and the imagination, work together to lead one to the truth. Consider C.S. Lewis, who in describing his pre-conversion mindset, portrays how the imaginative and rational parts of his mind were pulled in opposite directions:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest conflict. On the one side a many-island sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow “rationalism.” Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
Lewis longed for a certain kind of story, a story nourished through the imagination, that was filled with beauty, mystery, longing and transcendence. The intelligentsia of his day, like the new atheists in our own, told him that there is no deep story of the world. But his mind refused to settle for a kind of cold rationalism; his imagination sustained his longing for a story that was alive and true. Christianity, Lewis eventually discovered, is the perfect blend of reason and romance, ideas and imagination. Christianity is “true myth”: a story that is both true to the way the world is and true to the way the world ought to be.
One question that continues to animate me as a Christian who is a philosopher is this: How can we help others see the truth, goodness and beauty of Jesus and the Gospel? Some think Christianity is implausible or unreasonable. Science, they say, is the prophet, priest and king of modernity, ushering man into a new age of progress, peace and prosperity. Others think Christianity is undesirable. Christianity, they say, is oppressive and antiquated; a kind of slave morality that sucks joy out of life.
Philosophers tend to argue for the reasonableness of Christianity, and rightly so. I’ve come to realize, however, that arguing for reasonableness of Christianity alone is not enough. We must also argue for Christianity’s desirability. One way to do that, I suspect, is to utilize that aspect of man that was foundational in Lewis’ own story—the imagination.
So, while I’m more comfortable defending sterile propositions safely tucked within deductive arguments, to help others see and understand the Gospel, I realize I must learn how to argue with imaginative reason. Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s notion of man as sub-creator, I decided to make something that might reveal through image, rhythm and story the beauty and brilliance of the Gospel. Taking a step of faith, I gathered together some of my artistic friends—spoken word poets—and we got to work. Could we write a story that awakened longing in others and pointed to the Gospel as both true and alive?
The result of our effort is the spoken word poem linked at the bottom of this article. What did I learn from this exercise in imaginative reason? I learned that making art is hard, as all creating must be (nor is it ever perfect). I also learned that it is fun; there is joy in the hunt for beauty and truth; there is a special bond that is forged as Christians work together to make something beautiful. Most of all, my own imagination was stirred: in cultivating—yea, even creating—beauty, the curtain pulled back, even for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the divine.
As followers of Christ, we are part of a story that is alive and true. The story of God’s pursuing love ought to move us to share this love with others (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). The Gospel story is the greatest story ever. It is more, even. It is the greatest possible story. It understands you. And it is true. We must, in this age of cynicism, disenchantment and despair point others to the truth and beauty of Jesus and the Gospel. May we learn to cultivate our imaginative reason so others might find rest and forgiveness in this God who pursues.
Andy Crouch, Culture Making (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 170.
Consider the atheist physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, who tells us that science, not the Bible, provides us “the greatest story ever told” (The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far [New York: Atria Books, 2017], 2). What is the story of our existence according to science? It is that “there is no obvious plan or purpose to the world we find ourselves living in. Our existence was not preordained, but appears to be a curious accident” (ibid., 4).
When considering why God might allow evil and suffering, Alvin Plantinga suggests “perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement.” See Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 59.