Commentary Magazine


Apologetics, Politics, and Our Moral Imagination

Michael Ward, Chaplain of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, has written a marvelous essay (which can be found in this collection) on the centrality of imagination in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson showed Lewis that Christian doctrine was subordinate to “narrative theology.” Doctrine is about translating concepts and ideas, which is vital; but the primary language of Christianity is a “lived language,” meaning incarnational. 

Reason and imagination, then, are essential–but Ward argues it was only through imagination that Lewis’s reason, and ultimately his will, were transformed. Of course Lewis himself engaged in apologetics through the works of imagination (most famously in The Chronicles of Narnia). One person commented on Lewis’s writings by saying this: “We think we are listening to an argument, in fact we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.”

I mention all this because in a recent dinner conversation with friends, I observed that what is missing in our politics is the ability to touch people’s moral imagination. My point was that too often in politics, we present our case with facts and figures, with appeals to logic and abstract reasoning. These things are important, but they are not enough. It is in the nature of human beings that we are often moved less by the power of an argument than by the power of a story and a cause. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not,” is how Pascal put it.

The greatest political figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, understood something about this reality. They possessed remarkably impressive analytical minds–but they understood, too, the role of imagination in politics; that great statesmen have the capacity to present a compelling vision of a better world and can place a particular moment in time in the arc of a larger story. (Both Lincoln and Churchill were powerfully shaped by the King James Bible and Shakespeare.)

In his essay, Michael Ward points out that in C.S. Lewis’s last novel, Till We Have Faces, a character called the Fox, a rational teacher, comes to learn at the end of the story that mere reason is “glibness … a prattle of maxims … all thin and clear as water.” It was Lewis’s way of saying that reason was utterly inadequate when it comes to apprehending what he called “the richness and spirituality of real things.”

The most important things in life–beauty, grace, redemption, compassion, loyalty, love–are beyond the reach of reason. Which doesn’t make them any less real.

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