Faith and Imagination

I.

I would like, if I may, to share a few excerpts from a short essay written by C.S. Lewis titled Myth Became Fact.

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences… By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”

And the other, of greater importance than the one before:

I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

We will come back to both of these in due time.

II.

The imagination is little spoken or written about beyond the bromidic use such as, “Use your imagination,” or some other equally hollow suggestion. The imagination, however, is of critical importance in any pursuit where genuine original thought is needed. Particularly, for men and women of faith, the imagination is both the most important tool at their disposal, as well as the most neglected. The imagination is connected directly to one’s ability or lack thereof to properly reason.

Undertaking apologetic work, one must understand the importance both of reason and imagination, as well as their relation one to the other. It is not enough, or even necessarily helpful to know all the latest –isms and –ists, unless the apologist’s sole objective is merely to outsmart the would-be evangelized. Yet, the purpose of apologetics is not to win the argument, but to win the soul, and in order to do so, the two must meet on that very profound and fundamentally imaginative level.

Lewis considered apologetics to be a reasoned defense of the faith. To Lewis, reason could only operate if provided the material to reason about. Apologetics is therefore necessarily and fundamentally imaginative. One observer relays the following not strictly true anecdote: imagine you take your car in to be serviced. It comes time to check whether or not your turn indicator is working. You turn it on and ask the mechanic if it is working. The mechanic replies, “Yes… no… yes… no.” This would relay that the mechanic lacks both the reason and the imagination to understand the way that a turn indicator works. Reason would suggest that the alternating flashes indicate that it is, in fact, working; imagination would tell you that even when the light flashes off, it is still in the process of indicating a turn. However, to the strictly literal individual wrapped in empiricism, it is only working when it is very clearly on, and when the light goes out it is no longer working. Our mechanic worked on sight, but lacked the insight, and could not perceive the meaning.

What is meaning? While a seemingly simple question, one’s answer will likely lead to yet another question. What is meaning – perhaps that which gives something a purpose? What, then, is purpose? It cannot be something’s meaning, as that would be circuitous. Meaning, according to Lewis, does not imply truth. All endeavors done with intention have some meaning. If one tells a lie to another, his lie, even though it is strictly false on a true/false continuum, none the less means something. What it means is a matter of contextual interpretation, but a lie, generally speaking, means that the liar does not want the truth to be known. The opposite of meaning, then, is not dishonestly, but rather nonsense. And it is our reason that illuminates the meanings, telling us what is true and illuminative and what is false.

Reason, then, according to Lewis, is the “natural organ of truth.” It is through reason that one may come to see not only what is true, but also why it is true. It is true that a working turn indicator flashes its light on and off, and so we may reason that even when the light has turned off in between flashes on, it is still working. Reason is the natural organ of truth

III.

It is widely known that prior to converting to Christianity, Lewis was in fact (if anything) a pagan. For a man of his imagination and breadth of mythical knowledge, it is not great surprise that he found paganism so alluring. Yet, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes the process of his conversion to the one true faith. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, it began with a fairy story.

Lewis had heretofore been on a search for joy, as we all are. By chance he came upon a small work by MacDonald titled Phantastes, and it had revelatory affect on his soul. Phantastes represented both an end and a beginning for him. Lewis writes about Phantastes (quoted at length),

“It is as if I were carried across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came to live in the new… I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality… I do now. It was Holiness… There was no temptation to confuse the scenes of the tale with the light that rested upon them… For I now perceived that while the air of the new region made all my erotic and magical perversions of Joy look like sordid trumpery, it had no such disenchanting power over the bread upon the table or the coals in the grate. That was the marvel. Up till now each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert… Even when real clouds or trees had been the material of the vision, they had been so only by reminding me of another world; and I did not like the return to ours. But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged.”

Compare the passage above with this following from Lewis’ later essay, The Weight of Glory:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not yet visited.” 

Both convey a sense of revelation and wonder, and both are very imaginative in their descriptions. Absent are the –isms and doctrinal language that make up so much of modern apologetic discussion. In fact, in either excerpt there is only one mention of anything strictly religious – “Holiness” – but still there can be no confusion as to what it is that Lewis is writing about.

For Lewis, what held him back from Christianity was that he did not know what Christian doctrine meant. It was not that he could not discern the meaning of the biblical stories, but rather he was not sure what the lived in, experiential language of the Scriptures meant. Doctrines are not the main thing about Christianity, but they are meant to represent that which is the main thing. Doctrines are not so richly meaningful as that which the doctrines are about. What tied Lewis interest in pagan myth and the Christian story was his evergreen fascination with stories of dying and rising gods, which he described as “Profound beyond my grasp,” though he did not know why.

The next essay in this series will look at the matter of myth, both those that are false and those that are true, and Lewis’ reconciliation of myth and fact.
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A special thanks belongs to Professor Michael Ward, whose books and lectures on the imagination of C.S. Lewis inspired and gave rise to this new direction of intellectual curiosity. If you are so inclined, do be sure to pick up Professor Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.

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