C S Lewis.- Integrating the Rational and The Imagination

Last week I read Alister McGrath’s new book C.S. Lewis: A Life – Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Of the many good things about it, I was especially struck by his description of how Lewis saw his task as integrating rational and imaginative approaches to the spiritual journey. This was timely for me, because that has been very much in my mind in the context of Caféchurch, which has traditionally emphasized a rational, cognitive, slightly detached, approach to faith.

Lewis is often seen as a paradigmatic example of a person with a highly rational faith, because of books like Mere Christianity.  However critics see a strong contradiction between the earlier earnest, rational Oxford don and the later, highly imaginative myth-maker of the Narnia books. Drawing a strong contrast between the rational and the imaginative, critics argue that the later Lewis realised that rational defence of Christianity is impossible, and that he retreated into a non-rational fantasy land in which the claims of reason are abandoned.

The crux of the story is a celebrated incident which took place in the Socratic Club, an Oxford debating society devoted to Christian apologetics. The story goes that Lewis was so shocked by being beaten in a debate by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe on the topic of the self-refuting nature of naturalism, that he abandoned his rational faith, and retreated to children’s stories.

Given the constraints of this blog post, I am not going to describe the argument – you can look it up on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_Club

While the argument is itself interesting, the important point for us is the use to which this episode is put. As McGrath puts it:

Some of Lewis’s biographers, primarily A.N. Wilson, have seen this incident as signalling, perhaps even causing, a major shift in Lewis’s outlook. Having been defeated in argument, they contend, Lewis lost confidence in the rational basis of his faith, and abandoned his role as a leading apologist. They claim that his shift to writing fictional works— such as the Chronicles of Narnia— reflects a growing realisation that rational argument cannot support the Christian faith.

McGrath rebuts this claim in two ways. He firstly argues that the defeat was in fact only of part of Lewis’s argument, which he improved as a result of this encounter. As you would have seen had you clicked the link, the basic point of the argument is still current, which tends to blunt the force of Wilson’s claim. (If you are interested, contemporary thinker John Haught engages essentially the same point in Is Nature Enough.)

Secondly, he points out that Lewis continued to engage in rational apologetics, with articles such as “Is Theism Important?” (1952), and “On Obstinacy in Belief” (1955) which “clearly show a continued recognition of the importance of reasoned argument in apologetics.”

However, even though it did not bring Lewis’s use of rational apologetics to and end, or deposit him in a “non-rational fideism,” it did mark a change for Lewis’s emphasis away from straightforward apologetics towards use of to “fiction and symbol.” He felt that he was no longer the best person to take the lead in philosophical debate.

The most well known result of this change of emphasis was the Narnia series, where he engaged in a very successful attempt to combine the rational and the aesthetic and convince the imagination. The person of Aslan is so attractive, the quests the children are on are such a powerful way of understanding our own journeys of faith, that certainly my imagination has been pretty well permanently captured ever since.

The role of story is explained by Pascal, paraphrased by McGrath:

 For Pascal, there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief. The important thing, he argued, was to make people wish that it were true, having caught sight of the rich and satisfying vision of reality it offered. Once such a desire was implanted within the human heart, the human mind would eventually catch up with its deeper intuitions.

I can hear the Enlightenment angel on my shoulder shouting “COP-OUT” in my ear as loud as it can. Doesn’t that just open the door for wish-fulfilment, ungrounded in any rigorous engagement with reality? And it has a point, my little Enlightenment angels with its mortar board perched precariously on its head. It is a real risk – one has only to look at the vapidities of the New Age to see what spirituality divorced from reason looks like. Faith has to be rationally defensible, but it seems increasingly obviously true that no-one can create an absolutely rationally unavoidable argument for either Theism or Atheism. The arguments seem incapable of being resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, surely a major part of the reason for that is that people inhabit different stories, which inform what seems plausible to them.

This sense of story preceding argument, according to McGrath, is even at work in Mere Christianity, where, extending Austin Farrer’s point about The Problem of Pain: “Lewis makes us “think we are listening to an argument,” when in reality “we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.”  That’s the thing which inspires us, rather than dull arguments about orthodoxy.

Interestingly, this is how scientists describe what it is like to make a great discovery – “The great French physicist Henri Poincaré once remarked, ‘It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.’”  The inspiration, the shining transcendent idea which makes sense of all the disparate bits of evidence comes first. The painstaking work of working it all out comes second.

This idea rings true to me, and explains why it seems to be so hard to imitate Lewis’s  success in apologetics: it is hard, perhaps even impossible, to write a readable book which is just argument. Lewis presents us with his transcendent vision, which he explains in rational ways. I always feel like reading Lewis is like staring into a still, perfectly clear, pond, where you can see right into its pellucid depths, unlike reading Chesterton, which reminds me of standing next to a huge waterfall, watching the coruscating rainbows in the spray, and getting soaking wet in the process.

In the context of Caféchurch, the question is how to go about this reconciliation of the imaginative and the rational. If the fundamental thing we do together is talk about stuff, how do we transcend the limitations of our head-based, theoretical, Enlightenment world, and into the reconciliation of reason and imagination, this whole of person thing, that is the legacy of C.S. Lewis?

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