Review: Apologetics and the Christian Imagination

I am a student of philosophy. My mind thinks metaphysically more naturally than it does metaphorically. But as Holly Ordway argues in her new book, Christian apologetics must be about much more than just propositional argumentation: it must be a wholistic endeavor which engages the entirety of human nature, both in individuals and in societies broadly.

That is the central idea in Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017). In it, Holly Ordway, an English professor and convert to the Faith, presents a method of practical apologetics that is not in itself new, but is nonetheless not quite so frequently recognized or implemented, at least explicitly. Contemporary apologetics has often focused almost exclusively on the purely intellectual aspects of defending the Christian faith; but Ordway argues, quite convincingly, that doing so ignores significant facets of the human experience and hence can actually be detrimental to the overall project and ultimate end of apologetics, which is bringing people to a living faith. In the present book, she focuses on the human faculty of imagination and how it can be impacted through different mediums, especially literature and the arts.

Of course, it might seem a bit unusual to think of apologetics as a project consisting of writing a fictional story or painting a landscape or even designing a building, but that is exactly what Ordway is here suggesting. We’ve come to think of apologetics as too small and narrow a thing if we do not allow it to engage more than just the intellect. Even more importantly, we’ve come to think of human beings as too small if we reduce individuals to just their capacity to reason. Seeing this, however, first requires understanding exactly what apologetics is.

Apologetics, from the Greek apologia, is on one level just a defense of any particular view or position (think of Socrates’ trial in Plato’s Apology). In this sense, almost everyone engages in “apologetics” for something; every worldview or belief system will attempt at some point to defend itself, to give justification for itself. But very early on in the history of the Church, the concept and practice of apologetics was taken up by Christians and given a distinctly Christian interpretation. Think, for instance, of St. Justin Martyr, who early in the second century wrote his two Apologies, addressed to the Roman emperor himself, as an explanation of general Christian beliefs and a call for governmental protection against persecution. Thus apologetics is an ancient tradition within the Faith, and Christians have long understood it as central to the mission of the Church. In this second sense, apologetics takes on more than just a defensive connotation and instead becomes an active undertaking aimed at explaining and establishing the truth of the Christian Faith. In its Christian context, however, the end of apologetics can never be just winning an argument or debate or even convincing someone of the propositional truth of various Christian doctrines; its end, rather, can be nothing less than the radical, salvific transformation of the entire person, and entire communities and societies. This must include, of course, the convincing of doctrinal truths; but it must also be more. Why so?

Because, as Ordway argues, the human person is more than a mere intellect. And that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of her book: she grounds it all in a proper understanding of human nature. She writes:

“Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the Faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families, and communities (goodness), and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected. Our faith is deeply rooted and fully nourished only if we have all three transcendentals in our lives: goodness, truth, and beauty. Likewise, our apologetics and our evangelization will be most attractive, compelling, and convincing if we draw on all three. Truth, for the intellect; goodness, for the moral sense and the will; beauty, for the aesthetic sense, the emotions, and the imagination. In this way, our apologetics can touch mind, heart, and will, not in isolation, but in harmony with each other” [1].

If Christian apologetics is aimed at convincing others of the truthfulness of the Faith in order ultimately to transform their whole person and being in living faith, then what role exactly does imagination play? How can imagination do any “convincing” at all? As Ordway notes, our own culture has a somewhat impoverished understanding of the human faculty of imagination. We associate imagination with “the imaginary” [2], with day dreaming or fantasies or made up things. But imagination in its classical sense has a much richer significance. Ordway explains:

“For Aristotle, and for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates ‘between sense and intellect’ by conveying ‘data to the intellect’ . . . Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought as well as all artistic, or what we would call ‘imaginative,’ exercise” [3].

In essence, the imagination provides the raw material upon which the intellect can then operate. In fact, the medievals would argue (as does Ordway), that without the imagination we could not reason at all, for we would have nothing to reason about. Ordway also provides several other vital roles that imagination plays, besides mediating between the senses and the intellect: 1) Imagination helps give meaning, and meaningful contexts, to the terms and language that we use. Without this, there can be no substantial communication whatsoever, at all. 2) Imagination is a necessary precursor and foundation to judgement. In other words, in order to judge whether a propositional statement such as “Dogs are sweet animals” is true or false, we first must grasp the meaning of the statement. The intellect/reason does the judgement, but the imagination generates the meaning [4]. 3) Imaginative mediums such as literature can embody truths and draw others into contemplation of them without forcefully or aggressively intruding upon them. 4) Imagination can work to dismantle misconceptions and distortions of meaning in order to provide a better framework in which to discuss the Faith. 5) Imagination allows us to enter into the experiences and perspectives of others to better understand them and their beliefs, enabling us to engage in better dialogue. 6) Imagination can strike at and bring to the surface natural and deeply embedded longings within us, leading us to further think about and explore the implications of such longings (such as our innate longings for meaning, purpose, beauty, etc.).

In all of this, however, Ordway is very clear that she is not in any way advocating for replacing or excluding the intellectual aspects of apologetics; indeed she recognizes these as vital. Instead, she is proposing an integrative approach, one which acknowledges the whole person of the human being with all its faculties and responds appropriately. In other words, we need both imaginative and intellectual apologetics if we want to establish the Faith as meaningful and true. And in this I entirely agree.

Overall, Ordway’s book is timely and significant, as Christians in the West continue to interact with and defend the Faith against raging secularism and increasing skeptical and non-religious sentiments. Ordway offers an approach to apologetics that I think can greatly supplement areas somewhat lacking in its contemporary project. There are several ways in which this could be done: on one level, apologists can just use imaginative material that is already there. But what I think is most significantly missing and needed, is for more people to actively be producing new imaginative material. The Church needs talented and passionate individuals to be writing literature, painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, performing, acting, writing scripts, producing movies, etc., in ways that both beautifully depict the rich depth and meaning and truth of the Christian Faith, and also engage a culture that is absolutely starving for wonder, beauty, and genuine art. In other words, we need a new C. S. Lewis. We need a new Tolkien. We need a new Dostoevsky, a new Mozart or Bach, a new Rembrandt, a new Shakespeare. And hopefully Ordway’s book can help inspire them to be such. Indeed, Ordway herself throughout the book includes some of her own imaginative material: each chapter ends with an original poem that reflects a general theme or idea from the chapter. In addition to being beautiful in themselves, these poems help demonstrate practical ways in which imaginative apologetics can be carried out.

In conclusion, Ordway’s book is extremely well written, full of depth and wisdom but presented in a concise and easily comprehensible fashion. She includes personal examples and helpful illustrations, and draws heavily from the work of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, with whom she is expertly familiar. My absolute favorite part of the book was its emphasis on the Incarnation as the center of the Faith. She includes an entire chapter entitled “The Incarnation” which is beautifully and profoundly written; and throughout the book she relates the “embodiment” of meaning in words, literature, and art to the supreme Embodiment of God Himself in the flesh in the person of Christ. All in all, it was an excellent and insightful book which I would readily recommend to anyone interested either in apologetics broadly, or in how the arts can be implemented within a Christian context.

My thanks to Steven Edwards from Emmaus Road Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book.

If you do not already, I invite all readers to follow this blog, either through WordPress or email. You can also like our Sens Homines Facebook page, linked here or on the righthand side of the page.

Notes

[1]. Ordway, Holly. Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017. Pages 167-168.

[2]. Ibid., 15.

[3]. Ibid., 16.

[4]. Ibid., 29.

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Assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part I

*Introductory note: This is a new series exploring and assessing the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I am a theist, but am currently unsure of where I stand in relation to this particular argument, i.e. I’m not yet sure whether I think it is successful or not. This provides me the opportunity to approach the argument from a somewhat neutral and distanced perspective. I’m not committed to defending or rejecting the argument. Here, all I want to do is think about and discuss it. 

For the most part, the Kalam Cosmological Argument currently reigns as the most popularly defended and discussed argument for the existence of God. Mainstream apologetics circles are especially obsessed with it, but quite a decent amount of attention has been given to it within the realm of academic philosophy of religion as well. Historically, however, this has not always been the case; and indeed for many centuries the Kalam was perhaps seen as the “odd man out” when it came to cosmological arguments generally. As philosopher Edward Feser notes, “Most versions of the cosmological argument . . . are not concerned with trying to show that the universe had a beginning” [1]. For the Kalam, on the other hand, showing the universe to have had a beginning is precisely what it is concerned with. The Kalam thus occupies a unique position in all natural theology. Continue reading

Sens Homines Facebook Page

I got my wisdom teeth taken out today. Much fun. So no new post.

I do, however, have an update: I’ve decided to make a Sens Homines Facebook page. It’s quite small at the moment, but if you’re on Facebook you can like it here: https://www.facebook.com/senshomines/. There’s also a link to it on the righthand side of this page.

I’m not entirely sure what its use will be yet. At the moment I’m thinking at least shorter thoughts that do not merit a full blog post, as well as quotes or other articles I find intriguing. I’m open to suggestions. If you’re interested, give it a like.

Meanwhile, I’m currently working on an article on the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Since there’s so much material on this particular argument, and since most readers are probably already at least generally familiar with it, I thought I’d give a unique approach by considering it from a historical point of view, at least at first, before getting into more contemporary discussion about it. It should be posted sometime next week.

Until then, thanks!

Harrison

Responding to the Cosmic Skeptic on the Ontological Argument

Alex J. O’Connor, also known as the “Cosmic Skeptic”, is a popular atheist youtuber and blogger. His content primarily consists of videos which are usually quite engaging and high in quality. He’s an excellent speaker and presenter and often has interesting takes on various philosophical and scientific topics. A few days ago, he posted a video titled “I Think, Therefore God Exists: The Ontological Argument” which responds to that infamous argument for God’s existence

Although I am a committed theist, Mr. O’Connor should be happy to know that I happen to agree with him here: I do not think that ontological arguments are successful in establishing the existence of God. (I should also point out that there is no one ontological argument, rather there are a family of versions. O’Connor begins his video in reference to St. Anselm, whose ontological argument was the first historically, but the rest of his video doesn’t deal with St. Anselm’s argument at all; rather it focuses on William Lane Craig’s presentation of Alvin Plantinga’s much newer modal formulation of the argument). Despite the fact that I don’t think ontological arguments are successful, I’d like to respond to a few specific points within O’Connor’s video, mostly because they are relevant to theistic arguments in general other than just ontological ones. Continue reading

Beginning Metaphysics IV: Essentialism

Central to Aquinas’s whole metaphysical system, and even central to his whole project of metaphysics, is the belief that essences are real. This is known as essentialism. Modern science and philosophy, however, have come so far from the common sense position that things have essences that to even ask the question is seen as a waste of time. This post is meant as a brief introductory look at an overview of arguments that could be presented in favor of an essentialist position.

By far the greatest reason to affirm essentialism is that it is just our starting point for understanding, describing, and interacting with reality. Whether we realize it our not, we are all at least implicit essentialists: we all look at and talk about reality as if there really are things with intrinsic unity which are distinct from other things and other kinds of things. Continue reading

A Thomistic Argument from Desire: Part I

A few months ago, I posted an Augustinian Argument from Desire, which attempted to use material from the writings of St. Augustine in order to address what I felt to be the principle problems for any “argument from desire” for the existence of God. The Augustinian version is interesting and, I think, deserves to be fleshed out more fully; but in this post I am beginning a new project: a Thomistic Argument from Desire. This is primarily going to be an endeavor of research, not defense. In other words, I am going to be delving into material from St. Thomas which I am inclined to think can plausibly be constructed into a successful argument, but which I have not as of yet completely mapped out. I have a general idea of what I think the flow and structure of the argument will perhaps look like, but that is certainly liable to change. Furthermore, my presentation of the argument will largely take the form of exposition. For the most part, I think the argument is pretty much already there, at least materially and implicitly, in the writings of St. Thomas, and my task will be concerned with drawing it out. Continue reading

An Augustinian Defense of Hell

Of all Christian doctrines, the doctrine of Hell is seemingly the easiest to attack, hardest to defend, and most shied away from by theologians, philosophers, and apologists. It’s seen as an outdated, despicable, morally horrendous scare-tactic that is a significantly embarrassing blot on the claim to believe in a perfect, loving, good God. It’s rarely discussed in a serious philosophical setting, except in the brief work of skeptical writers presenting arguments against its moral justification. Christians may offer some general responses to the sentiment behind these arguments, but for the most part are just content to pass by and focus on other, “easier” and less taboo topics. It is now somewhat standard fare for people to assume that Hell is a settled issue; it’s often just taken for granted that Hell is indefensible and morally repugnant and hence that it’s almost not even worth critiquing or defending. Continue reading