Imagination and Apologetics

My friend Cathy Kaveny has a few posts up on dotCommonweal about obstacles to evangelization. Christ blames the Pharisees for not understanding the signs of the times (Matthew 16:2-3), and Cathy is right to ask her readers to be sensitive to what might prevent people from embracing the Gospel message. To know what people find difficult about Catholicism or Christianity more generally is not to get rid of those difficulties, but to consider how we might reframe certain issues.

Cathy posted her ideas just as I was reading a book that considers exactly the same issue. Andrew Davison, a priest of the Church of England, has just edited a collection entitled Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition. The essays in this collection do not address obstacles per se, but they are deeply concerned with how Christians present the faith to the world.The book recognizes that the task of apologetics has fallen out of favor among Christians. But according to the authors, this is largely because apologetics has been narrowly conceived to be a rational defense of the faith apart from cultural and ethical considerations. But Christianity cannot be proven in the way that the Pythagorean theorem can be proven. The proof of Christianity is in lives of Christians, both in how they act and in how they envision their world.

Davison (who is a friend) has assembled quite a roster of contributors. John Milbank has penned the forward to the volume. John Hughes (another friend) has an excellent essay on what constitutes proof. Three essays by Alison Milbank, Donna Lazenby, and Michael Ward specifically address the role of the imagination, in particular how the literary imagination can be propaedeutic to Christian faith. In their essays, Stephen Bullivant and Craig Hovey stress the central role the actions of Christians play in apologetics. Graham Ward notes how the tools of critical theory can be borne to bear on the task of apologetics, and Alister McGrath argues forcefully that the natural sciences ought to be seen as allies in apologetics.

Cathy's posts garnered many comments, and I hope that some of those commenters read this book. (Indeed, I hope it is read widely, especially by pastors and teachers.) The authors arguments are not triumphalistic. They are not sectarian. They do not engage in a rhetoric of despair or decline. Instead, they ask us to reconsider how we understand the connections between faith and reason, imagination and culture, Church and community, and between how we live and what we believe.

My interest in passing along the faith has taken on a new importance with the birth of our son a few weeks ago. Thanks to him, my morning coffee isnt my only companion for lauds in the wee hours of the morning. While mom gets a bit more sleep and I pray the Benedictus, Zachariahs words to his son John the Baptist come alive:

As for you little child, you shall be called a prophet of God, the Most High,

You shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his way before him,

To make known to his people their salvation

Through the forgiveness of all their sins,

The loving kindness of the heart of our God

Who visits us like the dawn from on high

He will give light to those in darkness

Those who dwell in the shadow of death,

And guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

Cathy's remarks and Davisons collection help us to reflect on how Christians can prepare the way of the Lord. Of course, as Cathy notes, this preparation must be aware of the obstacles that hinder Christians from such preparation. Davison's book suggests that the greatest obstacle we face might well be an impoverished imagination. We should think more deeply about how our lives -- including our prayer, our work, and our interactions with others -- kindle our imaginations and the imaginations of those around us.

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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