Truly Effective Apologetics: Using Reason and Imagination

Conversion involves the whole person: the mind, the heart, and most importantly the will. Apologetics strives to remove obstacles to faith, so that the person can respond to God’s call. Some of those obstacles are conceptual, or factual. Some are obstacles of sin. But some of those obstacles are the walls that exist between the different parts of the human being: so that the Gospel call is heard only in the mind, or only in the emotions, but not in the whole self. When Imagination and Reason are paired in apologetics work, we can tear down many more strongholds than with either imagination or reason alone.

Rational apologetics

Theologian Austin Farrer sums up the role of Reason in apologetics: “Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”

Rational apologetics includes philosophical arguments, such as the arguments from contingency and from morality; evidential arguments, such as the arguments for the Resurrection based on historical evidence; and scientific arguments, such as the argument based on the fine-tuning of the universe for human life. However, no argument is complete in itself. For instance, while the Kalam cosmological argument and arguments from design suggest that it is reasonable to believe in a Creator, these arguments do not in themselves suggest anything about what that Creator is like, or draw people to desire a relationship with Him. Scripture-based arguments can show more of who God is and how He has acted in history, but these arguments are only helpful if people care about what the Bible says – if they are interested and willing to listen. We can’t automaticallly assume that people are interested, or that they have the adequate context to understand Scriptural references.

The best approach for the challenges of the 21st century is to provide a holistic argument involving different, complementary, mutually supportive arguments, which build up to a convincing overall picture.

Imaginative apologetics

We live in a post-Christian age. Non-believers today know that Christianity is an option: there are churches in every town, Bibles in every bookstore, web pages just a click away. But all too often people think they know who Jesus is and don’t want him. This reaction is seldom one of reasoned disagreement; no matter how one addresses the specific flaws in their arguments, the hostility remains.

Many others think they know who Jesus is, and don’t care. This is a challenge for apologists; apathy is far more difficult to overcome than anger.

Logical arguments can make an impact only if the listener finds the terms and ideas meaningful, and worth considering, whether or not he or she agrees with the claim.

How can the Imagination help to establish meaning? One mode in which it can do so is through literature and the arts, which can help the skeptic to ‘imaginatively realize’ the meaning of the words that Christians use.

As an example, to say “God loves us and will forgive us our sins if we repent and turn to Him” is a propositional statement that may not have real meaning for the skeptic. The words “God,”“forgive,” and “repent” are abstract to those who have not experienced the reality. How can those words be invested with real meaning?

Our Lord shows us one way it can be done when he tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This story would be a wonderful piece of imaginative literature even if it were not also an expression of life-changing truth about God’s love for us. The imaginative connection that we feel between ourselves, and the prodigal son comes from the organic reality of the story: the rebellion and downward spiral of the son, the moment of clarity when he hits bottom among the pigs, the emotions he feels on returning, the wonderful image of the father running to meet him. After hearing or reading the parable, we know something of what repentance and divine love mean in a way that cannot be reproduced by analytical argument, but that can provide the basis for further rational discussion. If the skeptic can invest words like ‘repentance’ and ‘love’ with the meaning they gain from this parable, the conversation with an apologist will be very different – and very much more fruitful.

Neither Reason alone, nor Imagination alone, suffices as a way of knowing. Relying solely or too heavily on one, without the counterbalancing and corrective action of the other, leads to a disordered culture and reduces the effectiveness of apologetics.

A truly effective ‘imaginative apologetics’ will resolutely refuse to separate Reason and Imagination and will work to use both in a holistic way.

This is the work we are doing here in Apologetics at HBU.


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