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.


C. S. Lewis as an Imaginative Apologist

Why was C.S. Lewis so successful as an apologist? Why does he continue to be so influential?

One of the reasons C. S. Lewis was successful as an apologist because he recognized the necessary place of the imagination in the defense of Christianity – and because he was able to draw on his work as a literary scholar and literary critic in his apologetics work. In these short interview podcasts, HBU Apologetics faculty Dr. Michael Ward and Dr. Holly Ordway explore some aspects of Lewis’s imaginative apologetics.

Dr. Holly Ordway discusses Lewis’s essay “Is Theology Poetry?”  and in another essay chat, Lewis’s famous essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.”

And, Dr. Michael Ward talks about Lewis’s important contribution to English literature, in this interview about the Lewis Memorial in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey.


CS Lewis on Reason and Imagination in Science and Religion – Dr Michael Ward

HBU Apologetics is delighted that Dr. Michael Ward has joined our full-time faculty as Professor of Apologetics and director of HBU’s new CS Lewis Centre in Oxford, England. Based primarily in Oxford, Dr Ward will teach online and travel to Houston regularly, as he did this spring to teach on “CS Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics”.

On route to Houston, he stopped in New York to do a lecture for Cornell University, on “CS Lewis on Reason and Imagination in Science and Religion.”

From the description of the talk:

Although he was a literary historian, not a scientist or a theologian, C.S. Lewis has much to say of interest regarding the interface between science and religion because of his scholarly study of the sixteenth century and, in particular, of the imaginative effects of the Copernican revolution. He regards science, properly speaking, as a subset of religion. He believes science to be a fundamentally imaginative enterprise. He argues that scientific statements, because they tend to be univocal and strive to be verifiable, are actually rather small statements, all things considered. He argues that there is always a mythology that follows in the wake of science and that both scientists and non-scientists should take care not to put excessive weight on particular scientific metaphors. We should hold our scientific paradigms with a due provisionality, because new evidence may always turn up to overthrow those paradigms. Even the best and most long-lasting paradigm is merely a lens or linguistic stencil laid over reality, not reality itself. This humility in relation to the facts about the physical universe is a virtue similar to the one we should exercise before the mystery of God.

Anxious Debate and a Thinking Response

ImageWhen I was a student at Wheaton College I, and all other students, were subject to “thePledge.” That is, we had to agree to follow the “Fundamentalist Five,” which were no drinking alcoholic beverages, no smoking tobacco (that there were other things one could smoke was just starting to dawn on the evangelical world), no use of playing cards, no going to the theater, including motion pictures, and no dancing. Neither my wife (whom I met there) nor I had problems with “the Pledge,” for that in general had been our lifestyle before Wheaton, the difference being that my family had seen those rules as culturally relative and thus not as absolute (we had, for example, made an abortive attempt to see The Ten Commandments in a drive-in theater, abortive because we left part of the way through due to torrential rain; my father would drink wine in France while on business trips, since teetotalism was not part of the Christian culture there), and Judy’s had seen them as absolutes. But in the view of our churches those who did those things were probably “not Christians,” including many mainline followers of Jesus. While never said officially in so many words, this atmosphere pervaded Wheaton, These were the boundary markers of “the faith.” However, even then there were signs of some breakdown: no less a fundamentalist than Bob Jones (I am not sure whether Sr. or Jr.) reportedly said of C. S. Lewis, “That man drinks liquor, and smokes tobaccah [so pronounced], but I do believe that he is saved.” Continue reading

The “Line of Separation”

I’m not often quoted.  Seldom have I said anything original that is worth being repeated, but a few years ago I made a statement which some people have picked up on.  Let me

For the past ten years I have co-hosted a radio show on secular stations.  We have had several names for the show.  The current version is called “A Show of Faith.”  The show airs weekly Sunday nights from 7.00 to 9.00 pm on 1070 KNTH in Houston.  We stream it live over the Internet at

I said I co-host the show because my partners in crime are a priest and a rabbi.  I know.  It sounds like a joke.  “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a radio station . . . “  But it is not a joke.  We’ve been on the air ten years on three different stations in America’s 4th largest city.  The mission of the show (remember, it is on a secular station) is to talk about events in the news from the perspective of our religions.  We will also have representatives of other faiths: Islam, Bahai, Hinduism, etc.  A secondary mission is to demonstrate that it is possible to be “friends across faiths.”  The rabbi and the priest are two very good friends of mine.  We “agree to disagree and don’t become disagreeable.”

I relate all of this because of the context.  Often, when we talk about events in the news, politics come up.  Now that the election is over, Congress is in hearings, and the President prepares for his annual “State of the Union,” we think about how people ought to engage in the politic process.  Talk radio, the 24 hours new cycle, and Internet news brings events and politics into our world at the speed of light.

There are people who want to keep religion out of the public square. They want to relegate faith to the margins arguing that faith is really a private matter and should not enter in to our public life.  The statement I made, however, was a challenge to this.  Here is what I wrote:

“The `line of separation` does not run neatly through a man’s soul.”

While many want to separate church and state–so much so that there is never any contact between them—I don’t think it is completely possible or even desirable.  Let me say it this way.  We may be able to pass rules and create policies which keep any one religion from dominating our public life, but I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our lives to the extent that faith does not inform our citizenship.  When American citizens step into the voting booth, they take their faiths with them.  When they vote, they vote values which have been formed by their faiths.  When citizens hold public office (from president to dog-catcher), they govern and make decisions based in large measure on the values they have been taught through their faiths.  In a complex world there may be competing values, but in the end mature citizens must cast a vote or make a decision.  “The line of separation between church and state” does not run neatly through a man’s soul.

It is incumbent upon all of us to draw strength and direction from our faith traditions in order to think about what is a  “good life” and a  “good society.” There are competing visions in the arena of ideas, and we need to be players  not just spectators. We dare not let those who wish to silence our voices succeed.  As a university, we have a strategic role to play in shaping the citizens that make us this great country.

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