Friday, March 10, 2006

Reason and Imagination

The Fall 2005* issue of Christian History quotes C.S. Lewis as follows:
"If the intellectual climate is such that, when a man comes to the crisis at which he must either accept or reject Christ, his reason and imagination are not on the wrong side, then his conflict will be fought out under favourable conditions. Those who help produce and spread such a climate are therefore doing useful work: and yet no such great matter after all. Their share is a modest one; and it is always possible that nothing--nothing whatever--may come of it. That does not mean we should down tools."
In Lewis' time, the enemy of "reason and imagination" that needed to be fought was the prevailing cultural assumption that Christianity is illogical superstition, This view, propogated, then and now, by the academic establishment, is still alive and well in spite of Lewis' heroic efforts, but I think that within American culture today we face another battle for the reason and imagination of the multitudes, and it comes, in part, from people with clumsier minds than Lewis' taking up the weapons he left behind. The opponent I speak of is fundamentalist Christianity.

When people in America today (I can't speak for other parts of the world) come to the crisis at which they must either accept or reject Christ, many of them have been biased against Christianity by Christians! The conservative, non-denominational forms of Christianity have had wild success in growing their numbers, but has it not been a Pyrrhic victory? How many people have been turned away from Christianity by these groups?

This obviously applies to the Bible-thumping holier-than-thou Christians whom we can't even love to hate because they're so repellent, but, referring back to Lewis' comments on "reason and imagination" and the "intellectual climate," I think we must also consider the effects of well-meaning and usually harmless folks who nevertheless promote ideas like Biblical inerrancy, young earth creationism, the Rapture, penal theories of the atonement and, yes, I'll say it, the Four Spiritual Laws.

If this is what Christianity is, most people will reject it. And, unfortunately, those who hold these views have been loudly and publicly stating that this is what Christianity is, while we who believe otherwise have cloistered ourselves out of the public eye and refuted their idea of Christianity in private.

I know, the problem becomes, who gets to say what Christianity is? As a society, we are averse to dogma, and the historical mainstream of Christianity has taken to accomodating that view, while the evangelical right rejects it and says, "This is what Christianity is."

It seems to me that a large part of the task of apologetics today must involve making clear to the culture that Christianity is not what our fundamentalist bretheren would have them believe. We who consider ourselves "traditional Christians" have done a marvelous job keeping the faith passed on through the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church fresh and relevant, but we've mostly kept this to ourselves. We've forgotten, or chosen to ignore, wishing we could sweep it under the carpet, the fact that the historical Church from which we have come spent much of its energies clarifying the faith and correcting distortions of it. We call it "infighting"; they called in "refutation of hereisies."


LutheranChik said...

I think we've had this conversation before, but to me we traditional Christians suffer from a sort of split-personality disorder that manifests itself on one hand through a profound lack of self-confidence in our message -- variations on the theme, "No one wants to hear what we have to say, so why even try"; giving up evangelism before we even start -- and on the other hand through a sort of arrogance that deals with fundamentalists as if they don't exist -- "Oh, they're just a minority of loud ignoramuses." Whether or not that is always a fair or accurate assessment -- I think the example of our Islamic friends demonstrates what happens when moderates and progressives cede the religious and social agora to the aggressive fundamentalist minority.

We need to find our voice. Now.

Andy said...


Lewis' comments regarding those who create a climate favorable to reason and imagination reminded me of your ministry as apostle to the Christians, though in the case of the firm fundies I think perhaps an apostolate contra "the Christians" but not directed to them is in order. You and I have both learned the futility of discussing the faith with some of these people.

kevin beck said...

Great post. Thanks. Maybe the distinction b/w "infighting" and the "refutation of heresies" is more akin to inbreeding. While "conservative" Christianity is the conventional path (in the US) and "liberal" Christianity offers a counter path, we might be well served to find a creative way to transcend both.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I heard a report on the radio about the type of people who become Republicans vs Democrats. Supposedly the Reps like to have a Father Figure.

I've wondered if this in some way explains the parallel and even linking of the so called Conservative Christians with the political right. They may both be groups that like to be told what to think and what to believe.

The lack of use of the intellect by some people (many people??) who lean toward the right disturbs me for two reasons. God gave us our minds AND it is a sad demonstration of the decline of much of the education system in this country.

Why did "traditional Christians" concede the word Conservative to the Right???

And I'll say it...What don't you like about the 4 spiritual laws, besides that they are not the whole story and are very individualistic?

Luthsem said...

This is so true. How do we as Lutherans or other Christians find our voices?

Lee said...

Good post, M. I might take issue with this though: We who consider ourselves "traditional Christians" have done a marvelous job keeping the faith passed on through the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church fresh and relevant....

I'd like to think that was true (and I'd be interested in hearing what areas of the churches life - theology? preaching? spirituality? - you have in mind here), but mightn't part of the cause of the decline of the mainline be precisely that it hasn't managed to keep the faith "fresh and relevant"? Surely part of the appeal of non-denominational churches (and the mainline churches that imitate them) is that people do find their message fresh and relevant?

Also, I'd want to distinguish between the fringy fundamentalist types and the mainstream evangelicals who populate many of the nondenominational churches. I don't think the latter are necessarily peddling a false gospel that we mainliners need to combat; in many cases I think we could stand to learn from them (and vice versa, of course).

Andy said...


You asked, "What don't you like about the 4 spiritual laws, besides that they are not the whole story and are very individualistic?"

Do I need more than that?

Well, I have more. I think I smell a new post coming on, check back tomorrow.

Andy said...


What I mean by that statement (and I stand by it) is that there are traditional Christians who have a great understanding of what historic Christian doctrines mean for real life. The trouble is they are theologians and I think even many of our pastors are afraid of them.

A great example is the recent work on the Trinity. Theologians such as Leonardo Boff and Catherine Mowry LaCugna have explored and expounded the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity as applied to everything from the ecology to social power structures. But who reads their work?

Another example I would cite is Jurgen Moltmann and his eschatological theology. Though about two-thirds of the time I have no idea what Moltmann is talking about, when I read his work an image emerges of what it means to confess Jesus as the one seated on the throne who is making all things new.

Douglas John Hall is another Christian writer who has expounded on what the Christian faith means in a modern North American context.

This is the issue. American culture has so exulted the idea of the individual that we have this absurd notion that for something to be relevant it has to be relevant to what goes on in my kitchen, living room and bedroom. And I think one of the things that traditional Christians need to be shouting from the rooftops is that this simply isn't so.

Besides, once you really understand what Christianity is about, applying it to what goes on in your kitchen is pretty straightforward. The trouble is we (humans) tend to be more interested in what's going on in our neighbor's bedroom.

But you're right that there are some good things going on in some conservative Christian circles. I wouldn't want to paint with too broad a brush.

Lee said...

Mel, I agree with what I think you're saying. In fact, I think there's been a kind of renaissance of mainline theology in the last few decades. But it seems (at least in my experience) that so little of that has "trickled down" to the parish level, much less found a voice in the broader public discussion of Christianity in the U.S. I wonder why that is?

Andy said...


Absolutely. That's kind of what I meant in syaing that we were keeping it to ourselves. In fact, we're not even really sharing it among ourselves.

I know a lot of pastors are careful to guard against putting egghead/church-geek content in their sermons, and rightly so. A typical quote from Moltmann would leave 99 percent of the parish scratching their heads and the other 1 percent nodding and saying, "Ah, Moltmann..." But if there were someone who could do a good Moltmann-to-English translation it could really be amazing.

Lee said...

Good point. I was worshipping at the ELCA church in my hometown last weekend and the pastor quoted Tillich in his sermon. And it was a really good quote - but, well, that was what, 50 years ago? So I suspect another issue is that many pastors simply don't have the time and/or inclination to keep up with academic theology, especially when so much of it has become so specialized.