Evans, GA. Christian scholars today increasingly acknowledge that rational arguments in defense of Christianity tend to have little purchase on those who are not already Christian. James W. Sire puts it this way:
I am not complaining about rational apologetics as such but about what often seems to be assumed by many who use it—to wit, that it is a highly effective approach and should work even if it doesn’t. (Apologetics Beyond Reason, 17)
In light of this growing recognition, some contemporary Christian authors have commended the apologetic potential of imagination (see, e.g., Sire’s Apologetics Beyond Reason and Holly Ordway’s Apologetics and the Christian Imagination).
Justin Ariel Bailey’s Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age continues in this vein, arguing that “the discipline [of apologetics] is in need of a fresh infusion of imagination” (4, emphasis original). Chapter one discusses how we arrived at our present moment of “secularity,” which Bailey identifies as an “imaginative crisis” (13, emphasis original). Here Bailey draws heavily on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and The Ethics of Authenticity, particularly the idea that ours is an “age of authenticity” where “faith and doubt are first navigated imaginatively and affectively, and the felt dimension of faith is most decisive in belief” (14).
Chapter two “is concerned with testing apologetic methodologies in light of our diagnosis,” with a focus on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “attempt at an apologetic of feeling” (14); chapter three “gives a threefold account of imagination as seeing, sensing, and shaping” (14), in which imagination is defined as “the embodied human faculty concerned with possibility” (89–90); chapters four and five explore the “implicitly apologetic thrust” that can be found in the fiction of George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson, respectively, wherein they “thrust the reader into the midst of stories that breathe with the Spirit, embodying the Christian vision” (15); and chapter six “brings MacDonald and Robinson into conversation” (17).
In making his argument, Bailey separates the imaginative and the beautiful from that which is intellectual, characterizing the latter as “rational” (9) and the former in terms of feeling and emotion. Given the contemporary inefficacy of rational argumentation, Bailey contends that in our age “we feel our way into faith imaginatively and aesthetically” (59); for many people, truth “must ‘speak to me’ in languages of feeling that I can understand. That is to say, it must engage the imagination, not just the intellect” (58).
On Bailey’s view, imagination works by “provoking desire, exploring possibility, and casting an inhabitable Christian vision,” one that is “meaningful” and “enables outsiders to inhabit the Christian faith as if from the outside, feeling their way in” (4). Within such visions, beauty or “aesthetic experience” is the means by which “desire is drawn out” (15).
However, when beauty and imagination are separated from the intellect a problem arises: since there is no necessary relation between an emotive, imaginative experience of beauty and the way things really are, how do we move from showing the desirability of the Christian vision to demonstrating that it is actually true?
In Apologetics and the Christian Imagination—which bears a “family resemblance” (18n30) to Bailey’s book, as he acknowledges—Holly Ordway admits that once the meaningfulness and desirability of Christian faith have been established, reason has to step in and do its work: “Only when something has meaning, which is generated by the imagination, can we begin to use our reason to judge whether it is true, or false” (Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 29).
Bailey gives the impression throughout much of his book that he agrees with Ordway on this point. For example, he writes that once an imaginative vision has enabled one to see “what it feels like to live with Christian faith” (4, emphasis original) and elicited desire for such faith, one can then “begin to entertain the possibility of [faith’s] rationality and its connection to reality” (10).
Yet when Bailey explicitly raises the question of how to move from showing the desirability of Christianity to demonstrating its truth, he says that Ordway’s assessment “oversimplifies the complex dynamic of what it means to believe.” He then observes that “to feel grasped by beauty is in some sense to assent to its truth, to allow ourselves to be touched by its goodness” (240).
Bailey is correct to say beauty is in some sense also good and true, rather than merely emotional and subjective in nature. But his implied claim that imaginative apologetics doesn’t necessarily require further epistemic confirmation is ill-fitting with the rest of the book, in which he repeatedly suggests that the establishment of Christianity’s desirability is a prelude to its rational justification. In Bailey’s words, “What is needed before the demonstration of the rationality of Christian belief is the provocation of the impulse to take the demonstration seriously. What is needed is an exploration of the desires that would draw out belief” (243, emphasis original).
Overall, then, it seems Bailey and Ordway’s proposed apologetic amounts to what we might call soft rationalism —they speak glowingly of imagination and beauty as necessary conditions or supplements for reason, but their approach is still rationalistic insofar as it comprises a two-part, consecutive sequence in which an imaginative experience of beauty is followed by rational assessment of that experience, such that reason is the final arbiter of truth and falsehood.
However, the difficulty of establishing a relationship between an imaginative experience and reality can be avoided entirely if one’s definition of beauty and imagination is informed by a classical Christian understanding of these terms. On such an understanding, as we will see, imaginatively encountering that which is desirable and coming to further knowledge of reality are both inherent in the experience of beauty, rather than separate steps that need to be connected by an act of discursive reason.
To reiterate, Bailey characterizes experiences of beauty almost exclusively in terms of feeling and emotion. But while such experiences certainly give rise to emotion, according to the catholic tradition it is not the case that they are fundamentally emotional in nature:
The beautiful goes straight to the heart, it is a ray of intelligibility which reaches it directly and sometimes brings tears to the eyes. And doubtless this delight is an “emotion,” a “feeling”…. However it is a question here of an altogether special feeling, one which depends simply on knowledge and on the happy fullness which a sensible intuition procures for the intellect…. Emotion in the ordinary sense of the word, biological emotion, the development of passions and feelings other than this intellectual joy, is but an effect—an absolutely normal effect—of this joy; it is posterior, if not in time, at least in the nature of things, to the perception of the beautiful, and it remains extrinsic to what formally constitutes the latter. (Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 166–67n56)
Here we find that experiences of beauty involve emotion, but they remain essentially intellectual. On the catholic understanding, then, “Intellect is not confined to the operations of pure reason” (Paul Helm, Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, 17), and Bailey is thus mistaken in thinking that “intellect” refers only to the rational faculty of discursive reason. Indeed, to believe that the intellect equates to discursive reason alone—that “the process of discursive reason is the highest or only form of intellect, or that it outfits itself with its own criteria of, or means to, truth, as if anything that comes to it from outside its own workings must be dismissed as ‘irrational’”—is precisely the error often known as rationalism (James Matthew Wilson, The Vision of the Soul, 77).
Likewise, although Bailey characterizes the faculty of imagination in terms of feeling and emotion, separating it from the “rational” intellect, this, too, is in error because the intellect is not confined to discursive reason. Rather, in classical Christian anthropology imagination is also part of the intellect: “Imagination is the name given to that faculty by which images are produced either in the presence or absence of the object; and this sensory representation of objects by the imagination is an indispensable step in the acquisition of intellectual knowledge” (Mary Constance Barrett, An Experimental Study of the Thomistic Concept of the Faculty of Imagination, v; see also Human Nature, 250).
This means that when we encounter beauty in an imaginative work—a painting, a novel, or whatever else—it is also an intellectual experience and not merely an emotional one. Moreover, as seen in the excerpt from Maritain cited above, such experiences convey knowledge, specifically knowledge of God. This is possible because in the catholic tradition, the beauty of created things is understood to be a reflection of—or a “participation in”—God’s beauty (Junius Johnson, The Father of Lights, 2). God himself is “the plenitude of … the Beautiful” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work in Retrospect, 115), or “Beauty itself” (Father of Lights, 28).
Therefore, because the God who is Beauty has made all things, “the beauty of creation constitutes a revelation of the glory and beauty of God” (Francis J. Hall, The Being and Attributes of God, 306, emphasis original). More precisely, the experience of created beauty is a kind of natural knowledge of God, or “general revelation, which is the witness that God has left of God’s majesty, glory, and faithfulness in every corner of creation” (Father of Lights, 59).
Crucially, we do not arrive at this knowledge through discursive reason: “No arguments or reasons have to be given to enable the experience of beauty. While we may offer such arguments after the fact, these arguments are no part of the moment of recognition. We notice the beauty of the thing apart from any arguments” (Father of Lights, 18).
The role of beauty and imagination in Christian witness can thus be described as follows: imagination enables artists to take the beauty present in the world and creatively re-envision it in a novel form which can be experienced by others. This imaginative experience of beauty provokes desire and reveals God as desirable, without requiring the labor or validation of discursive reason. With the recognition that desirability and revelation converge in the experience of beauty rather than being disparate phenomena in need of reason to connect them, we might say that Plato’s definition of beauty as veritatis splendor, “the splendor of truth,” is vindicated.
To be clear, though, I am not claiming we should give up on reason—it goes without saying that the very act of seeking to understand the nature of beauty requires the use of reason. Furthermore, we should not dispense with arguments entirely, given that they will reach some, but we would also do well to recognize that such people are perhaps more the exception than the norm.
In sum, I agree with Bailey that imagination and beauty have a crucial role to play in our contemporary witness, and he is to be thanked for promulgating this truth. The impetus for Bailey’s book is the concern that “discursive argument has real but limited apologetic value” (165), as well as the conviction that “we are drawn to Christianity’s truth by its goodness, and to its goodness by its beauty” (74). On these two points he is absolutely correct, and it is understandable to conclude, as Bailey does, that “the life of the imagination may serve as a kind of initiation into the life of supernatural faith in an age such as ours, where a distrust and misunderstanding of reason seem to dam it off as a path to the divine” (Vision of the Soul, 150).
That said, Bailey’s characterization of beauty and imagination in terms of emotion and possibility is, in the words of James Matthew Wilson, “one important, though finally unsatisfactory, account of the role beauty should play in human life” (Vision of the Soul, 336), for on such an understanding reason still remains the ultimate arbiter of truth.
Once we grant that the intellect encompasses more than discursive reason, however, the door is open for us to embrace a richer conception of beauty and imagination. To wit, when we see that beauty and imagination, rightly understood, are intellectual as well as affective, we no longer have to try to bridge some gap between imagination and reality. Nor are we limited to crafting imaginative works that show “what it feels like to live with Christian faith” specifically. Our task, rather, is to create and celebrate works of beauty that invite us to participate in the being of the one who is Beauty.