Christian Apologetics and the Imagination

The part of the mind known as the imagination—the ability to form mental images—is important in the life of the Christian. Though a realm in need of discipline and sanctification, the imagination is a God-given super-power, making possible some of the greatest achievements of human beings. It makes possible empathy and compassion, shapes our worldviews, and is the way into our hearts.

The imagination can also be the way into the hearts of unbelievers. Many people in today’s culture, trapped in their narrow materialistic worldviews, “cannot imagine” any kind of spiritual reality. They perceive only dimly
the difference between good and evil, and while they can respond to extreme cases of the two (they are human, after all), they have difficulty imagining themselves as sinners. And God, Christ, Hell, Heaven, Redemption are outside of their imaginative frames of reference.

But it isn’t just that they have trouble imagining spiritual reality, they have trouble imagining physical reality. Their world consists of material objects, which they are glad to use for their pleasure; but the objective universe has no meaning for them. They think science has not only explained the natural order but has explained it away. There is no mystery or wonder in the external world, only dead matter. It can be manipulated in various ways, but any kind of meaning must come from within the self. While there might be objective facts, there is no objective truth. They cannot imagine a creation, much less a Creator.

One symptom of this tragic blindness is that people today are strangely impervious to reason. Rational arguments were important in the modernist era, which claimed the Enlightenment mantle of being the “Age of Reason.” But postmodernists often seem little affected by logic, chains of reasoning, or objective evidence.

Convincing people of the  thus poses new challenges today. Evangelists must try to reach people who have little conception of what the evangelists are talking about. Apologists can make superb arguments for the truth of Christianity that nevertheless fail to penetrate the mindset of their audiences. To be sure, many people are still coming to faith, proving that the Holy Spirit and not our merely human efforts is the One who brings people to Christ. And yet Christians must continue to speak about the objective truth of what we believe, objectivity being an important part of our worldview, both to emphasize to non-believers that the message of Christ is not just another construction of the self and to teach new believers how to think in objective terms. But one way to connect with postmodernists, to open their minds to a much larger worldview, is to reach their imaginations.

What C. S. Lewis did

C. S. Lewis is surely the best known and most successful Christian apologist of the 20th century. He showed that there is a rational case for Christianity. As such, he was addressing the modernist mind. And yet that was not all he was doing. Consider the climax of his argument about Christ in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.1

Here is a logical argument, establishing three possibilities and asserting which one is more plausible. But it is also addressing the imagination. When we read this argument, we are also picturing a lunatic, a devil, and even a poached egg. We also picture in our minds the responses to Him: shut Him up, spit at Him, kill Him, fall at His feet, call Him Lord and God.

Lewis wrote many books that make the rational case for Christianity: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, God in the Dock, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer. His apologetic works are not abstract tomes, full of intellectual content but tedious to read. They are absorbing and hard to put down. His reasoning, full of vivid illustrations and analogies, is compelling, even exciting. This is because Lewis is stimulating not only his readers’ intellects but also their imaginations. Lewis was also the author of fantasy novels: The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces. At a time when literary modernism favored works of grim realism, Lewis was writing in the genre of untrammeled imagination. But these works of the creative imagination, written to send their readers’ imagination soaring, also were works of Christian apologetics, playing a role, just like his rational arguments, in bringing countless readers to faith.

An important clue to Lewis’s life work can be found in the subtitle of the first book that he wrote after he became a Christian: The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism. His is an apologetic not only for Christianity but also for reason and romanticism. But aren’t reason and romanticism opposed to each other? How can he defend both logic and emotion, realism and fantasy? And in what sense are both opposites under attack?

This may be one of Lewis’s greatest insights. The modernists, in the name of reason, rejected romanticism. Today’s postmodernists, in their subjectivity, reject reason. But even as early as 1933 when Lewis published Pilgrim’s Regress, both worldviews were taking shape and starting to contend with each other. The narrow road that the Pilgrim must follow runs between two extremes. On one side are barren, icy cliffs, symbolizing the cold, hard facts of rationalism. On the other side are hot, muddy swamps, symbolizing the sensuality and inwardness of romanticism. But when the Pilgrim finds Christianity, a true reason and a true romanticism are restored to him.

Today, both objectivity and subjectivity are impoverished. Both are lifeless. Having no room for each other, they leave human beings trapped in a partial, incomplete state, with the different facets of their minds and personalities in conflict with each other. In the words of Lewis’s rival and fellow convert T. S. Eliot, who put forward a similar diagnosis, human beings today are plagued with a “dissociation of sensibility,” in which thinking and feeling go in different directions.2 Eliot found the unified sensibility he craved in 17th century Christian poets such as John Donne and George Herbert, and then he himself embraced the Christian faith and experienced the wholeness that it brings.

Lewis’s own coming to Christ had its start in his imagination. What he presents in an allegorical fantasy in Pilgrim’s Regress and more straightforwardly in his autobiographical memoir Surprised by Joy is his account of various experiences of ineffable longing. These were moments of transcendence, glimpses of something beyond this life, which he felt as a mingling of joy and an almost painful yearning. As he recounts in Surprised by Joy, different things would bring on these feelings, but they were almost always works of the imagination: Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin; a recording of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; the mere title of William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End. A milestone in his spiritual pilgrimage was his discovery of Phantases by the Scottish clergyman George McDonald, one of the great masters of Christian fantasy. When he read it, Lewis said, “My imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.”3 Later, in a conversation about myth with his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, he realized that what he loved in myth—its aching beauties, its slain gods, its deaths and resurrections–pointed to Christ, in whom myth became fact.4

Imagination led C. S. Lewis to Christ, and he led others to Christ by awakening their imaginations.5

Freeing Prisoners

Lewis’s good friend and the man who brought him to Christ was J. R. R. Tolkien, an even greater writer of fantasies. In replying to the charge that fantasy is mere “escapism,” Tolkien asked, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”6

This is exactly the plight of the lost. They are prisoners of the sin that enslaves them, to be sure (John 8:34). They are also imprisoned in their narrow, confining, claustrophobic worldviews. That prison may be the materialism that insists that the physical world is all there is. Or it may be the even smaller and darker enclosure that is the self.

Tolkien wants to help the captive “get out” of his prison so that he can “go home.” Imagining something bigger and better than the constricting confines of the prison blows out its walls. Imagination can also awaken a yearning for one’s true home.7

To be sure, imagination can send an escaped prisoner in all kinds of directions, including to new imagination-created prisons. Christians must continue to insist on reason, evidence, and objective truth. What must be done is to re-associate truth and the imagination.

“Part of our problem in presenting the Faith,” observes Alison Milbank, “is that our world deadens desire, and many people do not know that they are missing anything.”8 “For me,” she says, “the whole enterprise of presenting the faith convincingly is aimed at opening this desire in others.”9 Helping people realize that they are missing something and awakening the desire for eternal life, for God, are critical for both apologetics and evangelism.

This is a task for the imagination, but not at the expense of reason. But reason itself needs to be imaginatively rehabilitated. Again, Dr. Milbank suggests how: Reason does need rescuing and we can do so by recasting the limit to understanding from a negation to an opening out to mystery. As Fr. Giussani argues, reason discovers mystery: ‘the summit of reason’s conquest may reveal itself as a foothill’ but this perception is itself a positive discovery that there is more: ‘the existence of something incommensurable in relation to [Reason] itself. And it is imagination that helps reason to recognize the mystery as mystery. So let us use every imaginative tool at our disposal to awaken the religious sense, and then use reason to explain the difference this viewpoint makes to our experience of the whole of reality, which is restored to us, in all its fullness.10

A good example of how this apologetics of the imagination has worked in practice can be seen in this account from British journalist Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who describes how, as an atheist, she was converted to Christianity through the poetry of George Herbert. (I have never understood why Herbert is so little known by evangelicals today. The Word of God is part of the texture of his verse, his major theme is the Gospel, and few have written so profoundly of their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Also, even secular scholars agree on his stature as one of the greatest lyric poets of the English language in his formal and aesthetic mastery.)11

Ms. Threlfall-Holmes recalls first coming upon Herbert as a teen-ager in school. “By the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.”12 She says that she had assumed religion was for the weak-minded. “But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.”13 Notice that she is responding not simply to Herbert’s imagination but also to his intelligence. And yet, her own intelligence needed something more.

She responds to the honest struggles that Herbert records. She says of his poems that “many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet’s own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.”14 She begins to see that there is more to Christianity than she realized.

For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. . . .It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.15

Our churches are full of young people like teenage Miranda—smart, sophisticated in their own way, and eager to leave their parents’ households–and we agonize how to reach and keep them. They need teaching, but simply throwing abstract doctrinal ideas at them may not be enough. The teaching needs to appeal to their intelligence. But Christianity is not merely about ideas.
It is about mighty realities, as concrete as rough-hewn wood stained by blood. And Christianity is not about bourgeois complacency, but it addresses failures, suffering, and personal struggles. Teaching the faith to young people—or, for that matter, to the unchurched or to anyone today—should involve awakening them to “the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger.”

The point is not just that we need more poets and other artists like George Herbert, though we do. We do need more apologists like C. S. Lewis who can reach both the intellect and the imaginations of people today, who are, in many ways, different than those Lewis addressed in his day. And we do need more writers like J. R. R. Tolkien who, even though they do not directly address religious issues, can expand the imaginations of their readers and fill them with desire for realities beyond the world.

But we also need preachers who can move their hearers to a deeper response. We need people who can witness to their friends so that the message of the Gospel is not easily dismissed but sinks in deeply. To be sure, the Word of God creates faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, but God’s Word itself is much more than abstract ideas. It certainly teaches inerrant propositional truths, and it does so by means of historical narratives, parables, poetry, and figurative language—all of which address the imagination in the course of reaching the heart. Meanwhile, all Christians—especially as they face the dehumanizing, reductionistic, and materialistic mentality of our current times—need to love God with all of their minds, which would include their imaginations.

Analogical Knowing: Creation is a Temple

The church prays Psalm 3, saying:

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God.


But Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; My glory, and the lifter up of mine head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice, And He heard me out of His holy hill.


I laid me down and slept;
I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, That have set themselves against me round about.

Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God:
For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone;
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.

Salvation belongeth unto the Lord: Thy blessing is upon Thy people.


Christians have prayed this prayer many times, reciting or reading it. But should they?

I want to ask a simple question but I’m not sure how. Let me try it practically: Is it fitting for you as a Christian to pray this prayer? Let me ask analytically: can we see the “ten thousands of people” as demons? These are the same question in that both ask a larger question: what kind of world do we live in?

Is it a world in which the material is ultimate and only people trying to hurt you physically can be considered your enemies? Or is there some other realm just as real, of which the material is a manifestation but not an exact likeness.

Do we live in a naturalistic a-cosmos in which power rises against power producing, by some unapprehended logic, the wonders of the world we live in?

Or might we live in a magical cosmos – in a sort of Hegelian dialectic where some transcendental force works in and through events (thesis battles antithesis, releasing new glories in a synthesis of creative destruction).

Or might we, in fact, live in a world that is an image?

King David lived in an image. He could speak of ten thousand people surrounding him quite physically (I will not say “literally”). There they were and he could see them. Opposition arose time and again, sometimes ten thousand people.

When David spoke of the holy hill whence God heard his cry, he had a specific place in mind, bearing all the antiquity of Abraham’s offering and all the freshness of his own temple-building resolution.

So was that all David had in mind? Was he thinking only of a physical mountain on which Jerusalem would be built and on which a temple would manifest the glory of God to the nations? Did he have in mind only ten thousand human people surrounding him?

David himself stretches the physical interpretation when he says in verse three, “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.” Surely he doesn’t mean that he walks around with a round or octagonal version of God attached to his wrist. God shares a quality with a shield: He will preserve David from harm.

Clearly, metaphors are used throughout the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs and common sense helps us understand them 95% of the time. Does that justify sweeping the whole of Psalm 3 or the whole book of Psalms or even the whole Bible into some spiritualized interpretation that clouds the obvious and plain meaning?

Well, no, not if you put it like that. I would never want to lose sight of the obvious and plain meaning. But we can’t ignore the clues given throughout the Bible that God is not only talking about historical physical events. The whole Bible, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, presents reality as, ultimately, not a physical place, but as a temple of the living God. Yes, the physical is physical. But even it is not ultimately physical; it is meant to be spiritual. You could even say that our vocation as human priests is to offer the physical to God and by doing so to “spiritualize” it. It won’t lose its physicality but transcend it, finding and fulfilling its purpose (a house, still a house, becomes a house in which God lives – a temple).

Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of a temple and the placement and eviction of its priest. The same pattern is repeated in Exodus and throughout the Bible until we reach Revelation, where the temple of God, the very holy of holies, encompasses the whole cosmos.

This creation is a temple.

When we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven,” we don’t mean that He sits up on the clouds in a blue sky, but that He inhabits the holy place where His throne is surrounded by ten thousand times ten thousand angels. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Moses all saw it, and Hebrews shows that the earthly tabernacle and temple were an image of the eternal temple in the heavens.

There is an eternal heavenly temple that is the dwelling place of God and an eternal manifestation of His nature. The earth and the physical heavens are an imitation of this eternal temple (thus earth is His footstool, heaven His throne, etc.). The tabernacle and temple are specific imitations of the eternal temple because, having fallen, we can no longer see clearly the heavenly image in this earthly mess.

The church is the earthly fulfillment of the temple of God, in which the Holy Trinity takes His habitation by the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ. It cannot be understood apart from its nature as temple. The spirit of man is the temple of God. Its inmost dimension is the holy of holies, possessing the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat sitting upon it and the law of God contained within it.

We do have a problem though: perhaps the first manifestation of God’s extraordinary humility is that He allowed the first priest to evict Him from His own temple. Since then He has stood at the door knocking, but He will only come in to those who open the door.

It is more natural to pray Psalm 3 analogically than

We are the temple. Within us is this holy hill. If God

is welcome there, He abides there and He hears us when

we cry to Him. But we are surrounded by “ten thousand people,” Those spiritual beings rise up against us with challenges and accusations, speaking directly to our souls, telling them, “There is no help for him in God.”

It is no “spiritualization” or “allegorical” interpretation to say with David, “Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.” The allegory would be to look at the people David fought and to think that it had actually happened to them.

Those spiritual beings speak, and that is all they can do now. They tell us lies. We don’t hear physical voices because they are hovering around that deep inaccessible part of our beings, the place where a still small voice keeps beckoning to us, simply and unobtrusively. They make as much noise as we allow them to make so we can’t hear the still small voice.

“There is no help for you in God.”

That is the one thing they most want us to hear. That way we’ll try to help ourselves. That way we’ll turn away from the one thing needful. They speak. But they speak with a disjointed jaw and broken teeth.

This is everything. Do you believe that you are the temple of the living God, living in a cosmic temple, whose task it is to receive into your inner sanctuary the God of life so that you can have, like the garden of Paradise, rivers of life flowing out of you into the four corners of the earth, renewing the whole earth with the life of the eternally living God?

Do you believe that the world around you is a temple and that you are the priest, called to offer it to God?

Do you teach your students as though they are temples and priests – images of the God of heaven and earth – or do you teach them like they are beavers whose highest calling is to build a house that dams up the river?

The cosmos is first a creation, a temple, a work of art; it is not a scientific experiment. We live in a cosmological analogy. That is the first step to understanding the cosmos, the human soul, or, for us, education. You can’t put things together by cutting them up.

And that makes all the difference.

We have the opportunity to offer our schools to God by thinking of them with the right analogies used appropriately.

First, we must subject analytical thought to analogical (i.e. to acknowledge the power of our governing analogies).

In particular, we must learn to think using sound

analogies in the following areas.
1. School governance and leadership. We tend to

use military and industrial analogies. We need to think with more humane and ancient analogies, such as farming, building a temple/house, and weaving.

2. Teaching. We need to teach analogically, under which I include mimetic and Socratic teaching. The goal of our teaching is love from a pure heart, and that pure heart is able to see both the whole and the right relations of the parts to each other. Administering information on behalf of a text book company or a state or accrediting agency might be necessary since as slaves we are told to submit to our masters. But we mustn’t do it without transcending it with more sound approaches.

3. Curriculum. A curriculum is already and always an analogy because it is the model of reality from which students learn as much or more as they do from the content. The curriculum that is not integrated lies to the children and confuses them. It must model the harmony of reality, giving due honor to each art and science and aligning the relationships among the arts and sciences.

We must recapture the Christian classical meaning of arts and sciences. An art is a mode of making something and a science is the knowledge made by the liberal arts. We must reexamine the nature, power, and limits of the natural sciences. I refer you to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, lecture 3, paragraphs 22ff. for a discussion starter.

We must learn to treat the cosmos as a temple where the skies are spread out as a roof and the earth is

the King’s footstool. We must learn to view the soul of each student as the very Temple of the Living God, the center of which is the only place where the King of glory waits to sit on the Mercy Seat from which will flow rivers of life to the whole world

4. Assessment. We must not be governed, driven, or anxious over analytical assessments, which wrench student performance from its context and reduce it to something that can be measured. Again, we have to submit to our masters, but to be intimidated by them is distracting folly. We must realize that whoever assesses us is our boss, that assessment determines how we teach, and that conventional assessment undercuts the apprenticeship that characterizes a classical school (I specifically protest against standardized tests and the A-F grading approach, neither of which would ever have entered the mind of a classical educator prior to this age that is lost in the wrong metaphors).

5. Community: We cannot manufacture or produce a community. We can only nourish and grow one.

The fact that these are hard challenges is irrelevant. The child’s soul trumps all other needs. Teachers must
be hired, equipped, and valued based on their ability to nourish the children’s souls through the sound analogies that lead them on the path to truth, goodness, and beauty – without which they are lost, no matter how successful.

Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or, What Do We Mean by “Meaning?”

In recent years, Christian educators have become more aware of the fundamental role of the body and of the imagination in the acquisition of knowledge. Teachers and administrators are increasingly recognizing the mistake — embedded and celebrated in modern culture — that ideas can be reduced to abstract information. Because human beings are not “brains in vats,” but created to know the world as embodied, intuitive, imaginative beings, knowledge is not simply data. Teaching and learning are thus more like a dance than a data transfer protocol.

We are none of us simple blank slates. We each receive knowledge into the context of what we already know and what we imagine to be the case. The rhetorician and intellectual historian Richard Weaver used the term “metaphysical dream of the world” to describe the “intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality” that informs all human thought.1 Weaver’s use
of the term “dream” suggests that what we commonly call “worldview” should be recognized as more than a simple checklist of doctrines and their consequences. The perception of reality and the wise apprehension of what is true about reality has a character that is more like a story than a formula, equation, or algorithm. Acquiring knowledge is the act of amending the story about reality that we carry with us — a story that orders our assumptions about what is and what might be — with new details: characters, settings, events, expectations, patterns of resonance.

But a memorable story, a story that haunts our imagination and shapes our dreams, is more than a collection of such details. It is in the form of the telling, not just the content of what is told, that stories sustain coherence. Good storytellers, good journalists, even good comedians, know that the timing and texture of the story — pauses, inflection, repetition of certain details, the careful selection of le mot juste — is essential to the story’s success. In stories, form is the fount of meaning. But not just in stories.

While some will insist that anything that can’t be set down in words can’t be knowledge, the testimony of the Psalms clearly refutes such a claim. As in all poetry, the Psalms present meaning in the concreteness of metaphor, whereby some aspect of the physical world — the world known to us immediately by the senses — is likened to some reality that is more than matter.

Consider the opening verses of Psalm 91:

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.

4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

5 You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,

6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

The meaning of the text is in the metaphors and their unstated, connotative, associative power, a power which is ignited as we imagine ourselves in the embodied settings the metaphors describe. And beyond the meaning in the metaphors lies a meaning in the poetic structure, especially the confident rhythm of those couplets. In verses 5 and 6, we experience night and
day, night and day, threatened by arrows and pestilence and wasting destruction at all hours. Would God have communicated with us more efficiently if he hadn’t relied on so many metaphors? Is our acquisition of knowledge and understanding hampered because the form this revelation takes is so vividly tied to concrete experience, rather than the safe, lawyerly language of theological abstraction? There are those who seem to believe so, and since the Enlightenment — that cultural movement intent on securing knowledge that could liberate us from all shackles — their number has been thicker on the ground, so to speak. Consider this counsel from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

[I]n Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments [as metaphors, similes and the like] . . . can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat: And therefore, however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where Truth and Knowledge are concerned cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the Language or the Person that makes use of them.2

If I read this correctly, “Things as they are” are best understood without figurative language. By contrast, the Psalmist (in Psalm 19) seems to be asserting that the biggest “Thing as it is” can be known in the wordless speech of Creation received through all the senses:

  1. 1  The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

  2. 2  Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.

  3. 3  There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.

  4. 4  Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Derek Kidner suggests that the sense of the paradox of wordless speech described here might be better conveyed if we insert the word “Yet” at the beginning of verse 4. There is no speech, no words, no voice, yet their cry, their utterance, their knowledge, is universally disseminated.
Poet Joseph Addison (1672-1719) captures the paradox of wordless speech in the third stanza of “The Spacious Firmament on High,” when he marvels:

What though in solemn silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball? What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found? In reason’s ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice; for ever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

The sensory experience we enjoy of Creation conveys real knowledge about the Creator. Creation, without words or propositional speech, is meaningful. As with stories, the form of Creation — especially, in this case, the experience of what we call “radiance” — is the fount of its meaning.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christians, like most post-Enlightenment people, tend to assume that form and content are easily and conveniently separable, and that the form with which content is expressed is not itself meaningful. According to conventional wisdom, forms serve the same role as wrapping paper, a decorative garnish, or a spoonful of sugar in dispensing medication. The form of expression may make the content more attractive or desirable, but it does not convey any meaning in and of itself.

Pastor Rick Warren typifies this assumption when he counsels church leaders: “Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms; it’s the words that make a song spiritual.”3 Any music with words that present Christian ideas or sentiments (or even vaguely pious words capable of being interpreted in accordance with Christian teaching) is automatically Christian music, and thus apparently liturgically appropriate. Words are the only vehicle of meaning that Christians need to worry about. Anything worthy of the label “knowledge” is conveyed in words and only in words.

D. C. Schindler has characterized such assaults on the meaningfulness of poetic expression as an expression of an “iconoclasm of the intellect,” a formative feature of early modernity whose consequences are still much with us. The images torn down and smashed in this crusade are the experiences of the senses, which even in the Platonic conception, Schindler argues, were assumed to be “intelligible content, in a spatial and temporal mode.“ While modernity assumes that the physical world is meaningless matter — and the life of the senses thus has no intrinsic connection with Truth — the Platonic and subsequent Christian assumption was that the physical world was “nothing but meaning made tangible” (or, the case of art and music, meaning made visible and audible). Whether received immediately by the senses or echoed in metaphoric speech, the perception of reality through the body by what would later be called the imagination was the source of meaning. Schindler insists that a recovery of a Christian understanding and implementation of imagination is essential to the recovery of a Christian understanding of truth:

The imagination is, if not the center of the human being, then nevertheless that without which there can be no center, for it marks the point of convergence at which the soul and body meet; it is the place where faith in the incarnate God becomes itself incarnate and therefore truly becomes faith; it is — pace Hegel — where reason becomes concrete, and the bodily life of the senses rises to meet the spirit. It lies more deeply than the sphere of our discrete thoughts and choices because it is the ordered space within which we in fact think and choose. Far more than a mere faculty, the Christian imagination is a way of life, and this is because we might say it represents the point of intersection between Christianity and the world.4

Discipleship (that enterprise of which education is a subset) can be seen as the forming of a Christian imagination, the training of the believer’s facility and agility in imagining the world rightly, thus to seek to resonate sympathetically with the order of Creation. Whether we use the vocabulary of loves and affections, imagination, or of taste, the effect is the same. Discipleship involves
the training of intuitive and subjective responses. C. S. Lewis captured this understanding near the beginning of his great treatise on education, The Abolition of Man, when he explained that, in classical and premodern Christian thought it was assumed that “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”5

In many Christian circles, discussion of the meaningfulness of form is all too rare. Forms are discussed in terms of popularity, as meaningless vehicles or containers for the content of conceptual knowledge. Or they are regarded only as motivational devices — usually carrots rather than sticks — employed to stimulate enthusiasm about certain truth claims or certain moral commitments.

But to say that the only kind of knowledge Christians should be concerned with is abstract, analytic, conceptual knowledge is to treat human beings more like angels or computers. Brains with no bodies, no loves, no qualities.

Meaning (and hence knowledge) is much bigger than verbal content. Flowers left by a bedside in a hospital are meaningful, as is a cross burned in someone’s front yard. A child running to greet her father returning home will mean something different from a child sitting coolly on a porch-step until he arrives. Eye contact or the lack of it can be meaningful. The presence of a friend means something different from a text message, and a gift carefully wrapped and hand-delivered means something different from a gift card left anonymously on a desk.

Words rationally perceived are necessary for stating and defending truth, and Christians do care about truth. But we care for more than truth. We care about realities that can only be partially described by words: about joy and sorrow, hope and frustration, fidelity and fear, love and justice. All of these abstractions are known by us as embodied creatures, living in space and time. Sorrow or fear or hope are not abstractions when you experience them.

The meaning of the realities with which Christians are concerned — which is pretty much all of human experience in its relationship with God and with Creation — cannot be adequately described through coldly analytical declarations, definitions, and argument. God knows this better than we do, which is why when God reveals himself to us, reveals who He is and what He is doing in the world, He does so in the concrete realities of Creation — the Heavens and the mountains and the seas and ants and trees and marriage — as well as in inspired stories and poetry, metaphors and imagery, parables and hymns, letters and visions. The Bible does not arrive as systematic theology and isn’t given to us just to create jobs for systematic theologians who, once they complete their work, can get rid of all of the imagery and messiness and fuzziness of the Bible. The Bible is given in forms that are to form our own lives, and it does that by capturing our imagination as well as engaging our analytic reason. In fact our imagination has to be involved before our reason can do its work.

Forms are meaningful in part because we live our lives in the form of our bodies. When we are burdened, we bend; when we express deference we lower our heads and our eyes; when we are excited our hearts race at a faster rhythm. When we strive to be attentive, or when we are pensive, we slow down, sometimes to stillness.

Not only do our bodies form our experience; our inner lives also have a form. Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) developed a theory of art that challenged the radical dualism between content and form, and thus between objective and subjective. In her anthology Problems of Art Langer argued that “subjective existence has a structure; it . . . can be conceptually known, reflected on, imagined and symbolically expressed in detail and to a great depth. Only it is not our usual medium, discourse — communication by language — that serves to express what we know of the life of feeling. . . . [W]hat language does not readily do — present the nature and patterns of sensitive and emotional life — is done by works of art. Such works are expressive forms, and what they express is the nature of human feeling.”

As Langer describes the formal depiction of inner life, she quotes a psychologist who has been trained in music who said, “‘Music sounds as feelings feel.’ And likewise in good painting, sculpture, or building, balanced shapes and colors, lines and masses, look as emotions, vital tensions and their resolutions feel.” This does not mean that we need to translate a painting or a sonata into words, into discursive concepts in order for the work of art to do its work. “A work of art is an expressive form, and therefore a symbol, but not a symbol which points beyond itself so that one’s thought passes on to the concept symbolized. The idea remains bound up in the form that makes it conceivable.”

This binding together of form and content is not unique to works of art. All transmission of knowledge — by the Heavens, by storytellers, even by humble teachers — relies on the situatedness of embodied knowers. We and our students are not “brains in vats”, not computers, not disembodied spirits. Our lives have meaningful form, and thus the form we give to the knowledge we share will take some form. The challenge to thoughtful teachers is to appropriate the form that is most fitting.

Making Delightful Sense of Knowing (Ad)Ventures, Part I

Covenant epistemology offers a multifaceted vision of knowing that pertains to knowing ventures in every corner of our lives.1 Its central claim is that our paradigm of knowing should be, not the widely held view of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather a vision of knowing as love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. I believe that shifting from the more pervasive paradigm to this vision of knowing makes a radical difference to learning and teaching. It makes sense of what we already know is important. It suggests ways we may be even better at it. And it offers fresh encouragement to us in our mission. Covenant epistemology makes delightful sense of knowing, restoring, among many other things, the adventure to our knowing ventures.

In this two-part essay, we’ll explore this alternative vision of covenant epistemology, and the difference it makes to learners and teachers. Part 1 invites you to ponder some of the mysteries of knowing, and it also sketches covenant epistemology’s understanding of both knowing and being as interpersonal. Part 2 (in the next issue) introduces you to a key component of covenant epistemology: Michael Polanyi’s innovative account of the two-level structure of knowing.

Part 1: Loving in Order to Know

All of us are involved in knowing, all the time, in every corner of our lives. Since this is obviously so, it seems we should be continually attuned to epistemology, and we should make responsible choices with respect to our epistemology. But it is also obvious that usually we do no such thing. Many people don’t know what epistemology is—that is, the philosophical study of how we know whatever it is we know. And the fact is that we go through life and knowing with little sense that we already have what I think of as an epistemic default. We have preconceived notions regarding what knowledge is, and these unavoidably impact all our knowing.

People of modernity in Western culture generally exhibit a default ideal of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed. I call this the knowledge-as-information mindset, or posture, or orientation. It comes with several related stipulations regarding what knowledge is and what it isn’t.2

Learning and teaching are endeavors powerfully affected by one’s operative epistemic ideal, whether we have identified it or not. A defective epistemic ideal thwarts our efforts; a healthy one would positively and strategically impact them. In my work I identify the knowledge- as-information ideal and try to show its defects and illegitimacy. In its place I commend covenant epistemology, and an epistemic ideal of loving in order to know. I try to show its superiority in according with who we are as humans, in restoring regard to the world we try to know, and in showing us a more effective way to do so.

In what follows here, I want to guide the reader through some reflection regarding knowing that will showcase and contrast these ideals, criticizing the one and commending the other. In the process, I believe that any teacher and most any learner can quickly draw positive, concrete, effective, and encouraging implications for teaching and learning.

All knowing is coming to know

What is involved in knowing? To begin with, knowing is always a venture: all knowing is actually coming to know, being on the way to knowing. What should concern us, as we seek to make sense of knowing, is not what we already know, but what we do not yet know and how we move toward it.

What our epistemology needs to make sense of is not so much information and explanation. What it needs to makes sense of is discovery—coming to know in the first place. Making sense of that, it turns out, will not eliminate either information or explanation but actually allow us to make sense of it far more deeply. Understanding them properly will make us better at them.

The prevailing paradigm of knowledge as information gives us no help here. Knowledge is information; either you have it or you don’t. But it takes only a little reflection to realize that before we have the information in question, we can’t say what the information is. Even after we “have” the information, we have no guarantee that we understand it. And finally, even if we have the information and understand it, it would be entirely arrogant (and counterproductive) to presume that we
have exhaustively grasped its significance, implications and possibilities—any of which might reshape what we previously thought the information to be.

These puzzlements which the ideal of information engenders rightly suggest that it offers no account of how to move from not knowing to knowing. It actually suggests that we can’t move toward knowing. But if we were to conclude that knowing is impossible, we would be skeptics indeed. We would imagine ourselves cut off from reality. We would also be hardly human. This is not true to reality, and it isn’t true to who we are.

The main act, in knowing, cannot be expressed as “gathering information.” It must be something far more profound. We start to get at that profundity by seeing that all knowing is a venture toward the not-yet-known. Wonder involves knowing that we do not yet know.

For this to make sense, we will need an epistemology that makes sense of knowing what you do not yet know, and one which can guide you toward it. The Polanyian component of covenant epistemology affords just such an account; we’ll show that in Part 2. For now let’s just assume it. From well before we can be said to have information, we are setting out on a knowing venture, moving from not-yet-knowing, drawn by something we do not yet know. And this continues through the entire venture: at any point in our venture, we find ourselves poised on the threshold of more which we do not yet know. Knowing ventures are not-yet-knowing through and through. We are always on the “near side” of knowing.

I do not at all mean to cast this as futility. What I am envisioning, in the knowing adventure, it can be seen, is not a paranoid doubt but instead a responsibly risky but delighted confidence that whatever we know is liable to prove to be so much more than we might think. It will turn out that this is just what gives us the sense that we are actually connecting with reality. Knowing is not less; reality is more. And knowing itself only makes sense if we see it as a journey of discovery—a knowing venture.

Understanding knowing as coming to know brings our understanding of knowing into accord with our humanness, and with reality—with who we are, and with what (or who) reality is.

Loving in order to know

It is significant, therefore, that we do seek to come to know. As humans, we embody, in our very being as humans, a posture of hope and desire: we long and love to know. Covenant epistemology says that we should see ourselves, in knowing ventures, as loving in order to know, rather than as knowing in order to love. Knowledge does not precede love; love precedes and invites knowledge.

What stands most originally at the outset of our knowing venture is something like reality’s beckoning us mysteriously into wonder and puzzlement. We notice and attend; we say, “Huh!” In that notice, in our heightening desire, we are starting to respond to reality’s beckoning.

By way of example, I believe that you can supply a story or two, from your own life or others, that display that knowing is a venture, and that something akin to love and desire, a kind of wondrous intrigue with a hidden reality, sets it off. We must be drawn to what we want to know. Teachers—this teacher anyhow—are always scrabbling about to strike a spark in a student’s life, to wake them to wonder. Teachers of small children no doubt can infer from this claim that I teach college students! Small children, by contrast, are born loving to know. Teachers of small children have the opposite problem: they must seek not to extinguish the spark.

In the Western tradition of thought and ideas, especially in modernity, such an approach as loving in order to know is deemed both improper and ludicrous. People tend to conceive of knowledge as purest when it is refined to remove the dross of personal investment, passion, for these could only be a cloying, diluting, bias.

This paradigm presumes that information is only dispassionate. That is to beg the very question at issue. Is information dispassionate? Or is it rather the case that, if it is dispassionate, it is subpar as information? Have we, in fact, a myopia, not only with respect to knowing, but also with respect to reality? We want to develop an epistemic orientation which rings true to ourselves and to reality.

It is no great leap of logic to surmise that just such a defective approach to knowing lies coiled at the root of natural human desire, striking it into oblivion. If knowing requires checking desire at the door, we should not be surprised that childish excitement subsides into boredom and indifference. And we should expect that the human race will be adversely affected when it comes to understanding the world.

Key to a healthy epistemology is identifying the posture of loving to know. Key to learning and teaching is assuming it—in the sense of taking it as our own.

Pledging in order to know

People in the thrall of the pervasive epistemic ideal of knowledge as information tend to believe that responsibility and commitment are not involved in knowing; only after we know do we then have an option (not even an obligation) of personal commitment. A knowledge-as-information paradigm engenders this outlook. In the process it excises from knowing the very things that drive it and improve it. For love involves both desire and covenant. Love and pledge are two sides of the same coin; pledge is the underside of love.

As persons desiring to know the yet-to-be-known, we both love what we do not yet know, and we pledge ourselves to it. We pledge to do what it takes to pursue the hidden reality that beckons us. And I believe that reality is so structured that it takes just this loving pledge to evoke its gracious self-disclosure. Knowing is covenantal. And so is reality, as we will see.

Marriage vows offer a wonderful analogy here: we pledge to love, honor and obey…what we know but do not yet know. And that responsible pledge itself invites and brings reality to be. It invites and makes possible a new family and a good marriage.

If pledge is the underside of love, trust is the other side of loving pledge. We pledge ourselves in hope and trust in what we do not yet know. Love invites the real, pledges itself to invite it, and confidently trusts that reality will come through. Sts. Augustine and Anselm famously said, “I believe in order to understand.” It is only a small step from this to aver, “I trust in order to understand.”

Inviting the real, and a person-like real that responds

In that moment, what we do not yet know is hidden from us—even as it draws us. But it turns out that our epistemic posture significantly impacts what we apprehend. Love guides us into understanding contact with reality. Love actually invites the real.

We love in order to know. Of course we must distinguish love as healthy and responsible from defective, idolatrous, distortions that do not deserve to be called love.3 But all of us have plenty of experiences in which our attitude and approach actually shaped what transpired and what we received. I have come to recognize that how I address my “grandcat,” whom I am babysitting, affects her response. Bean is up to something questionable at the base of my Christmas tree. If I reprimand her, she cowers and hides. If I call her sweetly instead, I find, she comes readily to attend to me. Reality comes to me according to my posture.

Reality graciously and generously gives itself to be understood by those who bind themselves to what they do not yet know. Covenant epistemology implies covenant ontology.4 Knowing is best conceived of as loving; that which is known is best conceived as dynamically, generously, responsive to such overtures. It is also fruitfully conceived of as, literally, a tissue of promises—of the Lord’s covenantal “let there be”—every atom, in every instant. A tissue of pledge is therein also one of love. To say that love actually invites the real properly honors the integrity of the real as person-like—as love and pledge at its core.

A knowledge-as-information presumption mercilessly occludes the living core of reality, reducing
the real to two-dimensional 1s and 0s. Love, by contrast, enables us to apprehend what is there, as it is there truly. We don’t demand, and we don’t “harvest,” in the current, heartless, connotation of that word. Indeed, the knowledge- as-information approach has licensed us to dissect and appropriate whatever we want of reality. It accommodates our Western modernist desire to master and control, to
the end of power and progress. Instead, best practices of knowing, and thus of learning and teaching, are practices of love.

Aspiring knowers must cultivate an epistemological etiquette, so to speak. We’ve already fingered the posture of love as key, along with responsible personal pledge, trust, and risky investment. We may add the motifs of hospitality and welcome—we create a space into which we welcome reality. This suggests boundaries we must honor. It implies personal maturity, openness, humility, respect, gentleness and patience. We may not dictate or compel reality to fit our preconceived notions.

Listening deeply and empathetically, we should see, is no passive biding of one’s time, waiting to speak. Instead, it itself actively confers the very dignity that renders the yet- to-be-known the generous reality that it is. Reality grows to be itself in the dignity we confer. Listening empathetically means listening in concert with what we seek to know, seeking to indwell it and have it indwell us.

Here are a couple of closely related expressions of this that I especially commend: delight, and what I call noticing regard. It’s common to imagine, in our less-than- perfect world, that love involves a forbearing toleration and a condescending mission to improve what is lacking. The idea of delight subversively dispels this unfortunate caricature. Delight is a celebrative notice and regard. It is fraught with wonder and joy. It is entirely specific—this item, for itself—rather than something blandly general. It begins a relationship of knowing, and the relationship must only grow and deepen it.

The heart of knowing: insight

Love, pledge, trust, invitation—none of this guarantees understanding. Nor does it somehow add up to it. To cast knowing as a venture of coming to know is
to say emphatically that understanding, when it comes, is a gracious gift from beyond us. It contains at its core an element of surprise. Insight is intrinsically a transformative reconfiguring of whatever it was we thought we were dealing with or seeking to understand. Rather than information having been completely amassed, the dynamic is that what was hidden has now been revealed. We find ourselves not so much informed as, rather, changed. Polanyian epistemology, the subject of Part 2 of this essay, will elucidate the knowing event of insight.

The goal of knowing is not the exhaustive, comprehensive amassing of information. Nor is the question whether this is possible or whether we must settle for something less.5 The goal of knowing is of an entirely different sort. It is not information but rather relationship. It is not exhaustive comprehension at all; it is, rather, communion with the real. Coming to know anything
at all, whether the structure of DNA or God himself, is
a commencement of an eternally lively relationship of unfolding mutuality never devoid of further surprise and deeper delight. “From this day forward…”

The difference covenant epistemology makes to learning and teaching

It takes little effort to see how all this plays out
in learning and teaching. Instead, it gratifyingly confirms what we already sense is important, heartening, inspiring, and guiding us to cultivate it even more. Teachers invite the real, both with respect to the real they and their students seek together to understand, and with respect to their students. Students may also invite the real with respect to their teachers and their classmates. The goal of education, we should see, is to form persons as great lovers, people who care for a dynamically generous reality in which they already, as responsible persons, are embedded, and to which they are deeply bound.

All this fleshes out the vision of covenant epistemology, of knowing as, not merely knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather as the love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. Embracing the covenant epistemological vision makes a valuable, concrete, encouraging difference to learning and teaching. It restores the adventure to knowing ventures.