Areopagus Lecture 5
Alison Milbank: Imaginative Apologetics beyond C. S. Lewis
The spring 2019 Areopagus Lecture featured theologian Alison Milbank. In her talk “Imaginative Apologetics beyond C. S. Lewis,” Milbank offered an approach to defending the Christian faith that restores the imagination as a faculty inseparable from reason. By using C. S. Lewis as a conversation partner — along with Owen Barfield, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G. K. Chesterton, and Novalis — Milbank explored how the imagination is not just an instrumental means to an objective end, but the ecstatic and receptive means by which we participate in what is True and Real.
In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis wrote that the early Romantics “taught me longing - Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.” The Blue Flower, a symbol popularized among the early Romantics by the poet Novalis, represented a transforming encounter with beauty that provoked feelings of desire and longing for transcendence. But, as Milbank explains in her talk, Lewis understood his initial encounters with beauty as separable from his later longing for heaven, toward which he redirected his earlier feelings after he converted to Christianity. For Lewis, while his initial encounters with beauty may have awakened him to longing and the absence of something, they did not bring him closer to the knowledge of heavenly realities.
Lewis famously wrote in an essay published in 1939 that “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” In other statements and in his poem “Reason,” Lewis suggests that not only are reason and imagination distinct from each other, but that they are opposed and that we experience this opposition internally as an irreconcilable tension.
Lewis’s understanding of the imagination featured most prominently in a series of exchanges with his friend Owen Barfield that became known as “C. S. Lewis’ ‘Great War’ with Owen Barfield” (explored in depth by Lionel Adey in his book of the same title). Lewis’s view of the imagination differed from Barfield’s (and earlier Romantics, such as Coleridge and Novalis) in that the imagination was helpful when it came to aesthetic concerns, but unessential as a way of knowing the truth about things. By contrast, as George Tennyson explains in his essay “Owen Barfield: First and Last Inkling,” Barfield thought that the “Imagination” was the only means by which we could perceive or comprehend anything at all.
The distinction between these two views on the imagination can have significant consequences for how we view the rest of Creation. For Barfield, and for his predecessor Novalis, the Blue Flower both awakens us to an absence within ourselves and to a presence that resides in the creatures and things around us. As Dr. Milbank explains, “For Novalis, Nature is a magic petrified city which lies as if under a spell and it’s the task of the philosopher-poet to bring this frozen entity back to life by means of his imagination.” With the two-fold “longing for” and “awareness of” some other presence produced by the Blue Flower, the rational response is to enter into a relationship with the Blue Flower and to receive it as a loving gift. For the Christian, this gift is then offered back with gratitude to God.
In her lecture, Alison Milbank challenges “disciples” of C. S. Lewis to consider additional, yet sympathetic voices on the role of the imagination in order to more fully defend the Christian life as a wholly transformative way of thinking and of living that has both human and cosmic ramifications.
Alison Milbank on Imaginative Apologetics
“What I am calling ‘imaginative apologetics’ renews our mind. It begins when we ourselves stand apart from ourselves and receive our faith freshly, as if gifted to us for the first time, and when we use the difference of our religious culture to provoke the secularized person. So much of our missiology tells us to do the opposite — to give the people the familiar . . . to conform to contemporary modes . . . I’m suggesting the opposite: that we make our faith truly strange, first to ourselves and then to those we hope to attract. If someone lives a buffered existence within the fortress of materialism we have to help them question those limits to experience and the real, so that we may show them Christ in his true depth and beauty and strangeness.”