‘Imagination, reason, will: a perspective on the legacy of C. S. Lewis’: this was the paper that Dr Michael Ward delivered in Oxford for the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship annual lecture.
Dr Ward began by saying that C. S. Lewis was probably the most influential and successful Christian apologist of the 20th century; much of whose work, scholarly and fictional, was informed by his fascination with the relationship between imagination (‘the organ of meaning’) and reason (‘the natural organ of truth’).
Lewis’ own imaginative capacity for holiness and the illumination of the ordinary was awakened by his reading in his teens of George MacDonald’s Phantastes.
Lewis didn’t become a Christian until he was 32, and it was his imagination that was transformed before his will. He’d been fascinated as a child by the concept in pagan myths of a dying and rising god, but he’d never tried to analyse this. He later came to see Christianity as the ‘true myth’, as compared with ‘men’s myths’.
However, Lewis’ problem with Christianity was fundamentally imaginative. He felt that the primary language of Christianity shouldn’t be doctrine, but the life lived, and that doctrine should come later to provide a formal structure.
He also had difficulty in accepting the 100 per cent ‘rightness’ of Christianity. On more than one occasion he referred to God as the ‘Father of lights’, believing that if all light comes from God, then some of the ‘lights’, elements of the truth, may also be found in pagan beliefs.
Some scholars believe that Lewis’ attempts to express his faith are more eloquently expressed in the series of Narnia books than in his more formal apologetics, although his apologetic work Mere Christianity includes much imagery.
In putting forward the case for Christianity, he preferred the poetic to the polemic. How does imagination fit in with reason? Reason is an essential part of true belief, and Lewis saw the process of faith in terms of concentric circles.
The outermost and most accessible one was imagination; inside this circle came reason; and both were at the service of the innermost circle, the will.
After the lecture, there was an open session. Topics addressed included ‘Would Lewis have respected atheism and agnosticism?’ and ‘Were there similarities in the thinking of Lewis and Cardinal Newman?’
In spite of friend and colleague J. R. R. Tolkien’s encouragement, Lewis never left the Anglican Church. Tolkien believed that Lewis’ Ulster Protestant upbringing prevented him from moving from Anglo-Catholicism across to Roman Catholicism.
When asked about universalism, Dr Ward replied that Lewis saw the after-life as a consequence of life decisions — either man saying ‘Thy will be done’ to God; or God saying ‘Thy will be done’ to man.
Another topic discussed was ‘Did Lewis value biblical exegesis?’ Dr Ward said that Lewis wasn’t a biblical scholar, and his Reflections on the Psalms is more meditative than exegetical.
Editor’s note: Although C. S. Lewis was not an evangelical and his theology was heterodox in significant aspects, his influence as a Christian apologist has been immense in God’s sovereignty — hence this report.