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A Neo-Romantic Approach to Apologetics

By Stratford Caldecott († 17 July 2014)

An English cornfield.
Photograph © Dean Evans 2019

In the work of evangelization we rely to a very great extent on what is called “apologetics”, or the art of explaining and defending the faith. But apologists today have an uphill struggle. The reasons for this have been extensively analysed, and were well put, for example, in John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason]. The question is how the separation of Faith from Reason is to be bridged. Can it be done simply by what Pope Benedict calls “the broadening of reason”? I think not. There are two specific factors that need to be added to the picture, which we tend to forget. The first of these is the importance of the imagination. The second factor we tend to overlook, but which is absolutely crucial, is the distinction within Reason itself between two kinds of intelligence, which I will call conceptual and spiritual.

The French poet Paul Claudel once wrote: “The evil we have been suffering from for several centuries is less a split between Faith and Reason than between Faith and an Imagination become incapable of establishing an accord between the two parts of the universe, the visible and the invisible.” The imagination has a central role in the life of the soul, connecting the visible and the invisible. The new apologetics should not rely simply on philosophical arguments and the dry defense of doctrine. It must be “imaginative”. We should learn from Newman, Chesterton, and the Inklings.

The movement from Blake and Coleridge through the Pre-Raphaelites and Gothic Revival to the Catholic Literary Revival represents an attempt to recover the balance that had been lost in both Rationalism and in Romanticism. The Romantics were right, in a way, to reject the intellectual order of the Enlightenment because this was a false order and the rejection of the true Logos. The mistake lay further back, in the rejection of Scholastic wisdom, under the influence of Nominalism and Voluntarism a couple of centuries before the Renaissance. Thus the move from medievalist or pre-Raphaelite nostalgia to the recovery of a religious, indeed a Catholic, perspective was perfectly legitimate. And to the extent that today’s culture is largely an expression of Romanticism, it is legitimate for us to follow the path trodden by the Catholic Literary Revival in our own time, showing our contemporaries that the balance of truth and feeling, of life and intelligence, of imagination and wisdom, can be found only in a “return to religion”. 

The Romantic movement involved a discovery of the creative imagination in nature and in man. The English Romantics – Anglicans tending towards Catholicism – retained the emphasis on imagination but reintegrated this with the Logos, rejecting the Byronic tendency to glorify the passions without ordering the soul according to truth. A quick sketch of several of the key figures may help to flesh out this account.

Coleridge and Blake

Both William Blake (1757-1827) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) were exponents of the (capitalized) Imagination and influenced many of the Christian writers who came after. Blake, though hard at times to understand and in many ways a highly unorthodox Christian, was – as Chesterton was to write in his study of him – on the same side as Thomas Aquinas in a war which is “the noblest and most important effort in human history” (Chesterton, Blake, 183), namely the war of Christendom against the ethereal God of the Gnostics and Theosophists. Blake was a mystic but defended personality, creation, mercy, and resurrection – in other words, the “realism” of the Incarnation. For Blake, Jesus was the divine Imagination incarnate, and “the highest dogma of the spiritual is to affirm the material” (ibid, 135). He was a Christian Platonist, but one who saw that the God and spiritual realities are not less solid and definite than we are, but more so.

Blake was not merely a critic of Enlightenment rationalism, but in the name of these spiritual realities denounced it with all the fervour of an Old Testament prophet. He saw in it the violent, technocratic, utilitarian, hedonistic, consumerist, and spiritually empty “culture of death” that has been unfolding all around us ever since.

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire,
Wash’s by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation: cruel Works
Of many wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other, not as those in Eden, which
Wheel within Wheel, in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.
(William Blake, “Jerusalem”)

It is partly this prophetic fervour which our contemporary apologists need to emulate. Apologetics is too tame, too dry. It needs, like John the Baptist, to summon people to repentance and reform of their lives – and to baptism. It can only do this by throwing a new light on things – by helping us to see the world and ourselves differently.

Blake worked as an engraver and painter, producing visionary images that are nearly always striking, if not startling. He also expressed his prophetic inspiration through a vast and obscure mythology. These mythological writings explore the triumph of human freedom and the liberation of human energies by means of the image of a cosmic war that rages from Eden through America and Albion (England) to the end of the world. In this respect, he was like Tolkien a century later, who also expressed his inspiration through a mythological epic that tried to capture a vast body of traditional wisdom – like Blake, to remind the modern world of something it was in grave danger of losing.

Coleridge was less fiery and more measured, more academic in his prose than Blake. He was open to European influences and a great admirer of German thinkers such as Kant. In the thirteenth chapter of his Biographia Literaria (1817), he creates a theoretical framework within which to understand the role of the Imagination, drawing a distinction between the “primary” and “secondary” imagination on the one hand, and what he called “fancy” on the other. The first of these, the primary imagination, is “the living power and prime agent of all human perception,” and “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” In other words, all perception is a creative act, akin to the divine. The secondary or poetic imagination only differs in degree and in mode from the primary: “It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; […] it struggles to idealize and to unify.” Fancy, by contrast, is “a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space,” in which the faculty of the will is able to rearrange the images of already perceived objects that have been retained by the memory. Fancy is more of a workhorse; the imagination in its two aspects a genuinely creative faculty.

It is to Coleridge that the later English Romantics owe the notion of the “symbol” as a vessel of meaning, perhaps an inexhaustible meaning. Here poetry came together with metaphysics, and a way was opened to appreciate nature herself as a book of symbols, as the ancient and medieval thinkers had seen her. I will return to this point later.

Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who was a young man of twenty-six when Blake died, is a more central figure in the story of apologetics, thanks to his overriding concern with the communication of faith in the modern world. As a master of “poetic prose” (arguably the greatest writer of English in the 19th century), he managed to bring intellectual argument together with poetic metaphor and symbol into the closest union, unlocking at the same time the spiritual depths of Holy Scripture, illuminating them with both Faith and Reason.

His theory of the Imagination may be found scattered through his works – especially The Grammar of Assent. As it was for Coleridge, the imagination is largely a synthetic or unifying power of the mind. Newman wrote no completely systematic account, but it is clear that he drew a distinction between “realizing” and “prehending” imagination. The former, realizing imagination, is merely the power of evoking a thing based on an impression it has left on the mind, within the memory. Prehending imagination is rather a synthetic power, a power of putting several such images or representations together into a single object or “idea” – a sophisticated example being the way we grasp the personality of Christ from the disparate impressions evoked in us by the Gospel accounts. It is this prehending imagination that recognizes the Christian faith as an “object” either to accept, or to reject. It is the prehending imagination that processes the intimations of conscience – our sense of natural justice, of nobility, of kindness, and so on – so that in them we grasp the voice of a divine Master, “living, personal, and sovereign” (Merrigan, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts, 81).

It should be clear from this how essential is the role of the imagination in apologetics. For Newman, “all beliefs – religious, secular and political – must first be credible to imagination” (ibid, 60). It is the imagination that enables us to relate to the object as a whole. Indeed it is the fact that the modern world assails the prehending imagination on every side, by drowning us in images and proposals, that makes the grasping of the Christian idea so very difficult. The apologist must, therefore, pay close attention to the impressions and experiences that are the data on which the prehending imagination acts. 

Newman also made a further distinction which comes into play in religious belief, namely that between the “notional” and “real” apprehension of an idea, to which corresponds the act of assent, also either notional or real; that is, given to a general or abstract idea (notional) or to one that is concrete and demanding of a more profound commitment of the personal self (real). “The heart is commonly reached,” he wrote, “not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us” (Newman, The Grammar of Assent).  “Real assent”, for example in the act of faith, is brought about by a supra-rational process called the “illative sense”, by which not just our reasoning mind but our whole person and all our human experience is brought into the act of judgment. 

One has only to turn to the narratives of Newman’s own life and conversion to see what it means in practice: grace working with reason and imagination in a man of integrity to bring about a courageous act of faith. In this way, our own hearts are touched.

Chesterton

Newman’s great successor as Christian apologist is G.K. Chesterton (1874-36), who was sixteen when Newman died, but lived most of his life in a very different era and was in many ways a complete contrast to the ascetic, fastidious, priestly Oratorian. Chesterton may have been just as holy as Newman, but dangerously overweight, a hard-drinking journalist, a man who loved public debate, and, of course, married rather than celibate. A heavy man who took himself lightly, his friendships, even with intellectual enemies such as the Socialist George Bernard Shaw, or the womanizing eugenicist H.G. Wells, are legendary.

Though he wrote no systematic philosophy of the imagination, he was one of the most imaginative writers in the English language, helping to inspire many later fantasy and fiction writers. His numerous apologetic works, no doubt partly influenced by Newman, reflected his profound insight – thanks to the “prehending imagination” – into the unity of Christian doctrines that on the surface appear to be opposed or paradoxical. In fact, his book Orthodoxy, written as an Anglican, is largely about this very discovery, and his later study, published in the year of his reception into the Catholic Church (1922), The Everlasting Man, applied it to a reading of world history.

From Chesterton, as from Newman before him and C.S. Lewis after, all of whom set themselves to defend Christian orthodoxy in a climate of growing skepticism if not hostility, we may draw certain lessons for a contemporary apologetics. Each were at their most effective when most personal and concrete. They were, of course, masters of English prose writing – which means that their style was precise and vivid, and alive in the sense of poetic; it evoked the common experiences of life, and none of their metaphors were dry. They all imbued their writing with a certain warmth or humour. In each case, it was not their more abstract descriptions of doctrine, but their accounts of their own conversion that had the most impact on others (Newman’s Apologia, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Catholic Church and Conversion, and Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy). This is not a matter of egoism, of putting the self at the centre of things, but of demonstrating the full impact and personal meaning of religious ideas in a way that enables us to see the demand they make upon the soul, and to begin to taste imaginatively the experience of faith. 

Chesterton wrote with infectious enthusiasm of the way in which his own prejudices against Christianity had been overcome, introducing The Catholic Church and Conversion as follows:

“The mark of the Faith is not tradition; it is conversion. It is the miracle by which men find truth in spite of tradition and often with the rending of all the roots of humanity. It is with the nature of this process that I propose to deal; and it is difficult to deal with it without introducing something of a personal element. My own is only a very trivial case but naturally it is the case I know best; and I shall be compelled in the pages that follow to take many illustrations from it.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion ch. 1)

The faith that the apologist seeks to defend, after all, is not a set of propositions, even though it can be codified in a Creed (which is a “symbol” of the faith). It is personal, indeed it is a Person, a Life. The Gospel is not four historical accounts of the words and deeds of an historical figure, but a single vision of salvation, calling to us to repent and change and walk towards a new light that has come into the world.

The Inklings

Finally, we come to the fellowship of writers known as the Oxford Inklings. The group included Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, George Sayer, Roger Lancelyn Green, and others, but at the heart of it was the friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who (in the last six years of Chesterton’s life, though they never met him) were drawn together, despite their different religious allegiances (Lewis was a Northern Irish Protestant, Tolkien a devout Roman Catholic), by a common love of mythology, folklore, epic poetry, and fairy-tales. They particularly loved what they called “Northernness”, by which they meant the atmosphere of the ancient tales of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. 

And yet this fascination with old stories and vanished worlds, associated with a typical Romantic hatred of industrial modernity (Blake’s “cogs tyrannic”), was subsumed into their search for reality, since they regarded story and poetry as an instrument for discovering truth, and wrote such things themselves as a way of penetrating the surface of the world and seeing what it meant. They were interested in “escapist” literature, not in the sense that they wanted to escape from the world, but in the sense that they wanted to escape from prison (or from Plato’s “cave” perhaps). 

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” revised Coleridge’s account by making “fancy” together with the primary and secondary imagination into three degrees of one and the same imaginative faculty – the power of making and reading images. To this he added a fourth category, namely “art”: the power of composing a collection of images detached from the familiar or factual world and giving this “the inner consistency of reality”. Of course, to succeed in doing this, the writer must actually understand reality well enough to be able to reproduce its “inner consistency” in a work of fiction. The highest form of art, because the most creative, Tolkien thought, is fantasy, for it is in fantasy that man comes closest to becoming an image of God as the Creator of worlds.

Tolkien’s own major mythopoetic works, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, drew on his primary-world experiences, for example at the Battle of the Somme in 1914, liberated these experiences from their factual or naturalistic elements, and re-expressed them within the framework of a fantasy epic that had in some recognizable way the “inner consistency” of reality. In this way, a “secondary world” was created as a vehicle for truths that could not be adequately captured by a factual or dryly abstract account. The meaning below the surface, obscured by complexity in factual accounts, could be made visible. This “meaning” concerned the very real drama of human freedom and temptation, the battle between good and evil, the nature of the virtues and vices, and the subtle workings of providence and grace. Such deep patterns and relationships, present but easily missed in the primary world, could be personified and demonstrated in a tale of heroism and magic in such a way that anyone who read the tale would be educated to notice and perceive them as operative in their own life. The story would function as an educational device, as well as an entertainment.

In fact, the entertainment value – the attraction that we feel to such stories – is almost entirely due, the Inklings realized, to the fact that we recognize something “true” in them. This was already well accounted for by Chesterton in Orthodoxy (1908) when he described the fairy-tales of his childhood as expressions of “common sense” – adding, “and I have not found any books so sensible since”. Readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia go back to read them many times because doing so always feels like a return to sanity. In fact, for Lewis there was a further aim. This was to implant elements of Christian wisdom and Christian ideas without triggering the “fight or flight” response of the modern secular consciousness – “smuggling” them, so to speak, into the consciousness of the reader where they would help him to appreciate the meaning of the Christian story itself. (Thus Aslan represents Christ in a much more direct way than Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn. For Tolkien’s taste, Lewis’s method veered too much towards the allegorical.)

Seeing the Invisible

Many other Romantic artists and poets tended to elevate feeling above intellect, poetry above philosophy, and nature above man or God, and in so doing lost their balance and eventually their hold on reality. The Christian Romantics of the Literary Revival heralded by Newman, by contrast, were intellectuals in search of the truth. They wanted the whole of reality, which could not be grasped simply through feeling, any more than it could be grasped by rational thought on its own. You might put it this way. In traditional Scholastic philosophy, Being is characterized by unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. The Romantics tended to subsume truth and goodness within beauty, believing that beauty alone could take them to their goal. Christian Romantics such as Newman and Lewis knew that beauty on its own could easily lead us astray. Beauty, Truth, and Goodness “coinhere”, they belong together, and if you separate them they will wither and die. 

These writers wanted truth. They were not merely indulging themselves. Through poetry, through images, through music, through beauty and through story they sought to reveal the presence of an invisible spiritual world in the visible. The current popularity of fantasy writing is partly their legacy – and especially that of Lewis and Tolkien. They awoke in our culture a hunger for the meaning and truth that are to be found in history, in drama, in heroism – living images which reveal glimpses of a higher reality, a spiritual reality that walks among us in the light of day. As I indicated, they encouraged a renewed appreciation of the importance of symbolism as a way of communicating truth. This has a direct bearing on the challenge of developing a new apologetics. It is not that the modern apologist should be a writer of poetry or fantasy literature, but that he or she should find a way to educate a new generation in the meaning and power of symbols as a vehicle of metaphysical and doctrinal truth.

In Sources of the Self (379) the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor writes that “The symbol, unlike allegory, provides the form of language in which something, otherwise beyond our reach, can become visible.” Symbols, as understood by these writers, are not mere road-signs pointing to something distant and removed, but “bridges” connecting and joining one thing to another, making something present that would otherwise be absent. The “symbol” as understood by Romanticism enables an interpenetration of matter and form: once Christianized, this implies a new way of understanding the complementarity of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, for the symbol becomes the manifestation in matter of a particular form or idea

If each and every created thing is seen as a manifestation of its own interior essence, the whole world becomes a book of symbols to be read by “those who have eyes”. The very existence of created things is symbolic because an intentional act on the part of God who thereby expresses himself in the creature. Thanks to the grace of the Incarnation, the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ, this natural language is transformed into the vehicle of a real presence of God within his creation.

In order to develop an effective apologetics, we need to learn from Coleridge, Blake, Newman, Chesterton, and the Inklings, and find a way of valuing the imagination without denigrating intellect and reason. For in fact the spiritual imagination is the very “heart” of man. The imaginative faculty mediates between the sensory and the intellectual world in its own way just as the reasoning faculty does. But like all mediators it is ambiguous. It has two sides or faces. When it faces “upwards” towards the Source of reality it is capable of mediating and transmitting truth, as it does in the true visions received by prophets, and also in the works of the great artists and poets. In such cases, the “matter” that it receives from the senses and holds in the memory is transformed and raised up into a symbolic form, translucent to the higher world. But when the imagination is turned downwards, towards hell rather than heaven, it can dissolve and obstruct our perception of truth, leading us away from a world of order into a desolate and chaotic landscape of shadows. Some of the less uplifting products of the surrealist and expressionist movements in art might provide examples of this. Fantasy that is oriented in this direction leaves the soul feeling bereft, melancholy, or even unclean. An example would be pornographic images, which focus the mind on the human body as such, excluding any consideration of the spiritual dimension or the person as a whole. 

Implicit in what I have been saying is a theory of askesis or spiritual purification, according to which human desire must be progressively redirected. From facing downward it must be turned towards the light, the only direction in which human fulfilment is possible. This is not the same as trying to escape the body, as if it were an evil trap. On the contrary, our bodies must be raised up to the level of spirit – in token of which both Christ and his Mother were assumed into heaven. The purpose of the symbolic creation is to incarnate the Invisible. Yet the goal of the Incarnation is for the material cosmos to be assumed by the God who transcends it.

The Christian Romantics saw that we cannot believe without imagining. Christianity is no longer merely disbelieved. It has become virtually unimaginable. Increasingly we live in a world of words and images manipulated by technology, cut off from the rhythms and textures of nature, and our religion has become a superficial affair of propositional beliefs and rules of behaviour. Such a religion cannot be affirmed with what Newman would call a “real assent”; it cannot be grasped by the prehending imagination as an integral whole. An apologist seeking to draw people to faith must find a way to activate the synthetic power of the Imagination, so that what is thought and judged to be credible can also be “understood” as a Word addressed to each of us personally, demanding that we change our lives and become other than we are. Only love can ask this of us, and so the purpose of apologetics is to awaken and reveal love.

To paraphrase Aidan Nichols OP in his book Christendom Awake, people today find Christianity not just unbelievable, but unimaginable – and, I would add, uninteresting. And in the words of Andrew Davison:

“The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything.… In this book we celebrate reason, but not so as to make apologetics rational in some cold or arid fashion. Apologetics should be a matter of wonder and desire, not least because reason at its most reasonable is itself a matter of wonder and desire.” (Imaginative Apologetics)

The new apologetics must indeed be concerned with reasonableness, but mainly with the “reasons of the heart” (Pascal); it must address itself to the intelligence, but more so to the entire soul, addressing a call to the human spirit that awakens wonder and desire, because it speaks of an infinite good that we had almost forgotten how to long for.

Beyond Imagination: Intellectus

I have been speaking about the role of the imagination in helping to bridge the gap between faith and reason discussed in John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. But in addition to the imagination, a second factor must be taken into account – a distinction not just between Faith and Reason but between two kinds of “Reason”. 

Such a distinction runs through the Christian tradition from St Paul (1 Thess. 5:23) to St Teresa of Avila, with her notion of the “soul of the soul” and the “interior castle”. Before the advent of mind-body dualism at the time of the Enlightenment, the human personality was generally seen as tripartite or existing on three levels, not just two: body, mind, and spirit, or in Greek soma (hyle), psyche (dianoia), and pneuma (nous), or in Latin corpus, anima, and intellectus (spiritus) (cf. Pieper, 11-12). The third element in the human being, which I will call “Intellect” (rather than Reason), is the essence of that unity of body and soul to which Christianity gave the name “person” – it is in a sense the faculty of love, the face or heart that we turn towards God, the deepest part of ourselves where nature is open to grace, where God breathes life into man. It is the seat of a form of knowing that comes from love, or from a deep union with that which is known.

Nature, Grace, and Spirit

In the first part of de Lubac’s article he establishes that St Paul’s references to this anthropology have deep roots in Scripture as well as in human experience.  They were not simply imported from an alien Greek philosophy (de Lubac notes the existence of “Plato phobia” among many Christian scholars, especially in the modern period).  But the term for “spirit” (pneuma) remains deliberately ambiguous in Paul.  On the one hand it may refer to the Holy Spirit or divine life implanted in man by baptism; on the other, it may refer to a part of man, and specifically to that “breath of life” which God breathed into his nostrils at the very beginning (Gen. 2:7). It becomes clear as he proceeds that we are talking of the “highest point of the soul”, and that the ambiguity in question is precisely due to the paradoxical relationship of nature to grace in our human destiny.  We are created to share in the life of God, but we are not compelled to do so: we can attain that life only through the exercise of freedom.

De Lubac sees the tripartite tradition continuing without interruption right through the early Scholastic period. In St Thomas, the distinction takes a slightly different form: that between action and contemplation, or the moral and the mystical life, or ratio and intellectus. It re-emerges fully in the Renaissance with Nicholas of Cusa and Ficino. Despite the triumph of the new Cartesian dualism in the universities, the authentic Christian tradition shines through in a continuous chain of authors up to and beyond Paul Claudel (who speaks of “this sacred point in us that says Pater noster”). How could it not, when the experience of every spiritual master confirms the existence in us of a place where we encounter God – the spirit, or “soul of the soul”? 

A Framework for Apologetics

Taking these two extra factors into account, we can try to outline a theory of apologetics – or of the kind of apologetics we need for the New Evangelization – along the following lines:

  Intellect
   |
Reason –––    ––– Faith
   |
  Imagination

What this diagram signifies is that it is no longer (if it ever was) case of relying on just Faith and Reason. Both of these need Imagination as their support and they need intellectual energy from above to lift them up. They come together only in the kind of contemplative knowing that transcends mere mental activity (such as the weighing of opinions). They need support not only from below but also from above. 

The problem is that this generation has been raised to doubt Reason as well as Faith. So without some assurance that there is a higher kind of knowledge to which Faith and Reason together can take us, the invitation to ride on the “two wings” of Faith and Reason is likely to be refused. Faith can enable us to hold onto the Church’s teaching without needing fully to understand it. Reason can demonstrate the logical consistency of our doctrines, but it cannot show us a vision of truth. In order to see all these things to be beautiful and therefore worthy of belief, we need Newman’s “prehending imagination”, which grasps the faith as an integral whole. And we need enough imagination in the ordinary sense of the word to appreciate that poetry and mythology and historical narrative are different genres which communicate truth in different ways, often indirectly and obscurely through analogy and allegory. We also need the spiritual intellect, intellectus, which enables us to read a metaphysical truth in those narrative accounts and poems. The Bible is embedded in a cultural and spiritual tradition of interpretation, which is based on faith and reason, imagination and intellect, all working in harmony.

I will look at three main applications of this principle, to help us in developing an apologetics suitable for today’s evangelization: the way of beauty, the way of religious dialogue, and the way of testimony.

In recent years it has become widely accepted in Church circles that modern men and women, especially the young, can be more effectively reached through a beauty that moves their hearts than through intellectual dogmas and expositions of the faith, no matter how well presented. Imagination has come well and truly to centre stage, as far as apologetics is concerned, and there are several programmes of catechesis and introductions to faith that focus on great works of art. The Pontifical Council for Culture dedicated a Plenary Assembly to the theme in 2006 and produced a Concluding Document entitled “The Via Pulchritudinis”, which includes these words:

“[The] Way of Beauty seems to be a privileged itinerary to get in touch with many of those who face great difficulties in receiving the Church’s teachings, particularly regarding morals. Too often in recent years, the truth has been instrumentalized by ideologies, and the good horizontalized into a merely social act as though charity towards neighbour alone sufficed without being rooted in love of God…. Beginning with the simple experience of the marvel-arousing meeting with beauty, the via pulchritudinis can open the pathway for the search for God, and disposes the heart and spirit to meet Christ, who is the Beauty of Holiness Incarnate, offered by God to men for their salvation.”

In a way, this is a return to Plato, and his insight into the power of eros, or what Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est (2005) calls “ascending love”. Beauty is the radiance of truth, which has the power to attract us and move the will. Undoubtedly it is marked by the Fall and to some extent distorted by sin, which fragments the human soul in such a way that we are drawn towards many partial images of truth. The desire for beauty is not an infallible path to truth in its integrity. Nevertheless, the beauty that we see in creation, in the arts, in the liturgy, and above all in holiness (spiritual beauty) can lead us in the direction of truth and goodness.

The Pontifical Council makes sure to note the intrinsic connection between the Way of Beauty – the way of Imagination – and the way of intellectus, using Pope John Paul’s encyclical on philosophy to make the point.

“[The] metaphysician is needed to help us understand why beauty is a royal way leading to God. In suggesting to us who He is, it stimulates in us a desire to enjoy the peace of contemplation, not only because He alone can fill our minds and hearts, but because He contains in Himself the perfection of being, a harmonious and inexhaustible source of clarity and light. To reach it, we need to know how to make the passage from phenomenon to foundation: ‘Wherever men and women discover a call to the absolute and transcendent, the metaphysical dimension of reality opens up before them: in truth, in beauty, in moral values, in other persons, in being itself, in God. We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent. We cannot stop short at experience alone; even if experience does reveal the human being’s interiority and spirituality, speculative thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the ground from which it rises.'”

It is not experience alone, even the experience of beauty, that conducts us to God. Images can speak of God, but they need to be understood, and for that we need not just an ability to think but a spiritual intelligence open to revelation from above.

Something similar can be said of that other great arena of apologetics, the encounter of different religious traditions. The apparent contradictions, both imaginative and intellectual, between the spiritual traditions of mankind seem to provide an insuperable argument for relativism. At the level of the rational intelligence, it is apparent they cannot all be right. So either they are all false, or one of them is right and the rest wrong. Rationalist apologetics draws the latter conclusion. But this leaves something important out of account, which is the sense we cannot quite extinguish that such great traditions – the source of so many civilizations – cannot be entirely or even largely the work of the devil. 

The topic cannot be dealt with in a small space, but it seems to me that a sensitivity to the symbolic languages in which these religions express themselves – imagination illuminated by intellectus – reveals many interesting parallels and points of convergence, but it also highlights one fundamental difference that marks out Christianity from all the others: namely the doctrine of the hypostatic union of God and man in Christ. This suggests that the new apologetics needs to adopt a new approach to inter-religious dialogue, in which the Christian apologist gives more credence and respect to other religions than hitherto, while at the same time achieving a new clarity with regard to the unique position of Christ – as not just one of the prophets and saints, however distinguished, but marking a new start for all mankind, a “new Adam”. Presenting the faith in this way would highlight the novelty that makes Christianity worthy of attention among the religious traditions of mankind.

Conclusion: The Way of Testimony

The purpose of apologetics is not just to get more people into the churches on a Sunday. It is to help us rise from the ground level of our animal nature to a higher spiritual plane, and eventually to come face-to-face with God in true knowledge – knowledge that is identical with love. This is not a Gnostic ascent (meaning an ascent that seeks to escape our embodied nature altogether in pure knowledge), since in rising we bring that animal nature along with us. And, of course, in this process we are not entirely passive. It is our own actions, our own will, our “hearts”, that are raised up to God, and that cannot be done without our own active cooperation, as Jesus himself shows us by praying in the Garden of Olives to make his own (human) will accord with the divine will: “Not my will but yours be done…” (Luke 22:42)

Apologetics must be poetic and mystical as well as rational, if it is to move souls. It must speak to the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. We must not accept the “narrowing of Reason” to scientific rationality alone. But no more should we accept the narrowing of the human person to the two faculties of thought and will, leaving us trapped between the need to prove something beyond doubt, and the need to take a leap into the darkness. 

That is why I think the most important method of apologetics today is the way of personal testimony, or witness. The other methods are complementary to this, but will fail without it. Avery Cardinal Dulles argued this in an important article in First Things on “The Rebirth of Apologetics”, taking his lead from the “personalism” of Pope John Paul II:

“Personalism, he believes, is the best medicine for awakening the world from its metaphysical slumber. He begins his arguments for the existence of God by reflecting not on the finitude, mutability, contingency, and order of the universe, as was traditionally done, but on the aspirations of the human heart for communion with the divine. In his view human beings are made for transcendent truth, and such truth turns out to be a person who says of himself, ‘I am the truth.’ The Church is a place in which human persons enter into communion with one another in Jesus Christ. The Pope thus presents an intersubjective or interpersonal version of Christianity that can be a very attractive alternative to readers who suffer from the anonymity of contemporary collectivism or the isolation of contemporary individualism.”

The world is looking, he says, not so much for arguments as for witnesses – and that is exactly what we would expect from the theory of apologetics I have advanced above. A person is persuaded to adopt a point of view, or brought to recognize a truth, in many ways, but it seems that the greater and more far-reaching the truth, the more it requires all our human faculties to be engaged. A man has intellect and imagination, reason, will, and emotion, and all of these are engaged in making and sustaining an act of faith that will determine the course and direction of his life. 

It is often said that the great evangelizers are the saints, and that without examples of sanctity evangelization would fail. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” A truth worthy of man can best be expressed not as a set of propositions but as a life, an example, a testimony that shows that it can be lived, and that living it brings peace, joy, and fulfillment. Reason needs argument, and faith needs encouragement, but imagination needs an example, and intellect needs to receive the image of God. 

St Irenaeus tells us in Adversus Haereses (IV, 20, 7), “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God.” The truth of Christianity is Christ, a “man fully alive”, and the best way to communicate that truth, and to arouse a love for it, is for a person to live in such a way that the life and light of Christ is evident in him, so that it shines before men and draws them towards the vision of God.

This essay was edited from several versions composed by Stratford in late 2011 (around the time he was diagnosed with terminal cancer) as part of a consulting project commissioned by Universidad CEU San Pablo in Madrid on Imaginative Apologetics in the English tradition.

Stratford Caldecott, taken by his daughter Rose-Marie Caldecott 2012