The Areopagus Lectures

Inviting our neighbors in central Virginia to join MARS HILL AUDIO in a continuing conversation about the Church’s role in a post-Christian society.

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.”

— Alison Milbank

This spring, theologian Alison Milbank presented the fifth Areopagus Lecture. 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 what 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, which, for the Christian, 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. 

You can listen to the entire lecture below, or access it streaming from the MARS HILL AUDIO app.

More on Alison Milbank

Alison Milbank is associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Nottingham. Milbank studied Theology and English Literature at Cambridge, and then took her doctorate at Lancaster. She was a John Rylands Research Institute Fellow at the University of Manchester, where she had access to its extensive Dante archives. After a temporary lectureship and extensive college teaching at Cambridge, Milbank taught in the English Department at the University of Virginia for five years, making full use of the Sadleir-Black Gothic collection in the UVA library. 

Dr. Milbank’s research interests focus on the relation of religion to culture in the post-Enlightenment period, with particular interest in non-realist literary and artistic expression, such as the Gothic, the fantastic, horror and fantasy. Her books include Dante and the Victorians (2009), Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (2007), and God and the Gothic: Religion, Romance, and Reality in the English Literary Tradition (2018).

On Volume 99 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Alison Milbank joined us to talk about how the fantasy writings of G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien are intended to reconnect readers with reality. Both Chesterton and Tolkien saw fantasy as an escape from reality in order to restore one’s perception of what was truly real. Tolkien, in particular, wanted his fantasies to enable readers to see the objects of this world as meaningful things apart from ourselves, as opposed to dead objects subject merely to our manipulation and control. Milbank comments that Tolkien’s fantasies reflect a desire to return to a medieval view in which objects participate in reality as we participate in reality, with their own form and integrity. For both authors, the things we perceive in the world present themselves as intentional, personal, and given.

Mission

Since 1993, MARS HILL AUDIO has sought to encourage the pursuit of wisdom concerning the cultural consequences of the Gospel. Toward that end, the hundreds of interviews distributed by MARS HILL AUDIO have explored two principal questions: 1) What are the distinctive features of the culture of modernity? and 2) How are those features in conflict with Christian cultural faithfulness? 

One such feature is the assumption that a “religion” is an essentially private, subjective, and non-rational set of beliefs and practices. Thus public life (which is presumed to be a neutral space) must be cleansed of all religiously grounded contaminants. The past several decades have witnessed a more extensive commitment to the de-Christening of the West — the quest for a society freed of interference from Christian claims about human nature and social order. As a result, many Christians are more perplexed than ever about the public consequences of the Gospel.

We believe this is a time for the Church to recognize and remedy the mistake of assenting to the separation of theology from public life. Because the radical privatizing of the claims of Christ is contrary to the ends of human nature and the purposes of God in history, the modern project of radical secularization is inevitably destined to fail. As its failure becomes more obvious (either with a bang or a whimper) the institutions that sustain social, political, and economic life will be open to re-imagination and re-configuration in ways that acknowledge that in Christ, all things hold together. 

In launching the Areopagus Lectures, MARS HILL AUDIO hopes to stimulate conversation among our neighbors about how to navigate this time in the Church’s history with wisdom, courage, and hope. 

Previous Lectures