Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition seeks to provide readers with ways to apply their imagination to the defense of the faith. John Milbank, in the foreword, suggests that apologetics may be used to instruct in the faith and also provide access to a transcendent reality through the imagination: “Instead of… a falsely ‘neutral’ approach… which accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world, we need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots…” (xx). This mode “does not pretend that we have any access to what lies beyond the world save through the world and its analogical participation in that beyond” (xxi). Thus, the imagination may engage with the truth of religion.
The book is a series of essays dedicated broadly to this topic. Some of these are quite on-point. Donna Lazenby’s essay “Apologetics, Literature, and Worldview” is among these. In it, Lazenby engages with various atheists through the use of literature and suggests that non-theistic literature ultimately is left in a void, seeking a greater reality. Graham Ward’s essay “Cultural Hermeneutics and Christian Apologetics” is equally insightful, as Ward applies various critical theories to examining the broader implications for culture and understanding. Alison Milbank’s “Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange” shows how the imagination may be engaged in worship and the religious life. These essays alone are worth the price of entry, and there are other bright spots throughout the work which are just as engaging.
However, Imaginative Apologetics is not without some serious flaws. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the book, in my opinion, is the sometime refrain and skepticism against “theistic proofs.” For example, John Hughes, in “Proofs and Arguments” suggests that “the rationalist project of proofs has sold out the Christian faith to deism and turned the God of Jesus Christ into an idol of human reason” (7). Strong words, but I’m not sure they are at all true. In particular, Hughes seemed to broadly label essentially any attempt at natural theology as equivalent to this rationalism. Later, Hughes does give a nod to the project of natural theology but–in a seemingly confused fashion–suggests that arguments like cosmological arguments are merely “more ancient arguments.” I wonder how he would comment on the modern retooling of the Kalam Cosmological Argument… would this be a project of “rationalism” and making deistic idols; or an evidence pointing to the truth of theism? The lack of distinctions being made left the definitions given in this essay (a lead-in for the rest of the discussion) with a decidedly amorphous view of the project of apologetics as a whole.
Later essays emulate this error at times. Craig Hovey’s “Christian Ethics as Good News” (an interesting piece itself) addresses a strange and seemingly false dichotomy of “two different understandings of what apologetics is all about… quasi-legal defences of a certain sort of self-confident Protestant who went around armed with a hundred and one proofs… [or] the early Church’s efforts to defend the faith against misunderstanding from their pagan neighbours…” (98). Hovey expressed some caution: “My unease with the proof version of apologetics stems from my suspicion that… [it may make] the point of being a Christian… to be right or rational” (99). Although he admits he wants to be right and rational too; he says there is more to Christianity than that.
I admit I know of no published Christian apologist today who thinks that “the point of being a Christian” is to be right and rational. Of course, that doesn’t at all preclude the project of proving Christianity to be true. Christianity is about Jesus Christ as crucified and risen Lord and Savior, but of course if that is itself not true, Christianity is rather pointless, isn’t it? Hovey’s comments seem to divorce Christianity from being a historical reality; and this, as I showed above, is a kind of confusion over the project of apologetics which occurs in other places in the book.
As I noted, there are moments of utter brilliance found throughout the text. Ultimately, however, it seems the book does not live up to its title. At times some authors flounder with understanding the meaning and application of apologetics, but more importantly, few essays seem to actually recommend or apply a method of apologetics which engages the imagination [with noted exceptions above, as well as tidbits throughout every essay… and I’d like to note Alister McGrath was, as usual, excellent (though perhaps also off topic with his essay on science and apologetics)]. The book, it seems, is often more about its subtitle (“Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition”) than its title. Although at times interesting, I found it an overall disappointment. Perhaps that is due to my own high expectations going in, but there it is. A few gems make it well worth the read, but I would recommend a critical eye on the commentary on the nature of apologetics and readers should realize that only at times does it focus on the application of the imagination to apologetics.
Book Review: “Think Christianly” by Jonathan Morrow– Interested in engaging the culture on multiple levels? I highly recommend this book by Morrow for those who want to critically encounter the surrounding culture and “think Christianly” throughout their lives.
Alison Milbank, “Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange” in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition edited by Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).
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