Paul’s example here is extremely interesting. Obviously he is not recommending that the men of Athens should worship Zeus: he is urging them to worship the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But notice how he goes about making this point. Rather than saying to the Athenians, ‘You’ve got it completely wrong’, he says, ‘You’ve got it partly right. You’re right that we live and move and have our being in God; you’re right that we are God’s offspring. You’re wrong in thinking that that God is Zeus, but you’re right in these other respects.’
In other words, Paul meets the men of Athens where they are, where they already have an inkling of meaning. He is not concerned to obliterate their traditions; he feels no need to denigrate their limited and incomplete religious knowledge. He works with it, corrects it, adds to it, sublimates it. He says, in rough paraphrase, ‘You have something here, but there’s a whole lot more, and that more is to be found in Jesus Christ.’ He takes what they already possess, imaginatively, and baptizes it. And apparently he had some success. When the Greeks heard Paul ‘some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from among them. But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them’ (Acts 17:32-33).
As an apologetic strategy, it only makes sense to meet people where they are. Where else, indeed, can they be met? Before people know the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, they are not in a state of complete innocence or ignorance about the divine nature. Everyone after a certain age has thoughts and beliefs about what is of ultimate value in the universe, i.e. what is ‘divine’. Those thoughts need to be recognized and responded to. Sometimes the response will consist in contradiction, but more often than not there will be something that can be responded to positively, that can be coaxed into a fuller life and a brighter light. This is why Lewis can say, ‘the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for paganism’. Paganism must be ‘looked back at’ — respected — in order for the Christian apologist to see whether or how much it needs opposition.
Imagination is necessary
So, although apologetics is ‘a reasoned defence’, its basis is necessarily imaginative, for reason cannot work without imagination. The high value that Lewis accorded to imagination is seen in an essay called ‘Myth Became Fact’, where he writes:
I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.7
Of course, it is not possible, in fact, to separate ‘the one’ (the imaginative embrace) from ‘the other’ (the rational assent), but it is occasionally worth doing a thought experiment on oneself to discover which of them one would prefer if (per impossibile) one were forced at the point of a gun to choose between them. There is little doubt which Lewis would have inclined towards. He writes, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”8
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