When promised she would soon be pregnant, Mary asked How can this be? A particular aspect of Gabriel’s message didn’t make sense. It was implausible. Plausibility is a sticking point in the post-Christian world. Mary’s question reminds us that the path to reasonable faith begins with widening the imagination.
Mary’s quandary is a case study in how frames trump facts. She grasped most of what Gabriel said – she will conceive, bear a son named Jesus, God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. “His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32). Got it. What Mary couldn’t grasp is how a virgin could conceive. It was beyond her imagination. Gabriel’s reply widened her imagination.
Louise Cowan, a University of Dallas Professor of English, defines faith as “a widening of the imagination.”1 That’s a shrewd insight, particularly as it relates to the post-Christian world. By definition, post-Christian means most folks have heard about Jesus but they’re so over him. They know many facts – Jesus died, rose again, blah, blah, blah. Got it. The facts lack meaning. They sit outside what many imagine is the real world. “In the post-Christian world,” notes Michael Ward, a fellow at the University of Oxford and professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, “our challenge is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning, that it is not gibberish.”2
Ward sees C.S. Lewis as lighting a way past the post-Christian world. Like Lewis, he believes the path to reasonable faith begins with imagination. And like Lewis, Ward believes the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries dismissed the importance of image, assuming we can reason our way to truth without the aid of imagination. Ward writes that the Enlightenment fostered a “dichotomy between reason and imagination. Reasonable people don’t need imagination. Imaginative people don’t need reasons.”
Two of the Enlightenment’s forefathers fostered this fallacy – Sir Francis Bacon and clergyman Thomas Sprat. Bacon wrote, “All that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptiness, let it be utterly dismissed.” Sprat also spat at imagery, calling it “Fancy” or “Fables.” In The History of the Royal Society of London, he urged readers “to separate the knowledge of Nature from the colors of Rhetoric, the devices of Fancy or the delightful deceit of Fables.” Both men saw reason as sufficient, imagination as risky. Lewis saw no such dichotomy. He believed we benefit from imagination and reason, but only in that order.
“For me,” wrote Lewis, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Lewis believed imagination precedes reason. We don’t grasp the meaning of a word until we have a clear image to connect it with. Frames trump facts. Context is king. “Imagination has to operate before reason,” writes Ward. “Reason depends on imagination to supply it with meaningful things that it can then reason about.”
Mary’s quandary reminds us that the believable is always bound up in the plausible. Nullus quipped credit aliquid, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum is how Augustine put it – “no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable.” Gabriel widened Mary’s imagination and the fact that a virgin can conceive became believable. Mary submitted (Lk. 1:38), and later with Elizabeth celebrated her pregnancy (1:46-55).
Mary’s quandary also reminds us of the benefits of getting back to the basics. According to biographer Colin Duriez, Lewis believed “the imaginative man in him was more basic than any other aspect.”3 Wise Christians recognize this. “If we’re made in the image of God,” notes Cowan, also a Lewis fan, “it’s not so much in our analytical reason, as it is in our imagination.”4 Gabriel widened Mary’s imagination, and his prophecy became plausible. Wise Christians do the same, first widening the imagination of those in the post-Christian world. In so doing, the implausible can become plausible. A sticking point can get unstuck. When that happens, post-Christian people are more likely to see the light of the world, submit, and see Christmas for what it truly is. Imagine that.
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1 Louise Cowan, “How Classics Address Our Imaginations” Mars Hill Audio Journal 1998. Vol. 34.
2 Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics,” Christianity Today, November 2013.
3 “C.S. Lewis, the Sneaky Pagan,” interview of Colin Duriez by Rob Moll, Christianity Today, June 28, 2004.
4 Caroline J. Simon, “On love, destiny, and imagination,” Mars Hill Audio, Volume 30 Jan./Feb. 1998.