We often face hurdles in coming to faith. In describing how he came to Christianity, C. S. Lewis felt he cleared one particular hurdle that most believers overlook.
Only God knows how many hurdles we clear in coming to faith. In C. S. Lewis’s case, he cleared the relational hurdle, having friends who were Christians, including Arthur Greeves. He also cleared the rational hurdle. In a letter to Greeves (dated October 18, 1931), Lewis wrote that he knew “what the doctrines meant.” What hurdle remained?
Imagination. Lewis wrote Greeves after a long nighttime conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They were discussing Christianity and metaphor. At that time, Lewis’s last obstacle was the imaginative hurdle. He told Greeves this is “what has been holding me back.” He knew what the doctrines said. They just weren’t meaning-full.
Tolkien and Dyson reframed the faith. They showed Lewis how doctrines are not the main thing. Instead, they depict what God has expressed in “a language more adequate: namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection” of Christ. The primary language of Christianity is real life. The primary approach to depicting real life is metaphor. Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis clear the imaginative hurdle.
Lewis came to see imagination as the most important hurdle because it makes truth meaning-full. In a letter to the Milton Society of America in 1954, he wrote, “The imaginative man in me is older, and in that sense more basic.” Metaphor underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever. The soul never thinks without a picture.
Lewis also came to see imagination as an overlooked hurdle. He knew the ancients depicted the gods metaphorically: new life in crops, sunrises, or the coming of spring. He found the metaphors in pagan stories “profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp.” Analysis couldn’t fill deep truths with deep meaning. Only imagination can.
Lewis also knew metaphor began to go out the window in the 11th and 12th century. That was when Islamic scholars introduced the West to Greek rationalism. The West shifted from metaphorical to didactic teaching. Reason became the most basic substance. Metaphor became a matter of style.
This hit full bloom in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Schleiermacher wrote that both have this in common, that “everything mysterious and marvellous is proscribed” (didactic). Knowledge “is not to be filled with airy images” (metaphors). In their search for unambiguous certainty regarding the truth, both dismissed metaphor.
I know something about this. I have two seminary degrees. I was taught that analysis, not metaphor, makes truth meaningful. Sermons must have three analytical points. Each point needs an “illustration” as an adornment to clarify the information or aid flagging attention. But I was told the illustration is not the indispensable part of a sermon. Information is. This is why most sermons are essentially “information-transfer.”
This was why Lewis often found sermons boring and sometimes spoke out against what he called their “wearisomely explicit pietism.” Lewis felt that “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor,” as he wrote in his essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes.” Lewis didn’t dismiss reason and analysis. “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” Metaphor, not analysis, is what makes truth meaning-full.
That’s because imagination precedes reason. Imagination is the frame for facts. Take the word gay. Forty years ago, we imagined witty. Today gay means something else for most folks. How we imagine a word determines whether we can have a reasoned debate about that word.
This was why Lewis, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, called himself a “dinosaur.” He recognized we live in a post-Christian world. Post-Christian people are unlikely to respond to reasons for the faith, as they imagine the faith is been there, done that. I think we’ve forgotten Lewis. I think this explains the dramatic rise of religious “nones.” They are dechurched people who imagine the faith as been there, done that. We keep trying to reason them back into the faith.
Michael Ward seems to agree. Ward is author of “Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.” He writes, “Our challenge in the post-Christian world is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning, that it is not gibberish.” Ward is echoing Lewis. Imagination is the highest hurdle if seek to impart a faith that’s meaning-full. But for too many of us, it’s an overlooked hurdle. It’s high time we fix this.
 Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics,” Christianity Today, November 2013.
 David Grumett, De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed, (T&T Clark, 2007)
 This is Lewis’s central point in his book, The Discarded Image.
 Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (University of Chicago Press, 2008)