An experiment in apologetics

Camassia recently wrote a post following up on a discussion we were having here about religious pluralism, specifically with regard to Marjorie Suchocki’s book Divinity and Diversity (see my original post here). One of the issues that came up in the ensuing discussion was whether affirming religious pluralism means you’re excluded from contending for truth of your own views. Does it just mean affirming everyone in their okayness?

This got me thinking about what apologetics would look like if it were conducted in a context that took full account of religious pluralism. A few months back, Christopher tipped me off to Krister Stendahls’ “rules” for interreligious dialogue:

(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl seems to have meant that we should be open to finidng attractive or truthful elements in other religions that aren’t necessarily present in our own.)

These principles pose some seriously critical questions to much of what sails under the flag of Christian apologetics. It seems to me that apologetics has rarely–if ever–been undertaken in the spirit of Stendahl’s rules. It’s almost irresistible for the apologist to give short shrift to other traditions in order to make his case look stronger. But a truly responsible apologetics would have to enter into a deep and sympathetic understanding of other traditions, something along the lines of what Stendahl suggests.

Doing this well would require the cultivation of certain virtues: charity, open-mindedness, empathy, intellectual honesty, and so on. It would require the apologist to actually talk to adherents of other religions, to ask them why they believe what they believe and do what they do. It would require being open to correction on one’s understanding of that tradition. But at this point it appears that something like inter-religious dialogue is actually a part of, or at least a prerequisite for doing honest apologetics.

And I wonder if we can take this a step further. I wonder if the best form of apologetics for a world of religious pluralism is what we could call “imaginative apologetics.” That is, rather than trying to produce rationally coercive arguments, this form of apologetics would elaborate a “thick” description of Christian faith and life, one that would invite imaginative sympathy, i.e., one’s interlocutor would be invited to see the world through “Christian eyes.”

As the name suggests, I’m inspired in this suggestion by C.S. Lewis, who as I noted the other day, has been called an “imaginative theologian.” This is bolstered by my recent reading of Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism, in which he argues that good literature invites the reader to experience the world from a new point of view:

We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. (Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 137-8)

Correlatively, then, good reading for Lewis is being receptive to entering into this new perspective. Analogously then, in the realm of inter-religious dialogue, we should be willing to provide an imaginative description of our own religious worldview and open to entering imaginatively into the worldview of others.

Another thing to be said for this view is that it recognizes that general views of the world (whether religious or not) don’t admit of the kind of rational demonstration we might like, and they all have their own unresolved problems. So we shouldn’t expect to establish their truth in a straightforward way, whether deductively or inductively. It’s more a matter of imaginatively assuming or adopting a particular perspective, and looking at the world through it, to see the world in a new, and possibly more satisfying (intellectually, morally, aesthetically, etc.) way. (Although Lewis might have had a more rationalistic understanding of his own apologetic works, if one looks at the Lewis corpus as a whole, one sees that he was a master of just this kind of imaginative apologetics.)

And it’s at just this point that the line between what I’m calling imaginative apologetics and dialogue starts to get fuzzy. Both involve articulating the deep wellsprings of our own faith and offering it to the other for her consideration. And both require, in turn, a receptiveness to the other’s perspective. We can’t predict in advance whether the outcome will be her adopting our perspective or us adopting hers, or possibly some kind of mutual modification of views. But this seems consistent with the Christian view that conversion is ultimately a mystery and a matter for the Holy Spirit.

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