Reason versus Imagination

C. S. Lewis wrote:

“The humblest of us, in a state of Grace, can have some “knowledge-by-acquaintance”…, some tasting of Love Himself; but man even at his highest sanctity and intelligence has no direct “knowledge about”…the ultimate Being – only analogies. We cannot see light, though by light we can see things. Statements about God are extrapolations from the knowledge of other things which the divine illumination enables us to know” (The Four Loves).

He is saying that while Christianity respects reason and is consistent with it, reason and reductionist empirical views of “reality” are insufficient to appreciate transcendental truths. For this we need spiritual, emotional and imaginative abilities.

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4 thoughts on “Reason versus Imagination

  1. I suggest, Paul, that the proper opposition to “reason” her is not imagination, but “acquaintance” (the word that Lewis uses). This is a matter of genuine knowledge – kennen/connâitre rather than wissen/ savoir (we don’t make the distinction in English). Elsewhere Lewis refers to paganism as an attempt to reach God through the imagination. This is not at all what he is writing about in this passage.

    May I make another suggestion, while I am here? Much as I am glad to receive e-mails from you, if you car to respond, do it here, so that other readers might be encouraged to join in. I would be glad to become acquainted with your other followers. I cannot guarantee, of course, what pleasure they may have in encountering me!

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your perceptive comments. “Versus” was probably not the best word to use. Lewis does indeed make fine distinctions (like Hegel and others). In the full text he adds in brackets after “knowledge-by-acquaintance” (connaitre) and after “knowledge about” (savoir). You are right there. I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what you are getting at in the paganism comment. As I said in a previous post, Lewis did advocate using the literary imagination that was used for pagan myths in study of Christianity. As part of his literary studies, he deeply researched the old pagan myths, Norse and Roman, etc, and came to believe there was no insurmountable contradiction between them and Christianity. The old pagan myths were rather steps on the road to more complete enlightenment. He passionately believed that use of literary imagination could enable a deeper understanding of Christian truths ( something neglected by theologians still attached to the scholastic tradition). As Alister McGrath says in his chapter on Lewis’s use of light metaphors, “Lewis was concerned to affirm the importance of reason, while avoiding the aesthetically bleak and metaphysically austere vision of reality resulting from an exaggeration of reason’s power and a failure to comprehend the importance of other human faculties – above all, the imagination” (Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis, p.95). I also hope that we can get a wider audience to participate in these sorts of discussions – even if they show us both to be wrong! Best regards, Paul

      • Howdy, Paul.

        I daresay I could have been clearer if I could remember where the passage I was vaguely referring to appeared. Lewis was being complimentary about pagans – in the absence of revelation, he was saying, I think, that imagination was central to their approach to divinity, or to the numinous. Some cultures (notably the Greeks) dabbled with using reason to the same end, but it sat uncomfortably with the mythic/imaginative approach (Socrates can give details of how such attempts can lead to an unhappy ending). I agree (how could I not) that he continued to regard the mythic imagination as a valuable tool for Christians also.

        He was not always so accepting of pagan myth, or of myth in general. Until Tolkien convinced him otherwise, he regarded them as “lies, even if lies breathed through silver”. He presents his change of view on this matter as one of the crucial elements in his conversion to Christianity.

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