The Adventurous Imagination
By sheldon yoder
March 21, 2008
It has long been popular in evangelical circles to reference C.S. Lewis for anything relating to faith and theology, though he was neither an evangelical nor a theologian. He was at heart a storyteller, a man in love with language and the pagan myths of long ago. Perhaps that is why his treatment of faith and a myriad of other related subjects is so compelling. Every time I read his works, I’m struck by the adventurous imagination of this most original of thinkers.
Lewis would no doubt agree that perhaps the most basic training for the imagination is storytelling. As a child I spent countless hours absorbing story after story. Especially fascinating were the stories of mythic adventures and quests undertaken at great personal sacrifice. So it is that the greatest imaginative stimulus I have ever run across is a story of the grandest mythological proportions that purports to be true.
Jesus comes in the midst of a grand narrative spanning generations. His story has an introduction, climax, and dénouement. The gospel, proclaiming that the son of God was born of a virgin, walked the earth as a man, made the greatest sacrifice of all time by dying for the sake of each individual, then rose from the dead and ascended again into heaven, satisfies basic yearnings that are often addressed only in literary form—yearnings for redemption, salvation, and (most importantly) communion with the divine.To believe the gospel is to be granted entrance into a story so imaginatively satisfying that one wonders if it's all too good to be true. The fantastic plot does indeed have the appearance of a glorified myth, echoing and adding to the myths that came before it. Christianity, with its God becoming man and walking amongst the fallen with promise of salvation, is either Reality or the pre-eminent fairy tale of human existence. C.S. Lewis wrote a response to this latter idea (one he held himself while an atheist) in a little essay titled "Myth Became Fact": "One need not accept the historicity of the Gospels on blind faith. It is eminently reasonable to believe that in Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, the deepest yearnings of mankind, expressed in so many various mythological modes, have been fulfilled."
I have often considered the possibility that all this talk of the resurrection of the dead and a heavenly kingdom is pure rubbish. There are many words written on the subject. But at the end, I'm left to conclude, as Blaise Pascal did, that rational inquiry is incapable of providing an answer either way. Which is fine by me, because that means I have a choice. I cannot accept this present world, flawed and fatal, as all there is. I’ve seen a better world through the window of my imagination as it projects upon the marred screen of existence the reality of what might be. Sometimes it seems that this world I have glimpsed is only a memory of a perfect world, or a memory of a memory that begins to fade as soon as it is shuffled to whatever remote corner of gray matter is responsible for such things.
It seems fitting that it is a story that articulates best what I struggle to form fully. In Lewis's book The Silver Chair, the main characters find themselves trapped in a dark and dreary underground world, forgetting that Narnia and Aslan ever existed. Finally in desperation Puddleglum extinguishes with his bare feet the fire that seems to be causing their forgetfulness and challenges the Witch:
One word Ma'am ... Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. . .I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as long like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.
At times I feel the pull to give up what might be a pipe dream. But no matter how ephemeral the clues may be for this divine kingdom, the sheer possibility of its presence is enough to shine as a blinding light through all that can be seen. To refuse to journey onward toward this rapturous rule until my senses have empirical verification would be cowardice. I live for the adventure of it, and there is no true adventure without first imagining. And I cannot imagine without first leaving the known and venturing after what may never, truly, be known.