Aesthetic Apologetics

7/22/23

We must invoke imagination. Traditional apologetics puts people in a defensive position in order to defend the position they’re arguing. And what about the defensive stance of the interlocutor or “prospective captive” (as Kierkegaard calls it)? It’s the nature of rational apologetics to argue. And there is a place for providing logical reasoning for our beliefs. But if that’s all we’re seeking, we’ve failed before we’ve started. Yes, the human experience craves knowledge. But it also craves beauty and empathy. We were designed to share both knowledge and feelings so we could be understood and heard in creative ways, such as using literary language in poetry, story, song and comedy. Aesthetic (imaginative) apologetics—what the great communicators of history have always done, starting with Aesop’s fables, Jesus’s parables, the stories of Plato, Hesiod, Homer, Augustine, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Bunyan, as well as the plays of Shakespeare, to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Wangerin, Jr.—must rule alongside of rational apologetics just like a beautiful queen reigns with her righteous king.

Consider the advice of Blaise Pascal on the matter of the art of apologetics:

“When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question.”[1]

Empathizing with a person’s perspective or understanding a person’s point of view (or worldview) is key in helping him see contrasting perspectives, points of view or worldviews. Direct attacks will only put the person on the defensive. Change or conversion must come about “by the indirect method.”

Listen from the master of dialectical methods, Søren Kierkegaard:

“A direct attack only strengthens a person in his illusion and, at the same time embitters him. There is nothing that requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it. If anything prompts the perspective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost. And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which can make most profitably to himself privately. This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God—that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

“The religious writer must, therefore, first get into touch with men. That is, he must begin with aesthetic achievement….

“That if real success is to attend the effort to bring a man to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find [him] where he is and begin there.

“This is the secret of the art of helping others. Anyone who has not mastered this is himself deluded when he proposes to help others.”[2]

In order to invoke imagination, we must break free from the contempt of illusion by appealing to the wondrous child within. Doubt is the current condition; impartiality is the preferred attitude; familiarity—the hackneyed cavity; and so the method is to strike the “nerve of novelty” (as Chesterton poetically puts it), in order to achieve the goal of being winsome, like a fetching story:

“In order to strike, in the only sane or possible sense, the note of impartiality, it is necessary to touch the nerve of novelty. I mean that in one sense we see things fairly when we see them first. That, I may remark in passing is why children generally have very little difficulty about the dogmas of the Church. But the Church, being a highly practical thing for working and fighting, is necessarily a thing for men and not merely for children. There must be in it for working purposes a great deal of tradition, of familiarity, and even of routine. So long as its fundamentals are sincerely felt, this may even be the saner condition. But when its fundamentals are doubted, as at the present, we must try to recover the candour and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence. Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only be seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt. For in connection with things so great as are here considered, whatever our view of them, contempt must be a mistake. Indeed contempt must be an illusion. We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.”[3]

On the topic of aesthetic apologetics or imaginative apologetics, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Chesterton complement each other. Pascal talks about empathizing with others and engaging them indirectly to bypass inexorable argumentation. Kierkegaard like a concerned psychologist sees the need to start by appealing to people’s aesthetics and thus disarming their intellectual defenses via the indirect method. And lastly, Chesterton reminds us of the human experience to be won over by the novelty of the human imagination.

[1] Pascal, Pensées, §701.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946), 332-333.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), 10.

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