Towards a Better Moral Imagination in the Public Square

Evangelicals can be guilty of aiming their public witness in the wrong direction. Some might think the primary target for evangelical political engagement is Spock, the character from Star Trek, who is a middle-aged, highly educated, white male who operates purely according to reason and lives in outer space.

Our witness in the public square must account for the whole person, not just the head. If our Christian witness is to be effective it must also be affective. It must capture the imagination if it is to transform the culture.

The philosopher Plato thought of the human soul as a tripartite, consisting of head, chest, and belly. Christians have often focused their witness at particular isolated elements of the human experience. Consider the Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell. To use Plato’s categories, the Moral Majority could be said to have focused on the head: telling followers what to think and for whom to vote.

Francis Schaeffer mentions the Moral Majority in his final book A Christian Manifesto. Though Schaeffer was not without concerns regarding the Moral Majority, he simply advised, “if you do not like the details of some of what they have done, do it better.”

Indeed, we should do it better. We must offer a wholistic witness that speaks to the whole person about the whole of reality. But, as with all correctives, the danger is overcorrection. We must not ignore the head even as we account for the affections.

Plato believed the chest, the affections, to be the main arbiter between the head and the belly—the seat of desires. Plato understood the three, head, chest, and belly, as constituting the whole person. As such, humanity cannot be reduced to any single part. And neither can our public witness.

For a better public witness, Christians must affect the affections, we must speak to the imagination. To cultivate a better moral imagination we must explore ways, as C.S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man, to influence others to “like and dislike what [they] ought” so that they might be “trained in ‘ordinate affections’ and just sentiments.’”

As Lewis reminds us, “No emotion is, in itself, a judgment: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical … The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” To help us obey it (the head), we must, Lewis tells us, train the emotions (the chest). Moreover, it is doubtful that we can train our emotions purely by rational endeavors, since they are, as Lewis noted, alogical.

Thus, a vision for cultivating a better moral imagination is indeed necessary. We see this emphasis again in the life of C.S. Lewis whose writing towards the end of his life focused mainly on “smuggling theology behind enemy lines” through the power of “fiction and symbol.” Lewis’s essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” gives something of a vision for cultivating a moral imagination:

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God … I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings . . . But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?”