In Search of the Baptism of the Imagination

C.S. Lewis described his own conversion to Christianity, from a fashionable and rather mindless form of atheism heavily tinged with late Romanticism; and he depicts that transformation as beginning with the unexpected effects of a chance reading of George MacDonald’s book Phantastes on a train ride. Lewis says very clearly that, even in the wake of this “baptism” of the imagination, the development of his intellect and conscience was just beginning—in fact, was yet to begin. But looking back, he was equally sure that a certain necessary threshold had been crossed, and that the capacity to see things as they actually are, radiant and vibrant with the life of Christ animating them, was being born in him at that moment. A kind of deep and nonverbal presupposition was becoming embedded, the basis for all other insights to come.

These remarks were first delivered at the Second Annual Davenant DC Award Banquet, where Dr. Wilfred M. McClay was given the C.S. Lewis Award for Christian Wisdom. What follows is a lightly edited version of Dr. McClay’s acceptance speech.

I was very pleased to accept my recent award for Christian Wisdom from the Davenant Institute, and delighted that the award bears the name of C.S. Lewis, who has been so important to me and those closest to me–a surprisingly versatile and beloved guide. I say “surprising,” because each time in my life that I have achieved some fresh insight, climbed an inner spiritual mountain, I always seem to have discovered at the mountain’s peak a modest little flag, fluttering in the alpine breezes, informing me that “Jack was here.” I am sure that others have had a similar experience with him.

I am also delighted, if also a bit overwhelmed, by the privilege of following in the footsteps of last year’s recipient, Carl Trueman, who in many respects is a Lewis for our times, a thinker for whom I have the greatest admiration. Carl uses crystal-clear prose to recall the sharp insights of Christian theology and bring them to bear on the problems of our collapsing culture. He does it in ways that are both troubling—because he tells the whole truth—and also restorative—for the same reason. For the whole truth about our condition must always include the balm of hope. Optimism is merely wishful thinking, but hope is an imperishable virtue, and a token of redemptive possibility.

I share with Carl a concern with the alarming state of our culture, how to think about it, and what to do about it. I will get to that eventually tonight, but first let me lay some groundwork. My title might be puzzling to some of you. And indeed, whenever one borrows a sacramental concept such as baptism, and starts using it in a metaphorical way, attempting to appropriate some of its luster for the sake of a rhetorical flourish, well, one may be making trouble for oneself, especially if one is speaking to an audience of serious theologians.

But I can offer a preemptive excuse in this instance: I got the idea from C.S. Lewis. He described his own conversion to Christianity, from a fashionable and rather mindless form of atheism heavily tinged with late Romanticism; and he depicts that transformation as beginning with the unexpected effects of a chance reading of George MacDonald’s book Phantastes on a train ride. Lewis had snatched up a copy at the train station, “an Everyman edition in a dirty jacket,” to serve as a distraction for the ride ahead. How appropriate of him, to choose a lowly “everyman edition” of a book dressed in humble raiment, to be his preceptor.

The effect of reading the book turned out to be very dramatic. Let me allow Lewis to tell the story, as he relates it in his editorial introduction to a 1947 anthology of MacDonald’s writings. It’s a lengthy quotation, but worth every word, as it defies easy paraphrase:

It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on the bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. I had already been waist-deep in Romanticism; and likely enough, at any moment, to flounder into its darker and more evil forms, slithering down the steep descent that leads from the love of strangeness to that of eccentricity and thence to that of perversity.

Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience; but there was a difference. Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it’s also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”—I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was not at least ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting.

But in a sense, what he was now telling me was the very same that he had told me from the beginning. There was no question of getting through to the kernel and throwing away the shell: no question of a gilded pill. The pill was gold all through. The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all other way round—in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness,” never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire—the thing (in Sappho’s phrase) “more gold than gold.”

One could say a great deal about this rich and fascinating passage. In fact, we could be here all night with it.

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