Enlarging the imagination with C.S. Lewis

If the imagination were wings, C.S. Lewis would have mastered the art of flight, for he was blessed with a wonderfully creative spirit. His mind could see things that his eyes could not, and so he flew on the wings of imagination to places that never existed, like his famous fantasy land of Narnia. Although Narnia is a made-up world, the seven novels that make up The Chronicles of Narnia are full of real wisdom:

“Welcome, Prince,” said Aslan. “Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?”

“I – I don’t think I do, Sir,” said Caspian. “I’m only a kid.”

“Good,” said Aslan. “If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.” (Prince Caspian).

Fresh aliveness

But the imagination of this Belfast-born writer is not confined to the world of fiction. Lewis also uses the imagination in the real world. He uses it to ‘fly’ us to places that do exist. With the help of the imagination, he gives a fresh aliveness to the Christian message.

Take for example his sermon from 1941, The Weight of Glory. In the course of this amazing sermon, C.S. Lewis conveys the idea that we settle for ordinary things when God wants to give us something truly extraordinary.  Before we come to read his own wonderful way of putting this, let’s try to say what Lewis is getting at. His idea is this: we think that happiness means something more or less like the following: a well-paid job, a large house, a luxury car, a foreign holiday each year, and a good night out each week with our friends. But is this true? Is that really it? Is that all there is? Is that the sum total of happiness? No, no, no, not at all. 

These things are only shadows of the true light, echoes of the real music, drops of water compared to the vast ocean that God wants to be ours. We wrongly imagine that we are going to reach happiness when we get these pleasures. But in reality, there is so much more on offer: not merely a few thrills and the latest gadgets, not just things which will fade away sooner or later, but something lasting, something wonderful, something we cannot even get our head around, and that’s called infinite happiness. This indescribable and uncontainable joy is what God wants to give us. Now, let’s see how Lewis expresses this thought in a powerful way:

The Gospels

“Looking at the Gospels, it seems that our Lord Jesus finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory).

We are content with such petty and small pleasures, while God, by contrast, wants to inebriate us with joy. When it comes to seeing what God wants to give us, we need to make a quantum leap beyond our usual level of expectations. God wants to help us imagine a bigger joy than we ever suspected. We are invited to imagine something better with God. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “if you only knew the gift of God…” (John 4:10).

How do we as Christians and Catholics picture ourselves? How do we imagine ourselves?  Are we tied down by our past? Do we imagine it is impossible to change? Do we wrongly imagine that God cannot forgive us? What about Paul, the relentless persecutor of Christians, whose whole life was turned on its head, and went on to become the indefatigable apostle of the nations? What about Mary Magdalene, who once had seven demons in her, but was transformed, becoming the apostle of the apostles? If they could change, we can too. Can we visualise ourselves as sons and daughter of God? As disciples with hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone? Being able to picture ourselves as different, thanks to God’s grace, is a first step. And then with our good will, and our firm resolution to be different, we have no idea of the wonders that God can do in our lives. C.S. Lewis urges us to expand our desires.

Lewis is widely regarded as the greatest contemporary apologist of Christianity, a compelling advocate of the Christian faith, and rightly so. At times, those who write apologetics get into complicated and abstract arguments, and follow difficult lines of reasoning. 


Their books can be a great cure for insomnia, because after only a few minutes your eyelids inevitably begin to droop. But Lewis knew that by writing on this abstract level, his books would only gather dust on library shelves. He knew that if he wrote big and learned books on Christianity, people would only end up placing them on the floor and using them as doorstops. He was smart enough to realise that abstractions are not enough to get through to people. If theology is going to tune into the lived experience of people, it needs to turn the dial toward ‘imagination’. Logic can speak to some, but imagination speaks to everyone.


Logic can guide you along a straight line, but imagination can sweep you in a thousand directions. To get in touch with the imagination is to get in touch with how you see the world, with the vision that shapes you. And that is where faith is being won or lost today: not so much at the level of doctrines, but at the experiential level, because at the level of experience, people often find it difficult to make sense of faith. That’s why we need to use the imagination to help people see how faith is such a perfect fit for their hungering hearts. This is how Jesus did things. He used parable after parable after parable.

Given the importance of the imagination, is it any wonder that Jesus spoke so often in the form of parables? Doctrines are hugely important, don’t get me wrong. But Christianity is above all about a person – Jesus Christ, and about encountering Jesus in such a way that we give Him permission to transform our lives. With the imagination we can get through to this vital level of the heart.


We can argue and argue all we like for Christianity, but unless we touch the imagination, we will leave people cold and disinterested. Can we really talk of victory when all we do is win an argument, and at the same time a whole way of seeing the world remains unchanged? That amounts to just winning the battle, while at the same time losing the whole war. No one will be saved by arguments. But when we touch the deeper level of sensibility and felt experience, transformation will take place.


When we look at the Faith situation in modern Ireland, it can seem like a parched desert and a wasteland of desolation.  It is easy to become negative and even lose hope. But by using the resources of our creativity and imagination, we can do our bit to water the desert, bring people beyond the arid conditions that only lead to death, and help souls to flourish. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “The task of the modern educator is…to irrigate deserts.” (The Abolition of Man).

Of course, our efforts are not enough. We need God’s help. Since God can make something out of nothing, with His help we can bring life once again to the desert where faith is languishing. We need to trust him with all our hearts, and know that it will happen in his time, not ours. But it will happen: “God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse…becomes bright because the sun shines on it.” (Mere Christianity).