The Moral Imagination’s Role in the Abortion and Gay Marriage Debates
Last week, I wrote a blog post on Abortion, Gay Marriage, and the Good Life. In it, I mentioned this idea that Christians need to operate on a different plane from the rest of the world as we engage them in debates like abortion and gay marriage. Our tactics should not allow us to be confused with them because they are utterly indistinguishable from theirs. We should approach the world with the truth in a way that inspires the moral imagination and demonstrates “the good life.”
What do I mean by moral imagination, however? The best definition may be Russell Kirk’s, “The moral imagination is an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards [sic] virtue and wisdom and redemption.” It, however, may need some explaining. The way I was using it was probably a bit more simple, reduced even. The moral imagination, as I was using it, is the story we carry around in our minds that helps to make sense of the world we live in. It is what gives us meaning and purpose, helps us to know what is right and what is wrong, and moves us toward living a better life, whatever it is we view as the “the good life.”
A Christian’s moral imagination is the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Glory. We know why we are here, we know why life is hard, we know what God wants life to look like, and we know where God is taking life. It is the story that informs us as to meaning, purpose, right, wrong, and living the good life.
An atheist’s moral imagination–especially if he’s a materialist–is the story of survival and progress. That’s why he’s here, that’s why life is hard, that’s what it’s supposed to look like, and progress is where he’s going. When we proclaim the Truth, we are proclaiming it according to our moral imagination, but we are proclaiming it to someone with a different moral imagination. They plug our Truth into their categories, and end up with different results. Thus, when I tell someone of the evils of abortion, I am proclaiming that it is an evil precisely because it violates the story that makes sense of the world for me: It is the death of someone created in the image of God. When they hear it, though, they are plugging it into the story that makes sense out of the world for them: It is the removal of an obstacle in my struggle for survival and progress.
Simply proclaiming the Truth means we are declaring the Truth without regard for persuasiveness, to a world whose ears may be closed by God, as Peter Leithart said in his summation of the Wilson-Sullivan gay marriage debate. If we do want to seek to be persuasive, then we need to address the moral imagination. The best way to correct, or provide anew, the moral imagination is through life and stories. Through life, we provide the moral imagination by our example. We live “the good life” as we want them to understand it. Through stories, we provide the moral imagination by the tales we tell. Brokeback Mountain is an attempt to change the moral imagination in favor of homosexuality. It is a story that attempts to appeal to emotions and sensitivities, to change the way people view homosexuals. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a story that attempts to appeal to emotions and sensitivities to change the way people viewed slavery. For decades, abolitionists tried to sway popular opinion toward slavery by quoting statistics and figures showing its evils. It was Stowe’s work, however, that made Americans fall in love with the slaves and sympathize with their plight. It was her work that eventually led Abraham Lincoln to address her as “the little lady who started this war.” The arts, then, provide us with the means to re-write moral imaginations. We must become storytellers, bards, singers, and painters.