Faithful reader Laura A. rightly points out that my negative comments about apologetics in the previous post don’t tell the whole story.
I do agree that”way of life” is by far the more important factor in evangelism. But there are a certain number of people who, once attracted to Christianity through the examples of others, need a certain amount of apologetics to push them up to the edge so they feel they can make the leap of faith. As my pastor says, there *is* no airtight argument for any religious belief. But there is a point where the preponderance of the evidence makes it possible for you to put aside your constant doubts long enough to act on it.
I don’t think you set up a false dichotomy, but I just wanted to emphasize that there is a very legitimate use for apologetics. I struggled mightily with skepticism as a college student, and apologetic works were a great help to me. They still are. But I do think that apologetics exists to make way for belief, not as an end in itself.
I agree with this. If your mind rebels against something the Bible tells you is true, then further explanation will often help to put your mind at ease and accept it. But I think our eagerness to offer up hard-won explanations can sometimes cover up dangerous pitfalls.
First, I think that apologetics is more often motivated by our love of explanations than by any need to explain. The Trinity is an answer to a question that was asked only by pagans for the first few hundred years, and one that I don’t think has significant implications for the normal Christian life. So why are so many people eager to address the issue in Sunday school classes, introductory books, even in casual conversation with a new believer? I think it is because the one doing the explaining has so much invested in the explanation that imposing it on others is a sort of validation—listen up, now, this is important (even though you never asked). Some are so in love with their thinking on this particular issue that they try to expand its implications into a way of life—Trinitarian living, whatever that means.
Second, I think that “I don’t understand this” is often used as an intellectually respectable substitute for “I don’t like this.” I came most of the way to conversion through reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which presents Christian beliefs simply and straightforwardly. But prior to reading the book my objection to Christianity was not that it baffled me but that it struck me as ridiculous. Most of that, of course, was because I was simply mistaken about what the Bible taught. Lewis’s presentation is clear and congenial, and by the end of the book I was thinking, “Well, I don’t know if I believe this or not, but it certainly makes sense on its own terms.” Since even that weak standard is one that most alternatives don’t meet, it wasn’t long before I accepted it as the best available explanation. (Faith came a bit later.)
If there is a legitimate misunderstanding, it ought to be addressed as clearly as possible, and the tools of apologetics can be helpful for that. But once a point is understood, I think a person should be allowed to struggle with its implications without further interference. Not only can smooth explanations be taken as an excuse not to struggle directly with the claims of Christianity, they can rob us of the benefits of such struggling.
Third, I’m afraid that apologetics often feeds our love of systems, our vain hope that if we can just figure out the right rules then our flesh will simply acquiesce and behave in accordance with them. I’ve known people who thought of themselves as musicians because they hung around with musicians, owned several expensive instruments, and knew music lore inside and out. But they never played much music, preferring to talk about it instead. And they often bored the real musicians to death with their eagerness to talk about the thing itself, music, while the real musicians would have preferred to be producing some (and reserved their respect for those who tried, however poor the result).
I recently watched a Fawlty Towers retrospective, where John Cleese explained that Basil Fawlty was in love with the idea of managing a hotel, and would have been a happy man except for the customers—i.e. what he despised was the actual running of a hotel. Exactly. Just as one might be an expert on neighborliness but unable to treat one’s actual neighbors lovingly, or be an advocate of church authority who goes running when the discipline stick is about to be wielded against him. Understanding why one should love or submit is a long way from actually loving or submitting. And the person who loves or submits has done the needful thing, regardless of how deep his understanding.
Fourth, an inordinate love for apologetics can lead us to place more faith in our explanations than in our experience; our eyes skim right past difficulties, both in scripture and in practice, that our explanations tell us are not there. How else to account for the modern Christian’s comfort with affluence and wealth-seeking, promoted from even (especially?) conservative pulpits, with Jesus’ dire warnings about the dangers of riches, or the evidence surrounding us that wealth and power inevitably corrupt both non-believer and believer? Or the modern Christian’s propensity to separate ourselves from brothers over differences large and small, when scripture exhorts us to unity in all but the most extreme circumstances—such as contentiousness, something in a brother that is more likely to draw our admiration than lead us to separate from him?
I say all this as someone who once loved systematic thinking, and still appreciates it for its good points. But over the years I’ve slowly learned the dangers of confusing knowledge with understanding, and understanding with wisdom. Knowledge precedes understanding, and understanding precedes wisdom; but one will not inevitably lead to the other. Other things must be brought to bear—mostly practice, probably humility, almost certainly a childlike faith.