Apologetics

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.

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8 thoughts on “Apologetics

  1. Absolutely! There is no substitute for experience, and yes, it’s often hard won. Maybe my love of apologetics comes from having started (apparently like you) with C.S. Lewis, who was humble enough to realize that explanations are only the beginning.

    The very last page of Lewis’ *The Four Loves* is one of my favorite passages in all his writings: “Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have really reached…Perhaps, for many of us, all experience merely defines, so to speak, the shape of that gap where our love of God ought to be…To know that one is dreaming is to be no longer perfectly asleep. But for news of the fully waking world you must go to my betters.”

    There’s much more on the same page that’s worth reading, especially since it not only informs, but inspires. And inspiration can be helpful during the hard day to day work of trying to live obediently. But as you rightly point out, there’s no substitute for the living.

    Also, one thing I have benefited from through the explanation of the Trinity, based on John 1: the image of a perfect “community” (for lack of a better word) of love before the creation of the world. That makes a difference in my foundational understanding of Christianity. I fear to go farther, but it relates somehow to what Lewis says about God not needing to create us, but wanting to, because of his nature.

    But yes, yes, to what you’ve said here, especially the need to practice, live humbly, and have a childlike faith. Apologetics are only a starting point.

  2. “mostly practice, probably humility, almost certainly a childlike faith.”

    In all humility, Rick, this is too weak. If I may suggest, “practice, humility, and childlike faith.”

    The rest is spot on!

  3. Greg,

    Fair enough! May my inner copyeditor work harder at seeking out and eliminating weasel words.

  4. Rick, I agree with much that you say, here; and especially with your description of so-called “musicians” who never play music. As I remarked once, there are many who think they are on a spiritual journey when really they are sitting in a comfortable armchair reading travel books. (And Lord, may I not be one of them!) But I have to disagree with this, and the attitude that seems to go with it:

    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?

    First, I disagree that only the pagans cared about the Trinity in the early church; in the Gospel, Jesus clearly tells his disciples to baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The theological details weren’t worked out until later, but the doctrine is there from the earliest days.

    Second, it affects baptism, which surely has implications for the normal Christian life.

    Third, the Christian life at its core is all about falling in love with God (and the many, many things that follow from that). It’s not about knowing facts, as such; it’s about knowing a person. But to know a person, you need to know about him. Christ chose to reveal the Trinity to us; therefore it’s important. It’s worth our time to contemplate it.

    For example, it is precisely through the Trinity that we know that God *is* Love. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son precisely as the Love the Father and the Son have for one another—and it is this Love that Christ offers to us, it is this Love that came upon the apostles on Pentecost, it is this Love that we are to carry to those around us. And by giving us the grace to participate in this Love Christ draws us unto Himself, draws us ultimately into the inner life of the Trinity.

    Wow.

  5. Will,

    I should have distinguished between the fact of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible tells us the following facts: The Father is God, Jesus is God, the Holy Spirit is God, there is one God. I think one can accept those four facts without understanding how one God can be three Persons. Developing such an understanding can enrich one’s spiritual life, but it isn’t essential to having one. I doubt that my mom understands the doctrine of the Trinity anywhere near as well as I do—she may not understand it at all—but she loves Jesus more than I ever will.

    Similarly with the other examples you raise. We know how to baptize, and we know that God is love, because the Bible tells us so. Pondering the Trinity may deepen our understanding of why we baptize as we do, or why God is love, and that deepened understanding may in turn strengthen us to live a more faithful life. But I don’t think a lack of such understanding is any kind of barrier to faithfulness.

  6. Certainly. You needn’t have a deep understanding of Christian doctrine to be a Christian, and you certainly don’t need to have such an understanding to become a Christian.

    Nevertheless, it strikes me odd to consider such knowledge as insignificant in the “normal Christian life”. Surely, we should seek to know our Beloved as well as we can, to love Him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength?

    The degree to which one can know God through the intellect will of course vary from one person to another; and of course all such attempts fall short. But that’s no reason not to try.

    But again, I agree with your basic point on apologetics, which is (if I understand you correctly) that it should be driven by the difficulties a person is actually having, rather than our desire to show off what we know. :-)

  7. The thing is though that “the normal Christian” doesn’t have the brain power of the average theologian. The only standard regarding loving the Lord with the mind is “all of it,” not to some objectively measurable level… if that makes sense.

    I’m afraid I’m a bear of very little brain, and while I do love the Lord with all my heart, I’m afraid it’s a grinchy little one.

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