A brief apologia for apologetics

A few days ago, Pete Enns posted A Brief but Deep Thought on Defending the Christian Faith (or not). His basic thesis was that “the intellect is not “the primary arena for engaging the truth of Christianity.” Rather, a well-lived and embodied faith is Christian truth’s best commendation. Therefore, apologetics needs to take a back seat to the testimony of lived experience.

I’m not sure how deep that thought actually is. It may be a bigger idea in American evangelicalism than elsewhere, and I have nothing against what he is affirming (though he places an undue burden of guilt on many of us for our inadequate embodiments of truth). The individual lives of the saints (big and small ‘s’) have often been more persuasive than the life of the institution and most of its members.

(In addition to his argument, I would note, despite ecclesial imperfections, the best corporate worship of the church has also often been its own self-commending vision of the beauty of truth as well as holiness, and this corporate dimension of Christian life is rather absent from his account.)

Nonetheless, I think good apologetics needs upgrading, and not downgrading, and Christians need to be better at articulating their faith in ways which commend not only the reasonableness of the faith, but the rationality of God and God’s universe.

I have (I think in common with Enns) little time for the kind of apologetics which produces pre-digested arguments, selected quotations, and packaged answers to caricatured questions whose main purpose is to make Christians feel superior.

Whenever I hear someone reproduce C. S. Lewis’s trilemma, I groan. There is a fair point behind it: there is something strange in claiming Jesus to be a great moral teacher while rejecting pretty much everything he said about God. However, since I agree with the overwhelming consensus of scholarly opinion that Jesus didn’t wander around saying things like “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, the whole “Mad, Bad, or God” case dissolves itself in the acid bath of historical criticism.

This isn’t the apologetic I’m looking for.

One of the problems which gets in the way of a fair account of apologetic is the collapse of confidence in public reason. Post-modernity has largely rejected not only the totalising accounts of the Enlightenment era, but a much older sense of the rationality of creation and revelation: the kind of thing that is typified in St Thomas, or the whole “faith seeking understanding” tradition which goes back at least to St Augustine.

It’s in this context I’m still looking for an apologetic which not only draws out and commends the inner rationality of the faith, but also shows how that faith might enlighten the practice of other intellectual disciplines, and illuminate the truth of the only universe we have to share.

Revitalizing apologetic might have, I suggest, at least three goods for the contemporary church. It will train Christians to explore their faith as reasonable, and so equip them to love God with their minds as they embrace other intellectual disciplines. It will enable Christians to engage the views of others critically and constructively, on the basis of our common created rationality, with the confidence of a 2,000-year-old tradition of thinking. Finally, it will enable the church to take a stand in and against a post-truth society.

The rational and relational given-ness of the world is not simply a matter of convenience to be adopted or discarded – neither in the contingencies of anyone’s present preference, nor purely as the idiosyncrasy of a personal faith-perspective. Apologetic is a way of living out that commitment to understanding the world as the work of God’s reason, God’s logos.

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