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.

Sorry, but I don’t think that’s evangelism

I was just now in Foyles, trying to look at newish theology books. A couple of young women, one head-scarved, one not, came by. One said to the other that this is where she could get a Bible. Immediately, an older man by the shelves with a friend, leapt in: “The Bible, yes, you should read that. It’s true.”

The head-scarved woman hit back. “Are you saying that to be helpful, or because you’re prejudiced?” The dialogue, such as it was, developed. She tried to challenge him about his presuppositions. He denied he had presuppositions because he knew the truth, and indeed, knew the author of the Bible so he could understand what it said, since it was God’s word, and anyway, Jesus said the Bible was true.

When he quoted it, it was the KJV, and virtually all his quotations, prefixed “Jesus himself actually said” were from St John’s gospel: this is a definition of “actually said” which is somewhat stretches the semantic resources of that phrase!

He’d clearly also read some kind of “Evangelical Apologist’s Guide to Where Islam Goes WRONG”, and kept telling the woman what she believed, and why it was wrong, since it contradicted the Bible. He didn’t, of course, listen to what she was saying about her belief.

I give her credit for a) being feisty, b) not letting him get away with his views and c) being far more intelligent and sophisticated about truth, faith and texts than he was. She had the advantage that she’d read at least parts of the Bible, had Christian friends, and was an Arabist and student of the Quran. He knew the Authorised version, and what other people had told him about (I approximate his pronunciation) “The Book of Korrrr-ran”.

I wanted to apologise to her on behalf of other Christians. Instead I left to catch a train, leaving her with at least a friendly remark which she seemed to appreciate, and pointing out to the would-be evangelist that of course he had presuppositions, and if he wanted an honest conversation he’d acknowledge them.

There was no relationship in this conversation. There was no respect for her as a human being. There was no consideration of the dynamics of an older man approaching a young woman. There was no attempt to listen to what she actually said, since he “knew” what Muslims believed.

And I’m sorry, that’s not evangelism as I see it.

Evangelism might have started in that context with a “Do you need any help choosing a Bible?” and seeing where the conversation went. But it would have included listening to what the woman was saying, and not assuming that there was an automatic right of a man in his sixties to approach a head-scarved young woman with a peremptory challenge about her beliefs, before he’d even found out what they were, or received any signal his approach was welcome.

Frankly, it made me embarrassed to admit I was Christian.

Jesus: resurrection, history and misplaced apologetics

Just before Lent I heard what I regarded as an unhelpful – to put it charitably – sermon on the Transfiguration story. It was unhelpful for several reasons. The preacher used Luke to “fill in the details Mark left out” and largely ignored Mark’s shaping of the story. He referred to the “eyewitness account we have” in 2 Peter, as though this was unproblematic, whereas it seems to me verging on dishonesty, to hide from “the laity” any knowledge that Petrine authorship is almost universally questioned by scholars.

Mosaic of the Transfiguration, St Catherine’s Monastery Sinai. Public Domain

Above all it was unhelpful because the preacher’s main aim seemed to be primarily, if not solely, to establish the historicity of the event. This fixation on historicity led to contrasts such as “not an hallucination, not a vision, but something that really happened”. (The possibility that it was a theological story was not entertained.)

I can understand the “not an hallucination” – a term we tend to use for those who are either ill or ingesting psychotropic substances. I can’t understand the “not a vision” since it is the testimony of almost all cultures but ours that visions are “real experiences”. What was it if it wasn’t a vision experience, and how does it being a visionary experience make it less real to its participants?

But leaving all that aside, what made this in my view a big problem, was that there was no real engagement with the summons to be transformed by following Jesus down the mountain and onwards on the way of the cross. The story of exaltation is sandwiched between Passion predictions, which is one of the reasons, I take it, that the Church of England messed around with the Revised Common Lectionary and moved this away from Lent 2 to the Sunday before Lent, to invite us to see Lent as walking this path of transformation. Listening to this sermon rather brought to mind Eliot’s line from The Dry Salvages (Four Quartets) “We had the experience but missed the meaning”.

Why do I bring that up at this end of Lent rather than at the start? Well apart from the fact that I wasn’t really blogging at the time, it is because I see the same temptation regularly surrendered to as Easter approaches.

It seems so easy for us Christians (teachers and preachers especially) so to give ourselves to an apologetic defence of the resurrection having actually happened, that we spend insufficient time and energy opening up the meaning of Easter. In doing so we run the risk of turning the resurrection of Jesus from the entropy-busting event that offers new hope and life to everything that happens in history, into just one more thing that happened in the distant past.

I’m sure no-one intends a form of apologetic that reduces the resurrection to a past event. I think, however, that an over-fixation on establishing its historicity as a ground for faith can produce exactly that effect. I suspect it is more that finding faith in the risen Jesus is the ground for accepting both the historical and eternal reality of his being raised from the dead.