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Just Say No to Apologetics

March 25, 2015

When I was younger I was fond of reading books of apologetics – that is, books which focused on the reasons why Christianity was right and other ideas were wrong. In fact, when I was a teenager I considered it almost a Christian duty to read these books. More recently I’ve become significantly less fond of them.

Part of this is that many modern apologetics books aren’t very good. It’s not any too difficult to find a book claiming that it presents solid reasons to believe in Jesus only to discover that it presents solid reasons to suspect that the author needs to expand his knowledge of philosophy, history, and sometimes even basic writing skills. If this were all I wouldn’t dislike apologetics book in general, I’d just dislike a particular sort of apologetics book (and I do still have something of a soft spot for books that cover ancient and medieval apologetics). Instead, I find that I dislike the whole concept of writing an apologetics book.

It would be easy at this point to accuse me of hypocrisy. Several of my articles here could be considered apologetics articles. However, what I specifically don’t like is a focus on apologetics. The best apologetics are done by accident and attempting to do apologetics is a good way to do it poorly.

One of the dominant myths in Western society is the war between religion and science. This is a myth both in the sense that it gives meaning and structure to many Western beliefs about the world but also in the sense that it is wildly exaggerated. However, within this myth there is a simple story about knowledge: religion starts by knowing what it must conclude and figures out how to work to that point whereas science starts by knowing nothing, figuring out how to best learn things, and then uses those tools to reach conclusions. This isn’t true in general but if it were it would be a pretty damning charge – it would amount to saying that all of Christian intellectual life is devoted to propping up statements of unknown worth. However, the area that gets closest to this parody is apologetics. An apologist starts with some known conclusion and defends this.

To be clear, apologetics doesn’t exist solely in the realm of religion. There are apologists for and against global warming and vaccines, for instance. The people defending these various position feel that their position is so well backed that they can stop questioning it and move on to figuring out why arguments against their idea are wrong. This can be just fine – if I were to deal with a large number of people who argued that I don’t exist I would argue against them in much that style. I know I exist, the only real question is why someone would question the truth of my existence.

However, I still have an issue with apologetics. This issue can be explained in two points.

First, apologetics almost never starts at the beginning. An apologist is a Christian for some reason and it is very, very rarely because that apologist read a document anything like the one they are writing. However, the supposed aim of the document the apologist writes is to cause others to follow the apologist into faith. This is an odd way to go about things. It is a bit like climbing a mountain and then, from the top, advising people to take a different (untried) route up. Now sometimes in both mountain climbing and personal growth one does wish to say, “Now that I am here I see that I took the painfully long route to get here, try that route instead,” but it is odd how few people seem to end up Christian by following the route the apologists lay out.

I believe that the central issue here is that modern apologetics tends towards modern modes of thought. Most Christians are not Christian for reasons that sound good to others. They involve things like personal feelings and being swayed by the grace shown by other Christians rather than cold, hard, “serious” facts. (For that matter, many atheists take a similar track away from Christianity.) However, if that is actually what drives people (and I believe it is) then we should start taking it seriously. It does little good to say, “I wish humans were beings of pure logic and I will address them as if they are.” Instead, facing reality and addressing real people is the smarter course. If an apologist knows how they got to be a Christian they should tell us. If they know that what they then discovered studying Christian is fascinating and answers problems they should tell us that, too. But there’s no point in flipping the order of things and claiming that what one finds out after becoming Christian made one Christian.

Second, apologetics demands a stable point to defend. My own dislike of apologetics in its normal form came about through a slow death of one thousand cuts. I would take a position on a text, on a philosophical issue, on a matter of history in order to make a certain sort of argument. Later I would realize that the position I had taken was shakier than I had realized. However, I had now tied myself to that position through an argument that I had, in turn, tied to my whole faith. If I admitted that Paul’s missionary journeys might have taken a different route than I had first supposed (to pick a random example) I might end up pulling bricks out of the great structure that I insisted held my faith up. There are three choices at this point. One is to stop learning, to freeze the whole edifice of belief as it is right now. Of course, this means freezing some things into perpetual error. However, it does give one fixed points to argue from. Another option is to allow small cracks to destroy one’s entire faith. Were the casualties at the battle of Ai in the book of Joshua rounded? Well, time to abandon the faith! A third option is to realize that growth means that some points will move and that it’s a good idea to allow that to happen and rework ideas when necessary.

A short aside is necessary here. The whole idea of allowing points not to be fixed sounds to many people like saying, “Well, I may well be wrong about everything.” However, when we are actually sure that some things are true we don’t worry too much about treating them as fixed points. For instance, I’m not much concerned if someone needs to rework our current understanding of gravity to make it mesh with quantum physics. A good theory will eventually circle around to something that looks a lot like gravity because gravity is obviously there and in need of explanation. The explanation may change but the phenomenon is real. Similarly, there are articles of faith that I may end up explaining very differently in the future but I don’t worry too much about that because I’m sure a good theory will eventually have to get around to explaining them.

This brings me to my final point. All of my own best apologetics has come about by doing something else entirely. For instance, I may be thinking about why the Church has consistently insisted on the spiritual disciplines and come to some realization about the faith that then spills over into commentary about why I think Christianity explains something better than the other options. Some of my more recent articles probably look like they are aimed outward – they cover issues of what religion is and what gods are and undermine a common atheist claim to be unique and distinct from religious people. However, that line of thought came from thinking about how things other than God can demand allegiance in the Christian life. More specifically, some of those thoughts came from considering whether a rather common tactic in preaching whereby passages about idols are used to launch into discussions of modern “idols” like money, power, fame, or even your favorite hobby was the product of deep insight (these things really do claim the allegiance that ancient statutes of gods once claimed) or a sort of dumb way to deal with passages that were about ancient customs that we don’t practice anymore in the West.

Thinking deeper about Christianity will (if you believe Christianity is true) produce better apologetics naturally. Shallow Christianity is hard to defend. It is silly, bogged down in weird ideas that come from nowhere, and can’t get to grips with hard questions. Deep, thoughtful Christianity has answers to the whole first line of basic questions without doing any additional work. I think it is best to focus on Christianity first and its defense to the outside world second.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2015 2:21 pm

    I encountered (and, if I’m honest, probably had) some of this mindset growing up. The assumption seemed to be that if you could just counter every argument, then the person would have no choice but to accept whatever was left as truth.

    Even with things that can be clearly, logically, and observably proven true beyond a shadow of a doubt, that doesn’t work. People are really, really good at self-delusion.

    I don’t see the problem so much with apologetics (religious or otherwise) as a concept, but rather the type of personality that is drawn to writing apologetics. If you’re the type of person who thinks all your beliefs come with a simple, ironclad narrative, then it probably has very little to do with the actual beliefs you hold or how often you change them, and more the way you see yourself in relation to the world around you.

    • Eric permalink
      March 26, 2015 8:22 pm

      I would agree that conceptually apologetics can be fine. I’d go a bit further and say that whether or not you start focusing on apologetics because your faith is stunted and simplistic the act of focusing on apologetics can hinder your growth.

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