Embarrassment - What's Wrong With Apologetics? (Part 5 of 9)


What's Wrong With Apologetics {{PD-US}} I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean

I love the country but I can't stand the scene.

These lines are from Leonard Cohen’s song “Democracy.” It’s about America. If we replaced “the country” with “apologetics” these words could just as easily apply to my feelings about the American evangelical apologetics industry. Sure, there were nostalgic glory days when robust thinkers like Justin Martyr, Augustine, and Aquinas directed their intellectual energy toward developing a compelling defense of Christianity in their contexts.

Today, however, it seems that apologetics tends to be a performance rather than an authentic dialog, an exercise in being clever rather than being compelling, and a source of self-satisfaction rather than an invitation to risky but respectful engagement. What’s wrong with apologetics today is that it often becomes complacent and ignores difficult, and real, intellectual challenges that are unique to our times.

Thus, some Christians would prefer to keep some popular apologists out of the limelight for the good of the cause. They worry that it makes it look as if Christianity were on shaky—or pseudo-scientific—ground. They’d rather sweep the whole conversation under the rug rather than get lumped in with those who traffic in sloppy thinking.

I get it.

There is indeed a reason to reject bad arguments; but that doesn’t mean we should get out of the business of providing good arguments altogether, or at least explaining ourselves when asked why we believe what we believe. When we offer intellectual arguments, however, we need to be responsible with evidence. This is both theologically and ethically important; we are neither authorized to misrepresent Scripture for our own polemic purposes, nor to misapply naturalistic evidence in order to win debates. To do so is intellectual suicide, trading short-term gains for the long-term erosion of the Christian mind.

Irresponsible Argumentation

Before I explain why we should not be embarrassed to do apologetics, permit me to elaborate on the problem of irresponsible argumentation before encouraging us to press forward. It seems that the evangelical Christian community isn’t appropriately self-critical and fails to properly peer-review its work. I’m not talking about professional journal publication here, but the friendly and collegial peer review that happens casually.

For instance, before someone with a theology degree starts making bold claims about cosmology, biology, or neuroscience, they ought to at least check their claims with Christian allies in those fields in order to avoid using obsolete evidence or methodologies. After all, we hold pharmaceutical companies, accountants, and engineers to high standards of precision. But who is there to challenge false, pseudo-scientific, or outright unsound arguments? Atheists? Sure, they are glad to spot our missteps, but Christians tend to tune them out. I can’t remember the last time I heard a popular apologist in a debate say anything like, “Interesting, I didn’t know that the theory I was using has been contradicted by recent research; I’ll concede that point.” Why not? Do we care about truth or about being right?

Moreover, Christian insiders rarely call out silly thinking submitted by public intellectuals who share their faith. Too often, we fail to hold our co-religionists accountable when they say something inaccurate. We don’t want to hurt the cause. We don’t want to make enemies within our circles. On the few occasions where we Christians do raise an objection, we are often swiftly chastised by the Christian establishment for being nit-picky and uncharitable.

This makes me think we are more like intellectual gangsters and ideologues than faithful disciples. Meanwhile, we seem to have no problem mercilessly attacking each other when it comes to fine points of doctrine or to in-house debates about the sacraments, whether pastors should preach in Hawaiian shirts, or whether we should use bongos or organs in church. But when we are battling the heathen, we step right in line. What gives?

Intellectual Gangsterism

After the release of a recent Christian film—with apologetic content—almost all the pious Christians I know lauded it. They all said it was a wonderful work of art, surely poised to take back the American universities for Jesus. They were wrong. The film was a catastrophe in all categories normal people apply to movies in general. It had terrible aesthetics, thin character development, and an ugly straw man depiction of atheist philosophers. My assessment can of course be corrected, but this is my honest, current assessment. If it were anything else—say a book on the role of divorce in Calvinist Europe during the seventeenth century—I’d be comfortable sharing my thoughts candidly. Indeed, when I think back on the several negative scholarly book reviews I’ve written, even the worst included decent enough scholarship to deserve an A in any graduate program. Negative criticism is not about ill will. It’s about a concern for excellence. Do we in the church desire excellence or not?

St. Augustine noticed the problem of intellectual gangsterism in his own day, especially with respect to debates about the interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts. He writes that those who reject his interpretation:

...love their own opinion not because it is true, but because it is their own. Otherwise they would equally respect another true interpretation as valid, just as I respect what they say when their affirmation is true, not because it is theirs, but because it is true. And indeed if it is true, it cannot be merely their private property. If they respect an affirmation because it is true, then it is already both theirs and mine, shared by all lovers of the truth. But their contention that Moses did not mean what I say but what they say, I reject. I do not respect that. Even if they were right, yet their position would be the temerity not of knowledge but of audacity. It would be the product not of insight but of conceit. (Confessions XII.xxv.34 trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford, 1991).

Once we think of intellectual dialog as a game with winners and losers, and we hold positions because they fit the platforms of our chosen schools or sects, we paradoxically undermine everything Christian thinkers have been trying to do for the last two thousand years. All in the name of piety! Embarrassing indeed.

Freeing Others With The Good News

Nonetheless, embarrassment is no justification for giving up on apologetics. Therefore, if you are one of those who have “once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5), I can’t imagine you would even be able to contain yourself around others.

Have you woken up from your deathly slumber? Then I am convinced you will not need my encouragement to share the good news you’ve heard. It may be through art, literature, music, argumentation, dialog, or good old fashioned chats on your porch. But you won’t be able to keep quiet. Not even persecution and death will dissuade you. You press on not because you have to, but because you can’t contain yourself; you want to help everyone around you break free from their mental, spiritual, and emotional prisons.

If you join the apologetic project, maybe you will get lumped in with the goofy, programmatic, self-congratulatory evangelical gladiators. Sorry about that. But don’t let that stop you from proclaiming the most embarrassing aspect of our faith: the claim that the source of all existence humiliated and embarrassed Himself on the cross to reconcile the world to Himself. Don’t be ashamed of that proclamation (Romans 1:16). Shalom.