Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Danger of Apologetics

"Whoa. Danger? I thought this was an apologetics blog."

You're right. It is. And as such, it's my job to make sure that whoever reads it gets an accurate picture of what apologetics really is. And a very important part of that job--one that thus far I have neglected--is to make clear the inherent danger in doing apologetics.

First, a story.

I was once doing some evangelism with a friend on my college campus. We engaged a guy in conversation about God, and things quickly became heated. He was an international student, not at all Christian, and had a more or less pluralist view of religion. He had thought about it just enough that the conversation was a little out of my friend's reach, which left the ball squarely in my court. So I engaged him. When he argued fallaciously, I called him on it. When he back-pedaled, I pressed him. In short, I destroyed him. It wasn't pretty. And for what? I seriously doubt that our conversation had any lasting impact on him whatsoever. If he ever came to faith, it was because someone after me loved him better than I did.

You can probably see where this is going. There are at least two ways apologetics can be harmful.

First, there is an inherent danger in studying a little bit of anything. This is compounded when the thing being studied has direct relevance to what one values most. For most of the folks reading this, what you value most is probably the Christian message of salvation. The gospel. So when one studies to learn how to "defend" that gospel, it's natural that a certain stance develops: a stance of, well, defense. It is the stance of either/or, of us and them, of truth vs. falsehood (or even lies). The defense imagery (which I have myself used many times) suggests rather powerfully a clear distinction between the truth-bearer and the truth-denier. And again, when the truth in question is the gospel itself, the stakes couldn't be higher. Worse still, the defense stance is one of violence, or at least aggression. And this is directly opposed to the spirit of Jesus, and thus to the gospel. But how can a defense be opposed to what it is defending? That, as the philosophers like to say, is repugnant to the intellect.

Clearly the word "defense" should be used with some caution. It is used, after all, for good reason. It is derived primarily from 1 Peter 3:15, the go-to verse for Christian apologists: "...in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." The word for defense there is ἀπολογίαν, which is of course where we get the word "apologetic." But the defense stance assumed here is within the context of dialectic, or reasoned argument, not between persons as persons. The proper stance for the latter is the same as ever: self-sacrificial love, no matter the cost, no matter how vile and offensive the enemy or their beliefs.

So much for the first danger. The second is perhaps worse by virtue of being more subtle.

Put simply, knowing how to argue well and defend your beliefs can turn you into a smarty pants. A know-it-all who takes pride in being the person that people bring their questions to and is secretly bothered when they don't. A person who is confident they can win any argument, even arguments about motives for arguing. A person who loves to argue with those less qualified, and either avoids more informed opponents or, worse, fails to recognize when an opponent is superior.

I know this danger well because it described me for a long time, and if I am honest, in some ways it still does. And the worst part about it is that it's just false: you're not a smarty pants. You actually know very little. Almost nothing. There are more volumes than you can count, written by people you've never heard of, in languages you can't read, on questions you've never thought to ask. And all of that might not even be sufficient to satisfactorily answer the questions of the average person on the street. This fact should always be in the back of your mind when dealing with people's questions and giving a reason for your hope. Reading C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer or Lee Strobel (or whoever) does not qualify you to play the role of answer-giver. If anything, it ought to make you a little more apt to listen.

I've studied philosophy, theology, and apologetics for several years now. Enough to carry on a reasonably informed conversation about most of the major questions with just about anybody. Enough to make me confident enough to write this blog. But if there's anything that becomes clearer to me on a daily basis, it's that I don't have a clue. I mean it; not a freakin' clue. The list of things I'm sure about grows ever smaller. But the faith I have in that short list grows ever stronger, too. But this has much more to do with God than with any book I've read.

The task of the apologist resides less in giving good answers than in helping people to ask better questions. Spoiler warning: we all have only one answer, and none of us fully understand it. It's just this: Jesus. He is all any of us can offer, and if you have Him, the rest is insignificant by comparison.