Unassailable: Some Thoughts on Apologetics

I’ve come across many apologists lately, and I’ve found that even when I happen to agree with them, the whole approach leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.  I find this a bit strange, and even a touch alarming, considering I used to be a big fan of the entire discipline.  In fact, after a few years of Bible college I had myself pegged as a future apologist.  I’m having a hard time sorting my thoughts out on this issue – but hey, that’s what this blog is for.

First of all, would the liberal apologists please stand up?  I don’t mean liberal in a theological sense, but in a political sense (though I suppose there may be a connection, if not a logical one).  Both ends of the political spectrum like to use scripture to help make their point, but only the conservatives seem concerned with making points in support of scripture.  There are plenty of political liberals who form their ideology based on scripture too – why aren’t they concerned with the defense of the faith?

And there it is: the term that strikes such a chord with me.  “Defense” of the faith?  Defending from what, or whom?  The definition of apologetics, according to a quick wikipedia search, is “he discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information. Early Christian writers (c. 120-220) who defended their faith against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called apologists.”  Now, from the perspective of the early church I can see there being a need for apologetics, as doctrine was only beginning to be formulated; but who are we defending ourselves against now?  Then, they were arguing against other religious sects who had radically (or sometimes not so radically) different notions of what Christianity was; now, we argue against “the new atheists”, who are known for being abusive against bad theology.  We’ve made up with the different Christian groups with whom we disagree (we call them denominations now instead of sects) and we agree to live and let live.  We no longer burn heretics, and we’re content to leave the ones with whom we have sharp disagreements alone – either because we think that their theology itself is an obvious proof of their folly, or because their arguments against us are sufficiently foolish to perform the same function.  Apologetics today rarely deals with doctrine itself, anyways: these days it seems to be mainly directed at the moral application of doctrine (i.e. “Conservative values”).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in making clear declarations and expositions of the Christian faith, and I think that bad theology should always be countered with good theology.  Perhaps there’s even value in showing why bad theology is so bad, though I’ve become much less concerned with answering terrible arguments (perhaps because there are so many of them, or perhaps because they’re usually self-refuting).  What concerns me with apologetics is inherent to its nature: it’s defensive.  Why would those who claim allegiance to the one true God feel so defensive?  I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, so there’s certainly no fear for my own salvation involved; and I count my life as nothing compared to the riches that are in Christ Jesus, so even if everyone else thinks I’m wrong and kills me for it, so be it; and in regard to being led astray, I currently only see as through a glass darkly anyways, and I’ll make the most of the knowledge and convictions I have about God.  Please forgive the string of half-quotes, but I hope the point is clear: apologists are defensive, but not for their own sake.

So who are apologists defending?  Surely not God himself!  My Old Testament professor in Bible college loved to talk about how, in many ancient religions, if your house was burning down you had to go into it in order to save your gods – because they were wooden or stone idols on your mantelpiece.  “My God saves me,” he would say.  God is not Santa Claus, whose power and reality depends on the number of people who continue to believe in him.  If the correctness of our belief about God was hurtful to him, then even the most devout of us are constantly twisting a thousand knives.  We know a great deal about God, and with every new thing we learn we realize just how much more is still over the horizon of our knowledge.  No, apologists are not defending God himself, as if God needs a shield or fortress.

Are apologists defending the Church?  Perhaps, though when you put it in such broad terms, there probably aren’t many detractors against Christianity in general.  There are plenty of detractors for specific churches or denominations – most of them Christians from another church or denomination.  There’s still inter-religious dialogue, and I think that this is extremely important – particularly, it’s important that we learn to do it respectfully, and we’ve come a long way in that regard.  However, the apologetics that I’ve seen lately had little to do with arguing for the existence of God, or for the Christian concept of God, or for the continued existence of the Church catholic – though there’s been a bit of the latter.

As I said earlier, the apologetics I’ve seen lately are all centered around a few moral issues and how these issues relate to our society and politics.  So apologists are not defending themselves, or God, or Christianity – if they’re defending anything, they’re defending conservatism, and the claim that conservatism and Christianity are essentially the same thing.  I find this troubling, because a very large portion of the Church catholic disagrees with that overlap.

In his book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter describes three different Christian stances toward culture: being separate from culture (a stance that characterizes the neo-Anabaptist movements); imitating culture (which characterizes the Christian left); and defending against culture (a stance which characterizes the Christian right).  I heard Hunter give a lecture about some of the concepts from this book in a podcast from Cardus, a Canadian Christian think-tank.  I have a subscription to Cardus’ latest flagship publication, Convivium.  In spite of claiming to be a broad conversation that is inclusive of all voices in the public square, and in spite of having former NDP MP Bill Blaikie write an article in the first issue, it’s been in Convivium that I’ve consistently come across apologists for conservatism.  They don’t always claim to be merely defending Christianity, but even when they admit that they are defending conservative thought, they make it clear that they believe that this is synonymous with Christianity.

In the latest issue, there’s a long interview with a Catholic pundit who’s just released a book called “Why Christians Are Right” – a book that answers criticisms of Christianity, particularly Catholicism (other books he has written or will write include a book critical of homosexuality and a book in defense of Israel, so his conservative stance is quite clear).  I call him a pundit because he also hosts a show on SunTV (the “Fox News of the north”, as it has been called).  A lot of what he had to say was quite interesting, but some of it was frustrating, and even shocking.  For example:

Convivium: People recognize that ‘we are countercultural now, but so what?  Let’s just get on with it.’
MC: That’s right.  And those older Catholics who keep on about social justice – of course, they don’t mean social justice, they mean their chosen causes – they’re moribund.  And they’re just silly…They’re irrelevant….But you still have those old Catholics – there aren’t many left – who are on the left of the NDP as MPs or in our electorate still thinking they can be very radical and change the world.  That’s long gone, I’m afraid.

I agree very much that being a Christian is countercultural – I would argue that it always was, and that when it ceased to be so it ceased to really follow Christ.  But here is a Canadian Catholic Christian whose actual job includes being an apologist for the Christian faith, openly calling his fellows silly and irrelevant because they don’t share his conservative views.  It’s pretty clear that he’s not actually defending Christianity, but a certain conservative version of it and the place of that version of Christianity in the public and political sphere.  But what really strikes me about the entire interview is that this person, who hosts a television show and publishes books that make the bestseller list and claims allegiance to the one true God, feels as though he is persecuted.  This rich white male who lives in a country that enshrines the freedoms of religion, conscience, and speech, and allows him to believe, practice, and say what he wants unless it infringes on the rights and freedoms of others, is arguing for his own right to do those very things.  And so I retract my previous statement: some apologists really are defending themselves – they’re defending themselves as conservative Christians defending their rights from infringement by a Conservative government whose leader himself claims to be a Christian.

I don’t want to demean the struggles that many people have.  There are legitimate cases of Christians being persecuted because they refuse to perform a gay marriage, or…well, it seems like every complaint from Christians these days is somehow related to gay rights vs. freedom of religion.  And there are genuine cases that should not be ignored.  But the argument for persecution against Christians in Canada seems absurd when compared to the scores of legitimate cases of persecution (even in the Church) based on gender, race, and yes, sexuality.

In To Change the World, Hunter argued that the Christian Right is trying to defend a culture that never existed – always looking back to the American golden age of nuclear families and middle-class bliss in a Christian nation.  We recognize now that this middle-class bliss of the fifties was indeed somewhat limited to the middle class, and that the culture of the “Christian nation” never fully applied – and certainly not in Canada.  I would also argue that our Christian apologists are defending a culture that never really existed against threats that similarly have never really materialized.  Sure, we may never have really had a Christian nation, but we’ve always had a nation that allowed us to be Christians – which is more than they can say in Burma, China, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or a hundred other places in the world.  Yes, I know that saying someone else has it worse is NOT a good argument for the status quo to continue – may it never be so! – but I include this for a little perspective.  The “attack” on Christianity in Canada roughly equals the notion that not everyone likes the way we see the world, and therefore we cannot enforce our own values on others – I think when Jesus said it, we called it the “golden rule” – while in these other countries I’ve mentioned, professing Jesus to be Lord (the most basic Christian confession) can earn you a death sentence.  We have almost nothing to complain about, and yet we come across as being persecuted and threatened, even though we’re allowed to complain about those things as much as we like – and even to go about changing them, if we must.

The fact that this particular apologist seems so persecuted is not particularly singular; I know an apologist who simply makes thorough arguments, and makes no prophetic statements about the moral midden heap that is our culture, or the coming apocalypse, or anything like that, but some of the articles that he links to make it seems as though there’s a massive leftist or government or atheist conspiracy to pervert our morals and hand our nation over to the homosexuals.  Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but there’s certainly plenty of alarmist literature out there, and most conservative alarmist literature is focused on the theme of a secular culture undermining our morals and our rights to our morals.  That they can point to one or two cases where this has happened is iron-clad proof that our system is out to get us, right?  We’re the most persecuted people, and we don’t even know it!

This particular apologist (the persecuted one, not the one who simply makes thorough arguments) goes on to compare the persecution of Christians (or people of any religion) to other types of persecution.  I’ll let his quote speak for itself, rather than try to describe it:

MC: I think that in the Western world, race was irrelevant quite a long time ago, and in the United States it still has a certain dynamic because of the heritage of slavery.  But in Canada, only some lunatic is going to believe that race is still an issue.  We can have commonality that is more significant and deeper than racial difference.  So being Canadian, I don’t think that’s a tangible commonality.  But living in Canada and co-existing – even though that sounds a bit weak – that is something that does give us a common cause.  My fear is that it has increasingly pushed religion out of its boundaries, and genuine religion is seen as something that is damaging to common life.  Even within conservatism, the Canadian commonality, the Canadian purpose…there seems to be a belief that religion holds this back.  There are Conservatives who are saying, ‘We’ve got to get rid of [religion]; it’s holding us back.  If we’re really going to have Canadian commonality and a Canadian conservative commonality, then we really have to push religion to the side.  If you want a religion, that’s fine.  Just keep it to yourself.’  That worries me.

I feel like what he wants is validation for his belief.  Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe that religion has a place in the public sphere – it’s naive to think that we can have a public sphere without it – but I don’t think that there’s any real threat of such a state.  I think that the need for validation exhibited by the above comments extends to the feeling of being persecuted itself, too.  The New Testament deals with persecution quite a bit, because Christians were having their property confiscated, or were put to death, because of their confession of faith (not their ethics, mind you – just what they actually believed).  We have a defensiveness against persecution built into the foundation of our religion, and so we tend to see persecution in the smallest ways, and make them seem much larger.  Like suggesting that race is not an issue in Canada, when the population of First Nations in our prisons in comparison to all other people is vastly disproportionate to their overall population in Canada; or the fact that they still don’t own the land on which most of them live; or the fact that there are hundreds of treaties that have still not been recognized by our government; etc. etc.  To this apologist, none of that compares to the persecution that Canadian Christians feel when someone (he doesn’t say who, and I can’t find a credible reference to these shadowy figures) says that we shouldn’t have religion in public life in Canada.

I recognize that I’ve digressed, picking on bad apologists rather than apologetics itself.  This is the mistake that atheist apologists make when they attack Christianity, and it’s the mistake that Christian apologists make when they likewise build straw-man arguments about the conspiracy to push faith out of public life.  I suppose my complaint is that apologists aren’t doing a very good job: they’re defending themselves from baseless persecution, rather than defending their particular worldview; they’re defending conservatism rather than Christianity; etc.  What I’d really like to see is some good apologetics – but what would that even look like?

I think that good apologetics is not really apologetics at all.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “the best defense is a good offense.”  Good theology is the best defense of the Christian faith; good ethics is the best defense of the Christian life; and good expression of faith in public life is the best defense against the undermining of faith in public life.  (God himself doesn’t need defending, and God himself defends me, so those aren’t even concerns.)  Any good theology will take into account other theologies that are not as good; it will weigh them, measure them, and reject what is wrong with them and incorporate what is right into itself.  To be entirely on the defensive, to be always reactionary and persecuted, is to give a false notion of Christianity, which is actually very strong because it is true – and that truth is what wins arguments.  When we state the truth, we are strong – so why must we defend it?  If we need to defend a particular point, either we’re not stating it very well, or it’s not true.  Truth itself, like God, is unassailable: no matter what people think about it or say about it, it remains.

That’s all for now, but I’d love to hear your opinion.  Am I being too harsh?  (I’m sure that I am, and I’m sure there IS good apology out there.  Show me where, and give me a good apology for why it’s good!)


5 thoughts on “Unassailable: Some Thoughts on Apologetics

  1. In response to your last (larger) paragraph,

    – which includes “Good theology is the best defense of the Christian faith; good ethics is the best defense of the Christian life; and good expression of faith in public life is the best defense against the undermining of faith in public life,” I would reply: The best method is to live by example. Nobody can argue with getting results. Let them see the Blessing of God on our lives, and like Isaac we’ll see even our enemies coming to us in wonderment. There’s no need to argue, the Blessed life (and the Gospel) is inherently attractive. The only people who need an offense or a defense for their faith are the ones not getting results. If they haven’t figured out how to work it yet, they shouldn’t be trying to teach others as if they did.

    – and which includes “To be entirely on the defensive, to be always reactionary and persecuted, is to give a false notion of Christianity, which is actually very strong because it is true – and that truth is what wins arguments. When we state the truth, we are strong – so why must we defend it? If we need to defend a particular point, either we’re not stating it very well, or it’s not true. Truth itself, like God, is unassailable: no matter what people think about it or say about it, it remains,” I would invite you to read a recent post of mine that you might find interesting because it discusses those very notions. It’s not apologetics, exactly, but you may find something there tasty to chew on for a while. The article is called “Let the Record Show; Better Justice by Playing Ball” and can be found at sailingspirit.wordpress.com I would be interested to hear your thoughts about it.

    Peace be with you!

  2. I was listening to some lectures by T. F. Torrance several months ago and one of the things which struck me particularly hard was his statement that he does not call himself an “apologist,” (though others have) but an “evangelist.” He preferred that term since he did not see himself as defending the faith, but as declaring the Faith. I quite liked that approach, though I think any truly good apologist will likely follow that in their actual procedure even if they have not thought about the use of the label itself.

  3. Hi, Jeff,
    I “stumbled” on your blog when I was starting research on a blog that I want to start, powerofnarrative. I find your comments refreshing, and, coming from America, I see a similar “fight” going on among those who equate Conservatism with Christianity, and try to defend it, and those who see through that.

    I agree with your statements that we don’t have to “defend” God! I have wonderful relationships with some very liberal, not-necessarily-Christian people, in which I have earned the right to talk about my faith in some very intimate ways, because they know I’m not threatened by their beliefs. I’m at liberty to respect them, to learn from them, to love them! While there may be times when I, perhaps, should be more forward in sharing my faith and trying to persuade others, as Paul often did, at least I’ve laid a groundwork that leaves the person I may be talking with the “space” to make valid decisions for themselves, in stead of being “forced” into believing “our way.” I sometimes think that, in this cultural idolatry of Conservatism, it would be “ok” with that camp if everyone looked and acted as though they believed, whether or not they truly believe. I would liken that to a “verbally-based” inquisition. “Believe in our way, or we will kill you!” kind of like many of the jihadists whom the conservative camps decry so vehemently.

    Regarding apologetics, I’m sure you know of people like Ravi Zacharius, who seem to have more of a genuine apologetic status in regards to theology—although, now that I think about it, there is some defence of conservatism in his works also.

    But that leads me to why I want to write about this stuff too, in my powerofnarrative blog. I thing a lot about how “narratives” have power over us, even when they are at odds with what may be good theology (To be honest, I’m not really a theologian, so I’m not necessarily sure what good theology is, except that I know that it should be something that, if thought through, is consistent with the Scriptures and what God has revealed about Himself in them.). There are cultural “narratives” that are mixed in with our Christianity, and it is important that we understand that they exist and strive to differentiate them from what Christianity actually is. Otherwise, we are in danger of (and, indeed, guilty of) idolatry, one of the things toward which God takes a particularly wrathful stance. So, while proclaiming what we think is “Christianity,” we are making fools of ourselves, and often shaming God publicly, as we insist that the portions of our narratives that we idolize are equal with God. Very dangerous indeed!!!

    One of the aspects of this concerns the concept of “post modernism,” which I saw that you talked about in one of your blogs. I haven’t read it thoroughly yet, but read enough to know that ;you don’t “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to that: You don’t see post modern thought as “evil” and “the enemy!” I believe that many Conservative Christians are actually worshipping parts of their own narrative when they oppose what they view as “post modernism.” They may feel threatened by the “non-togetherness” of post modern thought, and threatened by the fact that things may not be as easily explainable as they would like. To me, it seems like they are stuck in a Modernist framework of thought, which “misses the mark” even more than a post modern framework would.

    Why do I believe that? It’s because when I came to Jesus, it was because I (by His grace and drawing) was open to other thought and ways of looking at things. I find that a consistent part of my Christianity, when God shows my I’m wrong about something! How are we to set an example for a stance of repentance, when we are so very sure we “have it all together,” and have to “defend” that. As you said, truth requires no defence, in that sense, as though it was “assailable!”

    But we are assailable, and to leave ourselves assailable by God for Him to teach us and show us where we are wrong is a wonderful thing, not to be shunned. There seems to be a kind of faith that can handle that, and a kind of “faith” that is threatened by that. The latter seems to be brittle, and, I’m afraid, won’t stand up to real persecution, if we ever do see it in the West.

    Well, I’ve gone on enough! Would be interested in your feedback, and, when I start posting in my powerofnarrative blog, I’ll let you know.
    Meanwhile, i’ve started 3 other blogs, in which I sort out my thoughts on various subjects: wanderingsoldiers.blogspot.com
    responsiblespeech.blogspot.com and over50amusing.blogspot.com.
    Hopefully, we’ll talk again!
    (Central New York State, by Syracuse)

    • Hi Anthony, and thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      I think that we’re probably talking about the same groups, for the most part; sadly, most of the media available in Canada is American, and we often hear more about your politics and celebrities than our own. My brother and I often talk about politics and religion, and he’s usually quite critical of Christianity, though inevitably the Christianity he’s referring to is that of Jerry Falwell or Dr. Dobson.

      As I was reading your comment, the thought that came to my mind is that there are two fundamentally different outlooks on life at work here, and both of them are important (and both of them easily go wrong). As with any use of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” these are gross oversimplifications and overgeneralizations, but it seems to me that conservatives are outwardly critical while liberals are inwardly critical. Of course, we need both; we need to be able to see something that is wrong and tell it like it is, but we also need to be able to look at ourselves and see what’s wrong too. We all do both to some extent, so the difference is a matter of emphasis. I probably lean liberal (though of course I consider myself a centrist), because I’d rather make sure I’m in the right before I say anything about anyone else, and I project that attitude onto the groups of which I am a member (such as my government) – so when a Provincial court ruled last month that the law against assisted suicide in Canada is prejudiced against the disabled (because it’s not illegal for an able-bodied person to kill themselves), I applauded the judge for striking down the law even while I really hope that our government comes up with a better law to replace it; I’m definitely not for suicide, but I’d rather find a solution that doesn’t single out one particular group unjustly. My conservative colleague, on the other hand, is aghast that the law was struck down because he wants to uphold the value of life that was behind the law in the first place. We agree to disagree, but I’m sure that there’s a sociological principle here somewhere, some fundamental predisposition toward our in-group, etc., that causes us to do so. I received a book for my birthday that will hopefully explain it; I’ll review it here when I finally get to it!

      On postmodernism, read James K. A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Or for the short version, I blogged it out two years ago 🙂

      On good theology, I think you’re bang on – but for readings, check out Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, N.T. Wright, T.F. Torrance…that should keep you busy!

      And in regard to your blogs, I’ll add them to my reading list 🙂



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