What Is Apologetics?
On the one hand, the apostles Paul and Peter called on Christians to know and understand their faith in order to offer it when the need arises, and to defend and explain it if need be. It's especially so in the face of today's multitude of religions and un-religious beliefs, self-created belief systems (and un-systems), and fanatical cults. When you can thoughtfully explain your faith, you're more ready to live by it as situations arise in this complex world.
On the other hand, it is futile to try to prove God or prove what God's will is; it's beyond our abilities. Even if it were possible, it would be rejected by human thinkers - they'd create holes in the proof, even if they had to recast the rules of good thinking to do so. Christians walk by faith, not by what we can see or sense or test or define or figure out. It is helpful to make a case for the faith, but it must not swallow up theology or the day-to-day life of faith. When it does, the apologist starts seeing people as targets, not people to be loved. There's much more to life than giving reasons and making cases.
There are (at least) three different faces or qualities of a good apologetic : credibility, laudability, and viability. Let's unpack these words.
A Credibility Apologetic
Credibility (true-ness, believability) answers questions like :
- Is it true?
- How real is it?
- Does this make sense?
- Does it add up to anything, or take me anywhere?
- What contradicts it?
- How useful is it at explaining the way this world is?
These are the big Truth questions. A credibility apologetic which deals with these questions means a lot more thinking, reading, and researching. There are lots of sources to draw from, because there have been people dealing with these questions since before there was recorded history. The Bible is still the most trusted and respected source on such matters, but it's no longer seen by most people as "The" authority on them. And you must deal with people as they are, not as if they thought like you. So the Bible's still the most helpful book around for those who make a Christian case, but it doesn't 'seal the deal' on anything with non-believers.
Capital-T Truths are so big that we all do some amount of fudging. Whenever someone realizes their case is not being accepted or that they've run past the limits of their own knowledge, they tend to exaggerate, cover up the gaps, and claim too much. It's just as true of Christian apologists as it is for philosophers and futurists and salesmen and media stars and politicians. For that matter, it's also just as true of the people you're talking to. (But if you say that, the dialogue ends right there.)
Most of today's Christian apologists and 'discernment ministries' have claimed too much for the faith or for Christ or for the Bible. They make a lot of guarantees when the Christian faith offers very few. Christian apologists hardly ever admit that they don't know. They make promises for God, which God may or may not carry out, about miracles, health, personal happiness, fulfillment, security, romance, freedom, wealth, sanity, fellowship, revived marriages, and problem resolution. God does make promises, but fewer of them, and of a different kind, a kind that fits within a larger picture, within our lives and in the end, the life of the Kingdom. God makes promises that are a commitment to His followers, then His followers are sent with a commitment to fulfilling that promise in the lives of others. Many promises made in the course of making a case are like a funny joke when compared to a great career of being funny. Some Christians, in the manner of a con man, make many promises about God, as if we were God or we were deputized to make promises for God. In doing so, we damage the credibility of all Christians. So when speaking of the faith to someone who doesn't believe, it's best to keep a lid on what we promise.
If we hope to restore our credibility with non-believers, we must not only stop exaggerating and promising, we also must stop lying:
- Lying about ourselves, by denying our failings or explaining them away instead of confessing them as sin, turning away from those sins, and living differently.
- Lying by pretending we're more sure of our beliefs than we really are, as if we held them beyond doubt, when in fact we're regularly questioning them just by making the daily decisions of our lives.
- Lying about other religions, treating 'them' as if they have no value or truth in them at all and are an enemy of God, even when they agree with us.
- Lying about those who have no faith, or those who don't think matters of faith are important enough to bother with, as if none of 'them' have a moral compass, or are in any way good people, or have anything to teach us.
- Lying by comparing our best with everyone else's worst.
- Lying through bait-and-switch doubletalk, for instance, by speaking of 'true freedom', but then taking them into a system of rules.
Again and again, we commit these sins of pride, in the name of the Christ who chose to give up the pride of being a god by taking His god-ness into a human life, to and through the moment of death. Our pride makes us un-credible. It ruins the logic of our case, and spoils the credibility of what we say. It becomes something we have to apologize for.
Define Less, Live In the Mystery
Life is a mystery, not a charted course. There are no answers to much of it, and each answer brings a new set of questions. So a reasoned case must be able to thrive on the questions, both answered and unanswered. Following Christ is promise more than it is promises, the right questions as much as the right answers. Our 'credibility apologetic' makes the case that the Christian faith is the best place to explore the mysteries of life. The faith is a relationship, our Maker's love for us. This truth has much explaining power -- all this faith-talk makes sense when seen that way. The case becomes credible. The contents of our case must never be reduced to rigid rules, if for no other reason than the fact that God does not reduce people so they can live within them.
A Laudability Apologetic
Laudability is not about truth, it is about value or worth. To laud something or someone means to praise them, usually for some specific action or stance or accomplishment. Another English term is "praise-worthiness", but such a wonderful word sounds way too churchy to most folks. It makes no logical sense to follow a religion, philosophy, or course of action if it inherently makes you or others who hold it into selfish, abusive creeps. (Logically, there are creeps in every religion or philosophy, just as there are plenty of creeps who have none.) A laudability apologetic faces a common question of today: whether the religion or philosophy itself, by its approach to life, leads you into becoming better or becoming creepier. A laudability apologetic addresses questions like these:
- would it make me a better person? In what ways can it make me better?
- would it make my children better than they would otherwise be?
- can it make the society I live in better or more just than it is?
- does it help build a good, well-textured culture with good values?
- would it bring about peace, stability, civility, and respect for freedom?
Be Like Christ
In days gone by, Christian beliefs were seen as being very beneficial to society. Christians, as leaders of the community, would respect other people, be honest and calm, help out those in need, and be reliable for carrying out their responsibilities -- and then some. They would be examples of the spiritual fruit of goodness. Such lives have real impact on those around them. Such people are their own 'laudability apologetic'. But now, most Europeans and Canadians, along with many in the US, aren't so sure about the benefits. Both rightly and wrongly, they see religions as the main source of prejudice and war in the world. Part of that is drawn from images of prejudice and arrogance which are true of enough Christians to make it a fair question. Part of it is that few of us in the Western world understand how power, security, and economics drive most wars, and how those forces then co-opt religion, tradition, history, culture, ethnicity, and just about everything else, pulling them in for support.
Like it or not, you have to start the dialogue not from what Christians believe or even from what's actually true. You must start with what is believed by those to whom you're speaking, and work from there. The fact is, many of them hear in the media only the most extreme voices among us, and they're rightly scared of their incivility and the recklessness toward other peoples' freedoms. "Is this what Christianity produces?", they ask. There's nothing to praise there. And most folks know of at least one outspoken Christian in their own circles who expresses the same nasty ideas. When some of our own can inspire such justifiable anger in others, what do we say? People are now doubting that the Christian faith creates people of laudable, praiseworthy character. Our laudability factor has been brought way down, and we need to do much more about it than we have done to date. And do it not for the sake of our arguments, but for the sake of Christ's Kingdom.
A Viability Apologetic
Viability is not about truth or values. If something is viable, it means it can be done or lived-out on an ongoing basis.
It's the "get real" factor, on whether it's "doable" over time. I can believe something is true, and even think highly of it as an ideal, but it would be illogical (and foolish) to live my life according to it if I find it can't be done in a day-to-day way. It becomes nothing more than a utopian dream. It's not seen as viable. Pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by does me no good by itself; I need something I can do well right here where I live, in the times I'm in. A viability apologetic asks these kind of questions:
- can I live this way?
- can I envision what my life would be like if I lived in this faith?
- would lack of success at it mean I'm a failure at life?
- does it play into my addictions and psychological problems, and the lies I tell myself? Can other aspects of this faith help me overcome them?
- can my family live this way, and can I still do so if they choose not to?
- are there costs in it which I can't, or don't want, to pay?
- would I have to live this way alone, or is there a real community of others who can help me live it?
Tell Your Real Story
This is where it helps to tell the story of your own true faith experience or testimony, which is your own 'viability apologetic'. It helps to see someone else who is actually dealing with the things I'd have a hard time dealing with. The best evidence that it can be done is that there is someone who is doing it. For your testimony to work, though, you really have to be doing it, or you and your testimony will fail to show the gospel's viability.
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