Christian apologetics: have we got it wrong?

“Proofs may aid in protecting, but not in initiating certainty..” A J Heschel


In a world that worships at the altar of science and rational thought (the new “religion” of the moderns), Christians find themselves increasingly on the defensive. Apologetics is a tool we use to intellectually push back and assert the reasonableness of our faith.  And yet, as with all tools and tactics, we must use them cognizant of their purposes and yet fully aware of their inherent limits. I fear we have forgotten this in how we value and use modern apologetics and as such we are placing too much hope in it as a means of evangelism and cultural impact.

We rightly measure apologetics to have material value in witnessing to our culture about faith and hope. Many in the Christian world today accept that apologetics is a sort of “admission ticket” to keeping the Christian (counter-) narrative at the table and engaged with respect to those who are sceptical of our faith. We know it is much more than this, but it is indeed this as well. However, perhaps since we feel that we have this “hammer” it seems we think everything may indeed be a nail. My specific goal is to argue here that we have taken this approach and assumed that more of it must be better and we have resultantly invested in it too much hope, rather than appropriately measuring the value of this tool when it fits the role.

In post-modern culture we are now witnessing a deep falling away from orthodox Christianity amongst so many young adults. Arguably this began many decade ago, but the last generation or two acted out of cultural habit and reflex to defend and invest reasonable effort in at least continuing to appear “Christian”.  In recent years it now appears that even the echo of this cultural fragment is fading day-by-day.  Our feet are now firmly planted in the materialist/scientific age with the former consensus of Christian voices silenced and side-lined (in the public square and public and civic institutions). The ruling zeitgeist within the commanding heights of government and university is now stewarded by those who see Christianity as a “nice fable that we ignore with impunity” for purposes of policy and prescription for societal woes. 

Given the late/post-modern context, Christian apologetics has been seen as a better way forward than taking moral positions which are now largely ignored (or worse) by the broader culture.  Whereas we can imagine a time when the Church would speak boldly to the culture to remind them of their need of God, today we have divined that the culture needs us to engage in scientific and rational apologetics.  I do not disagree with this in a general sense.  But my argument is that we have clearly placed too many eggs in the apologetics basket.   If we could only remind the world, we say, that Christianity is as reasonable as anti/non-Christian views on science and the like, then all will be well again. You see, this is not delusion nor wasted effort since modern science does not in fact conflict at the data level with anything Christianity has historically taught. But at the narrative level where data is interpreted, we indeed see material conflict, and as such good apologetics can and should push-back and provide reasoned arguments. We accept that the defending of the Faith by positing alternate narratives of scientific data is a useful and needed course of activity. And yet.

As someone with a keen interest in youth culture (as a parent, and because it is an indicator of future culture) it should be noted that Christian ministries to college and university age adults today have a distinct and heavy emphasis around using (especially scientific) apologetics to reach such audiences. Having attended university in the 1980’s, I do not recall this being such a strand of activity as it is today on campuses.  And certainly it appears that as the surrounding culture has become more hostile, we have placed more hope and emphasis on this approach as a core weapon in our arsenal to push against modernity.

Indeed, apologetics has its work to do. Clearly it strengthens those within the faith (see the Heschel quote above). It can also provide sceptics with alternative views they have not considered that in some cases can lead one to further investigation or consideration or respect or better understanding of a possible Christian narrative of the data the world has given us. Yet, I fear a danger and a lack in all of this emphasis. Observation of the falling away or “fuzzifying” of orthodox Christian belief – or the denuding and diluting to push it to the outer margins of societal discourse makes me think that such apologetics cannot be the sole treatment for this rather sick patient. In fact, it may not even be the best treatment and the one most needed in this battle (yet this is indeed the implicit position we seemingly cling to). Yes, we think, it is good to preach the Bible and Gospel, but alas, we say, apologetics is the future in addressing the post-modern mind. Let Ravi at them and get William Lane Craig and they will finally admit defeat. Could it be that evangelical Christianity has now allowed apologetics to be so prominent in our address to the culture that we have turned it into a sort of “intelligence signalling” so that we can proudly boast “We have our PhD as well and he is armed with arguments”? But looked at from a cold and calculating measure of its effectiveness in bringing people to (or back to) Christianity, one might argue that other tools are now equally needed.
Have I overdone my concern about us investing too much hope in modern scientific apologetics? I hope not, but I also do not want to take the sting out of the tail in terms of the point of concern that we are raising. Conversations with sceptics and nones/dones has lead us to conclude that we are using this one tool too often, when the broader issues are not that people are non-believers because they think Christians are dumb (and therefore, showing we are “smart” is not doing much). Rather, I think the battleground has shifted and Christians, while still using the tool of scientific apologetics, need to shift our focus materially.
The core issue we see with youth today who walk away from the church is that they no longer respect its authority to speak on moral matters. In short, the Church finds itself without material moral authority. The battle has now shifted to the “authority space” in that who gets to define the moral high ground is where we see the friction and debate and subsequent loss of faith of committment to orthodox Christian belief. The solution? That’s another discussion beyond the point of this missive. I am only laying this bare thought at the feet of great men like Ravi Zacharias, etc. and leaders in the church to ponder and ask how we can address this lack? Is it addressable? Hope do we move from a sort of scientific/rationalist apologetic motif to one that is a moral apologetic. That is not something I have yet figured out in any way shape or form. But recognizing the lack and the need is surely a small and humble step.

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