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 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, we must use them cognizant of their purposes and aware of their limits. I fear we have clearly forgotten this in how we value and use modern apologetics and have now fallen into the grave error of investing too much time and hope in this activity as a means of evangelism to the modern mind.

Most of us 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 the faith.  However, since we feel that we have this “hammer”,  it seems we think everything may indeed be a nail. My aim is to shake this assumption by arguing that we have taken modern popular apologetics and assumed that more of it must then be better – and so we now badly overuse it when most of our imagined audience for these efforts is unimpacted.  I humbly offer this observation in spite of the fact that some of my colleagues and friends are heavily invested in the work of apologetics, and yet appear to have not noticed that the emperor may indeed be at least down to his socks and underwear (if not fully without clothes!). 

In late-modern culture, we are witnessing a rapid and increasing falling away from orthodox Christian practice and belief amongst almost all young adults. Arguably this began many decades 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 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-line in the public square and in civic institutions. The ruling zeitgeist within the commanding heights of government and education is today stewarded by those who see Christianity as a “nice fable” that we ignore with impunity.

Given that the current generations are assumed converts to a primarily materialistic-rationalistic framework, Christian apologetics has become seen as a better way forward than taking moral or theological positions which are now understood to be largely irrelevant, or worse, harmful and unhelpful by moderns.  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 defence of the Faith by positing alternate narratives of scientific data is a useful and needed course of action. And yet.

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”?
Have I overdone my concern about modern 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 to 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). The battleground has shifted and Christians need to shift our focus materially.  I will posit that this means turning the dial down a few notches in terms of apologetics as done today.
The core issue we see with youth who walk away from the church is that they no longer respect its authority to speak on moral matters and to speak to the heart of women and men in our culture. In short, the Church finds itself without perceived material moral authority, nor medicine for the sick modern soul. The debate 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 commitment to orthodox Christian belief. The solution?  That’s another discussion beyond the point of this missive. At this stage I am only attempting to lay bare this one thought at the feet of leaders like Ravi Zacharias, etc. How 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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