I’m in the process of getting a Master’s in Philosophy. Right now, I’m taking a class on thesis writing and we’re working through the process of choosing a topic. Since I attend a Christian University, most, if not all, of the students are Christian. The thesis, however, as my professor said, has to be “purely philosophical.”
In this case, “purely philosophical” means that it can argue for the existence of an “unmoved mover” or a being that is the source of normative moral obligations, but cannot wander over into the field of apologetics, which would include things like making a case for anything specifically Christian. Arguing for the Judeo-Christian god is off-limits.
When challenged as to why our topic could not be more specifically apologetic, the professor replied that: 1) this was a philosophy thesis, not apologetics, and 2) that confining oneself to pure philosophy forces us to think like a philosopher, to hone our ability to use logic, reason, and well-constructed arguments so that anyone—regardless of their religious affiliation—would have to acknowledge the strength of our ideas.
“The greatest apologists of our time are philosophers,” the professor asserted. And we could hear the conviction in his voice.
Considering that this is a class made up of evangelical Christian twenty-something men (and one middle-aged woman: me), we have trouble keeping our Christian worldview out of any discussion, let alone our master’s thesis. Finally, the professor gave us a simple question to ask about our prospective topic: Would it be of interest to an atheist philosophy professor at another university?
OK. Clear enough.
Now that the parameters of our topic were established (however foreign it was to some of us), I began to think about the advantages of learning to defend a proposal using the relatively neutral criteria of philosophy. Since am not now, nor have I ever been, a presuppositionalist, I had no problem ridding myself of my theistic assumptions. (Presuppositionalism is a category of apologetics that asserts that a Christian cannot discuss the truth of the Christian worldview with a non-Christian unless there is a shared presupposition that the Bible is trustworthy).
And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed that Christians must be trained how to think. Modern Christian philosophers may have made the case that belief in God can be “properly basic” (assumed to be a reasonable belief regardless of whether or not it can be proved empirically), but many self-appointed apologists aren’t able to articulate that argument in a clear, winsome way to a non-Christian. (And believe me, it’s a very useful argument to have at your fingertips.)
If Christians want to represent the heart and mind of God, we must accept nothing less than the most rigorous thinking. I have come across too many blogs in the last few months which claim to “defend the faith” or “make a case for the truth of Christianity,” but which only either quote Scripture after Scripture without explaining the context, or assume that apologetics includes demeaning other faiths (even other branches of Christianity). Such blogs have a right to set up shop in the marketplace of ideas, but to me at least, they cannot properly be called apologetic.
Which brings me back to the value of philosophy when training to be an apologist. One of the first things a philosopher is taught is to understand the opposing view before critiquing it. Similarly, an apologist should be able to empathize with the person asking the question, even to the point of saying “If I did not follow Jesus, I would probably agree with you.” She should be able to meet the seeker at whatever point along the path he is and walk the rest with him, seeking first to understand, then responding with tea, sympathy, and reason.
And reason, through an odd coincidence, is the language of philosophy. Even the presuppositionalist, once that shared view of the Bible is achieved, uses reason to continue the conversation. And even I, who may end up doing my thesis on imagination and intuition as valid ways of knowing, will write about imagination and intuition using the language of reason.
Of what value is philosophy to apologetics? It is the difference between being able to quote all the evidence for the resurrection and realizing that the real issue is a worldview called materialism. It is the difference between assuming that a Bible verse is evidentiary support and realizing that you haven’t yet established what makes the Bible different from other books.
It is the difference between yelling at the top of your lungs that this is TRUE and being able to clearly, patiently, and quietly explain why.