Apologetics is experiencing somewhat of a revival. Well, maybe a better term might be “rehabilitation.” While the stereotype of the apologist as a well-coiffed white male who can bring an atheist to his knees through the power of his arguments alone is still very much alive (with good reason), there is a small minority of people (including myself) who tentatively embrace the word “apologist,” but would really like to see the word itself given a makeover.
In a way, I feel about the word “apologist” the way I do about the word “evangelical.” Sure, it’s weighted down with a lot of baggage and too many stereotypes (some of which are deserved), but it’s also the best word to use to describe what it is that I do. The Greek word “apologia” means to “give a reason for” or “defend.” And what I do (or like to think I do, anyway) is provides good reasons why believing in and following Jesus is at least as reasonable as the alternative. After that, it’s up to the Holy Spirit.
One of the reasons often cited for the comeback of apologetics is its ability to respond to the “new atheism.” According to many in the apologetics community, new atheism has co-opted the term “reason” and is claiming that the use of reason must inevitably lead to a rejection of belief in God.
Based on what I’ve seen, it’s true that the more militant atheists have positioned themselves as the sole possessors of reason and common sense (see my post about The Reason Rally). Many leaders of the new atheism compare anyone who believes in a transcendent God to an adult who still expects a visit from the Easter bunny.
But the truly ironic thing is that the way some atheists talk about Christians is so filled with vitriol and contempt that it goes way beyond what “reason” should allow.
Now I am not for one minute assuming that this anti-Christian rhetoric represents most atheists, anymore than Westboro Baptist Church represents most Christians, but the level of vitriol in some of these blogs demonstrates what I think is one of the weaknesses of much of modern apologetics.
What lies behind these atheists’ hate-filled comments is not reason, but emotion—visceral anger and debilitating pain. And it is emotion that modern apologetics has historically ignored.
I really don’t blame the apologetics community for ignoring the gooey, amorphous side of the human experience. The anti-intellectualism of 20th century evangelicalism, as recounted in Mark Noll’s classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, effectively marginalized the intellectual faction of the local church. For the last several decades, thinkers been treated somewhat like Edward Rochester’s crazy first wife and hidden away in the attic so “normal” Christians couldn’t see them.
The seeker-sensitive movement especially, with its emphasis on addressing the “felt needs” of the audience and its commitment to making Christianity as non-threatening as possible, effectively marginalized the “thinkers” within its ranks. Eventually, there was only one outlet for an intellectual’s darker side—apologetics. Unfortunately, what resulted was often an isolated culture that began to feed on itself.
Rather than a celebration of all the ways in which faith speaks to, and clarifies, the human experience, apologetics too often became a refuge for people who simply enjoyed winning an argument.
A perfect example of this is the response to Paul Copan’s 2012 post at The Gospel Coalition, “Questioning Presuppositionalism.” As the title indicates, Copan’s essay is a respectful critique of an apologetic method called “presuppositionalism.” In the post, Copan both summarizes what he finds helpful about it and what he finds problematic. For the purpose of this post, it’s not important that we understand presuppositionalism itself, but only that we notice how people reacted.
Based on the response, TGC readers seem to be an overwhelmingly presuppositionalist bunch. The bigger picture, though, is that not only are the comments overwhelmingly negative towards Copan’s critique, but many of them imply that there must, necessarily, be only one clear winner in the apologetic war. Evidential, philosophical, and moral apologetics are neither biblical nor valid. Apparently, apologetics is a contact sport and, as one commenter observed, “Copan effectively didn’t land a single blow.”
Now, I am the first to admit that this kind of theological boxing is not unique to apologetics. In fact, one of the primary complaints about Christians by outsiders is that they’re always arguing with each other about something. But Copan’s article makes an important point that many of the commenters seem to miss.
God can and does speak to unbelievers through reason, beauty, moral failure, and the existence of evil. As a cloud of apologetical witnesses can testify, God has used philosophical arguments for his existence, scientific supports for the universe’s beginning (Big Bang) and its fine-tuning, and historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus to assist people in embracing Christ—just as God uses the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16) or the loving character of a Christian community (John 13:35). These are all part of the holistic witness to the reality of God and the gospel, all of which the Spirit of God can use to lead unbelievers to embracing Jesus Christ.
What Copan is saying here is that there are many things that can work to bring people to Christ. Faith must be reasonable (contrary to what some postmodernists might say) but it must also be intuitive. It must speak to both head and heart. And, unlike a few individual apologists who are still dedicated to the Enlightenment split between intellect and emotion, many of the most insightful apologists and Christian philosophers understand this.
There are a lot of exciting things happening in apologetics right now—and some of them do involve really smart Christians responding to the new atheism. But to me, the most exciting changes are the ones coming from people who acknowledge the 400-year-old artificial split between faith and reason and are working to heal it.
The bottom line is that whether Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or Wiccan, we are all a unique combination of intellect, emotion, and imagination, and God can work through any, or all, of our human attributes.
More than anyone other scholars in the last 100 years, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien best understood the magical integration of intellect, emotion, imagination, and experience. It is fitting that 50 years after Lewis’ death, the larger apologetics community is finally beginning to realize what they always knew. Literary and Imaginative Apologetics are finally coming into their own.