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Posted by on Dec 12, 2013 | 6 comments

What’s the goal of Apologetics?

I don't understand how my brain works

Lance’s recent post on “The End of Apologetics?” stirred up some controversy in the social media world. His assertion that “Apologetics that seek to provide analytic or scientific defences simply don’t work” sparked several reactions. Someone critiqued the use of “anecdotal evidence” Lance had used, claiming to have contrary anecdotal evidence. Another person agreed that “reason alone” is insufficient but insisted that reason “combined with heart approaches” was both effective and “biblical.” Some assumptions were challenged, e.g. “why isn’t dealing with ideas” itself considered “spiritual?”

I don’t intend to set up a straw man, nor do I wish to be unfair to anyone, especially members of an organisation I esteem highly for doing excellent work (I also apologise if my language on Tuesday seemed more destructive than constructive). My concerns in what follows must be seen as just that: concerns about tendencies and possible dangers, not wholesale rejections of the apologetic project.

Is the goal of apologetics to: (a) persuade non-Christians to become Christians? (b) give Christians satisfying reasons to remain Christian, (c) show the world that it’s possible to be intelligent and a Christian? In this post I will not discuss (b) as it is essentially inward-focused. Here, we shall examine the two outward-facing goals.

Although (a) and (c) may have their place, they are also in danger, especially in the West, of transgressing their boundaries, if they assume that (1) reason means the same thing for Christians and non-Christians, (2) intelligence = rational capacity, (3) if faith is rational that means reason can lead to faith. These assumptions are not necessarily wholly Christian. They may actually be conceding too much to non-Christian epistemological starting points. In other words, we may be playing “by the other guy’s rules,” and in doing so we may have given the game away from the start. What if it’s simply impossible in the long term to win by those rules because they exclude important elements of what it means to be Christian from the outset?

The “rules” here are the assumption that reason operates independently of cultural habits/desires embedded in us by our upbringing, even that it ought to do so. In fact, the very assumption that reason is an autonomous judge evaluating alternative worldviews is also questionable. It is not a universal assumption, as anyone from Asia or Africa can testify. Where did such an idea come from in the first place?

The Western world has never been the same since the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. Although many factors contributed to the Enlightenment, Kant arguably stands out as one of its most significant figures. He synthesised the competing philosophies of empiricism and rationalism that preceded him, and laid down a set of rational principles which have become so ingrained in Western culture that most people use them without knowing it or ever having read Kant.

The kind of reason Kant proposed was autonomous and universal. For Kant, reason was “an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer the questions that he puts to them.”[1] More significantly, religion should be placed “within the limits of reason alone.”[2] If we want to be religious, we must “annul knowledge in order to make room for faith.”[3] Why? Because for Kant, “faith is incompatible with knowledge.”[4]

The sharp separation Kant drew between faith and reason is so deeply ingrained in our cultural mindset that many who reject Kant’s conclusions still find themselves unwittingly agreeing with his method. People who try to “prove” Christianity by use of autonomous reason are essentially basing Christianity on Kantian epistemology. Anti-intellectuals who reject reason in favour of faith are essentially agreeing with Kant’s distinction. Even to insist on a “combination” might imply a Kantian distinction. We must go further if we wish to escape Kant altogether.[5]

While there will always be occasional examples of individuals who were persuaded that Christianity is “more rational” than alternatives based on Kantian principles of reason, and while we rightly celebrate their conversion stories, it is easy to forget that at one time the majority of Europe converted away from Christianity on the basis of similar principles. Why? Because Kant’s epistemology made the human self the centre, rather than God. When reason is declared autonomous judge, what eventually happens is that every individual feels empowered to judge history and tradition by their own standards. What we see in the Enlightenment is the crowning of the individual’s right-to-decide, the declaration that “I am the captain of my soul” and the assumption that if something doesn’t make sense on my terms then it can’t possibly be true.

The Christianity that emerges from such a treatment is chastened at best and non-existent at worst. One thing it can never be is Christianity on its own terms, with all of its inherent mystery, wonder and unexplainable paradoxes.

In order to establish the place of reason in Christian faith, let us first ask what a Christian view of human personhood is, and where reason fits into that anthropological shape. We may find, with Pascal, that “the end of reason is to know the limits of reason.” We may find, with Anselm, that “faith seeking understanding” does not mean faith is irrational, but only that we are conscious of the indelible mark our cultural/historical starting point leaves on our reasoning processes. It may even lead us to revise the place we give to persuasion in the Christian impulse to witness to the faith.

Much more could be said. I have not mentioned the hermeneutics of suspicion, let alone Kuhn’s scientific revolutions or Alasdair MacIntyre’s teleological communities, concepts which have radically altered the place of reason in contemporary discourse. The primary point of this post is simply to ask if we are framing apologetics in a truly Christian manner to begin with.

I would define (outward-facing) apologetics this way: “the loving effort to listen attentively to the culture around us and understand what Christianity looks like from its perspective.” The goal of apologetics then becomes “to present the Christian faith to those around us in terms they can comprehend.” The ‘persuasive’ element is included, but it is light-touch, not coercive or overbearing, nor appealing to reason as an independent judge capable of evaluating Christianity against alternatives. The rational coherence of each worldview is respected, and dialogue proceeds with care and empathy, each seeking to understand the other fully as we together seek the truth in love.

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Hackett Pub Co, n.d.), B xiii.

[2] Immanuel, 1724-1804. Kant, Theodore M. (Theodore Meyer) Greene, and Hoyt H. (Hoyt Hopewell) Hudson, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Chicago: Open Court,, 1934).

[3] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B xxx.

[4] Ibid.. Editors footnote.

[5] To begin this journey, I would recommend Charles Taylor, “Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, ed. Taylor Carman et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, n.d.), 26–49.

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • John Paul

    Two questions:

    What is ‘autonomous reason’?

    Isn’t any argument that argues against reason inherently self-defeating?

    • Hi John Paul, thank you for engaging with this post 🙂

      Very simply, the answer to your second question is “yes.” But you must’ve thought that my essay was arguing against reason or you wouldn’t have asked the question. Without knowing why you thought it was doing this, I’m not sure how to explain to you what my essay was doing instead. I shall have to go back to basics and see at what stage in conceptualising reason we part ways.

      Reason means asking “why” – connecting the world together in cause-effect or ground-consequent syllogisms that bring about a coherent view of the world. Every rational syllogism has two irreducible elements to it.
      1) it uses language
      2) it contains presuppositions

      Let’s deal with (2) first.

      If you start with an assertion about the world, and keep asking “why” then each further question reveals a presupposition contained in the previous answer. But if you ask ‘why’ enough times you eventually reach a “First Principle” – something which you regard as axiomatic, or self-grounding. For example, mathematics takes “1+1=2” as one of its first principles on which the entire discipline is built. If that first principle is wrong, then the entire edifice on top of it is also wrong.

      So reason needs something non-rational to kickstart the process. In this sense reason is like account-keeping where ‘money’ is the basic phenomena which reason synthesises. No matter how amazing your account keeping skills, you cannot keep accounts if you have no money. No matter how amazing your reasoning skills, your entire belief system is false if it is based on a faulty presupposition.

      “Foundationalism” is the belief that everyone actually has the same first principles, and so if we can just start with them, our beliefs will be foolproof and certain.

      “Post-foundationalism” is the belief that everyone actually starts from different presuppositions, because everyone experiences the world differently. The life-experience, or the raw data with which reason has to work, is different in the case of every individual.

      “Autonomous reason” is the use of reason as if it were not accountable to other people’s life experiences which differ from those of the reasoner.

      As for the use of language: one of the slippery things about language is that it’s inherently ambiguous. No word means quite the same thing to everyone concerned. Since reason (about anything except mathematics) requires language in order to form syllogisms, in this sense reason is always based on a wobbly foundation. No matter what I assert rationally, you could always question my use of the terms involved and their precision.

      In short, my essay, rather than arguing against reason, was attempting to show by means of reason what are the limits of reason. If I want to know whether a red car is parked outside, I cannot use reason to tell me. I have to look. Reason is “necessary but not sufficient” for truth. My essay is questioning what the right place of reason is.

      I hope somewhere in that hasty sketch you connected with what I’m saying?

      • John Paul

        OK. So you seem to be saying that reasoning is a universal and uniform human capacity, but that all humans have different experiences which one should be aware of when trying to explain one’s own point of view. So far so uncontroversial. Do the apologists you are concerned about not think this?

        I was perhaps misled in your essay by your saying that reason has different meanings for Christians and non-Christians.

      • I appreciate the interest you’re taking in this. Thanks for trying to understand what I’m saying!

        Reason certainly does mean something different for Christians and for non-Christians. Reason plays a different role in every worldview and religion. For example, in Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism reason plays a much smaller role. Even in Eastern Orthodox Christianity they see reason as much less important than things like humility, wonder, self-knowledge and obedience if one wants to find the truth. Conversely, in Islam reason plays a much bigger role – more than in many forms of Christianity. There is less room for mystery in Islam (apart from Sufism) than in most Christianity, which is why Muslims have such trouble with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

        My essay is suggesting that the role reason plays in modern apologetics might be bigger than it should be. If being Christian intrinsically involves an experience of God touching one’s life, which cannot be explained to those who have not had that experience, then attempting to use reason to explain it becomes less valuable an enterprise. The apologists I am concerned about simply give a higher position to reason than I think is permitted by Christianity, and I am suggesting that this is due to an influence from the Enlightenment.

        Honestly I’m not very good at explaining this and there’s tons of literature out there on the subject if you’re interested to learn more. I would suggest starting with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book, “Reason within the Bounds of Religion” or Alasdair MacIntyre, “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?”

      • John Paul

        You seem to be confusing the role of reason with the priority given to it. I think the role of reason is the same for all people and in all places, that is, to test the validity of truth-claims. Your earlier reply suggested you think think the same.

        So we agree on the role of reason, but you, as a Christian, wish to lessen the priority given to it (to allow room for other things like obedience, humility …). This is fair enough, but undermines the entire apologetics project, which is simply about giving reasoned defences of truth-claims.

      • Thank you for your input 🙂