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Posted by on Dec 12, 2013 | 6 comments

What’s the goal of Apologetics?

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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Barney is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. A philosophical theologian who believes in making theology relevant to the public sphere, he has a less academic blog at Everyday Theology, in which he attempts to render theological insights in an accessible way.