Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

Is there hope for apologetics?

July 31, 2013

HardwiredI remember attending a debate in college between a Christian and an atheist.

Before it started, the room was abuzz with anticipation, like a stadium before kickoff. After the competitors were introduced to applause and scattered boos, they each proceeded to argue forcefully for their belief system, trading punch lines and other rhetorical jabs. Along the way, they interrupted, misquoted and belittled each other’s views. They called each other names and triumphantly scoffed at how misguided the other person was. In their concluding remarks, both sides claimed to have scored the most points, which was curious given the absence of a scoreboard.

I don’t recall anyone being officially declared the winner that night, or if anyone left the room with different beliefs than when they entered. I wonder if the real losers were members of the audience, or at least those of us who had hoped for better.

Over a decade later, I now find myself as a pastor, a vocation predicated on the existence of God. Yet I still have mixed feelings when the subject of apologetics arises. Perhaps I’ve seen it done poorly too many times. Or maybe I’m turned off by the defensive, almost desperate, salesmanship that belittles opposing viewpoints. Or it could be that I can’t stomach the dissonance between apologists’ typical form (rhetorical flourishes and deductive “proofs” designed to score points for God) and their content (the message of God’s love, grace and hope for the world).

Apparently, my friend Jim Miller, also a pastor, has a few mixed feelings about apologetics too. In the opening chapter of his new book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon), Jim writes:

Most people who believe in anything, religious or otherwise, did not get there by listening to a debate, and meaningful beliefs do not often rest on academic research. That isn’t to suggest faith and reason are unrelated. There are those who think that God gave reason to humanity the way a father gives a BB gun to his son, telling him, “You can play with that thing all you want. Just don’t point it at me.” To the contrary. In fact, the Scriptures say that God intends for people to come looking for him. He isn’t afraid of our reasoning.

If God isn’t afraid of our reasoning, perhaps he intends for us to search without fear of what we might find (Matthew 7:7-11). While I’m generally not a huge fan of apologetics, I look forward to reading the rest of Jim’s book because he understands that a rational, academic case for God’s presence can only take you so far, especially when everyone uses a different scoreboard. A philosophy buff with an eye for the accessible, Jim doesn’t blast his readers with data and argumentation, but instead helps us catch glimpses of God in our everyday assumptions.

So maybe it’s not a stretch to hope for a better, redeemed approach to apologetics. Rather than trying to dissolve the conversation with a litany of airtight rebuttals to all possible objections, we can set our sights on becoming a different kind of people, the kind of faith community with a capacity to offer helpful responses in the context of authentic relationships when the big questions hit.

Who knows? We might even keep the conversation going.

  • Lorraine

    Debaters would do well to take lessons from the debaters in Ravi Zacharias’ Let My People Think team- they are always respectful, considerate, polite, and uber-knowledgable in their subject. It’s unfortunate if the debaters are not.

  • I love apologetics because it helps to answer many questions that scripture either assumes or deals with peripherally. An apologetic method that forgets the centrality of the gospel should be criticized, but apologetics should not be punted because some are bad at it (you know that whole baby-bath water thing). Just like personal testimony, the Holy Spirit can use apologetic arguments to change the heart of the skeptic and give confidence to the questioning believer (like me). I’m a fan. And I think I may have to pick up Jim’s book.

    • I totally hear you, Paul. Good reminder about the benefits of apologetics done well. Thanks for going easy on me, friend 🙂 So if I’m a fan of yours, and you’re a fan of apologetics, then perhaps I can be a second-degree fan of sorts.

      • You’re a fan of mine? Now I’m beginning to question your judgment. 😉

  • Thomas Cook

    I remember drinking several wines in college that were awful. Since then, my discernment in wine has improved.

    I suspect that the lack of etiquette during debates is not a problem with Reason itself, nor any kind of defect of the human mind. (Pace Luther, who said ‘reason is the devil’s whore.’) Most often, bad manners are a cover up for ignorance. As a Baptist pastor once said, when you don’t have a good point to make- yell like hell. If many of these debaters had proper etiquette they would simply lose the debate and, even if against an atheist, leave wiser than they came in.

    The idea that Reason’s most powerful tools are ‘deductive’ is another (not yours) misunderstanding. Most persuasive reasoning is analogical and inductive- e.g. argument by analogical comparison: “will a father give his son a snake? will your heavenly father not give you… are you not worth more than many sparrows?” Deduction is later relied upon merely to chain sentences together. For instance, I just came across a ‘proof’ of G. K. Chesterton’s, “It is perhaps the strongest mark of the divinity of Man that he speaks of this world as ‘a strange world’ though he has seen no other.” This ‘proof’ depends on a hidden premise “If man were a mere natural product of the world he would not have this sense of the strangeness of the world…” The ‘proof’ then runs, “But he doesn’t… So he’s not.” Even though that may be an airtight proof, it depends on a premise that is reached not by deduction at all.

    • Thanks Tommy for the comment. Having recently finished a seminary class on reasoning, rhetoric and philosophical dilemmas, I agree that persuasive power tends to reside in analogical comparisons (i.e. good parables) more than deductively supported proofs (i.e. bad debates). Not that I’m categorically opposed to debates, any more than I’m against the use of hammers. But if all you have is a hammer…

      • Thomas Cook

        It seems there are three persuasive tools. The first is deduction which is, I suppose, a hammer. The next is induction which more like a tape measure. The last is seduction, which is duct tape.

        I would still call an analogical argument a ‘proof’ however. Reason is a thing much broader than arid medieval deduction. Still, what I find most ironic is that if you read Aquinas and Socrates (the most logical minds that ever lived) they are excellent at deduction but they are equally excellent at more unconventional arguments. Eg the reductio ad absurdam “if there is no free will, then you cannot reasonably say ‘please pass the mustard.'” This is not a ‘hammer’ argument like the Kalam argument is: “everything that began has a cause.” (Bam) “things don’t happen for no reason.” (Bam) “the universe appears to have had a beginning.” (Bam) … Etc.

  • Fair enough. I guess I’d rather be seduced than hammer-bammed, although duct tape residue can get messy.