One of the greatest comedy movies of all time, I am convinced, is The Princess Bride. And one of my many favorite lines, when Inigo has heard Vizzini describe one too many things as “inconceivable,” is “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Well, that can certainly be said about apologetics, as I realized when a friend described his study of the subject a few days ago. Since I’m in the middle of an apologetics series myself, and since I really don’t intend what many apologists do, it occurs to me that I ought to explain myself…to do an apologia of my apologia, as it were.
Take a look at any of several online etymologic dictionaries, and you’ll see that the term “apologetics” and the related word “apology” come originally from the Greek ἀπολογία (apologia), which was the term for the defense in a court of law. It’s actually the term used in the New Testament when, for example, Paul made his defense before the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1), and by Festus when he’s describing Paul’s secular right of defense (Acts 25:16). Perhaps more to the point of Christian apologetics, it’s the word used for the answer that Peter says we should be ready to give, when someone questions the reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). I find these uses interesting in that in each case, the defense is offered, not proactively, but rather in response to the questions or charges of another. This alone may be a relevant object lesson.
There is, however, a different stream in Christian apologetics that we must acknowledge. For want of a better term to characterize it, I’ll call it “pre-emptive apologetics,” or perhaps even better, “offensive apologetics” (and here I refer primarily to “offense” as the antonym of “defense,” not as the causing of emotional grief, though that is certainly a frequent secondary effect). It’s what I see happening all over the Evangelical blogosphere, and it’s the attitude I often hear from some who style themselves apologists today. There are many who seem convinced that sufficiently-compelling constructive arguments (often combined with the destruction of an opponent’s objections) will compel a person to adopt faith in Jesus, rather as CS Lewis testified was the case for him (“the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” he said of himself).
I’m actually dubious that pure conversion-by-argument is even possible, but whether it is or not, that is most emphatically not my purpose with this series. Philosophically speaking, it seems to me rather counterproductive to attempt to win someone to grace by defeating them with reason. Furthermore, confrontational apologetics maintains the focus on faith as propositional rather than practical … on winning a contest of belief rather than inviting the thirsty to drink. I’ve maintained for years that credalism puts the focus on the wrong things; popular apologetics puts the focus on credalism. Guess I’m at least consistent.
So what am I trying to accomplish? Actually, I’m sorting through my own challenge to myself. My life of faith, while (I hope) firm in conviction, has been essentially devoid of the experiential or the transcendent … the “relationship with God” so many Christians talk about. As I’ve repeatedly expressed on this blog, I’m also deeply disturbed by the behavior of many who call themselves “Christians,” particularly when, as Gandhi observed, “your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I still struggle with why God seems to let such blatant misrepresentation of himself go unchecked, and often as nearly as I can tell, unanswered. Yet I remain stubbornly chasing after some halting, imperfect attempt to follow Jesus. I’m trying to explain why … to myself, and to anyone else who cares to listen.
I don’t know if what I’m writing will “convince” anyone else. If it does, that’s God working in them, it’s for sure not the dazzling cogency of my thoughts and writing. If I’m trying to convince anybody else of anything at all, it’s that it is possible to validate a lot of objections atheists and antitheists throw at the church (and I do think many of those objections are valid), and still come finally to a point of faith. Well, and maybe one more thing … if I can convince a few Christians to let up, to show a little more grace and a little less self-assuredness, I’d consider that progress.