What’s Wrong with Apologetics?

I’ve been an apologetics enthusiast ever since I watched William Lane Craig as a sophomore in high school. Like many, I grew up a little Craig-disciple echoing the oft repeated arguments I heard. I loved watching the debates, the conferences, the panels. (In fact, I wrote my high school senior thesis on the moral argument for God’s existence.) That love persisted throughout college as I chose to major in philosophy. At one point I wrote a post titled “4 Reasons Not to Dismiss Apologetics,” and the very first entries I wrote for this blog (six years ago now!) are titled, “Why I Believe in God” where I rehash a few of the standard theistic arguments. After graduate school, I even taught Apologetics at a Christian college. And through my current work, I still desire to engage in the task of defending and explaining the truth of the Christian faith. All of this to say, I have a deep appreciation for apologetics.

But something has gone wrong in modern day apologetics, and I think it has something to do with the absence of a sapiential approach to these matters. Instead what we often find is a commercialization of apologetics with little to no attention to the careful and thoughtful nuances around the Christian faith (or religious faith in general), much less a holistic vision of the Christian life. Christian colleges and seminaries began advertising degrees in apologetics. The selling line was that students will be taught a Christian worldview (about which others have offered critical insights – see here and here and here.) People could come for a year or two and “study apologetics,” or “get a diploma in apologetics,” a phenomena which makes as much sense to me as getting a degree in ministry. Before if there were Christians apologists who had advanced degrees in New Testament history or philosophy of religion, now there are Christian apologists who have degrees in apologetics. Perhaps this underscores the pragmatism of both our educational institutions and evangelical culture.

More to it, consider the promotional language apologists regularly exercise over the internet: PROOF JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD, HE DESTROYS ATHEISM, SCIENTIST PROVES EXISTENCE OF GOD…the inflated language that markets well in the age of social media. I’ve observed it and felt the tug of it. Nevertheless, such exaggerated articulations often merely invite evangelical Christians to collect ammunition against atheists, and neglects the genuine challenges and pricepoints of believing that Christianity is true, as though there were no pills we Christians have to swallow. One unintended result of such speech is the reduction of the Christian faith to a set of propositions or abstract beliefs, divorced from the real struggles one expects to find in a relationship with another.

For some, this methodology of apologetics has made its way into how they raise their children, and even become something of an industry. A popular Christian apologist blogger wrote a piece titled, Over 60 apologetics questions every Christian parent needs to learn to answer. Questions include: “Why would God allow evil to exist? Why would God command the death of the Canaanites? Are there contradictions in the Bible and how do we explain them? Why does God remain so hidden?” I have a graduate degree in theology and I don’t think I have great answers to these questions! (And I’m not alone. See David Bentley Hart’s commendable response to the problem of evil.) Of course, that isn’t to say there are no (reasonable) answers, nor that Christian parents shouldn’t desire to have answers but the title’s exhortation is that every parent would possess ready rebuttals to know how to answer each of these questions, and there are dozens more. The unstated and unrealized expectation is that every Christian parent would be proficient in biblical languages, history, philosophy of religion, biology, as if isolated individuals could carry the brunt of the apologetic load which simply is not possible. And this segues into my other major concern with modern day apologetics: it is divorced from ecclesiology. I hardly ever see apologists speak of their church traditions and how their ecclesial traditions possess the valuable and helpful resources for seekers and doubters. (Against this, see Abigail Favale). So often Christian apologists speak as though they were arguing from a sort of ecclesiological view from nowhere. Isn’t the local church community supposed to be the space in which we ask such important questions, and in which we might walk with people who are doubting? What of the function of intellectual virtues fostered in a community of faith? What ever happened to proper authority and responsibility pastors had as Christians in the community wrestled with these questions?

Instead the current approach is that there are ready-made answers mass produced like pre-prepared kits. Apologetics has become increasingly industrialized, and much of modern apologetics is now about merely downloading a new set of data that young Christians did not have before which will inoculate them from doubt.

Indeed, some apologists today seem to think that what the skeptic, the unbeliever, the doubter primarily needs is information. And in some circumstances, perhaps that might be right. I don’t doubt that many are benefited from an exposure to traditional defenses of Christianity. (Thank God for the work of William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne!) But I wonder how many people leave the Christian faith because they are struggling with the possibility of a multiverse, or the inconsistencies in the gospels. My suspicion is most people develop doubts over Christianity because God didn’t seem to answer their prayers, or they develop deep relationships with non-Christians, or they are drawn to certain social-political movements, or the Christian leaders they knew seemed insincere or even betray them, or they find compelling answers elsewhere that offer them a better, more plausible story, or their desires and vision of a flourishing life no longer corresponds to the one they were raised to believe.

This isn’t to ignore the legitimately good work done by many apologetics ministries out there. You won’t hear expressions like “Arguments never save anyone” from me. Lest anyone misunderstand my convictions, I think  Christianity is true and rational, partly as a result of good arguments, and I unabashedly identify as a Christian. But the Christian faith is not without its difficulties; Christianity can be complicated and human beings are complicated. Ideologies do no not exist independently in the abstract. Our beliefs are not disconnected compartments, which can be pre-packaged or into which things can simply be downloaded. Rather our beliefs form integrated wholes. Our beliefs and our desires constitute coordinate wholes. And apologists who narrowly focus on merely packaging data I suggest have a myopic picture of human persons and reality, and do so at the expense of their own Christian witness.


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