Something in the newspaper the other day got me thinking about apologetics and the tradition of Christian debating. The more I think about it, the more I think that Tertullian was right: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It seems to me that Christian apologetics is a losing proposition, for several reasons. (Some of which I’ve written about before.)
I don’t tend to go in for apologetics per se because if you’re trying to convince someone of the reasonableness of your position, you’re already on the back foot. It’s basically like trying to convince people that you’re sane - if they don’t think you are, arguments won’t help. But there is another aspect about the way that most proponents today go about apologetics that makes me think that they’re doing it wrong, wrong, wrong.
The big-name Christian apologists are, basically, modernists. Their method of apologetics is to show that belief in the God of Christianity is entirely compatible with human rationality. In other words, they are accepting the proposition that human rationality is the standard against which God is judged. This may not be particularly glorifying to God but it certainly glorifies human rationality.
They might say that they are accepting this proposition as a starting point because it is the mindset of those that they are going up against, and hey, we’re into contextualization and starting from where the other person is coming from, but you can’t be a Christian and leave that starting point unchallenged. The Christian starting point is that God is the standard against which everything, up to and including human rationality, is judged.
This is why I have no interest in debates between prominent atheists and prominent apologists. They both place their ultimate faith and authority in the human capacity for reason and logic and in the need to make rationally defensible choices. In that sense, they’re both arguing the same side.
Worse, if you do go down that road, what kind of a God can you end up with? A God who is rationally defensible may be the clockwork god of the Deists but not the surprising, challenging and sometimes confusing God of the Bible.
As I said, the rationalist approach to apologetics comes from the modernist tradition, so they are all alien species who don’t speak my language. Brian McLaren (I think) wrote that if you ask a modernist Evangelical to choose between Jesus and the truth, they will dodge the question by saying that Jesus is the truth. In other words, the relationship is important, yes, but only because it furthers me in my quest for truth. If Jesus didn’t help my quest for truth, why would I bother with him?
Surely what we should be advocating is not the question for truth but the relationship. Unfortunately, relationships are non-replicable; they’re different kind of “facts” to scientific facts, (For which see “Can a scientist love his wife?” in Swinton and Mowat’s “Practical Theology”) and not really amenable to critical debate.
I think this is one reason why we don’t see many Christian apologists in the post-modern mould - both because of a renewed sense of the mystery and otherness of God, and because of a prioritization of the quest for relationships over the quest for truth means that the debate format just doesn’t really work for us any more.