Thursday, October 1, 2015

What is the Point of Apologetics?

What is the point of apologetics, especially philosophical apologetics? I think for too long, many Christians, when first exposed to apologetics, have too lofty of goals. First, they think that the goal ought to be to convert everyone, even the most hardened skeptic. The fact of the matter is, if someone doesn’t want to believe, then no matter what you do, they can always resist. Second, they think the “defensive goal” of apologetics ought to be to answer every objection beyond any shadow of a doubt. Since doubt is at least in part psychological (in large part, really), this too is much too unrealistic.

So what should it be? “Offensively,” the goal should be to remove intellectual stumbling blocks from the paths of those who really want to know. There are such people, and for them, apologetics serves to pave the way to respectably believe in Christianity and the Gospel. Defensively, the goal should be to show that the objections are not so forceful that they render belief in Christianity unjustified or irrational; in short, that Christianity is still intellectually respectable.

Why bring this up? I do so because the consequences of ignoring this are dire (and, by the way, your atheist friend on the Internet is not holding himself to nearly the same standard). First, you will become frustrated, jaded, and eventually prideful if your main goal is to convert the masses. “What are you saying?” you might be thinking. “Shouldn’t we want all to convert?!” Of course I do, and of course we should. However, what I mean is a kind of intellectual rational compulsion. First, even if we achieved this, mere intellectual assent is not the saving truth of the Gospel. Second, God doesn’t intend for us to be compelled in that sense; he desires us to come freely. What happens is that, as people cling to whatever they can to avoid the truths of Christianity, they, and you, may find that there is some rational justification for clinging to x, even if their views are highly implausible. Thus, because their views are implausible, you become frustrated, which in turn leads you to become quite skeptical of the sincerity of anyone you talk to (been there), and finally you realize that really only you are the serious thinker in all your conversations. Hmm, that attitude doesn’t sound godly (preaching to myself here).

The second major consequence is that if you try to extinguish every objection beyond a shadow of a doubt, you’ll be running from one fire to the next for the rest of your life. This kind of intellectual frenzy cannot be kept up and, just like a real firefighter, you will eventually tire, wear out, and become useless. You may even become overwhelmed and succumb to the objections. This is because for someone in this position, certainty is what matters. If one lacks certainty, then the negation of one’s currently held views is true (of course, atheists never take this position for themselves, but whatever). And this is just unreasonable. So the answer isn’t to ignore objections to Christianity. It’s just that you need to take it and measure it against everything else you know and understand about the world and God. The defensive goal should be to address objections to Christianity and show that the faith is at least intellectually respectable.

“But wait!” you might protest. “Don’t you have a double standard—one for the Christian (hold on to belief at all costs), and one for the atheist (believe at all costs)?” Not precisely. First, I think belief in God is properly basic, and so it is the atheist who is not quite “functioning properly,” so to speak. But beyond this, I am not advocating a kind of “believe-at-all-costs” Christianity. I am arguing that defensive apologetics should show that it is intellectually respectable. Surely that involves at least some plausibility, not just bare rationality or intelligibility. On the other hand, I am saying atheists should believe in that case as well—that Christianity is at least intellectually respectable. This way, there is actually one standard for both when it comes to Christianity. With respect to atheism, my claim is that one could be intellectually respectable and be an atheist, but also that if they want to come to Christianity the standard is not certainty, or anything near this. I just want to see people come to Christ, and for current Christians to stay there!

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