I just saw an advertisement on Twitter for an event called “Beyond Apologetics”. The specifics of the event aren’t important for this discussion, but the title got me to thinking… is this the best way to describe what should happen to apologetics? Should we go “beyond” it? What do you think?
As for me, I suppose it depends upon how we define the word, apologetics. And this is where it gets a little confusing, because apologetics can be defined in a number of different ways: defending a position using reason, providing a rational basis for belief, removing intellectual obstacles that inhibit belief, providing the answers needed to refute or weaken skeptics arguments, exposing flaws in others’ worldviews, providing answers to any question or objection that might lead to doubt, proving the truth of a position, etc.
To move forward, I’ll consider apologetics using what I consider to be a common and summative definition: a formal and systematic defense of a position (usually Christian and usually doctrine) aimed at “proving” its truth and refuting the objections of others. (I’ve got “proving” in quotation marks because as a scientist I know that it difficult, or near impossible to prove something as true AND I want to be clear that I am not using a “straw-man” definition of apologetics.)
In Rachel Held Evans’ book, Evolving in Monkey Town, which I recently reviewed for the Jesus Creed blog (http://bit.ly/cm699b), she speaks of spiritual “evolution” in which she moved from a primarily have all the answers-based (apologetics) Christianity to feeling comfortable living with doubt and exploring the questions-based Christianity. I loved the book and don’t believe for a second that Rachel thinks that we shouldn’t search for answers to questions. She just wants people to realize that we don’t need to explicitly fear the process of the search. I agree that the process is to not be feared but is to be appreciated and encouraged. But the end result will still hopefully be answers. The answers will likely not be simple and may not be complete. But answers we still seek.
So, what does it mean to go “beyond” apologetics? Do I think that we need to? I’m not sure. When considering the summative definition that I provided above, I do think that we should go beyond as it pertains to apologetics-based evangelism. This is because I feel that the only merit that apologetics can have is to help articulate the beliefs of those that have already assented to faith in the broader position. Using Christianity as our example, I do not believe that we can provide a systematic and rational apologetic that will convince an atheist to change their minds. Perhaps I should better phrase it… I don’t believe that the amount of time and energy spent in the form of debate, reading, writing, and lecturing yields a result that makes the endeavor worth it, at least as an argument to convince others. Sure it may provide some value for those within your flock but not those on the outside.
A discussion this past weekend between my father-in-law and me reminded both of us that belief in God is not solely intellectual; it’s also largely emotional and personal. But, traditional argument-based apologetics seems to ignore all but the intellectual, with the caveat that the intellectual frankly doesn’t provide the slam-the-door shut argument that it used to. And, unfortunately, many in my Evangelical circle still think it does.
Therefore, I think that we should move from the summative or common definition I provided to another one. I do believe that we are called to provide, to the best of our abilities, an explanation of the reason for our faith. This will certainly have an intellectual component. In fact, I don’t think that there is a component that isn’t “intellectual”, as we can’t divorce reason from any discussion. But we can no longer expect that an apologetic argument will convince others. We should instead search for an explanation that, to use the words of John Polkinghorne, best fits all of the data before us. We’re not out to convince but persuade. This will mean acknowledging weaknesses in our argument instead of changing the subject to a topic we feel we better understand.
So perhaps this means that going “beyond” apologetics simply means to redefine the term. Perhaps it means to appreciate that the function of apologetics has changed. Or perhaps it means that we should move from formal argument to informal discussion. No matter what, I think that a consideration of what apologetics is and how we do it is needed. And I know that it will inevitably be beneficial to the most important target of apologetics that exists in your life… you.