Newsflash: the purpose behind any debate is not to determine who is right and who is wrong, but to further understanding.
I am not a major fan of Christian apologetics, because – by and large – I think it perpetuates the disturbing anti-intellectual culture that seems to characterise much of Protestant and Evangelical Christianity. To (probably over-)simplify the issue, I believe that the primary (though hidden) function of Christian apologetics is to assuage the Christian’s nagging sense that the concept of everlasting torment is inherently unjust, by attempting to rationalise the existence of a simultaneously brutally violent and absolutely merciful deity. We need apologetics because on some level we recognise the problems inherent in the Penal Substitution position and we need to explain away the ugly parts. Add to this the tendency for modern Western Christianity, being founded largely upon personal experience and feelings, to be largely skeptical of the rational (because it challenges the irrationality of belief in a God who is both violent and loving), and you can see why apologetics has become a fixture of modern Christianity. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that all Christian apologists are not intellectual. That is far from the truth in some (though regrettably not all) cases. Rather, I am suggesting that the discipline of apologetics is itself a problematic one.
I have probably offended several of my readers by now already. But what is wrong, I can hear some of you ask, with attempting to understand the reasoning behind the beliefs you hold? The question itself is a clue to the problem with apologetics. There should be no need for any form of apologetics to exist at all: how on earth is it logical to believe first, and only afterwards to try to understand why you believe what you believe? Surely the best approach is to start without preconceptions, and through a process of rigorous exploration and questioning, to use the available evidence to make inferences and draw conclusions, and then to use those to frame a system of beliefs? Surely the proper way to proceed is to sort through the evidence and then form your beliefs based on that, rather than deciding what to believe and then finding evidence to support it? At a more sophisticated level, is it not best practice – in addition to all of that – to interrogate the tools and processes one has used to explore the evidence and see if they are fit for purpose? Surely if an idea is worth shaping one’s life around, it is worth attempting to develop a deep understanding of it first? Then why is this precisely what Christians avoid doing? (And it is not only Christians, by the way: quite a lot of modern science, as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend note, is guilty of exactly this).
You see, the issue with our approach to Christian apologetics is that it encourages people to get the order all wrong. And it does it in a quite dishonest way too – it lets you believe that you are learning all of these arguments so that you can convince those who are skeptical of Christian claims to see the validity of your stance. If Christian apologetics courses really aimed at helping Christians to defend their already carefully chosen positions, then the order would be right. But if the position has been carefully chosen, why do we need to know how to defend it? Is that knowledge not a natural by-product of having made a carefully considered intellectual choice? The reality is that Christian apologetics exists to convince Christians that what they already believe – a decision based on guilt and rooted in a fear of eternal damnation – is not completely foolish. It is a self-serving discipline. And it is failing dismally.
Now don’t get me wrong: I think choosing to be Christian is a robustly defensible intellectual position. Unfortunately, Christian apologists don’t usually focus on the intellectually defensible parts. Christianity is not a homogenous set of beliefs. There are multiple expressions of it, many of those – frankly – are outright lunacy. From what I can see, most texts on apologetics seem to exist to fool Christians into believing that trusting the indefensible bits is justifiable.
Let me clarify that a bit. Modern Protestant and Evangelical Christianity has adopted from the Reformers the heresy of the infallibility of Scripture (strong words, I acknowledge, but I maintain that any time a Christian can say that anything else – even the Bible – is equivalent in status to Jesus, for me that is heresy). As a result, much of its intellectual capacity has to be spent defending that claim. Thus today what constitutes apologetics is not so much arguing a case for Christ as it is arguing a case for the infallibility of the Bible. I cringe when I think of how the likes of Josh McDowell can, in only a matter of pages and in conveniently bite-sized packages, (arrogantly, in my opinion) provide answers to all of the conundrums surrounding humanity and its purpose in the universe. When the focus is on the veracity of the Bible and not on the veracity of Jesus’s theological and ethical positions, suddenly complete non-issues – the Flood, the Six-day Creation, the veracity of the David and Goliath story – become critical: if we cannot trust the Bible to be completely inerrant, how can we then believe in God? That is the logic anyway.
But imagine what we could accomplish if we were to focus our intellectual endeavours on defending the vital necessity of Jesus’s teachings on non-violent resistance and the power of forgiveness, and not on trying to convince ourselves that the Bible is the Word of God? As I look around at a world where violence is met with more violence, in a never-ending, bloody cycle; where instead of standing up for those who are marginalised, Christians join in the persecution in the name of God; where peace is bought through the blood of scapegoats (whether or not they are deserving); when I see all of that and I know that Jesus rejected that way as self-destructive and unjust, and offered a powerful alternative – forgiveness – which is relevant not only to Christians, but to all people everywhere, I cannot begin to tell you how sad it makes me that instead of arguing for a Jesus-centred ethic that could transform the world, Christians are focused on convincing themselves that all of the animals could have found space on the ark.