Updated: Nov 6
This is the opening post in the Signature Series called Apologetics: Let's Avoid Making People Sorry They Asked. In this post, we’ll look at why it’s so hard to share our faith with our families, friends, and neighbours and what we can do nonetheless to obey the Lord’s command to make disciples across the world. In particular, we’ll focus on the particular challenge of offering to others strong grounds on which to listen respectfully to the gospel and perhaps to accept it. That offering is called apologetics. Admittedly, “apologetics” is a funny word. Derived from the Greek apologia, it originally referred to the case offered for the defense in a trial, and just means “making a defense.” The apostles Peter and Paul both use terms in this word group in the New Testament for defending the faith (Acts 26:2; Phil. 1:7; I Pet. 3:15).
Nowadays, however, the word sounds like “regretting.” So Christian apologetics sounds like “telling someone why you’re sorry you’re a Christian,” instead of why you’re glad you are. Worse, however, is the conversation in which the would-be Christian apologist makes the other person sorry he asked why you’re a Christian. Many Christians fear the prospect of such a conversation. Such Christians—and especially in a religiously diffident country such as Canada has now become—worry that any profession of religion, and especially any actual engagement with the doctrines, values, and practices of a religion that goes beyond the strictly informational, might result in conflict and discord. We Canadians, and most moderns around the world, live in societies that present the constant challenge of getting along with people quite different from ourselves. Most of us want to just get on with the business of everyday life, from ordering coffee to studying together to selling insurance to finalizing the new project. Religious differences can be so deep, so wide, and so disquieting that they’re best left avoided entirely. And who can say for sure about such things anyhow? Opinionated as everyone seems to be nowadays about almost everything, religion in particular seems to be one of those subjects about which most people consider themselves actually expert—at least, expert enough to brush off any evidence and argument not comporting with their settled views. Doesn’t matter if their conversation partner is a member of the clergy or a Ph.D.-holding scholar. People who wouldn’t venture a confident guess about how to rewire an electrical plug or change a flat tire effortlessly wave away sophisticated answers to perennial philosophical questions as “just your opinion.” They pose their own preferences with a confidence inversely proportionate to their actual knowledge. This is not a cultural moment in which many people are open to a serious exchange of views about life’s most daunting challenges. Postmodern doubt has been assuaged with a culture-wide recourse to intuition (as I have argued in the Signature Series on The New Moralism). “Let’s just sit down and discuss our differences calmly” is a less popular option than ever. Christianity in particular, furthermore, has its own peculiar public-relations burdens these days, as you may have noticed. Sex scandals among clergy, from evangelical superpreachers to Roman Catholic archbishops; celebration of greed among health-and-wealth pastors from Atlanta to Lagos to Seoul; abuse of First Nations children in Canadian residential schools; slaughter of entire First Nations a little further back in North American colonial history; the odious legacy of the African slave trade; the enormities of the Spanish Inquisition; the periodic pogroms against Jews over the centuries; the Crusades; and simply the interminable internecine struggle of Christians against other Christians—two thousand years of repellent words and deeds jumble together in the popular mind to make Christianity simply implausible. Going to a local church to find the meaning of life is as absurd as asking private military contractors to peacefully mediate a conflict or hoping a petroleum company will get behind solar power. The last of what could be a longer list of obstacles facing Christian testimony today is the fact that most Americans, Canadians, Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis say that they’re Christians and consider themselves Christians. And if they don’t tell a pollster or census-taker that they are Christian, what they are is not Christian, which is what most people in these countries mean by claiming “No Religion.” There aren’t all that many ex-Hindus in Alberta, or ex-Buddhists in Ohio, or ex-Muslims in Yorkshire, or ex-Jews in New South Wales. Nor are there many hardened atheists or determined agnostics. No, these countries remain generally Christian/sort-of-Christian/nominally Christian/used-to-be-Christian/certainly-not-Christian. And that means, among other implications, that most people think they know what Christianity is already, and they have made up their minds about it. This confidence is undermined by polls showing that the vast majority of our neighbours can hardly say the first correct thing about even basic Christian beliefs, let alone pass a basic test in catechism. Christian witness is thus in a double bind. Most people don’t want to hear about Christianity from the likes of us because they think they know all they need to know already—even though they manifestly don’t. No wonder most Christians hardly know where to start when it comes to sharing their faith with a neighbour. Strangely, there is a small, but vocal, set of Christians keenly interested in apologetics. Particularly in the United States, but in a loose network across the Anglosphere and beyond, there are Christians who pursue apologetics with the excitement of a hobbyist and the intensity of a zealot. In websites and webinars, podcasts and YouTube videos, books and conferences, even whole academic programs at colleges and seminaries—apologetics is a considerable industry catering to a considerable public. We should ask, however, whether all of this time, talent, and money is effective in the two traditional objectives of apologetics: commending the faith to people who might otherwise be less interested and perhaps more hostile, and defending the faith against threats within and without the Church. Is this wide network of keen apologists, whom I will call TeamApologetics, demonstrably drawing people into new faith, strengthening and sophisticating the existing faith of believers, and protecting the Church against persecution? Or is TeamApologetics at least mostly a pastime of insecure and belligerent Christians intent on striking back against an unwelcoming culture—and thus bolstering their wounded pride? If there is indeed a serious problem with TeamApologetics, what are other Christians doing to defend and commend the faith more adequately and admirably? What can the rest of us do to obey the apostolic command to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (I Pet. 3:15)? Let’s think better about apologetics for the next few weeks in this Signature Series.
This excerpt is from ThinkBetter Media's Signature Series, Apologetics: Let's Avoid Making People Sorry They Asked. To read the rest of this four-part series (and lots of other good content about Christian ethics and theology), click here to become a Companion or Sustainer member.
WEBINAR: Join the conversation in our upcoming webinar on Apologetics: What Paul Could Learn from Socrates on Thursday, November 9. Register HERE.