Ravi Zacharias as Exemplary Apologist: A Demurral

Some have asked me why, particularly in the pages of The Washington Post, I have not shared in the adulation awarded Ravi Zacharias at his recent passing.

I am troubled by the report of his relationship with Lori Anne Thompson. I am dismayed by his career-long habit of inflating or simply fabricating academic credentials in a job regarding which academic credentials are key. See attorney Steve Baughman’s important work on both of these issues, available here.

These problems nothwithstanding, however, in general I have always thought RZ was a poor thinker and an often off-putting communicator, and by “always” I mean since I heard a recording of his first Veritas Lectures at Harvard almost thirty years ago.

So, friends and critics alike have asked me, what do you mean by this last charge, especially since RZ is being lauded as the C. S. Lewis of our time?

Let’s take a serious look at a typical case. It’s a question on a subject RZ himself says he has considered carefully, so he can be expected to deliver a carefully considered answer. Alas, the following video, with over four million views, is a fine example of RZ’s mystification-as-explanation, using “magic words” in place of actual analysis and argument. 

Let’s start with the “theonomy/heteronomy/autonomy” scheme in the first part of his answer. This scheme goes back to (of all people) Paul Tillich, who in his own discussion is making a good point about the origins of moral norms in the context of one’s relationship to God. It is not, however, a scheme obviously relevant to society and politics. (RZ’s own examples demonstrate his tenuous grasp of the concepts, not incidentally, since Iran would see itself, and most political science textbooks would see it, as a theocracy. And that’s not even the same language-game as theonomy.) And RZ’s use of this scheme makes no obvious room for liberal democracy, as it doesn’t obviously fit in any of the three categories as RZ uses them. So this threefold scheme is just the wrong tool for the job and nothing illuminating results.

That’s regarding the substance of this opening section. As to the form, note that RZ in effect “name-drops,” as he mentions a “prestigious university” at which he handled a similar question. This datum contributes nothing to the actual answer to the question. “As I was saying at Yale the other day…” adds no truth-value to what follows. So what if you happened to say it at Yale instead of at your local Subway sandwich shop? Such a reference instead is a gesture affirming to his audience his elite status. (His long record of inflating or inventing academic credentials sensitizes the observer to such things.)

He deploys similar techniques, almost as tics, as he keeps slowing down and emphasizing to his audience, “This. Sentence. Is. Really. Important.” Zacharias has mastered the music, so to speak, of authoritative teaching. But his lyrics amount to a word salad.

Alas, he doesn’t stop with arrogating authority to himself, but continues with putting the questioner on the defensive. “I’ll answer your question if you answer mine,” he says—to which the correct response is, “No, you’re the putative expert. I’m not here to win a debate, I’m here to find out what you have to say. So say it.”

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a speaker asking a questioner for more information in order to get a question into better focus. I do it all the time. But what RZ does here is ask question after question in order to box in the questioner. I’ve been puzzling over his “theonomy/heteronomy/autonomy” device and I can only guess that he’s attempting a reductio argument here: “Since, O Questioner, you opt for ‘autonomy,’ with everyone defining morality for himself or herself, then on what grounds can you criticize Christians for having a different ethic than yours?” But that hardly answers the original question, which is about why Christians are so judgmental about others.

This tactic is combative, not collegial. Perhaps RZ thought it was Socratic. Even so, Socrates had a tendency thereby of alienating those upon whom he used this technique, which is perhaps not the desired outcome for a Christian apologist.

To another questioner he says in passing that he notices she said “-ism” about racism while in the second case, sexual minorities, she referred to an individual. But he merely remarks on this semantic shift in a way that is at best opaque—Is there an important distinction there? What could it signify? Who knows?—and at worst implies some kind of confusion, even subterfuge, on her part. This little verbal gambit is offensive, in both senses of the word. And it is impossible to see this kind of jousting as welcoming someone into a safe conversation rather than a device to keep the upper hand.

Too harsh? Let’s continue.

Worse is his theological critique, which comes next. Contrary to what RZ intones as if he is citing a self-evident proposition or well-known dogma, race/ethnicity is not “sacred.” I can’t think of a single Bible verse that says that ethnicity is intrinsically “holy to the LORD,” is something God institutes as a reality in human life that must be honoured in perpetuity. (Is there even such a thing as a “race”? Aren’t we nervous as Christians about saying that nations are sacred things?) 

Yes, ethnicity is honoured in the Bible in the sense that cultural differences will be celebrated in the age to come. Creative diversity is lovely in the eyes of God. But race/ethnos is not in itself “sacred.” It is a mere social fact, one of the ways we human beings organize ourselves. So the very premise of RZ’s argument evanesces upon examination.

Alas, this appeal to sacred ethnicity sounds like a preamble, not for a discussion of sexual norms, but for a defense of segregation or apartheid…or worse. Anyone up for an argument against miscegenation? We’re heading in the very wrong direction here.

Then RZ basically asserts that “we’re right about sexuality because . . . God says we’re right.” Sexual difference as male and female and the heterosexual marriage of the two are all sacred, and thus everything else isn’t. Such a mere restatement of the traditional position is, once exposed as such, a move of limited apologetic value.

And, before we leave this middle “panel” (a metaphor I fail to understand), along the way RZ waves his hands mystically as he intones four qualities of love from four Greek words for “love.” It’s worth observing that each and all of these loves my gay and lesbian friends would say they enjoy in their relationships. Indeed, their very contention is that their marriages are indistinguishable from hetero marriages precisely in terms of love, so why not legalize and otherwise endorse them?—which is, if you’ll recall, the question RZ is supposed to be answering.

So RZ’s portentous reference to an ancient language serves only to impress an audience that doesn’t know any better and thereby to add lustre to the speaker as a magus. It literally does no actual work in his argument. 

In sum, Zacharias completely fails. He fails to frame the issue properly and then to answer it helpfully. He gives us no good idea of Biblical sexuality theologically and ethically. He gives us no clue as to how Christians ought to apply their ethics to a plural democratic situation (such as the SSM debate in the USA, presumably the context for the initial question). And he gives us only a truism about being nice to people you disagree with and feel compassion for those who aren’t happy as pastoral advice.

One last question about tone. When I myself have lectured on these issues, I’ve been challenged by gay and lesbian friends to remember that any sizable audience will include LGBTQ+ people. So I ought to speak as if they’re in the room. It’s good advice, and surely someone has given it to RZ. Does he sound like he thinks any such people are in the room?

I therefore shake my head. This is the great apologist of our time? This is the model for evangelical engagement of tough issues? This gets 4M views on YouTube? 

As an evangelical, a scholar, and an apologist, I frankly am embarrassed for the way my tribe has made so much of this man in this mode. 

By several accounts of mutual friends, Ravi Zacharias was commendably capable of generosity, patience, gentleness, and encouragement, and he early on demonstrated a gift for evangelism. I have no reason to doubt these commendations and I’m glad to hear them. I don’t know why RZ decided to attempt apologetics instead. My critique of this video, taken of him at the height of his powers, indicates something of my perplexity on that score.

For Prof. Randal Rauser’s critique of this video, please click HERE.
For an explanation of why I sometimes criticize public Christians in public, please click HERE.

UPDATE: In answer to some requests, and in the interest of lighting a candle, etc., here are my nominations for role models in apologetics today.

Strangely, most people who are professional apologists I find to be of the same sort: not very well educated, not very informed, and not very helpful. Sorry about that, but I’ve been observing apologetics, at least in North America, for decades, and the pattern remains the same. A keener with a master’s degree or perhaps a doctorate from a non-elite school offers not-very-good arguments to audiences of mostly Christians who don’t know enough to know how good is the stuff they’re getting. If the apologist has sufficient stagecraft and moxie, he can make a living at it. Meanwhile, real scholars stay away. (Notice who doesn’t endorse books by such people, as well as who does.)

The shining exception to this rule is William Lane Craig, an old friend. To be sure, Bill has sometimes regressed to his college-debate-team days and argued in what to me seems an irresponsible fashion: opening a debate with a fusillade of 10 arguments sharpened to points and then chiding his opponent for not responding to points 2, 6 and 9. Bill knows as well as I do that it’s much easier to ask questions than to answer them. And it’s impossible to have a good conversation on 10 themes at once. So when Bill does that—and I’ve seen younger apologists mimic him in that preposterous tactic—he sets a bad example.

But when he’s good, he’s very, very good. Those two (real) doctorates of his and his (real) academic publications point to a fine mind, and he can model an excellent speaking style as well: friendly and competent without condescension. So I’m glad he’s popular among the apologetics nerds (among whom I number myself), because he can be excellent.

Otherwise, though, I’d point to two kinds of apologists as positive models. The first are experts who offer apologiae in discourses in which they are expert. Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alister McGrath, and C. Stephen Evans come readily to mind. (Mathematician John Lennox is a bit of an outlier here, as he routinely offers apologetics outside his scholarly field, but he does it unusually well—normally around broad questions of science and faith.)

The second are people who attract public attention because of their excellent scholarship and then testify to being Christians. Such people don’t have to offer first-rate arguments based on high-quality philosophy. That is not fair to expect of people whose gifts lie elsewhere. But when they offer a winsome account of their faith as crucial to their lives and careers, they add both plausibility and credibility to the public accounting of Christianity. I think of scientists such as Francis Collins, Katherine Hayhoe, and Andrew Briggs; entertainers such as Denzel Washington, Jim Gaffigan, and Drew Brees; and historians such as George Marsden, Dana Robert, and Mark Noll.


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