An Apologetic For Apologetics

Stmarkicon Philip Johnson has written an astute post here on pre-modern apologetics and the lessons we can learn from the Coptic church and the Desert Fathers.

We have spoken at length on this off line, on the historical lessons to be learnt from the ancient African church as well as the falseness of the dichotomy some are posing between apophatic theology and the art of apologetics, and I personally think the story of the Coptic church is very instructive for Christian exiles in the post-modern west.

Now, people are free to disagree with me and assert that apophatic theology brings us to 'the end of apologetics' as Rollins does in 'How (Not) To Speak of God', but building a case for that would involve apologetics now wouldn't it… 🙂

In any case, I encourage others to learn from the Copts.

2 thoughts on “An Apologetic For Apologetics

  1. Thanks for the hat-tip on my post about lessons from the Copts. I have not read the book you refer to, so I should borrow a copy and read it.
    I might add that the sincere desire to commend the faith by saying “life is worth living in Christ” and “look at Christ’s life”, these things are forms of apologetics.
    I feel that there is a false dichotomy doing the rounds. The viewpoint, as far as I can get the gist of it, seems to be that apologetics is perceived as being a dogmatic argumentative activity that is mostly concerned about rational or philosophical proofs for abstract, logical truth.
    This portrait of apologetics is then set in opposition to “another way”. That is the best things to say about faith should be centred in talking and showing the practical aspects and benefits of the spiritual life and the value of spiritual disciplines for daily direction.
    The whole point though is that it is a false dichotomy in the first instance. Apologetics is not synonymous with argumentativeness or with a fixation on rationalist proofs of abstract truth. Apologetics has throughout its history adapted in each generation as the spiritual needs, questions, objections and problems have altered. It seems to be forgotten that even old Descartes (the alleged bogey man creator of unspiritual modernity) was a Catholic apologist to atheists in his day.
    During the 19th century there were many secular rationalist gatherings in public halls in London, Sydney, New York, Boston, Melbourne etc where the tenets of Christianity were derided and debunked. Some people opted to join Theosophy and the Spiritualist medium churches where they criticised mainline Christianity using the arguments of Deists and sceptics to dismiss the Bible, to reject miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. Some really doubted that the Bible had any historical veracity to it. There were doubters as to God’s existence. So it followed that apologists of that era rose to the occasion to reply to those points.
    Yet at the same time that “rationalism” or “Enlightenment views of certainty in truth” were prominent, it would be a corresponding mistake to think that apologists never commended the Christian faith to doubters along the lines of “faith works”, “God answers prayer”, “your life can be changed by Christ”.
    Moreover, the anxious Danish Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard, who is best remembered as the father of modern existentialism, was an apologist for the faith. He reacted against the bombastic views of the philosopher Hegel and he reacted against the “dead” orthodoxy of the Danish churches. His approach in apologetics did not set the world alight in the 19th century, but it did come into its own in the 1920s when existentialists like Sartre, Kafka, Camus and Heidegger became prominent secular voices. What Kierkegaard had to say was meaningful in the 1920s and 1930s. But what happened in the 1920s is not what we are facing in 2006, so apologetics must move on (as it has and as it is doing right now).
    Today entirely different forms of apologetics are warranted. Some need to address secular sceptics; some are needed in interreligious dialogues; some are needed in replying to things like Da Vinci Code; some are needed when seekers allege “Jesus taught reincarnation and studied in Tibet”. Apologetics and fantasy and the imagination are valuable for today, and I pointed this out in an essay in 1998 and again in other publications.
    To commend the faith on the grounds that “it works” and faith is about spirituality, necessarily takes one into an embryonic realm where an apologetic for spirituality can ensue.
    A commitment to Christian mysticism has in the history of the church also carried with it certain kinds of apologetics. Gregory of Palamas, who is regarded as the quintessential advocate for apophaticism in theology and spirituality was also an apologist for the Trinity.
    St Ignatius gave us his famous “spiritual exercises” was simultaneously a missionary and an apologist. He gave us “both/and” not “either/or”.
    St Francis of Assisi was an early missionary to Islam espousing courtesy, respect, dialogue and contextualisation, all alongside his generosity to the creation, care for the poor, a theology and apologetic on reconciliation, love and nonviolence, and having a “literal presence” in his witness by travelling to and meeting in 1219 the Muslim Sultan.
    Raymond Lull was also a missionary from Catalan to Muslims in North Africa. He combined the best elements of Franciscan and Dominican values in missions with dialogue, debate, evangelism, apologetics and education. Lull was also an apologist for Christian mysticism and interacted with esoteric believers about astrology, alchemy, the Cabala and so on. He wrote the first “apologetic novel” known in Christian history (“Blanquerna”), which was in the form of the genre of “romance” (ie chivalry).
    Even the mystical Meister Eckhart offered an apologetic explanation for the gospel in his famous story of the rich man and the lady who had but one eye. The rich man, her husband, identified with her plight by removing one of his own eyes. Eckhart wrote “this is like man who could scarcely believe that God loved him so much until God put out one of his own eyes and assumed human nature.”
    I think we have lots to learn from our forebears and the link between their personal spirituality and their apologetic works need to be understood holistically, rather than in segments or in isolation.
    I really wish the “either/or” dichotomies (either being a promoter of spirituality or being an apologist for faith) would cease in favour of “both/and”. Indeed the “either/or” antinomies reflect – do they not? – a commitment to, a hang-over trace, or at least some inescapable reliance upon specific forms of syllogistic reasoning.


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