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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Purpose & Scope Of Apologetics

Apologetics exists as a field of Christian study to aide the believer in understanding his beliefs, why critics refuse to ascent to these eternal truths, and how these beliefs apply to broader intellectual concerns. Upon hearing of these applications of the discipline, those unfamiliar with such studies might conclude the field to be a subject preoccupied with trivial, esoteric arguments divorced from more pressing issues arising in the course of everyday life.

However, Apologetics does not have to confine itself to the halls of higher education. Apologetics does, in fact, have a role to play in the more popular forms of communication and cultural expression often looked down upon by more traditional academics and clergy.

Many students enrolled in formal degree programs and academic courses of Apologetics no doubt embrace aspirations of serving the Lord in the capacity of a pastor, missionary, or some other form of traditional Christian service. While these students are to be commended for such lofty goals, it must be noted that formalized education in Apologetics can also be good preparation for vocations involving more direct confrontation with the social and cultural realities of the day.

Such an assessment is not a detached observation. Rather it is one derived from my own experience of nearly two decades as a writer of editorial and op-ed commentaries. These efforts began in local newspapers but eventually migrated onto the Internet as that particular technology became more widespread and assessable.

One would not, at first glance, suspect a connection between Apologetics and scathing news analysis. However, Apologetics can serve as as useful tool to get at the ideas and assumptions concealed beneath the theatrics and hoopla surrounding most public issues.

Likewise, the Evangelical might be surprised by the receptivity of many of these public forums to the presentation of the Christian worldview since most believers have grown accustomed to a hostility towards traditional religious perspectives in the mainstream media. The point is not so much for the Christian to expect to anchor the nightly news on one of the major networks but to capitalize on those opportunities made available by new technologies contributing to the democratization of the means of mass communication.

The ability of the Christian to stake a foothold and win at least a modest audience in the tumultuous arena of public debate is predicated on the nature of truth itself. Romans 2:14 says, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, since they show that requirements of the law are written on their hearts...”

This reality serves as a gateway to an apologetic utilized by some of the most influential Christian thinkers. Dr. John Warwick Montgomery writes in “The Law Above The Law”, “...the fundamental function of the legal profession is to seek justice by seeking truth. The lawyer endeavors to reduce societal conflicts by arbitrating conflicting truth claims (68).” Similar things could be said of the journalist or columnist as these modern scribes chronicle the events of the day and attempt to relate them to the overall human condition.

Yet the Christian taking the insights of Apologetics into the public debate should not expect things to always go along peachy keen. After all, this is an age whose prevalent outlook of relativism stands in opposition to the absolute claims of the Christian faith. It, therefore, falls to the apologist to show the contemporary unbeliever, acculturated to the temper of these times, the disjunction that exists between what the average non-Christian publicly professes and the stable moral order the heart actually longs for whether the individual fully realizes it or not.

C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” noted that when there is a disagreement between two individuals, “It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some Law or Rule of...morality...Quarelling means trying to show that the other man is wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless (there was) some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are (31-32).” If radical tolerance really was the ultimate principle around which the universe operated, argumentation would be pointless and perhaps impossible. Alister McGrath writes in “Intellectuals Don't Need God & Other Modern Myths”, “Lewis's point ... is that there is a core of moral constraints underlying human civilization (40).”

The Christian makes the argument for the superiority of his answer by comparing how well Christianity and the competing belief system in question measure up to various tests such as that of systematic consistency and coherence. By this test, the philosophical investigator examines how well the statements within a given worldview logically fit together and how these propositions square with the external facts. In the arena of public debate, this test is carried out by extrapolating from policies and ideas to their ultimate conclusions and how they either help or hinder both the individual and the nation.

For example, Winfred Corduan of Taylor University writes in “No Doubt About It: The Case For Christianity”, “Relativism plays the role of Zorro in the world of knowledge. It stays in concealment for long periods of time only to suddenly appear at crucial moments, conquer the day, and go back into hiding (37).” In other words, relativism might be good for tearing down dogmas, but there is no way an individual can live or a society govern by this perspective consistently. Because with no standard by which to cry “foul”, such an ethic naturally degenerates into the strong imposing their arbitrary will upon the weak.

Francis Schaeffer noted in “A Christian Manifesto”, “We live in...sociopolitical law. By sociopolitical law we mean law that has no fixed base but law in which a group of people decides what is sociologically good for society ...and what they arbitrarily decide becomes law (41).” So if society needs to kill a few million Jews or experiment on a few million fetuses, who is the average relativist to argue against these kinds of things when these atrocities are couched in the language of the “common good”? There might have been a time when Christians could have ignored the outside world with little peril; but as apologists such as C.S. Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery, and Francis Schaeffer have made know, that day is long gone if it ever existed at all.

Of the gains made by Christians in the discipline of Philosophy over the past several decades, J.P. Moreland says in “Evangelical Apologetics: Selected Essays From The 1995 Evangelical Theological Society Convention”, “In spite of these gains, however, it would be misleading to speak as if all were well on the battlefront. There is much work to be done...philosophical apologetics should be focused on those areas of study in which activity is underrepresented...Political and social philosophy would get my vote here (19-29).” This analysis has echoed this sentiment in calling for a Christian voice to address the pertinent issues of the day. This examination also embraces the spirit of Dr. Moreland's comments calling upon apologists not to ignore other forms of popular communication for the most part traditionally overlooked by Christian polemicists, primarily imaginative literature.

Bombarded with an unending twenty-four hour news cycle and conflicting streams of argumentation on nearly every conceivable issue, some overloaded minds simply turn off any alacrity they once had for the absorption of raw facts and refined logic. The desire to be entertained here in the twenty-first century shows few signs of letting up.

John Warwick Montgomery writes in “Neglected Apologetic Styles: The Juridical and The Literary” appearing in the same volume as J.P. Moreland's essay writes, “The...juggernaut of scientific technology has alienated many in our society...Might literary creativity offer a way through this labyrinth? Can literature succeed where other paths have failed (126)?” Unlike rational argumentation, which as to get around tenaciously held objections or what C.S. Lewis referred to as “watchful dragons”, stories have a way of infiltrating the defenses of the mind before one realizes what is happening (McGrath, 198).

The success of this approach is not predicated, however, upon literature for literature's sake. For although packaged in the regalia of high adventure, sympathetic characters and compelling settings, to literary sophisticates John Warwick Montgomery observes in “Myth, Allegory & Gospel”, “Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien display...an infuriating combination or ingenuousness and genius. On the other hand, no 20th century writers in the English-speaking world have had such an ... extensive impact on the intelligentsia in the sphere of ultimate commitment (14).” Of Tolkien, Montgomery admits that some say of this fantasist that he “...limits his imagery to the symbols of Celtic and medieval myth and the verities of the Christian tradition that in the judgment of a recent critic ...'his earnest vision seems syncretistic, his structure a collage, and his feeling antiquarian.'. (14).” Yet “The Lord Of The Rings” has been heralded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century and the cinematic adaptations set in this imaginary realm are the box office hit of any Christmas season.

What these tales do is tap into a fund of themes, ideas, and images etched upon the human mind and soul. Lewis himself reflected upon the theories of Jung and Tolkien to account for the appeal of these timeless narratives. Jung believed that myths and fantasies verbalize symbols universal to the human psyche. Tolkien Christianized this idea when he said as quoted in “Myth, Allegory & Gospel”, “The Gospels contain...a story of a larger kind which embraces all of the essences of fairy stories (117).” John Warwick Montgomery further expounds, “To Tolkien and Lewis, tales such as “The Chronicles Of Narnia” can...serve as pointers to...Christian Redemption. Moreover, they will establish in the heart of the sensitive reader an appreciation of and a longing for the Christian story (118).” This technique works because, as Romans 1:20 informs, “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities --- his eternal power and divine nature --- have been clearly seen so that men are without excuse (NIV).” Thus, each human being's inbuilt curiosity regarding God and eternal things pops up in regards to the stories of good and evil so prevalent in contemporary popular culture.

With such names as Lewis and Tolkien attached to it, the average Christian might feel unworthy of employing an apologetic having grown synonymous with classical literature for fear of not properly honoring it. However, even those unlikely of ever penning a timeless epoch for the ages can still use speculative narrative to stimulate the imagination in the direction of religious truth. In fact, one does not even have to adorn the tale in the traditional medieval fantasy motifs popularized by this format since the underlying concepts being presented are much more important than the external trappings and regalia.

Though it might seem a bit clich├ęd now in light of the popularity of Left Behind and the crop of other End Times novelizations that popped up at the turn of the millennium, in a creative writing class during college I wrote a short story incorporating certain elements of a literalist eschatology such as the Rapture, the Mark of the Beast and Christian Redemption and placed them in a literary setting incorporating elements of the techno-thriller and police-state genres. The story was surprisingly well-received by a state university audience. Some of the students were kind enough to rank it among the best in the class.

It has been said that those who can, do; those who cannot, teach. Likewise, in the literary world, those who can, write; those who cannot, criticize.

Among those Christians who enjoy imaginative adventures but lack the creativity to craft their own speculative worlds there is more than ample opportunity to relate the symbols found in these narratives to Biblical truths. Some might consider it bizarre to comb science fiction and fantasy for parallels in Christian thought. Silly as it seems, it is not without precedence among secular academics to examine this kind of material through the analytical lenses of their own respective disciplines.

Such efforts have given rise to a group of semi-popular works one might classify as “Star Trek Studies”. One such volume entitled “The Ethics Of Star Trek” by Judith Barad, head of the Department of Philosophy at Indiana State University, examines the moral dilemmas confronted by these beloved characters created by the late Gene Roddenberry. It would, therefore, be just as legitimate to probe and analyze programs such as “Babylon 5”, “Stargate”, “Battlestar Galatica”, and “Doctor Who” as a form of apologetic outreach to an overlooked segment of the population, namely science fiction enthusiasts. The Blackwell Philosophy & Pop Culture Series already does something similar from the standpoint of secular philosophy.

II Corinthians 10:3-4 says, “...we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses (NAS).” The Scripture acknowledges that the children of God are at war. In this conflict, it would not be strategically sound to have all the participants engaged in the same kind of combat. The army fights on the land, the navy on the sea. Still other agencies such as the CIA gather intelligence for the other branches and engage in other assorted activities not exactly fitting the mission profiles of the other services. Likewise, it is the mission of the apologist to gather information of the conditions outside of the Church and to relay that knowledge back to the body of Christ and to go into places where a pastor might not be accepted or appreciated.

By Frederick Meekins

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