Doodle: A Cautionary Note On Apologetics
In my own life I’ve seen a marked resurgence of apologetics. This was in part a response to the New Atheism, while other factors exceeding my own abilities of analysis abound. However, I will say that apologetics appears to have become trendy, especially among more intellectually keyed Christians. Arguments for God’s existence are now seen as crucial to evangelistic efforts and cultural engagement in many Christian circles.
So, as a fairly new believer in my early twenties, I can recall feeling ill-prepared to share the gospel because couldn’t define presuppositional apologetics or list Thomas Aquinas’ “five ways.” Simultaneously, I was in awe as the likes of Alister McGrath and John Lennox took on famous atheists in public debates, all too aware of my own inadequacies to offer similarly robust and rational defences for my faith. Ironically, the increasing presence of Christian apologetics highlighted my own inabilities and need for further training and equipping.
However interesting the origins of apologetics’ recent resurgence may be, this doodle is brief note explaining my unease with the larger apologetics project. In fact, this doodle is little more than an extended quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where John Ames shares a cautionary note regarding proofs and arguments for the Christian faith.
Apologetics: “Building a Ladder to the Moon”
“In the matter of belief, I have always found that defences have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. And yet no one can say what Being is. If you describe what a thought and a whisker have in common, and a typhoon and a rise in the stock market, excluding ‘existence,’ which merely restates the fact that they have a place on our list of known and nameable things (and which would yield as insight: Being equals existence!), you would have accomplished a wonderful thing, still too partial in an infinite degree to have any meaning, however.
I’ve lost my point. It was to the effect that you can assert the existence of something—Being—having not the slightest notion of what it is. Then God is at a greater remove altogether—if God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have had a character before existence. That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience or any sort if like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it would be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.
So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. ‘Let your works so shine before men,’ etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the moustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”
“Christianity is a Life, not a Doctrine”
In sum, if that is even possible let alone appropriate for such a beautiful passage, John Ames calls apologetics inadequate because it seeks to locate God or “ultimate things” within our conceptual, finite grasp. He finds this both impertinent and impossible. Ames then supplements this critique by showing that proof of existence can fall terribly short of experiencing reality. As Ames writes, “You can assert the existence of something—Being —having not the slightest notion of what it is.” I’m not saying that this is the inevitable tendency of apologetics, but it is certainly an occupational hazard.
To conclude, our contentment with logical arguments for the truth—which are unable to move us to love that truth—is undoubtedly an Enlightenment hangover. But my guess is that it’s also the fruit of a desire to be right, known for our intellectual acumen and rational prowess. I know from my own life that I far prefer winning arguments over pursuing character. This is why, after quoting Matthew 5:16, Ames says, “It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” Defenders of the faith would do well to remember this, especially the fact that God won his enemies over through death rather than debate.