Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, I confess that I’m beginning to think about apologetics a little differently. My previous rejection of the McDowell model was rooted very much in the belief that evidentialism was only useful in a world (i.e. Modernism) where people agreed that there was one kind of Truth (be it faith or science). In response, my thoughts revolved around a personal narrative-based approach that made more sense in a postmodern world that favored “many truths.”
I’m beginning to think this isn’t sufficient for Christians (especially the adolescents in our youth ministries) today. Things have changed, it seems, yet again. I can’t tell you if we are still in “postmodernism,” but I can say that some of my assumptions about the place of our stories and personal experiences of faith might not be cutting it.
If Modernism gave us the age of competing overarching stories or metanarratives (science versus religion, for instance) and postmodernism a world of many narratives all of which had equal value, the new setting in which Christians seem to find themselves is one that is somewhat different. Perhaps it defies categorization by a single term.
If the world of McDowell and C. S. Lewis was about quantitative evidence for God and my postmodern plans were about narratives of God, then this new approach is, for lack of a better word, a qualitative discussion of God and God’s people.
People in our world might accept your evidence or they might not. They might listen to their story or they might not. But: even if you’ve convinced them on these first two counts, they might still think your faith–your God–are horrible ideas because of the danger “strong religion” poses to our world. No matter the evidence, God is simply “not a good idea” for many in our contemporary world. They come to this conclusion because of suicide bombers, Westboro Baptists, perceptions of Christians as only filled with hate, and so much more. They see us as hypocrites and crusaders. Sometimes they do this in the absence of evidence….and sometimes we provide them with a veritable catalog of options from which to choose.
The challenge of our day is, then, not necessarily proving that God exists either intellectually or on a personal level, but convincing people that belief in God is not a bad thing. That it doesn’t make you into a person of hate. Apologetics today, then, is about defending Christianity in a world that is becoming deeply skeptical about whether our faith (or any religious faith) is helpful or destructive.
As a Church historian, it comes to mind that we in the West now face a situation unlike any since the first few centuries of Christianity. Then, as our fledgling movement grew and expanded across the Roman world, the prevailing attitudes towards it were not positive. We were considered obscurantists, full of “hatred of the human race” and its ways, and otherwise ne’er-do-wells who just wouldn’t go along with the system. Rumors persisted that we were atheists (because we didn’t worship their gods but instead an invisible One), cannibals (because we eat Christ’s body and blood), and engaged in incest (called each other “brother” and “sister” and the “Love Feast” or Communion together).
Faced with disdain from the world around them yet convinced of the truth and positive plan of God’s work in the world, early Christian apologists spent time refuting the claims of the pagans. They even sometimes argued that Christianity was a more superior system than paganism. People like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr understood and served the Church well in this matter, and have perhaps left a pattern for us today.
For Christians today, and especially young people that face a culture of disdain more and more, the apologetic task is not simply to show that Christianity is scientifically accurate or at work in their lives, but first and foremost that it is not a bad thing. This begins with grasping our faith deeply and understanding that it is predicated on God’s love. That is a legitimate system it can have and has had a transformatively positive impact on our world.
The young lady in that youth service two weeks ago that said she believed in God but couldn’t say (or didn’t know) why would certainly have faltered in any era of apologetic work. Her and those like her (many in the adolescent world) might not do well at all when confronted with arguments about Christianity being a religion of hate and ignorance and excess and hypocrisy. They may simply not have the wherewithal to respond to the attack or even know whether it is right or wrong in the first place. Without understanding what they believe, why, and what the core teachings of that belief are, they will be in no position to defend or persevere in their faith.
Apologetics for students today means not just pulling out a book of evidence, even though this might help. It isn’t about merely getting a hearing for your story, even while I still believe that students should know the narrative of their faith. I think apologetics today is something slightly different: it is about knowing and being able to articulate what you believe and why. Knowing it so well that you’ll be able to respond when qualitative critiques and attacks against the Church are raised. Knowing that we serve a good God who defines the very word “love” (I John 4:8).
When a Facebook meme against “ignorant hate-filled Christians” goes around, it means that students need to know enough about Christ’s teachings to be able to differentiate for themselves and those who would question them what God is really all about. They need to be sure in their faith and position, knowing the message of Scripture and the teachings of the Church so they can intelligently, lovingly, and in word and deed address concerns as they are raised. They will need this to be able to stand firm in a time where aspersion is cast on religion as useless or bad. And since they won’t be born with this knowledge, it is up to pastors, parents, mentors, and others to help them get here. In this way, I think, apologetics in youth ministry is both more than I previously thought and less, perhaps, than McDowell has historically contended.
So it is in a world that asks “Is believing in God a good idea? Is it worth my time? Is faith hurtful or helpful?”