A New Kind of Apologist…

Posted by on Aug 12, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

I’m currently teaching a unit on apologetics at Vose, and as part of my background work have been reading through a collection of essays edited by Sean McDowell entitled A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016). Apologetics explores the reasonable basis for the Christian faith, and addresses the common objections that people have to Christianity. Some of the articles in this book are really excellent – a few less so – but my intention is to highlight the helpful.

Noting C.S.Lewis’s comment that all Christians are apologists (the question is not if we are apologists, but what kind of apologist we will be – p15) – McDowell begins by suggesting that the manner we set about doing apologetics needs to change, and highlights four characteristics that are required. The new kind of apologist will be

  1. Humble
  2. Relational
  3. Studious
  4. A practitioner

While we might ask ‘so what’s new’, historically apologists have often come across as arrogant, unwilling to listen and non-relational. The stereo type would be of someone intent on winning an argument, no matter how much blood is splattered on the carpet in the process. Of course that is just a stereo type, but for all that, I think that McDowell is on to something. To my own students I say that effective apologists need to find that wonderful intersecting point of orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy – right teaching, right practice and right feeling.

McDowell starts with an illustration of a conversation with a hairdresser, who on seeing him reading a Christian book said that she didn’t see how a God of love could allow so much evil and suffering in the world. As McDowell notes, for any apologist, this is bread and butter stuff – the sort of question faced over and over again. He quickly rattled off some tried and trusted answers. He was stunned when some time later she said in a quavering voice ‘This is a bunch of bs! You’ve got an answer for everything. It can’t be that easy. You just don’t understand.’ (p12)

It was only after much reflection that McDowell realised that his quick answers came across mechanically, arrogantly and without empathy. He goes on to write of the impact of that encounter and the change it brought saying: ‘Whenever the problem of suffering and evil comes up, I try to avoid simple answers. I typically respond with a question: “Of all the things you can ask about God, why that one?”‘ (p13).

I think that snippet goes a long way to outlining the heartbeat behind the book. It’s a plea to address not only the head, but the whole person. And it is also an appeal to not always be the one doing the talking – but to view the task of the apologist as first being one of listening. You’ve got to like that…

In his essay exploring ‘Apologetics as Conversation’ (21-28) Tim Muehlhoff suggests four questions to ponder when in conversation with someone with a different belief system:

  1. What does this person believe? Quoting Prov 18:13 ‘He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him’, Muehlhoff notes humourist Dave Barry’s biting comment: ‘People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.’ (23) Suggesting that most apologists mistakenly feel they must do most of the talking, and lamenting that they often suffer from ‘agenda anxiety’ (an overwhelming anxiety to get across all points), he proposes that we begin from a different point – a place where we start with listening, and get to undertand what it is that this person we are in contact with actually believes. It seems a wise starting point to me.
  2. Why does this person believe? Suggesting that ‘our convictions and passions have a history to them that can be traced back to the influences of our family, personal experiences, and influential people'(24), he argues that to effectively engage with people we need to create thick not thin impressions of them, and puts forward some questions to help to do so: ‘When did you first start to think this way?’ ‘Who has influenced your thinking the most concerning this issue?’ ‘What books or movies have shaped your perspective?”Does your perspective deviate from your parents’ perspective?’
  3. Where do we agree? Muehlhoff discusses his practice of getting his students to read the Qur’an and to find where it shares common ground with the Bible. He notes that to their surprise, most students spot that both faiths value some key questions: ‘What is God like?’ ‘Who is Jesus?’ ‘What is our responsibility to the poor?’ ‘What is the role of prayer?’ ‘Is there an afterlife?’ ‘Is there a final judgement?’ ‘If so, how can one be saved?’
  4. Based on this knowledge, how should I proceed? Answering these first three questions places you in a far better position to then ask the next question – with this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the one thing I should say? Muehlhoff then wisely adds ‘Notice that the question asks what is the next thing, not three or four things, you want to say'(26).

Other chapters deal with a raft of relevant issues including – social justice and a new kind of apologist; the multiethnic church: God’s living apologetic; Entrepreneurs: An economic apologetic for the Faith.

I especially appreciated Terry Glaspey’s chapter on Intuitional Apologetics: Using our Deepest Intuitions to Point us Toward God (137-145). The title sounds so unlike old style apologetics which was instinctively suspicious of the intuitive. It seems to me that a sense of wonder is often a forerunner to belief – and it is present in so many people. Under the heading of ‘Rumors of Glory’ Glaspey suggests that we help ‘people to see that the materialistic explanation of life is woefully inadequate in the face of these mysterious moments’ (142). The mysterious moments he outlines are:

  1. Contemplation of the beauty of the natural world
  2. Contemplation of human creativity
  3. Contemplation on the mystery of love
  4. Contemplation on the experience of awe and wonder
  5. Contemplation on the sense of the sacred
  6. Contemplation on the experience of birth or death

I think Glaspey is right when he claims that ‘These are just a few of the clues we might follow that have the capacity to lead the heart and mind toward God and his redemptive love’(143).

Well – what kind of an apologist are you? One who runs away from the task of speaking about the faith and trying to defend its validity? If so, you are still an apologist – just one who is rather ineffective and unwittingly gives an unhelpful message. Or perhaps you are more strident, and quickly engage in argument with all comers… If so, McDowell and the other authors of A New Kind of Apologist suggest that there are some better models that you might like to consider. And they begin with listening – and probing deeply into the many faces of mystery that we encounter in life…

As always, nice chatting…

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