Reconsidering Apologetics

CS Lewis Apologetics Books Mere Christianity Miracles ScrewtapeBesides being a children’s author, essayist, fantasy writer, and literary critic, C.S. Lewis was also a Christian apologist. “Apologetics,” as the discipline is called, is the artistic science of logically defending belief. Lewis was doing apologetics on the BBC during WWII, explaining his faith in a series of talks that became Mere Christianity (1952). He wrote two other formal books of apologetics that form a sort of trilogy—The Problem of Pain (1940) and Miracles (1947; 1960)—as well as other books that were apologetic in nature, including The Screwtape Letters (1941), and his two conversion narratives: The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) and Surprised by Joy (1955). Part of Lewis’ vocation, at least in his 30s and 40s, was to artfully and logically defend Christian faith.

While C.S. Lewis’ trilogy of apologetics books are well done, they have never been my favourite. I’ve always felt about apologetics much the way John Stackhouse felt, as he shares in his introduction to Humble Apologetics. He speaks of an apologist on a college campus who was able to win all the arguments but still lose stackhouse humblethe hearts of the listeners. A student commented after the event, “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is right, I still hate his guts” (xvi). I’ve never felt moved by intellectual arguments for God—and sometimes I’ve been turned off by them—and I’ve never met anyone converted purely by them.

In my conversation with Antony Flew’s There Is a God in 2012, however, I found that I was able to admit that a couple of the classic arguments for the existence of God have won me over. Still, I have the tendency to avoid apologetics works and stick what I (rightly or wrongly) feel is the good stuff: the fiction. To me, fiction tells far more truth and tells it far better than formal philosophy.

For this reason, I was tempted to skip over a chapter on apologetics in a book I was reading. Jocelyn Gibb’s 1965 Light on C.S. Lewis is one of the earliest books to look on Lewis’ life and work from a number of different angles. Made up of Gibb Light on Lewiscolleagues, friends, students, and early biographers, Light on C.S. Lewis includes a chapter called “The Christian Apologist” by Austin Farrer. Instead of a quick skim, as I intended, I was sucked in.

In this succinct little chapter, Farrer talks about Lewis’ apologetic project, going into great detail about The Problem of Pain. What really caught me, however, was his discussion about apologetics in general. Farrer describes what has been my frequent argument about apologetics:

 “It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot” (26).

That’s it precisely. If no one is won over by strictly logical argument, why bother?

But Farrer challenges this idea.

“The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief…. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish” (26).

flewI think that is a profound truth. We make our spiritual and intellectual choices within some sort of context, and ongoing story of who we are in the world. Farrer emphasizes the need for a climate where faith is intellectually credible. This argument is a real challenge to my attitudes about apologetics; I think it is eminently true.

Farrer also helps me put a thought that I’ve had into words more elegant than my own. Even if we grant the value of the apologetics project—and the reality is that as a theology and philosophy prof, I am engaged in that discussion—I have some doubts that this generation can be won over by the project. I don’t think we miracleshave the ability to assess the arguments and choose well. Some individuals do, of course, but most of us are missing key educational and intellectual tools. I don’t mean just my students, who struggle to work through the arguments, but I feel it too. Mere Christianity came easily enough, but The Problem of Pain took multiple reads, and I’m still not certain I have Miracles completely.

Beyond resources, our generation may be one where faith, and, in particular, formal religion, is completely incredible. As I said once: Anselm’s ontological proof has to be wrong, even if it is right. If that’s the case, will the project of apologetics succeed? Farrer speaks to this.

“The day in which apologetic flourishes is the day of orthodoxy in discredit; an age full of people talked out of a faith in which they were reared…. Educated England provided a field for Lewis’ apologetic in the ‘thirties and ‘forties; America does so still [in the mid-1960s]…. Where the erosion of orthodoxy has gone beyond a certain point, other champions and different arms are called for. There can be no question of offering defences for positions which are simply unoccupied or of justifying ideas of which the sense has never dawned on the mind” (24-25).

Farrer captures why I do not assign C.S. Lewis’ apologetics works in many classes. While he truly was, in the years around WWII, a popular thinker who could speak in words the world around him understood, the culture has changed. We have rejected orthodox Christianity, but not because of intellectual argument. We have simply moved on. It isn’t just that Lewis’ works are now challenging to read (they are, for most students), but that they are nearly incomprehensible.

And, even more: the arguments for faith are nearly unbelievable to my generation.

thomas-aquinasI mean this seriously. As I am writing this I am about to walk into a class and try to demonstrate the classical proofs for God’s existence. The students, even though they are not philosophy majors, always respond with the class disputations of the proofs. It is a great discussion.

But even if I, in the character of Anselm of Canterbury or Thomas Aquinas or Alvin Plantinga, were to win the argument, I do not think there would be a flood of confessions. While the arguments may succeed, the belief itself is incredible to most.

So, why do I continue?

I am a teacher, for one. And incurably curious, so driven by the questions. The arguments are also an important part of a philosophical and theological curriculum. But I draw out these arguments because of what Farrer talked about: I believe that in these conversations we can create a conversation of consideration in a culture that would rush by the questions. I would like to contribute to an intellectually honest climate in our culture, where the warm bath of consumeristic identity or the heightened rhetoric of entrenched thought do not crowd out our consideration of these, the most important questions.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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27 Responses to Reconsidering Apologetics

  1. Although I have no particular gift in the area of apologetics, 1 Peter 3:15 is enough to remind me that I need to be able to account for my own faith. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience…”
    I don’t think we’ll ever be able to argue anyone in to heaven, but our attitude to God and his word and way we relate to the people who ask us is important. Lewis’s apologetics might not persuade a modern audience, yet his life story and the way he sought God and incorporated his faith into his writing still resonates with many. Your students are lucky you encourage them to ask…

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  2. jubilare says:

    “I’ve never met anyone converted purely by them.” My answer to this is more or less the conclusion you came to. “Purely” is the operative word. The intellectual discussion breaks down untruths and creates a climate of doubt in which faith can form. That is quite a thing, when one thinks about it.

    Logic and reasoning speaks to me very strongly. I love a good apologist (there are plenty of poor ones, unfortunately). It took a serious crisis of faith to open me up to laying my intellect at God’s feet and admitting that logic and reason have their limits. Logic and reason in His service, though, serve a vital role in combating the idea that believers are illogical lunatics, or idiots. I’m fairly young, but I can’t even count the number of times I have had to unravel arguments against my faith in conversation. I’ve even won a few hearts and opened a few minds by doing this. I figure that if I can open a window of doubt in a closed-off mind, then I have done some good.

    “And, even more: the arguments for faith are nearly unbelievable to my generation.” I… do not think this is true. Perhaps it is true in some regions more than others.

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    • How much of that discussion is unraveling theological and cultural knots that people tie regarding faith–these untruths and half-truths and unrecognizable features of Christianity that we must somehow be responsible for?

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      • jubilare says:

        Quite a lot. A lot is also the reasoning people develop in the vacuum of having no Christian friends to ask, or of knowing people who profess the faith without modeling Christ. In the absence of good information, it seems to be human nature to make up one’s own information.

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        • Here it is: all our thinking must be done in community. You nailed that.
          But our community’s can lead us astray. I can’t tell you how often I am apologizing for Pat Robertson or Westboro Baptist or the anti-environmentalism zeitgeist or the history of _________. I’ve stopped apologizing and started critiquing, with the hope that some will see past North American folk spirituality or European Christendom and see the living Christ.

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  3. jubilare says:

    “all our thinking must be done in community.” Yes.
    Listening goes a long way to bridge the gaps, too. Logical reasoning can be very effective in breaking down misconceptions, but one has to know who one is talking to and where the points of mutual understanding exist. I hate logic used as a bludgeon.

    I share that frustration.

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    • I don’t know where you are on this Jubilare, but believe that there is more than one way to “know”–more than reason-science. It is why I read, and write fantasy, personally.

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      • jubilare says:

        It took going through a very horrible time for me to accept that truth, but I have. Logic and reason have definite limits, but they are still God-given tools, and God never gives us anything without a purpose. People who lack faith, or lack some of the other ways of knowing, need to be met with logic. If they are not, the breach in communication is insurmountable unless/until they have a revelation of their own. Does that make sense?
        One of the most striking examples of this for me was a long conversation I had with a nihilist. He was used to people of faith who had no value for logical discourse, and so he believed that logic and faith were incompatible. I was able to show him otherwise in a friendly way. God used my ability to lay out a logical framework to defy some of that man’s assumptions and so open a window.
        There are more ways to “know” than one, and none of them should be discounted. They all serve a purpose. I guess that is the point I have been trying to make. God meets us where we are, and if we need to be met with reason, He meets us there before leading us in deeper. That seems to be where he first met Lewis, and that is where He first met me. 🙂

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        • I totally agree with all of this.
          I just read Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Freedom of Thought” in her book When I Was a Child I Read Books”. She argues that we need to turn science & religion around: Science is a way of knowing, but a small slice of knowing that is subset to religion and art and literature. Intriguing.
          For me, I live in both. I had a great class today demonstrating the existence of God through scientific conversations. It wasn’t the last word, but one of the words.

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  4. jubilare says:

    I agree. It makes me sad and frustrated when silly assumptions on the incompatibility of religion and science are made. It shows a lack of understanding of both!

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