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Does Apologetics Convert People?

Does Apologetics Convert People?

For some Christians, the word “apologetics” is just another piece of seminary jargon. It’s one of those words their pastor uses to prove his degree is from a legitimate theological institution. After all, it has the same word ending as “homiletics” and “hermeneutics.” Words ending in “tics” are clearly very important, but they are for the “religious specialists”, not “lay” persons.


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We all have to guard against large or obscure words becoming obstacles to our education. Every word means something (unless it is just gibberish). “Homiletics” is basically sermonizing (giving “homilies”). “Hermeneutics” is simply interpreting things (like ancient texts) to find their true meaning.

How a word sounds may evoke a particular feeling, but that’s irrelevant. The word “medieval” has a dark, ominous sound because we hear the word “evil” in it. But the word “evil” isn’t really in it. It only sounds like it is. “Medieval” only means “middle.”

Apologist sounds, at first, like a term of weakness.

Similarly, “apologist” sounds, at first, to the average English speaker, like a term of weakness, like someone who goes around saying, “I’m sorry” for his or her views. That’s because our common use of the word “apology” has a different meaning than it did when ancient Greeks used it.

What is Apologetics?

The classical definition of the word “apology” is simply “a verbal defense.” It certainly wasn’t used to describe those fake public apologies made by famous people today. It’s high time we redeem the word “apology.” We need fewer spineless apologies and more robust apologists. In other words, stop saying you’re sorry for holding your beliefs and instead defend them.

We need fewer spineless apologies and more robust apologists.

When, in the 4th Century B.C., Plato penned the famous Apology of Socrates, suffice to say, it did not feature his mentor saying “I’m terribly sorry for challenging the status quo with my pointed philosophical questions aimed at self-proclaimed intellectual leaders in Athens, so now can you find it in your hearts to forgive me for corrupting the youth by teaching them how to think critically?”  No sir.

The Apology was Socrates’ characteristically brilliant defense of himself before the Athenian court that had sentenced him to death. Similarly today, an “apologist” for the big oil companies, defends those companies’ rights, privileges and practices.

“Christian Apologetics” is the practice of defending Christianity.

Thus, “Christian Apologetics” is the practice of defending Christianity, either by defending it against the specific accusations of critics or defending the truth of its central claims.

Does Apologetics Convert People?

If we ask the question, “How many people became Christians because they heard a good defense of something like the existence of God, the historicity of the Gospels, or the archeological verifications of biblical narratives?” the answer is probably “very few”.

But the question, “Does apologetics convert anyone?” is a poor question to begin with. This is why I imagine the ghosts of Puritans past cringing when they hear us ask it. They would remind us in stern, puritanical tones that the only theologically correct way to speak of this is that God alone converts people. However, we may inquire as to what means God uses.

We could plug any of these things into the question, “Does x convert people?”

So, is apologetics a means to the conversion of people? I think we can answer in the affirmative. Many things are means to that end: benevolence, care for the sick, music, living a good example, powerful storytelling, Christian drug counselors, etc. We could plug any of these things into the question, “Does x convert people?” The question sounds the same. It’s not the right way to ask it. Yet, they all play important roles.

The diversity of people’s spiritual histories is too wide and profound to make a negative judgment about apologetics or any of the other means by which people come to faith. Over the years, I’ve met people who tell all sorts of stories about the things that played important roles in their conversion:

  • The kindness of a prison guard
  • Supernatural experiences
  • A scene in a movie
  • A death in the family
  • A dream they had
  • One sentence they heard someone utter 10 years ago
  • A Gospel tract
  • A lyric on Christian radio

You can add to that list, those whose pathway to Christian belief was more intellectual in nature and for whom apologetics was, in fact, very important. I have met people like this. Some of the most influential Christian intellectuals and writers in history had conversion stories of this kind.

Let’s put it like this: if lifestyle, the arts, charity ministries, and counseling are important means by which people enter the Kingdom, so is apologetics.

Everyone Practices Apologetics

Everyone practices apologetics. If you hold a belief about anything and seek to defend that belief, you are playing the role of the apologist. Is there anyone who does not hold beliefs that he or she considers important? Is there anyone who, hearing those beliefs discounted, maligned, or ridiculed, will not speak up on their behalf? You would find it very difficult if you tried to never to be an apologist for anything. I doubt you could do it.

Thus, every religion, every cause, every political group, and every shared point of view will have advocates and defenders. There are apologists for Islam, a limited government model, atheism, marijuana legalization, the Roman Catholic Church, and abortion rights.

Every religion, every cause, every political group, and every shared point of view has defenders.

The question is not, “Are you an apologist?” but rather, “For what are you an apologist?” What do you take the trouble to defend, and do you do it effectively?

What Exactly Does Apologetics Accomplish?

What exactly does apologetics accomplish? For starters, it removes unnecessary obstacles; it brings down barriers to belief. It clears away the rubble. This is why some people call it “pre-evangelism.”

My favorite quote on this is by Austin Farrer, the Oxford scholar and Anglican priest who was part of the famous “Inklings” group that featured C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. He explained the importance of apologetics thus:

It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot. The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. So the apologist who does nothing but defend may play a useful, though preparatory, part.

Apologetics also benefits the already converted. Some apologists will tell you that their efforts probably do more for the faithful than the faithless. Sure, a few non-believers are given something to think about when there is a strong argument advanced on behalf of a Christian belief. Maybe some of them are moved in the right direction by it. But almost every Christian who hears that same argument is strengthened and bolstered by it.

The Importance of Apologetics to Believers

As theologian John Stackhouse points out, there is an internal apologetics that actively accompanies external apologetics. Where this is a regular part of the training of Christians, that internal teacher does indispensable work. Stackhouse writes:

As Christians consider the questions raised in the culture at large or within our own communion, we can reconsider just what the best response really should be. As we do so we may find that we should refine our understanding of this Bible passage or that doctrine, or this approach to evangelism or that approach to political activity. … Under the probing of good questions, even fiercely antagonistic ones, Christians can thus find their conception and practice of their religion become more nuanced, more careful, and more mature.

And I might add that in a time of parental hand-wringing over the attrition rate of young people raised in church, it is highly likely that the overlooked missing ingredient is a solid intellectual foundation for the faith these young people so casually cast aside. Were it not such a lightly held and shallow faith, were it instead a deeply rooted and fully orbed worldview, I doubt this regrettable phenomenon would be what it is.

Apologetics is Biblical

Not to be flippant, and not that it is a newsflash to most people, but let’s make sure we remember something: defending the faith is plainly biblical. It is both practiced and taught; it is exemplified and mandated.

The word “apologetics” is used literally, and rather famously, in 1 Peter 3:15; this is probably the go-to apologetics verse:

1 Peter 3:15 – but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, [ESV]

The apostle admonishes the believers always to be ready to give an “apologia” (which is the key term), usually translated “answer” or “defense.” He wasn’t telling them to do anything that wasn’t demonstrated repeatedly in the lives of the apostles themselves.

Just picture Paul in a major foreign city defending the messiahship of Jesus before a hostile crowd in the local synagogue, and later, after being run off, borrowing a lecture hall and “reasoning daily” in discussions and debates with all-comers.


The early church leaders of the next era followed suit. One such was Justin Martyr, who wrote two defenses of the Christians.

In the generation coming just after the apostles, the growing Christian movement faced accusations within the suspicious culture of the Roman Empire. It was believed that they ritually drank human blood and ate human flesh like primitive cannibals, and held scandalous secret meetings that included men and women (a rarity among Roman religions). They were believed to be atheists insofar as they denied all of the Roman (and other) gods. They were dangerously seditious because they gave allegiance to another king and would not worship the Emperor.

And so, Justin, who would earn the name ‘Martyr’ for the exact reason you might suspect, took up his pen to make a careful and reasoned defense of the worshippers of Jesus against all of these false accusations or mischaracterizations. He addressed his letter to the Roman emperor Antonius Pius, along with his royal household and the Roman Senate. It began,

“I, Justin, the son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius, natives of Flavia Neapolis in Palestine, present this address and petition in behalf of those of all nations who are unjustly hated and wantonly abused, myself being one of them.”

The practice of defending the faith has been characteristic of Christians ever since that time. It is commanded, it is important, and it is frankly not very difficult compared with the much more daunting tasking of living up to the moral standard of a Christian disciple. You’ll end up doing it anyway, so it is imperative that you learn to do it well.

Are you “on the wrong side of history” (and should you be worried)?

It’s time to take a closer look at a phrase you’re probably tired of hearing by now. Words and phrases come into and go out of style just like everything else. I remember when Devo and Spandau Ballet were tearing up the FM airwaves. In recent years there has been a surge in popularity for the phrase “on the wrong side of history.” An article at the end of 2013 claimed that this “rhetorical two-step,” as it called it, has seen a statistical swell across published articles. It cites the Yale Book of Quotations, which counted 524 articles in 2006 in which the phrase was used, compared with 1,800 articles featuring it in 2013.


So it’s all the rage, but what does it mean? If you didn’t know any better, you might think that it means going against history or disagreeing with those who went before us. But of course that is not what those who use the phrase are wanting to say. But let us examine briefly both possibilities. Let’s ask first about being on the wrong side of history as we now consider it (i.e., that which in our past), and then let’s look at being on the wrong side of what will someday be history (i.e., that which is in our future).


On the Wrong Side of What We NOW Call “History”


History is that which is in the past, quite obviously, so the most literal understanding of the phrase “on the wrong side of history” would be just what it sounds like: to be on the wrong side of history, in this sense, is to hold a belief or position that goes against what those in the past believed or held. Knowing as we do the general thought-patterns of our own culture, we might reasonably ask whether the dominant perspective represented in pop culture, media and entertainment finds agreement with the majority of significant voices from our history.


And it would not require a lot of reading from history to come quickly to the conclusion that nearly nobody from the generations of the past would find agreement with leading contemporary social and political voices in the Western world. History is a long tale full of clues about how our present culture came to look, speak, think, and act the way it does. If you familiarize yourself with the story you will come to see that the contemporary notions Americans have about religion, ethics and politics are mostly novelties, appearing just a few ‘chapters’ ago.


Historical ignorance and the move away from traditional religious and moral beliefs are undoubtedly tied together. “History is a hill or a high point,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “from which alone men see the town in which they are living and the age in which they live.” So many today are confused and lack perspective because they have no vantage point from which to see their own tiny plot of time and place.  To borrow the analogy from James the Apostle, we never look into the mirror that would show us a more accurate reflection of ourselves and our surroundings.


Reading the words or biographies of prominent people from our past would likely shock – and maybe offend – many contemporary fans of the “progressive” left. A lot of young people who encounter the voices of the past while reading for college courses are given to the foolish habit of rejecting them with a knee-jerk reaction that assumes that everyone who lived before iphones was backward and just didn’t get it. In most cases they read just enough to condemn everyone in history of being ignorant, racist, puritanical religious nuts. This childish view of history says more about our own culture than any of those from the past. We’ve become too inept even to know how to process the predominant ways of thinking of those in our history. “To be ignorant of the past is to remain a child,” wrote Cicero, and he had so much less history from which to learn than we do all of these centuries later. Our confusion is of our own making. We have libraries of brilliant teachers to tutor us, but we’d rather get our wisdom from our peers, from Hollywood, from jaded comedians, or from the twittersphere, all within 140 characters.


I challenge anyone to begin reading biographies of the American founders, and see how long it takes to start re-adjusting everything that you thought you knew about the moral and political debates of our time. For all of the specific and distinct differences between them, they all seem to have shared a general worldview that many young voters today would hardly recognize. As far as I can tell, none of them – to a man – could get elected to any office today with the views they expressed in their writings and speeches.


Poor Washington, Adams, Jay, Hamilton, Jefferson & Madison, if they discovered a time machine & visited us today, would find themselves in a bizarro-world of contemporary political correctness, and they would quickly find that instead of principled disagreement and substantive debate, our present political culture would offer them only petty mockery and slander for their views. They would be castigated as right-wing religious wackos. They would be called war-mongers, too vicious toward criminals, way too accommodating toward churches and religious organizations, not nearly compassionate enough with the government spending, and generally too uptight. Their views of marriage and family would elicit angry, sarcastic laughter from the entertainment community.  They would feel like the guy from the movie “Idiocracy” after he woke up from a few hundred years of cryosleep to a society steadily degraded in every way to the point of being completely debased morons.


My point is that the literal understanding of the phrase “on the wrong side of history” would not suit those are most fond of the phrase. Since they tend to lean leftward toward modern p.c. sensibilities, they would be horrified to discover just how far on the wrong side of our history they have placed themselves.


On the Wrong Side of What FUTURE Generations Will Call “History”


This second understanding of the phrase “on the wrong side of history” is what most people actually mean to suggest when they use it. They mean to say that the present direction and flow of ideas and events points one way (typically “my” way), and those of you who disagree are simply moving in the other direction – away from the direction that things appear to be headed. It is as if the current of the cultural river is moving along, and a few traditionalists uncomfortable with its direction are trying to turn back against it. The implied argument is that, first, the traditionalist is in denial regarding the way things are actually going, and second, the deniers are impeding the forward progress of things and hindering the natural flow of history toward what we have discerned is its destination.


So again I ask:  Is this a fair charge by those who are pushing society away from the traditions of the past? Will people in future generations look back with shame at those who were not on board with direction that cultural progressives are moving society at the present moment?


Keep in mind first that this understanding of “history” (the present time that will be considered history to future generations) differs from actual “history” (the times that preceded the present) in one very important sense: actual history has already happened and is thus set, whereas the imagined history as future people will see it is sheer guesswork. In other words, when asking whether you’re on the wrong side of actual history, you at least can address the question to events that are final and cannot change. The thoughts, beliefs, and deeds of the people before us already happened.  But asking whether you’re on the wrong side of what future generations will think, believe, and do is a presumptuous (and usually self-serving) leap.


And not only are those who use this phrase over-estimating their knowledge of what the mindset and beliefs of people in future generations will actually be, they are being equally presumptuous that those supposed beliefs of future people are correct beliefs. Either they invest way too much confidence in the superior wisdom of people yet to be born (which may involve the ridiculous idea that we will ‘evolve’ over a couple of generations), or they have a mystical view of history’s unfolding that places faith in the inevitable move upward toward utopia (something akin to the views of men like Hegel or Marx).


Because of all of this, when I hear someone respond to an opponent in a debate over a heated moral or political topic with “You’re on the wrong side of history,” (assuming that the person means it in this second, most likely sense) II immediately want to ask two questions of that person: (1) How do you presume to know the collective mindset of millions of people yet to exist? And (2) even if you are right about their views, so what? What makes them any more correct than anyone living now or in the past?


What I think is really going on when people use this phrase is that they are hoping that the idea of being “on the wrong side of history” will register some kind of negative feeling that puts pressure on those who disagree with them to change their point of view. It is a  rhetorical ploy. Instead of a legitimate argument, it is a personal pressure strategy. The opponent is supposed to have a sense that he or she is, after all, on the “wrong” side and therefore should change. It is by no means a new tactic. In 1960 the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was so confident in the Marxist view of history in which the superiority of communism was set inevitably to overthrow capitalism that he told his opponents with full swagger, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.”


The real issue: Are you on the right or wrong side of the TRUTH?


In an age of social media group-think and public cowardice this may sound revolutionary, but it’s high time people today muster up enough common sense and courage to say, “I don’t care what people think or say.” Only someone willing to think outside of the narrow parameters of the immediate culture’s myopic perspective can have any hope of arriving at sensible conclusions on important questions.


We seem to care so little about the wisdom of all of the generations of the past, why then concern ourselves so anxiously about the projected opinions of the generations of the future? I submit that if those who are so fond of declaring who will (in the future) end up on the wrong side of history would themselves learn some actual history, they might gain just enough insight to realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about, which may just be the golden key of truth that opens the gates of wisdom for them.


All of those who have gone before were flawed and limited just like we are. They weren’t omniscient. In plenty of cases we are confident to call certain of their opinions wrong. But that isn’t the point. As the Chesterton quote in the previous section indicates, the point of hearing the views of people outside of your time and place is that they may help you see outside of your own immediate influences and biases. Or as Tim Keller has famously put it, “”When you read one thinker, you become a clone. Two thinkers, you become confused. Ten thinkers, you begin developing your own voice. Two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise.” We could elaborate this to say that when you are completely submersed in one specific culture, you are a clone of that culture. You have to hear the contradictory opinions of people outside your echo chamber.


Truth should carry more weight than the shared feelings or passing opinions of a given majority within a single subculture. The mistake of the dominant media and entertainment culture of the present moment is that it arrogantly and immaturely allows itself to suppose that its current views on religious, moral and political issues are so obviously right that opposing views need not be seriously considered. No time need be wasted, they seem to be saying among themselves, on making legitimate arguments for our current views or engaging with dissenting opinions. Instead we can just ride the wave of our own subjective confidence and attempt to put pressure on our critics to get on our bandwagon and at least pretend to agree with us. And one of the ways we can try to apply such pressure is to taunt them with “You’re on the wrong side of history.”

Are Sermons Too Few or Too Many?


Say the word “sermon” and the average person doesn’t get too thrilled. In fact for a lot of people the word is only used as a pejorative (as in, “You can spare me the sermon, OK?”). But consider the sermon in its true sense – the message or homily or whatever you choose to call that which is taught aloud on a regular basis to a corporate church gathering. It’s not a popular word, and it’s not a popular concept. Maybe that’s not entirely bad. If it were, then by now we’d have had to witness a nauseating reality show competition in which young preachers go one at a time & America texts in its vote for the best sermon.


But to the degree that the sermon has a bad rap, whose fault is it? The sermon is one thing that is definitely not in short supply. America in particular is a land of 10,000 sermons, in just about any given week, and with a vast array of differences between them. A 72 hour trip around the internet would show you an endless matrix of church and other websites with all the sermons you could sample in every bit of free time you have. If I were Dr. Seuss my title for this would be “Oh the Sermons You’ll Hear.”


While a number of people in the present secularized society have only heard snippets of sermons, or have only a distant memory of sermons they heard as children, those with particular interest in the thinking and doing of churches realize that there are more species of sermon than of insect living in your backyard. Below is my own catalog of many (maybe most?) of the different kinds or types of sermons preached on a regular basis somewhere not too far from any of us. It is a homiletical parade of the good, the bad, and the ugly. As you move down the list you will see that I begin with more standard fare but then later I get to some of the more bizarre and even obnoxious kinds of sermons, where I include some links to examples that you will find entertaining and/or disturbing.


On to the Carnival of Sermons …


The Expository Sermon: Verse-by-Verse

I begin with the ancient standard, the time honored, the historically preeminent, and the unfortunately not nearly as popular as it once was: verse-by-verse exposition. It is still the sermon of choice for a great many of the most serious and devout. It’s a harder sell, though, for the masses today, since it demands more of the listener, moves more slowly and carefully, seeming to the short attention spans of today like a boring and tedious study of words and ideas that requires too much detailed concentration on the text and its meaning.


The Expository Sermon: Passages & Narratives

Not every expository sermon is necessarily of the verse-by-verse variety, so I thought this deserving of its own category. Sermons can still be very text-based but with a wider view. Some of the “books within the book” do not lend themselves as much to verse-by-verse, like Old Testament narratives, wisdom literature and exotic apocalyptic visions. Much as in the case of the difference between literal word-for-word translations vs. thought for thought (“dynamic equivalence”) translations, sometimes an exegesis and exposition that is not merely one-word-at-a-time (or even one-verse-at-a-time) is more appropriate and effective in communication of what is in those words (and verses).


The Theological / Doctrinal Sermon

Sure to shrink a crowd these days, sermons of this kind would hardly even be understood by a lot of modern church-goers. The language would at best seem vaguely familiar while arcane, and at worst completely foreign. A friend of mine said he once used the word “supralapsarian” in a sermon on salvation and the Fall, and afterward someone asked him, “What was that ‘super-cali-fragilistic’ thing you talked about?” The fact is you’ll be hard pressed to hear a sermon that even includes much overt theology, let alone one that emphasizes or prioritizes it.

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The Problem with “Bully Bob”

BullyBobSeveral months ago the NY Times ran an article entitled “Publishers Revel in Youthful Cruelty,” describing how the topic of bullying has ignited a book bonanza on the subject over the last few years. This probably isn’t news to anyone since the ubiquitous nature of the subject is evident way outside of old fashioned print media. Many are the awareness campaigns about bullying, ads with celebrities, special emphases within the schools, anti-bullying surveys and petitions across social media, etc.

Bullying applies to every kind of potential victim: the overweight, the mentally challenged, the religious minority, the socially awkward. Frequently it is associated particularly with the gay issue. Bullying is no longer the straightforward thing we once took it to be. Now it can be subtle, nonphysical, a particular feeling one gets from another person. And of course there is cyber-bullying, a word nobody would have understood in my school days.

I will admit readily that anytime something like this leaps out of obscurity and onto the radar of political correctness, my knee-jerk reaction is negative. I can’t help it. I have such little faith in and respect  for contemporary popular culture that I just assume that whatever captivates all of its attention at the present moment is probably idiotic. But that’s not really fair, so I have to back off and take a closer look sometimes. And even though the issue of bullying has popped up like a trendy ‘cause of the month’, if I think about the issue for what it is, disregarding some of the silliness that is currently written about it, I can’t deny that it is an important subject.

Bullying is necessarily a moral issue, since the word itself, like “murder” or “rape,” is morally slanted. It isn’t a neutral word. It is implied that you are doing something wrong if you are bullying. And as with any moral discussion, we have to make judgments about things that are right and things that are wrong. My specific interest here is not with bullying in the schoolyard but with bullies in the contemporary public discourse. These are the forceful voices who come strong with their opinions and use illegitimate bully-style tactics in order to twist the philosophical arms of people into agreeing with them (or at least into saying that they agree with them). My contention is that this kind of “Bully Bob” is problematic and needs to be confronted.

Bully Bob is a Big Talker

The first problem with the kinds of bullies I’m talking about is of a verbal nature. The general rule is that the bully in the yard with the biggest mouth is likely to cower the first time he’s confronted by someone whose toughness is more than talk. That’s why, when Wyatt Earp looked over & saw ‘Bully’ Bob Thornton as the belligerent Faro dealer bossing people around & doling out the threats (after having abused the regular customers and chased off all the high class play, according the bartender), Earp saw right through Bully Bob & realized immediately that he didn’t need to “go heeled to get the bulge on a tub” like him. A  typical loudmouth, this bully – a “madcap” identified as “Johnny Tyler” by Doc Holliday (and based on a historical figure)- was all noise, too cowardly to “skin that smokewagon and see what happens” when stood up to by a confident and unarmed stranger.

If you don’t get the above reference, never mind the specific names & quotes (but seriously, how can you call yourself an American?). The point is that when someone talks too big a game it is an indicator of the high likelihood that the situation is exactly the opposite. And the odds continue moving in that direction with every additional bit of verbal abuse he adds to his swagger. When I hear someone using verbal and ideological bully tactics in a modern day debate, it automatically weakens that person’s position for me. I hear weakness masked by the noise of a bully megaphone.

And while the big talkers who bring the noise can be intimidating, a certain calm confidence on the part of someone who questions the verbal bully can cut right through his bluster. The worst thing you can do in response to his or her noise is to play the same game and try to talk more trash and louder. The best thing you can do is to ignore the petty stuff and go right to the heart of the person’s point of view. Ask her pointed and penetrating questions that require her to articulate and defend the view she is trying to bully people into accepting. It is sometimes surprising how quickly someone who seemed so sure of herself will back off once critical questions are put to her.

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Why “I believe in logic and reason” is a Nonsense Statement

I’m exposed more than the average citizen to regular discussions and debates of ‘off limits’ subjects like religion, partly by circumstance and partly by choice, which is to say partly because I’m in classrooms every week where these topics are on the agenda and partly because I go out of my way to observe or listen when they are hashed out in larger public forums.

You are likely to hear something today that people in generations gone by would have thought strange, which is the following: In the context of disagreement about religious beliefs (like what a person believes about God, the afterlife, etc.), someone who doesn’t believe in any such things will announce his or her belief in “logic” and “reason.” This declaration of allegiance to logic and reason is typically offered with boastful superiority, as if to say, “Well as for the rest of you, you can believe this or that, but as for me, I believe in logic and reason.” The implication that is given by this simplistic credal statement is that belief in logic/reason is unique to the person making the confession of belief in it, as though it is the exclusive alternative to the other people’s beliefs. They believe x-y-z, but I believe in reason.

What Think Ye of Reason? Whose Son is He?

Nobody likes an ugly custody battle, but in the recent era of boisterous “in your face” internet debate styles, we’ve seen an attempt to co-opt the favored terms and claim them as the natural and exclusive property of the self-appointed champions of reason and logic. When you see any particular individual or group lay claim to “reason”, you should get suspicious. Anti-religious atheist groups are the most glaring culprits when it comes to this. They love to name their groups things like “The United Coalition of Reason” and grab media attention by naming their events things like “The Reason Rally.”

Not that this is entirely without precedent. In the early 1790s some radical Enlightenment-loving French revolutionaries dismantled the altars of Paris churches as a display of their contempt for the Roman Catholic clergy of their time, erecting new displays to the symbolic goddess “Reason.” Their cause was more political and social (and in their context, more dire). Today’s cavalier use of “reason” is more of a self-serving PR strategy. By claiming “reason” as my own, I imply it is on my side only and that those opposed to me are clearly unreasonable. This is why Al Gore decided that his 2008 book lashing out at Bush & all of this political opponents should be entitled The Assault on Reason. As strategies go, it’s completely self-congratulatory but probably as effective, at least, as other similar political statements we’ve often heard, such as “The difference between me and my opponent is that I am interested in the truth.

Unfortunately most of the matra-like repetition of the words logic and reason amounts to posturing and nothing else. Few people care to understand just what we are talking about when we employ these words, which in common use are mostly synonymous.  The late Dallas Willard once wrote that “Reason is a voice that all of us hear.”  Reason is nobody’s child. Nobody has sole custody. Nobody has the market cornered. Logic is inescapably embedded in all of our thinking and discourse. Everyone who has thought about it very long has realized this. Aristotle was one of the earliest to elucidate it clearly in writing. All human thinking and discourse, if it is coherent in the least bit, is employing and relying upon basic logic. The only way for any person or group to jettison reason entirely (and remain consistent in doing so) would be for that group or person to utter words totally at random or remain completely silent. For that matter he (or they) would not be able even to think in propositions without making use of reason.

This is not to say that human beings are rational in all of our deliberations and decisions. We are influenced by and subject to all sorts of other influences too. And not that even the smartest people among us don’t occasionally violate the canons of reason. We’re no more intellectually perfect than we are morally perfect. Christian theologians have long alluded to what they call the “noetic” effects of our fallen nature, meaning our imperfections and limitations are not only in the ethical domain. Our minds are flawed enough all the way around to cause us to be foolishly illogical in specific ways on certain occasions.

But these limitations apply to everyone across the board. Nobody is immune. The thought processes of the most devout believers are the same basic combinations of factors as those of the least religious. For everyone the mental life consists of a regular mixture of common sense, ignorance, insight, oversight, at times pristine logical thinking, at other times glaring errors or blind spots, biases, confusion, emotionalism, etc. Where disagreement exists between two points of view, the wrong approach is simply to hail everyone who agrees with you as reasonable and brand everyone who doesn’t as illogical. When you apply the words “illogical” and “unreasonable” to people it is generally in order to insult them . Apply the terms instead – and appropriately – to the arguments themselves if you can demonstrate why they apply.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

When you hear the casual tossing around of the words “logic” and “reason” in this usual contemporary way (i.e., claiming them for my side) you should ask some basic questions of the person using them. What does he or she take those words to mean? What is their definition? Are they the same thing? Different?  If the person is claiming that someone’s view or position is “illogical”, can he or she point to exactly where logic is being violated? Most people who speak this way don’t realize that something is not “illogical” simply because it is strange, outlandish, hard to believe, or even empirically false.

Another question I ask is, does the person (claiming to believe in “logic and reason”) suppose that the most reasonable and logically astute thinkers of history agreed with him/her? Alexander Pope’s immortal poetic line that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” tends to apply here. Pope’s advice was to “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” In a similar vein, and more to the point regarding basic religious belief, the great Francis Bacon wrote, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion” (Of Atheism). This is why C. S. Lewis had his fictional senior demon Screwtape advise the novice demon Wormwood to keep it shallow and superficial when trying to mess with his victim’s head. “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church,” writes Screwtape, who adds a few lines later, “By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (The Screwtape Letters).

The culture of the internet with its dizzying array of endless media is vastly different from the one Pope and Bacon knew, yet it demonstrates their principle well. So many people today know just enough to be “dangerous.” They suppose themselves to be so eminently reasonable and scientifically literate when in fact they are typically less knowledgeable than people were in generations past.  Note I did not say “less informed” about events in the world or having less access to information. But they’ve thought so little and in such fleeting, candy-sized media-wrapped sound bytes about the issues they are discussing that they are closer to being enemies of reason than friends.

The majority of those on whose shoulders Western Civilization stands would have been baffled by the attitudes of those talking such a big game about logic and reason. Had they been put in a time machine and dropped in the middle of the recent “Reason Rally” they would have thought they were in a different universe where “reason” must mean something else. What, after all, would someone like John Locke have thought of the advice of Richard Dawkins, arguably the intellectual spokesman for contemporary atheism, to the crowds at the “Reason Rally”? What would such a preeminent thinker as Locke – so massively influential in shaping British thought at the time as well as upon the American framers, a man who wrote, among so many other things, an essay actually entitled “The Reasonableness of Christianity” – what would he think upon hearing the leading voice for popular atheism urge his throngs to employ the strategy of contempt, ridicule and mockery against religious believers? So much for “logic” and “reason.”

There are atheists who do understand the meaning of reason, and they do their cause at least the favor of rising above the foolishness of throwing those words around without comprehending them. One such example is Robert Paul Wolff, a philosopher whose textbook About Philosophy is among those on my shelf. In it Wolff writes that although he identifies as an atheist, he is incapable of contempt toward those who believe otherwise. He knows too much. He has drunk deep from the spring. Depth in philosophy, to paraphrase Bacon, keeps bringing this atheist’s mind back around to the theological possibilities.  In his text Wolff praises the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, calling the melancholy Dane “the most gifted” of all the important thinkers in our history. Wolff writes candidly that although he is an atheist, “as a lifelong philosopher, I am forced to recognize that almost every great Western thinker for whom I have profound respect thinks that I am wrong.” This, Wolff admits, often makes him “a little nervous.”


Faith and Reason

As old a topic as it is, the contemporary abuse of words like “logic” and “reason” begs for us to revisit the discussion of the role of reason in the realm of faith. And while we’re chastising those who wave the flag of reason like they are its sole custodians, we need to remind a certain segment of the faithful and devout that reason is not a weapon of darkness. I said above that reason is nobody’s child, and that includes Satan. Reason is not a tool of the Evil One that you should resist. The truth is that you can’t resist it anyway as was explained already. To make a case against reason you must use it.

Christians do not idolize reason, nor do we scorn it. When the Gospel of John employs “logos” in its opening line, you can be sure that the writer does not despise the voice of reason, which he no doubt recognizes as the voice of God, imperfect as we are at hearing and discerning it accurately.  All revelation presupposes rational agents – even if imperfect ones –  who can comprehend basic communication. Truth is dependent upon the most basic principles of logic. Otherwise the written word is just markings and the spoken word (“rhema”) is just noise. Show me a Christian who claims to be opposed to reason and I’ll show you someone who (a) doesn’t understand the nature of reason to begin with, and (b) is probably failing miserably to achieve the kind of wisdom and discernment toward which a disciple is supposed to strive.

Faith and reason are not cosmic foes fighting on behalf of God and Satan, respectively. That is as idiotic a parody as the parody of faith itself in which it is naive assent to patently false propositions, a la “believin’ what ain’t so”. C. S. Lewis once called faith “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity). It is a kind of trust that endures through the tumultuous and fickle emotional roller coaster of life. It is the “substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1) where “hope” is understood in the biblical sense of being tethered to something solid but beyond your immediate vision or grasp, not mere “wishing” or escapism.

The mind is not murdering reason in order to make room for faith. Reason cannot be killed, and if it could be, any meaningful concept of faith would die with it, and no contemplation or discussion of anything would be possible from that moment on. For the opponent of faith to thump his chest and announce that he believes in logic and reason is as useless as if he said, “I believe in saying words out loud that express my views.”  My response to either one is, “Uh, .. OK. Me too. Now what is your argument?”

Why So Many Preachers Annoy So Many Christians

[Please welcome with me Clinton C. Roberts. Clint is becoming a good friend of mine. He lives here in Edmond Oklahoma is a member of the Credo House. He has a Ph.D. from the University of South Africa, he is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and Liberty, and he served as a missionary in Utah to the Mormons for some time. While in Utah, they set up a coffee shop to serve their cause (sound familiar?). Clinton has an increadible personality and have a life with many deep and sometimes complex issues that will benefit our readers here on the blog. You can find him on Facebook here. I am very excited to introduce him to you. The following is his first blog. Give him some trouble but welcome him with me!]

Maybe this is due in part to having simply grown older and having heard so many sermons from so many preachers over the years – in person, online, by television, etc. – but I find myself increasingly annoyed by things preachers say and how they say it.  Maybe it’s the repetition of all of those preacherly terms & phrases, or the pulpit personas that preachers adopt. Maybe I’m just cynical & unfair in my overall perspective on the subject.

Or maybe T. David Gordon was onto something when he wrote a book a few years ago arguing that “preaching today is ordinarily poor”[1] as a result, more or less, of our culture.  His book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (the title being an intentional knockoff of the widely read Why Johnny Can’t Read of the mid-1960s), points out that society has shifted dramatically and speedily from being text-based to being image-based. That, and a few other elements of the media and entertainment dominated landscape, has made everyone, including ministers, less able to deal with an ancient text, less adept at language in general & careful exegesis in particular, less skilled rhetorically, & frankly too distracted to spend much time caring about these shortcomings.

Since I spend a lot of my time trying to get people to grasp the principles of critical thinking, to follow the steps of logical argument, and to gain some level of appreciation for things well expressed, I fully understand and agree with Gordon’s observations. You can’t read the papers that college students submit these days and conclude anything else. But when it comes to the specified communication known as preaching, there is something more than this that seems to bother me.

This far into the American experiment it is no surprise that unfettered freedom of religion has spurned a thousand varieties of Christian preaching. And while there is unquestionably a very impressive and praiseworthy subgroup among that vast lot, there is another tragically large and perhaps growing subgroup of preachers who have a knack for wasting precious breath & either boring us with the banal or butchering the airwaves with a Benny-Hinnish clown act. Whether they ambush me on TV or online, too many painful pulpit atrocities make my ears bleed, even as they cause me to realize afresh the double-edged perversity of the situation, which is that some of the worst examples attract the largest crowds. Why is that? Why do the biggest throngs clamor for the most inane sermonic drivel? I can think of possible avenues of explanation, but I’ll leave that part of the discussion to one side. Continue Reading →