Apologetics is a mainstay of Christianity and for good reason. As 1 Peter 3:15 declares, “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….”
So what exactly is apologetics? The word comes from the Greek word “apologia” meaning a “defense”. We still maintain that idea of offering a defense in our word “apology”, at least insofar as we offer an apology as a defense or excuse.
Here’s an example. Imagine somebody comes late to my class and says “Sorry, I’m late but I was carjacked.” That is not a mea culpa apology which says “I’m sorry for my inexcusable lateness”. Rather, it is a defense apology: “It is unfortunate that I’m late but I’m really not to blame”. Certainly in the case of a carjacking a defense apology is warranted but other times nothing but a mea culpa will do. (The man who hits his girlfriend in a fit of rage had better not say “I’m sorry but you make me so mad.” His only hope at that point is a complete acceptance of blame and a resolve to live his life differently.)
With that in mind, we can think of the Christian apologist as aiming for something like an extended defense apology: “It is unfortunate that I disagree with you but here are the reasons why…”
Stated as such, apologetics is a truth-seeking discipline. It is aimed at identifying the grounds and reasons that a rational person could come to believe Christianity is true. So why is it that apologetics often has a bad name among skeptics of Christianity? In part the problem is that we come up short on the gentleness and respect part. But there is another reason as well: people often don’t believe that the apologist is really concerned with truth seeking at all.
Let’s say that I’m looking for a mortgage. I have two alternatives. I could go to the personal banker at my local TD Canada Trust where he will declare with confidence that his bank offers the best deal. Maybe it does, but the concern will linger: if his ultimate allegiance is to the bank, why should I trust him?
And so I switch to plan B: visit a mortgage broker who has no final allegiance to any one of the banks. His allegiance is instead to identifying where the superior mortgage is to be found. If that turns out to be TD Canada Trust then well and good, but it could just as well be ING or Bank of Montreal.
So there’s the problem in a nutshell. Apologists are viewed with suspicion because their concern is really like that of the personal banker – selling what their business has to offer – rather than with the mortgage broker who is concerned with getting at the truth.
Of course there is some truth to this complaint. I read and hear Christian apologists all the time who intentionally or unintentionally are skewing things to their advantage in a way that belies their claims to be simply defenders of truth. To take one example, recently a popular Christian apologist debated an infamous atheist. After the debate the Christian apologist chortled that when the atheist had raised a point he couldn’t answer he engaged in an old debater’s trick: he changed the topic.
He may have thought that a clever debater’s trick, but Plato would have dismissed it as sophistry of the worst sort. If a debate is about winning then about getting at the truth then it really is a useless exercise.
This is a problem but make no mistake: it is not a problem unique to Christian apologists. There are apologists who are Muslims, Mormons, atheists, secularists, and indeed from every different worldview imaginable, who conduct themselves more as personal bankers than mortgage brokers. Obviously this is not a matter of Christianity or religion. It is a matter of whether we – whoever the “we” happens to be – are more concerned with getting at truth than merely vindicating our status quo of belief.
Nor is the problem limited to worldviews. You can just as well be a company man who defends your company and its products with the same dedication that a cultist defends her leader. Or you might be an over protective parent who becomes an embarrasing apologist for your brat every time the kid makes an appearance in juvenile court. There are bad apologists everywhere. But the problem is not with arguing for a position over-against alternatives, and it would be absurd to suggest that it is. Rather, the problem is with defending a position in a way that is incautious, intractable, and irrational.
With that in mind, let me offer a very modest suggestion: the very best kind of apologist is not the one who aims at winning arguments or making converts, but rather the one who aims to lay the truth bare. That, it seems to me, requires no apology.