Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part One)

The mission of this website was (and is) to write about secularity as our common situation, and other topics related to it (with a few poems and other related issues thrown in). It aims at treating what is public, and common. When I include Christian historical elements –and as they are heavy in many of the roots and in the trunk of much of the West’s history, they have been prominent in many recent posts on Christianization— these elements are, or aim to be, (1) historical in character (this is the most common), or (2) they aim to clarify certain kinds of religious configurations that appear in our contemporary situation (often critically), or else (3) they aim to trace the shape of viable commitments in the modern age. Christianity is part of everyone’s heritage in the West, because of where we come from, but in nearly every Western country, there is no communal commitment to Christian identity. A heritage is not an obligation or a commitment (at least, I’m not currently so persuaded), but it is public. The manner in which, and the degree to which, Christian commitments either are or are not possible, and the shape of the options that people take within the current time, reveal something about the peculiarities of our age. That is to say, despite the depth of feeling I may bring to anything I write, my primary aim is to exposit, rather than to exhort. (There are and shall be plenty of hortatory moments here, but they are not of that sort, and I don’t expect they shall be.) I shall bring such feeling to Nietzsche and Plato alike, so my enthusiasm is not partisan. I’m not interested in selling anyone anything.

Readers who have no (or no explicit) religious practice are often uncomfortable with my (Orthodox) Christian one, and readers who are self-consciously Christian are often uncomfortable with my insistence on the ubiquity and inescapability of secularity (though these almost always radically mis-diagnose what secularity and secularism are) — indeed, some of the more zealous Christians I meet seem to expect that my writing here on Into the Clarities must be to denounce secularity and to promote Christian practice and identity. It is to these two groups that these posts are addressed.

Neither evangelism nor apologetics is my goal here –indeed, apologetics is not something that is compatible with my beliefs and outlook– and I’d like to take the opportunity to explain why.

I

I repeat: this is not an apologetics website. In some places, “apologetics” has taken on the aura of the most noble crusade, with the most factional intention. Alternatively, in other places, “apologetics” has become a politically dirty word used to justify the avoidance of properly attending to the arguments people are making, by way of assassinating the motives essential to any “apologetic” enterprise — and not without reason: all too often, the word means something uncomfortably close to “selling people something they don’t want”. Even among some of the most intelligent proponents of it, boxing metaphors are used, which are hardly unifying, and do not deal with what is common.

Wikipedia treats the word “apologetics” rather decently, and gives a workable introduction to its various uses. Noted there is that to engage in “apologetics” in modern religious contexts usually means to “provid[e] reasons to accept various aspects of [the group’s] belief.” (retr. 4/12/2016 @ 4:44 PM) A modern evangelical/Revivalist (I use the words interchangeably) Protestant apologetics website states that apologetics is also called “pre-evangelism”. Evangelical Protestant apologetics material nearly always begins not merely by arguing for the verity and authority of the Bible, but by arguing that it is the type of document that evangelical Protestants understand it to be — and they, generally speaking, take it to be the one, true, perfect divine dictation of truths about God (and by God), take it to be instructions from God to humanity. There are shades of meaning to this —inerrantism, infallibilism, &c.— but while the inerrantists will say that

[t]he Bible is the Word of God, and God cannot err; therefore, the Bible cannot err [so Norman Geisler, here]

the infallibilists (taking the word “infallible” in the rather meager sense of “trustworthy”), not terribly far removed from the inerrantists, will say that

[t]he Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice. [Steven T. Davis, The Debate About the Bible, cited from here]

In both cases above, the text is seen as itself a divine word and act — not the residue of an ecstatic vision, nor facilitating contact with God, and not the occasion for illumination and liberation within the context of certain rituals or other practices. In both cases above, God is nearly identified with the text. The debate between the two positions is really just a question about what exactly the scope is of divine speech within the text. As the two citations above make plain, these two positions are not descriptive of the religious experiences that two communities have with the text, but a claim that the text has a certain property; the debate concerns the depth and scope of this property.

This property is thought to be exclusive. Normally it is thought, in evangelical communities, that no other truths about God can be had via any other means; sometimes, some sort of “natural theology” that is common to all is admitted to, in which there is some level of knowledge of God we can have apart from “revelation”, as well as some corresponding natural “landing point” in the human person where one has a natural contact with God, but usually evangelicals follow Karl Barth, and say “Nein!” (“No!”) to any “natural theology”. For this to make sense, one must see the human mind, no less than the human will and body, as equally and totally alienated from God at their root. Only the Word of God –here, vi&., the Bible– is held to leap this gap of alienation. (I’ve heard a brilliant non-evangelical Protestant of a  Lutheran persuasion offer some very compelling reasons for the basic elements of this portrait, but they were never apologetic — they did not require me to buy into something first. It should be noted that the original, Magisterial Protestants such as Luther and Calvin, following the Medieval Nominalist traditions they inherited, saw the text of scripture as being a set of divine signs, or becoming such a set of signs under certain conditions, rather than literally divine words in the deposit of a book, which is the normal Revivalist position.)

For conversations with the bulk of evangelical apologists, one must further accept the evangelical belief about the exclusive knowledge granted by the Bible as a foundational assumption, or else nothing else they argue is going to make sense. If this belief in biblical uniqueness and exclusivism falls, so too does their entire system, which is why they invest so much in defending it. The reasons are secondary to the text, however, which is simply taken as given (regardless of the degree of emphasis they put on how much it needs to be interpreted).

That is, all of evangelicalism’s positions rest upon assertions, on a foundation that, if it is not in place, no demonstration, and no conversation, can proceed. Reasons might be given for at least some of the “Bible-based” beliefs and positions of such a group, but they are secondary to the (interpreted) words of the biblical text itself, and so such reasons are not really necessary. Reasons are not allowed to recursively undermine this understanding of the text; they are only allowed to undermine certain interpretations of it (and only some interpretations); reasons are not permitted to undermine this framework of the text per se. This fact shows something about the nature of reasoning in this evangelical enterprise. It is not public. It does not lead wherever it leads. It is, basically, political. Therefore, most of the more scholarly apologetic efforts among evangelicals marshall, at the outset, any evidence or argument that might be used to persuade others of this foundational belief. Anything that might be useful for this task of persuasion is a useful tool, a helpful resource. Anything that might undermine it is a danger, a threat. Because the apologetic venture exists to vindicate a group’s assumptions, its goal is persuasion.

However, using reason to persuade, while denying its power to examine, reflexively, the ends to which one is employing it, is playing with fire. There is something schizophrenic about this approach because, for an evangelical Protestant, the foundation of his or her piety is a certain concept of revelation, which is most often thought to be above reason, and which reason cannot verify by some higher-than-reason criterion/criteria. The use of reasons to persuade another via apologetics sits uncomfortably next to the foundational and unquestionable deliverances of revelation (at least, revelation as nearly all Revivalist Protestants take it to be). This is why, in those uncommon cases when prominent evangelical Protestant apologists become atheists, they very often become evangelical Protestant atheists — and try to make their bread and butter doing the same thing they were doing before, only this time, for another faction — one they can (now) believe in. For many from this world, the discovery that they are not the only ones making developed arguments, the discovery that there are also good reasons for atheism, or any number of other religious or non-religious options, is shattering. The claims of revelation as evangelicals understand them are, very often, as fundamental and basic to all their discourse (and all discourse with them) as is the emotional stance that those outside are lost, mistaken and/or stupid. (This is not at all a peculiar problem to Revivalist Protestants: there are plenty of religious, non-religious, and irreligious options that have similarly non-negotiable positions or attitudes.)

Peripheral note: there are folks in the rather broad category of “Protestant” who have no interest in apologetics at all: they are interested only in proper preaching, for these hold that the properly-preached “Word” carries with it its own divine persuasive power, and that reasons are neither available nor needed. So far as I can tell, these are a minority among Protestants.

Orthodox and Catholics find themselves in a different situation, as their tradition(s) have generally settled on (or, in certain places and ages, at least widely entertained) different attitudes to reason and freedom, to the knowledge of God, to the nature of the human person, and to the relationship between history and the biblical text.* Nonetheless, because of the age in which all human beings find ourselves, these two groups often enough take up allomorphic positions to the Revivalist one above, with the exception that “the tradition” or “the official proclamations of the magisterium” are roughly slotted to fill the role that is occupied, in Revivalist Protestantism, by the text of the scripture as divine speech itself. (There are other ways to accomplish this absolute and un-interrogable authority than external texts. Often, when I tell an Orthodox traditionalist that I do not accept a historical Adam or clericalist models of authority or whatnot, they will tell me that I don’t have the right “phronema”, a Greek word that roughly means “mindset” in this case. This simply replaces the Revivalist sense of the biblical text with a somewhat nebulous in-groupy “mindset”. Certain groups of illiberal progressives and certain groups of illiberal conservative reactionaries alike both use their own non-negotiable emotional stances in a similar way to the traditionalists above: the problem is not uniquely religious.)

In all cases, whether religious or non-religious, the apologetic attitude shuts down conversation, or holds it hostage to certain pre-conditions, or engages in it with the aim to sell or persuade the other of these positions, without seriously entertaining the possibility that their positions might not be truly good or helpful for everyone. 

It is likely that the presence of apologetics in so many communities indicates a desire for greater social unity and integration in the face of social fragmentation and differentiation, and a discomfort with the exploding range of actual and possible life stances that are constantly generated as the modern age continues to develop. After all, groups with clearer commitments enjoy greater intimacy than groups with more vague commitments, but groups with clear commitments tend to be smaller; this smallness may be seen to be a threat to the very commitments upon which the intimacy is built, or else the contingency of these small-and-intimate-group commitments cannot comfortably be sustained in the face of their contingency without being insulated by an apologetic crusade (or an apologetic sheep-pen fence). Further, some type of Neopositivism has leaked into our culture, and so we find it easy to talk about science with a public language, but not so easy to talk about valuing things with a public language apart from appetite or consumer preference. The Neopositivist soup in which we swim is reified, rather than challenged, in the Revivalist apologetics enterprise at seemingly every level of it, which looks for “facts” or “evidence” to confirm the alleged property they claim the biblical text exclusively has. (They want the text to have this property to circumvent the Neopositivist impossibility of making public and true value judgments: the special-propertied text is thought to give the foundation for valuations.) Similar reasons are not difficult to discover for other apologetics projects from other religious and non-religious groups. These are, I would hazard to guess, some of the main reasons why the apologetic attitude has become so popular in sundry sections.

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*All too often among Revivalists, the historical sense of the biblical text is not allowed to indicate something apart from a possible canonical reading of the biblical text. A “canonical reading”, of course, reads the text as part of the/a biblical canon, reads it synchronously with other biblical books as part of a collection, rather than historically, as something unique and unto itself, as indicative of an author situated in a particular social, economic, and traditional setting. Canonical readings tend to flatten difference, while historical readings tend to highlight it.

13 thoughts on “Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part One)

  1. Do you have a “Godel’s Proof” style problem here?

    Attempting to explain a thing without reference to a larger thing (God, dialectical materialism, the Platonically Ideal peanut butter sandwich, anything) eventually becomes impossible.

    If no, why not?

    Liked by 1 person

      • Sincere apologies for my imprecise terms both before and going forward.

        From this and other posts it sounds like you are trying to define secularity without reference to outside philosohies. You note that both the religious and the non-religious often have non-negotiables that are needed to engage their thought.

        This reminds me of Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Can you define secularity only within its own internal logic?

        I suppose you could approach it asymtotically (what a great word), but can you wrap your arms around its substance that way?

        (The sandwich comment was not a dig at Platonism, just an attempt at humor.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Two) | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Three) | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Four) | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Five) | Into the Clarities

    • Glad you enjoyed it! People can, and should, give reasons for what they believe, and hold to (or do not believe, and do not hold to). We expect those we meet to have such reasons, and, when we get close enough to them, we are usually interested in hearing what they are (or are not). In the ancient world, this happened very organically: you would develop a conversation with the guy repairing your plumbing, &c., because you see him all the time, and care, or because you think he’s really bizarre, and you grow curious. If one calls such a reasonable and civil task of being responsible and having reasons for what one believes “apologetics”, then what I’m describing will need a new name — probably simply “sales”.

      Once my Masters thesis is done in a few hours time, I’ll take a few days to sleep, and soon get back to finishing this series, and a few others that are so very close to being done. (While looking for work.) Let me know what you think of the other entries in this series!

      Liked by 1 person

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