I remember attending a debate in college between a Christian and an atheist.
Before it started, the room was abuzz with anticipation, like a stadium before kickoff. After the competitors were introduced to applause and scattered boos, they each proceeded to argue forcefully for their belief system, trading punch lines and other rhetorical jabs. Along the way, they interrupted, misquoted and belittled each other’s views. They called each other names and triumphantly scoffed at how misguided the other person was. In their concluding remarks, both sides claimed to have scored the most points, which was curious given the absence of a scoreboard.
I don’t recall anyone being officially declared the winner that night, or if anyone left the room with different beliefs than when they entered. I wonder if the real losers were members of the audience, or at least those of us who had hoped for better.
Over a decade later, I now find myself as a pastor, a vocation predicated on the existence of God. Yet I still have mixed feelings when the subject of apologetics arises. Perhaps I’ve seen it done poorly too many times. Or maybe I’m turned off by the defensive, almost desperate, salesmanship that belittles opposing viewpoints. Or it could be that I can’t stomach the dissonance between apologists’ typical form (rhetorical flourishes and deductive “proofs” designed to score points for God) and their content (the message of God’s love, grace and hope for the world).
Apparently, my friend Jim Miller, also a pastor, has a few mixed feelings about apologetics too. In the opening chapter of his new book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know (Abingdon), Jim writes:
Most people who believe in anything, religious or otherwise, did not get there by listening to a debate, and meaningful beliefs do not often rest on academic research. That isn’t to suggest faith and reason are unrelated. There are those who think that God gave reason to humanity the way a father gives a BB gun to his son, telling him, “You can play with that thing all you want. Just don’t point it at me.” To the contrary. In fact, the Scriptures say that God intends for people to come looking for him. He isn’t afraid of our reasoning.
If God isn’t afraid of our reasoning, perhaps he intends for us to search without fear of what we might find (Matthew 7:7-11). While I’m generally not a huge fan of apologetics, I look forward to reading the rest of Jim’s book because he understands that a rational, academic case for God’s presence can only take you so far, especially when everyone uses a different scoreboard. A philosophy buff with an eye for the accessible, Jim doesn’t blast his readers with data and argumentation, but instead helps us catch glimpses of God in our everyday assumptions.
So maybe it’s not a stretch to hope for a better, redeemed approach to apologetics. Rather than trying to dissolve the conversation with a litany of airtight rebuttals to all possible objections, we can set our sights on becoming a different kind of people, the kind of faith community with a capacity to offer helpful responses in the context of authentic relationships when the big questions hit.
Who knows? We might even keep the conversation going.