Bethany Jenkins got some folks riled up yesterday by suggesting that we drop the term ‘apologetics’, arguing that it is a relic of the culture wars of the 1980s:
As much as you can in a Twitter conversation (you can view the whole conversation here), she makes the case that using the term connotes a sort of battle mentality and can put Christians in the mindset that there is a fight we need to win. She suggests in part that it is not truth needs to be defended, but instead falsity that needs to be held accountable, and so we ought to avoid the posture of defence. At one point she hints at the idea that our engagement with those who are not Christians could possibly be termed our ‘public faith’.
I have never thought of the idea of dropping the term ‘apologetics’ before, but I am also conscious of the fact that I really have not thought about apologetics since I finished my previous theology degree more than four years ago. Studying apologetics was enjoyable, and I remember thinking at the time that I could see the usefulness in being able both to ‘expose’ the inconsistencies in the thinking of those who were not Christians and to make a rational case for Christianity. However, when I then moved to England and began working for a church and engaging much more regularly with people who were not Christians, I very quickly realised that they simply didn’t care if their thinking was inconsistent. And this was something all the training I had in apologetics did not prepare me for.
Now, that does not mean that I abandoned any effort to make an intellectual or rational case for the Christian faith when engaging with people who were not Christians. Certainly, any communication of the gospel addresses what we think and believe, and there is value in trying both to help people address the inconsistencies in their thinking and to help them make sense of the world we live in. But it seems to be a bit of an illusion to think that simply presenting the most logical and rational argument is going to turn the hearts of people towards Jesus.
This is precisely where some of James K.A. Smith’s recent writings are so important, because this is not primarily a matter of thinking. This is a matter of the heart. One of the big points he makes in the two published volumes of his 'Cultural Liturgies' project, Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom, is that we are shaped less by what we think and believe than by what we love and desire. Human beings, he says, are 'liturgical animals'; we are creatures who are formed by liturgies that seek to inculcate in us, by way of a set of practices and habits, a particular vision of 'the good life'. These practices train us to respond instinctively to that vision so that we begin to live in the service and pursuit of this good life. This is simply what is at work in those who are not Christians – they have been shaped by the liturgies of the culture they inhabit, been given a non-Christian vision of ‘the good life’, and their hearts are oriented in that direction. And while it might be worth arguing this for the sake of pointing out where they need their thinking changed, more than that, they need their hearts re-oriented.
In my engagement with those who are not Christians, Smith’s thesis has often proved to be true. I could share the gospel with someone and show them how things they thought and believed were effectively irrational, and even find them nodding along in agreement. But in the end, what matters is that following Jesus would mean giving up things – sometimes everything – they loved and desired, not least of which is their autonomy. And that is a much bigger stumbling block than any intellectual objection they might have.
In light of what Smith says, then, how do we engage with those whose loves and desires are disordered? First of all, I would not say that we throw out the idea of apologetics altogether, nor do I think Bethany is advocating that. After all, there are people out there whose objections to Christianity are primarily intellectual, and we should be prepared to engage with them on that level. But for many people, reordering loves and desires will simply not be a matter of getting their thinking sorted out (and we should note that this is often just as much the case for those who hold intellectual objections to Christianity).
Here we need to remember what Lesslie Newbigin once said, that the greatest apologetic for the gospel is a congregation that believes it (I'm not sure if he actually used the word 'apologetic', but the basic idea remains). What he means is that the witness of our lives as the redeemed people of God is often more powerful than all our intellectual reasoning. This does not mean that we adopt the false notion that we can share the gospel without words, because the gospel is a verbal announcement that we are very clearly called to proclaim. But it does mean that the gospel should so transform our lives, both as individuals and as a community, that the world around us is drawn in to see what it is that has changed us.
Instead of assuming a posture of defence, our ‘public faith’ ought to assume a posture of welcome. We are not saying to the world, ‘Let me show you what you have wrong!’, but, ‘Look at what Jesus offers!’ As we live lives that reflect rightly ordered loves and desires, and that witness to the fullness of life that comes from submission to the rule of Christ, we offer an invitation to ‘come and see what God has done, his awesome works for mankind!’ (Psalm 66:50). It is an invitation to come experience a community and a people who have been transformed and made new. And it is in this context that we can then answer those who ask us to give the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15) as they begin to taste and respond to the love, joy, and hope we have in Jesus.
So maybe Bethany is right that we ought to drop the term. Certainly her call to move away from the posture the term connotes is helpful. But whatever word we use, we are not here to win a fight. We are here as instruments of the Kingdom, bringing hope to a broken world through our witness to the risen and ascended Jesus, and welcoming others to discover the life he alone offers.
(On a bit of a side note, I notice some argument in response to her tweet that we shouldn't drop words simply because our culture doesn't use those terms in the same way any more. I would just point out that this is coming from some of the same people who often cast the word 'religion' as something entirely negative.)