Thursday, February 9, 2017

Imaginative Apologetics VII - Being Imaginative about Christian Apologetics

Apologetics, Imagination, and Imaginative Apologetics

In earlier posts, I set the framework for the core material in Imaginative Apologetics, seeking to provide the lay of the land in contemporary apologetics and the faculty of imagination.  Now we are engaging the individual articles in Andrew Davison’s edited volume, Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition.[1]  In the last two posts, we examined the relationship between faith and reason, and apologetics & human imagination.  In this post, on to the third of four major sections of the work.  As a reminder, you can find my full treatment in Trinity Journal.[2]

Being Imaginative about Christian Apologetics

Section three (“Being Imaginative about Christian Apologetics”) of Imaginative Apologetics begins with, in my opinion, the strongest essay of the compilation.
Stephen Bullivant (St. Mary’s University College) offers a compelling exposition of atheism and Christian apologetics based upon an exegesis of the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes.[3] Bullivant notes that atheism is diverse, and is often precipitated by the failings of the Christian Church. He argues that atheism is a feature solely of Christian (or post-Christian) societies and argues that the atrocities and social irrelevance of Christians and Churches bring about unbelief.[4] In such a context, Bullivant argues, the inward aspect of apologetics (“ecclesiology”) is absolutely essential.[5] Along with a robust outward-looking evangelistic apologetic, “we must look to ourselves and strive, individually and collectively, to provide a fitting ‘backdrop’, against which this proclamation will get a hearing, and seem plausible.”[6]
Chapter seven contains Craig Hovey’s exposition of “Christian Ethics as Good News.”[7] Hovey contends for a lived-out Christian apologetic—not proof-apologetics or evidentialism, but rather a life of joyful faithfulness to Christ. He intends to demonstrate four theses: (1) the goal of Christian ethics is neither scholarship nor knowledge, but rather action; (2) Christian ethics restores our full humanity, taking its cue from the life and person of Christ; (3) the goodness of Christian morality is not justified extrinsically, by means of “goods” that the world also appreciates as the better way; and (4) the Christian moral life does not achieve “well-being in anything like a straightforward sense”—it does not achieve happiness, but rather joy.[8] Hovey’s pursuit of his four theses is both admirable and successful—he demonstrates the necessary connection between a well-lived Christian life and an apologetic appeal to a seeker or skeptic.
What Hovey says in addition to his primary theses, however, is neither admirable nor successful. First, Hovey critiques the apologetics he encountered as a young Protestant: “the quasi-legal defences of a certain sort of self-confident Protestants who went around armed with a hundred and one proofs for Jesus rising from the dead.”[9] Given that the Greek ἀπολογία carries strong legal or courtroom connotations (and indeed sometimes occur in clearly legal settings), I am unsure why Hovey would assume and imply that such “quasi-legal defences” are intrinsically unhelpful. If you remove “Protestants” from the sentence and eliminate the negative tone of voice, Hovey could very well be describing the apologetics of the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts.
Second, Hovey judges such Protestant quasi-legal apologetics (I can only assume he is talking about a Montgomery-type evidentialism) an utter failure: “It always seemed to me that the only people this convinced were those who already believed it.”[10] This critique fails on two fronts. On the one hand, it fails evidentially. Many skeptics and opponents have, in fact, been moved towards (or even to) Christian faith through classical (rational) and evidential apologetics. William Lane Craig recounts numerous encounters with atheists, agnostics, and lapsed Christians in his travels and speaking engagements. Many times, Craig relates, someone who had heretofore been an opponent of the faith, or ignorant of the rational and evidential basis of and support for Christianity, has been converted partially on account of Craig’s arguments for the existence of God or the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.[11] One encounter in particular is worth relating here:
Many years ago when we were studying in Germany on a research fellowship, we met a Polish physicist who was there on a similar fellowship. As we chatted, she mentioned that physics had destroyed her belief in God and that life had become meaningless to her. “When I look out at the universe all I see is blackness,” she explained, “and when I look within myself all I see is blackness.” (What a poignant statement of the modern predicament!)
Well, at that point Jan volunteered, “Oh, you should read Bill’s doctoral dissertation. He uses physics to prove God exists.” So we loaned her my dissertation to read on the cosmological argument. Over the ensuing days, she became progressively more excited. When she got to the section on astronomy and astrophysics, she was positively elated. “I know these scientists that you are quoting!” she exclaimed in amazement. By the time she reached the end, her faith had been restored. “Thank you for helping me to believe that God exists,” she said.
We answered, “Would you like to know him in a personal way?” Then we made an appointment to meet her that evening at a restaurant. . . .
When we saw her the next day, her face was radiant with joy. She told us of how she had gone home and in the privacy of her room prayed to receive Christ. She then flushed all the wine and tranquilizers on which she had been relying down the toilet. . . . So it was a great victory for God. It was one of the most vivid illustrations I’ve seen of how the Holy Spirit can use arguments and evidence to draw someone to a saving knowledge of God.[12]
Hovey’s insistence that apologetic arguments only convince the already-convinced thus fails evidentially—it neglects stories and experiences such as Craig’s. On the other hand, Hovey’s critique fails theoretically as well. Apologetics is not just about convincing or converting the non-Christian. As James Beilby (among others—indeed, including Bullivant’s article immediately preceding Hovey’s own) helpfully notes, an inward-turned apologetic is an important ministry within the Christian church—providing doubting disciples or besieged believers with reasons to continue believing, giving them reasons and evidence to support the faith that they are wavering in or holding onto only tenuously.[13] Given the steady exodus of young Christian adults from the faith, one would think that Hovey would applaud the success of apologetic ministries that are affirming and confirming the faith of existing believers, helping them to remain convinced and committed Christians in the midst of a culture of doubt and distrust.
Third, Hovey incorrectly asserts that early church apologetics sought only to “defend the faith against misunderstanding from their pagan neighbours.”[14] A balanced reading of passages like Acts 2:29-39, 4:8-12, and 17:1-4, conversely, suggests that Peter and Paul were not only preventing misinterpretations of young Christian belief, but were seeking to establish, reason to, and prove the truthfulness of their Christian faith. Similarly, the examples of Justin Martyr and other early Christian apologists falsify Hovey’s thesis. In short, Hovey’s understanding of apologetics seems too small to match historical and contemporary apologetics.
Fourth, Hovey insists that “proof-apologetics” is unhelpful: “arguments threaten to take the place of living in truth and so will surely refute themselves in exact proportion to their success.”[15] Hovey does not establish why this is the case; it seems to me that a thorough Christian apologetic should be able to combine a robust rational argument and a compelling, winsome Christian lifestyle. For example, William Lane Craig’s classical apologetic work, Reasonable Faith, contains strong intellectual proofs/arguments for God’s existence, but closes with an emphatic declaration that the “ultimate apologetic” is the apologist’s relationships with God and with other people.[16] In other words, while proof-apologetics can result in a dry, lifeless faith (Kierkegaard’s concern, as discussed above), it need not do so.
Sadly, the helpfulness of Hovey’s article was, at least for this reader, overshadowed by his unbalanced and unnecessarily critical assessment of historical and contemporary rational apologetics.
Ironically, then, this crucial section on “being imaginative” in our Christian apologetics included (in my estimation) the strongest and weakest of the essays in the anthology.  While Bullivant turns a constructively critical eye toward the church and points to ways forward, Hovey launches a misguided, unbalanced, and undeserved attack toward many of his apologetic colleagues. 
In my next post, we will complete our survey of Imaginative Apologetics—I hope the jaunt has been helpful to you!

[1] Andrew Davison, ed. Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012. 169 pp. $25.00.
[2] Tawa J. Anderson, “Apologetics, Imagination, and Imaginative Apologetics,” in Trinity Journal 34 (2013): 229-51.
[3] Stephen Bullivant, “Atheism, Apologetics and Ecclesiology: Gaudium et Spes and Contemporary Unbelief,” in Imaginative Apologetics, 81-97.
[4] Bullivant, “Atheism, Apologetics and Ecclesiology,” 85-90.
[5] Bullivant, “Atheism, Apologetics and Ecclesiology,” 91-95.
[6] Bullivant, “Atheism, Apologetics and Ecclesiology,” 96.
[7] Craig Hovey, “Christian Ethics as Good News,” in Imaginative Apologetics, 98-112.
[8] Craig Hovey, “Christian Ethics as Good News,” 101-09.
[9] Craig Hovey, “Christian Ethics as Good News,” 98.
[10] Craig Hovey, “Christian Ethics as Good News,” 98.
[11] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, (3rd ed.; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 59, 86-87, 189-96, 240-41, 278-81, 399.
[12] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 191-92. Emphasis original.
[13] “It might be surprising that believers are listed as a potential audience of apologetics, for it is commonly assumed that apologetics typically takes place only with agnostics or skeptics. Such an assumption tends to downplay the significance of the questions Christians have about the faith. Left unanswered, these can become toxic to continued vital faith. . . . This type of apologetics is called internal apologetics because it takes place with those inside of or internal to Christianity.” Beilby, Thinking About Christian Apologetics, 27.
[14] Hovey, “Christian Ethics as Good News,” 98.
[15] Hovey, “Christian Ethics as Good News,” 110.
[16] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 405-07.