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Apologetics Without Apology 

MARK BRUMLEY

Properly employed, apologetics is immensely helpful. It can't "prove" the truth of Christianity or Catholicism, the way a mathematician can prove the Pythagorean theorem that isn't its purpose. But it can help people think about faith non-Christians to consider Christ and the Christian Faith, non-Catholic Christians to examine the case for the Catholic Church, and Catholics to understand better what they believe and why.

"Some Catholics are hostile to apologetics (and, by extension, to apologists). They mistakenly think apologetical argumentation does faith a disservice .... But it would be a grave mistake to dismiss apologetics on that account. Besides, it is self-contradictory to argue that you shouldn't argue about faith."

The atheist may criticize arguments for God's existence, but finding alleged flaws in somebody else's argument isn't the same as proving your own. The best the atheist can say is that his reading of the evidence inclines him to deny God's existence. If he goes further to state baldly, "God does not exist," he makes an act of faith that goes beyond the evidence.

If even atheists have a kind of faith, then the issue isn't whether we have faith but what kind of faith we have. Faith comes in two basic brands, reasonable faith and blind faith faith informed by reason and faith opposed to reason. It may surprise some people to learn that orthodox Christianity is opposed to blind faith that is, opposed to believing things mindlessly or contrary to common sense. Orthodox Christianity is a reasonable faith. This means at least two things. First, that its tenets are intellectually defensible. Second, that reason helps us see that God is at work in Christianity and therefore that we should believe it, even if we cannot, strictly speaking, prove its truth.

Apologetics, the business of giving reasons for the Christian Faith, comes from the Greek word apologia, which means an apology. Not, of course, an apology in the sense of saying, "I'm sorry," but in the sense of a reasoned defense of something or someone.

In ancient times, the word apology referred to an attorney's case for his client. Apologetics is that branch of theology which makes the rational case for the Christian faith, producing arguments to show Christianity's reasonableness and answering criticisms against it, the way a lawyer marshals evidence in defense of his client.

Although apologetics as a branch of theology declined after Vatican II, it is making a comeback today. In fact, properly understood and employed, apologetics can be immensely useful, especially in parish evangelization and catechetical programs.

Traditionally, theologians have divided apologetics into three categories: "natural" apologetics, Christian apologetics, and Catholic apologetics. So-called "natural" apologetics concerns truths that really are preambles to faith truths such as the existence of God, the spirituality of the human soul, the objective reality of right and wrong, which the articles of faith presume or rest upon. These truths are knowable from the natural light of reason, hence the term "natural" apologetics.

In the strictest sense, however, "natural" apologetics isn't apologetics at all, but merely one aspect of Christian philosophy. Why? Because the truths it concerns are philosophical, which means they are in principle knowable by human reason apart from divine revelation, even if revelation makes it easier for us to know them or to know them more clearly. So-called "natural" apologetics, then, might better be dubbed "pre-apologetics," because it concerns issues that apologetics discussion presuppose or rest upon.

Properly speaking, apologetics, whether Christian or specifically Catholic, explains and defends divinely revealed truths truths knowable only by faith, not by reason apart from faith. Christian apologetics proposes arguments supporting the truth of Christianity as such (eg. the reality of biblical miracles, the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, etc.). Catholic apologetics, on the other hand, makes the case for the Catholic Church's claim to have been founded by Christ and for other specifically Catholic doctrines such as the papacy, the Sacraments, the Immaculate Conception, etc.

Take, for example, the Resurrection of Jesus. Christian apologetics marshals the evidence against purely natural explanations of the Resurrection, such as the idea that the apostles stole the body of Christ from the tomb. It demonstrates, using history and common sense, the immense unlikelihood that the apostles would have perpetrated such a hoax and then suffered persecution and died for it.

Or consider the Catholic claim that Christ gave to His Church a teaching office (magisterium) to present authentically and authoritatively His doctrine to the world. That idea is challenged by the doctrine of (sola scriptura) that the Bible alone is the rule of faith for Christians, apart from any kind of authoritative teaching office. Apologetics shows how this view is self-contradictory: the Bible nowhere teaches sola scriptura, hence on the principle that Christians should believe only what the Bible teaches, Christians may not believe sola scriptura.

 

NOTHING TO APOLOGIZE FOR

Oddly enough, some Catholics are hostile to apologetics (and, by extension, to apologists). They mistakenly think all apologetical argumentation does faith a disservice. Faith, they insist, is more than accepting conclusions drawn from arguments and evidence.

Of course, the critics are right up to a point. Faith goes beyond what arguments can demonstrate. Faith is, in the final analysis, the work of God's grace, not of an apologist's argument. It is supernatural and therefore the gift of God. But it would be a grave mistake to dismiss apologetics on that account. For one thing, it's self-contradictory to argue that you shouldn't argue about faith, since those who argue this view are themselves arguing about faith. For another, even though faith goes beyond reason alone, that doesn't mean faith has nothing to do with reason or with argument.

Yes, faith is supernatural something beyond our created, human nature's own power. Yet, believing doesn't destroy our nature as thinking beings; it builds upon it to elevate reason so we can ponder and understand things above our natural intellectual powers. Remember what the Blessed Virgin did with the great mysteries of faith she had experienced? She "pondered these things in her heart" (Luke 2:19). In other words, she used her head to understand better the things of her heart, and we should as well.

Certainly, believers and unbelievers often see things very differently. Bishop Fulton Sheen once put it this way: "You have exactly the same eyes at night as you have in the day, but you cannot see at night, because you lack the additional light of the sun. So, too, let two minds with identically the same education, the same mental capacities, and the same judgment, look on a Host enthroned on an altar. The one sees bread, the other sees Christ, not, of course, with the eyes of the flesh, but with the eyes of faith . . . The reason for the difference is: one has a light which the other lacks, namely, the light of faith."

But light of itself doesn't produce sight; eyes are also required. Similarly, the light of faith requires the "eyes" of the intellect, and that requires thinking. What we believe by faith must be at least superficially understood by the intellect; you can't really believe something if you don't have even a rudimentary grasp of what it means. And understanding requires using our minds as well as our hearts. Besides, if God has gone to the trouble to put signs of His presence about for human beings to draw conclusions from and the Bible tells us he has (see Romans 1) then it would be disrespectful for us not to use our wits to acknowledge them. God gave human beings brains; He must intend us to use them. (In this regard, the apologist might adapt Descartes' famous saying "Cogito ergo sum" "I think, therefore I am" and insist, "I think, therefore I defend the Faith.")

Christ commissioned His followers to take the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15). Apologetics plays an important role in helping us fulfill this commission. In a sense, apologetics is the flip side of evangelization. Evangelization means communicating the truth of Christ. Sometimes this truth generates questions and objections about the Faith even seemingly sound objections to it in the minds of some people. Apologetics addresses these concerns, removing obstacles to faith the way an eye surgeon, to return to our vision analogy, might remove a cataract or some other visual impediment from a patient's eye. Opthamology doesn't bestow sight, of course, nor does the eye surgeon produce the light by which his patient sees. He merely removes the obstacles to vision, as best he can.

So, too, with the apologist. His task is to remove the mental barriers people sometimes have to faith. He cannot generate faith, only help create the conditions which dispose a person to believe. Once that is done, it is up to the Holy Spirit to touch the heart and mind of the person to believe.

 

APPLIED APOLOGETICS

"All this is fine," someone might say. "But can apologetics be useful where it matters in the parish?" Without conceding that the parish is the only place "where it matters," let me say that apologetics not only can but should be used in the parish. I will mention here two basic approaches to the subject. The first is directed toward providing parishioners with answers to questions about the Faith they may have or may encounter. The second approach is more ambitious: to train parishioners to engage in apologetics themselves.

The most obvious place for the first approach is in the parish's ministry of the Word, and the one primarily (though not exclusively) responsible for that is the pastor. Sunday Mass affords a prime opportunity for apologetics, even if the homily ought not to be reduced to an apologetics class. This is one reason it is urgent that seminarians be trained in apologetics and that workshops be provided for priests to update their apologetics knowledge and skills. Certainly, if priests are not equipped to present and defend the Catholic Faith, it's unlikely their parishioners will be.

But formal presentations and training in apologetics shouldn't be limited to the clergy. Parish adult education/catechesis programs, too, should provide apologetics sessions, with speakers, both clergy and laity, addressing formally or informally various questions about the Faith. And most especially, apologetics should be an important component of RCIA programs. A growing body of materials books, video and audio tapes, tracts and magazines is available to help the inquirer or the catechumen in the RCIA learn the case for the Catholic Faith. Such materials should be fully employed in parish programs.

Lastly, apologetics needs to be restored to Catholic schooling, whether in the parish or in the home. Young people need to learn the arguments in support of their faith, not so they can be "defensive" about Catholicism, in the pejorative sense of the word, but so they can go forth in faith-filled confidence in the truth. Often young people otherwise uninterested in religion can be "hooked" when they learn that the Catholic Faith is reasonable, rather than something to be embraced blindly.

The second approach to apologetics in the parish goes much further. It involves training the lay faithful, equipping them to engage in apologetics in their daily life. This should be part of a larger formation of the laity to evangelize. Parishioners should be taught appropriate ways to pose apologetical questions to others, as well as answer questions others pose to them.

Now I know what some people, especially some pastors, are apt to say about this. They think it would be hard enough to get lay people to attend an apologetics talk. Getting them to participate in extended classes in order to actually become apologists, so it is argued, would be out of the question.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting it is easy in all instances, but the average lay man or woman can learn to engage in apologetics. As someone who has spoken on apologetics topics in hundreds of parishes across the country, I know it can be done because it is being done in many places.

Here's a good example that illustrates what I mean. I had traveled to Maine to conduct some apologetics seminars, and I was met at the airport and driven to the parish by a Catholic man, a truck driver, with little formal education. During the ride, this amateur apologist, simple but zealous for the Faith, explained how he had been studying the Church Fathers on some subtle theological point or another. He knew both the arguments against the Church's teaching and the answers to them. What's more, he was able to explain the Catholic view with a lucidity seldom matched by trained theologians. Studying apologetics had given him a clear understanding of and confidence in the Faith of the Church.

That same understanding and confidence should be the possession of every Catholic. The truths God has revealed to us are meant to be pondered over and made our own. They are meant to bring light to us so that, in turn, we may bring light to others. Apologetics in the parish can assist in that light-bringing mission, even if it isn't the only source of light or the only way to bring it.

Properly employed, apologetics is immensely helpful. It can't "prove" the truth of Christianity or Catholicism, the way a mathematician can prove the Pythagorean theorem that isn't its purpose. But it can help people think about faith non-Christians to consider Christ and the Christian Faith, non-Catholic Christians to examine the case for the Catholic Church, and Catholics to understand better what they believe and why.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Mark Brumley "Apologetics Without Apology." Envoy (January/February 1997)

Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.

THE AUTHOR

Mark Brumley, a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism, is the managing editor of Catholic Dossier.

Copyright 1997 Envoy

 

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