I have been studying apologetics for ten years now and it has become an important part of my life. Not only have my studies provided me with answers, but I have seen apologetics equip Christians to provide an answer to everyone.
As I read, think, wrestle, argue and discuss, I realise a good way to approach apologetics is to think about giving answers and seeking answers.
The problem with ‘cookie cutter’ answers
In my early days of reading apologetic-related resources I would share with students and seekers as part of my university ministry. I would often give ‘cookie cutter’ answers; very precise and verbatim from the books I was reading. This method wasn’t always as effective as I hoped! These answers often had a lot of underlying assumptions as to the motives of the questioner; this was—understandably—not always met with appreciation.
I realised it is wiser to let people speak for themselves and for me to be “slow to speak and quick to listen”. The ‘everyone’ we seek to give an answer to is a diverse group. Not everyone will be combative, adversarial or seeking to trap—different people ask similar questions for different reasons.
For example, the question ‘how could a good God allow evil and suffering?’ may be motivated by a number of reasons. Some question God’s existence, while others question the existence of a loving God. This sort of question is a struggle for both believers and unbelievers.
Everyone is diverse and should not be viewed under the lens of stereotypes. Alistair McGrath makes and excellent point along these lines in his book Mere Apologetics, he says:
“One of the first things that the apologist learns when he does apologetics—as opposed to just reading books about it—is that audiences vary enormously. Each person has his or her own specific difficulties about faith and must not be reduced to a generalised stereotype.”
As we shape our answers to address questions, we must also realise that the people we engage with are not untethered from their time and context. This understanding helps us to understand their expectations, struggles and also their questions.
McGrath speaks very poignantly about understanding context:
“We also need to reflect on the cultural context within which we proclaim, explain and commend the gospel. People do not exist in cultural vacuums. They live in a specific situation, and often absorb at least some of its ideas and values”.
Essentially we are all men and women of our times and cultural contexts; we are its products, this shapes the questions asked and the answers we can give. In the modern era, rationalism was a big thing and major questions asked were more or less along the lines of God’s existence.
In today’s society the questions may be less about how rational Christianity is and more about how existentially meaningful it is. In other words: What does Christianity mean to me in a relational and emotional sense.
Seek to give and receive answers
Finally, as we seek to give and receive answers, I think it is vital that we have proper expectations. I have come to realise that people seek two key things in their quest for truth: reasons and answers.
During the modern era rationalism was the order of the day and, in many cases, people bought into the idea that if a thing was unexplainable, then it should not be believed. Reason was crowned king and arguments were a means of disseminating and coming to knowledge of the truth. Even in Christianity a rational defence of the faith became a useful tool in the arsenal of the apologist. McGrath makes a very noteworthy and timeless remark:
“One of the problems here is that rationalist approaches tend to minimise the element of mystery within the Christian faith in order to make Christianity appear more accessible to reason.”
I would be the first to say Christianity is rational, but also the first to say reason alone cannot suffice—it is a delicate balance. The questioner might demand pure rationalism of Christianity, and we can often—with good intentions—be drawn into this line of argument unwisely.
Blaise Pascal wrote rather astutely, “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not, as we feel in a thousand instances”. Not all answers are logical and can be so easily explainable, in giving answers we must realise that reason will take you only so far. Man is not only cerebral but emotional; it is both the head and the heart that comes into play.
While studying in France I spoke to a professor who was visiting for the day and I said to him: “I am not a scientist and when the subject switches to that I am out of my depth.” He replied, “Son, that’s ok; the worst scientists are the ones that are just scientists”. For him, when all of life is focused on facts and no emotion, it creates an imbalance. This is why I believe people need answers, not purely reasons, as some answers cannot be answered purely rationally.
On the other hand, this does not mean truth is unknowable or relative. This is simply a reality with an obvious tension; to relax it is to slip into error on either side.
Rather than being purely rational, we must have confidence in our answers. Society will want to relegate our answers to a place of irrelevance—as being antiquated and impractical—but the outlook is wrong. Answers must firstly be accessed as being truthful or not.
Transforming words worth sharing
Giving answers is not just a ‘good thing’ to be doing but biblically directed in1 Peter chapter 3, verse 15: ‘But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’
I do hope that the answers that Jesus Christ provides will continue to illuminate darkness of our lives with the life transforming answers it gives, as Jesus rightly says: “My words are spirit and they are life”.
Paul Lewis is a Staff Worker for Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in Kingston Jamaica, where he also resides. He has aspirations of becoming a Christian Apologist and he loves reading especially topics like: History, Philosophy and Theology. You can follow him on twitter @VeritasDeiVinci