Whitespace E: On the Dangers of Apologetics
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- On the Dangers of Apologetics -

by Lincoln Sayger

742 wds.
First published on Nov 16, 2015

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I wrote earlier about the type of apology that is an explanation offered after some error, usually to explain why the error was not the fault of the person who made it. There is another kind of apology, a systematic defense of a position, usually religious in nature, though one can be an apologist for any type of position, including political and academic. But there are dangers, especially for Christians, in focusing on apologetics, and they are dangers that can lead to a result completely opposed to the intent of the apologist.

Apologetics, arguing for a position, necessarily applies a lens to the topic being treated, placing emphasis on some points and diminishing others, leading to a distillation of the facts out of the richer fabric of the topic as a whole, for any lens that brings one thing into sharp focus blurs all other things. As humans, we never know which facet of a topic will interest, impress, or impact another human, so it is often better to present the subject as completely as we can, in all its richness. This is especially true with the rich tapestry God has provided us in the Bible.

Since no one can know everything, the apologist has a limited arsenal of explanations. Because of this, the answers the apologist can offer may not match the questions that were asked. Whether our audience is composed of seekers or skeptics, we cannot unlock the door of understanding if we don't have the proper key. And that assumes the audience has asked the right question. If someone asks us about one objection but actually cares about a different one, we can explain the asked objection perfectly without making any serious impression on the audience. It may be better to explore the topic more broadly, alongside the questioner, than to focus precisely on what was asked. Again, the apologist is limited in both understanding of the topic and insight into the nature of the inquiry and inquirer.

Arguments, especially with faulty execution, can introduce new objections through confusion, or through the introduction of side issues that either distract from the original question or raise different objections. This is fine, if all you want is to have a discussion, but it is a great danger, if you are trying to win someone over to your position.

Focusing on explanation leaves us vulnerable to questions outside our area of expertise. This is another danger of the possibility of introducing side issues, because we may quickly go from firm competence to woeful ignorance by shifting the area of expertise needed to continue a chain of logic.

Focusing on argumentation also ignores the fact that a question we do not know how to answer is not a question without any answer. There are things in this world, many more things than most people would be quick to admit, that we, as humans, don't know. Things nobody on the planet knows. But that doesn't mean those things are all unknowable. Consider how long humanity lived without a clear understanding of the mechanisms through which we become ill, or the invisible wavelengths around us. Did those things not exist during this time? A question has an answer, even when we don't know what that answer is. Abandoning concepts, people, and beliefs simply because we are not omniscient is silly. We can't know anything fully, not even our own hearts. Why do we expect to know or discover the answers to the great mysteries and everything in between?

Argument, especially without discernment of opponent's intent, makes an apologist look combative, possibly arrogant, and hard to approach for serious questions. Remember that the Sword of the Spirit is for rightly dividing good and evil, truth and error, not for cleaving the skulls of the victims of deception or abuse. Remember also that the Gospel isn't supposed to be understood through analysis but through introspection, surrender, and experience.

Argument encourages the apologist to be right and to have the quick answer, and this discourages a spirit of humility and discipleship. For you will never become right so long as you insist on already being right.

Argument can quickly descend into a patronizing posture, which can alienate seekers and increase opposition. We should instead strive to take a companion's posture, seeking the answers alongside others, and seeking the humility to recognize that we may not have or be capable of discovering all the answers through discussion and evidence.

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