Apologetics, or, I Was a Little Shit in College

Do you ever wish you could go back in time and smack your younger self?  I sure do.

imagesLike many Christian-school students, I studied apologetics, the art of providing a reasoned defense of your belief.  “Defense” was the word used (I Peter 3:15); it’s the Greek root of the term.  Also like a fair number of Christian-school students, I adamantly wanted to attend a secular college, partly out of the desire to get out of the cloister, but largely because I’d been trained on the likes of The Case for Christ and Evidence that Demands a Verdict and was itching to unleash my skills on the world.

6a0133f0b2fdc2970b01676346a1b3970bDid I expect militant atheists to be jumping out of the bushes and demanding that I address the weaknesses of Pascal’s wager?  I’m not sure.  I attended public school through fourth grade, so I was already halfway to disillusionment.  I knew that, despite popular belief, no one patrolled the elementary-school cafeteria waiting to expel anyone who bowed zir head in prayer (but we didn’t bow our heads at private school, did we?  We only did it when we thought we might be seen by nonbelievers).  But college was a hotbed of sin; everyone knew that.  If there was any place a Christian was going to be truly challenged, it was here.

The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” comes to mind.

graphic_kansas-logoI don’t remember a single real life instance of someone making a mean, dismissive, or belittling comment about my (or any) religion in college.  There may have been one or two, but if so, they weren’t particularly memorable or formative experiences.  I sure got into a lot of arguments about religion, though: Heated, knock-down, drag-out arguments.  How?  I started them.

I learned quite a few harmful things in apologetics, but the most harmful of all was the idea that it’s impossible (or pointless) to have any kind of conversation about religion with someone of differing beliefs except to try to convince them that they’re wrong.  They taught me how to argue; they never taught me how to just talk, or even more importantly, how to just listen.  They’re wrong; they presumably think you’re wrong; why would you have anything else to say?

apologiaAnd so I ended up baiting a lot of people into a lot of stupid arguments without even realizing I was doing it.  I didn’t understand that jumping into a casual sharing of people’s beliefs by throwing down the (to me) insurmountable problems with each of them might be considered off-topic, derailing, or, you know, rude.  I couldn’t tell when other people didn’t want to argue; I simply assumed that they felt about their beliefs the way I felt about mine.  I had no paradigm for understanding that the Baha’i girl down the hall might actually just want to get together and pray with people of other faiths, or that my agnostic roommate might actually not care all that much rather than being in a spiritually vulnerable place just waiting for someone to tip her over in one direction or another.  I must have pissed them off constantly, but I wasn’t aware of it.

9163631Unsurprisingly, I didn’t learn much about other people’s religious beliefs, since any mention of religion automatically put me into attack mode.  I remember once asking a Jewish friend who believed in an impersonal “watchmaker” God why she would bother keeping kosher if God didn’t care.  What I meant was “What are your personal motivations for keeping kosher?” but I didn’t know how to ask except by framing it as an attack.

I never convinced anyone that my beliefs were right.  I doubt I even convinced anyone that my beliefs were less wrong or more reasonable than they had thought.  But I’m sure I convinced many people that I (and Christians in general) was an asshole.  That was my legacy: The obnoxious kid who was sure she was right and constantly argued with everyone.

God-Defending-300x209Ironically, my inability to listen and my insistence on offering a “defense” even when I was not actually under attack not only made me a worse person, but it actually made me a worse apologist.  Since I never listened, I never learned, and I could never offer an argument based on what people actually believed rather than on the vague, shallow characterizations in the apologetics books.

And central among those descriptions was the idea that people who disagreed with my beliefs just didn’t understand.

Apologetics images found here, here, here, here, here, and here.



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9 responses to “Apologetics, or, I Was a Little Shit in College

  1. I should think the word ‘apologetics’ already gives an pretty good idea about the limitations of apologetics. I too took classes in apologetics in school in the UK, which was a rather rare occurrence there.

  2. spellman23

    Heh, definitely one of the biggest traps for me as well Katz, and why I shy away from surface apologetics these days as well. Don’t worry too much. You weren’t nearly that big of a shit back in college. Although there were some of those Contact games using theologians…

  3. I had a different experience; people regularly started in on me for my beliefs while I was in middle school, high school and college (and it continues in my work place and my social circles to this very day). But the results are the same. No matter how you try to articulate, no matter how you try to justify or explain your beliefs (God help you, literally, if you’re trying to explain the exclusivity of your beliefs!), you’re going to come off as an asshole, and you’re never going to win.

    The problem with apologetics is twofold: first, that there is no “grand panacea”-justification for faith – the skeptic will always find room for doubt. Secondly, and more importantly, it rarely, if ever, demonstrates God’s love.

    • Copper

      Apologia is only to be employed in love. Arguments will not result when done in love. Doubt will never be erased, since we are not dealing in “proof,” but are dealing in evidence. Apologia is first for your own defense, such as when one is exposed to someone that holds an atheistic world view. It is not to be used to then attack that person’s view, but is to only be used if you are sincerely asked about your faith, by one who is genuinely seeking truth. This will not be a public setting (formal debate is different), and if we seek to engage in discussion simply to be right, it is us who are being sinful. Public formal debates have participants which do not expect to change the mind of their opponent, but seek to provide information to those in the audience who are genuinely seeking truth (at least this should be the objective for the Christian apologist in a formal debate). Engaging in debate outside of a formal setting (e.g., arguing in the classroom, arguing with friends, etc.) is not demonstrating a heart of love, and it is casting pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). Once again, we must be humble, in that if we are publically attacked we are to simply take it and wait for the opportunity to answer one who is genuinely asking, not one who is only seeking to destroy or cause confusion. You are to remain silent during those times, and apologia is just for you during those times.

  4. Copper

    The thing is, apologetics is not for attack at all (e.g., you were in a lot of arguments). Apologetics is first an undergirding of the Christian so they will not be shaken IF they come under attack (i.e., hear something in a college lecture, coworkers discussion, etc.). These things should not make you feel defensive, but confident. That is not to say that one should then use that confidence to attack. No. One should simply be ready to answer sincere questions from one who is genuinely seeking the truth, not one who is looking to argue. Those types of discussion are to be avoided. Apologetics is NOT about being right, it’s about being prepared. You are to be prepared to resist attacks (not fight back), and be prepared to answer a sincere question, in love. If we speak to others about our faith, but it is not with a heart of love (i.e., we just want to argue), then we are the ones being sinful. It is a shame you were not properly trained in this basic tenet of apologia. Humility is of primary importance to the Christian apologist. I pray the Holy Spirit will continue to minister to us all about how to properly employ apologia.

    • katz

      To address the second part first, you don’t need an entire discipline to help you answer honest questions from reasonable people; anyone ought to be able to answer nonjudgmental questions about what they believe and why without any special training. Naturally you should have a good understanding of what your religion teaches, but that’s not apologetics, that’s just theology.

      And the first part: You’re repeating the sort of catchphrases that tend to accompany apologetics but don’t ultimately mean very much. Obviously nobody says “go get in a bunch of arguments” and everyone uses phrases like “humility” and “speak the truth in love” (yes, even the people who taught me). But teaching people defenses for when they come under attack is also, inevitably, teaching them to expect to come under attack. Your beliefs just aren’t that likely to come under attack in real life because other people are mostly not deliberately trying to be mean to you, but if you’re expecting it because you’ve been taught that it will happen (you’ve repeated the old college-lecture example, for instance), you’re naturally going to be defensive and inclined to see attacks where there aren’t any.

      Your choice of the Resurgence is a good example of the difference between the messaging and the reality; Mark Driscoll is one of the most loud, aggressive, argumentative, and abrasive people in all of evangelicalism, so regardless of what Wilson might say about kindness and patience, he obviously doesn’t actually value that or he’d be busy putting duct tape over Driscoll’s mouth (metaphorically).

      • Anonymous

        I would be of the opinion that explaining your belief, be it theological, philosophical, scientific, or otherwise, would be apologia (defense). It would all be in line with biblical teaching as well. Paul reasoned, Jesus appealed to evidence, and an apologetic was presented for using creation itself in knowing the Creator. Implementing apologia requires discernment more than argument, love for your questioner and no desire to “win,” unless we are discussing winning the questioner to the Lord, and not in the sense of a game. I am not sure how others apply apologia in evangelism, but this is how I try to do it – God willing.

  5. Copper

    Here is a nice article which addresses this very topic.

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