The problem with modern apologetics

Dear Pope Francis,

I propose the anniversary of the election of a pope be called “poplectary” (poh-plek-tah-ree). I’m bored of reading articles about the anniversary of your election. The whole phrase takes up too much space, and also I haven’t invented a new word in a while.

Know what else I’m bored of reading? Articles about church teaching where the main argument used is ultimately an appeal to authority; usually God, the Bible, or the Church.

potholes

I think apologetics are great. There’s a huge need for them with so many people in the world trying to dissuade people from believing the truth of the resurrected Christ. Believers and non-believers both struggle with why the Church teaches what it does, and this struggle can become a huge pothole in their relationship with Christ.

We need to have a serious look at both what the Church is teaching and how we teach it though.

Yes, the Bible is the inspired word of God – but it is also an historical account of events in Jewish and early Christian history. All cultures have certain assumptions they make about societal roles which affect the degree of agency people have over themselves. We need to take note of the assumptions being made by the people in the Bible and see how those assumptions affect the message.

Yes, the Church has two thousand years of Tradition which have brought us to where we are today. But the early church grew out of the traditions of Judaism and evolved a great deal before it became the rich and powerful entity it is today. Growth in the early church was rooted in the core message of the Gospels: Jesus lived, died, and rose again in fulfilment of the scriptures.

If we examine our own Apostle’s Creed, known to have existed in some form since 390 C.E., the focus is clearly on the story of Jesus.

I believe in God, the Father, the almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
I believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of God, the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Looking closer, the word “catholic” is not capitalized. When written with a small ‘c’ the word catholic means universal. The capital ‘C’ Church is the totality of Christians, the universal church, not the institution of the Catholic Church.

I think if we look at the Church today, growth is still rooted in the core message. But the Catholic Church has been diluting that message by focusing on adherence to Tradition.

I am a Roman Catholic. I attend mass every week, and I believe the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine we consume during the celebration of the Eucharist. I adhere to the Ten Commandments we adopted from our Jewish forefathers and mothers (well, I try) and I no longer do and think these things simply because someone told me to.

potholes2

In the words of a Dominican priest who spoke at a conference I attended two years ago, “faith should be reasonable.” My faith is reasonable, and because it is reasonable I do not cite God, the Church or the Bible as authorities in arguments. I reasoned things out until I was satisfied the evidence for outweighed the evidence against.

It’s an exercise I’m continuing to do with the rest of church teaching. I believe in God and I believe he has a plan for this world. But constantly citing God’s authority as a reason to do or not do something is lazy. We have the ability and the responsibility to craft better arguments for what we teach. We can fill in those potholes.

Happy poplectary,

Meredith

P.S. Sorry for not being able to get this up during the week of your poplectary! I was experiencing the human body’s ability to fill nasal passages with an unlimited supply of snot and spending pretty much all my awake-but-not-at-work hours drinking tea and trying to get rid of it all.

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3 thoughts on “The problem with modern apologetics

  1. Babatunde Valentine Onabajo

    This is an interesting read, and I suppose my blog posts will be a bane to you as a “follower” as I often consult what Scripture and the Church says. I do not see it as an “appeal to authority” anymore than a statistician’s consultation of a standard normal distribution table. Perhaps you should read the works of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle because you will see how mainstream Catholic apologetics take their views to its logical conclusions. Indeed, Aristotle was regarded as the “precursor of Christ” during the Middle Ages.

    As an aside, the word “catholic” isn’t capitalized, but then again the idea of Christian denominations is relatively new. Indeed, the Catholic Church still refers to Protestant sects as “ecclesial communities”, and the view of them isn’t that different in the Eastern Orthodox Church either. For over 1,500 years of Christendom, Christians pretty much believed the same thing and held to the same faith. It was only after the Reformation that we saw a proliferation of Christian sects with their own worldviews and belief systems. So I would imagine there would be little need in using the word “catholic” with a capital “C” when for most of history, Christians everywhere held to the same belief. Yes, there was the issue of Arianism but that Arianism no longer exists today should be enough to tell you who the true Church was back then. As St. Athanasius is reported to have said, “they have the buildings, we have the Faith”.

    On that note, it’s always great to see someone coming back to the Church, and I wish you all the best in your spiritual journey. “[…] there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).

    • I follow blogs I find interesting, whether they agree with me or not.

      I think it’s important to consult with what the church teaches and what the bible says, what I take issue with is when the only defence for a doctrine is scripture or tradition.

      Thou shalt not kill. Why not? Because while death is a natural conclusion to life, it is deeply upsetting in any circumstance and should not be hurried. Killing someone harms them by making them dead, it harms society by causing death deliberately which is more upsetting than when it is the result of disease or an accident, and it harms the killer by making them responsible for all the harm caused by the action, and, since we are both believers, by separating the killer from God.

      Thou shalt not kill. Why not? Because killing is wrong? Why is killing wrong? Because the bible says it is. Why does the bible say it is? The bible says it’s wrong because it was a commandment given to Moses and the Israelites by God. End of discussion, end of argument.

      If you are coming to the conversation as an agnostic or an atheist and do not believe the bible contains moral truths, or you do not believe in God then you likely walk away from the second argument unconvinced that killing is wrong and irritated by the lack of depth in the defense given by the believer. In the first example, you may still disagree that it is wrong to kill in all circumstances, but you’re more likely to accept that it is generally desirable not to kill.

      I have read some philosophy, though I admit not as much as I need to. Another part of the problem with modern apologetics which I didn’t really address in the post is a lack of engagement with secular arguments. We need to defend the morals of our faith with more than platitudes to be effective.

      If the argument for stealing we are trying to refute includes statistics about the benefits of thieving, then we need to take the time to include verifiable statistics about the harms caused by it, and we need to show how the harms from the action outweigh the benefits.

      A huge part of it is just being present in the same conversation. I see it a lot when my pro-life friends get into it with pro-choice friends. The pro-life group is only talking about the value of the baby’s life, and the pro-choice group is only talking about the quality of life for both the mother and the child, with the emphasis placed on the quality of the mother’s life, and neither ever feels like they are getting anywhere with the other because they’re not addressing each other’s concerns in their responses.

      The point you make about the creed and the schisms is a good one. That said, an ecclesial community is still a congregation or an assembly of people, and the way the word church is used in St. Paul’s letters is generally when referring to the specific Christian communities he was writing to. Current doctrinal differences aside, the root objection to the protestant churches is the lack of apostolic succession. I have some thoughts about that percolating still, to be expanded on in a later post.

      Thank you, I do appreciate it. I hope you’ll pray for me as I continue to delve.

      • Babatunde Valentine Onabajo

        Thank you for your reply Meredith :). Well, I would definitely recommend you read up on some philosophy or theology. As a Catholic, you will be glad to know that we have an immensely rich intellectual tradition that goes beyond simply determining sin “because God says so” and explains why an action is sin from the viewpoint of virtue (virtue ethics), or an abrogation of one’s duty (deontological ethics), or the detriment it poses to society (utilitarian ethics). It is true that sometimes the harm from sin outweighs the benefits, but this may not always be so which is why Christian apologists do not rely too much on such arguments.

        A good example is the abortion of disabled children. The problem with basing the morality of this on a cost-benefit analysis is that a mother may very well be better off financially by aborting her disabled child. But there is more to the human sphere of life than money – there is also compassion and caring for the vulnerable. And as the great British Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe says in one of her works, murder can’t be judged on a cost-benefit analysis because it precedes it; you can only have a benefit or a cost if you are in existence, not if you are not in existence.

        I do not know the exact nature of your experience(s), but I am part of a pro-life group and we are very concerned about the woman as well as the child. How could any pro-life person not be? If my experience is anything to go by, pro-abortionists do not care very much about the woman or the child; they support abortion owing to their political ideology, that being liberalism. There is a charity called “LIFE” which supports both the woman and the child if there are any financial concerns. They came to speak at my university a while ago: http://www.lifecharity.org.uk/home/?fn= . I know pro-life people that would cry and beg the mother to not murder her child, and rightfully so. There is something very shocking about a mother murdering her own child. I am holding back tears as I write that.

        I write on philosophical matters relating to Catholicism although they can be a bit abstract. I will try and write about more basic issues, so I suppose you may find them helpful if you see it in your WordPress Reader.

        And you can certainly be assured of my prayers. Once again, I’m really glad you made the right decision to come back. The doors are always open and I hope the Holy Spirit fills you with wisdom, this time and forevermore :).

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