Monday, April 19, 2004

Why I Love Dialogues and Oppose Oversimplification in Apologetics

By Dave Armstrong (29 December 2003)

I am a Socratic. I learn and am most motivated by dialogue with those of differing opinions, and I think that is a great way to encourage others to think critically also: by weighing the two alternative options. It is the lack of critical thinking in our time which causes people to believe any dopey thing they hear, because they lack the ability to think critically about it. Dialogue helps people to acquire that vital skill. It's the working through of opposing arguments which is stimulating (at least that is very true with me).

It's irrelevant to me how big of an audience dialogues draw. I do them because of the above reasons. I understand that some people will not like them or care for the format, but I simply do what I am motivated to do, and dialogue is a large part of that. I seem to have been (by God's grace) "successful" enough (judging by website hits, book sales, and reported conversions and reversions), so at this point I am certainly not inclined to "mess with the formula."

I have a lot of short and long papers that are not dialogues on my website, also. I have no objection to other formats. The world is interesting because different people like different stuff. Otherwise, it would be very boring. I like all kinds of writing, too, but dialogues are my favorite, when it comes to apologetics.

I don't like short summaries much, because it defeats the purpose of what I am trying to do: present complex issues at the length they require and deserve rather than simplify them. Simplification is much of the problem in Protestantism to begin with. Many theological issues are very complex and nuanced (look, e.g., at topics such as the Two Natures or the filioque -- I won't even deal with the latter because I consider it totally out of my ballpark and abilities), and my policy is to treat them at the length required to explain them properly.

Some people don't like that. One (very intelligent and educated) Catholic I know is notorious for wanting me to sum something up in one or two sentences. I just say (in so many words), "that's tough; if you don't care for my presentation, and can't devote 5 or 10 minutes to it, by all means go somewhere else. But I won't change my style just to suit you." I don't write such things with personal offense or anger; not at all. I am objecting to the very notion that theology has to be ultra-simplified because (bottom line) people (i.e., the public at large) are "too dumb" to understand it or unwilling to spend any significant time trying to (like they would spend, e.g., watching TV or reading novels).

I think it is much better to challenge and stretch people rather than to assume they are mental midgets who can't grasp things. Many times they are, no doubt, but why not try to encourage them to use the grey matter between their ears a bit? At worst, at least we can show that there is enough thought behind theology to require a little bit of mental or intellectual work to understand it, and that is a good thing.

Some people, therefore, won't like or care for my work; thinking it is on too high of a level, and too much "trouble" to spend time reading -- too much "work." I don't want to give anyone a headache . . . Perhaps surprisingly, however, I don't hear those complaints very much. On the other hand, I do receive a lot of letters telling me that I have the ability to clearly explain things. It's clarity and organization, then, that I strive for in my writings, not brevity or simplification.

I always say that people are willing to study things for years, go to college, read excruciatingly boring, abstract texts (science, math, engineering, physiology, chemistry, philosophy, etc. -- the four fields in the middle I care for very little, myself, though I got A's in Algebra 3 and 4 in high school), yet when it comes to theology they want everything real simple and elementary.

I contend that if we give in to this double standard, we are selling out theology and strengthening the impression people have that it has no intellectual depth, content, or challenge to begin with. I've thought a lot about all these sorts of things, in my 23 years of apologetic writing and debating and evangelizing.
Also, many times when I am writing, I am anticipating objections and answering them as I write. It takes a lot of ink to answer the many errors and charges and misunderstandings involved where Catholicism is concerned. One or two lines which contain massive propaganda-like slander and disinformation might take ten pages to properly refute because one has to produce hard evidence to convince skeptics to change their mind.

Lastly, apologetics -- almost by definition -- is for "thinking people": those who require or desire rational, reasoned explanations for why they believe what they do. Unfortunately, that will always be a rather small minority in Christian ranks. Most Christians (and, more specifically, Catholics) will accept their faith beliefs without thinking them through, on authority. 

There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself (faith is good; so is a proper submission to legitimate, God-ordained ecclesiastical authority), yet when an outsider attacks their belief-system, they may be vulnerable and in danger of losing their faith because they can't produce any reason for it other than "the Church said so."

For those who care relatively little about reasons for their belief, catechetics is the ticket, rather than apologetics. So that is another reason why I think over-simplification in apologetics is somewhat self-defeating.

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