Monday, April 19, 2004

Thoughts on the Historical Causes of Secularization

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 13 September 2003. Revised on 20 January 2004.

Peter Berger, an eminent Lutheran sociologist, who specializes in the sociology of religion, discusses with great insight the crucial role which Protestantism played in the development of the radical secularization with which all serious Christians are plagued today, and from which society at large reels and staggers in moral turpitude:
    Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality . . . The sacramental apparatus is reduced to a minimum and, even there, divested of its more numinous qualities. The miracle of the mass disappears altogether . . . Protestantism ceased praying for the dead . . . [and] divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred - mystery, miracle, and magic . . . The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically 'fallen' humanity that, 'ipso facto,' is devoid of sacred qualities . . .
    The Catholic lives in a world in which the sacred is mediated to him through a variety of channels - the sacraments . . . intercession of the saints . . . a vast continuity of being between the seen and the unseen. Protestantism abolished most of these mediations. It broke the continuity, cut the umbilical cord between heaven and earth, and thereby threw man back upon himself in a historically unprecedented manner . . . It narrowed man's relationship to the sacred to the one . . . channel that it called God's word . . . - the 'sola gratia' of the Lutheran confessions . . . It needed only the cutting of this one narrow channel of mediation, though, to open the floodgates of secularization . . .

    It may be maintained, then, that Protestantism served as a historically decisive prelude to secularization, whatever may have been the importance of other factors . . . This interpretation . . . is accepted . . . probably today by a majority of scholarly opinion . . .

    The Protestant Reformation . . . may then be understood as a powerful reemergence of precisely those secularizing forces that had been 'contained' by Catholicism . . . The question, 'Why in the modern West?' asked with respect to the phenomenon of secularization, must be answered at least in part by looking at its roots in the religious tradition of the modern West.

    (The Sacred Canopy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967, 111-113, 124-125)
I think complex causality and multiple causality are involved in virtually all historical matters, especially those involving ideas, and those as vast and huge as a topic like secularization (arguably one of the most nebulous and subjective of any concept in the history of ideas in general and cultural sociology in particular).

I agree with what Peter Berger says, but his analysis is only on one aspect of many that I think come into play. He can make his point without denying my present one (as suggested in his phrase, "whatever may have been the importance of other factors"). He has a sociological mind which is nothing if not attuned to the variety of factors that play a part in any large-scale societal and cultural force. My own major was sociology (something I have regretted, but sometimes it comes in handy).
That said, I hereby offer an additional analysis of another important cause of secularization, from Catholic (oops; now we know he is incorrigibly biased . . . ) cultural historian Christopher Dawson:
It is difficult to exaggerate the harm that was inflicted on Christian culture by the century of religious strife that followed the Reformation . . . It was during this century of sterile and inconclusive religious conflict that the ground was prepared for the secularization of European culture. The convinced secularists were an infinitesimal minority of the European population, but they had no need to be strong since the Christians did their work for them . . .
It is impossible to ignore this dark and tragic side of religious history; for if we do not face it, we cannot understand the inevitable character of the movement of secularization . . .
The immediate cause of the secularization of European culture was the frustration and discouragement resulting from a century of religious wars, and above all from the inconclusiveness of their end. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the necessity for the co-existence of Catholics and Protestants in Europe became generally recognized, and since men still valued their common culture they were forced to emphasize those elements which were common to Catholics and Protestants, i.e., its secular aspects . . .
The merchant class in Holland and England and the lawyers and officials in France gradually took the place of the nobility as the real leaders of culture . . . They were apt to be critical of authority and naturally tended to adopt a sectarian type of religion - Puritans and Nonconformists in England, and Huguenots in France. Theirs was among the strongest influences making for the secularization of culture, as so many writers have argued . . . They regarded religion as a private matter which concerned the conscience of the individual only, whereas public life was essentially business life; a sphere in which the profit motive was supreme and a man's moral and religious duties were best fulfilled by the punctual and industrious performance of his professional activities.
(The Dividing of Christendom, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1965, 9-11, 253-255)
One might argue along these lines that Protestantism emerged as a quasi-Donatist, ostensibly and theoretically (but not in practice or long-run outcome) rigorist and schismatic cultural force in the 16th century. The inevitable split from the Catholic Church led to equally inevitable religious wars (as men on both sides then still cared deeply about religious matters, unlike today where doctrinal disagreements are winked at and cheerfully dismissed as of no import, and nothing worth fighting over -- not even in rational discussion).

The wars in turn led to the cultural exhaustion and malaise described by Dawson. In that sense of a causal chain one might argue that Protestantism caused the drive towards secularization that has never ceased to increase from that day to this. But as I say, this is only one aspect among many, and neither it nor Berger's analysis should be construed as the be-all and end-all of historical discussion concerning secularization. That's far too simplistic, in my opinion.

I would also point out, in fairness (to give much credit to Protestantism in this respect) that the history of revivalism within the Protestant tradition has been a great cultural force against secularization. This can be seen especially in the Wesleyan and Whitefield revivals in 17th-century England, which had vast positive social consequences, and the First and Second Great Awakenings in America: arguably responsible for slowing down the subsequent slide into a thorough quasi-humanist secularism for a good century (for early America was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, deism, and a liberal brand of disillusioned post-Calvinist, post-Puritan Christianity).

Along these lines, I would cite and recommend books such as Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, by William G. McLoughlin (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), and Revivalism and Social Reform, by Timothy L. Smith (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957). The latter begins with this delightful passage:
Could Thomas Paine, the free-thinking pamphleteer of the American and French revolutions, have visited Broadway in 1865, he would have been amazed to find that the nation conceived in rational liberty was at last fulfilling its democratic promise in the power of evangelical faith. The emancipating glory of the great awakenings had made Christian liberty, Christian equality and Christian fraternity the passion of the land . . . Religious doctrines which Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, had discarded as the tattered vestment of an outworn aristocracy, became the wedding garb of a democratized church, bent on preparing men and institutions for a kind of proletarian marriage supper of the Lamb.
(Preface, p. 7)
These movements were not without their own faults, and arguably contained the seeds of an eventual further descent into secularism and sectarianism, but that is beyond my immediate point, which is simply that Protestant revivalism has been a considerably powerful force against secularism and irreligion, and towards a Christian worldview with culturally-transformative power and import. It would be just as wrong for a Protestant with a sophisticated view of history, sociology, and culture to deny the positive aspects of revivalism, as it would be for a Catholic to do so. What's true (and documented from history) is true.

I would argue (if I must make a general statement) that it is not Protestantism per se which caused secularization, but rather, that some aspects of Protestantism tied in with some aspects of existing forces destructive of the unified medieval and Catholic synthesis and worldview (nominalism, the Renaissance, nationalism, the Divine Right of Kings, unbridled capitalism, the so-called "Enlightenment," the philosophers Locke, Kant, Hume, etc.). Catholicism-in-practice also contributed to this demise insofar as it was nominal and morally-compromised. After all, the rise of Protestantism was not hindered by Italian and Roman decadence, and the "Enlightenment" and the hideous French Revolution took place in Catholic France.

In any event, the medieval synthesis and Christian culture was Catholic through and through, and Protestantism obviously helped to bring that to an end (thus playing a "decisive" role, as Berger argues), but it alone was not the primary factor (though I regard it as a major one), and it often worked as a counter-force to secularization, as argued in the above examples.

Whatever the cause, we are in a mess today, because people do not think "Christianly." 

Lastly, I would cite James Davison Hunter, professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, and one of the leading authorities on evangelicalism today; the author of American Evangelicalism (1983) and Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (1987). An article in Christianity Today described an address of his on this general theme:
Hunter identified the major combatants in the cultural war. Traditional Orthodoxy, he said, holds a transcendent view of moral authority, as expressed in Scripture, the Roman Catholic magisterium, the Torah. What Hunter called a 'progressive' view of authority, based on Enlightenment thinking, is grounded in human, rational discourse. Hunter contended that advocates of the new way of thinking are winning the war. While allowing that 'evangelicalism is the most vibrant form of religious expression,' he said there is no evidence to support the oft-stated assertion that the evangelical faith is in the midst of revival . . . Hunter . . . added, 'There is a very strong undercurrent of subjectivizing the gospel and the theological task.'
(Randy Frame, "Theological Drift: Christian Higher Ed the Culprit?," Christianity Today, April 9, 1990; citation from pp. 43, 46)
Catholics are, of course, subject to the same cultural influences and are increasingly Americanized, privatized, and rendered ignorant from abominable catechesis and the liberal crisis in our own Church. To the extent that Catholics suffer that fate, they, too, do not think Christianly and contribute to the continuing secularization and decadance of our society and culture.

So (to end on an ecumenical note), I would echo C.S. Lewis's comment that those at the center of their own theological traditions are all closer to one another in spirit than those on the outer edges (liberals, modernists, nominalists, semi-non-Christian syncretists, etc.). This is a fight of serious, committed Christians of all stripes against the postmodernist, humanist culture of death and all that it entails.

That is one reason (of many) why I absolutely despise both anti-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism, because they zap the energy and influence that the already weak Christian community has (itself the last hope against the encroaching darkness), by dividing Christians and setting them against each other. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We Christians mock and battle and lie about and misrepresent each other on the Internet while western civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. It is wicked, and it is the devil's victory.

It is to be expected that we will all stand up for our own Christian beliefs in gentlemanly yet vigorous principled discourse; but this should not be to the extent of reading others out of the faith entirely and questioning their personal standing before God and their salvation or eternal destiny, as the case may be.
I wanted to note that two out of the four revivals I mentioned were Calvinist-dominated:
1. The First Great Awakening arguably led by Jonathan Edwards.
2. The Whitefield revival in England.
The other two are Arminian:
3. The Wesleyan revival (which could be said to be an Anglican revival, since Wesley never formally split from that denomination).
4. The Second Great Awakening.
The latter two are more illustrative of what I would say are the inherent shortcomings in the Protestant system. "Mainline" or "culturally-respectable" (which meant largely "properly English") Anglicanism couldn't handle Wesley due to the "enthusiasm" and evangelicalism and so he was forced to take to the fields and reluctantly consent to a start-up of yet another denomination: the Methodists. Thus, further sectarianism is the result even when great, noble men are in leadership and don't desire a split, because the Protestant tendency to dichotomize everything and to create unnecessarily-polarized competing camps would not allow a radical like Wesley to be contained within an Anglican framework.

In Catholicism, on the other hand, there is a place for all these different aspects of Christian expression and emphasis. We have quietism, we have mysticism; we have St. Francis on one hand and St. Thomas Aquinas on the other; St. Therese on one pole (monasticism) and Merton and Dorothy Day on the other (social activism). We have the jolly wise man Chesterton and super-serious folks like St. Ignatius Loyola. Even the charismatic movement flourished recently and was accepted by Rome without a crisis. None of these things cause a split. But Protestants will split because they lack a unifying principle which will prevent this.

As for Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening, I understand that Finney went liberal (which is a real shame). Arguably, this was due to orthodox Arminianism being distorted and turned into a self-generation of holiness and sanctification. Again, I would contend that this is at least partially because of the structure of Protestantism which is insufficiently "magisterial."

In contrast, the essentially Arminian soteriology of Catholicism does not become transformed into Pelagianism and then process theology, as we see occurring among Protestants (Clark Pinnock being one sad example). One must have some theory as to why this happens. I say that the dogmatic, magisterial structure of Catholicism prevents it, while the individualism and private judgment of Protestantism not only doesn't prevent it, but encourages it by an interior logic.

The individualism in turn evolves into subjectivism and privatization, and there we are: back to some of the important contributing factors of secularization. So the second two revivalistic traditions contained the seeds of later trouble: the holiness movements spawned from Wesleyanism led to some pentecostal groups which were non-trinitarian and other groups which became so isolated, pietistic, and fundamentalist in the anti-intellectual, a-cultural sense, that they ceased to become salt to the society.

But then it can be disputed whether the break-offs were consistent with the original movement (development) or corruptions of it. I tend to think they are corruptions where Wesley is concerned; not so much regarding Finney, from what I hear about his errors.

Edwards and Whitefield seem to have fared better, in historical retrospect, except where the extremes of some aspects of Calvinism with regard to predestination caused a backlash, whereby people overreacted and went to deism, Unitarianism, and transcendentalism in New England (Schaeffer wrote that Harvard was controlled by Unitarians as early as 1802).

There is a "Golden Mean" somewhere in all this confusion. For my money, it exists in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and classical (doctrinally-orthodox as originally determined internally) Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. Of course, as a Catholic and an apologist, I go on to critique all Protestant systems as fundamentally-flawed in principle, but in terms of secularism, the Christian traditions above do best at opposing it, with the Reformed doing the best among Protestant choices, in my opinion.

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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.

"Good Discussion": The Preferability of Socratic Back-and-Forth Dialogue Over "Mutual Monologue"

By Dave Armstrong (21 January 2001)

As a Christian apologist (first evangelical Protestant, now Catholic) and a philosophically-minded person (and, I hope, also a fair-minded and open-minded one) who has engaged in more than 20 years' worth of discussions with people of almost every conceivable point of view, I have come to some conclusions about the various types of discourse, and which are more fruitful and constructive than others. I distinguish between what I call mutual monologue and dialogue. The first is the following procedure:

Mutual Monologue I: Between Two Christians of Different Persuasions
1. X presents position A with a multitude of biblical proof texts and historical evidences.
2. Y basically ignores or quickly dismisses X's biblical proof texts and historical evidences for position A with a one-sentence "reply" and proceeds to present position B with a multitude of alternate biblical proof texts and historical evidences.
This is what I would call "a war of competing proof texts" or a "mutual monologue," and I don't find it very helpful or constructive myself, for further understanding or learning on either side.
Mutual Monologue II: Between a Christian and a Non-Christian
1. X (Christian) presents Christian position A with a multitude of rational and historical proofs.
2. Y (non-Christian) basically ignores or quickly dismisses X's proofs for Christian position A with a one-sentence "reply" and proceeds to present non-Christian position B with a multitude of alternate rational and historical proofs.

Dialogue, or a dialectical approach (in my view, anyway), would be the following:
True Dialogue I: Between Two Christians of Different Persuasions
1. X presents position A with a multitude of biblical proof texts and historical evidences.
2. Y offers alternative and (so he thinks) superior explanations of each of X's biblical proof-texts and historical evidences, and then presents his own biblical proof texts and historical evidences for position B.
3. X offers alternative and (so he thinks) superior explanations of each of Y's biblical proof-texts and historical evidences, counter-responds to the critique of his own previously-stated biblical proof texts and historical evidences, and then presents more of his own biblical and historical proofs (if he has any more on the subject).
4. Y again offers alternative explanations of X's contentions, and/or counter-responds to X's counter-response (or concedes the argument if position A is superior) . . . Etc.
5. X does the same in turn (if Y is still maintaining his position) and either proceeds or concedes the argument if position B is superior . . . Etc.
True Dialogue II: Between a Christian and a Non-Christian
1. X (Christian) presents Christian position A with a multitude of rational and historical proofs.
2. Y offers alternative and (so he thinks) superior explanations of each of X's rational and historical proofs for Christian position A, and then presents his own rational and historical proofs for non-Christian position B.
3. X offers alternative and (so he thinks) superior explanations of each of Y's rational and historical proofs for non-Christian position B, counter-responds to the critique of his own previously-stated rational and historical proofs, and then presents more of his own rational and historical proofs for Christian position A (if he has any more on the subject).
4. Y again offers alternative explanations of X's contentions, and/or counter-responds to X's counter-response (or concedes the argument if Christian position A is superior) . . . Etc.
5. X does the same in turn (if Y is still maintaining his position) and either proceeds or concedes the argument if non-Christian position B is superior . . . Etc.
This is what I have complained about Protestant (and Orthodox) apologists rarely doing. They virtually never engage in the second process; what I call "true dialogue." They often engage in the first: the war of the biblical proof texts and/or historical evidences (because they have plenty of alleged proofs for their own position). But if they don't engage our best proofs, how can they hope to fairly compare the two positions (assuming they want to do so in the first place, which is by no means certain)? I don't buy it.

When two Christians are debating, what they definitely have in common (among several other things) is a reverence for Holy Scripture, so that they can carry out their argument under that framework, and try to compare interpretation with interpretation, to determine which hermeneutical and exegetical explanation has more validity, plausibility, explanatory value, and internal consistency with other aspects of their theological position. But if there is never any true give-and-take, or interaction, or respectful and reasoned consideration of the opponent's arguments, this can't occur, and it is simply two ships passing in the night. That is the sort of discussion I have no interest in. It is no better than each person reading material from the other camp, but going no further.

Likewise, with the non-Christian critic of Christianity. Oftentimes, the non-Christian (either religious or agnostic) will engage in mutual monologue rather than true dialogue. Note that I have omitted any mention of biblical proof texts in discussions between Christians and non-Christians, because they do not hold this presupposition (or axiom or premise) in common. One must argue in favor of the validity and trustworthiness of revelation and Scripture, by means of reasoned and historical proofs, archaeology, manuscript evidences, fulfilled prophecies, miracles, experiential proofs, etc. Once it is agreed that Scripture is divinely-inspired, then the two parties can argue over its interpretation. Prior to that point, the Christian must argue on rational and historical grounds (the second actually being a subset of the first), whether presenting his own position or critiquing the non-Christian one (because that is what most thinking people of any persuasion hold in common).

In any event, both sides need to truly interact with their opponents' point of view and demonstrate both its logical / ethical / philosophical / scientific weaknesses and the superiority of their own position. Simply stating one's position and assuming it is self-evidently superior, or appealing to numbers of adherents or academics, etc. will not do. That is not rational argument; it is simply proclamation. But all good discussion presupposes a minimum of respect both for the other's position and his rational faculties and honesty. To question any of these three factors at a foundational level is to doom the discussion from the outset and virtually assure a scenario rife with ad hominem attacks and personal insults, or rudeness, condescension, and the like.

This frequent lack of true dialogue is why, e.g., anti-Catholics (whether Protestant, Orthodox, or Anglican) and Catholics can rarely engage in constructive discussion. The former refuses to grant the latter the status of Christian from the outset. This leads to an inevitable lack of respect (at least in the Catholic's eyes) and - almost always - therefore to insults and a superior-subordinate, condescending relationship, rather than a mutually-respectful side-by-side dialogue of rational and religious equals.
Likewise with discussions between the Christian and the non-Christian. Very frequently, the latter disdains the former as irrational and gullible, or in need of a psychological crutch, or intolerant or bigoted, or irredeemably hypocritical, or stuck in the distant past, etc. (i.e., all the stereotypes which get passed down about Christians and Catholic Christians in particular). If these are present, along with a certain arrogance and lack of open-mindedness to have one's misconceptions corrected, good, true discussion will be well-nigh impossible. 

If the non-Christian will neither interact with the Christian's arguments (provided they are conducted within mutually-agreeable parameters and presuppositions), nor respond to critiques of his own position, then there is no point in having a so-called "dialogue," because what will then occur is, in fact, a mutual monologue. Non-Christians hate to be "preached" to; well, by the same token, most Christians resent being lectured by non-Christians (especially if such a lecture contains some of the false caricatures mentioned above). Both sides would prefer a legitimate, mutually-respectful discussion and meeting of the minds.

But Christians, too, have their own set of flaws and shortcomings, when engaging in discourse with non-Christians. The latter are often regarded as amoral or immoral, or inherently insincere, simply due to the fact that they are not Christians, or they are viewed with suspicion as part of some nefarious conspiracy to bring down Christianity, or western civilization, or societal morality. There are all sorts of false stereotypes which Christians carry about non-Christians, particularly atheists and agnostics. In all cases, it remains true that one must engage in discussion with not only an intent to teach and correct, where necessary, but also to learn and understand the opponent, and to be corrected or to change one's opinion, wherever this is warranted. One must extend the benefit of the doubt and of charity to a dialogical opponent, and never question their honesty or basic intelligence or sincerity, failing the most compelling of repeated evidences to the contrary.

This, in my opinion (based on long personal experience), leads to good discussion and learning and friendship, and admiration, and mutual respect (and yes, conversions, too, in some instances), and is the philosophy I try to always uphold and live by in the course of my apologetic work and discussions online and "in real life."
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Catholic Apologetic Method, Epistemology, and Open-Mindedness

Compiled and re-edited by Dave Armstrong on 10 March 2003, from various papers on this general subject, written through the years.

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I've traditionally gone back and forth on apologetics. I go in cycles on that, usually in relation to the responses I am getting at any given time. C.S. Lewis wrote something to the effect that the apologist begins to doubt himself the moment his "sure" argument is given, because he is immediately confronted with the "weak pillar" who produced the argument (i.e., himself).

As a Catholic, I of course believe we have the true, apostolic Tradition in all its fullness, which ought to be a self-evident truth (that a Catholic will believe what Catholics believe!). It doesn't follow from this in the slightest that, therefore, no discussion on this subject is possible or worthwhile or fruitful. I hold all my beliefs -- however strong and epistemologically "certain" - provisionally, subject to correction by superior reasoning and additional factual data brought to bear (and for that matter, revelation newly understood) which may come around to overthrow it.

From this opinion I have never wavered since college and my first philosophy course in 1977, and it matters not a whit what one believes at any given time, since this is an attitude which applies to any belief. It changed not at all when I moved from Protestant to Catholic. My Socratic ethos is not at all in conflict with my Catholicism. I am always open to discuss anything with anyone.

Catholicism could turn out to be false by the same exact criteria by which I concluded that Protestantism as a system was found wanting. Obviously, I don't consider that likely at all; I don't expect in a million years to "re-convert" or "un-convert," but it is certainly theoretically possible. And I believe that such an outlook is indispensable for maintaining both an open mind and -- equally importantly -- in order to avoid a condescending, arrogant, "triumphalistic," prideful attitude.
Some Protestants act as if mere assent to Catholic Tradition precludes such discussion from the outset. Not at all. Because the vast "common ground" and "foundational agreement" between all Christians is:
    1) a common acknowledgment that Christianity is an historical religion,
    2) a common heritage of the Bible,
    3) a common respect for the Church Fathers (very broadly speaking),
    4) a common belief that the early Church is in some sense "normative,"
    5) a common respect for the early Councils (also very broadly speaking),
    6) a common ground of "orthodoxy," as defined by adherence to the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds,
    7) a common respect for reason (more or less, depending on denomination),
    8) a common heritage of prayer and spirituality (discounting intercession of saints),
    9) a common heritage of moral teaching.
My general apologetic outlook and method is -- as St. Paul's was (1 Cor 9:19-23) -- to be "all things to all people," another constant in my apologetic approach, whether Protestant (from 1977 to 1990) or Catholic.

I have no formal theological training, and hence am not a theologian in the professional sense. I've never claimed to be any more than just a "popular apologist," a layman writing to laymen (the same was the case for C.S. Lewis, I believe). Nor do I claim to be a scholar, which would be equally foolish and dishonest on my part. On the other hand, I try to maintain scholarly standards, tone, and objectivity, to the extent that a non-scholar is able to do so successfully.

It is altogether good to avoid "vain disputations," "contentiousness," "vain disputation," "striving," "special pleading," "quarreling," etc. Such "discussions" are neither practical, nor helpful, nor fruitful, nor profitable, nor edifying, and are conducted in the wrong spirit. I make every effort to avoid engaging in such practices. I usually use the word "argument" in the literal sense: simply a logical presentation of a position: that is, how it is used in logic.

St. Peter puts it all together in his injunction which has also been a principle I've always sought to uphold as a Christian apologist:
    ...In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. {1 Peter 3:15-16; NRSV}
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I would highlight the distinction between philosophy and theology/religion, or -- more broadly -- between reason and faith. I often adopt a philosophical standpoint for the sake of discussion; specifically an epistemological outlook (i.e., philosophical or rational reasons for believing what we do; why we believe it).

In a limited, theoretical (one might say, "human") sense, no knowledge is absolutely positively certain. But that's from the outlook of mere reason and philosophy in and of themselves, not the "eyes of faith," so to speak. Christians possess certainties by faith, which the outsider does not have, and in many cases is not even able to comprehend, let alone accept. But Paul told us to be "all things to all people." When he argued with the Greeks, he used methods and terminologies with which they were familiar. On Mars Hill (Acts 17), he even cited their own poets and philosophers, and argued from what they already believed ("the unknown god") to what they should and could believe, as historically revealed by God in Christ.

In my opinion, when we do apologetics, it is largely an effort of working within the presuppositions of the opponent, in order to convince them. I think this is both standard philosophical technique (i.e., logic and rhetoric), as well as an application of Paul's injunction to understand the seeker/opponent and argue accordingly.

So when I claim that I am "open-minded" and would consider a possibility (however remote -- and it assuredly is) that Catholicism is wrong, I am going as far as I can go in abstractly arguing philosophically, or "historically." I would contend that the very fact that Christianity is -- by nature -- unavoidably and intrinsically historical and reasonable, and that the apostles (following the lead of Jesus) sought to bring forth real reasons and evidences for faith, presupposes that it is also possible to disprove Catholicism and Christianity in general. If we can offer no proofs from reason, history, OT Scripture, etc., then we are engaging in pure fideism (faith without any reasons whatsoever), in which case, Christianity cannot be disproven, either.

I don't think that this is the case, and that if it were, Christianity would possess far less credibility than it does now, from the perspective of the unbeliever. We already get accused often enough of "pie in the sky" and escapism as it is (not without some reason, given our shoddy and often hypocritical witness as Christians). I think it is part of the glory of the Catholic Church that it is able to be established as true in itself and in its claims, by reason as well as Scripture and history and miracles, and things like spiritual experience.

* * * * *

Sometimes it is implied that anyone who takes a certain view and defends it is special pleading; therefore not seeking after truth. That would mean that the only honest intellectual stance is agnosticism or skepticism or relativism. This I vehemently reject. One mustn't be so "open-minded" that their brains fall out. It is illogical to believe that once one feels that they have discovered a certain amount of "truth," that they are no longer seeking truth per se. This may be true of certain individuals, of course, but it can't be shown to be generally true, nor does it have to necessarily be true. Others think that because many issues can't be resolved, that therefore all sides are roughly of equal validity. This I forcefully deny. Ideas must be defended on their own, and judgments must be made as to their truthfulness or falsity.

The Christian asserts that one must have faith in order to believe in all of Christianity. And that faith must be granted by God's grace. This is a far cry from mere philosophy, where reason (supposedly and allegedly, but not in actuality) rules all. The Christian also believes in revelation and the supernatural. We are not merely abstract philosophers or hard-nosed empiricists. Those outlooks, in any event, do not themselves rest on unquestionable epistemological grounds and premises. Everyone must exercise faith in some fashion -- in an axiomatic sense.

* * * * *

If I hadn't had an open mind, open to different viewpoints, I wouldn't and couldn't have moved from nominal Christian (involved in the occult) to evangelical Christian in 1980, or from that position to Catholicism in 1990. I have also -- through the years -- switched from liberal to conservative politics, so-called "pro-choice" to pro-life, and evolutionist to creationist (and possibly I may eventually move to a theistic evolutionist position): all as a result of reading both sides of each contested matter. One can be simultaneously open-minded, while retaining a firm belief in their own particular viewpoint (in other words, strong opinions and an open mind are not mutually exclusive). One must be willing in principle to overthrow one's own views if it is warranted by the evidence, even though in matters of faith it is admittedly exceedingly unlikely.

* * * * *

Much philosophy (i.e., the false sort) has caused unspeakable harm to society. I think of, e.g., Hegelian idealism / dialectical materialism which devolved into both Communism / Stalinism and Naziism. I see today's almost totally secularized Western Civilization as largely an amalgam of Rousseauian unbridled Romanticism, "Enlightenment" skepticism, and Nietzschean nihilism (with Freud, Marx, Darwin, Malthus, and Sanger thrown in): all quite destructive of public morality, order, and personal happiness and fulfillment, in my opinion.

* * * * *

Speaking strictly epistemologically, Christian faith is not that different from the "faith" of a scientist in the conclusions of his research. The materialist evolutionist firmly believes that there are hundreds, thousands of cumulative proofs for (materialistic) evolution -- all adding up to a "certainty" for all practical purposes. I would say much the same for the Christian faith and the many supporting arguments, none alone being an absolute proof. Since I think absolute proofs are available for very few things, this doesn't concern me much at all.

In the end, supernatural grace and faith is required, and that is a gift from God. Any man, however, can know that God exists, from what is made, and from their own consciences (Romans 1 and 2). Most apologists and theologians don't think that the fullness of the knowledge of God can be obtained through natural theology alone. Revelation is required. That would certainly apply to the Holy Trinity.

* * * * *

I try to stick to one major topic at a time, sometimes two. I always avoid replying to the "1001 questions for the Catholic" approach. My belief is that things are best dealt with in depth. Catholicism is a thinking man's religion, and extremely deep: spiritually and biblically. It doesn't easily translate into slogans, catch-phrases, and simple proof-texting. No, it is far more involved than that.

I am a Socratic, who engages in dialogues. I think that dialogue is a great way to find truth and to learn, and to challenge one's own premises and opinions. If someone shows me I am wrong in a dialogue, I am more than happy to admit it (thankful, even), because the goal is truth, not "victory" or "embarrassing the other guy." Truth is its own reward. I converted in 1990 precisely due to my love of discussion (in terms of the initial cause of the process beginning, and speaking on a strictly human level). I started an ecumenical discussion group, and by the end of the year, due to that and much reading, I had converted to Catholicism. I had no idea this was going to happen. It was simply another instance of me following truth wherever it led and changing my mind on something (which I have done many times in my life). It was an extraordinarily exciting process to go through.

I like to put my lengthy dialogues on my website, too, so that others can develop critical thinking, see both sides of an issue fairly (without one side distorting the other -- not necessarily deliberately, but due to the natural biases that we all have -- and creating straw men), and make up their own minds. This is my favorite apologetic methodology, and it also has pedagogical value, too, I think.
I try to see the person underneath: their heart and soul. I couldn't care less how much or little "book knowledge" someone has, if they are a seeker of truth. I've debated many people with doctorates, but when they are off their subject of expertise, they are just like anyone else. 

As Socrates said, the person who admits that they know little can learn a great deal, because they know that they don't know. The person who thinks they know everything (and many Protestants seem to think they know more about Catholicism than most Catholics do) can learn nothing, of course (as Jesus said, "Because you say, 'we see,' your blindness remains"). I also agree with Socrates' opinion that good discussion can only occur when people are open-minded, willing to follow truth wherever it leads and to grant the good faith and sincerity of their opponent, and when they have some base of friendship within which the discussion can take place.

As an apologist, my job is to try to explain and defend Catholic doctrine to the best of my ability. I always seek to do that on a "popular" level, as opposed to Ivory Tower, academic-type stuff -- though some people tell me that my writing strikes them as somewhat on an advanced theological level. I just write (in dialogue) what comes into my head. It flows very naturally for me (I often think that writing has many parallels to the composing of music, and I speak of following my "muse"). Some people may benefit from it; others will not, or they won't like my style. 

That's true of any writer and any writing, of course. I don't do what I do to become popular, but to follow my calling from God.

Like Bishop Butler (Analogy of Religion) and Cardinal Newman, my epistemology and religious faith (insofar as it is connected with reason) is based on (in Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm's words) "brute fact . . .The ultimate data of religion must be of the same stuff as the ultimate data of science." This has always been my view, for 21 years now, and it didn't change when I became a Catholic. It didn't have to. I have developed it through the years, of course, but it hasn't fundamentally changed.
My own view on philosophy is essentially syncretistic. I am not a Thomist; I never have been, anymore than Newman was. I love St. Thomas, and especially the cosmological argument, which he essentially began, but I'm not a Thomist. And if a choice must be made, I lean more towards nominalist assumptions than realist (more so after my recent research), particularly in my Alvin Plantinga-like views (he is a well-known and important Reformed philosopher) that there are no absolute proofs of God or, indeed, of anything, in a certain sense.

My apologetics are based in the notion of accumulated evidences adding up to a great deal of overall plausibility, which is, in turn incorporated into the faith which goes beyond reason. My view is much like that of the pope's. Catholics don't think that one has to adopt some philosophy to do theology. Pope John Paul II is a phenomenologist. Augustine was a Platonist; Aquinas an Aristotelian. Pascal was a fideist to some extent; Kierkegaard maybe the first existentialist. Newman was in the Butlerian-Lockean stream, I suppose. We can have different philosophies, but philosophy isn't theology. That is my main answer to this thought and way of thinking. Thomism or Scholasticism is not the official philosophy of the Church. We have no official philosophy, and never have. Philosophy is the handmaiden of the faith, not a sort of necessary "handbasket" that faith must reside in.

Vatican II illustrates this very well. Its documents do not read like Thomist treatises at all. Rather, the prevailing influence was a movement which was quite distinct from Thomism, called Ressourcement, which drew from older thinkers like Newman and Mohler, and included Catholic intellectuals such as Peguy, Claudel, Romano Guardini, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, Jean Danielou, Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II himself. This is the general school of thought into which I place myself. I'm not particularly Thomist except for my love of the cosmological argument. My mentor initially was Fr. Hardon, a Jesuit. I learned about Catholicism by reading several of the above writers and people like Thomas Merton, who is the furthest thing from a Thomist (he was a Trappist mystic), and G.K. Chesterton (much more like Dickens than Aquinas).
Speaking of the pope, if he is tied to any philosophical school, it is certainly the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. According to his biographer George Weigel (Witness to Hope, New York: Harper Collins, 1999, 127-129):
'The phenomenologist . . . [is] interested in the experience as a whole, the psychological, physical, moral, and conceptual elements . . . It was phenomenology's determination to see things whole and get to the reality of things-as-they-are that attracted Karol Wojtyla . . . [he] had become convinced that the answers were not found in the neo-scholasticism of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange . . . The net result would be what Wojtyla would call, years later, a way of doing philosophy that 'synthesized both approaches': the metaphysical realism of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and the sensitivity to human experience of Max Scheler's phenomenology . . . Wojtyla also agreed with Scheler's claim that human intuitions into the truth of things included moral intuitions, a certain 'knowledge of the heart' that was, nonetheless, real knowledge . . . [this reminds one of Augustine and Pascal, as well as Newman] The question Wojtyla posed in his habilitation thesis was whether Scheler (and, by extension, the phenomenological method) could do for contemporary Christian philosophy and theology what Aristotle had done for Thomas Aquinas.'
* * * * *

Epistemology has always been a fascinating subject of inquiry for me (particularly the process by which one arrives at axioms or premises). I am very fond of Alvin Plantinga. I particularly like Peter Kreeft among living Catholic apologists. I am a great admirer of Cardinal Newman and Bishop Butler (a huge influence on Newman), Aquinas, Pascal, Augustine, and (lately) Anselm. C.S. Lewis has been my favorite writer for many years.

I love learning new things and exploring new ideas (and especially history of ideas). My broad "category" is evidentialist, yet with many elements in my thinking that don't strictly fall into that category. Oftentimes, my positions on things of this nature cannot be put in one box, and incorporate elements of different schools of thought. I regard Christian faith as an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, arrived at (apart from the absolutely necessary and definitive grace of God, of course; speaking strictly of the human, intellectual reasons one would give for having adopted Christianity) by many, many factors, some of which are rational in nature, some not; some intellectual, and others "psychological" or "environmental."

I believe faith and Christianity are reasonable and credible due to a great many factors and "cumulative evidences," which -- taken together, like strands of a very strong rope -- are conclusive and give warrant to faith and certainty. I don't think Christianity (or the reasons for being a Christian) can be reduced to philosophy (philosophy is the "handmaiden of faith") and I think that believers have inherent, definite knowledge within them, put there by God (and only God). There is no tabula rasa. In that sense I am more "Platonic" or "presuppositionalist" than "Aristotelian" or "Thomist."
I also think the unbeliever possesses the knowledge of God, and all that it means to be made in His image, whether he acknowledges it or not. But unbelievers lack supernatural faith, and this colors their outlook severely, giving them ultimately a fundamentally different epistemology from a Christian in many ways. Despite that, I do think there is indeed some common intellectual ground with unbelievers, which is fertile for what Francis Schaeffer called "pre-evangelism."

I am partial to the cosmological argument (tied in with Big Bang cosmology) and the teleological argument (tied into Intelligent Design), though lately I have become fascinated with the ontological argument, and have learned quite a bit about it. My position is that no theistic proof succeeds in "proving" God's existence, but that all taken together form a very strong plausibility for faith, and establish it as far more reasonable than any alternative viewpoint (and, of course, not self-contradictory, as all other positions ultimately are). Faith is ultimately God's gift. But the apologist seeks to remove roadblocks to faith and show that faith is reasonable and not at all contrary to reason (though it obviously transcends mere reason).

My goal as an apologist (both Catholic and "generic Christian" -- depending on the audience I am writing to or interacting with) is to bring the ideas of apologetics and philosophy of religion and theology down to a popular level, yet without sacrificing content or intellectual vigor, and with the desire to stimulate the critical faculties of readers. The great apologists all do this (Lewis, Chesterton, Schaeffer, Plantinga, Kreeft).

I am not an academic myself, but I have often been accused of being one, because I've been doing this so long, and have many writings circulating around. In any event, I attempt to do popular apologetics as opposed to writing primarily to intellectuals. I'm sort of in-between the two worlds, I guess, but my target audience is always the popular one: the average Christian in the pews (who needs to have their faith bolstered and honest questions and difficulties answered), or the person who wants to look into Christianity and find a basis in reason for it. For myself, when I am exploring ideas and the history of ideas (which I love to do, with a passion), I like to hang around places where I can be challenged and stimulated (and perhaps issue a few challenges myself now and then).

* * * * *

What sense does it make to defend something (which is what "apologist" means) if we are out trying to be persuaded all the time, and never persuading? This is theologically-liberal gobbledygook; it is certainly not biblical or apostolic Christianity. Paul wasn't out to be persuaded; he was out to proclaim the Good News and apostolic Tradition of which he was absolutely certain. We are to imitate him. We, too, have a message to proclaim, and we contend that it is the same message of Paul, passed-down faithfully and preserved most completely (in more developed form) by the Catholic Church, and in large part to more or less degrees by other Christian communions as well.

* * * * *

Christianity, Humor, and Satire

By Dave Armstrong (1999)

Malcolm Muggeridge observed that Christians in particular most appreciate humor, because the great majority of humor is based on human fallibility and foibles, and the Christian notion of original sin and universal human sinfulness and pride ties into that nicely. In the Christian worldview, it is second nature to laugh at oneself and mankind in general, for this reason. Satire in particular is thoroughly Christian, and many of the great and greatest satirists have been Christians (More, Swift, Erasmus, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Muggeridge himself, Garrison Keillor, etc.). Jesus Himself utilized mild sarcasm on many occasions (e.g., "take the log out of your own eye"). I love satire myself, and utilize it in some of my writing.

I find that people without particularly strong faith, to the contrary, oftentimes take both themselves and human beings in general far too seriously, and hence are too often dour and humorless and too self-important and pompous to really have a humorous outlook. I know this is a very broad observation, but I have found it to be true in my own experience.

After I wittily responded on a (Protestant) list to a humorous piece about "666" and names (such as Barney the Dinosaur LOL) supposedly adding up to 666 in their Greek or Hebrew numeric values, I received a scolding from a Christian whom I would consider (after several lengthy interactions) overly dour and humorless (his words and those of another participant are in blue). Here is how I replied:
This is NOT a laughing matter!!!

Is there anything you laugh about? No Christmas [he considers Christmas a pagan celebration] (like the Jehovah's Witnesses - do you hold that birthdays are idolatrous, as they do?), no poking fun at Christians' excess and folly . . . what a dreary life . . . . I suppose you would rebuke Elijah when he mocked the false prophets on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:25-29 is one of the funniest passages in all of Scripture - especially v. 27 in the TEV), or Jesus when He sarcastically rebuked hypocrites by referring to a "log" in their eye . . . or how about Paul wishing that false teachers would "mutilate" (castrate) themselves (Gal 5:12 - a pun upon circumcision)? All of these were very serious matters, too, but the human folly is what was ironically humorous. Lighten up a bit . . . life is too short . . .

Besides, I think it is altogether proper and spiritually healthy to mock and make fun of the devil and his demons. They can't stand that, anymore than the Pharisees could. Proud creatures can't stand not being regarded with abject fear and respect. So we laugh at them; they have no power over us, as long as we are in Christ and faithful to our calling.
    . . . The LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming. (Ps 37:13)
Such a post is not worthy of this list.

Well, since the moderator [a Baptist] started this hilarious thread, I felt safe that it was permissible. I'm very glad that he has a sense of humor. Hell is the place where humor and laughter will die, not heaven, my Puritan friend.

For as the cackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool. This also is vanity. Eccl 7:6.

So I am a fool. Am I a fool because I laugh, or do I laugh because I am a fool? But wait! What did Jesus say?:
    . . . if you say 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.' (Mt 5:22)
If Paul and Jesus and Elijah could make fun of false teachers (and God the Father often mocks silly and disobedient men, too), certainly I can laugh about eschatological folly (which is legion, and now we have Y2K to add to it). As usual, I would rather follow my Lord than men's self-generated opinions. There are few things more ridiculous than "biblical numerology," which inspired [the moderator] to post his hilarious bit about Barney and 666 in the first place. :-))))))

Another Protestant Christian observed:

I also agree, and thought the joke was funny. But (and isn't there always a but LOL) I think we can go to far into making things funny, too. I'm not saying that is happening here, just an observation of other things.

Yes, I agree.

Some of the things we speak openly about now, joke about, and don't take seriously are the things not too many years ago, we would never speak of around children or in mixed company. I remember when divorce, adultery, etc, wasn't spoken of or discussed, and was seen as a terrible thing to have happen. How did these couple of examples become no-big-deal now? In my humble opinion, thru the stigma being removed thru humor, media brainwashing, etc.

I agree completely; this is a very good and insightful point. In fact, this is why I watch virtually no network TV - because sitcoms do (to sin) precisely what you observe, and I think it is an insidious, wicked thing. I have observed this very process through the years in many Christians. I can't believe what they sit and watch on TV. There are plenty of committed, "on-fire" Christians who show precious little perceptiveness about thoughtful and selective TV- or movie-watching, in my opinion. I also wrote two reviews on my website: on Ivanhoe and Titanic - emphasizing in both the anti-Christian propaganda and underlying themes in both. I was incensed by that because it unnecessarily marred otherwise great movies, and because I knew that added to the brainwashing of the American public.

So with something as serious as anti-Christ, etc, where we are the lights in the darkness to warn people, to be the watchmen so to speak for a nonbelieving world, maybe we need to be a bit careful that we don't desensitize (sp?) ourselves to the very things we should hold ourselves sensitive to......What do you all think? I very well could be totally wrong, I have been before ;))

I appreciate your thoughts. I would disagree (mildly) on a few points:

1) I would make a distinction between humor amongst Christians, and that in "mixed" company. I can't see myself making "666" jokes to a non-Christian, for the reasons you cite;

2) I also make a distinction between laughing about things which are sin, as if they are unimportant, and non-sinful (which I agree is wrong), and mocking the devil and his demons, which I think is spiritually healthy (because they long so much for us to respect them - just as prideful people do). Luther often mocked the devil when he came to tempt him - as you may be aware. The devil deserves no respect, so we need not (and should not) give him any;

3) One still has to account for the biblical "humorous" behavior I cited: Elijah taunting the prophets of Baal (who were soon to be executed); Jesus using the sarcastic "log in the eye" word-picture; and Paul saying he wished false teachers would "castrate" themselves.

It is indeed often a fine line where humor is concerned (and timing, too, is of the utmost importance). I think it is good for us to examine our use of it periodically. What we can never do, I think, is to frown upon humor altogether (pun half-intended). I think the so-called "Puritan" notion is at least equally as wrong and unbalanced as inappropriate use of humor. A life of Christian joy and peace simply won't permit that. Humor and laughter is too embedded in the human spirit - itself derived from the image of God. I can't believe that the saints in heaven will be walking around with long faces. I would consider that scenario completely absurd from a Christian viewpoint.

It looks like you and I would largely agree. I'm not so much disagreeing, as expanding a bit upon your comments, which I thought were excellent.

* * * * *

Apologia for Apologists and Apologetics

By Dave Armstrong (29 January 2004)

An apologia is a "defense" or elaborate explanation of something. An apologist is "one who defends" (in this case, Christianity or Christian doctrine). Apologetics is the field which involves the "rational defense of Christianity" (in my case, often Catholic Christianity in particular). A Catholic friend (words in blue) made some negative comments about apologists that I disagreed with. The following are my spontaneous observations about the community I am involved in and the field I have devoted my life to.

* * * * *

Too many apologists (Catholic or Protestant) have completely lost site of the goal (which is Christ) and have replaced it with "I win, you lose" -- victory at all costs. Apologists are often making this bed they sleep in.

Now you got me onto one of my pet peeves (being an apologist myself). I have several thoughts about this. First of all, I don't see the point in sweeping judgments upon a whole class of people, such as the following:
1. Apologists are arrogant folks who condemn others who disagree.
2. Apologists are objectionable because they defend one view over another and thus insult people and make them feel uncomfortable. This is uncharitable.
3. Apologists lack love and just want to win the argument.
4. Apologists are know-it-alls.
I don't see that this accomplishes anything. It is prejudicial language, to start with, because it is too sweeping. And this is what so often takes place on that one particular discussion board where apologists are constantly bashed. It got so bad that it actually made me give up discussion boards altogether, because one Orthodox fellow started insulting me to such an extent that he made out that my very vocation as a full-time apologist was "nothing to be proud of" and that I was by nature some sort of "academic pretender" and charlatan, who should get a "real job." This actually happened.

My response was to point out that 1) I have never claimed to be a scholar in the first place (quite the contrary: I take great pains to reiterate that I am NOT, in places like introductions to my books), and 2) the greatest, most well-known apologists were not theologically-trained; they were "amateurs" (Lewis, Chesterton, Muggeridge, Howard, Kreeft). Chesterton did not even have a college degree of any kind.

This sort of tripe is pure prejudice. Any charge that can be made about apologists can be made of any class of people or of people in general. And so it becomes a meaningless discussion, as it is about human nature, not one group of people. Are apologists prideful? Certainly, but I don't think any more so (or at least not greatly more so) than anyone else, since we all have to struggle with pride. Can we be more charitable? Certainly, as can every human being on the face of the earth. Do we like to "win arguments"? I should hope so, as argument is necessarily entailed in defending one position over against another (and that usually involves a in human beings certain energetic "fighting" or "competitive" spirit, as in any contest), and this is entirely biblical (Paul arguing and disputing in the temples and academies alike; Jesus' many disputatious conversations, especially with the Pharisees, etc.).

Of course, I agree that the goal is not to "win" as an end in itself. Any apologist who does not know this is not worthy of the name, and not worth his salt. The goal is truth and persuasion, and conversion and an advance in knowledge and the spiritual life, and "Christ", as you say. This is what the Apostle Paul tried to do. And we ought to be learners as well as teachers. That's why I am so big on dialogue (which you seem to not like much, for some reason unknown to me). I don't see myself as the "superior" lecturing "subordinates." I see myself as an equal alongside the person I dialogue with. This is precisely why I don't like to lecture and why I rarely give public talks. I like to have conversations with people, not lecture them. I can learn from my discussion partner, and he can learn from me. We can both arrive at a fuller awareness of truth by throwing ideas back and forth and testing them. This is classic Socratic dialogue, and I am an enthusiastic advocate of it.

But I find that a lot of the animus against apologists comes from almost universal human insecurity and the rampant relativism of our culture. People aren't supposed to be "confident" in a viewpoint (particularly religious ones) because 1) that goes against relativism and so-called "confidence", and 2) it supposedly makes the person who possesses such confidence arrogant by the very possession of it (because so many people are insecure emotionally and intellectually, and "unsure" of things). This doesn't follow. If you believe something is true, and believe it in faith, then you will defend it until shown a better way. That is not arrogance; it is simply common sense and the only way things can be, short of adopting a wholesale relativism or cynical "who cares about anything?" attitude.

So we apologists often get a bum rap. There are a lot of rookie or amateur apologist who conduct themselves in less-than-desirable ways, of course. I'm not denying that, and one would expect it. But I have not see nearly the amount of arrogance and hubris that we are so often accused of. The well-known Catholic apologists I have met (and I have met virtually all of them by now) are almost without exception very nice people. Yes, I do see some arrogance at times (in myself as well, and I will correct things and retract statements and have removed many entire papers), but I don't see that it is a leading characteristic, to such an extent that apologists must be pilloried and mocked and the very endeavor frowned upon as some unsavory thing (as it is, so often).

I think the reasonable thing here is to cease the prejudicial, sweeping-type language and get very specific. If I get a letter (as I do once in a while, but not all that often), stating that I am too uncharitable and.or too sarcastic, it rarely gives specific examples. But how can I change if I don't have those? Of what use is such a letter? So someone says, "you are too sarcastic." But I have written hundreds of thousands of words. Surely, not all of that reeks of this shortcoming. If that were true, I wouldn't receive the dozens of letters commending me for my charitableness (even from a great many Protestants). At some point, it is a subjective judgment. And it may be an untrue opinion. It is not self-evidently true simply because someone gives their opinion that they find someone else uncharitable.

So I always ask for specific examples, with some sort of rational argument as to why the person thinks I went too far. In many instances, I will be happy to change or remove something because it lacks charity (upon reflection). But how can I possibly do that if I get a general remark like "your writing is too sarcastic [or harsh, or whatever the charge may be]"? People often do not even understand what sarcasm is, let alone what the proper use of it might be (and I argue that Jesus and Paul used it and commanded us to imitate them, so I use it, too, where it is warranted). See my paper: Christianity, Humor, and Satire.

It's like "arguing" that "lawyers [i.e., as a class, or characteristically] are unconcerned with truth and only with victory" or "used car salesman are liars" or any number of racial or ethnic stereotypes. What good does that do? So I challenge you as well to produce some examples of apologists who want to "win at all costs." Name names and give examples. And if you can do that, you ought to use that energy to write to those people themselves and correct them in brotherly love, rather than make sweeping statements which don't accomplish much except to perpetuate hostility (I think, most unfairly).

Beyond all that (which are my own observations, from now 23 years of doing both Protestant and Catholic apologetics), the fact remains that all "apologist"means is "one who defends the faith." This is a biblical command, and all must do it (1 Peter 3:15-15, Jude 3). There are degrees of course. I am now a professional, and get extremely in-depth. Others may describe their faith in a childlike way that is equally valid in its time and place.

But it is foolish to run down something that all Christians are duty-bound to do, to the extent that their abilities and knowledge allow. I have a chapter in one of my books on "the biblical basis of apologetics." So I say that if people want to run it down and judge entire classes of people, they ought to also examine what the Bible teaches about it (or, for that matter, Vatican II and the Catechism). That is where the discussion should take place (but rarely does).

Some people find apologetics inherently divisive and arrogant or something, because it involves (as a defense of truth against error) pitting one set of beliefs against another.

It once drove me bonkers when I found religious (priests, bishops) that would not tolerate apologists. Now I rather understand. Apologetics is not inherently divisive, just as money isn't inherently evil. But as soon as you lose perspective and propriety -- both often become tools of the devil (like so many other abused gifts).

Unless I see examples, how can I respond to such a charge? As a truism or proverb, of course I agree:
1) "Apologetics can be abused."
2) "Apologists can become arrogant if they 'win too many arguments.' "
3) "Apologists might start to absurdly think that conversions come from their brilliance as opposed to the Spirit of God."
But these are all self-evident truths. The criticisms can also become just as arrogant (as I experienced myself). When critics refuse to give examples or to correct individual persons when they really need correction, and instead just talk about them in gossipy fashion, and distort what they are arguing, I find that far more offensive and arrogant and uncharitable than the great bulk of apologetics I observe.

So who are these people you are talking about, if they are legion? I can see how it readily applies to anti-Catholic Protestant apologists, but not to ecumenical Protestant apologists or Catholic apologists en masse. There are a few Catholic apologists I observe who I personally think have a bit of a pride problem or arogant streak, but again, how is that different from any class of people? I think that academics, for example, are far more prone to arrogance and snobbery than apologists are (if we must speak in such terms at all). I've heard many many nurses complain of the arrogance and snobbishness of the doctors they work for. In the end, one must analyze individual cases.

Indeed, Jesus and Paul may have been controversial but (a) by the standard of my own authority paper, it is "men of God" such as these that are the ones who truly "make waves" and (b) both Jesus and Paul stressed "not giving offense" (Matthew 17:24) and "being all things to all people" (1Cor 9:20-22).

But Jesus also said "you will be hated by all for my name's sake," and "a son will be set against his mother," etc. We can proof-text all day long. I have lived by the maxim "be all things to all people" throughout my entire career as an amateur and professional apologist. I believe that very strongly. But that doesn't mean at all that, therefore, I will not become involved in controversy or become unpopular in some circles. Anyone who proclaims unpopular truths becomes unpopular with some folks! It's inevitable. It goes with the territory. We should fully expect it and even welcome it as a good sign -- provided it is the message which offends, and not our lousy presentation of it, or (heaven forbid) obnoxious or offensive, overbearing aspects of our personality.

When you argue that one view is right and another wrong, people will be offended. It's as simple as that. If I were popular and loved by every Protestant on the face of the earth, I would suspect I am terribly failing at communicating my message. As it is, we find precisely what I would expect to find: anti-Catholics (I am thinking particularly of some of their major apologists) despise me; loathe me, because what I defend is what they detest, and because I shoot down their arguments. So they despise me.

Ecumenical Protestants, on the other hand (judging from my correspondence), react in an entirely different manner. They seem to respect what I am doing, benefit from it, recognize my work as charitable for the most part and not "anti-Protestant." I'm the same old person, but I receive these wildly different reactions. It's not that difficult to figure out why that is.

Anti-Catholics love "dumb" Catholics, because they make their argument for them and can be used as stooges and clowns, as examples of what Catholics as a group supposedly are, or what the system produces. But cross them and show their arguments to be fallacious and false, and it is quite a different story. So I am willing to be unpopular with those folks, and if I wasn't, I would be suspicious.

I think there is a middle road: one taken by Vatican II: we can be both apologetic and ecumenical without compromise, but present our beliefs in a charitable way that Protestants can better understand. 1 Peter 3:15-16 and Paul's "be all things to all people so that by all means you may win some."


Some Catholics will publicly doubt (or seem to doubt, or publicly wax inconclusively, or question too much) dogmas or boinding moral teachings of the Catholic Church, such as papal infallibility or the ban on contraception. That makes them quite popular with Protestants (and sometimes Orthodox, too), who respect such a person as a sterling example of honesty and open-mindedness and intellectual guts because he rejects one of the "absurdities" that they see in Catholic orthodoxy. Such a person is being an inconsistent Catholic and in so doing will win the accolades and rapt admiration of the non-Catholic folks. Catholics like this are very well-liked and popular among non-Catholics!

And if we want to talk about pride, I think someone could easily fall into priding himself on being so well-liked, and that they might have some arrogance in discussing more "controversial" folks like myself, implying that their unpopularity might be due to them personally rather than their ideas which offend? And that such people would be reluctant to defend people like me publicly for fear of offending the Protestants and jeopardizing their position as the "nice and respectable guy"? This is human nature. I majored in sociology and minored in psychology. I learned a little in those classes (not much, but some things about people).

One might also argue that it helps humility and prevents pride to be constantly subjected to a stream of invective, insults, and epithets, as I and many Catholic apologists are, from the anti-Catholics. Protestant and Catholic apologists alike get this abuse from liberals in their own ranks (or fideists who frown upon applying reason to faith) and from agnostics and atheists. It takes some humility to just sit there and take that sort of thing.

Pride is a very tricky thing, perfected by the devil over many centuries, and not easily summarized. So I think that an excessively "conciliatory" approach can be exploited by the devil just as easily and as quickly as he could exploit a "triumphalistic / arrogant / win at all costs" apologist-type (i.e., the stereotype or caricature of the apologist, or a truly lousy example of one).

I responded on Pat Madrid's blog to comments about apologists and apologetics, on 29 January 2004:
Having been the recipient of a barrage of "anti-apologetic" sentiment lately, I rather appreciate Patty's comments [see below] and others of similar nature, such as by my good friend Pat Madrid.

I (hanging my head in shame as I admit this)am one of those weird, odd, "triumphalist", supposedly anti-ecumenical "apologists" myself (even -- GASP! --full-time these days, by the grace of God).
I've had two people in the last month (an Orthodox and a Reformed pastor) tell me that this is "nothing to be proud of" and that I should "get a real job." The insulting nature of such rhetoric is its own refutation.

I do what I do because of the following reasons:

1. I was called to it as a matter of vocation. I knew this as far back as 1981, as an evangelical Protestant. When I converted in 1990 it was clear that I should keep writing and doing apologetics as a Catholic, just as I had been doing for nine years.

2. The Bible commands all believers to defend their beliefs and share them intelligently and charitably with others (e.g., 1 Peter 3:15-16, Jude 3). It stands to reason that some few would do this full-time and "professionally." We are merely specializing in what all Christians should do to some degree.

3. I happen to believe that a faith backed up by reason and knowledge of the usual and traditional attacks upon it is a stronger, and more biblical and Catholic faith. Jesus commanded us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and MIND. I do apologetics because it strengthens people's faith (as well as my own, very much so) and removes obstructions and roadblocks to faith. I fail to see what is bad about that. There is nothing like receiving a letter from someone who says that they have returned to the Church or converted to it or were otherwise spiritually strengthened or educated by something you wrote. To God be all the glory for that! But I refuse to sit here and have to apologize (no pun intended!) for what I do when it is being used by God in some small way for His purposes (as evidenced by the letters I receive, success of books, etc.).

4. I do NOT do what I do for fame, glory, money () or the accolades of men (a steady stream of insults from the anti-Catholics -- and even from some fellow Catholics -- keep me humble enough). I don't do it because I think I am better or smarter than anyone else, or because all other views are worthless, or because I think that the intellectual aspect of faith is more important than any other aspect.

5. I am just as committed to warm relationships with non-Catholics as I am to defending Catholic distinctives. I don't see how the two are mutually-exclusive at all (though they are often made out to be).

6. Lastly, there seems to be this motif or strain of thought lately, to the effect that apologists are somehow "academic pretenders" and acting as if they have all the answers and demanding of the respect that a scholar should receive (on the grounds that he ought to receive it). I don't know where this comes from. It is certainly not true in my case (and I have not seen it in any other apologist that I know of). I have taken the greatest pains to emphasize that I am NOT a scholar, but just a lay apologist without formal theological education. My opinions are to be accepted insofar as they are deemed to be TRUE, biblically-supported, successfully explicated through reason, historically- and magisterially-backed up and helpful; no more, no less.

I have also pointed out that the greatest and most influential apologists of recent times were also mere amateurs in their field. C.S. Lewis had no formal theological training. G.K. Chesterton did not, either. He was a journalist, without any college degree. Malcolm Muggeridge was a journalist. Peter Kreeft is a philosophy professor; Thomas Howard an English Professor, etc. Scholars write largely to other scholars. Apologists write to the masses and the common man. Both are valid endeavors (I love scholars and scholarship and utilize this as much as I can, in my work); they are simply different; they have differing natures and purpose.

I would much rather fight the errors of our time than have to state things like this in defense of my own vocation. But I thank everyone for letting me spout and vent a bit.

Believe it or not, apologists have feelings too! And I suspect that we like to be appreciated for what hard work we do (usually for relatively little financial reward, or none, in the case of the many who do apologetics besides their regular jobs, as I did for about 17 years) just as much as the next man. 

That's not WHY we do our work, hopefully, but we are human beings, and get tired of the false, wrongheaded criticisms every once in a while. Good criticism on particulars is fine, of course, but this generalizing, condescending nonsense about "triumphalism" and so forth is worthless, both in and of itself, and in terms of achieving any positive, constructive purpose.

Catholic writer Amy Welborn expressed similar sentiments on her blog, on 1-27-04:
[O]ne of the great mysteries of church life to me is how some folks can't quite grasp the lesson of this past Sunday's second reading: you know, many parts, one body.
"Apologetics" is...apologetics. It's not theology. It's not spirituality. It's apologetics, which means it serves a certain purpose not served by other styles of religious discourse.
Very briefly, apologetics exists to answer questions and to address challenges, not to unpack the depths of theological resonance in various penumbras of doctrinal formulations.
Apologetics does not exist to replace theological thinking or spiritual reflection, although I do get concerned sometimes that with the current popularity of apologetics, we are sometimes tempted to forget that.
But the point is simply this: apologetics exists because people ask questions. They want to know how you, a reasonable person could actually hold belief in God to be reasonable. They want to know how you seriously could consider yourself a Christian, although you admit to being a Catholic. Apologetics answers those questions in the context in which they are asked. What is the alternative? Change the subject?
. . . [I]t seems fairly clear to me that in a culture in which basic Christian faith is widely derided as unreasonable and Catholicism in particular is regarded as false, there is a tremendous need to answer those questions. The answering is like any step the intellect takes towards belief. It is not the belief itself. It opens the door to belief. And why is that a problem?
Catholic writer and apologist Carl Olson also offered some helpful insights on the same blog and same date:
Last year I was invited to speak at a Catholic liberal arts college back East. The priest who invited me is not, I think I can fairly say, a so-called "conservative." He is the head of the religious studies department and is probably theologically moderate . . . But he truly enjoys the "new apologetics," he told me, because it is real and it meets the needs of people, including his students, in the real world. He was very frank about his frustrations with the academic disdain of the new apologetics, and told me that he thinks it's little more than sheltered arrogance and a fair amount of jealousy. He has been trying for five years to get the college to allow him to teach an apologetics course, but with no luck. So he simply brings in apologists to give regular talks.
Finally, all of the new apologists who I am acquainted with are very open about the dangers of apologetics, especially of trying to do too much, or do things that apologetics is not meant to accomplish.
Two Catholics gave testimony as to the positive effect apologetics had on their spiritual life:
In an attempt to snap out of this malaise [the negativism and despair resulting from the sexual scandals] I picked my old copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism off of my bookshelf. During the 1980’s there was a wave of Fundamentalist activity in the area, and many of us who were serious about the Faith wanted to know how to defend it. Curious about what he was up to these days, and looking him up on the web and discovering Catholic Answers, I was introduced into the wider world of Catholic apologists. Thanks be to God. What a joy to be exposed to men and women who felt no shame in being Catholic, who fully embraced Vatican II without mumbling about how “embarrassing” the pre-Vatican II Church was. Imagine how my exposure to the new apologists both shamed me and delighted me when I realized, after 40 years of being a Catholic, that my views on Catholic soteriology were flawed. Books that had gone dusty on my shelf by Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Fulton Sheen and Ignatius Loyola, I re-opened with new vigor. I’ll state here that Thomas Rausch and Michael Himes never would have motivated me to and explore the rich tradition of the early Church fathers such as St. Irenaeus, Clement, Polycarp, and Jerome. Would Richard McBrien or Charles Curran motivate any one us to mine the treasures to be found in reading Chesterton, Newman, Francis De Sales, Catherine of Siena, Peter Canisius, and Robert Bellarmine? The new apologists have helped bring me full-circle, but with new conviction and devotion.
In addition to providing this profoundly important defense of the Church, the best of the apologists remind us that argumentation and intellectual assent are not a substitute for real faith. As Pat Madrid has pointed out, as well as the converts that have come to us from the Reformed tradition, a deep and personal acceptance of and surrender to Jesus Christ is of absolute necessity. I’ve rediscovered the importance of regular prayer in my life. I’ve rediscovered Eucharistic adoration. My wife and I have redoubled our efforts to pass this on to our children.
When I played sports as a youth, I learned that you never sit on the bench and hang your head when your team is in trouble. You “put on your game face” and rally. That is what the new apologists have done, and God bless them for it.
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I can tell you from my experience that I believe God is working wonders through the new apologists . . . I had gone through 12 years of Catholic school [that] had left me totally unprepared for defending my faith. Yet, I knew the Church was right but I didn't know why. I started wondering if there was someone who could provide Catholic answers to challengers. Almost instantly, Catholic Family Radio appeared in Chicago and I discovered Catholic Answers, go figure. Instantly, I was amazed and hooked. I devoured a stack of apologetics books as high as my knee. At the same time, for the first time in my life, Protestants started challenging me on faith issues. It was almost always the case that when a question arose, I had just learned the issue the week or past few days before. Later, I would be challenged by the questioning, skeptics, atheists. Again, I always seemed to be more prepared than I thought I was, thanks to God's grace.
I had a renewed desire to read my Bible cover to cover. I started reading my Catechism. I moved into other areas: St. Augustine's Confessions, Dark Night of the Soul, Papal encyclicals, pro-life material. I'm currently reading The Divine Comedy.
Liberal Catholics don't seem to like to talk about apologetics and dogma, preferring to cling to the teaching that we should just love one another. Let me tell you, having embraced Catholic dogma and doctrine wholeheartedly, I live to do Christ's work more than any guitar playing hippie could have gotten me to. I don't keep numbers on this but I give probably 10 times as much to charity as I used to. I pray outside an abortion clinic once a week, my wife and I teach Confirmation students, I pray much more than I used to, I go to Eucharistic adoration at two different parishes. We sponsor a poor elderly woman in Guatamala. I'm ecumenical (I try to help liberal Catholics and rad-trads see the light ;-)).
So, I love the whole movement. When I was clueless about the reasons for our faith, nobody challenged me. When all I could handle was defending myself by verse slinging, Fundamentalists would challenge me. Now, I share my faith with others actively. My style has changed too. I often explain Catholic teaching by using analogies so someone can see not only the teaching, but the wisdom behind it. When asked if this is God's rules or the Church's rules, I can back up the Church's claims with Scripture, explaining the context as I go along.
I no longer fear a challenge; now I ask the Holy Spirit what I should do in each situation. Should I mostly listen? Is there a specific issue the person need clarification on? Does someone need a good (figurative) shove in the right direction?
I guess what I'm trying to say is that God provides what we need. We came out of an era of weak teaching and He has raised up strong teachers in their place. And I'm a much better Christian for it. So thank you for all your hard work, your labor is not in vain.

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