A New Apologetics
Apologetics, or the defense of the Faith, generally takes one of two forms. Either it offers convincing arguments which show the truth of various doctrinal propositions, or it offers persuasive demonstrations that the Christian faith is the best way to fulfill legitimate human aspirations. Both approaches have their place, but I believe a third approach is also needed.
Can You Hear Me?
I don’t mean to offer something totally new, but I think it is time to bring to the fore what classical apologists have generally regarded as merely a preparation for apologetics: a consideration of the impediments to faith. Such impediments are all the intellectual, emotional, cultural and psychological factors, both conscious and subconscious, which make it impossible for a given person to genuinely consider the Christian message. It seems to me that the modern world is so tilted against faith, and in so many different ways, that this problem of clearing the impediments must now be the greater part of apologetical work.
Essentially, the effort to clear away the impediments to faith is the effort to determine why a given person or group simply doesn’t take the arguments for the truth of the Catholic Faith seriously. They aren’t interested, or they’re uncomfortable, or they “know” the arguments are absurd, or they just can’t relate to all this talk about the soul, truth and God. The question is, why? And how can the apologist overcome these impediments so that the person or group in question really hears what he has to say?
We Have Issues
Some of the impediments are universal in every age. Human pride, with its refusal to serve, always undermines the virtue of religion. We’re also quite capable of trying to ignore the “last things” because we don’t really want to think about death. Then again, in every age there is a constant temptation to prefer expediency to truth. And, though it may just be another form of pride, it often takes us quite a long time to learn to accept our own limitations, both the limitations of human nature and our own personal peculiarities and deficiencies. It is hard to be open to God when we’re in denial about ourselves.
Other impediments arising from attachments are similarly universal. We have a great capacity for material enjoyment which we often find difficult to transcend. If we do think about turning toward God, it always seems that we must relinquish control; there is an element of risk which deters us. Worse, when we have given ourselves up to this or that vice, we become enslaved. Our own bad habits make it very hard to open ourselves to God. Universal as all these issues are, I think it is fair to say that modern culture exacerbates nearly every one of them by specifically reinforcing all the wrong attitudes, feelings and attachments.
For example, it is difficult to conceive of a period in history so preoccupied with the tangible as to essentially deny the existence of anything that cannot be measured. It is also of the essence of the “modern” outlook that the new is always better than the old, which engenders a disdain for traditional beliefs and values. In many other cultures, tradition has been a chief means of inculcating a healthy regard for the supernatural. The modern era also boasts a distinctively false idea of freedom, which is always defined as an absence of restraint rather than a perfection which leads to the fulfillment of potential. Finally, for a variety of reasons, the modern period is intensely relativistic. The lack of comprehension of absolutes is certainly an impediment to faith.
And That’s Not All
You may think that’s a lot of impediments, but we’re just getting started. Consider the prejudices most people grow up with in the modern world. Many are taught by their parents, and all of us are taught by the mass media, that religion is silly, weak or dangerous. Nearly all of us grow up infected by the prejudice of liberalism—that is, the notion that legitimate authority is either untrustworthy or non-existent. Politically, we’re all very committed to democracy and, whatever else may be said for democracy, it tends to foster excessive individualism and the notion that everyone’s ideas are equal. All of this creates a tremendous peer pressure against commitment to any absolute value or belief system. Even when we don’t reject such systems from within, we refuse to embrace them for fear of looking foolish to the world.
Then there are all the distractions common to humankind which we’ve also raised to new heights in modern times. Consider the tremendous press of modern affairs, the unrelenting rapidity of the pace of life, the difficulty of finding a quiet space and, because of the ubiquity of attractive entertainments, the difficulty of even wanting to find a quiet space. We are so full of commotion that we scarcely know what to do without it. Sometimes we are actually afraid to be without it. Under these circumstances, how hard it is to “be still and know that I am God!”
The Final Mystery
As if all this did not make the apologist’s task sufficiently difficult, we know from Scripture that God rarely makes Himself known to those who lack the correct disposition. A passage from the Book of Wisdom, which I recently quoted in my blog, is well worth repeating in this context:
Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord with uprightness, and seek him with sincerity of heart; because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him. For perverse thoughts separate men from God, and when his power is tested, it convicts the foolish; because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin. (1:1-4)
For all these reasons, it may be time to take up apologetics again with a new emphasis on the impediments to faith. It may be time to attempt to clear away the intellectual, social, cultural, psychological and personal debris which prevents people from seeing things as they are. Instead of initially offering arguments for the Catholic Faith, we might better start by challenging fundamental assumptions and urging others to question the very things they take most for granted. There is an important book to be written here, a book to help the modern world understand its own blindness.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For every impediment I’ve listed, you can probably think of one or two more. Before we write that book, let’s get the whole picture. Please send me your ideas.
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