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Friendly Persuasion

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 27, 2009

Over the years, I’ve been fairly heavily involved in apologetics. During my professorial years, I developed the apologetics program at Christendom College and taught the core apologetics course there for six years. I also edited and co-authored an apologetics text (Reasons for Hope, Christendom Press, 1978, rev. ed. 1982) and, in my last year of teaching, I wrote a brief popular guide to the nature of apologetics (Apologetics: Forgotten Science, Lost Art, 1983), by which I hoped to contribute to a broader revival.

in the early years of Trinity Communications, when we were devoted to print, audio and video media (pre-Internet), I produced (and starred in!) a series of eight lectures on apologetical topics called The Catholic Challenge. When we had to close down our general publishing operation, we donated the series to Christendom. Then Trinity reinvented itself in the new online world, and since that time I’ve written a number of commentary articles and blog entries on this subject. Readers familiar with my work on CatholicCulture.org might remember—fondly, I hope—the following list of items, which I provide here simply for those interested in following up: Apologetics: First, I’d Like to Thank Myself (2004); The Implausible God Who Died (2005); Eucharistic Astonishment, A New Apologetics and its sequel More Impediments, and Can Faith and Reason Work Together? (2007); Apologetics and Faith: Different Convictions, Understanding Proselytism, Mary Ever Virgin, and of course our What You Need to Know item on Apologetics (all in 2008).

A Drop in the Bucket

The good news is not the incredible brilliance and magnitude of my own work but the fact that my work is just a drop in the bucket of the revival of Catholic apologetics since the late 1970’s. In fact, the volume of work has been so great that I need to mention only one name to dwarf myself: Karl Keating. After a fundamentalist group leafleted a Catholic parish during Mass, Keating (an attorney) wrote and distributed a reply, signing it “Catholic Answers”. The response was enormous, and Catholic Answers was to become the name of the most prominent organization devoted to Catholic apologetics in the world.

Eventually Keating left the practice of law to devote his full time to the new enterprise. Among other things, he and his team have developed leaflets, books, World Youth Day materials, radio programs, a series of public lectures and debates, apologetics-based pilgrimages (and cruises!), and an outstanding monthly magazine, This Rock. While Keating is by no means any longer isolated in the field of Catholic apologetics, the success of Catholic Answers is sufficient unto itself to demonstrate how far apologetics has come over the past twenty-five years.

Of course, apologetical energy can be directed in so many directions that there can never be enough of it. It is part and parcel of both evangelization, where it is used to overcome obstacles to the first hearing of the gospel, and catechesis, where the basics become a necessary adjunct to effectively teaching and explaining the doctrines of the Church. In the larger sectarian and cultural debates which no serious religious idea can escape, apologetics must be developed to deal with objections from every side: atheism, secularism, and scientism; the emotionalism of affective and artistic immersion; Protestantism and related devolutions from Catholicism; devotion to cults of various kinds; commitment to other major religious traditions; the analysis of both psychological barriers and motives of credibility; and many more. There is no end to the task of being “always ready to give a reason for the hope” that is in us (1 Pet 3:15).

The Components of Apologetics

As I’ve written in the past, apologetics has also been traditionally (and very usefully) divided into its three component parts: Logos, Pathos and Ethos. This further illustrates the complexity of the task, and provides yet another reason why the apologetical effort is essentially endless.

When people think of apologetics in general, or first try to do it in particular, they think in terms of logos—the word, the content, the argument. But effective apologists soon find that if they do not have ethos (a certain bond of integrity between themselves and their audience) they make little headway no matter how good their arguments may be. One of the classic demonstrations of this was St. Dominic’s mission to reconvert the Albigensians. Some of the regional bishops had tried to do this for some years with absolutely no success, very likely because the Albigensians tended to adopt lives of poverty while the bishops were quite worldly. But when Dominic and his brothers came preaching they also exhibited in their lives an even deeper and more firmly rooted poverty than that practiced by the heretics. This was something good that their audience could relate to and admire. With respect to the Albigensians, then, the Dominicans had ethos, and it made all the difference.

In one of my more recent commentaries, I raised the question of whether we shouldn’t be attempting or offering some forms of writing that, essentially, were more engaging of the whole man than mere data and argument can ever be (see Am I Writing about Nothing Today?). In general the response, though modest, was favorable, but there were one or two who wrote in to suggest that such a thing would be a betrayal of the seriousness of our Christian calling. Despite the fact that some people simply don’t get it, every successful apologist has to address this question with respect to his own work. It is very difficult to engage a person’s mind if one does not appeal to his heart—his attitudes and emotions, his core values, his likes and dislikes, his interests, his personality as a whole. We may convince (conquer powerfully) through logic, but we persuade (make something sweet to another) through the one component of apologetics I haven’t yet explained: pathos.

The Role of Pathos

There are dangers in persuasion. When abused, it degenerates into emotional manipulation. For example, we might press someone to adopt a particular religion by suggesting that this was the most cherished dream of his recently deceased wife or mother, or by suggesting that he can be happy (perhaps with a certain woman) if only he joins a particular group (some cults operate this way), or by constant badgering, or even by offering various blandishments to convert or threats against falling away (quite common in Muslim countries). Such techniques inspire misplaced emotions such as guilt, lust or greed, tension seeking relief, or even fear. These techniques more or less deliberately twist another to our will.

When “converts” are won in this way, it is called proselytism, and although some Orthodox leaders seem to think it is proselytism if a Catholic in their territory so much as opens his mouth to speak, the proper understanding of proselytism always includes manipulation: It interferes with the due freedom with which a person should respond to the Gospel. This is regarded as a sin by the Catholic Church.

Nonetheless, Christ himself sought to win not only minds but hearts. He lived a most beautiful life, He made lovely things from wood, He enjoyed the companionship of those to whom He ministered, and He often clothed His teaching in very entertaining stories, stories frequently drawn from the warp and woof of his hearers’ lives, with implications that resonated through the whole person. There were even occasions when He deliberately told stories (such as that of the ungrateful tenants) which positively roused his hearers to anger and indignation against those who were at fault, only to have them become chagrined (or angered still more) when they guessed He was referring to themselves. Truly, Our Lord knew how to engage the human emotions, to move the heart to embrace His cause. Nor is it irrelevant to apologetics when we break down and cry while contemplating the Passion of His love.

It ought to go without saying that those who wish to defend and advance the Faith must live exemplary lives. But we must also learn to act, to speak and to write in ways that are calculated to make our message pleasing. In addition to choosing the right time, the right moment, to make an appeal, this includes taking the trouble to invest our message with a sympathetic understanding of the lives of those to whom we speak, and to do our best to make the message attractive and enjoyable. This requires not only prudence and rhetorical skill but imagination and empathy—though with empathy we begin to cross the blurry line between pathos and ethos. Also related to both components is the need to become all things to all men, as St. Paul says of himself (1 Cor 9:22), so that others may be attracted to our message and, by more readily accepting it, find salvation.

Persuading Others

At the very least, we must learn to root out of our personalities and our presentations those things which appear harsh, callous, curt, dismissive, hasty and ugly. This is a minimal foundation for beginning to present things in ways that are actually attractive to others. To be sure, there are times when we must bear witness to the Truth no matter how harsh or unpalatable it may sound, and it is a grave sin—far too often committed over the past generation or so—to alter the content of the message so others won’t dismiss it or dismiss us (which is more often the real motive). But those of us who are tempted to regard the world with an exceedingly jaundiced eye may sometimes feel we have done our duty, in season and out of season, simply by shouting down or pronouncing a verdict upon those with whom we disagree. Then, after all, we can more quickly write them off and get on with life!

But again, I don't recall that Christ ever took this approach. Even his rare condemnations—and he alone has the right to condemn—were exceedingly colorful, if one can consider whited sepulchers colorful! Apparently He calculated all he said to move his hearers. So we must ask: Is the servant greater than the Master? If not, then let us do the same.

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