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Apologetics vs. evangelization? Argument and witness for the sake of others

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 14, 2019

The purpose of evangelization is to make Christ and the Church known to others so that they might receive the gift of faith and choose to convert to Christianity. It is a work accomplished in close collaboration with the Holy Spirit. The purpose of apologetics, on the other hand, is to clear away obstacles to faith by demonstrating that the claims about Christ, the Church and Catholic teaching are not contrary to reason. Broadly speaking, in other words, the focus of evangelization is on proclaiming the Gospel and the focus of apologetics is on arguing a position.

It is possible to over-emphasize this fundamental difference, of course, for apologetics is designed precisely to increase the chances of successful evangelization, and insofar as apologetics is divorced from this further action of the Holy Spirit—insofar as apologetics degenerates somewhat coldly into mere argument—it will generally fail to command assent. That is why, when I wrote a pamphlet entitled “Apologetics: Forgotten Science, Lost Art” back in 1983, I introduced the Greek concepts of logos, pathos, and ethos into the discussion:

  • Logos: Refers to the truth to be conveyed, the argument to be made, which is the fundamental matter of apologetics.
  • Pathos: Refers to rhetorical techniques used to make the presentation pleasing, and to appeal to the interests and emotions of the audience, in order to increase the chance of a favorable response.
  • Ethos: Refers to the projection of a fundamental integrity on the part of the apologist, an integrity which engenders in the audience both respect and trust.

Unfortunately, the conditions of communication in the modern world tend to make such a fruitful Christian apologetics difficult—and even more difficult insofar as it is often divorced from a true spirit of evangelization. In what has often been called a post-Christian era, our neighbors tend to think they know enough about Christianity to be secure in their rejection of it, and those of us who would like to present the Faith to them are often in the position of arguing points they reject without really understanding the related issues at all. Thus we are in danger of verbally clobbering those who need to be brought to a deeper apprehension of reality in more fundamental, and fundamentally gentler, ways.

All of this is exacerbated by our deeply-divided culture of distrust, a culture in which most people communicate about serious matters primarily by affirming or denying slogans passed around in headlines, sound bites, and tweets. It is rare nowadays for even the more educated among us to read sustained arguments or engage in prolonged, deep discussion. Our contemporary divided culture relies on instant communication in small doses, and we align ourselves almost instinctively with the small doses—the slogans—which tend to justify our life-choices. Commentary degenerates into vituperation and name-calling. We respond to contrary ideas with verbal abuse.

Or even if we do not do this, it largely defines how others respond to our own efforts to preach or argue the Catholic Faith.

Solution: Letters?

In thinking about this problem over the past few months, I have been slowly realizing that the Fathers of the Church typically had a very pronounced ability to engage their audiences personally in ways that tended to bypass the standard reactions that had been inculturated in them by a paganism not so very different from our own. Granted, living in a post-Christian culture presents a unique challenge. In the third or fourth century, for example, most people did not approach the claims of Christianity with a knowing attitude of “been there, done that”.

Still, it seems to me that what makes Patristic writings so frequently powerful and moving is that the Fathers so often knew how to engage their readers (or their hearers) personally. While there are many argumentative books that have survived from the Patristic era, a great many more pieces of Patristic wisdom take the form of sermons and letters. The sermons, of course, were intended primarily for believers. Strengthening believers is very important (and, in fact, central to the work of CatholicCulture.org), but letters—I mean personal letters, not open letters or letters to the editor, which are more likely to be mere diatribes—can be addressed to any person or small group of persons with whom we have some significant contact.

I remember years ago realizing that I could often more effectively communicate in a letter (even if by email) than in an article. I would be sitting at my desk, staring at the wall, and nothing would come to me by way of drafting an effective presentation on question X or problem Y. But I noticed that if my mail or In Box contained a letter from someone who gave a little background about himself and asked me a question (or even challenged my views) about X or Y, I could dive into a personal—and often prolonged—reply with scarcely any wracking of the old brain at all.

Not only that, but my writing was often better, more personal, more alive, more vibrant.

Writing and speaking for others

One of the secrets contained in this experience may be expressed in the prepositional phrase “for you”. If you search on “for you” in the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, you will find the expressions “for you” or “for your” 233 times. Sometimes the phrase is merely conjunctive, as in, “For you have failed the test”, where “for” means “because” or “since”. But many of the expressions are prepositional, indicating that something is said or done or prayed or lived “for you” or “for your good”. That, of course, is the language of the apostles, of the evangelists, of St. Paul—and, more often than not, of other great saints, including the Fathers of the Church. There is not just a personal touch here, but a personal mission. The whole force of that mission is “for” those whom they address.

It seems to me that the epistolary form—that is, letter writing—tends to put us in mind of a personal relationship with those to whom we are writing. We instinctively seek to understand the recipients and respond to their needs. Again, I am not referring to open letters, which are frequently dreadful things designed mostly to occupy a position in a debate. I am referring to personal correspondence, which places us at the service of those who will receive what we write, a form of service which takes into account whatever we know of them as persons and whatever we can say that might help them in their sadness, their denial, their rebellion, their doubt, their suffering, their struggle.

As I mentioned, we find this in the Fathers (from which we will be providing many audio readings beginning this Fall). The intensely personal nature of both their evangelization and their defense of the Faith is often striking. What we find most frequently are preachers and writers who, knowing their audiences well, seek passionately to respond to their deepest needs.

The word “convince” means “to conquer strongly”; the word “persuade” means “to make sweet to”. Both have their role. But when we can argue not for the sake of winning but for the sake of another’s good, both logic and personal witness will find their proper Christian purpose as instruments of love—as vessels of grace.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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