Apologetics: First of All, I’d Like to Thank Myself

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 24, 2004

It is not uncommon for athletes to give credit to God and thank their mothers and fathers when complimented on their abilities. Most of us don’t remember to do this most of the time. When I think of my own abilities, for example, I am always painfully reminded of the contrary tack taken by a young basketball player after he was drafted by the NBA in 2003: “First of all, I’d like to thank myself.” After all, he explained, he’s the one who put in all the work and sweat.

Whatever the merits of these more selfish comments, it is clear that this particular player is not going to be selected as an ambassador for the NBA. His attitude does not inspire confidence. Instead, it raises a character issue. The same issue is at the forefront of Catholic apologetics.

Reason and Witness

In his McGinley Lecture at Fordham University on March 2nd, Avery Cardinal Dulles surveyed the recent rebirth of apologetics and offered some guidance for its continued development. Dulles noted that it is impossible to force the intellect to assent to Revelation by means of logical argument. The purpose of apologetics is twofold: for the non-believer, it clears away obstacles to belief, so that mistaken notions do not obscure the Faith or prevent assent to it; for the believer, it provides reassurance that his various beliefs do not violate reason and, in fact, are in keeping with it.

But Revelation is necessary precisely because we cannot know the truths of the Faith through reason. Consequently, there has to be something else at work to make us want to embrace Faith, to use our reason to support it rather than to ignore or deny. Cardinal Dulles identifies that additional element as witness.

Logos, Pathos and Ethos

This is not a new idea, but a timely reminder. God the Father bore witness repeatedly to Israel, and Christ Our Lord bore witness to those of us privileged to live after the Incarnation. Then he sent his disciples to be witnesses even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Unlike mere argument, personal witness demands a response, engaging the heart and mind. Insofar as the witness is both attractive and credible, there will be a tendency toward positive engagement. The listener is more likely to give favorable consideration to what the witness has to say.

In fact, apologetics requires three elements to be successful. The traditional Greek terms for these elements are: (1) Logos -- the ideas or argument used in the effort to convince the mind; (2) Pathos -- the emotional attraction of the presentation, the attempt to persuade by appealing to the heart; and (3) Ethos -- the bond of integrity established between the witness and his audience which enables the hearer to listen and respond without instinctive denial.

Humility at the Core

Ethos is the je ne sais quoi of apologetics. It begins with personal integrity, by which I mean the harmonious wholeness of the person, with all the faculties properly integrated, nothing out of place, nothing at war. This personal integrity in turn starts with humility, with knowing who we are and who God is, leading us to acknowledge our weakness and our need for grace. For apologetics as for life, there are two very important consequences of humility. First, this virtue enables God to shape us, to make us perfect as He is perfect (Mt 5:48). It opens us to that integrity on which ethos is based.

Second, humility puts us in solidarity with everybody else. We don’t just say we are “poor sinners” (a pious expression too often used while we silently congratulate ourselves on being unlike other men). Instead, we recognize that this is what we really are. In this light, if we notice another person’s deficiencies, we don’t feel superior because we understand that we are largely blind to our own faults. In fact, we think it very likely that if we are doing better in some respect than someone else, it is because we haven’t been as strongly tempted. We thank God for not putting us to the test. Precisely because we do not thank ourselves, ethos is completed in us. Humility forges that bond of integrity which leads to trust.

The One Thing Needful

In apologetics (as in life), trust is the “one thing needful” (Lk 10:42). Before we open ourselves to another, we need to be confident that we won’t lose something in the process, that our time won’t be wasted, that we won’t be fooled, used, or hurt. Personal witness that fails to establish this bond of trust is doomed to fail.

We remember as a sort of consolation, of course, that not even God always succeeds in establishing that bond, though He is eminently trustworthy. But our success rate will be very low indeed if our attitude toward others is summarized by the question, “Who are you and where are you going in that handbasket?”

Now, personally, I’m not in a handbasket. I climbed out a long time ago. I work hard at what I do and I expect others to do the same. I know the truth, value the truth, and follow the truth. I fulfill my obligations. I keep the commandments. I follow Church rules. I tithe. I fast. I pray. (See Lk 18:10-12.)

But if this is my attitude, my apologetical efforts will fail. Truly, I will have only myself to thank.

Further information on apologetics and humility at CatholicCulture.org:

  1. John Paul II, Allow Me to Profess Before You with Humility and Pride the Faith of Christians, 2001
  2. Avery Cardinal Dulles, The Rebirth of Apologetics, 2004
  3. Jeffrey A. Mirus, Apologetics: Forgotten Science, Lost Art, 1983
  4. Janet Smith, The Christian View of Sex: A Time for Apologetics, Not Apologies, 1966
  5. Litany of Humility
  6. Catholic Answers (web site)
  7. Catholic Apologetics Network (web site)

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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