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Practicing apologetics upon ourselves: Five models

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 13, 2018

When I first wrote on this topic in the last months of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, I did not realize how much more important it would become under Pope Francis. But the following assertion has become increasingly obvious over the past five years, namely, that apologetics is often more valuable to believers than to non-believers.

Most believers—especially young believers in the process of internalizing their faith—go through periods of questioning, and unanswered questions can lead to doubt. At the same time, of course, opportunities do arise to discuss the grounds of our faith with sympathetic non-believers, or even with non-believers who deliberately challenge us. Then again, our secular culture continues to challenge our faith in new ways. Finally, whenever Catholic ecclesiastical leadership transmits confusing signals, a growing number of the faithful wonder whether the teachings of the Church have changed—a possibility that dramatically undermines the credibility of Christianity. With all of these situations in mind, St. Peter advises: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).

As a general rule, we will seize such opportunities by responding to the specific problem, question or issue that is raised. But in thinking about the whole chain of argument leading from unbelief to belief, or from nagging doubt to secure conviction, we may not have a clear sense of where or how to begin. Perhaps the most important thing to remember, apart from the need to be able to give clear answers to sincere questions, is that what really draws people toward faith in Christ and membership in the Church is not so much arguments as the inherent attractiveness of the goods of Christianity, which we call motives of credibility.

One of these goods, of course, is our own serene acceptance Divine Revelation as understood through the teachings of the Church. This is far better, and far more attractive, than any kind of wilting retreat on the one hand, or pugnacious anxiety on the other. Nonetheless, it is ultimately impossible to prove to anyone by argument that the Catholic faith is true, for faith is a gift. Yet it is a gift undoubtedly offered more frequently than it is accepted. It follows that the intellectual work to which we are called in response to all of these concerns is to find ways to remove obstacles to the acceptance of the gift of faith so that we can prompt a kind of yearning for the faith, along with the expectation that, on closer examination, it will prove beautiful, good and true.

This is the primary purpose of what we call apologetics. Moreover, in our time, every Catholic depends far more than he might like on his own devices. It follows again that we must first practice apologetics upon ourselves.

Fortunately, there are many approaches one can take to achieve the goal. Broadly speaking, we can classify them according to their various modes of reception in the seeker. Therefore, we may speak of models of apologetics. I will discuss five of them here.

The Common Sense Model

By the Common Sense model, I mean an approach to the truth of the Faith which rests on what most of us perceive even without thinking very much. This approach was favored by Blessed John Henry Newman, who regarded the argument from conscience as the most persuasive of all, and by G. K. Chesterton, who was struck by how remarkably the Catholic Faith fit with his almost instinctive perception of original sin.

Every person perceives a moral order from an early age. Operating through the faculty of conscience, this perception includes a sense of right and wrong, and an understanding that we are expected, by some power beyond ourselves, to do what is right. This interior perception of moral reality leads us to an awareness of a lawgiver who is also our judge. It also suggests that this judge must care about us (else why the law and the judgment?), and so he must desire to reveal himself more fully to us. Thus the argument from conscience leads us to look for a Revelation, and to determine which claimed revelations are actually real.

In a similar way, most of us are struck by the strange fact that the world is dysfunctional, particularly with respect to our most fundamental perceptions of a moral order. No matter where we look, we see that people yearn for justice, peace and harmony but encounter, despite these aspirations, injustice, anxiety and discord. This is so from the macrocosm of international affairs right down to the microcosm of our own hearts. Everywhere the world seems to have been put off its proper course by some aboriginal calamity. In the midst of such reflections, the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin fits our situation like a key fits into a lock.

This use of what is really our common sense for apologetics also lies at the root of St. Paul’s comments about our perception of God in the natural order: “[W]hat can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:19-20). Paul is not talking about what is reasoned out formally here, but about what is directly perceived.

Like all apologetics, however, this approach to God works only with those who do not more or less deliberately close their minds. The logical trajectory of our native impressions ought to be plain enough, and yet many constantly attempt to pull in the opposite direction. Saint Paul expresses the problem frankly: “[T]hey are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Rom 1:20-22).

The Rational Model

By proceeding now to the Rational Model, I do not want to imply that common sense is irrational. However, it is not something which operates as a distinctively formal intellectual process. We do not deliberately think our way to common sense; we simply possess it, mostly unconsciously until we are put to the test. But those who formally inquire into the question of God naturally seek to test common sense by pursuing a logical argument which will bring them to a more certain, or at least more strictly verifiable, conclusion. In this realm lies what we call natural theology, or the formal philosophizing about God.

Some thinkers, such as Richard Swinburne, have sought to demonstrate how nearly every point of the Christian faith can be established by reason, including such mysteries as the Trinity. It is both a worthwhile study and a bracing exercise to explore the accessibility of the Faith to human reason, but it would be a grave mistake to think the details of Christian doctrine need not have been revealed. It is really more a matter of recognizing how inherently logical or fitting the various points of Revelation appear once we know what they are. As we may well imagine, this was the stock in trade of many defenders of the faith in the so-called Age of Reason.

But certain basic facts of religion can be known with absolute certainty through natural reason, as St. Paul’s remarks in the preceding section suggest. Chief among these are the existence of God along with the moral obligation to worship him (the virtue of religion), and the existence and immortality of the human soul. The arguments for the existence of God proceed along the five ways of St. Thomas Aquinas, though he was by no means the first to use such proofs. Of these, the argument from contingency is perhaps the most powerful. Everything in our natural experience is contingent on something else. Therefore, nothing whatsoever could exist unless there is some non-contingent being on whom everything else depends. This necessary self-existing being is God.

Related arguments can be adduced to prove that there can be only one such being, and also that the universe is not itself eternal. Though much was made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of philosophers who claim to have refuted such arguments, they have actually done more to confuse than refute, leaving too many to believe they can ignore the arguments without a hearing. Fortunately, chief among those who have demonstrated that the case for natural theology is stronger than ever is Robert Spitzer, SJ in his outstanding book New Proofs for the Existence of God (see my review, Proving God).

The arguments for the existence and immortality of the soul, which have been known and used since ancient times, depend on the basic understanding that the human person has non-material capacities which cannot be caused by matter, however highly developed and organized: self-consciousness, for example, which is the first indicator of intellect. We should also include free will here, though it is much-denied, since even all those who wish to deny it always act as if they really believe they have the power to choose. In any case, it is a small further step to realize that these extra-material capacities are, by definition, properly spiritual, and that the spirit, not being composed of parts, cannot decompose and go out of existence. In other words, the human spirit or soul is by nature immortal.

The Rational Model of apologetics, like the Common Sense Model, actually brings us only to the doorstep of Revelation. If it is true that there is a God and that our souls are immortal, then we have some work to do in learning all we can about both. At the same time, reason and common sense are great helps in assessing various claims of revelation, and in understanding and assenting to Revelation once it is found.

The Revelatory Model

One might think that what I call the Revelatory Model would be placed either first or last in any list, but in the breakdown I am using here, the Common Sense and Rational models do not require exposure to Revelation until after they have done their work, and the two models I will present after the Revelatory Model require exposure to the Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the Revelatory Model is the key to evangelization; it sits right at the heart of the Gospel. This model insists that the One we have yearned for is Jesus Christ, and that He has established a Church to carry on His mission and authority until the end of time.

It is important to remember that the Revelatory Model is almost exclusively concerned with the question of authority. The argument from authority is ordinarily not the strongest sort of argument, but it is the strongest argument by far when the authority is God, who (in the famous traditional phrase) can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is this concern for authority which governs the whole course of the Revelatory argument.

The argument begins with what we call the “signs of Revelation”. These are signs, wonders, or miracles which can be explained only by Divine action and which accompany some disclosure of God’s nature and will. Many people have claimed private communications with God, and some of these have even managed to convince large numbers of people that their communications were real. Islam is founded on such private claims, for example, as is Mormonism. Apart from Christians, however, only Jews have based their confidence in their knowledge of God on signs of Revelation which were manifested publicly and verifiably to a substantial community.

Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, conceptually depends on this principle. Jesus Christ came teaching about God, about how we must live, and about eternal life, and the truth of what He said was attested by public, verifiable signs and wonders of every kind, signs and wonders which could only be performed by Divine power: feeding the multitudes, healing the sick and infirm, controlling the weather, raising the dead, and the ultimate miracle, His own resurrection—which He foretold to the very day. If we do not regard Christ’s utterances on the question of His own Divinity to be perfectly clear, these miracles do not quite prove His Divinity. The Church later used Christ’s own authority to clear up any remaining doubts. But they do prove that His mission and teaching were approved by God, such that all authority in heaven and earth had somehow been given to Him (Mt 28:18).

All of this was clear to the community to which He preached, and it was also clear that Jesus Christ formally established a Church (Mt 16:18) to carry on His mission, that He commissioned His apostles to be the pillars of that Church (Mt 18:18), and that He commissioned Peter in particular to wield the keys to His kingdom (Mt 16:19) and to confirm His brothers in the Faith (Lk 22:32). Moreover, Christ established that this authority should be passed on to the successors of Peter and the apostles, promising to be with the Church until the end of time (Mt 28:20).

The historical record is very clear on this key point of the ongoing authority of the Church—the acceptance that, when the Church speaks, it is a case of “he who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). The faithful relied from the first on ecclesiastical authority over Revelation, exercised by all the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome—an authority which went without significant challenge for several centuries, and which has now endured in the Catholic Church for some two millennia. Further details of this Revelatory Model of apologetics are included in many other articles I have written on, the most important of which are collected into the second volume of my Essays in Apologetics.

The Transcendent Model

In the introduction, I mentioned the signal importance of motives of credibility. Once people are aware of Catholicism, they may be attracted by many aspects of the Church: the sublimity and consistency of her doctrine, the universality and longevity of her endurance, the remarkable holiness of her saints, the incarnational capacity of her system to respond to the whole man and perfect every culture, the unequalled achievements of her philosophers and theologians, the tremendous beauty of the works of art created under her inspiration, the extensiveness of her charitable works.

An approach based on these things is appropriately called the Transcendent Model because such Catholic achievements strike observers as human but beyond the human mode. It is clear that all of these things are being achieved by ordinary men and women, and yet somehow the results transcend what we would ordinarily expect of mere flesh and blood. Many are first attracted to Christ and the Church because they sense in them something beyond the ordinary, an almost inexplicable ability to produce what can really be explained only by the grace of God.

For this reason, it is very wise to draw the attention of others to these triumphs in accordance with their interests, such as introducing a philosopher to Aquinas, a musician to Palestrina, or an historian to the Church’s marvelous consistency over time. Those who love art should be introduced to what we might call Catholic art—the Gothic style, for example, or the work of a Giotto, a Fra Angelico, a Michelangelo. Those who love literature should encounter Dante or perhaps English poets such as Francis Thompson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nearly everyone can be effectively introduced to some saint, a saint who embodies many of the person’s ideals and raises them to a new level. Environmentalists should learn from Francis of Assisi, psychologists from Augustine, and all who yearn for contemplation from Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross. The list goes on. There are saints for everyone.

Nor should we ignore the Church’s immense charitable works, so evident in every age. From well before the third century, when St. Lawrence responded to the demand of Roman officials to see the wealth of the Church by pointing to the poor, a uniquely Catholic charitable power has extended even to the present day, beyond Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the destitute and dying just a few years ago. It can be very effective to acquaint others with this record. At the same time, nothing is more effective than to demonstrate in our own lives this uncanny ability to be fully human but beyond the human mode. Genuine holiness attracts. At the very least, as St. Peter went on to say after he told us to always be ready to explain our faith: “[K]eep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:16).

The Psychological Model

The Transcendent Model sometimes blurs into what I call the Psychological Model, by which a very interested person begins to live the Christian life before he is fully convinced of its Divine origins. This has been proposed in various times and places as a more complete preparation for grace, a disposition not just of the mind but of the whole person to receive God’s gifts. Clearly it requires a significant interest in finding for oneself what one perceives Christians already possess. Because it is attachment to vice which leads the will to instruct the intellect to ignore the truth of Christian arguments, someone who is truly seeking the Faith may be brought, at least in some measure, to lay aside bad habits for a time and practice living as a Christian ought to live—and then see what happens.

Usually this is not so much a formal or structured commitment as the natural result of a person’s attraction to some Catholic or group of Catholics whom he or she has grown to admire. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if we truly begin to live transcendent lives (as discussed in the previous model), we may well find those who are close to us attempting to imitate our Christian habits and virtues. We may be confident that any sincere effort along these lines will be rewarded. The effort already arises from a gift of grace as yet unrecognized, just as the same effort disposes the seeker to receive more grace. At length the grace of Faith itself will ordinarily be given, and the whole process of conversion will become explicitly Catholic.

Even from the purely natural point of view, living a well-ordered life—a life characterized by an essential integrity of body and soul—most often brings a certain peace or sense of fulfillment. Nobody is capable of achieving this apart from grace, but it would be incorrect to suppose that the human person is ever completely cut off from every from of grace. In any case, living integrally even in the more natural sense bears its own fruit, and the specific role of grace will become clearer as time goes on. For this reason, the Psychological Model has real value for those who can be brought to try it—the approach of living as if one were certain that Christ is Lord, so as to better dispose oneself to receive all of His gifts, which we sincerely pray are real.

Even for those who have already received the gift of Faith, this model can be practiced with great effectiveness. We may be aware of our attachment to certain vices; we may not at all be convinced that our happiness will increase if we give them up. Why not make a commitment to refrain from them for a set period of time? And see what happens!

A good Catholic, of course, is continually at work even within himself in all five modes, not always as a work of apologetics, but as part of the work of deepening Christian faith, hope and love. Reflecting on how our common sense actually leads us to God, brushing up on our philosophical understanding, studying the details and proofs surrounding authentic Revelation, living lives of transcendent love, and pushing ourselves closer to God even when we are not quite sure we wish to do so—all of these are the makings of a fully integrated life. I mean a life rooted completely in Jesus Christ. I mean such a life as can maximally perfected only within the Catholic Church.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in January of 2013.

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 See full bio.

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