In Defense of Apologetics
"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, and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." (1 Peter 3:15-16, RSV)
Apologetics isn't an apology for our faith. Apologetics is taken from the Greek word apologia, itself derived from apo-, meaning "from," and lego, meaning "to speak."Apologists "speak from" or defend a particular position.
Some Catholics and other Christians are uncomfortable with apologetics. Critics consider it contrary to the spirit of ecumenism, and adopt a "go-along to get-along" attitude. Shouldn't we just live and let live?
This discomfort results from a misunderstanding of ecumenism. Ecumenism isn't a policy of intellectual appeasement. Nor does it demand that we overlook real differences. Most of us would agree that repressing disagreement isn't healthy in our personal relationships. Nor is it healthy for our relationships with other faiths. Recognizing and addressing conflict is a necessary precursor to understanding.
Ecumenism is about sharing and respecting faith. Ecumenism promotes understanding, tolerance and cooperation among religions in general and Christians in particular. Ecumenism isn't about ignoring the chasms that separate us or pretending differences don't exist.
Apologetics can help bridge the chasms. Often the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism aren't as vast as they appear. Some of the criticisms of Catholicism are based on misinformation or in some cases, disinformation.
So yes, the church is calling us to unite with fellow Christians whenever possible. But she is also calling us to evangelize as well. This requires prayerful preparation, study and mature faith. You can't help someone understand your faith or doctrine if you yourself don't understand it.
Unless we are able to discuss our faith rationally, we will be severely limited in our ability to share that faith with others, be they fellow Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or agnostics.
As an institution, the Church also needs to be realistic. While Catholics are discouraged from recruiting from the ranks of the churched, fundamentalist Protestants feel no such constraints nor do many in the New Age movement.
Unprepared Catholics are susceptible to the arguments of well meaning Protestant evangelists or more rarely, new age religionists. Ex-Catholics account for 60 to 70 per cent of many fundamentalist congregations. Catholic converts are rare by comparison. Why the disparity?
Its because many fundamentalists recognize that many Catholics are uninformed and are ripe for the picking. Fundamentalists are on average much more familiar with scripture than are Catholics. They are trained to deconstruct the faith of wavering or casual Catholics.
With some time and effort, Pastors can inoculate their Catholic congregations against blatant poaching. Most fundamentalists rely on canned presentations, similar to those of an Amway salesman.
Their knowledge of the bible may at first impression appear impressive to the casual listener but a little probing will usually reveal that their grasp of scripture lacks depth and their understanding of biblical themes won't stand even a cursory challenge.
The problem is that Catholics on average know even less about scripture than our fundamentalist brethren. Catholics need to know that their faith is grounded in scripture. With a little training and the application of common sense, Catholics can hold their on against Protestant evangelists - and increase their own faith in the process.
This brings up one of the often overlooked benefits of apologetics. The value of apologetics is not restricted to evangelizing the unchurched or even defending our faith. The study of apologetics can shore up wavering faith.
Cradle Catholics are especially prone to accepting dogma, doctrines and tradition not because we understand, but out of habit ingrained in us as children. We vaguely recall discussing the "Immaculate Conception" and the "Virgin Birth" in our catechism classes but the precise meaning has been lost in the distant past.
We become comfortable with the familiar phrases, and since we were raised in the faith, we accept the Church's teaching at face value with little thought.
We have little time to refresh ourselves on the teachings of the Church. After all, we're very busy raising our family and advancing in our careers. Besides, don't we pay our Pope and the Bishops to do the thinking for us?
The problem is that if we don't understand our faith, how can we live it, let alone share it with others in need? If we starve our souls through neglect and sin, we may find that our strength is lacking when, as is inevitable, the time comes to face the dark nights of life's trials and tribulations.
Like the body, the soul needs to be nourished and exercised, lest we become weak. We need to feed our soul with prayer, the sacraments, worship and scriptural study. We need to exercise our souls with study, devotion, and penance.
The study of apologetics helps us become informed and conversant about our faith. We become familiar with scripture, history, theology and philosophy. We grow to understand our Catholic roots and our culture comes alive.
As we gain knowledge, our doubts and reservations are replaced by a confident understanding. Our devotion become grounded in both knowledge and faith. The depth of our examinations will occasionally challenge us but the process will also strengthen us. Be not afraid.
Another criticism of apologetics is that it emphasizes rationality at the expense of faith lead by the Spirit. It is true that apologetics, like social activism, can lead to an overemphasis of the mind if it is not tempered with prayer.
Without a strong prayer life, apologists can become moral legalists. Without prayer, an emphasis on intellectual comprehension leads to a barren spiritual life. Universities are full of agnostic or atheistic theology and scripture professors. Faith in Christ Jesus cannot be achieved without the gift of grace.
The contrary is also true. Faith based solely on private revelation and religious experiences leads to unconstricted emotionalism or even heresy. Practitioners of this approach not infrequently confuse emotional experiences with divine inspiration.
They begin a quest for eve evermore spiritual experiences. They try out religions as if they were shopping for a pair of shoes that have to fit just right. If the shoes begin to feel the least bit uncomfortable, off they go looking for a better fit.
The key is to balance apologetics with prayer, worship and the sacraments. Relying on the intellect alone leads to small "c" christianity: aggressive, combative, non-fruitful. Prayerful Christianity, with a capital "C", is gentle but persuasive and non-compromising of truth.
Reason and faith need not conflict, indeed, cannot according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Rational inquiry reinforces our faith rather than weakens it.
Another reason to study apologetics is often overlooked. While men may dominate the clergy, women dominate the congregations - at least in numbers.
At the risk of sounding sexist, we must be able to approach faith rationally if we expect to attract western men to our faith.
Many women seem more able to accept a supernatural explanation for a life-changing transformation experience than are men. Women in general are comfortable with "feeling" the truth, whereas most men must have the truth demonstrated to them rationally.
Men aren't as likely to accept and act on subjective accounts of conversion experiences, private revelations and mystical models. Our tendency is to dismiss these accounts unless accompanied by objective proofs.
If we can't have measurable, scientifically verifiable facts of God's existence and love, we must at least have some rational explanation, some logical understanding of creation. Many men have a need to deal with the objective before they can approach God for a personal relationship.
The emphasis in today's Church is rightly on the changing power of God's love. While this aspect of Christianity is important, perhaps even the defining message of Christ, the message is too often presented in a maudlin manner with a distinct lack of intellectual vigor and completeness. Perhaps that is one reason men are outnumbered by women in Christian congregations worldwide with the exception of our Eastern Orthodox kin.
Finally, some rebellious souls are adverse to apologetics because they know that the Truth that the Church defends conflicts with the worldly values and ideas that they hold dear. They lack the courage or the intellectual honesty to examine their faith against their modern cultural, sociological and political beliefs. In short, it is more important to them that they be politically correct than doctrinally correct. This is as true of liberals as of conservatives, of traditionalists as of progressives.
It isn't unusual to hear Catholics make statements that are, well, uh... heretical. It is a strong word but what other adjective is possible when a "Catholic" questions the real presence in the Eucharist, the infallibility of the Pope or the validity of original sin?
As Catholics, we mustn't forsake our pursuit of God's truth nor compromise our faith for the sake of inclusiveness, ecumenism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, feminism,or any other "ism" or political polemic.
The breadth and depth of apologetics can be overwhelming. Where should you start?
With your own questions and doubts. Of course you have questions. Of course you have doubts. If you aren't questioning some aspect of your faith, chances are you aren't thinking about your faith. But since you are reading this page, you are obviously thinking about your beliefs.
So what are your reservations? What unanswered questions do you have about your faith? What are the gray areas, those that trouble you? Face your questions head-on and you'll grow stronger for the effort.
Lastly a word of caution. Apologetics and evangelism must be practiced gently, with love and sensitivity. An aggressive approach is counterproductive and can easily drive souls away from Christ and his church.
We need to produce good fruits. Pray before sharing, pray before studying, and and pray for God's will. Then give God the glory.
When, therefore, since we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth; and everyone who wishes draws from her the drink of life" (St. Iranaeus 190 A.D.)