Most Christians don’t have a reason for their faith that would be credible to a nonbeliever, and that’s perfectly fine. I expect the most common reasons for being a Christian are 1) “My parents and ancestors were Christian; they’ve given me a good culture, and who am I to question their wisdom?”, 2) “I have a personal relationship with Jesus that’s very important to me; He’s been with me through thick and thin, and it would be churlish for me to spoil our relationship by entertaining doubts”. The conservative in me respects reason 1, and the Christian in me respects reason 2, even though I see that a nonbeliever would find them unconvincing or circular.
Some people do undertake to give Christianity an intellectual defense–the apologists. There are two main approaches here. The first on is historical: argue that the Gospels can be taken as historically reliable and that no other explanation but their being true explains the “data” of what we know about first-century Christianity. This road to Christ is necessary, at least in a negative sense. It is important that secular Biblical scholars’ claims about disproving the Gospels are themselves refuted; we would not be warrented in our belief if our Sacred Scriptures could be shown to be manifestly false and unreliable in their primary claims. However, while this approach is important for preventing scandal, for keeping people from being pealed away from the Church by Dan Brown-style pseudohistory, I doubt that the historical method actually makes any converts. The records from first-century Judea will never be so complete and unquestionable that anyone will be logically compelled to accept the evangelists’ accounts as facts. It’s a useful thing to show how implausible the main anti-Christian explanations of our faith are (e.g. that the Apostles just “felt Jesus’s presence” in their hearts after His death, and they somehow mistook this for having had extended discussions with Him in His resurrected body), but the non-Christian is not obliged to supply a counter story with no unusual elements. Unusual things do occasionally happen, and he can always say that his wacky “the Apostles stole Jesus’ body” or whatever story is less outlandish than the idea that God became man. For that matter, he’s not obliged to provide an explanation at all. I disbelieve all UFO sighting stories, but that doesn’t mean I have a ready-made explanation for every one you could throw at me. I’m just confident that I could come up with one if I had nothing better to do with my time.
Really, the only reason that people become Christian is because they find the Christian message compelling before they consider whether it is verifiable. They come to think that the world makes more sense–the parts “click” together better, that it’s more beautiful and vivid if Christianity is true than not. Once one sees its power as a central truth and organizing principle, then it becomes reasonable to accept it even if the evidence is inconclusive.
Therefore, the other apologetic road is to argue ahistorically that something like the Incarnation/Atonement makes sense of or beautifies the world in a particularly compelling way. The usual strategy is to start from generic theism (for which we have compelling metaphysical arguments) and to point to some kind of incongruity in it. Not an outright contradiction, of course; Christianity is theism plus other truth claims, and if a set of claims are flatly contradictory, adding more claims can’t save the situation. Rather, one points to two parts of the theistic system that are both true but that one can’t hold in one’s mind at the same time; although one can’t prove that they contradict each other, one can’t imagine how the two would fit together. Then show that Christianity resolves the conflict. In contemplating the crucifixion of the Man-God, we see the two contrary principles fitted together perfectly without conflict or dilution.
All the really famous apologetic works are of this second sort. There is Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, which presented the Atonement as the resolution of God’s justice and His mercy. There is Pascal’s Pensees, which presented the Fall and Redemption as the resolution of man’s greatness and wretchedness, and of God’s simultaneous presence and absence. There are Chesterton’s apologetic works, especially The Everlasting Man, in which the Incarnation is shown to reconcile metaphysics with mythology. (Actually, The Everlasting Man also engages in the first sort of apologetics; it’s the full package.) The idea of Christianity as the true myth and the truth of mythology was, as we all know, important to many English Christians of that time, including Tolkein and Lewis. Richard Swinburne has also done some apologetic work along these lines, but I haven’t read it.
I think the greatest attacks on Christianity have been attacks on this idea of Christianity making sense of the world and vivifying it. Attack the evidence for Christianity, and people will retreat into faith. The internal rationale and poetry of the faith is enough to sustain a person. To destroy faith, make it seem like something ad hoc and extra: the universe makes perfect sense on its own, but then for no reason, we posit the spaghetti monster.
Were I to write an apologetic (and I’ve already promised that I will, not that I think anyone would care if I reneged), I would want to follow this second strategy, not just because its results are more memorable when well done, but because it’s more honest; it more accurately states the reasons I am a Christian. It’s not that the historical case is unimportant. My sense is that the basic Gospel record is consistent with the facts, but the latter don’t force us to accept the former. I freely admit that this may also be the case with the narratives of other religions. Most of the historical records of the time record miracles, omens, and the like. In the absence of compelling proof either way, one is forced to go with whichever alternative one finds most intrinsically compelling. Unless somebody invents a time machine, I expect this is how the situation will always be. I find Christianity more intrinsically compelling than, say, Hellenistic polytheism. One seems to make the universe more explicable, the other less so.
Who do you think the greatest Christian apologists were, and what line of reasoning did they use?
Filed under: Defense of Christianity