Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith
reviewed by Louis Markos
It wasn't that long ago that American Christians, especially those in academia, were somewhat ashamed of the rational side of their faith. They sang their hymns, shared their testimonies, and served their neighbors, but they tended to avoid direct conflict with philosophers, scientists, historians, and sociologists who claimed to hold the logical high ground.
Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Increasingly over the last 25 years, Christian publishers, and even some secular ones, have flooded the market with apologetics books that have boldly defended the Christian worldview as reasonable and consistent. Indeed, they have shown it to be far more reasonable and consistent than all other competing worldviews—including, and especially, that of secular humanism.
Such skilled apologists as Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, Gary Habermas, Peter Kreeft, J. P. Moreland, William Dembski, Alvin Plantinga, Frank Turek, Tim Keller, and N. T. Wright have provided the Church not only with logical proofs for the existence of God, the reliability of the Gospels, and the historicity of the Resurrection, but also with rational responses to the problem of pain, the "impossibility" of miracles, and the "atrocities" of the Old Testament God.
In many ways, the apologetical heavy lifting has been completed, and yet the books keep flying off the presses. Do we really need so many apologetical books? Well, if the book in question is Alister McGrath's Mere Apologetics, then the answer is a hearty Yes.
Preparers of the Way
Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture at King's College, London, and president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, McGrath is a force to be reckoned with. He has never shied away from conflict and has been known to debate the most outspoken of the new atheists. In Mere Apologetics, however, McGrath adopts a softer, gentler tone.
Though his book surveys some of the best arguments in favor of God and the Christian gospel, it is ultimately concerned less with arguments than with approaches, less with winning than with understanding, and less with beating our opponents than with changing our own hearts. He urges his readers to make the gospel their only offense, and to think of themselves less as heavyweight boxers and more as handmaidens preparing the way for evangelism.
We will only gain the proper humility when we realize that, just as it is not the doctor but the drug prescribed by the doctor that heals the patient, so it is the gospel itself, and not we who pave the way for its presentation, that saves the soul. McGrath compares the apologist to a prism that is used to reveal the full rainbow of colors that lie lurking within the pure white beam of light. We do not have the power to fashion the truth of the gospel, but we can allow ourselves to be used as vessels for bringing out the many facets of that gospel. Just so, though we did not cause the Resurrection, we can help interpret its meaning to the world.
A More Integrated Vision
Though McGrath is a fan of the logical apologetics of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, he reminds his readers that Lewis's success as an apologist rested in great part on his ability to widen his reach. Thus, in addition to his more reason-based arguments, Lewis showed, in Surprised by Joy and The Pilgrim's Regress, that "the Christian faith is the fulfillment of human longing," and then, in his Chronicles of Narnia, he presented "the imagination as the gateway to the human soul."
Such a multi-faceted apologetic offers a more integrated and appealing vision of Christianity to a postmodern world that has embraced relativism, neo-paganism, and deconstruction. In his diverse works, Lewis managed to make the gospel appear not only true but real. Still, though McGrath champions Lewis's approach, he assures his readers that the resources for answering the challenges of postmodernism already exist within the Church.
The strategies used by the last several generations of apologists were developed to combat the dangers of Enlightenment rationalism. They were good strategies for their time, but they are often ineffective in dealing with the postmodern suspicion of totalizing systems and propositional truth claims. To answer the postmodern, we must learn to speak in images and stories. This may at first seem a daunting task, until we realize that the Christian Middle Ages abounded with just such presentations of the truths of Christianity.
Without forsaking logic, reason, science, or history, the would-be apologist must learn new ways to make Jesus compelling. He must be able to open the eyes of the skeptic to the myriad clues, signposts, and pointers to God's presence in the universe and the human heart. By so doing, he can open what McGrath calls a "gateway" to the reality of God and the gospel.
McGrath does a fine job assembling these many pointers, and explains to his readers that some of the best arguments for Christianity are neither inductive nor deductive, but "abductive": that is, they offer an inference to the best explanation. Such is the case not only for the evidence provided by the Big Bang and the fine tuning of our planet, but also for that ineradicable, deeply inscribed longing and desire that drives us to seek meaning and purpose in our lives.
This McGrath does well, but I was troubled by his refusal to engage arguments—like the irreducible complexity of cellular machines and the front-loaded nature of our DNA—provided by Intelligent Design (ID) theorists. Like many of his fellow British apologists, McGrath avoids questioning Darwinism, and condescendingly dismisses attempts to do so as "God of the gaps." And yet, ironically, ID offers just the kinds of abductive arguments that McGrath calls for.
Still, McGrath's book offers a welcome antidote to overly rational apologetics tomes, and he does a masterly job gauging the different types of approaches needed to reach different types of audiences, and even different types of individuals. In an age that wants one-size-fits-all solutions, McGrath challenges us to find our own narrative for sharing the love of Christ. •
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“Heart Work” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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