A Fresh Agenda for Apologetics in the 21st Century
With the need for a culture-specific apologetic in mind consider examples of contextualized apologetic approaches. In the first example, a rational emphasis will be appropriate in modernist circles where reason and logical argumentation are valued, whereas a relational approach will be more effective in postmodern contexts. This shift in emphasis should not be construed as an abandonment of reason or the use of apologetics as a capitulation to some form of irrationalism. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of shifting cultural realities in the West and strategic changes that should be considered in order for apologists to be effective communicators. In the modernist context great value was attached to arguments and evidences. In this context it was appropriate to provide "evidences that demand a verdict." In the postmodern context, reason is still valuable (since human beings are rational creatures created in God's image), but the place of reason in spirituality is different. For a postmodernist, truth and experience go hand in hand. There must be a combination and integration of the rational and the experiential. The use of a traditional evidential apologetic, with heavy emphasis on logic and evidence is often rejected by a generation interested in truth, but often looking for it in relational ways, and in ways that also make room for mystery and experience.
In another example, when dialoguing with a Latter-day Saint (popularly known as a Mormon), traditionally an apologetic approach is utilized which contrasts heresy with Protestant biblical orthodoxy. Apologists might reconsider whether a strong hermeneutical apologetic is appropriate in this context. While fidelity to Protestant biblical orthodoxy is of great importance to Protestant apologists, Latter-day Saints are more concerned with an epistemology of feelings where truth is determined by subjective experience. A contextualized and reformulated apologetic response would attempt to draw upon personal testimony and the language of experience in communicating the gospel and biblical truth, and in doing so in connection with points of contact to Mormon culture, such as ethics, sacred narrative, and ritual. The apologist interested in utilizing apologetic methods appropriate for differing contexts will be sensitive to the need to formulate a "receptor oriented" apologetic for their cultural frame of reference.
Netland has also noted that Western theology has come under increasing criticism in the non-Western world where apologetics has been understood as either counter-productive or irrelevant. Sympathetic to non-Western concerns in theology, Netland argues that if "properly construed, apologetics is ancillary to evangelism and is unavoidable in effective proclamation of the gospel." Even so, Netland also states that adopting Western apologetic methods in non-Western contexts is inappropriate. As the world continues to develop under the influence of globalization, Western theology and apologetics will have to adapt in order to be relevant to the concerns and challenges of the two thirds of the world that is non-western. A globally-informed apologetic is also relevant in the pluralistic West. With the increasing influence of non-Christian worldviews in Western nations, only an apologetic that reflects contemporary global concerns will speak with relevance.
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.