The New Apologetic

 

The church may be on the verge of a Renaissance, a movement forward via a movement backwards. This weekend a group of college-aged Christians who work on Christian journals at their respective campuses gathered under the auspices of the Augustine Collective to discuss their publications, fellowship, and learn from Christian scholars who are investing in their movement. Many of the conversations at this gathering focused on what what we called, somewhat misleadingly, “The New Apologetic.”

The New Apologetic is the untapped potential of the church to be a force for the common good. What Peter Maurin once said about the Catholic Church is true for the whole Christian body: “If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant social, dynamic force, it is because… Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container; and sat on the lid.”

What is  this “dynamite,” this hidden potential that is being unleashed as the New Apologetic? As I said, the name is misleading, because the New Apologetic is actually old—as old as the church. It is, quite simply, orthodoxy, in all its depths and richness. The dominant model of American Christian engagement over the past forty to fifty years has been three-fold: modernist in apologetics, culturally impotent, and politically combative (i.e. “the culture wars”). The new model of engagement seeks to move past all of these, to a thicker gospel that doesn’t seek to translate Christianity into just another worldview or subculture or voting bloc.

In apologetics, we have taken our lead, by and large, from C.S. Lewis and his intellectual descendants. It is fashionable for people chafing under Lewis’s hegemony to insult or dismiss him. Hence Tony Jones recently called Lewis a “theological hack.” But that’s the wrong response. Lewis was undeniably brilliant, and it would be silly to pretend that we don’t have much to learn from him. But it’s nevertheless true that he wrote for his time and place, and never saw himself as the once and future king of Christian intellectual life.

Lewis was a modernist. He believed in building up logically tight arguments from supposed neutral premises that he would share with a skeptical or doubting audience. Learning how to argue this way is still very important for Christians, and many of the arguments and counter-arguments Lewis advanced continue to bear fruit in individual Christian’s lives. He should still be studied. But modernist apologetics no longer has the same kind of resonance in our culture as it had in Lewis’s.

Steven Harrell put it well in an article he wrote for Relevant, called “Why We Need a New CS Lewis”:

When we try to insert Lewis’ cultural observations into our culture today, we become like Indiana Jones—still fighting the Nazis through the 1980s. The Modernist war between reason and theology is over. In England, Christianity got put up on the same shelf as Zeus and witch hunts. In America, the debate morphed into the culture wars. At this point, we’re pretty well over those, too, now working through our own unique relationship between our faith and our call to love the ever-flattening world around us.

Pastors, bloggers, Narnia fans and meme-generators all co-opt Lewis to be their ambassador to the cultural climate for which he never wrote. It’s like sending the Lone Ranger to fight space aliens. We live in a postmodern, post-secular age that doesn’t respond well to the intellectual arm-twisting and large-scale historical criticism that Lewis excelled at.

But Harrell is wrong, in one respect. We don’t really need a new C.S. Lewis; we need an old one. Lewis, as great as he was, is not among the greatest Christian thinkers. He is not an Augustine, or an Athanasius, or an Anselm. What Christians need today is both a new approach that moves past Lewis and a deeper understanding of the forgotten treasures of the Christian intellectual tradition. We need to move both forward and backward, at the same time. And, in the paradoxical, transhistorical nature of our faith, the two are actually the same.

By moving backward and forward at the same time, we will gain a deeper, richer understanding of the core Christian doctrines: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, doctrines which will speak to our culture. We will rediscover the primacy and beauty of sacramental worship (this is true despite diverse opinions about the precise theological meaning of the sacraments). We will once again learn the prophetic approach to politics, and re-emphasize concepts like “place,” “stewardship,” “social justice” and “hospitality.”

The proliferation of movements suggesting a new way forward is dizzying: radical orthodoxy, the emerging church, post-liberalism, post-secularism, anti-foundationalism, new monasticism, traditionalism, Ressourcement Thomism, etc., etc. One of the things we hope to do at FF is sort out the wheat from the chaff here, and suggest some ways forward that join the increasingly popular theological concerns of these movements with the traditional Christian doctrines: the creed, the authority of scripture, and the exclusive uniqueness of the person of Christ. We aren’t trying just to comment on these trends, but embody them in what we do and write, actually being the new apologetic to a generation longing for it.

The Economy of Desire
Orthodoxy Has Won?
On Honesty and Confession
What We Can Learn from Young Atheists
About Peter Blair
  • Steve Billingsley

    Great article – one comment
    Tony Jones calling C.S. Lewis a “theological hack” – I am not exactly a Freudian, but if I were I believe the term “projection” might apply.

  • M. Harper

    “But modernist apologetics no longer has the same kind of resonance in our culture as it had in Lewis’s.”
    Curious how you justify this claim? Although not specifically apologetic, the rise of Christian philosophy and philosophical theology, which I would contend helps promote and undergird apologetics, over the last 30 years is nothing but phenomenal. My experience has been that people are more interested in apologetics similar to that of Lewis in recent history. I guess you would have to give some kind of synopsis of what apologetic interest was in Lewis’ time.

    • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

      I would be interested in hearing Peter’s response to this, too.

    • Peter Blair

      Granted, there isn’t any kind of comprehensive data available on this, so my statement comes from my general understanding from talking to friends of various and no faiths, reading newspapers of note, and looking at the present state of academic discussion. It would be hard to distill five years of these kinds of impressions, but I could sketch some rough things.

      For example, you mention the rise of Christian philosophy. Indeed, the revival of Christian philosophy in the academy over the last 30-40 years has been astounding. But the vast majority of the lead thinkers here—Plantinga, Wolterstorff, MacIntyre— have all been anti-foundationalists, not really in the modernist mode at all. And of course outside Christian circles, postmodern thought occupies a significant place.

      Or again, look at the increased fascination with Christian practices in our culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Way_(film)), or the role Mother Theresa has played in legitimizing the church in so many people’s eyes.

      People have to be in love with a good before arguments about the good can persuade them. I think in Lewis’ heyday there was still a non-negligible residual Christian feeling. People wanted to believe, and so were naturally receptive to Lewis’ moderinst responses to modernist objections. The natural receptivity to arguments no longer exists, and modernist objections aren’t the primary obstacle anyway. Take William Lane Craig. He’s been doing the debate circuit for a while now with every atheist out there, but, as far as I can tell, it’s led to no widespread conversions (though I will admit that I know friends who have been strengthened in pre-existing faith by him). It’s not because his arguments aren’t valid; it’s because arguments leave people cold if they are utterly disconnected from their desires and identities.

      • M. Harper

        Just to, I think, correct something you say in the reply. Plantinga is not an anti-foundationalist. He’s a anti-classical foundationalist. I believe he argues quite rationally that religious belief is properly basic, i.e. just like other properly basic beliefs in someone’s noetic foundation. I also think you leave out a great amount of evidentialist thinkers, say Richard Swinburne. I think you are a bit to quick to draw the conclusions you do from your experience and rely on some broad assumptions.

        • Peter Blair

          We can debate what shade of anti-foundationalist Plantinga is, but, either way, his reformed epistemology is worlds away from evidentialism. There are obviously evidentialist thinkers out there. My thesis doesn’t require that they don’t exist, just that they’re less persuasive to academics than their anti-foundationalist colleagues. My belief that our culture is more open to kerygma than modernist-style arguments relies, as I said, on a very large body of different kinds of data I’ve encountered. But the idea that people’s loves can direct what they are open to considering as true is pretty obvious, I think, and the new apologetic is about speaking directly to those loves and trying to form them. That doesn’t mean abandoning arguments, it just means putting them in the right place. I think, for example, of Tim Keller’s comment that he wrote The Reason for God to speak to n0n-Christians and the Prodigal God to speak to Christians, but all the feedback he got indicated that the reverse happened.

          • Jordan

            I’d be really interested to see where you learned that last bit regarding the responses to the two Keller books.

  • andrew

    Why a “new” apologetic if Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are eternal? It seems the author has swallowed post-modernity’s self-refuting conviction that good old fashioned logic is old and stale and unconvincing to today’s gadget-toting masses of distracted hedonists. But what would be the meaning of a “new” logic? Would it be like a “new” wavelength? In any case, it seems clear to me that the problem today is not Lewis and the possibilities of reason; the problem has always been the rest of us confused dimwits who use any excuse not to think.

    The irony is that Lewis himself would urge us to see past him, and even past his predecessors, toward God Himself. Even so, having read Augustine, Athanasius, and Anselm, I still disagree with the author: Lewis’s mind was peculiarly balanced, exquisitely tuned to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. I suspect no other author I’ve come across could have written all of the following with such clarity and beauty: Miracles, The Problem of Pain, Man or Rabbit?, Transposition, Perelandra, and Till We Have Faces. In fact, one of Lewis’s colleagues refused to believe that the author of Till We Have Faces was not a woman…. To even wonder the same about Augustine and Thomas would be laughable.

    • Peter Blair

      I agree that “new” is misleading here, as I acknowledged in the article. It’s not new in the history of the church; it’s just new from the standpoint of Western culture in the last 30-40 years.

  • andrew

    Incidentally, it seems Steven Harrell is looking for a “contemporvant” C. S. Lewis:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3RJBd8zE48A

  • Chuck

    It is difficult to imagine any person now reading Athanasius or Anselm who is not already persuaded doing other than falling over laughing and wondering why they wasted so much breath on such things.

  • Matt

    So wait a minute: Tony Jones called C.S. Lewis a “theological hack”? Maybe I’m missing the context, but that seems like a twelve-year-old kid shooting hoops in his driveway and calling Lebron James a “basketball hack.” Sorry, kid, but guys just aren’t in the same league.


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