On Being an Ex-Apologist (Hardman, part 1 of 3)

Below is the first of three posts by Randy Hardman on his experiences as an official Christian apologist and why he felt he had to move on from that vocation. (Readers may remember an earlier post with a similar theme.)

Hardman speaks his truth from his experience and has a deep story to tell, some of which we read about in these posts (and I hope to see more of it in time). He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Appalachian State University and will graduate this Spring from Asbury Theological Seminary with an M.A. in Biblical Studies and an M.A. in Theological Studies. He blogs at www.thebarainitiative.com–as he puts it–on things that most of the world doesn’t care about but he thinks they should. He also is the father of two wonderful children, a church consultant for a mainline Christian publisher (a job he says he’s way too opinionated for), and a freelance writer.

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Disclaimer: Just as it is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, these posts are in no way an attempt to say apologetics as a whole is a pointless discipline, nor are they intended to say that by defining myself as an “ex-apologist” I refuse any rational argumentation or apologetic endeavors.

I am an apologist in so far as it is a “tool” in my belt, not a vocation or an identity. These posts are intent on reflecting, through personal testimony, a popular conception of apologetics that I find to be largely one-dimensional and misguided.

Still, I want to acknowledge that there are people, groups, and ministries devoted to doing apologetics within a framework that I find to be both appropriate and helpful (i.e., I would be remiss if I did not mention my work with Summit Ministries in particular stands in exclusion to the nature of what I reference here, for in my experience, while largely traditional as an organization, they encouraged me to think deep and believe even deeper—they share a positive aspect of my entire story).     

I was bred to be an apologist.

I had the classic story that, interestingly, so many others share: one involving an initial teenage salvation, an eighteen year old skepticism that led to agnosticism/atheism, and a re-gained confidence of my faith through reading Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict.

At 18 years old I entered into the world of apologetics, enrolling at a secular school to “defend” the Christian faith against those professors who sought to destroy it and with an intent to save the faith of the 75% who, I heard endlessly from those surrounding me, would walk away from their faith because they didn’t know “why they believed what they believe.”

At the age of nineteen I started an apologetics campus ministry, which quickly found a 501c3 host and went national, placing apologetics clubs at campuses all over the U.S. As a twenty year old college student, I spent my nights arguing for creationism, inerrancy, and God’s existence on internet forums and spent many weekends traveling to speak on why apologetics can save your faith…just like it did mine!

When somebody asked me who I was, I often replied, “I’m an apologist” and I was convinced that this was who I was “meant” to be. “God is calling me to this,” I would say.

The sad part is, while the story is true, it is only true to a certain qualified extent.

While I certainly came across “evidences” that allowed me to shake off some of the intellectual doubts that I had picked up on, I can’t say any longer that apologetics “saved my faith,” which was something I said time and again in front of audiences and in writing.

I knew all the reasons as to why Christianity was true. I could spout off the cosmological argument quicker than you could say Richard Dawkins, and I certainly royally upset enough professors–not to mention fellow students–with my public classroom defense of the faith!

But despite being so immersed in apologetics, my “faith” was as far from God as ever.

I didn’t know Him despite knowing all about Him. Christianity was an orthodoxy to be defended, a set of correct conservative doctrines and dogmas based on philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments, not a personal covenant or a relationship with the redeemer of souls.

I knew “why I believed what I believed” yet I, too, was in that 75%. How ironic! If my private life was exposed–my addiction to porn, my alcohol and pot consumption, my relationship with my girlfriend–I looked like your average college guy, not the model of an upstanding Christian apologist I tried to be in front of others.

Reason did little to strengthen my faith, despite my repeated claim that it “saved it.” It just turned me into a jerk with a lot of ammo–a jerk who merely pretended to have things put together by the overwhelming evidence of Christianity but, in reality, who was more assuredly as confused, carnal, and lost as the person I was insistent to win over to Christ through rigorous argumentation.

I don’t blame anyone but myself for my words or actions, but there was a large extent to where I sincerely confused salvation with knowledge, where my life and actions and personal emptiness failed to really matter in the long run as long as I had my conservative Protestant theology worked out.

And I think whereas I alone bore the need to repent from divorcing my head knowledge from my heart knowledge, there is also a significant fostering of that mindset within apologetics. There is a particular invitation that says, “Got doubt? We got answers” as if intellectual answers can assuage our doubt and our longing for faith.

When we promise someone that they can become an “official apologist” (as some programs and schools do) or when we treat the discipline as if it has the potential to create or save faith in those who doubt, I fear that we end up offering people empty promises, even if they appear to be temporary solutions.

This comes from personal experience and from conversations with some of those who are our most sophisticated thinkers.

The doubts that I dealt with ten years ago are the same doubts that I deal with now, albeit in different ways sometimes and I routinely pray, not read, for faith. Rationalism never quenches the thirst of doubt; it only masquerades it.

Beyond this, I wonder how often simplistic conceptions of apologetics promote the notion that our best expression of our faith is our public defense of it, not the proclamation of it rooted in our life.

I wonder, in fact, how many use the “defense of the Gospel” as an excuse for incredible pride and judgment, a “Christian excuse” to tell others to be quiet and sit down, thus making Christian apologetics a very non-Christian discipline.

Slowly, the dissatisfaction of “having all the answers” started to eat away at me and, with that, my sense of pride.

I remember one day in particular, walking into a classroom on a Sunday morning to teach an apologetics class to some youth. I was coherent, but still slightly drunk from the night before. I am sure I wreaked of smoke but nobody mentioned anything so perhaps Axe Body Spray does work after all.

The shame and the guilt ran circles inside my head as I spoke about the evidence for the resurrection, standing in front of this group pretending to be a leader. Here I was, at a church teaching an apologetics class, giving the “answers as to why Christianity’s true” but without any real conviction of it myself.

Oh, in retrospect how I wished someone would have asked me not about “premise two” but, rather, “how is your soul?” The emptiness and the shame consumed me that day and I realized that despite all my head knowledge and all my intellectual flexing, I was only what John Wesley called an “almost Christian.”

It was the day that I admitted to myself, “Apologetics did not save my faith. It saved my pride.”

Perhaps for many, as in my case, apologetics becomes a means of hiding our faithlessness, not answering it. After all,

  • Why is it that so many apologists are so consumed with the discipline that it seems to be what they eat, drink, and sleep?
  • Why is it that so many insist on “defending the faith” in the classroom, no matter what sort of insult, interruption or shame that brings the professor and class?
  • Why is it that so many are threatened when popular boundaries are brought into question by none other than fellow Christians?
  • Why is it, as I have seen personally, so many apologists turn out to be jerks, little different in rhetoric and spirit than the New Atheists they so fervently wish to counter?

Can the Devil not find his way into the apologetics camp too?


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