Proper Christian Education Should Not Be Confused With Apologetics

Proper Christian Education Should Not Be Confused With Apologetics August 17, 2023

Sailko: Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence) – Facade Of Ficino / Wikimedia Commons

Those who have a message to sell will engage typical marketing tactics. They will try to get their audience to believe what they have to offer will be the answer to some if not all their problems. To get it, all someone needs to do is pay for it. They might give a small sample of what is being offered, but if they do, it is what they believe is enough to get their audience’s attention, making them want more. Then, once someone pays, they are given a little more, while they are told, there is even more they can get, but only if they pay for it. This allows for a never-ending grift as people sell all kinds of products such as books or videos. We see this often in the way many Christians promote their faith. Those who do so have turned the faith into a marketing exercise. They are close to, if not actually engaging, simony. They imply that many leave the Christian faith, or at least the tradition of the faith in which they were raised, is due to bad catechesis, that is, to the faith being “dumbed down.”  They suggest Christian education is no longer giving satisfactory answers to the questions which have arisen in the modern world, but they have it, and it can be had – for a price.  What people find, once they buy the product being offered, is that they are not getting what they were promised. They get materials, to be sure, books they can read, and videos they can watch, but the materials present a rather simplistic approach to the faith, which is the exact opposite of what they were told to expect.  The same people who talk about the “dumbing-down” of the faith tend to be the ones who want to reduce it a rather simple package, one which ignores the transcendent mystery of the faith, undermining all attempts to have a faith seeking understanding, a faith which is capable of being developed with nuance and intellectual rigor. The very ones who complain about “dumbing down the faith” seem to be interested in doing that themselves; what they want to offer as a replacement is another simplified version of the faith.

We can see this kind of strategy and problem in the way Colin Flynn summarized the message given to him by Bishop Robert Barron: “Young people don’t want an uncertain trumpet. They want something clear. We’ve dumbed down the faith too much for too long in order to be relevant.” What is being suggested is an apologetical approach to the faith, one which proclaims that we can have a clear, unquestionable certainty of the truths of the faith. However, to have this, the truths of the faith must be reduced to simple propositions. What cannot be established by such an approach will be neglected if not rejected.

The Christian faith must be reduced to conventional talking points, turning such conventions into absolutes. Those who do so deny the transcendent value of the faith, turning it into a mere intellectual exercise. This is why many who take this approach act as if the faith can only be preserved through rote memorization of facts and arguments. When they say they will educate people in the faith, they mean they will just give them such a simple, and very faulty, understanding of the faith, creating, therefore, a bad understanding of what education should be about. Education should not be merely about facts and figures, but finding a way to take all that is learned and apply it into one’s lives as well as how to develop one’s own ability to continually learn and develop what one has learned beyond what one they have been taught. Instead of realizing faith should be a faith seeking further and further understanding, and that Christian education should help develop character and help people live out their faith, we end up with a faith which is merely the collection of facts to know, and a Christian education which does not allow one to engage what they have learned.

This certainly is the way many have learned to treat the faith thanks to the rise of apologetics. The mystery of faith is lost, the transcendence of the faith is lost. What is given is a collection of “certain” facts which the apologist claims can be demonstrated by reason. True faith cannot be reduced in this fashion, for faith allows us to be open to and engage the truth which transcends the human intellect.

Proper education is not about the production of a list of simple propositions which should be memorized. It is about helping us form our character as well as developing the tools we need to continue to learn throughout our lives. Education should train us to ask questions as well as to accept that we cannot always know all the answers. That is, educated people know they will have to accept a level of uncertainty, but they will realize this is the strength of a good education, as it means they will have the tools to investigate and learn for themselves instead of becoming immobile in their certainty.

If we think we know everything, if we think there are no subtle concerns which must be addressed, we might act with confidence as we spread our message, but we will find many will not have what it is we are offering. They will not be as convinced as we are, for they will have questions which we have not asked and so questions which we cannot answer. This is, again, is what we see happening with the Christian faith. The apologetical approach to conversion and educating Christians has hindered the faith instead of helped it. It has reduced the faith to something which is clear and concise, something which anyone can simply memorize and claim is true, instead of encouraging us to take a step beyond clarity into the learned ignorance which allows us to apprehend the truth while never comprehending it. And this is what such an approach to the faith lacks, that is, and honest awareness of itself and its own limitations. It is all about what can be argued instead of what is apprehended.  “Many, though learned, possessing faith, and though absorbed in effort, are befouled by the offenses due to the fault of lacking awareness.” [1] Without proper awareness of our own limitations, we can easily become prideful of what we think they know, and so undermine ourselves and others as we over-simplify the faith and act like everything in it is simple and easily shown to be certain truth.

We need to train people to accept the transcendent, incomprehensible nature of truth, even as we should learn, despite its transcendence, we can apprehend it. It cannot be presented as something made certain through debate and argumentation, as something so easy to comprehend, even as it cannot be treated as if it is so transcendent that there is nothing of it which we can apprehend and use to inspire our faith. We should acknowledge it is incomprehensible and yet apprehensible. That way, people will not immediately leave the faith if they find something in it difficult, if not impossible, for them to comprehend, such as the teaching of the Trinity We should train people to learn to accept the uneasy balance between apprehension of the truth and its incomprehensibility, to realize we can discern elements of the truth and find ways to explain it for ourselves (often through the category of fittingness, which by its nature, means it is not certain) while not expecting full comprehension of it because it is not simple and easy to prove. Nicholas of Cusa provides us what an informed faith is to be like, one which he calls a learned ignorance:

Therefore, it is not the case that by means of likenesses a finite intellect can precisely attain the truth about things. For truth is not something more or something less but is something indivisible. Whatever is not truth cannot measure truth precisely. (By comparison, a noncircle [cannot measure] a circle, whose being is something indivisible.) Hence, the intellect, which is not truth, never comprehends truth so precisely that truth cannot be comprehended infinitely more precisely. [2]

We should encourage people to engage the truth, to find new, and hopefully, better, ways to engage it so that they can develop what they know and understand while still allowing it to remain transcendent. That means, they will have to learn to accept nuance, for it is often through such nuance we find our ability to apprehend the truth is increased.  Education, faith-based education, certainly should examine and discuss the apprehensions of the faith which has been passed down to us and use it as a foundation, but it must not get stuck in doing so, trying to limit the faith and our knowledge and understanding of it merely to the conventional forms used to pass it down. Every generation has questions, and if all they are given is what was given before, those questions will not be answered.

It is important, in distilling the faith, in teaching others, we encourage people to take what they have learned and make sure they know how to apply it to their lives. When they have not been taught to do so, it should not be surprising that they will find themselves departing from the faith, because they will think it has nothing to offer them beyond rote facts which have no real-world value. Thus, Ficino, understanding this, said:

Let them study to be good rather than learned, for learning begets envy which goodness destroys. Goodness is both more useful to men and more pleasing to God than learning. It is also more enduring. We forget more quickly some facts which was quickly learned than we lose principles of conduct which we have attained by arduous daily practice. Learning in itself brings little of value, and that for only a short time, while goodness is eternal and leads to the realisation of God. Therefore, following the example of Socrates, advise your pupils to use human learning to dispel the clouds of the senses, and to bring serenity to the soul. [3]

For Christians, this means learning how to engage the greater good, that is, how to live out the teachings of Jesus as presented, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, or in his parables, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. When Christianity is treated as some propositional philosophy instead of being a way of life, it quickly becomes the plaything of those who would undermine the common good. Education should help us learn to discern the common good, teaching us how to live it out, giving us wisdom so that we know how to deal with nuance and accept the complexity involved not only in the doctrines of the faith, but in making moral decisions in our lives. Certainly, to have the Christian faith be handed down with all that has been given to it, it must include things which challenge the status quo such as the preferential option for the poor. God loves the world, and that love is something we should not only accept in our lives, but act out in the way we treat others and the world at large. The Christian tradition has made it clear that God expects us to work for and promote the common good, taking care of the world around us. Sadly, often we find those who want to reduce Christianity to a simple propositional faith denigrate Christian praxis. They ridicule notion of the common good. They act like they do not have to take care of their neighbor. Christians are to be the salt of the earth, but it seems many try to replace that salt with artificial sweeteners. We must understand, therefore, the promotion of right action itself is a part of proper Christian study. And, as St Photius said, the study of virtue is found not in syllogisms or speculations, but in action:

For in the study of virtue lies the root of good action; and the action, if it continues,  is the more easily supported by habit and more readily attracts other such actions as help-mates, and becomes productive of the like when it is regulated by speech – since speech is wont, like a skilled husbandman, to show and help increase the virtues in one and the same sacred plot of the soul, not letting them be torn apart from each other and scattered.[4]

Those who would have us ignore our duty to the common good, who would have us ignore the problems of climate change or racism, undermine the proper study of virtue. They want to replace the Christin faith, a faith which is showed and proven by works, with mere propositions. They want, that is, to undermine the power of the Christian faith, substituting it with an anti-faith, one which looks, on the surface Christian, but which replaces the praxis of love with a praxis of indifferent rejection of the common good. And so, what they offer, does not satisfy. This, sadly, is what many Christians have been given of late. This is why it is not surprising that so many look elsewhere for their spiritual needs. Thus, instead of turning Christianity into some sort of intellectual argument, we need to make sure it is a way of life, and not just any way, but the way of the cross, that is, the way of love. This, more than anything else, is what draws people to the faith, for those who are touched by the power of God’s love will be able to stand in and with the faith even if they have questions, but without that power, without that love, all they will have are questions which are not answered.

[1] Śāntideva, The Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra. Trans. Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; repr. 1998), 36 [5.26].

[2] Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance. Trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1985; second ed, 1990), 52.

[3] Marsilio Ficino, The Letters of Marsilio Ficino. Volume 1.  trans. by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1975; repr. 1988), 163 [Letter  109 to Lorenzo Lippi].

[4] St. Photius, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Trans. Cyril Mango (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1958; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 55 [Homily 2].

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