The Structure of Apologetics

I’m currently reading an introduction to Charles Taylor – it’s part of an obscene stack of Christmas books. There was an interesting comment about why apologetics is stupid, and I want to investigate it further. Basically the argument is that letting secular society determine the terms of conversation is going to pre-emptively neuter any apologetic effort. Let’s talk about it. 

The problem here isn’t necessarily apologetics in and of itself, although amusingly the section heading is literally just ‘How Apologetics Diminishes Christianity’. The book, if you’re wondering, is James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith is essentially rehearsing Taylor’s argument as like an introduction to Taylor’s mammoth The Secular Age. Smith (or rather Taylor) points out that if we’re living in a society that sees physical phenomena as more or less the only thing worth talking about, then there’s not a lot of space for God. You don’t really need God to explain physical laws or natural structures – so God just sort of fades into irrelevance.

Secularists and anti-religion polemicists often refer to this process as the ‘God of the Gaps’. According to the ‘God of the Gaps’ narrative, God is basically an idea that people came up with to explain natural stuff like lightning or whatever. As we figure out how lightning actually worked, that role is essentially taken away from God, who starts shrinking. As the gaps in scientific knowledge become smaller, God becomes smaller, and He’s ultimately science’d out of existence. It’s a compelling argument, as long as you remain within this cultural framework that sees physical phenomena as the only thing that we can meaningfully talk about.

For a bit of context, Taylor is interested in the modern age as a ‘secular’ age. He’s not interested in the intellectual arguments for or against secularism, because those arguments aren’t necessarily what’s convincing people. Taylor suggests that there’s an underlying world view that contains a whole bunch of different assumptions about reality. For Taylor, the reason you don’t find many (any?) secular humanists in medieval Europe, say, is specifically because their underlying world view doesn’t make it possible to be a secular humanist. He puts it quite strongly: it’s legitimately not possible to think in those terms, because the necessary cultural presuppositions just don’t exist. Ironically, we face a reversed situation today: if religion is declining, it is not because people are becoming more rational, quote-unquote, but because the cultural conditions for belief are becoming less prominent.

I’ll give you an example of one of these cultural conditions – crudely, mind you, because this is, ah, third-hand information now. Taylor identifies a shift in the location of meaning from ‘the world’ to ‘the mind’. So in the premodern imagination, things in the world bear meaning in themselves, independent of any observation by human minds. Meaning is something they both possess and essentially radiate. In the modern perspective, something we’re more familiar with, meaning is located in the mind. Things don’t have inherent meaning – we create meaning ourselves in our minds. You can see how this cultural presupposition immediately shifts the position of God. It’s the difference between receiving and making knowledge. If meaning is constructed in the mind, knowledge is something we make. It’s something we own, and something that doesn’t exist without us. If meaning is located in the world, knowledge is something we receive. There’s a fundamental openness to the universe, which radiates meaning whether or not we are there to observe it. If meaning is constructed in the mind, all knowledge of God (such as it is) is something we construct ourselves. We make God known. If meaning is something located in the world, something we receive, then the idea that we can receive reliable knowledge from God, about God, is more comprehensible. Obviously the argument is more nuanced and complicated than that, but that’s your dummies guide introduction. The argument isn’t necessarily that the premodern perspective is better, either – there’s just a point being made about underlying cultural assumptions and how they impact the intellectual integrity of belief.

Anyway – so the ‘God of the Gaps’ narrative is a bit annoying, because it’s often used by people who don’t understand how culture works. It’s not that people were bad scientists and then they got good and God shrunk, there’s actually a shift in the underlying cultural construction of knowledge. But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is apologetics and why it’s stupid. So today we’ve got this new set of cultural assumptions that make belief less believable. Taylor points out that trying to defend God within that set of cultural assumptions is really going to hamstring your representation of religion. Let’s go to – well, to the God of the Gaps, but also to the debate around evolution. The creationist argument is basically that from a scientific perspective, the only rational scientific conclusion is that God created the universe. You can see how this thesis is already adapting to the value conditions of contemporary society – crudely, 1) science proves things, 2) we need science to prove our belief or our belief is invalid. Does it matter if evolution is true? Not really. It’s not particularly important to our faith. Most of Genesis can be fictional narrative, and we’re basically still fine. But talking about religious belief purely in terms of science makes it seem like the scope of religion is limited to the scope of science, and that’s fucking stupid.

So: apologetics. Apologetics that operates under a value structure laid out by secular society is, as above, fucking stupid. It neuters Christianity by focusing on things that by and large aren’t that interesting to Christianity. A better apologetics reframes the conversation on our terms. In fact, the best apologetics is arguably no apologetics at all. An apologist is someone who defends a set of claims or beliefs through intellectual argument, and, as above, the issue isn’t the intellectual arguments around those beliefs as much as the cultural assumptions that determine whether or not belief is believable in the first place. An apologist’s intellectual argument therefore does little to solve the root problem. The better solution is to shift the underlying culture, an endeavour that is not the task of apologetics but rather that of the artist. Good artists will always be much better apologists than the apologists themselves.



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