a more effective apologetic?

Pascal said in Pensees: The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know…It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by reason.

Time for a confession. I’ve always felt a tension at the heart of apologetics. Yes, I can make what I think are some effective arguments for the reasonableness of faith in Christ and belief in God. I think that I’ve put together some serviceable and even compelling answers to the questions that skeptics ask. But the question that I struggle with is, “Why doesn’t it seem to work?” Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen apologetics work. I’ve seen it work in the lives of certain unbelievers. I’ve seen it work in the lives of a great number of believers struggling in their convictions. But, on the whole, most skeptics seem pretty hardened to my best arguments – despite their clear brilliance. My students have felt this tension too. Every semester, I will have a handful of them express exasperation with a loved one who just doesn’t want to “listen to reason.” They will believe in incoherent things while complaining about the incoherence of Christianity. They will believe in wild theories and conspiracies in the absence of evidence while complaining about the utter lack of evidence supporting faith. What gives?!

Dr. John Coe at Talbot School of Theology has helped me to think more clearly about this tension by distinguishing “reasons for belief” from “causes for belief.” Reasons for belief are grounded in the intellect, in thoughts, in reason. I have reason to believe that the sky is blue, that James K. Polk was the 11th President of the United States, that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is true, and that Jesus of Nazareth died and was resurrected three days later. Having reasons for belief doesn’t guarantee I’m right, but it does mean that you will only convince me to change my belief by appealing to reasons. If two people have different, reasoned beliefs about man made climate change, they will be able to sit down together and share their reasons un-defensively and unemotionally as they are both seeking what is really real.

But of course that’s not likely to happen is it? Nowadays two people would have a very difficult time sitting down to a reasonable discussion about differences of belief in climate change. (Which really hampers any realistic chance we have at arriving at truth by the way.) The same can be said about most God-conversations. Tempers flare. People get defensive. People stop (or never start) listening to reason. Why? Coe (many others like James Smith would agree) suggests that it is because most people operate out of “causes for belief” not reasons. Causes for belief are grounded in emotional thinking. The passions are stirring the will. And when the passions have taken over, reason must always take a backseat. A sure sign that a person has causes for unbelief is defensiveness or an emotional “lashing out” when beliefs are challenged. So appealing to a person who has causes for not believing in the resurrection with historical and logical evidence will not be terribly effective in convincing them. In fact, they will probably either dismiss you or call you nasty names. (I should very quickly acknowledge that all Christians including me have both reasons and causes for their own beliefs. This is not just an observation about the skeptic.)

There are two different kinds of apologetics. The kind that most of us are familiar with and comfortable with (including me) is rational apologetics. This is the apologetics of the philosophers and the historians. There is a valuable role for this brand of apologetics. It can be a way of loving people who do have reasons for their unbelief. It can be a way of “clearing the ground” or removing obstacles so that the gospel can have a better hearing. It gives us credibility in the cultural debate alongside of other thinkers. And it is very helpful in encouraging believers. I remain an unapologetic advocate of rational apologetics. But it isn’t enough. This just isn’t where most skeptics live.

Instead, we also need to cultivate “therapeutic apologetics.” This is an approach that aims at the heart. It is a method of apologetics that is more about psychology than philosophy – more about spirituality than rationality. It is a method of apologetics that takes feelings and story more seriously. In other words, it’s the type of apologetics that guys like me usually kind of make fun of to be completely honest. What do your feelings have to do with the truth?!!! Well…quite a bit I guess. If you don’t get to know and come to love the skeptic, if you don’t take his story seriously and listen to the causes of his unbelief, you will never ever be able to challenge him with the truth.

Pascal also said just a few lines later in Pensees that “the knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him.” There’s no doubt that this is right. Every apologist should have this engraved on their door frame so they can see it on their way out of the office. It should be tattooed on the back of their tweeting hand. An effective apologist has to learn basically that people (including the apologist himself) are more than their brains. In fact, the brain most often follows the heart. And it seems that you can only address the heart once you’ve done more than a little listening and question-asking.

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