My friend Brett Kunkle, who works for apologetics organization Stand to Reason, recently sent me his newsletter. I’m going to quote some of it to you, for it highlights something about the role of apologetics in disicpleship that people often miss.
A bit of background: oftentimes when Brett speaks to Christians in high school and to youth pastors, he first poses as an atheist to the crowd. They don’t know he’s really a Christian, so he engages them and slowly picks apart their faith. He “comes out” later and walks them through the challenges, but his main goal in doing the posing is to wake the audience up to their need to learn how to defend their faith. Most can’t do it very well. Most can’t do it at all.
On to the letter:
It was eighty against one. Not good odds, but when I role-play an atheist with the typical Christian students, I like my chances. But these weren’t students. They were adults. And not just any adults, but Christian leaders on the East Coast. Pastors, youth pastors, parachurch leaders, school teachers, and administrators.
I launched in to my “Why I’m not a Christian” arguments. Debate quickly followed. From the start, a number of adults appealed to their experience of the Holy Spirit–“I know God is real because I’ve experienced His Spirit.” I quickly shot back, “How do you know that’s really God? Mormons say the same thing. Do you think they’re experiencing God as well?”
One man in particular was emphatic. “I just know it’s the Holy Spirit speaking to me.” He tried to bolster the argument, declaring God had spoken to him through the Bible as well. I responded with a typical atheist challenge. “The Bible tells us that God spoke to Abraham, asking him to sacrifice his son.” Then I looked him in the eye and questioned him, “If God asked you to kill your son, would you do it?” He joked about his son sitting there next to him, but he could not answer the challenge.
In fact, there were only two leaders out of those 80 who gave me real trouble during the exchange. The first, a youth pastor, launched into the moral argument for God’s existence. I tried to take the “morals are determined by society” route, but he calmly pinned me down. The second, a deacon and Sunday school teacher, offered a design argument, articulating Michale Behe’s argument from irriducible complexity. I quickly changed topics.
Brett goes on in the letter to reveal that both men had included thinking skills training in their discipleship to Christ: both made extensive use of the training materials from Stand to Reason.
Then, Brett continues:
Later, the man who claimed he just knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to him approached me. He wanted my help. “My son, sitting next to me, is doubting everything.” Then he burst into tears. Embarrassed, he grabbed my arm and pulled me around the corner. As he wept bitterly, his son’s story emerged. A bright kid, grew up in a Christian home, led friends to the Lord, on fire for Christ, even preached in their church. But now, he questioned it all. He begged me, “Will you talk to him? Please, will you talk to him today?”
After my final teaching session, the son approached me, quickly launching into a laundry list of objections to Christianity. A lenghty conversation ensued, covering topics like objective moral truths, utilitarian ethical theory, Kant’s categorical imperative, retributive justice, divine hiddenness, intelligent design, and the experience of the Holy Spirit. From the conversation, I guessed he was a graduate student in philosophy. Wrong. He was a high school senior.
His objections boiled down to this: “I’ve been taught that Christianity’s truthfulness is confirmed by my experience. I am no longer having powerful Christian experiences. In addition, I’m reading arguments against Christianity. I now wonder if it’s rational for me to remain a Christian.” He had just rehearsed his father’s argument for Christianity…and its shortcomings.
I listened, offered thoughts to reframe his view of Christianity’s truthfulness, put personal experience in its proper place, and introduced him to apologetics. He thanked me and we parted ways.
He ends by making a request to pray for the young man.
Brett’s letter underscores a few important things. First, the Christian worldview has the resources to answer the objections and questions that are posed to it, but few believers are actually even partially equipped to grasp and communicate those resources. Brett’s experience of the majority in the Church that he recounts in this letter is pretty standard for him. Just think: these were not youth group kids, but adult leaders. When pressed, the only resource all but two of them fell back on boils down to a certain felt experience. That is a biblical part of the life of the Christ follower, but it is of little help when doubts from within and challenges from without come…and both of those will come.
Secondly and relatedly, when we as the Church fail to value the life of the mind, we leave our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ naked and defenseless against the harsh winters of doubt, and we leave non-believers (those who are not easily persuaded by an appeal to a felt experience–which is most non-believers, I’d think) with nothing to grasp onto but “I know because I know because I know.” Brett’s conversation with the high school senior bears this out. Seriously, how is that valuing and loving them? There are lots of smart folks outside the church. When we have nothing to appeal to but the experience of the Holy Spirit, does that take their intellect seriously? If we truly love them, the least we can do is prepare ourselves to be able to walk them through the answers to some of their nagging questions and doubts.
All this reminds me of a friendship I had with a colleague at my former school. We talked about questions and objections to Christianity often (he was an agnostic) in the same manner that Brett talked with the young man. After a few years, one day my friend remarked to me how satisfying it was to be able to talk to me intelligently about such things. I was the only Christian in his life he could do that with. Though the compliment meant a lot to me, I had a certain sadness in my heart: I was the only one?
Thirdly, I know many shy away from training their minds because they think that it’s somehow unChristlike and they view it as combative. Visions of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly quickly pop into their heads, and they say, “no thanks.”**
But apologetics need not be like that. Used properly, it is conversational and relational. The conversation Brett engaged in was natural. I know the guy: he doesn’t walk around with a Evidence that Demands a Verdict holster, and he doesn’t have a belt of William Lane Craig bullets strung across his chest. He’s normal. Furthermore, because he has trained his intellect, he can confidently converse with any non-believer, whether he be seeker or skeptic, full-time professor or full-time mom.
If you have nothing but an experience to stand upon, consider devoting your intellect to Christ too. You need not get a phd in philosophy, though that’d be nice. All you gotta do is…do something. You can begin here.
**That’s not to put down either man; it’s just that many would rather not be so aggressively combative, and the two men fit the stereotype.