Framing Christian apologetics

Mere Apologetics by Alister McGrath. Baker, 2012, 208pp.

Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue by Benno van den Toren. T&T Clark, 2012, 288pp.

What is the best way of defending the Christian religion today? And do we really need yet another apologia in the form of an intellectual argument? Both Alister McGrath and Benno van den Toren are alert to these questions. Mere Apologetics and Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue make clear that an intellectual defence of the beliefs of the Christian religion divorced from an account of its practice can no longer be sustained as an “answer” for today’s world. And both authors appeal to what they call our current postmodernity as evidence of the need to frame Christian apologetics in a compelling story, one that clearly presents the truth of the Gospel in a sensitive way and addresses the whole person in their own context. While these two books address themselves to all Christians, their confessional viewpoints are not difficult to determine. Both authors are writing from the Protestant perspective, and where McGrath invokes C. S. Lewis and Anglican evangelicalism, van den Toren invokes Karl Barth and the Dutch Reformed tradition.

McGrath and van den Toren are writing for a popular audience. Although certain allowances should be made in concession to this aim, and much more space allotted to the many good and interesting things they have to say, I am not going to summarize their books here, other than to say that they very helpfully move beyond the parochial apologetic tracts written in the past 40 years by American evangelicals. These are books Christians can and should read with profit, in addition to being introductions to the philosophy of “critical realism.” But I am going to focus on a feature of their work that I think Christian apologists of whatever stripe should avoid.

McGrath and van den Toren root their accounts of Christian apologetics in terms of a historical transition they posit between modernity and postmodernity. Although each author makes a diverse set of statements about what characterizes modernity and postmodernity, neither is adequately defined. Both authors rely far too heavily on philosophical critics of modernity even as they sometimes dismiss the views of those very critics (Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty). McGrath even claims that he does not criticize modernity or postmodernity in his book. But is it really possible to describe modernity as a period which lasts from 1750 to 1960 without entailing certain presuppositions? A critical judgment is obviously at play, even if it is being assumed for heuristic purposes.

What is often at issue in the characterization of the shift to postmodernity in these books is an equation of “the Enlightenment” with “modernity.” This is a surprising simplification given that McGrath makes use of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor sees the Enlightenment as but one of many important historical moments that together make up the modern world. Van den Toren makes more frequent reference to the Enlightenment than McGrath, yet without anywhere engaging with a single Enlightenment author other than a brief reference to Immanuel Kant. He even refers in all seriousness to Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) as having “shown” that the Enlightenment ideals of equality, freedom, and brotherhood have been turned upside down in modernity. Adorno and Horkheimer’s work, however interesting it may be as an argument, is not historical, but polemical. It seems to me that future Christian apologists should keep in mind the fact that “the Enlightenment” is a literary construct of nineteenth-century historiography and thus not simply a historical reification to be used without critical reflection.

Future Christian apologists should also stop relying solely on philosophers for their account of the past, and they should start referring to works of historical scholarship written less than 30 years ago. If Dialectic of Enlightenment is out, then so too is After Virtue. MacIntyre’s is quite obviously an interesting and possible interpretation of the Enlightenment, one which which I find quite compelling and I think demands very serious consideration. But Christian apologists—and maybe I should also add theologians—cannot simply refer to MacIntyre as if his work somehow offers “the” explanation of what “the” Enlightenment was, and then proceed to make sweeping generalizations about either “the” Enlightenment or “modernity.” MacIntyre’s account has remained deeply contested from its initial publication: it is by no means universally accepted by other philosophers or historians, let alone his fellow Catholics. It may be possible to square MacIntyre’s philosophical account with a broader historical narrative about modernity, but if the reception of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is any indication, this will be a challenging task that will undoubtedly meet with a mixed reception.

If they wish to speak in broad terms about “the Enlightenment” and “modernity,” or to hold up Blaise Pascal as a venerable example of a Christian apologist, as both authors do, perhaps McGrath and van den Toren should have considered Pascal’s eighteenth-century reception. For instance, both Voltaire and the Marquis de Condorcet were fascinated by Pascal’s brilliance and repulsed by his Augustinian asceticism (Pascal was a Jansenist). Voltaire famously referred to Pascal as the “sublime misanthrope” and rejected Pascal’s wager argument in his Letters concerning the English Nation. Condorcet republished Pascal’s Pensèes in bowdlerized form and his view of the human condition is implicitly contrasted with Pascal’s in the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. Showing just how Pascal’s defense of Christianity fared in the hands of the philosophes would have provided an illuminating historical example of some of the changes happening in the ways in which religion was understood and defended in the eighteenth-century, and perhaps could have suggested some of the ways in which it continues to be relevant to our world today.

I realize that it is probably naïve to expect Christian apologists to chasten their rhetoric or to refrain from convenient generalizations. Nonetheless, it seems to me that both McGrath’s and van den Toren’s arguments would be significantly strengthened if they abandoned their hollow bogeyman of “the Enlightenment” in favour of a much more nuanced, contextualized history. After all, there are now very many scholarly sources from which they could draw, and it would not make their books unwieldy or any less readable; nor would doing so necessarily call into question the broad outlines of their apologetic vision. If “critical realism” stakes its claim on making the best sense of reality, whatever that means, Christian apologists who adopt that framework should probably come to terms with what historians have to say about the past, and that historical interpretation entails telling contested stories.

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