The Web is a big place, and, to understate the demographics, a lot of people who spend time online aren't Christians. In the chat rooms, message boards, and virtual communities of cyberspace, non-Christians gather in droves. With admirable evangelistic fervor, many individual Christians and Christian organizations have erected Web sites with the sole purpose of defending Christianity and introducing surfing seekers to Jesus.
A major part of the Web's Christian presence is devoted to apologetics, the defense of Christian belief against criticism and alternatives. A recent search of "Christian apologetics" on Google turned up over 2,000 Web sites. Some of these sites are of the homegrown variety (like Sean's Christian Apologetics Page), while others such as Christiananswers.net or the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) have more of a professional feel.
So far, so good. But what message is being communicated to the spiritual seekers who visit these sites?
For the most part, seekers are encountering Christian apologetics sites that are based on a modernist worldview where reason is paramount, there is absolute truth to be found, and the laws of logic are subscribed to by all. For centuries, this approach has put Christians on solid ground with seekers. But times have changed, and now millions don't share those presuppositions. Many of those millions are logging on to the Web every day.
Visit a well-known Christian apologetics Web site such as Christiananswers.net, and you'll find lots of information on the creation/evolution debate, abortion, cults, and biblical archaeology. However, you'll look in vain for articles about relativism, the nature of truth, and issues of tolerance and intolerance.
This isn't an isolated case. The same can be said of CARM, another well-known Christian apologetics Web site. CARM's Common Questions page doesn't mention truth, tolerance, or relativism at all. Another well-regarded site, Unravelling Wittgenstein's Net, has an "Objections Index," but none of the objections touch on the issue of absolute truth.
In fact, a Google search for Web sites discussing Christianity and relativism didn't turn up any such sites. The only returns contained academic articles about relativism, and only a small fraction of those articles even discussed relativism from a Christian worldview. (One of the few Christian apologetics sites that addresses relativism is Stand to Reason: entering "truth" into the search engine on its home page returned an impressive collection of articles. Unfortunately, these articles aren't linked from the ministry's home page.)
That the great majority of Christian apologetics sites overlook the issue of relativism becomes even more inexplicable considering that the most frequent objections seekers have to the Christian gospel center on the issue of truth.
Know Your Audience
Many, if not most spiritual seekers in cyberspace have rejected modernism in favor of postmodernism. The most important thing to know about postmodern people is that they don't believe in absolute truth and regard those who do with suspicion or contempt. As Gene Veith argues, for postmodern people,
Reason is replaced by the pleasure-principle. Instead of people saying they agree or disagree with a proposition, we hear how much they 'like' or 'dislike' a particular idea. People pick and choose what they enjoy from a wide range of theories and religions, dependent solely on their personal preferences and choices. The intellect is replaced by the will.
This means a postmodern person is perfectly comfortable with the idea that Christianity can be true for you while Buddhism or neopaganism is true for him. So when he encounters a Christian apologetics site that tells him Jesus is the truth, his reaction is either one of anger or pity. This is also the case with another central tenet of the Christian faith: original sin. For the postmodern person, all people are basically good, even though they may make mistakes here and there. As with the idea of the absolute truth of Christianity, the postmodern person can't make sense of being born a sinner.
Then there's the matter of mystery. Postmodern people understand that the world in which they live contains mysteries impenetrable to reason and logic. Despite the best of intentions, Christian apologetics sites that appeal too much to reason and logic can easily give the impression to a postmodern seeker that the Christian faith is rationalistic and means nothing more than the assent to certain facts about God.
In the final analysis, postmodern people don't typically ask the questions that most Christian apologetics Web sites seek to answer. They don't care about the historicity of the New Testament, "proofs" for the existence of God, young earth/old earth issues, eschatology, and so forth. This being the case, one has to ask whether Christian apologetics sites that spend a lot of time on these issues are being as helpful as they can to postmodern people—or to the Christians who wish to reach them with the gospel.
A Cure for Blindness
More than anything else, Christians need to show spiritual seekers on the Web that Christianity is not a stale theological exercise, but a daily relationship with God involving mind, emotion, and mystery.
In a famous address on Christian apologetics, C. S. Lewis said that our presentation of the Christian message "must be timeless at its heart and wear a modern dress." He added that Christians "must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular." That means we must translate the Christian message into a language postmodern people can understand.
Someone has said postmodern people have three major needs: to know that someone cares about them, that their lives can have meaning, and that there's someone they can trust. And we can begin to address these needs only if we first address the issue or relativism. Christianity can't be the only answer for a postmodern world if truth is simply a matter of personal choice.
If Christian apologists want to reach the millions of people who identify themselves as postmoderns, then they must structure their sites so the unstated (and unmet) needs of postmodern people are addressed from the welcome page onward. That means the other topics frequently discussed on Christian apologetics sites (creation/evolution, the historical reliability of the Gospels), while not unimportant, should nonetheless be placed in the "middle" or the "back" of the site.
Another suggestion for reaching postmodern Web surfers is to avoid anything that even remotely suggests it's the business of Christianity to condemn other religions. Frankly, postmodern people are sick of it. Too many Christian apologetics Web sites spend more time being against other faiths than they do showing the beauty of the Christian world-view.
"In a relativistic climate, the only remaining virtue is tolerance," Veith concludes, "The only philosophies that are wrong are those that believe in truth; the only sinners are those who still believe there is such a thing as sin." The issues of tolerance and intolerance are intimately connected with the issue of truth we've been discussing, yet they get little or no treatment on Christian apologetics Web sites.
The time for that to change is now. People are waiting.
Matt Donnelly is the assistant editor of Christianity Online magazine and a frequent contributor to Books and Culture and ChristianityToday.com.
Among Matt Donnelly's favorite sites discussing Christianity in a postmodern world:
Christian faith & Postmodernity (http://baylor.edu/~Scott_Moore
The Crossroads Project
Postmodernism and Christianity (http://www.theooze.com/Pages/OS/
The Truth is Out There: Introduction to Postmodernism (http://www.focus.org.uk/webarts.htm)
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