Fewer and fewer Christian apologists believe in "proofs" for God's existence, and in Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith (Baker), Alister McGrath explains why this is a good thing. Distancing himself from promises of certainty, he instead grounds his case in the more modest principle of "inference to the best explanation." In the absence of "knockdown" arguments, we're left with "abduction," the project of making the best sense we can make out of all the data—the "'meteoric shower of facts'" raining from the sky "like threads that need to be woven into a tapestry" (to quote McGrath, who's quoting the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay).
There is much wise counsel in these pages. Citing Peter's message at Pentecost, Paul's remarks on Mars Hill, and Paul's legal trial before the Roman procurator Felix, McGrath shows how it's important to tailor one's remarks to the audience. Recalling Caesar's crossing the Rubicon River, he reminds us that establishing facts without providing the larger significance is pointless. He discusses a variety of launch sites for apologetic engagement, including evidence of a fine-tuned universe, "a homing instinct for God," and "the intuition of hope." And he both urges and demonstrates the use of personal testimony in apologetics.
Along the way, McGrath plays off a host of thinkers (e.g., Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Aquinas, Anthony Flew, Frederick Coplestone, Austin Farrer, Alisdair MacIntyre, Kevin Vanhoozer), and his own language is often dexterous. (An example: "Apologetics aims to convert believers into thinkers, and thinkers into believers.") He is comfortable appropriating images old and new, whether Plato's cave or the bar in TV's Cheers. And he provides fresh ways to look at familiar things, such as when he places C. S. Lewis's writings on three apologetic paths—"appeal to reason" (Mere Christianity and Miracles); response to "human longing" (The Pilgrim's Regress and Surprised by Joy); and "appeals to the imagination as the gateway to the human soul" (the Narnia novels).
Though McGrath says that we need to appreciate and appropriate the arguments of traditional apologetics, his heart seems elsewhere. Curiously, he never employs the terms ontological, teleological, or cosmological (preferring to speak, for instance, of "the argument from origination"), though they've been mainstays of apologetical discourse for centuries. One wonders why he doesn't at least tip his hat to these terms, or even to William Paley's watchmaker analogy.
When he does speak of such ancient terms and arguments, he prefers to place them in the context of Christianity's war with modernity (which has given way to the struggle with post-modernity). And he shows little or no apparent nostalgia for the day when they had greater purchase in public discourse. For one reason, they lend themselves to a more aggressive, dismissive, defensive, and antagonistic approach, instead of the generous and gracious way he commends for our age. (His adjectival barrage is daunting here, as it is when, later, he goes after "textbook" answers, which amount to "borrowed," "pre-packaged," "industry-standard templates.")
McGrath's strong emphasis is on sensitive, artful, and personalized discourse, built on careful listening for the deeper layers of concern in the hearts of those whose spirits are grieved by the brokenness of humanity. It's a strategy we might describe as "pastoral apologetics."
This is fine so far as it goes, but what about settings that preclude the pastoral approach? After all, many contemporary apologetic encounters take place within radio call-in shows and university debates, where the interlocutor may be a confident attacker rather than a wounded soul, and the time for spiritual probing is quite limited.
Fortunately, McGrath provides the reader with some handy, off-the-rack rejoinders. To the claim, for instance, that "we can't be sure about anything," one might reply: "Are you sure about that?" Still, he wants to equip readers for something beyond clashes of logic. His ambition is to communicate not only the truth, but also the "attractiveness and joy of the Christian gospel to our culture." We should be like prisms breaking up the light of the gospel into the colors of the rainbow.
Arguably, the most common theme in the entire book is his construal of apologetics as "removing [or overcoming] barriers [or obstacles] to faith." Though this makes some sense, it can give the impression that the skeptic is a sympathetic character who'd like to move down the road with Jesus, but who's frustrated by confusions in his way. Though McGrath acknowledges the importance of the grace of God in turning the sinner aright, he could have done more to picture the skeptic as a hell-bent rebel and not just a sad, addled soul. Furthermore, he could have spent time on apologetics' power to "remove barriers to joy and confidence" among Christians who are cowed by disparagements of their faith.
When he sketches the porous border between apologetics and evangelism, he shows a bias for his own discipline, even casting Peter's message at Pentecost as an apologetic enterprise. He draws the distinction this way: "[E]vangelism could be said to be like offering someone bread. Apologetics would then be about persuading people there is bread to be had and it is good to eat." But this would seem to relegate evangelism to the "altar call" while assigning persuasive sermons to the realm of apologetics.
Then there is the problem of dwelling too much on the predilections of post-modernism, with its love of image and story and its impatience with those who pander to or mimic the dead, white, European male, whose thinking is linear, propositional, and argumentative. Maybe those whose "heart language" is postmodern—resonating with the narrational, relational, and incarnational—could use a dose of the traditionally logical. It's important to note that the classic arguments for God's existence were hard at work centuries, even millennia, before the Enlightenment, and it is a mistake to discount their usefulness even in today's postmodern context. If apologists "go native" in the current (and passing) cultural milieu and marginalize their analytical heritage, who will be there to show the way back when image and story leave one wanting?
Fortunately, as he has demonstrated, McGrath has the whole portfolio at his disposal, should he desire to use and commend it.
Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians: Pushing Back Against Cultural and Religious Critics (B & H).
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