…not a moment too soon, but far too late.
Teh interwebs blew up earlier this week, thanks in part to a good old fashioned debate between two underqualified rhetorical combatants on a strawman subject laid out by the host participant which left all interested parties more convinced of their own respective positions–and convinced the other side was a bunch of morons–than ever before. Lincoln and Douglas, eat your dead hearts out!
No, this wasn’t an episode of Ed Schultz or Bill O’Reilly or Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith blustering through segment upon segment of complete nonsense, though it might as well have been. It was a debate between Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis notoriety, and Bill Nye, ‘Science Guy’, on the subject of whether or not creation theory (such as found in Genesis) is a suitable explanation for the origin of the universe.
Much bellyaching has already been done over the subject matter, its participants and all the folderol surrounding the event. The debate itself isn’t why I’m here today–not directly, at least. For the record, I did not watch the debate, nor was there any need to: Nye was not going to be swayed by Ham’s arguments, and Ham certainly wasn’t going to yield, either. Neither Nye nor Ham have an education beyond undergraduate degrees, so any purported expertise either of them might have is expertise in the same way that I am a chef. I might like to cook, and I might occasionally be kinda sorta good at it and I certainly like to eat, but I’m not a chef. And, to top it all off, I highly doubt a single viewer’s mind was changed one way or the other.
People don’t engage in these kinds of things to change their minds, or to entertain the joy of pure pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but to act as cheerleaders in the culture wars. Hoorah-rah, siss-boom-bah.
In Christian circles, particularly within evangelicalism and fundamentalist circles, there is this niche that is viewed with fascination, intrigue and envy by the whole as a sort of elite special forces unit, the ones to call to defend the faith, protect the flock and prove the reasonability of Christian faith.
Apologetics has nothing to do with saying you’re sorry; an apologia is a defense of something. The apologist is the one who does the defending. And for too long, the defenders have been nothing but offensive. Ken Ham wasn’t out to change anybody’s thinking: he was, by design, out to prove the reasonability of his proposition, which is precisely that a creation account such as the one in Genesis is an adequate scientific explanation for the origin of the universe. The subject of the debate wasn’t actually up for debate, it was Ham’s to lose–his idea, his topic, hosted by his organization at his venue and Nye’s to win. (Whether or not Ham actually achieved his task is better left up to those who watched.)
The implication, of course, is that the Church is more or less a citadel, Christ is king and the apologist is tasked to keep the godless barbarians at the gates, turn them away, or get them to submit to the authority of the Church. It’s very medieval, very clumsy and very much out of touch with reality. Thus, where the classical apologists were widely influential on philosophy and Western thought as a whole–Aquinas, Augustine, Boethius all come to mind–these apologists, with their sense of entitlement and duty, knowing their place in a long, mutated lineage of those with faith seeking understanding, are now little more than one-trick doctrinal ponies, if they don’t just resort to the tested weapons of the cosmological, teleological, ontological arguments or Pascal’s Wager. People like Ken Ham–whose one position is that the earth is only a few thousand years old, proving the literal and historical accuracy of the Genesis account–need no parody, they make of themselves a more-than-adequate caricature. They also manage the impossible feat of pulling the curtain back on themselves.
What these apologists, and the churches who rely on them, fail to realize is that the West has changed and we have not. We are no longer at the center of culture (and haven’t been for some time, either by commission or omission.) Defending the faith is less an articulation of worldview or rational proposition than it is a Quixotic attempt to maintain a hegemony that has long been obliterated. At best apologetics reassures the faithful while maintaining a null result with anyone else. At worst, it further alienates others from the gospel because we were all too eager to be ready to give a defense, or makes the faithful ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t have, leading them away from the camp.
All of this dances around a more important question, though; what if apologetics isn’t the point?
I’m a staunch faith seeking understanding guy, so don’t misunderstand me here, but the conflation of apologetics with evangelism has always been a non sequitur to me. The reasonableness of Christian faith is not going to make a way for the compassion demonstrated by the Christian because of their faith. In fact, healthy theological development necessarily includes the fact that loving people is more important than being right and correcting others’ wrongs. Yes, it is important to know why we believe. Yes, it is important to be able to articulate these things. No, knowing and articulating is not going to convince anyone of the efficacy of the resurrection. (They too often fail to convince us Christians of it!) Only love and the Spirit can do that and, in most cases, those two are only coming into play if there is already established credibility.
Who profited from the Ham-Nye nonsense the other night? (Feel free to insert your own punchline.) Did anyone actually change their minds? Was someone won to Jesus thanks in part to a half-baked argument rooted in the flawed works of a British cleric about 400 years ago? What is the point of this kind of thing?
Frankly, there is no point.
Welcome to the end of apologetics. It’s long overdue.