Kai-man Kwan

"Quietly trust yourself to Christ your Lord and if anybody asks why you believe as you do, be ready to tell him, and do it in a gentle and respectful way."  (1P 3:15, The Living Bible)

"We demolish sophistries and all that rears its proud head against the knowledge of God; we compel every human thought to surrender in obedience to Christ"  (2C 10:5, NEB)

        Many Christians, including many theologians, have aversions to apologetics.  They may think that faith, by its very nature, does not need any defense.  However, from the above two verses, we can see that to do some sort of apologetics is a biblical command.  The first verse touches upon our relationship with non-believers.  We are told to be prepared for the questions asked about the reason for our hope.  We should not despise those questions.  Rather, respect is the more proper attitude.  Only in this way we can establish a meaningful dialogue with people of different faiths or no-faith.  The second verse spells out the intellectual implications of the lordship of Christ.  If we really believe that Christ is the Way, the Truth, & the Life, we must seek to show the consequences of this belief in the arena of truth.  Regardless of the underlying motivations, it is certainly possible that human thoughts can go against ("disobey") the truth of Christ.  If we are loyal to the truth as we see it, we need to show where the falsehood of those ideas lies.  This certainly calls for a kind of apologetics.  Combining these two verses, we can see that the basic rationales for apologetics are rooted in the lordship of Christ & our evangelistic mission.  On the one hand, we need to be "militant" in defending truth against falsehood.  On the other hand, we need to be sensitive to other people & their questions, & to hold a respectful attitude.  Both attitudes need to be held in creative tension in order to carry out apologetics successfully.  Before going on, we may try to define apologetics more formally:
"Christian apologetics is the discipline wherein an intelligent effort is made to defend before an unbelieving world the truth claim of the Christian faith, specifically its claim of exclusive true knowledge of the living & true God, in a manner consistent with the teaching of Scripture" (Reymond, p.1).

        Since apologetics is a complex task, it can be divided into several types:
1) Rational Apologetics
        It is the attempt to defend the truth of Christianity systematically.  Negative apologetics is the task to show that Christianity is neither irrational nor rationally inferior by rebutting rational objections to Christianity, e.g. the doctrine of Trinity is logically inconsistent.  Moreover, it can try to criticize alternative conceptual frameworks or worldviews.  Every serious philosopher knows that how hard it is to establish the truth of a worldview conclusively.  Hence it is unfair to put all the burden of proof on the Christian believer.  It may be true that there are loose ends in the Christian worldview but it doesn't follow that it is then rationally untenable.  A rational choice also depends on what kinds of alternatives are available.  Therefore, negative apologetics, by defending against objections & criticizing alternative views, may help to establish the rationality of the Christian faith.
        On the other hand, positive apologetics is not satisfied with the defensive task.   It aims at showing that Christianity is likely to be true or that there are adequate grounds for believing it.  Usually, this project consists of the following steps:
a) elaborate & defend some kind of epistemology or criteria of truth,
b) then show that the belief in the existence of God satisfies those criteria,
c) & then show that it is reasonable to believe in the deity of Christ & the authority of the Bible.
        Positive apologetics usually constructs a comprehensive system with both methodological & substantive claims.  In the current philosophical climate, there is not much consensus over the basic issues of epistemology or metaphysics.  It is just natural that any positive apologetical system is bound to be controversial.  This observation does not automatically disqualify all such projects but it certainly points to the immense difficulty of the task.

2) Practical Apologetics
        Constructing a system is a worthwhile task but the system may not necessarily convince nonbelievers.  Real people have their own unique questions or reservations about the Christian faith which can't be all covered in a system.  So some people suggests that we should conceive apologetics as part of evangelism, the goal of which is the conversion of non-believers.  It is not so much a system as an art of persuasion.  It helps us to engage in an open & reciprocal dialogue with persons with a view to convince them of the credibility desirability of faith.  To do that effectively, it is more important to attend to their particular belief & value systems than to construct a universally applicable system of apologetics.  For example, some people do not have any problem with the existence of God.  They may reject Christianity because they think it encourages pessimism.  Then the practical apologist will seek to alleviate his worry by showing the positve potentials of faith.

        The above types of apologetics are in fact complementary.  Rational apologetics alone is sterile.  Practical apologetics alone may lack integrity.  The questions of the truth & the desirability of faith should not be separated.  The ideal thing is to have both a comprehensive apologetical system and a sensitivity to the unique questions of each person.

        There are some common objections to the desirability of apologetics.  Here I discuss further whether apologetics is really needed.  First of all, I have already pointed out that it is a Biblical mandate.  We should also notice there are many examples in the church history which demonstrate its importance.  For example, despite the claim of Paul to preach nothing but the cross of Christ, we see that he constantly went into the synagogues to debate with others.  For him, the centrality of the cross in evangelism did not exclude a judicious use of reason.  Rather, the crucial point was to avoid the lure of the pagan systems.  The proper use of reason may actually help in this task.   Another example is the good work done by the apologists & the fathers in the early church.  Justin Martyr & Irenaeus are the most prominent figures.  They tirelessly rebut objections to Christianity from pagan philosophers & heretics.  Historians always wonder at the triumph of the Church over the Roman Empire.  One reason cited is that Christians outsmart their opponents with their arguments.
        Nowadays we live in the transitional period between modernity & post-modernity.  Awareness of this context will help us appreciate the significance of apologetics.  On the one hand, modernity is imbued with anti-Christian systems such as scientism, positivism & secular humanism.  Within these systems, the Christian faith is obviously irrational.  On the other hand, while postmodernity is reacting against the hegemony of reason & science, it in turn tends to absolutize the pluralistic situation & ban the notion of absolute truth.  (There is certainly a paradox here).  While a postmodernist may seem to tolerate the existence of religions, it is in fact making the Christian claim to ultimate truth unintelligible.  So both contexts call for some kind of defense of Christianity.  Christians need to spell out a tenable position which avoids the extremes of both Enlightenment rationalism & postmodernist relativism.
        There is a very common query: "We can't argue people into faith.  The problem of non-believers is their sin & willful rebellion instead of alleged intellectual difficulties."  In reply to this, we need to point out that apologetics is not supposed to do all the work.  Its aim is just to remove the intellectual obstacles to faith.  Certainly, some questions are just cover-up of underlying unrepentance but there does seem to be honest questions which demand honest answers.
        Another query: "If the Holy Spirit is working, all rational arguments are superfluous."  True, but we have to add that if the Holy Spirit is working, all else (music, preacher, or even the Bible) are also superfluous.  The point is that the Holy Spirit actually uses all these instruments though they are not strictly necessary.  We need not hold that rational arguments are indispensable in all situations (they are not).  However, from the past experience of ministry, we do observe that when the apologists humbly submit their work to God, God can put it to good use.  Furthermore, even believers are sometimes beset by doubts.  Apologetics may help to strengthen their faith since faith & intellect are not always separable.  Even when they can, all other things equal, an intergration of faith & reason is still desirable.  Isn't reason also a gift from God to humanity?
        To sum up, while apologetics has limitations, it has an important role to play.  Complete ignorance of it will result in widespread intellectual imbecility of Christians.  This, in the long run, must damage the position of Christianity in the society, especially in academic circles & public space.  The problem is even made more acute by the fact that many non-Christian intellectuals are now critically examining the foundations of the Christian faith.  It is incumbent on us to dialogue with them & face their challenges.

        From the above, it can seen that apologetics has a long history.  However, it is undeniable that it typically fluorishes in a Western context where the tradition of rationalism is very strong.  This raises a question about the approproiateness of Western apologetical systems in our Asian context.  Certainly Eastern cultures are quite different from the Western.  They are less influenced by rationalism, scientism, etc. & more influenced by traditional religions.  The mindset is also different.  The Eastern people tend to think in a intuitive way while the Westerners are more used to analytical thinking.  Furthermore, many Asian countries have a background of colonialism & Western imperialism.  Since Christianity was often introduced to Asia in this context, Asian people tend to perceive Christianity as a Western religion.  This in turn causes a host of questions.  All this shows that we should be wary of just copying from the Western apologists.  We should develop a kind of apologetics which answers the real questions of Asian people in a way appropriate to their mindset.
        Nevertheless, the difference between the East & the West can be exaggerated.  We should not forget that the processes of modernization & secularization are also at work in Asia, especially in the cities or among the educated people.  Nowadays in many Asian cities, the young people wear jeans, eat at Macdonald, watch Hollywood movies, & use hi-tech products.  They also go to schools & universities which are in fact quite Western.  The young generation seems more & more influenced by the modern secular culture imported from the West than by traditional cultures & religions.  Hence it is a mistake to regard traditional Asian cultures as the sole dialogue partner of Christianity.  One more point: the Eastern culture is not monolithic.  There are in fact many Eastern cultures & religions.  While Islam may dominate in Malaysia, Buddhism & Shintoism are much more influential in Japan.  The plurality of Eastern contexts need to be constantly borne in mind.

        To sum up, we need to watch for the followings in our context:
- different kinds of questions about Christianity posed by different cultures
- different styles of thinking & approaches to life, e.g. more pragmatic & intuitive
- plurality of Eastern contexts: different countries; different groups in same country
        If we analyse the common questions raised about Christianity, we can see that almost any major area of faith will cause problems to some people:
existence of God, Trinity, incarnation, anthropology, atonement/redemption, coherence of the gospel, the Bible, ethics/values, philosophy of life, image of Christianity ...
The contending worldviews/religions are also numerous:
secularism, atheism/materialism, humanism, Marxism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, traditional/folk religions, cults ...
This seems quite confusing.  To impose some order, let us introduce some schematic representation of the apologetical context in Asia.  There are three crucial questions that each worldview needs to answer:
1) Is there a God?
2) Is God the personal Creator of everything else?
3) Is God identical to the Father of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the Bible?
        Christianity will give three "yes" to these questions.  Different types of alternative to Christianity will have different pattern of answers:
Group A: Non-religious alternatives
        This group can be characterised by a consistent negative answer to all the above questions.  There is no God, no Creator, & no divine inspiration of the Bible.  Important worldviews in this group are secularism, atheism/materialism, humanism, & Marxism.  They tend to question the existence of God & the compatibility of faith with reason.  They also think that religion is antithetical to modern science & society.

Group B: Non-theistic religious alternatives
        This group will not identify itself as atheism: hence a positive answer to the first question but then a "no" to the last two.  They tend to conceive God not as a personal Creator, but rather as the impersonal Absolute (Hinduism) or Tao (Taoism), etc.  They tend to emphasize the continuity of humanity with divinity.  If there seems to be a gap, that may be either an illusion or just the result of insufficient self-cultivation.  The universe is conceived as the ultimate totality of interdependent things rather than the creation of a personal God.  Worldviews in this group are Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, & Hinduism.  They tend to question the crude anthropomorphism of Christianity & its emphasis on the discontinuity between God & humanity.  They will ask, why should we rely upon an external God when all that suffice for salvation/liberation is already inside us?

Group C: Theistic alternatives
        This group answers affirmatively to the first two questions but not so to the third.  Religions like Judaism & Islam share with Christianity the belief in a personal God who is transcendent.  But they then question whether Jesus is really God.  To them, the major questions are: why believe in Trinity which seems to compromise a pristine monotheism?  why believe in the Bible when their alternative canons (Hebrew Bible or Koran) seem to be more excellent?

        Equipped with the above analysis, I propose an approach to apologetics in our context:
1) Right attitude:
        It is important to recognize that many non-believers are intelligent & conscientious people.  They have their carefully thought out worldview/religion with the support of a venerable tradition.  It is arrogant to dismiss other traditions without serious understanding & dialogue.  We should also remember other people often have justifications for their questions.  For example, when the secularists query the compatibility of Christianity with modern civilization, they are based on facts like the Galileo trial, the Church's history of intolerance, & so on.  When the Buddhists question the idea of a Creator, we need to know that philosophically speaking, the idea of creatio ex nihilo does have problems.  When the Muslims question whether Christians have committed an elementary counting mistake, we'd better admit that the idea of Trinity does seem prima facie puzzling.  To do apologetics with integrity, we need to be honest, humble, & ready to listen.  These are the preconditions of a genuine dialogue.

2) Know others' faith & their questions
        As has been elaborated above, the dialogue partner of Christianity can come from a variety of backgrounds.  Hence the apologist needs to be sensitive to the type of person he/she is talking to.  He/she also needs to spend serious effort to grapple with how others see the world & how they think of Christianity.  Only in this way he/she can identify the genuine questions.  This is a prerequisite of a proper response.

3) Know the Christian faith & construct the Christian worldview
        The negative apologetics is the more primary task.  If Christianity easily succumbs to objections or the Christian framework has too many loose ends, it is rather difficult to defend its reasonableness.  Hence the Christian apologist must know his/her faith well & know the answers to the common questions about Christianity.  For example, if we ponder more about the implications of the Christian doctrine of creation, it may occur to one that Christianity is not in conflict with modern science.  Contrarily, it can be argued that modern science can only arise in a culture steeped in the belief in Creator.  This belief provides the firm foundation for the early scientists who stumbled along their way to find the immutable laws of nature.  On the one hand, if the world is not created by a wise, rational God, what grounds can we have to expect a fully rational world system?  On the other hand, if the world itself is regarded as the Divine or Absolute, isn't it rather impious to dissect the nature like a dead thing or force it to answer our questions, as the pioneering scientists did?  So it seems that the theistic worldview provides a uniquely favourable environment for the emergence of modern science.  Despite the skirmishes between religion & science, a better understanding of the faith (& history) seems to point to the intrinsic compatibility of Christianity & science. 
        Another example.  The classical doctrine of Trinity is formulated in this way: "One substance, three persons."  It should be noted that this is not immediately the form of contradiction as "one substance, three substances" will be.  It will stray too far to go into the detailed meaning of "person" or "substance".  We only need to point out that the basic meaning of Trinity is that while God is in a sense one, He is in another sense three.  The fact may be difficult to imagine in concrete terms, but it is not a conceptual absurdity.  One interpretation is that: Father, Son & Spirit are three centers of consciousness but they all possess the divine nature.  They are also eternally & necessarily bonded by love for one another.  So they are one in nature & one in being.  It seems coherent to me.  Furthermore, arguably this picture of a divine "society" is superior to the picture of God as the Supremely Isolated Monad.  It follows from the above interpretation of Trinity that the essence of being is communion.  This has profound significance for views about self, relations & society.  So in this way, Christians may attempt to respond to queries of Muslims.

4) Integration of faith with life
        Actions speak louder than words.  Asian people are pragmatic people.  They are keen to watch whether Christianity works.  The desirability of the Christian faith needs to be demonstrated not only by words but also by deeds.  For example, Asian religions are often proud of their spirit of inclusiveness.  It can be pointed out that truth claims have to exclude what contradict them.  There is no difference between the East & the West here.  For example, if Christians believe in a personal Creator & Buddhists don't.  Then they have to contradict one another.  Any appearance that the Buddhists are more tolerant in this aspect is illusory- unless Buddhists are willing to forego all truth claims (which is unlikely).  However, apart from the logical point, it is important to remember that conviction in some truth claims does not mean a rigid or narrow mind.  Christians need to show that they can combine conviction with openness & respect.  Furthermore, they need to promote peace & mutual respect in action.  This will be a more persuasive response to the charge of intolerance.

5) Combining analytical thinking with synoptic vision
        Since the Eastern context is itself diversified, the apologist will in fact meet people of very different mindsets.  Some are more rational, analytical, & science-oriented while others are more pragmatic, intuitive & ethics-oriented.  Hence many types of apologetics are needed.  On the one hand, a successful apologist needs to show great analytical skills when rationalist people are pressing charges of irrationality against Christianity.  For example, to those who claim that science is the only way to truth, we can ask, how do you support this claim?  This claim does not rest on sensory observations or experimental proof.  This seems to be itself an unscientific, philosophical claim (in the province of epistemology).  So if it is true, then since it itself is unscientific, it is not true!  In a word, this basic claim of scientism is self-defeating or self-referentially incoherent.  Critical thinking does not necessarily serve atheism.  It can be used to expose many bogus claims of secular ideology.      Another example, the problem of evil is a very common objection.  It can be put in a logical form:
1) If God is all-powerful, He can eliminate all evils.
2) If God is all-good, He will eliminate all evils.
3) If an all-powerful & all-good God exists, there will be no evils.
4) Some evils exist.
5) Therefore, an all-powerful & all-good God does not exist.
        The argument seems valid & the objector seems to show acute intelligence.  However, almost all contemporary philosophers of religion nowadays agree that this argument fails.  The premises do not stand up to critical scrutiny.  The premise (1) is problematic because omnipotence does not include logically impossible things.  For example, it is impossible for God to create free agents & then compel them to choose only the good because the task is inherently impossible.  Premise (2) is also problematic because some evils may be preconditions of some higher good.  If God wills the higher good, he may have a morally sufficient reason to allow some evils to occur.  Two problematic premises in the above argument suffice to render it unsound.   This also illustrates how good, analytical thinking can actually defuse rational objections to faith.
        The above kind of apologetical work may be wothwhile & important.  It is also effective with respect to certain kind of people.  However, it is not so for other types.  For example, even if some acknowledge that scientism is self-defeating, they may still go on to think & act as if science is the only important thing!  (Do Asian people have a higher tolerance of logical absurdity?)  For those people, however, it may be effective to arouse them to the ill effects of the philosophy of scientism, e.g. pollution, ecological crisis.  Then it can be pointed out to them that science cannot answer questions about value & meaning of life.  What needs to be done here is to paint a larger picture in which science & religion each has its own place in human life.  This kind of answer is also important, & effective for people who are more pragmatic & intuitive.  It is also the case with the problem of evil.  People want to know how to face suffering & evils.  So the Christian apologist needs to show further that Christianity has a credible approch to concrete evils & suffering.  A rational rebuttal to the argument from evil alone is inadequate.  What I want to say by these two examples is that in our context, both types of thinking need to be used in apologetics.

6) Combining rational, systematic apologetics with flexibility & sensitivity
        Each apologist needs a thoroughly worked out system to ensure that his/her answers are integrated coherently.  However, it is not easy to construct it.  So simultaneously, the apologist needs to attend to particular problems.  On the one hand, he/she can apply his basic perspective to that problem.  On the other hand, in working out the details, he/she can improve the comprehensiveness & coherence of his/her system. 

7) Inter-religious dialogue
        The apologist needs to take other religions as whole systems.  Often there will be disagreements over basic issues, e.g. how to find truth.  Different systems can be compared as a whole with regard to their simplicity, comprehensiveness, explanatory power, consistency & practical relevance.  Christian apologists are free to learn from other traditions wherever truth lies.  There is no need to dismiss other systems tout court.  However, it is incumbent upon them to show how the Christian faith at least does not do a worse job than other religions in making sense of the whole spectrum of human experiences & knowledge.  For example, in dialogue with Buddhists, we can agree with the insight that suffereings often result from cravings.  On the other hand, we can point out that denying all desires may not lead to a fully human life because some human cravings may reflect some deep truth about the universe.  For example, the desire for unconditional love in human hearts may be a source of suffering but it is also corresponding to the the Ultimate who is also Love itself.  Some sufferings need to be embraced rather than avoided.  By enduring these pains, we may get in touch with God & gain eternal bliss.  So not all cravings are necessarily negative.  This seems to be a more balanced view of life.  Of course the Buddhists will have their rejoinders.  One should not expect a knockdown argument in this realm of discourse but in this way the dialogue can go on.  The stature of an apologist is measured by his ability to enter into fruitful dialogue & the degree of respect won even from his/her opponents.

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