On Excellence in Apologetics
How do you become an excellent apologist? How do you get good at it? Is it better to go get a master’s degree, or should we just go out and argue until improvement comes? And how long should it take? In every field of endeavor where I have ever made any headway, I went through long, dry periods. The landscape was marked by lengthy plateaus of scant improvement. As a musician, I found those periods torturous. I labored, sometimes for months, toward some measurable improvement—and some days I seemed to go backward.
As most folk in that position do, whether formally or informally, I sought out lessons. I found people who embodied the kind of skill level I wanted to attain and I sat at their feet. I let the things they knew enter me gradually over many weeks of being regularly in their presence. It wasn’t the diagrams or notation. It was only partly the things they told me. The things I needed from them were beyond those. It wasn’t a process or method that I needed; it was extremely complex interlocking facts, like grains of sand in a sand castle. There was a mystery to be learned about how a master is with his instrument. Displace an element and the whole performance becomes a mere recitation that any computer could perform, lacking the transcendent elements that can’t be merely recited, but are part of who the musician is.
Apologetics is like that. In the same way that a Mohawk-festooned, teenage, dilettante guitarist in his parents garage finds that a certain brand of loud, aggressive music is easy to get good at, we discover that we can find some good arguments on the internet that will humble the modern, all-roads-lead-nowhere, semi-agnostic whose lack of religion is chosen the same way children choose a favorite crayon color.
Thus we proceed to the reign of terror.
The neophyte apologist throws his weight around on blog comments and Facebook pages and feels successful the way the captain of a high school basketball team might feel successful dunking on 5th graders. Generally the 5th graders just get frustrated and angry and proceed to name-calling. The fact that apologetics is not an end in itself, but serves the spread of the Gospel and the comfort of the saints, is lost among the supercilious head-shaking at how dumb “people” can be about the most fundamental questions to humanity. The task of making disciples is about real individual persons with names and struggles. Once that fact is obscured the new apologist revels in his newfound role as the bully-king of the schoolyard.
With any luck, after a while a crisis point is reached since no one really likes discovering that they are no longer invited to parties. The cost of being excluded from polite society is weighed against the pleasure of winning arguments and the way of the intellectual ninja gives way to a resolution to adopt a more sage and circumspect approach. Now the problem is: how do we learn this?
The unpracticed apologist, on his own, is unable to see beyond his own immaturity toward a fully formed model of himself because what must be known is more than what can be told: it must be gained tacitly, at the elbow of one who already embodies greater maturity. On the other hand, it cannot be merely imagined and then imitated as an actor might play a role, because you can never imagine a better apologist than you already are–you can’t pretend to have knowledge you don’t or thinking patterns you lack. Certainly, God does give wisdom to whoever asks without reproach, but the normal means is through another human being. The analogies can be multiplied–chess, kung fu, soldiering–but to avoid the triteness of martial imagery, it’s like learning to cook. A cookbook can tell you some of what you need to know, but a chef can fill in what is lacking in the person and make you a certain kind of person who does what he does. You can learn from your fellows by trial and error in an apophatic way what maturity is not. But without an exemplar maturity can only be vaguely approximated, resulting in malformed apologists.
The solution, we may imagine, is to seek to apprentice oneself under the patient, the imperturbable, the deep in Scripture and history, the philosophically shrewd, the prayerful, the consistent, the one with insight into the human heart, the repentant, the profoundly kind, the self-sacrificial, the valiant, the one who faces battle grimly, and gravely, not delighting in it, but not shrinking from doing what is necessary, the one who goes joyously to the privilege of worship. Where can this be found?
Perhaps it’s better to look for an advisory panel of mentors, rather than trying to seek all of the above in one person. Nevertheless, this is part of the teaching function of the Church. It is within the Bride of Christ as she upholds the Truth she received that we find what we’re looking for in this regard. Even our seminaries and universities must be subject to her tutelage lest they end up defending some ground other than our faith. Lone wolf apologists will lack in accountability to Church discipline. We are the Body of Christ and heirs to a faith that has been giving reason for the hope in it for more than 80 generations (and the list of new arguments is short indeed), making disciples out of unbelieving nations and strengthening the faithful. The abiding benefits have been for the Church, but also to the good of society in general, building it up as the fruit of the good works Christians are called to.
Therefore, there is no escaping the matter of time. You simply cannot telescope the process of maturity any more than you could when you were a kid wishing you were taller and stretching yourself on the monkey bars.
What I’m suggesting is that, while we download every debate we can get our hands on, and read books, old and new, on apologetic argumentation and tactics, and master the history and philosophy necessary, all of that knowledge must be wielded by a particular kind of person. Becoming that kind of person simply can’t be rushed.