In Marilynne Robinson’s unforgettable novel Gilead, the congregationalist (and unapologetically Calvinist/Barthian!) pastor John Ames pens this provocative reflection to his young son about trying to “defend the faith.” It is meant to be read–like all of his letters–when the young lad has grown up, presumably long after Ames has died:
“Well, I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility in it. It is even destructive. Young people from my own flock have come home with a copy of La Nausee or L’Immoraliste, flummoxed by the possibility of unbelief, when I must have told them a thousand times that unbelief is possible. And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them ‘proofs.’ I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense…In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things…So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term…I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.” (pp. 177-79)
Before weighing the relative merits of Ames’ convictions concerning the alleged dangers of defending one’s faith to spiritual outsiders, consider this strangely similar meditation from C.S. Lewis–himself undoubtedly one of the most remarkable and original intellectual defenders of the Christian faith in recent history!
“I have found that there is nothing more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar…That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself.” (“Christian Apologetics,” in Undeceptions, p. 76)
I wonder what your immediate, unmeditated reaction to these statements were? If you are anything like me, it was something along the lines of “Yes, but…” Both of these excerpts provoked insightful “aha” moments for me, putting into words something I could only previously sense in a generic and vague way. In hindsight, the legitimacy of what these statements affirm seems self-evident to me, especially in light of my own past experience with the realities they allude to. Yet, at the same time, I would very much want to say more than just this. To settle for only giving the warning and then to simply stop and move on stirs up discontent in me. “But that’s not the whole story…”
Here, then, is what I find compelling about Ames and Lewis. First, rationalism is a constant risk to which all we heirs of the Enlightenment are prone. We may not even be conscious of it, yet we are regularly tempted into foolishly imagining that we can isolate our intellectual pursuits and logical grasp of the world from our emotional, social and spiritual condition. It gives us a sense of power over our surroundings, and it is relatively easy. Who cares what type of person I am or where my heart is at before God, for this (we implicitly think) has nothing to do with the accuracy of my mental evaluation of true and false or of good and evil.
I do not have the space here to nitpick the profound self-deceptions that invariably attend this way of interpreting the matter, but suffice it to say that the Christian vision of humanity is irreducibly holistic. Yes, arguments are important. Thinking is crucial. But these are not the only things that go into one’s relationship with God, and arguably not even the most important. Consider the human dilemma as narrated by Paul in Romans 1:18-32 or Ephesians 4:17-18. False thinking about God and about spiritual reality–at least according to Paul–is rooted in something more fundamentally awry about God’s image bearers: namely, hardness of heart, moral rebellion and spiritual darkness. Typically truncated approaches to apologetics can in practice deny this state of affairs, mostly by treating bad thinking as the essence of human sin, rather than its by-product. The deepest, most essential aspects of reality can only be seen by the humble, for God is God. That the standard epistemologies on tap in the West today would feign to make all knowledge as equally accessible (at least in principle) to those who love evil and practice unrighteousness as to those who pursue justice, love mercy and care for widows and orphans should be of the gravest concern for the people of God. Christians ought to be suspicious of any account of human knowing that ignores the undeniable moral dimensions of our created existence.
Indeed, a complex network of issues comprise what any given person finds persuasive and compelling about their ultimate perception of reality. For Christians with a committment to sharing the gospel of grace with others, how can we fail to acknowledge the importance of the inward work of the Spirit, of human love as the tangible marker of the love of Christ for us, of devoted prayer for the spiritually blind, and of the authentic witness of a community of Christ-followers actually living out the gospel in word and deed? Lesslie Newbigin, who spent decades as a missionary in South India before becoming a famous theologian late in life in England, saw the futility and “disconnect” of merely contending for the objective validity of orthodoxy while denying (or at least neglecting) it in the moral and communal aspects of our existence:
“How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 227)
If this is so, how then can we be satisfied with putting all of our proverbial eggs in one basket by only trying to argue people into the kingdom of God? Does not our experience teach us to admit that while intellectual arguments are usually a necessary condition for believing in the crucified and risen Jesus, they are never a sufficient one? Ames and Lewis both recognize this mistake for what it is and call it out.
Second, both Ames and Lewis point to the insufficiency of the self as grounds for their rejection of the overconfidence of many an apologist. It’s not that Christianity doesn’t make sense, or that we shouldn’t have good, sufficient warrant for believing the gospel over and above some other competing worldview. Rather, the problem—and I’m assuming at this point that I have some degree of genuine self-knowledge of my own weaknesses and failures—is that I don’t want the validity of any person’s faith (including my own!) to rest ultimately on my cleverness. If Christianity is only as solid as my subjective awareness of superior arguments for it and ability to articulate it, then good night are we in trouble. Who hasn’t felt this agonizing doubt? It would seem that even the Apostle Paul wrestled with such existential dilemmas:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
But here is the “more” I would also want to insist on in dialogue with Ames and Lewis.
Fideism is just as potentially harmful as the most extreme rationalism and, in the end, just as flat-out mistaken. Ames the Barthian, of course, is more plausibly open to the charge of fideism than Lewis is, but regardless we must affirm that faith is not (as Locke argued) the opposite of knowledge, but rather only of sight. Faith requires real warrant to be morally praiseworthy, and most of us intuitively know that simply believing something (anything!) for the sake of believing it is both intellectually bankrupt and ethically dangerous.
Turning to the New Testament writings, it is a salutary reminder to see how frequently the early Christians did indeed seek to defend the faith with compelling logic and demonstrable reasons to the surrounding world of skeptical unbelievers. Of course they occupied themselves with a lot more than just this priority, but neither did they forsake it entirely to simply feed the hungry or be “authentic” in community with each other. I know plenty of apparently genuine people who believe incredibly stupid things. Neither authenticity nor social justice, in and of themselves, are any guarantee of possessing the truth, of not being self-deceived. Therefore, Peter commands us to have a reason for the hope that is within us and to be ready to share it with others (1 Peter 3:15). Paul spent an enormous amount of his time reasoning and seeking to persuade both Jews and Gentiles of the historical factuality of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climactic fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (see Acts 17:2, 17, 18:4, 19, 19:8-9, 24:25, 28:23-24, etc.). It is impossible to deny the fact that many of the NT documents put forth reason after reason and argument after argument to convince their readers of the sturdy foundation available to them in the gospel. Jesus himself constantly debates with people in his interaction with them. How then are we exempt from this responsibility?
C. S. Lewis, of course, exerted an incredible amount of time and effort in his adult life to a robust intellectual defense of the Christian faith on a very public stage. Many of us owe him our spiritual lives, under God. It is, I trust, uncontroversial to claim that he would have agreed with what I have contended in the last two paragraphs. With those reservations noted, then, the advice of both Lewis and Ames is worth listening to reflectively and seriously. To paraphrase the final sentence of the excerpt from Lewis above, here is the attitude of the most compelling apologists–one that will deliver them from the impotency of their own cleverness and commend the gospel with power to those who hear: “Trust in the Lord will all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Acknowledge the Lord in all your ways, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:5-7).