Friday, October 26, 2007

An apology for apologetics

Recently, I've seen a number of Catholics taking what seems to be needless abuse for engaging in apologetics. What I would like to do is to clarify the purpose (or really, purposes) of apologetics in Catholic thought, because it seems that many people don't perceive these aims, and thus fail to see the point of the exercise. It is thought to be needlessly polemic, triumphalistic, unintellectual, or the like.

First, I consider it important to distinguish two classes of apologetics: apologetics of natural reason and practical apologetics. I distinguish these classes to separate not their methods but rather their objects. In both instances, one uses rational means to dispose someone toward the truths of faith. But in the former case, what is sought is to answer difficulties in rational thinking in essentially the same way that one answers any other sort of error or mistake. In the latter case, one is appealing to wisdom, judgment, and the principles guiding one's practical life to provide someone with a motivation or disposition to accept theological truth.

With respect to apologetics of natural reason, the goal is essentially to promote clear thinking about the subject regardless of its theological implications. It is not even essential that one address explicitly theological matters, except insofar as those matters are intrinsically grasped according to the particular science of one's interest. The operative assumption is that there is no such thing as "double truth," so knowledge is true no matter the means by which one knows it (although one does well to remember Scott Carson's warning about exactly what kind of knowledge one actually has before jumping to hasty conclusions).

I have found in my own experience that these apologetics of natural reason are perceived as more gentlemanly and genial, simply on the basis that one confesses the limits of one's own natural reason. Particularly for people who doubt the capacity of natural reason, this is frequently perceived as an admission that we all might be mistaken. That might be a bit misleading, because a Catholic theologian in the tradition of natural theology likely believes that he is not mistaken (and indeed, that the universe is ordered precisely so that what he believes could not even possibly be mistaken). But at least mistakes can be innocent in such a system, since obtaining truth is a difficult and laborious task and correcting error even more so. Consequently, even those who know the right answer will still need to undertake the effort to work through getting someone else's knowledge level to the same point, and that encounters all the typical complications of pedagogy. In the end, one can be innocently wrong.

This doesn't mean that apologetics of natural reason cannot be polemical if some religious belief happens to entail an error of reason. In those cases, it would be the case that someone would be arguing that no reasonable person should hold the belief and that every person that does is mistaken to do so. But since numerous reasonable people have held beliefs that were wildly mistaken without realizing it, this would at best be accusing someone of a mistake into which a large number of intelligent people had fallen, which seems less insulting. Some people will find even that suggestion offensive, as if the suggestion that a movement with as much history and as many adherents as, say, Protestantism could be based on some notion that is fundamentally (although not obviously) foolish were itself absurd. On the other hand, calling views with which one disagrees foolish is part and parcel of scholarly correction, and so long as one accepts the discipline, it is difficult to complain.

Practical apologetics, however, are a different matter. Practical apologetics is quite intentionally directed at the person (or at least at a class of like-minded persons). It is more or less an argument why you personally, not some abstract ideal of a human being but you as a concrete individual with your particular experiences, should be motivated to question or doubt the adequacy of your own beliefs that might be obstructing your conversion. It is an aporetic approach that diagnoses real obstacles.

In many ways, this process resembles my wife's field: health education. There might be a nearly-unlimited amount of education available, but when it comes down to it, getting people to change their behavior based on the information is far more difficult than simply collecting and disseminating the information. One has to see a need, to feel a motivation, to perceive the importance, in order for there to be a change in one's life. One of Dr. Prejean's favorite models for this process is the transtheoretical model (TTM), also known as the "Stages of Change" model, which was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente. A brief summary of the stages illustrates how an effective change-producing strategy proceeds.

As in health education, practical apologetics often is received as unwelcome advice. It is often perceived as too personal or too judgmental, even if the person understands the reasons why someone means well. Suggesting that someone make better eating choices, stop smoking, or exercise is rarely welcome advice. And even if the advice is good, no one with any sense would pretend that rectifying that behavior is easy even if one knows the obstacles that one's current behavior presents to one's health. In practical apologetics, there is also the difficulty that the proper disposition of the will only comes through grace, which is an added complication even beyond the ordinary difficulties associated with changing behavior. These factors combine to make practical apologetics a task just as intensely personal, impossibly frustrating, excruciatingly tedious, and nearly thankless as any other effort to try to get people to change for the better. But when the harvest is not just the health of the body but the health of someone's soul, one can hardly measure success in any better way.

Perhaps the healthiest way (forgive the pun) to look at practical apologetics is seeing it as directed at the excuses people give for not being Catholic. It basically argues from the perspective that, given the hypothesis that the Catholic Church were who She claims to be, would your objection be legitimate, or would it be an excuse? Would it be a true doubt, a real demonstration of known contradiction, or is it a mere difficulty that can be solved? Can that hypothesis be so convincingly refuted that you are assured that it is false? Obviously, no argument in Heaven or on earth would suffice to show that the Church is who She claims to be, because what She claims to be is something beyond the grasp of human reason. But the question is whether someone can be so confident in whatever disagreements they have that they cannot possibly be persuaded otherwise.

In that sense, practical apologetics is not an attempt to create the reasons for conversion (which it could not do in any cases) but to attack the strength of those beliefs that create habitual resistance to conversion. Are you sure that the Fathers did not teach the dogmas of Catholicism, when those dogmas rightly understood? Are you sure the Reformers understood the Fathers or the Scripture better? Are you sure that their response was justified and that it was correct? Are you sure that your claim of divine authority for your beliefs can be sustained? Are you certain that the Church is not who She claims to be? These seem to be reasonable sorts of arguments for practical apologetics.

I suppose there are people who consider it a worse affront to their human dignity to have their bad habits criticized than for someone to keep their silence. But it is difficult to think that such people merely intend to lord some sort of triumphal superiority over others. More than likely, their own spiritual lives have been saved, they feel fortunate to have been saved from danger themselves, and they do what they do because they care about others' lives. In that light, I can even understand why Protestant apologists do what they do, although I wish they could be more realistic about it. For me, the analogy would be to people who fall for medical quackery because it "worked for them." That's all well and good, but it doesn't provide any real explanation of the effect or any good reason to justify the claims. I wish that Protestant apologetics could make some effort to engage in the sort of scientific argument that I described above. I doubt that it is coincidental that thoroughly unscientific arguments like intelligent design and presuppostionalism frequently gain traction in the sort of intellectual environment that routinely makes such arguments in the place of real justification. At any rate, I think there is no cause to cast aspersions on apologetics generally, but only on the irrational sort of apologetics that does not proceed in the reasonable way that I have outlined above.


At 4:59 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

I thought I made it plain enough what my problem with Internet apologetics is. I didn't single out apologetics per se, nor even Catholic apologetics per se. Perhaps I need to write another post, one NOT directed at a particular person's immoderate behavior, that will make my view of apologetics plainer.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

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At 9:35 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I addressed the problem because Catholics were involved, but the problem is far broader. The problem is the standard in which some people are subject to unreasonably high standards for what is reasonable, while others are subject to unreasonably low standards in their own positive claims. I'm trying to articulate what it is that ought to distinguish the unreasonable from the reasonable, what is fairly said and what is not fairly said. My point was simply that what is being said about Catholics strikes me as unfair, and I haven't seen anything of the sort from Catholics. That's what concerns me, and it is from that perspective that I'd like to point out that what I have seen from Catholics in the last several years seems quite in contrast with the systematic pattern of unfairness among anti-Catholics. The comparison between the quality of Dave Armstrong's scholarship to James Swan's was probably the low point that convinced me of the depth of that problem, because in any reasonable discourse, that claim couldn't even be heard seriously. But rather than simply complaining about it, I'd prefer to at least offer some steps toward improving the situation.

At 9:43 PM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

The above was directed at Tim, but as to Dave:
I would say, in slight disagreement, speaking for myself, that I am not usually seeking directly to influence someone to become a Catholic.

I think we agree on this, since I was not saying that except in the sense that you take it to be the ideal. I was simply saying that rather than taking a passive approach to those arguments, you go after the obstacles directly, be they formal arguments, unexamined prejudices, or simply bad habits of thought or emotion. You might not intend to convert someone to Catholicism directly, but you do intend to force them to examine those obstacles. And that, I believe, is a noble and worthy calling.

At 11:08 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

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At 6:51 AM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

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At 8:47 AM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

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At 10:53 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

The fact of the matter is that Swan is better than Armstrong on that point. Anyone who reads more than popular Catholic propaganda about Luther and actually tries to get into the situation of Luther from all its multiple angles will, as you say, recognize that the standard of reasonableness being set for Armstrong by his followers, and I guess by you too, is way too low.

I don't believe that the issue is being oversimplified. Explaining why Luther did what he did is controversial, no doubt, and all of the psychohistory is assuredly going to fall into that category. Some people will believe that, and some people won't, although it is not worth excluding from the discussion. But the gist of the argument is that what Luther did was inexcusable from a moral and theological perspective, and while we might investigate the excuses for the objectively grevious wrong he inflicted on the Church, it is no more exculpatory than the psychology of criminal behavior. While it is certainly interesting to study the situation from all its multiple angles, the end conclusion of the story must invariably be the same: Luther invented an evil theology that was turned to evil purposes. I consider the Reformation God's work in exactly the same way I consider the Assyrians and Babylonians God's work. They were evil men working toward evil purposes as punishment for the Church's failure, serving God's purpose only accidentally. I think there is legitimate debate as to Luther's subjective culpability and intent. But good intentions don't make what he did any less evil; they might at best excuse him from culpability for his wrongdoing.

As I said above, apologetics is based on excuses, and I think it is entirely legitimate to undermine the excuse that Luther had noble intentions, when it is questionable whether that is the case. But the larger picture is that Luther had no excuse and that there was no Christian justification for any of the Reformation distinctives. He simply made them up for the exigencies of the circumstances, and Christianity cannot be made on such inventions; we know that the Fathers did not consider them dogma. That's the point of clarity: we can talk about WHY Luther did what he did, but the thrust of Dave's argument is that it doesn't matter in the least why he did it, because nothing could possibly excuse the wrong. That's what much of the Luther apologetics tends to excuse; we can't resort to Luther's noble intentions to justify what he actually did. That's where I think the quality of the anti-Catholic response is obviously below any reasonable standard of justification; it doesn't even claim to answer that argument. It just offers excuses based on noble intentions, and those excuses aren't even that good.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Mike L said...

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At 11:15 AM, Blogger Mike L said...


I find myself in the peculiar position of having had nothing but civil, satisfactory interaction with each of you: Jonathan, Dave and even, of late, Tim. I don't know whether that's testimony to your virtue or my incoherence; but regardless, it does have its advantages. It certainly gives me an excuse to recommend leaving behind the past between Dave and Tim.

Of course I agree with Jonathan's observations on apologetics. I also agree with something Tim wrote on one of his blogs:

Laymen want desperately to be doing "important" things for God's Kingdom. It is thought that "just" being faithful auto mechanics or computer technicians or plumbers or housewives are not "important" things like "contending for the faith" is. I must work my 40 hours a week at my "day job," and then come home at night to do the "important" and "spiritual" stuff on the computer. On the contrary, when we remember that Martin Luther said that if he knew Christ was coming tomorrow the first thing he would do was to plant a tree, and that William Tyndale said that there was no vocational difference between washing the dishes and preaching the Gospel, we see that there is no need to be anxious about being able to do something "spiritual," like apologetics. All of life is spiritual. Do what God has given you do to first, and if there is any time left for the rest then do that.

That doesn't fully apply to Dave, whose day job, after all, just is apologetics. But it really hits home for me. I'm one of the laymen Tim refers to, and I haven't yet figured out what my day job is supposed to be. Right now I work for a courier company, alternating between the roles of warehouse jockey and route driver. I doubt I'll always have to pay the bills by such humble means; but neither do I doubt that many lay "defenders of the Faith" could benefit from the humiliation as much as I have.


At 1:33 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Mike,

Oh, I agree with that observation from Tim, too, and always have. I've always maintained, as a Protestant and as a Catholic, that all work is honorable, spiritual, and rendered unto God.

In my own case, just to clarify, for the majority of time that I have been doing apologetics (even "full-time") I have also had to take on other work. All through the 90s I had a courier job (sounds like very similar to yours). I have followed the Pauline "tentmaker" model, and I like that the best. I certainly prefer it to begging and fundraising, and sending out regular crisis letters, which I have always refused to do.

The irony and comical part of saome of this is that I have caught hell no matter what I do. If I can do apologetics and nothing else for a time, by God's grace, people say I'm not really working and am getting paid for what other people do in their spare time (and acc. to Tim and my many critics, far better than I do!).

But if I take on extra jobs, I have been mocked for that as well. I delievered papers in a large suburban route for a day and a half. An entire thread at Greg Krehbiel's old board (spearheaded by "Nevski") was devoted to mocking me because I did that. If all work is honorable and unto God, then why should delivering papers be mocked and decried?

Recently I was a transporter of vehicles to car auctions. That was no glamorous job, either. But it paid the bills and it was honorable work, which is the whole point.

At this very moment I have a prospect of working for an apostolate which is very much in line with my apologetic work. If it falls through, I will have to take any kind of job to help make ends meet, because royalties cannot fully pay our bills, and donations are skimpy because I don't beg, and one generally has to do that with newsletters to big mailing lists to solicit such donations.

So I'm really not that much different from you. I've been able to devote myself to apologetics for more hours than most people can, but it's not like we are worry-free over here, financially. I am a homeowner; I have four children. My wife home-schools and so we don't have a second income as many do. It's tough. But we believe in sacrifice for the sake of things that are more important than material things and even the vaunted quintessentially American "financial security."

God will highly honor you, I believe, for persevering and writing excellent spiritual / theological materials that many have benefitted from, whether you receive any remuneration for doing so or not.

Most things on my blog were written without remuneration, too; all that material is free for the public to use. I simply do it regardless of the pay because that is one thing that God put me on this earth to do, and I believe in being a good steward of the gifgts and abilities that God gives us.

I've long maintained, too, that the most important work done in this house is by my wife: home-schooling four children. That receives no pay, so in our society it is regarded as of little value. It only involves four people and not hundreds or thousands. But it is the most important work there is (along with motherhood in general).

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

I put "day and a half" referring to the duration of my old paper route. It should have been "a year and a half." LOLOL

I should note a funny thing too about the old route. When Nevski and his cronies were making fun of me for doing that job (Tim may very well have joined in; I don't recall), it so happened that just a day earlier I was out in a literal blizzard at 4 in the morning for three or four hours. That has to be experienced to be comprehended, how much work that is. Even worse was a weekend morning when it was driving rain the entire time.

On another related note, recently I tried and failed to help promote a hydrotherapeutic spa. That was mocked as well in two places: posts at Triablogue by Steve Hays, and an entire discussion board that had Catholics and Anglicans on it.

Obviously, then, all of those people don't take this view that all work is spiritual and unto God. They have created categories of "unsavory" or illegitimate jobs that they consider unfit for human beings such as themselves. In other words, they are looking down their noses in the typical snob fashion that has driven class prejudice and envy for centuries.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

Here's a good laugh:

"[T]here are Roman Catholic apologists on the web right now whose epistemology, for example, reduces to atheism. Jonathan Prejean is a fine example of that."

(Gene M. Bridges)

Then he makes out that I don't oppose atheism. Funny, then, that I have a published book about it, a web page that has been up for ten years, and scores of debates with atheists posted. I am not particularly popular in ex-Christian venues. That comes about by opposing their opinions, not by jumping in bed with them, as Bridges implies that I (along with "Arminians") do.

On another humorous note, "Turretinfan" - upon his refusal to do a chat room debate with me about why Catholics aren't Christian, gave as his reason the fact that I am not Catholic enough (he knows better the definitions than I or other Catholics do).

Today he was asked what books he would recommend folks to read along these same lines, and he suggested "Boetnner's [sic] 'Roman Catholicism'".

This is the level we're at: he turns me down for being insufficiently Catholic, and then, asked what would explain his POV, comes up with this notoriously deficient, academically disgraceful book.

Gotta laugh to keep from cryin' . . .

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Reginald de Piperno said...

I have to say that I too was truly appalled by that book recommendation (and by Mr. Bridges' silly characterization of our host's epistemology. Good grief).

They want us to think that they know what they are talking about when they start talking about Catholics and the Catholic Church, and then they say things like these. Sigh.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Well, Jonathan, I used to think you were just letting your hair down in front of fellow Catholics, engaging in a bit of hyperbole for the sake of argument and keeping Catholic spirits up by claiming such things as that Reformed theology was a totally different religion, Machen was a moron, Warfield was a moron, Calvin was a moron, etc. Now I understand that it's much worse: in your view the Reformers were actually EVIL men inventing things from scratch to justify an EVIL program of OBVIOUS rebellion from God. Thank you for being so brutally honest. I will continue to read your materials because I usually find you stimulating and challenging, but as for thinking of you as any kind of reliable critic of the Reformation I'm afraid you've killed that for me.

Rather than say anything else in this gnostic medium that might be misunderstood and / or cause a possibly unnecessary falling out, I'd like to ask you if you'd be willing to talk about these things on the phone sometime. I find that live conversations help to remind everyone of the humanity behind the ideas, of the humanity of the opponent, and often they prevent the types of blowups that so often happen online when minds are on fire and fingers fly faster than charity. If you're willing, drop me a line and tell me when would be a good time to call you.

Shoot, I wish I'd done that with Dave years ago. Who knows, might have prevented a lot of crap.

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

Hey Dave, having just written to Jonathan about a live conversation, I suppose I really should take my own advice and offer it to you, too. Interested?

At 10:19 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

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At 10:27 PM, Blogger Dave Armstrong said...

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At 8:38 AM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

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At 11:01 AM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

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At 5:49 PM, Blogger Tim Enloe said...

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At 8:22 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

I can't see any good of keeping the comments open for this discussion. Unless both of you are willing to forgive and forget whether or not the other apologizes to your satisfaction, the discussions will simply proceed on this level. You both have free will to have your opinions, but I don't think it helps anyone else.

I will attempt to explain what I mean by "evil" in the context of the Reformation in a separate post, because I think lots of people would benefit from the clarification. If there are still outstanding issues, I'm happy to discuss them on the phone or whatever.


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