A Year in Essays: Apologetics, Semester 1

Transforming Contemporary Apologetics, though not a core module to the MA was taken by every student in my entry year. It had by far the heaviest reading load of any of the modules and it covered a lot of ground – taking in a range of apologetic techniques from across the centuries (but mainly Western), looking at contemporary approaches, especially relating to postmodernity. As you might guess, postmodernity was the bit that appealed to me the most and was what I focused my essay on.

Explore the transformative function of apologetics in postmodern society. Your essay should include key ways in which today’s context is different from other historical periods, the contemporary challenges and suggestions for transformative action.

I relied on a schema from Leithart to describe how postmodernity is different to other historical ages: its actions are ‘intensifications, inversions and unmaskings’ of modernity. I drew on Brian McLaren to describe the values of postmodernity, values that many Christians see as a threat, but that I see as not antithetical to faith. The four are:

  1. Postmodernism is sceptical of certainty.
  2. Postmodernism is sensitive to context.
  3. Postmodernism highly values subjective experience.
  4. For postmoderns, togetherness is a rare, precious, and elusive experience.

Finally, I spend the remaining bulk of the essay detailing four ways that postmodern apologetics might function, with four short maxims giving practical ideas.

  1. Uncertainty: Embrace uncertainty to profoundly encounter God.
  2. Conversation: Engage in two-way conversation where both parties grow.
  3. Stories: Tell and be part of stories that connect, engage and encourage further development.
  4. Celebration: Celebrate God’s presence with anyone who will join you.

I don’t believe that postmodernity is something to be feared or fought. It just is. It’s not a perfect context to think as a Christian, but that perfect context does not exist. Rather, we engage with the context we are in and seek to redeem it, to transform it.

On reflection, however, I’m not sure I really answered the question – despite the good feedback from my tutor who marked it! How do we transform the way we defend the rationality of faith in a context where rationality is not only no longer the only criteria, but downright mistrusted? I think my suggestions go towards how evangelism or mission might work in a postmodern context, but apologetics is a different beast.

A few brief ideas now, a year on: acknowledge irrationality, avoid argument and power plays. Postmoderns will not be battered into the kingdom by the most powerful arguments or logical trickery (I think it slightly suspect to assume that anyone really was. There’s always something else going on beyond rational convincement – the Holy Spirit, even if nothing else!) Accepting that there is more to life (and new life) than deduction or 1-2-3 arguments is essential if we are to make an impact on this generation. Arguments often look like the power plays that we’re so sick of in politics – who really care about ‘town hall style’ debates between candidates? The papers and those who see the world as a fight between us and them (whether ‘they’ are pinkos or tories!) Postmoderns don’t want to watch a husting or a far-off panel debate, they want to be drawn into conversation – and that needs to be genuine dialogue, not a contrived method of forcing ‘capital T Truth’ down an unwilling neck.

So I was wrong – apologetics isn’t mission or evangelism; it’s more specific and focused and still important. Treat postmoderns with respect and some will listen. Apologetics alone will not save them, I suppose that’s part of what I tried to say in the essay, but then it never did save anyone on its own. But in it’s job as removing the intellectual barriers that keep people from faith, it must continue, though different from the apologetics of my parent’s generation if it is to succeed.

Apologetics Essay – download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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This essay by Jon Rogers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.jonrogers.co.uk.