Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Giving Reason For The Hope I

Giving Reason For The Hope: The Possibility and Necessity of the Apologetic Task as a Ministry Within The Church And Her Mission (1 Peter 3:15)

As a new believer during my teenage days, I discovered apologetics through a booklet written by Josh McDowell. It came as a lifeline at a critical juncture in my spiritual walk as I tried to make sense of the claims of Christ in relation to other faiths, especially the Buddhist-Taoist tradition.

To be frank, I did not come to faith after arriving at satisfactory conclusions about the reliability of Scripture or thorough investigation on the historical evidences of Jesus’ resurrection. The decision to trust in Him as Lord and Savior followed the hearing of a simple gospel message, which convicted me of sins against a holy God and the need for reconciliation with Him through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

However, coming from a plausibility structure that would not take Christian claims at face value, my newfound faith launched an ongoing and often lonely intellectual struggle to understand its justifications and implications. Echoing Anselm, my pilgrimage would be more appropriately described as “faith seeking understanding”.

As time went by, I discovered other reflective people in and outside church who ask fundamental questions in life like our origin, identity, purpose and destiny. The dissatisfaction with simplistic albeit pious clich├ęs for an answer is both our blessing and our curse. I began to feel acutely the vacuum in the local church for suitably equipped ministers who address such issues with sensitivity and knowledge.

Again, I turned to the wisdom of books by Augustine, Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis and others. In this paper, I seek to explore the role of apologetics in Scripture and church history in a missional context before discussing how it may be done in the Malaysian setting.

Giving Reason For The Hope II

The Possibility And Necessity of Apologetics In Scripture

Derived from the Greek word apologia, which meant “defense”, the apologetic task involved refuting objections leveled against the Christian faith (defensive apologetics) and/or providing a positive case for its acceptance (offensive apologetics).

As such, it could play a potentially crucial role in both strengthening the faith of believers and helping to remove obstacles that hinder a seeker from coming to faith in the task of evangelism.

Do we not find numerous biblical instances of reasoned arguments employed in the ministry of Jesus Himself? In His didactic dialogues with Pharisees, Sadducees and disciples, Jesus rationally answered objections, opened up hidden assumptions with well-placed questions and appealed to miraculous signs as evidence for His claims .

During Paul’s missionary journeys, we frequently find him in synagogues persuading and debating Jewish religious leaders and pagan philosophers at Mars Hill on the validity of the gospel (Acts 14:15-17, 17:2-4, 16-31, 18:4, 19:8-9) . Since Luke took care to explicitly record that some who heard his presentation indeed chose to believe (Acts 17:34), the narrative does not function as an illustration of the bankruptcy of persuasion as taught by Watchman Nee. Even some of these converts’ names (Dionysius and Damaris) were mentioned, indicating that these men from Athens eventually made an impact on church life in later years.

Not only that, we also have clear biblical injunction in 1 Peter 3:15-16 for a persecuted church to be prepared to give a credible answer (apologia) to everyone who asked for the reason why they believed. It is not just a nice suggestion or a duty for an elite group of intellectuals only. Biblical apologetics thrive or wither in the whole church as we carry out the missionary task. Interestingly, the same passage also admonished us to be gentle and respectful, keeping a clear conscience and displaying Christ-like behavior before hostile critics. How we need to vigilantly shun the besetting sins of tactless method, intellectual pride and lack of grace evident in many would-be apologists! In 2 Corinthians 10:4-6, the church is urged to take apart arguments that set itself up against the knowledge of Christ, making every thought captive in obedience to Him. Spiritual warfare is therefore not primarily about doing prayer walks around the neighborhood. Especially in a pluralistic context like Malaysia, the church needs more informed, winsome and courageous ambassadors who could engage contemporary challenges in a biblically faithful and culturally relevant manner.

However, there are also some common objections which have been advanced against the use of apologetics in favor of a simple proclamation of the gospel. For example, we are reminded of Paul’s warning “that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Colossians 2:8) and “the gospel is the foolishness of God… I come not with persuasive words of wisdom” (1 Corinthian 1-2). We would do well to remember that ultimately the Holy Spirit is able and responsible to convict and renew a sinner’s heart to repentance and trust in Christ, not the cogency of our arguments. However, a more careful reading of the texts mentioned suggests that Paul was actually warning us against false philosophy, not philosophy per se. In order to beware of false philosophy, we need to be aware of them first!

As we have seen earlier, Paul himself used reasoning in gospel proclamation and his condemnation was directed against prideful intellectualism, not against reason itself (1 Corinthians 8:1). The crucifixion is offensive to human pride for the Jews sought miraculous signs whereas the Greek sophists peddle ‘wisdom’ by improving their speaking skills to persuade people with empty rhetoric, not substance. Simply put, the antidote for arrogance is humility, not ignorance (1 Corinthians 14:20). When Jesus commended the faith of a child (Matthew 18:2-4), He was referring to a child’s dependent humility, not the mental ability of toddlers, as a condition to enter the Kingdom. It is not uncommon to find proud ignoramus who are defensive and unwilling to learn from others too. Therefore, intellectual witness should not be viewed as a competitor or substitute of the Spirit’s work of illumination, but a means by which He could open spiritual eyes to see the truth. Just as the ministry of transportation is to ferry people to a physical place where they can listen to the gospel, the apologetic ministry seeks to bring them to a “cultural and intellectual space” where the communication of the gospel makes plausible sense in the worldview of the hearers.

While it is obvious that God does not need our defense, His sheep nonetheless needs protection from adverse spiritual consequences of false teachings. C. S. Lewis correctly reflects: “To be ignorant and simple now — not to be able to meet the enemies [of Christ] on their own ground — would be to throw down our weapons and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." Therefore, Scripture seems to mandate a duty for the church to earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3). While faith is beyond reason, it also does not require a fideistic, intellectual suicide. Biblically understood, faith involves the entire person - knowledge, mental assent as well as a personal commitment.

Giving Reason For The Hope III

The Possibility And Necessity of Apologetics In Church History

Historically speaking, the apologetic task had an important pedigree and we could learn from its ancient role in the church’s mission as the gospel spread to a predominantly Gentile context. By the second century, educated converts like Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras and Aristides of Athens wrote substantial apologetic literature in the face of persecution and intellectual challenges from their Greco-Roman civilisation.

They do not just argue about religion but broader cultural issues like religious freedom, the meaning of education and history of nations. Justin showed appreciation for Socrates and Heraclitus as men who partook of a vague knowledge of the Logos, as honorary Christians specifically in their rejection of pagan religious practices and subsequent ostracization. While we do not know if they had much success with the pagan intelligentsia or political rulers to whom the corpus was addressed, the Apologists nonetheless provided a theological foundation on which later Christian thinkers would develop and finally replace the prevailing pagan philosophies of the day.

Although the legacy of other apologists operating in the context of mission encounter could be cited, their role has significantly diminished in the modern era. In order to glean some lessons on how apologetics at its best has served the church, I would just highlight two outstanding theologians even though their contribution was not entirely without fault . Burdened by many ecclesiastical and pastoral concerns, Augustine was a North African bishop during the fifth century A.D. while Aquinas was a widely-travelled Dominican monk in the medieval era. The former wrote his most significant treatise, The City of God, in response to an “epochal shift” occassioned by the fall of Rome while the latter was roused to encounter the rise of a sophisticated Islamic civilisation in Spain with Summa Contra Gentiles.

In a perceptive study by Curtis Chang, we could see that in their differing interaction with neo-Platonism and Aristotelian philosophy respectively, both men employed a similar rhetorical strategy to enter the challenger’s story, retell it and capture the retold story within the gospel narrative. That is, both men immersed themselves within the paradigm, authorities or story of the alternative worldview to find a shared space for dialogue, then reinterpret it to reveal tragic incompleteness or dissonant tensions inherent in its plot and finally capturing the rival stories by revealing how the ‘resolution’ is finally found in the gospel. They were not trapped behind an airtight fortress that has no point of contact with others. Neither did they lose the dramatic plot of an overarching Christian narrative.

As testament of their labor, Augustine defeated the pagans’ attempt to blame Christianity for Rome’s decline, insisted that the city of God is never coterminous with any “Christian nation” and made possible the preservation of learning in medieval churches. Without Aquinas, the church may reject wholesale Aristotelian insights on sensory-based experiment and empirical evidences, thereby crippling the emergence of modern science in the West. Their legacy of cultural relevance and biblical faithfulness should spur present day Christian thinkers to greater exploits.

Giving Reason For The Hope IV

Challenges For The Apologetic Task In Malaysia

Although there has been laudable work done by organisations like Kairos Research Center and NECF Research Commission, the Malaysian church remains generally shrouded by an anti-intellectual mood that substantially hinder the development of a robust inquiring spirit so crucial for the apologetic task. As many denominations were established by British and American missionaries, the confluence of inherited dispensational-fundamentalist theology, Holiness spirituality (“Let go, Let God!”) and Pentecostal-experiential instincts coloured much of our spiritual ethos. As a result, there is a common emphasis on “the dangers of the world, the comforts of the separated piety, the centrality of evangelism, and an expectation of the End.” Other sociological mitigating circumstances could be cited like pragmatic, populist and “immediate result” activism so characteristic of the enterpreneurial Chinese immigrants’ mindset.

Unsurprisingly, Noll’s critique of the ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ for an American setting is largely relevant here as well, posing a formidable barrier against the development of an intellectual witness and cultural mandate for many complex and current religious and sociopolitical issues facing the Malaysian church.

Also, in the minds of many Malay Muslims in Southeast Asia, there was no distinction between the arrival of Christian missionaries and the European powers which waged war, colonized their lands and controlled the regional spice trade. The Portugese, Spanish, Dutch and English colonizers fought among themselves for the spoils and cruelly exploited the local people so a deep sense of antipathy remained even today. Long after gaining national independence, the political elite in Indonesia and Malaysia considered Islam as closely linked to nationalism and regarded Christian mission as a social threat. Given such a sensitive post-colonial scenario, some Christians prefer to steer away from a robust apologetics because stressing propositional truth claims seem like a mask for Foucaultian power play and oppression of indigenous cultures.

Another significant challenge comes from a pluralistic mindset, common in Asian societies, which looked with disapproving suspicion, if not open hostility, at any religious faith that claims to be the exclusive truth. While we are obviously living in a society with diverse religious perspectives, religious pluralism is a particular perspective that these religions are equally valid in terms of access to truth and effectiveness in salvation. This view is illustrated beautifully by the ancient story of ten blind men trying to describe an elephant after touching different parts of its body for the first time . As they announced their conflicting discoveries, a heated argument ensued. Awakened by the quarrel, the Rajah corrected all of them by saying, “The elephant is a huge animal and each of you touched a part. In order to know the whole truth about what the elephant looks like, you must put together all the parts!” The moral of the story is that no religion has privileged access to the whole truth. Each religious view is a partial experience of the same Reality from its own culturally conditioned perspective. Given such a cultural milieu, it seems politically incorrect to claim superiority for any particular religion.

Doing Apologetics In The Malaysian Context

Offering diagnosis without prescription makes for light work so let us explore some proposals on how the apologetic task may be carried out in the Malaysian context. In view of many contemporary challenges, Dr Ng Kam Weng urged the Malaysian church to take proactive steps to enhance resources and nurture promising young leaders while they are still in colleges. I heartily concur with his proposal for long-term and intentional programs to equip them with necessary tools to interact with Asian philosophies and religions in an engaging method and accessible language. While there has been a resurgence of apologetic works in the American context, most of the materials were produced in response to atheistic secularism and naturalism.

A typical strategy by classical apologists like William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler and J. P. Moreland would proceed from a defence for the existence of God through various theistic arguments, the possibility of miracles and historical reliability of Scriptures. The goal is to lay a realist, historical foundation for accepting the resurrection of Christ, a crucial ‘clincher’ for the vindication of Christ’s unique claim to Deity. The Malaysian church has definitely benefited from growing evangelical scholarship in defence of the historicity of the Gospels since Muslim apologists like Ahmad Deedat borrowed the tools of liberal biblical criticism in their attempt to show that the Gospels are internally inconsistent or textually corrupt. Such apologetics will continue as long as sensational challenges from The Da Vinci Code, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary and others flood the media.

However, more often than not, we encounter alternative religious systems which already took the existence of the supernatural or spiritual world for granted. In contrast, many Western Christians too quickly dismissed such worldviews as mere superstitions or demonic, neglecting their positive cultural elements and revealing their own captivity to Enlightenment assumptions. Though commonly used in Malaysia, classical apologetics could be unwieldy insofar as it requires extensive memory and grasp of historical or scientific data. Perhaps, the effectiveness of theistic arguments from design, morality, causality and others may be applicable for agnostics or atheists who have developed a synthesis with Buddhism. But what may work for a secular atheist may not work for a theistic Muslim or pantheistic Hindu. Asian Christians need to rethink our rhetorical approach as a series of three-step, logical arguments in favor of a more dialogical engagement, meal hospitality, posing questions that invite participation or self-discovery, story-telling that involves the imagination and listening with empathy. Many people, inundated by totalizing claims of rationality, increasingly yearn for spirituality in the context of authentic community. They also want to see the fruits of our belief in embodied living and compassion for the needy before examining their validity. Having been a layperson-practitioner in various settings, I am convinced that apologetic should be lived out artfully as much as it is argued rationally, in a trust-building faith community where Kingdom perspectives are demonstrated. We should avoid a false dichotomy between truth and grace by following Jesus Christ who personified both (John 1:17).

Now, let us evaluate another influential apologetic method called Reformed epistemology. Defended by philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Wolterstorff and others, it challenged the Enlightenment demand that everything we believe in must be supported by sufficient evidence. While some beliefs do require evidence, we cannot go on an infinite regress of proofs for every belief. Somewhere along the line, the buck stops at some properly basic beliefs which we intuitively know without inference from other beliefs. It is argued that evidences for God’s existence are not necessary for a rational faith even though such evidences may indeed exist. Echoing Calvin, belief in God emerges from an innate ‘sense of the divine’. Christians have epistemic permission to believe in God since such basic beliefs are the results of our cognitive faculties functioning successfully according to their design of producing true beliefs.

By probing hidden presuppositions behind the demand for evidences, I find Reformed epistemology helpful to deflect the burden of proof from resting solely on the believer’s shoulders. After all, how many church members in our midst could grasp such subtle philosophical nuances as found in the ontological argument? By rightly rejecting a self-defeating criteria for knowledge demanded by Cartesian foundationalism, a believer is not obligated to be a temporary agnostic or give up the faith at the pain of irrationality even if he has no access to any theistic proofs. It seems to be a workable strategy against the dominant naturalistic accounts of epistemology that Plantinga had to wrestle with. However, in a pluralistic context, it seems to open wide the door for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims to claim ‘epistemic rights’ to their fundamental beliefs as properly basic as well.

While committed to the necessity of Holy Spirit’s inner witness to convict us of the truth, Harold Netland pointed out that various self-authenticating experiences that overcome any amount of contrary evidences could also be found in other religions. Our notions of what constitutes basic beliefs depend heavily on prior ontological and theological understanding of the nature of human beings. We cannot take these assumptions for granted especially if others do not share them. But if there is no neutral, universally rational foundation by which we could evaluate conflicting truth claims, on what basis do we privilege the Christian gospel? Is it merely one among the many we choose from due to the whims of history or culture? While postmodernism or pluralism may arguably provide a level playing field for all kinds of stories, a religious claim that has no referent beyond their respective ‘language games’ become trivial or subverted.

Influenced by Reformed epistemology, Stanley Grenz tried to answer this burning question by focusing on an ‘incarnational’ apologetics, which has impressed many emerging leaders today. He observed that the goal of all social traditions is to construct a well-ordered society. Instead of asking, “Which religion alone is true?” the question should be reformulated as, “Which religious vision provides the basis for community in the truest sense?” Although all religious traditions may contribute to societal cohesion, Grenz’s contention is that the gospel alone provides a more complete vision of the nature of community that all human religious traditions aspire to achieve since it embodies the highest understanding of who God actually is. The human search for communal relationship actually mirrors the Triune nature of the eternal God Himself as “plurality-in-unity”. The church is the visible embodiment of God’s universal purpose in the gospel to reconcile a diverse people and renew them in a gathered community as a sign of the age to come.

In the Asian context, where collective identity and relationship are stressed despite rapid erosion by modernistic individualism, I appreciate Grenz’s insights for an apologetic strategy integrally modeled in the church. However, as he himself has noted, various communities espouse different understandings of what constitutes true community. Without some common ground in our understanding of what “community” means, how could we then claim that the Christian story fulfills what they are actually seeking? And if such radically differing visions are ultimately incommensurable, it seems to undercut the claim that the gospel provides a “more” complete basis for community life in comparison. Ironically, Grenz’s proposals seem to make sense only if we do not overstate the divergence in our foundations of rationality, morality and community. This should not be surprising since different human cultures and languages do share a common humanity.

Without going back to Cartesian foundationalism, I find the structure of “incarnational” apologetics work best within a critical realist or chastened, modest, Reidian foundationalism. Again, Harold Netland is perceptive to point out that current discontent with positive apologetics owes more to the manner in which it is sometimes done and unrealistic expectations set by proponents.

Could a humble and realistic approach to positive apologetics be sustained? In my humble opinion, there is enough room in the apologetic task to draw on the strengths from different methodologies to construct a positive, cumulative case for Christian theism. Since the gospel provides the most comprehensively plausible, logically coherent and existentially satisfying explanation of the universe and our human experience, we could rejoice in the convergence of many apologetic streams. From the classical apologists, we drink in empirical evidences that demand a verdict. From the Reformed epistemologists, we learn to trust in the Spirit’s ability to produce genuine faith apart from arguments. From the presuppositionalists, we discover that unique features of human life make sense only when interpreted through a biblical outlook. With the incarnational apologists, we live out the practical demonstration of the faith in a living, ecclesical community.

Giving Reason For The Hope V

No matter how we conceptualize it, the ethical criterion of truth remains a crucial challenge for the faith community. As a minority, we are called to demonstrate how a Trinitarian approach for community formation nurtures ‘unity-in-diversity’ in contradistinction from a potentially pluralistic but violent clash of civilizations or a docile state of monistic ‘dhimmitude’.

If the ultimate apologetic is found in Jesus’ prayer that His believers may be one as a reflection of Trinitarian love (John 17:21-22), our challenge today may sound like this: “How would the koinonia as an inclusive, sanctified, racially and socially diverse community of faith be any different from a monolithic ummah or a secular, fragmented individualism?” Would the church translate theology into socio-political practices that would answer our community’s yearning for racial reconciliation, public governance with integrity, peacemaking and liberation from oppression and poverty? The late Lesslie Newbigin wrote that it is precisely because we want unity that we seek the truth by which alone humankind can become one: “That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found by repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world. The Truth is personal, concrete, historical.”

If the Malaysian church could thus demonstrate an alternative society that transcends ethnic, cultural, economic class and political barriers, the perception of Christianity as a Western colonial reality will be more effectively exorcised. Our apologetic should also take on board a faithful portrayal of Christ, as the Suffering Servant-King who laid aside His majesty and emptied Himself in humility to rescue and serve humanity (Matthew 10:28, Luke 22:27). The cross subverts every pretension to power by violence and de-legitimates manipulation and oppression. Although it does not guarantee innocence in its adherents, we find within the biblical meta-narrative is two inherent anti-totalizing inclinations - a radical sensitivity to suffering and God’s overarching creational intent over all, thus preventing a partisan abuse. Through the atonement of Christ, the way for reconciliation and forgiveness is made possible even for the oppressors.

In a stirring call, Engel and Dryness argued that the New Testament church made a parody of the ‘center-periphery’ mission model, which has as its starting point centers of power and wealth before moving to the periphery of those who were impoverished spiritually and physically. The book of Acts recorded how the gospel made its way from Jerusalem, an insignificant backwater of the Roman Empire to the very household of Caesar. Today, churches in the so-called Two-Thirds World need to embody the self-emptying and suffering Christ, not the imperialist Caesar. As servant-leaders, we need to engage contemporary issues in our proclamation and service for the sake of the world as significant missionary-sending contributors. In word and deed, we sensitively recognize the diversity and integrity of different cultures and ‘language games’, while holding to the significant possibility for meaningful communication as we also share a basic humanity in God’s image and live together in the same created world.

Concluding Remarks

While there is certainly indispensable necessity for worldview encounter and legitimate art of persuasion, we need to get beyond a confrontational mode of interfaith dialogue. There are also other themes which deserve our attention like interfaith dialogues in promoting common social harmony, joint action in overcoming racism, AIDS and poverty. Although the process of Islamization is a growing concern, which calls for courageous countercultural witness, the church also needs to draw from the rich resources for social programs that spring from a common theistic outlook with Islam, the national religion, as opposed to naturalistic secularism. At the same time, dialogue-in-life should permeate the rank and file in the office, classroom, factory and ‘rumah terbuka’ during festivities. That is, Christians should abandon a ‘ghetto’ mentality and actively pursue to be with the other, collaborate with them in action and discourse to understand and be understood. To be effective, the laity must be equipped to do conversational evangelism.

In conclusion, let us heed the rousing call for the apologetic task by J. G. Machen when he said, “It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the while collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”