Jan 22, 2022
I have a great appreciation for apologetics. Scripture calls us to “always be ready to give a reason” for the hope that is in us, and many apologists have done this admirably, defending the claims of the Christian faith with evidence, reason, and appeals to necessary truths. But we must never confuse our defense of the faith with the faith, itself. A worldview can’t consist only of arguments against competing claims any more than a city can consist only of a wall.
There was a time when no one needed to state this truth. When Christianity was the dominant or in many cases the official view in the West, no Christian had to defend his entire public theology, ethics, or lifestyle in every conversation. Two people could meet and simply assume certain shared ideas, like the existence of God, the reality of moral truth, and the unique place of mankind in the universe. Dialogues and even debates could begin much more quickly because participants weren’t forced to “lay again the foundations.”
All that has changed. Living in what Charles Taylor calls a “secular age,” we can no longer assume any shared beliefs with those we meet. Conversations can’t begin without working out what the person opposite from us believes about things as basic as the soul, the existence of objective right and wrong, or the fixity of male and female. All of these are now in dispute, which means we must embark on an inventory of what our neighbor, coworker, or date believes. It’s exhausting. And it trains us to shift our posture from always being ready to give a reason for our hope to always crouching with our apologetic shield at the ready, prepared to do battle over every tenet of our worldview. That is, if we don’t just choose to quietly act like secularists.
In that apologetic crouch, Christians often find ourselves fortifying our worldview. “Wouldn’t this belief be easier to defend if I simplified it?” “Wouldn’t this passage of Scripture be more defensible if I took only the most minimal interpretation?” “Do I really need that fourth Gospel to defend the Resurrection?” “Wouldn’t Christianity be tougher to climb and conquer if I sanded off all its rough edges?”
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we begin choosing what we believe or are willing to publicly profess based not on what Scripture, reason, and tradition teach, but on what’s apologetically expedient—what would be easiest to defend against secular attacks. Compromise by compromise, our Christianity becomes nothing but a response to critics. Brick by brick, our worldview becomes nothing but a wall.
Here’s the problem: The easiest belief to defend isn’t always the right one, because a skilled scoffer can make even true things sound ridiculous. C. S. Lewis knew this. In “The Silver Chair,” he vividly illustrates it when the Green Lady—a subterranean enchantress “of the same crew” as the White Witch—places the four main characters under a spell that clouds their minds. The spell (a barely-disguised metaphor for secularism) induces a stupor that causes them to question even things they know by experience. The Witch, pressing her advantage, questions the existence of the sky, the sun, the stars, and the trees. She convinces the heroes that Narnia is a figment of their imaginations, and that even Aslan is merely their childish embellishment of a house cat.
In the end, Puddleglum breaks the spell by resorting to an argument from desire—by baldly asserting that the Witch’s world of skepticism is simply boring compared with the sunlit world he half remembers but has given up defending. His apologetic walls breached, he chooses to go on professing the faith in defiance of her atheistic onslaught. And we cheer, not only because we admire ‘Glum’s courage, but because we have also seen the sky.
In my discussion this week with Natasha Crain on Upstream, she pointed out how difficult it is to believe the Christian faith when we live in a culture that constantly forces us to defend it. We can take very little for granted. We really are different—cutting against the grain, swimming upstream—and being “faithfully different” takes a lot of work.
That’s why when apostates who “deconstruct” their faith express a sense of “happiness” and “relief,” we shouldn’t be surprised or impressed. Of course they are relieved! For the first time in their lives, they are enjoying the ability to assume beliefs they don’t need to defend constantly. They have stopped swimming against the cultural current and are lazily drifting. They have decided the entire faith is indefensible and surrendered it. And when surrender puts you in the majority, it can be thrilling. But it doesn’t make you right.
Christians who know that there is more to reality than our debate with secularism shouldn’t let secular doubts reshape what we believe. Nor should we respond to those doubts by wrapping the faith in apologetic razor-wire or jettisoning any doctrine we worry might present a soft target. Many of Christianity’s most beautiful and profound truths are not at all defensible in front of an unregenerate audience. There are palaces, gardens, art galleries, and cathedrals within our faith’s apologetic walls—treasures meant to enrich the faithful, not to repel invaders. When we try to fortify these treasures, we often ruin them. When we give them up in order to dodge secular criticism, we give up the very things our walls were built to protect. The real danger of living in a secular age may not be exvangelical surrender, but apologetic militarization. In our zeal to defend the faith from doubts, we may leave our children with a doubt-shaped faith.
That’s why I think being “faithfully different” in a secular age means insisting on truths our neighbors can’t believe we believe, and not feeling compelled to prove each to their satisfaction. Apologetics isn’t the sum of the faith any more than a wall is the sum of a city. In some ways, the wall is the most superficial part of the city, and only exists for the sake of what’s inside. We must never forget that.
I hope you’ll listen to my discussion with Natasha Crain about her new book, “Faithfully Different.” Our talk and her book will help you understand the cultural pressure you feel each day to hide your beliefs, and encourage you to live them out confidently, instead. And if you’re like me, you’ll feel a strange relief in realizing that truth doesn’t hang in the cultural balance, and it is perfectly capable of self-defense.