Apologia (III)

In my last post on apologetics I gave an overview of it’s historical development in the church. In this final post I look at the challenges it faces today and in the future and how those challenges can be met.

One of the most effective contemporary apologists in the world is Ravi Zacharias. I think part of the reason why his brand of apologetics is so effective is that he traces the historical development of thought. This appeal to history is important because it always gives context to how we arrived in the situation we find ourselves. If apologetics is going to be relevant and useful in the 21st century it needs to be self-aware, recognising its origins and evolution so that it can make intentional changes to meet new challenges. That is why I do not think it is helpful to say contemporary apologetics is the same as the biblical apologia. Apologetics has grown with Christianity which originated from Roman Palestine but modern apologetics has largely been a Western enterprise. Now Christianity is truly a global religion and an apologetic that is dictated by a Western cultural curriculum cannot really edify global Christians in their own contexts. A purely rational apologetic that employs philosophical and empirical arguments has its place and is very useful but it is not nearly enough.

Two other realities of global Christianity are that it is growing at a phenomenal rate and at least in terms of sheer numbers, Christians have never been more persecuted now than at any other point in church history. Contemporary apologetics has to grapple with these realities which I think embracing the more well-rounded ancient apologia will enable it to do. For one many persecuted brothers and sisters like Miriam actually have to present a classical apologia, that is, appear before a real tribunal and present a legal defence of themselves as believers. For them apologetics cannot just be rational systematic discourse. It is literally a fight for their faith and their lives. A modern apologia needs to address those political circumstances that make it possible for Christians to even find themselves in a situation like that. We need to bring all these to bare in facing truly global challenges.

Now Christianity in the majority world is not the same as that of the European missionaries who brought it over. It is often very Pentecostal in nature and does not have a formal regulatory body overseeing it like older European denominations. The rapid rate of growth as well as its cultural and theological diversity means Christianity in each global context has to deal with its own forms of syncretism. As much as Christendom entangled being a Westerner and being Christian, global Christianity has to be wary of pervasive and unorthodox influences from within its own environment. Just like the early apologists had to battle controversy and heresy within the church like Marcionism and Gnosticism, and help ground believers in “mere Christianity”, so does global apologetics have to deal with internal issues like that in the global church.

As I say time and time again, the role apologetics played in my life was not in dealing with doubt but helping become more established in my beliefs. This aspect of apologetics which is not on the offensive is very important. It is needed in global contexts and so cannot be developed from the West or within a Western framework. This is not to disregard Western apologetics at all. Being the oldest apologetic tradition in the world, there is a lot global Christians can learn from its strengths and weaknesses, building on its victories as well as avoiding its mistakes. However, we still need to adapt to our own cultural circumstances, so believers can be secure in their faith and not succumb to the influence of the world.

Western Christianity has been facing a very difficult time. In Europe Christians are a statistical minority while in the US they are a cultural minority fast becoming a minority by the numbers. There is a general apathy against Christianity which sometimes becomes open hostility. Soft forms of persecution are certainly on the rise in that part of the world. In these times believers need to recover their identity from the current cultural quagmire and defend itself in the truly apologetic sense of contending for the faith. All these challenges not withstanding, Western Christians have far greater affluence than many of their siblings in the faith around the world. Christians in the Middle East are literally facing genocide and unfortunately their siblings in more powerful positions have become so self-centred that they support politics that does not help their siblings’ plight. Like Justin Martyr, those who are in the position to do so need to make an urgent apologia to their governments to intervene and stop the horrific persecution that is going on. Apologetics is about divine justice and making a case for the faithful. If there is no concerted effort from the Western Christian community to act selflessly, the apathy their cultures show them will continue to translate to policies that are deliberately blind to the senseless slaughter of the Christian minority in the Middle East. Remember, this is where our faith came from and some people are making the attempt to completely eradicate any trace of Christianity after its 2000 year stay in the region. If the energy Christians in America expended in gaining political power was directed towards defending and protecting their persecuted brethren, I’m sure it would make great impact.

Apologetics has had a long history where it has evolved and changed. The connecting thread between the ancient apologia and contemporary apologetics is case making. Contemporary apologetics too narrowly focuses on rational theological arguments while the ancient apologia was about defending the Christian and making the case for the Christian community as well, as a testament to the rulers and authorities, human and cosmic, that Jesus is Lord and he is the reason for our conduct in the world. Essentially it is a kind of gospel talk we are compelled to give, since that good news is the explanation why our lives have been radically change so we live in allegiance to the one who gave himself up for us.

We need to re-inhabit the broader definition of apologetics in early Church history while not abandoning the metaphysical and forensic developments made since then. These later changes should not be at the centre but rather be in the service of our apologia. A full gospel-shaped apologia has legal, philosophical, theological, political, judicial, ethical and contextual dimensions to it. A Christian apologia does not only discuss the faith but makes a case for the faithful. This is a major difference in emphasis between ancient and modern apologetics. The latter is mainly dogmatic while the former is ecclesial. This the direction we need to head for the future as Christianity has become a truly global faith. We need to be aware of Christianity in its myriad global contexts and make the case for believers in those situations. A one size fit’s all apologetics won’t cut it. Christians need to respond to the particular challenges they face and different communities need to care for and help one another to do so. We cannot truly do biblical apologetics if we do not care intensely about our fellow believers’ lives.

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