A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 6: Apologetics

I grew up at the tail-end of the Evangelical Apologetics Explosion. Somewhat arbitrarily, I’m selecting as the apex of that movement the year 1999. (I use that date because of the publication of Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, but that was also the year of Norman Geisler’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics and the year after Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.) I was seventeen in 1999 and was just starting to be disillusioned with the church I grew up in. We weren’t terribly devoted to apologetics at my church–and I don’t mean to suggest that McDowell and Geisler are in any sense responsible for my alienation from the Southern Baptist Convention–but my youth group did attend a summer camp with a Creationist theme and a very obvious apologetics influence.

(A tangent: We sang a song there that suggested that the monster in Job 40:15-24 was in fact proof that human beings and dinosaurs co-existed: “Behemoth is a dinosaur / I know creation’s true!” Subtlety, let us say, is not a hallmark of the apologist’s creed, at least not as it is presented to teenagers. It was also at this camp that I first heard the Standard Evangelical Sermon on Premarital SexTM, in which amorous teenagers are instructed for half an hour that OH MY GOSH SEX IS AWESOME before receiving a brief disclaimer that “it’s much better if you wait until you’re married”–as if anyone could possibly experience both waiting and not waiting and thus be in a position to judge.)

I also took a mandatory apologetics course at my Christian college, in which I angered the Bible and theology majors around me by consistently failing to see the big deal–or, indeed, the point. We read Strobel and Geisler and a book by Paul Copan that promised to “deflat[e] the slogans that leave Christians helpless”–and I found them helpful on some level. But when it came to the actual purpose of the class–training us to prove the truth of the Gospel to unbelievers–I was left in the dark. I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect my classmates responded to my disinterest by citing 1 Peter 3:15: “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (NAS). For reasons I will go into in a bit, I think it’s entirely possible to obey this verse without subscribing to a Geislerian view of apologetics: that is, that Christianity is imminently reasonable and that unbelievers are faulty in their rational thinking.

We must have discussed Pascal’s Wager in that class; it is, after all, a standard in apologetics and an argument which nearly everyone encounters at some point. Its premises are familiar: Either there is a God, or there isn’t. The consequences for believing in a God that doesn’t exist are not much to speak of–but the consequences for not believing in a God Who exists and Who commands faith are infinite. Therefore, we should believe in God. This argument is full of holes, as any atheist (and not a few believers) can tell you. The biggest problem is that Pascal’s Wager can make no distinction among the hundreds of religious conceptions of God, most of them mutually exclusive. What if I choose to believe in the Christian God, and it’s the Muslim Allah Who is real? Suddenly the consequences of belief are much more serious!

The Wager also results, presumably, in a rather intellectualized and cold-fish faith, a fact that Walker Percy’s character Will Barrett points out in The Second Coming:

To the best of my knowledge, only one man in history ever made a practical proposal, that is, a proposal of which the rare sane unbeliever could at least make a modicum of sense. That was the famous wager of Pascal, who was the last French intellectual who was not insane. . . . But it is after all ludicrous to reduce the question to a crapshoot at Vegas. . . . The trouble with Pascal’s wager is its frivolity.

These very legitimate objections notwithstanding, Pascal’s Wager is important to existential apologetics for at least two reasons: (a) It assumes the mutual absurdity of faith and atheism; and (b) it posits faith as primarily an act of the will, rather than of the intellect or of the emotions.

That first point is, I suspect, forgotten or ignored by apologists of the Geislerian variety. But the Wager, though it’s a logical appeal of sorts, is built on several dozen pages of absurdist theology. Most notably–and this is, in my opinion, the single most profound sentence in the Pensées–he tells us that “It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist” (¶230). The effect of this mutual absurdity is not merely to make religious belief into a leap of faith; it makes atheism into the same sort of leap. Agnosticism seems to be left as an option, but on a practical level there is no agnosticism, as you either live as if there is a God or as if there isn’t. Not only is (a)theism a leap of faith; it’s a leap of faith that everyone must take in order to exist.

The other contribution Pascalian absurdism makes to existential theology is that it makes faith into an act of the will. This, no doubt, displeases those who wish to posit Christianity as wholly reasonable and who see faith in Christ as primarily a matter of intellectual assent. But it’s not; it can’t be, not if the essence of Christian faith is a trust in Jesus Christ. St. James suggests as much when he says that “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (2:19, NAS). What makes the difference is an active faith (built, James says to Luther’s chagrin, on works)–an act of the will. Intellectual assent without what William James famously calls “the will to believe”–forcing oneself to behave as though one believes, even if it doesn’t make sense at times–is fairly worthless.

As for the notion that faith is built on “feeling”–that idea stems from a faulty reading of Matthew 22:37: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That heart implies emotion to the modern reader, but Christ is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5–and the seat of the emotions in the Hebrew Bible is not the heart but the bowels. If the author of Deuteronomy had wished to suggest that we ought to love God with our emotions, he would have instructed us to “Love the Lord your God with all your bowels”; as written, heart more likely refers to what we’d call the soul, and soul refers to something akin to life-breath.

Faith in Christ, then (and other religious faiths, as well), is an act of the will, that is, something we choose to trust in, even though it doesn’t always feel great or make perfect intellectual sense. For how this works, we must skip ahead several centuries from Pascal to Søren Kierkegaard. The Danish philosopher is famously resistant to attempts to force God into human understanding (which is, after all, the end results of much of modern apologetics). He remarks in his journals–and in the new beverage holder at the Christian Humanist Store, cheap at twice the price!–that “to stand on one leg and prove God’s existence is a very different thing from going on one’s knees and thanking Him.” He takes it even further in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript and suggests that attempts to prove the existence of God end up accomplishing the exact opposite purpose:

To demonstrate the existence of someone who exists is the most shameless assault, since it is an attempt to make him ludicrous, but the trouble is that one does not even suspect this, that in dead seriousness one regards it as a godly undertaking. How could it occur to anyone to demonstrate that he exists unless one has allowed oneself to ignore him; and now one does it in an even more lunatic way by demonstrating his existence right under his nose?

The existence of God, strangely enough, is completely beside the point for Kierkegaard; he takes it as a given and expects from his “knight of faith” not a belief in the existence of God (after all, even the demons have that) but a painful, crushing–some might say “horrible,” and they wouldn’t be misreading Kierkegaard–trust in the invisible, perhaps unknowable, God.

His model for this is Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, which he discusses in his most famous book, Fear and Trembling. Abraham is a Man of God specifically because, when the Divine approaches him, he asks neither for verification nor for a justification for the horrifying action demanded of him. Indeed, he commits himself wholly to God’s commandment–even though it contradicts both an earlier promise God made to him and every human law, including the law of logic, which is violated by the contradiction. What makes Abraham a knight of faith, in fact, is his ability simultaneously to believe God’s promise about making him into the Father of a Great Nation and to obey God’s later command for human sacrifice without active or passive rebellion of the Camusian variety. This process is the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” a Kierkegaardian phrase from which later scholars derived the concept of the “leap of faith.” The ethical sphere involves not only morality but all universal systems, most notably logic.

This is, obviously, a full-fledged attack on apologetics based on logical argument; God simply cannot be reached in this way. Karl Barth takes this bold assertion and runs with it, remarking in The Word of God and the Word of Man that “There is no way from us to God–not even a via negativa–not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way–even of this way–would not be God.” (John Updike memorably quotes this passage in Roger’s Version, a novel about the seamy underbelly of fideism.) Hence, the need for revelation–God’s reaching down to man, reliably described, for Barth, in the New Testament. Logic isn’t revelation; it is trumped by it.

But there’s more to the story. Some people could do what God commanded of Abraham, Kierkegaard says, but they couldn’t do it in the spirit of faith:

If–in the guise of tragic hero, for higher than that I cannot come–I were summoned to such an extraordinary royal progress as that to the mountain in Moriah I know very well what I would have done. . . . I am fairly certain I would have been there on the dot, with everything arranged–I might even have come too early instead, so as to have it done quickly. But I also know what else I would have done. The moment I mounted the horse I would have said to myself: “Now everything is lost, God demands Isaac, I sacrifice him, and with him all my joy–yet God is love and continues to be so.” . . . And yet this is the greatest falsehood, for my immense resignation would be a substitute for faith.

The distinction Kierkegaard draws here between faith and resignation is helpful in uncovering the role of reason in the religious life. It’s important that he does not recommend a “teleological negation of the ethical,” but rather a suspension.

It may be helpful to go back to another familiar image here. Dante has Virgil, a virtuous pagan, lead him through Hell and Purgatory, but they must part ways. In like fashion, Dante seems to suggest (and Kierkegaard would surely agree), the believer must leave her reason behind the instant she believes. But there’s a third act: in Heaven, in the realm of belief, Dante receives a new and more perfect guide, Beatrice. In like manner, Abraham begins to sacrifice Isaac but “believe[s] that God would not demand Isaac of him”–and receives Isaac back. The believer suspends the ethical and the logical in order to receive a higher ethic, a higher reason, on the other side of faith. One believes in order to understand, in other words, and despite the apologists of the ’80s and ’90s, one does not understand in order to believe.

That’s not to say there’s no place for Strobel and Geisler and other apologists. Their arguments and books can help to bolster faith once a person has already made the leap–but they can’t lead people to God, at least not to any God worth believing in (that is, a God far beyond the limits of the human mind and its commitment to the Kierkegaardian ethical). Strobel’s book The Case for Faith thus has a nonsensical title: no case can be made for faith except the case made in and to faith.

5 comments
Dan Dawson
Dan Dawson

This is an interesting perspective, Michial, one that I have only recently "rediscovered" in my own walk of faith. I can certainly resonate with your distrust of a wholly intellectual defense of faith, while at the same time I see, like David, the value in providing a robust apologetic when the occasion warrants, but that cannot be the whole of faith. Indeed, a faith in God that was only built on logical argument, as if one could reduce him to a logical proposition or empirical datum, would by that nature cease to be real faith (and by faith, I mean mostly "trust", in this context). I do want to point out something about the story of Abraham and Isaac that might be germane to this discussion. I wonder if it wasn't so much that Abraham was just suspending his ethics, as you put it, but rather that he believed that God held the keys of life and death itself, and could raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:19). So, in this sense, this was a radical insight of God's nature and ability on the part of Abraham, that came by faith, but a faith that had already been borne out by the evidence (after all, Isaac had been born, just as God promised, to him and Sarah in their old age). In other words, the faith of Abraham in this instance was, I would argue, a holistic faith, that relied on reason, empirical evidence, *and* a radical trust in God, all working together.

David Grubbs
David Grubbs

I don't think this is in contradiction to your post here, Michial, but there is one use of apologetics which is stressed by Reformed apologists that I think is also good to mention: namely, the "disarming" of the arguments that keep the discussion focused on the logic of the tenets (or tangents) of the faith instead of on faith itself. I see a greater role for apologetics than you do: I think we should attempt to answer questions and arguments, even if we know those answers will ultimately be unsatisfactory to someone who hasn't yet made the leap. However, not all arguments in discussions of religion -- as in the discussion of anything else -- are "real" arguments of substance: some are rhetorical diversions, intended to redirect the conversation to a more comfortable subject. Some rough and ready Geislerian apologetics can be useful in setting aside such distractions, by at least allowing them to be shown to be distractions. The crisis may be the vital thing, but sometimes we have to crack through defensive shells of rationale to "force the moment to its crisis."

Michial Farmer
Michial Farmer

As usual, my fellow Humanists correct me in a very helpful and appropriate way. Point taken, David.

John
John

My apologies for the misspelled words above. Typing too fast after lunch before getting back to work.

John
John

Growing up in a church that cherished debating, I certainly spent a lot of time in "over-think" mode. Then I went through a period when I believed I was supposed to feel it, day in, day out. I have to be honest and say that I have not dropped all the baggage. Even in my progressive world I still find myself at times trying to mentally verbalize all the answers to every argument in one thought, while feeling confident and assured about every conclusion I have reached over the last 40 years. It does not work. But what does allow me to sleep at night is knowing that my faith in God, all it contains, and what it does not, after all the whispers of doubt, became a choice. It can be nothing else. Oh, yes, knowing that my "defense for the hope that is within me" does not have to be a battle allows for peace also; the peace I need for the real battles that I have faced, the battles I caused myself in foolish moments, the battles of loss and death.....the ones make you wonder if can hold on to your mind. Sanity has become my apologiets.