Are Christian Apologetics Counter-Intuitive?

Posted by

Felipe Pinto and Jeffrey Thayne

“How extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of humanity it betrays, how it connives if only unconsciously with offense by making Christianity out to be some miserable object that in the end must be rescued by a defense. It is therefore certain and true that the person who first thought of defending Christianity is de facto a Judas No. 2; he too betrays with a kiss, except his treason is that of stupidity. To defend something is always to discredit it.”
—Soren Kierkegaard, from The Sickness Unto Death

This quote is surprising. Is it stupid to defend Christianity? Defending the doctrines taught by Christ has always seemed an honorable enterprise. Are not the great sermons we find in the scriptures a logical defense of Christianity? Upon a more careful reading of the scriptural sermons, however, they seem to consist almost entirely of personal testimony rather than logical defense. The prophets, having had personal experience with God, testify of events they have witnessed or experienced. This is the essence of Christianity: personal experience. The principles that Christ taught and the precepts attested to by prophets for ages do not need to be defended or proven; they need to be lived!

Kierkegaard is letting on to something else here too. Apolegetics may actually hinder our ability to perceive spiritual things the more they direct us to empirical, logical, or even ontological “proof,” as though such endeavors yield real knowledge about God. Where, then, is reason valuable? Williams explains, “Once we know what is true, reason provides a wonderful tool for sorting out our obligations, anticipating consequences, and persuading others that what we know is true. Truth, I am convinced, can be rendered reasonable, but it does not arise from reason.”

For a long time, our western society has been permeated by an assumption that truth can be accessed most reliably by reason. This is because our intellectual tradition is rooted in an ancient Hellenistic assumption that truth is ultimately a set of unchanging, metaphysical propositions. The Greeks believe that reason was our most reliable window into the realm of truth, because reason is our only faculty that remains consistent over time. For example, our bodies grow old and die, our emotions fluctuate every hour, but the sum of angles in a triangle will always be 180 degrees. Richard Williams explains:

It seems unarguable that reason—our capacity and tendency to ‘make sense’ and to engage in consistent, meaningful understanding and expression—is intrinsic to our nature. Scholars have had a tendency, however, to privilege reason over other expressions of our nature. The effect has been that reason has achieved unassailed authority in matters of knowledge and truth. … With the Enlightenment, knowledge was grounded ultimately in what was intuitively perceived as true by the rational mind, and real knowledge became associated with rational certainty—grounded in that which was rationally and logically impossible to doubt.1

Dr. Williams continues, however, to explain that the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not rely on reason:

The truth of Mormonism does not rest on reason. We do not draw our authority, our identity, or our mission from any set of propositions or from any interpretation of doctrine. We do not draw upon theology at all as justification for our truth claims. The truth of Mormonism rests on the occurrence of certain events. Chief among the founding events are these: the Father and the Son either appeared to Joseph Smith in New York or They did not; there either were gold plates holding a history of real people or there were not. … We can go beyond this. The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ itself rests on the occurrence of events. There was a Man, Jesus, or there was not; He overcame the whole of sin and darkness in the garden or He did not; the tomb was empty or it was not. The truth of an event is very different from the truth of a proposition. The truth of propositions is established by reason and argument. …The truth of events is established by witnesses. Because of the restoration of the true gospel, we are blessed with an abundance of witnesses. This is why the apostolic authority of special witnesses and the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit are essential to the true church. Scriptures also witness of these things, and we Latter-day Saints have an embarrassment of riches where scripture is concerned. In this context, faith is not what we cling to when we do not know truth; faith is the knowledge of truth nourished by good acts. It is strengthened by witnesses capable of penetrating our very souls and culminates in the palpable fruits of sure and certain experience.1

In other words, the truthfulness of the gospel relies on the veracity of certain events, of which we have witnesses. Our purpose in this church is not to prop up the teachings of the prophets with logical argument, but to have real experiences of which we can testify. Bruce R. McConkie said,

It is true that you can reason about doctrinal matters, but you do not get religion into your life until it becomes a matter of personal experience—until you feel something in your soul, until there has been a change made in your heart, until you become a new creature of the Holy Ghost. …

What it means to us is that we need religious experience; we need to become personally involved with God. Our concern is not to read what somebody has said about religion. … Religion is not a matter of the intellect. …

I repeat, the better the intellect, the more we are able to evaluate spiritual principles, and it is a marvelous thing to be learned and educated and have insight and mental capacity, because we can use these talents and abilities in the spiritual realm. But what counts in the field of religion is to become a personal participant in it. Instead of reading all that has been written and evaluating all that all the scholars of all the world have said about heaven and hell, we need to do what the Prophet said: gaze five minutes into heaven. As a consequence, we would know more than all that has ever been evaluated and written and analyzed on the subject.

Religion is a matter of getting the Holy Ghost into the life of an individual. We study, of course, and we need to evaluate. And by virtue of our study we come up with some foundations that get us into the frame of mind so that we can seek the things of the Spirit. But in the end the result is getting our souls touched by the Spirit of God.3

Indeed, doctrinal apologetics can treat Christianity as a social theory, an ideology, or set of values. By doing so, however, they implicitly mischaracterize Christianity as being something we should blindly accept because it is true. This is a grotesque distortion of what Christianity asks! Christianity’s central message is that a man named Jesus Christ is our personal redeemer, that there is no redemption without Him, and that unless we ascribe to certain principles we will never attain that redemption. As Christ’s spokesmen and special witnesses testify of this message, they invite us to develop a personal relationship with the Savior so that we too can know Him and this redemption. Christ himself said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 17:3, italics added).

Williams points out that there is a succinct difference in this kind of knowledge. The difference is much the same as the difference between the words saber and conocer in Spanish. While both translate into English as to know, they represent very different kinds of knowing. One is knowledge of a propositional nature, and the other is familiarity with a person. Williams says,

I might say that I know my wife, and none could reasonably ask, “Are you sure?” This kind of knowing is a type to which traditional issues of rational certainty do not apply. And yet it is no less sure than propositional knowledge. Indeed, in many ways it is more sure. We must remember that our faith is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in a person is a very different thing from faith that some proposition is true.1

Only when used in the sense conveyed by conocer can we know the truth in a way that reflects the Savior’s pronouncement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Brent Slife summarizes this point very neatly:

The singular nature of Christianity … is easily evidenced by Christ’s astounding pronouncement: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Notice that Christ does not say that he knows the truth, or that he carries with him the propositions of truth, or that he exemplifies these propositions. Christ says that he is the truth. Jesus Christ is the Word or ‘Truth made flesh.’ Needless to say, this concrete, embodied truth is a radical departure from Hellenistic and thus Western traditions of a propositional truth.2

Indeed, an embodied truth is not accessible by reason, but by a personal relationship.

In the final analysis, however, there are many apologetics for the LDS faith who I believe do good, not harm. This is because many of them seek not to logically prove the teachings of the prophets using reason, as did early Christian apologetics such as Aquinas and others, but to educate an often misinformed population about the historical facts the LDS faith hinges on. For example, The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) provides very in-depth and useful articles detailing often unknown historical nuances in the development of the church. We hope that this post will not appear critical of the efforts of historians and scholars who work hard to document the history of the church and to educate the public.

1. Williams, R. N. (2000). Faith, Reason, Knowledge, and Truth. Devotional address given 1 Feb. 2000 at Marriott Center. Speeches (Brigham Young University), 1999–2000 (pp. 141–148).

2. Slife, B.D. (1999). C. S. Lewis: Drawn by the Truth Made Flesh. In A. C. Skinner & R. L. Millet (Eds.), C. S. Lewis: The Man and His Message (pp. 20–37). Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft.

3. McConkie, Bruce R. (1966). How to Get Personal Revelation, BYU Devotional, 11 October 1966; published as “How to Get Personal Revelation,” Ensign, June 1980, pp. 46–50.

One comment

  1. Of course, in addition to being both an ironist and a melancholic, Kierkegaard was a Christian apologist (of an admittedly unusual sort given that most Christian apologetics of his day were Hegelian in nature and spirit). Any chance he’s pulling our (collective) legs here on this one? Granted, he fully recognized the difference between a Genius (who might employ reason to defend Christianity) and an Apostle (one who declares the Truth with authority) — and never considered himself more than a witness to the truth. Anyway, I wonder if his point isn’t that defending Christianity is stupid if, and only if, that’s all you have to offer. . . ?

    Nice blog!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *