Positive Apologetics: A Critique (or the first part of one…)

I hate doing these multi-part posts – it totally kills the flow of the dialectic -, but I can’t possibly say what I want to in the space of a single blog post. My apologies.

I started my last post by saying this:

“A distinction has often been pointed out between positive and negative apologetics. Negative apologetics is the “defensive” side of the coin; the goal is to go after arguments that have been lodged against the Christian faith; to show, perhaps, that the argument is invalid, or that some premise is faulty, or that the conclusion is implausible or impossible. Positive apologetics is more “offensive” in nature; it is concerned with giving reasons for the Christian faith. In a courtroom scenario it would be akin to the difference between, on the one hand, the prosecution making the case that some evidence of the defendant’s (perhaps an alibi) be dismissed from the trial, and on the other, the prosecution presenting some evidence which demonstrates that the defendant was in fact present at the scene of the crime.”

I then went on to argue that negative apologetics is not sufficient, in our day and age, to serve the apologetic needs of the Church. Perhaps it is sufficient for many individuals. I may not need to give you, or Aunt Sallie, an argument for the truth of the Christian Way in order for you to believe or accept or commit yourself to the Christian way; you may already have reason to believe, without ever having encountered apologetics or an apologist (perhaps some experiential reason). But when it comes to the needs of the Church – i.e, those things which are necessary for the historical organism which is the Body of Christ to be faithful to its mission -, positive apologetics is a can’t-live-without, for the very reason that there are plenty of people who do not accept the Christian Way, and perhaps are rationally justified in not accepting the Christian Way — and this despite not having a decisive argument against the rationality of the Christian Way.

A reader’s comment in that last post got me thinking about this enterprise of positive apologetics.  And I now realize that I should qualify what I previously said. Not because I said anything I disagree with, but because I am afraid of being misunderstood. I am afraid that my argument for the necessity of positive apologetics may be taken as an argument for the necessity of any and all sorts of positive apologetics. I do not mean for my argument to be taken this way.

As a matter of fact, I think that there are a great deal of different sorts of positive apologetics, many of which serve very different needs, and some of which are probably less important to the task of the Church than others. Perhaps the most common sort of positive apologetics is that which has traditionally been called natural theology — that sort of apologetics that attempts to provide arguments or proofs for the existence of God. So common is this sort of positive apologetics that many probably see it as identical with positive apologetics. No doubt more than a few of you read my previous argument – for the necessity of positive apologetics – as an argument for the necessity of natural theology. Natural theology is a popular and prominent sort of positive apologetics. And this is why I especially wanted to take some time to qualify my previous post: I do not think natural theology to be nearly as important as certain other sorts of positive apologetics, and, in most circumstances, I do not think natural theology to be necessary (in the sense alluded to in the aforementioned argument).

I understand this is an unpopular position. So let me attempt to support it.

Start with the fact that apologetics, for quite obvious practical reasons, must work with what many have called public reasons: reasons which are accessible and motivating, not just to the apologist, but to both the apologist and his audience. If I formulated some argument which employed premises such as that ‘George Washington was the first president of the United States,’ or that ‘Pain is an unpleasant experience’, we would say that I was appealing to “public” reasons. This is because these statements (were they to be employed as reasons) are reasons which are accessible to all of us: in this case, on the basis of a shared education (“George Washington…”), or a shared conceptuality (“Pain is…”). This accessibility stands in contrast to, for instance, the sort of reason that I have for believing that last night I dreamed about BLTs: my reason for believing that last night I dreamed about BLTs is my remembering my dreaming about BLTs. This memory, unlike the historical fact of George Washington’s presidency and the concept of pain, is not accessible to you, or to whoever my audience might be. I might be able to give you some reason to believe that I remember dreaming about BLT’s, a fact which you might take to be a reason to believe that I, in fact, dreamed about BLT’s. But this is very different from the reason I first had for believing that I dreamed about BLT’s: I had a particular experience of remembering. No one else has access to this experience. Quite clearly, these sorts of private reasons are not the sort of reasons that make for good arguments — or at least, they are not the sort of reasons that make for compelling arguments.

So apologists formulate arguments which employ reasons which they take to be “public”:

The Cosmological Argument(s) employs premises taken from contemporary cosmology, contemporary mathematics, and from what many apologists would consider commonly-shared philosophical and conceptual intuitions.
Arguments for the Reliability of Scripture & the Historicity of the Resurrection employ premises taken from contemporary history, contemporary literary criticism, contemporary anthropology, and so forth.
The Teleological Argument(s) employs premises taken from contemporary physics or biology, and contemporary probability theory.
The Ontological Argument employs premises which the arguer believes to be accessible a priori to his audience.

… to give a few examples.

[More to follow. I haven’t yet given anything resembling “support” for my conclusion that natural theology shouldn’t sit at the head of the positive apologetic table. I’m getting there.]
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