apologies for apologists

August 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm 17 comments

I read a post this week by someone blogging through Tim Keller’s book, Reason for God, and was freshly reminded why I don’t like apologetics. I read this book when I first started questioning Christianity. It was billed as a great defense of the Christian faith, and was endorsed by leaders who were trusted in my church. I felt a need to have given Christianity a fair shake, even though I thought I was through with it. I had been immersed in conservative Christianity for over a decade, had read many books about doctrine, but had not read any serious apologetics.

The book does stand out from some others in the way it engages with skeptics. Keller clearly has real life experience interacting with skeptics, and is gracious, intelligent and educated. But I am still left with the impression that it is the same old apologetics wrapped in a contemporary veneer. I didn’t like the book then, and still don’t.

These sentences were quoted in the blog post, in support of the author’s (the author of the book, not the blog post) belief that if you believe people share a common sense of what is right and wrong, than you should admit it demonstrates God’s existence. Keller writes:

“If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmonhy between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists.”

I wrote in the margin, “Bible not exactly a champion of human rights.” :^)

I have no doubt these issues are worth thinking about and discussing, and that there are not easy answers to the questions. But is the author trying to honestly inquire into why something is or is not true, or is he trying to convince you to believe what he believes based on philosophical slight-of-hand?

If you insist on a secular view of the world.” This sounds disingenuous. I do not insist on a secular view of the world! Can I still disagree with the premise? “…then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists.” In other words, “You are living in a fantasy world if you disagree with me!”

From my experiences with car salespeople, I don’t trust them. Unfortunately too many of them have proven themselves worthy of the negative stereotype they receive (sorry if you are an honest car sales-person out there, no offense). One has to assume the salesperson will say whatever gives them the most advantage to close the deal. At the end of the day, I don’t trust apologists much more than that, I think they are just trying to sell me something.


Entry filed under: apologetics, belief. Tags: , , , .

sign, sign, everywhere a sign prop 8 overturned

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bruce  |  August 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I am often told I cannot be moral or ethical or have a life that matters without Jesus.

    Yet, here I am a moral, ethical person with a life that matters, without Jesus. :)

    WE decide what is right and wrong. Always been that way. Whether through social contracts or personal standard of morality and ethics WE decide.

    We should be very glad that the bible is NOT the exact moral and ethical standard for the world . (and certainly there are some moral and ethical teachings worth adopting) Lots of dead folks if it is. :)

  • 2. Quixie  |  August 4, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Apologetics is seldom really addressed to the skeptic. The argument that G-sh has written the law “in man’s heart” rings a bell in the heart that’s already preconditioned to cite Paul (deja vu, or pavlovian reflex?), but is rejected easily as nonsensical by those who are no longer committed to such religious adorations.

    Nonsense, even congenial nonsense, is still nonsense.
    It’s like a syllogism in the form of:

    No humans are perfect creatures.
    All perfect creatures are mythical creatures.
    Therefore, some mythical creatures are not human.

    There’s a great article by Robert Miller on the real function of apologetics.



  • 3. Kay  |  August 4, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    I enjoyed the book when it came out, but now – not so much.

    Why the change of mind?

    Well, when I read it I was looking for a reason to be Christian. I went into the book wanting to believe in the Christian God and to trust the Bible. I wanted confirmation for my choices.I had particular glasses on and I saw what I wanted to see.

  • 4. atimetorend  |  August 4, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Bruce, or perhaps your heart knows you don’t really think the bible is not completely moral, or… just kidding…

    Kay, you bring up a good point. An important function apologists serve is to bolster the belief of people who already believe as they do. And then reading an author like Keller, who is more hip and better spoken then similar apologists makes you feel better about your faith, ’cause you’re believing something smart and hip people believe. At least that is how I used to feel.

  • 5. Kay  |  August 4, 2010 at 9:55 pm


    Exactly. And it happens over and over. Even when I was a Jehovah’s Witness I used to think “That elder is so smart. Too smart to be mislead. This MUST be “The Truth!”

    And yet it’s only been a problem for me with Christianity. I haven’t felt that way about other religions or agnosticism or atheism. I guess because Christianity is what I grew up with and was indoctrinated into.

  • 6. The Wise Fool  |  August 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    I recently had a similar discussion with a believer; similar to the point you quote here. My defense was something like:

    If you go by what is most commonly felt to suggest that it is proof that God exists, then you should consider other feelings as well. Ask yourself why is it so difficult not to be selfish? Or perhaps, why is it that humans have love for novelty? What could these normal attributes tell you about God? For self-preservation (which most people would consider “right” instead of “wrong”) is first and foremost in our consciousness, and chasing novelties breaks traditions and forces evolution of beliefs. These would seem to run directly contrary to the will of a God who wants you to follow the letter of His law, give generously, and never change in that regard.

    I had not read the book you mentioned, but I did read “The Case for God,” another popular apologist book, early in my doubts. I felt that it rang rather hollow at that time too.

  • 7. atimetorend  |  August 5, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Wise Fool, that’s interesting about what you say about the Case for God book. I read Armstrong’s “The Bible” and did not find it that way, it seemed like a running narrative of the findings of higher criticism of the bible and quite informative. I guess she is something of an apologist for liberal Christianity now? I think the case for liberal Christianity is something that is much harder to argue, either you feel it or you don’t?

  • 8. atimetorend  |  August 5, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Ó, just approved your comment out of the spam filter, will read it further when I get a moment.

  • 9. The Wise Fool  |  August 5, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I am going off of some rather fuzzy memory from ~15 years ago, and from a time when I was not as into religious studies as I am now, so I apologize for not remembering specifics. I seem to recall that it was well written and probably more of the conservative thread, but when all was said, the most forceful arguments in support of God were existentialistic. As I mentioned, it just seemed a bit hollow like the point in your post.

    On the flip-side, a few years later I read “The Case for Atheism” too. It did a decent preliminary job debunking the Bible and some other religious positions, but was also a bit flawed, at least in my opinion. I am of the persuasion that people who are 100% certain that there is no god of any sort are not intellectually honest. I’m not saying that I believe in a god, but allowing the possibility for a god seems as likely as some of the other scientific theories going for why the universe exists at all. Whether or not such a god actually cares about mankind is a whole other question.

    To answer your questions about liberal Christianity, that is not an easy question to answer concisely. I’ll do my best, but likely to be a bit choppy.

    To some extent, the Jesus message in the Gospels and even part of Acts had very liberal ideas, in political terms. Give, give, and give some more. Let people make an infinite number of mistakes while still forgiving them. Live communally. Etc. Indeed parts of the Jesus message were so different from the OT traditions that I think a believer would feel justified in divorcing from the conservative OT roots.

    On the other hand, not all of the Jesus message was consistently liberal throughout. Of course, you should also consider the NT in the complete context of the OT, and so that is where I feel the liberal Christians get in trouble. Yet it is still not that clear, because there are verses in the NT, in the Epistles, which essentially do claim separation from the OT and a new freedom through Christ.

    In short, it seems to be the case that you can draw Biblical support for just about any position you want to hold. That’s part of its magic! ;-)

  • 10. the chaplain  |  August 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    From my experiences with car salespeople, I don’t trust them…. One has to assume the salesperson will say whatever gives them the most advantage to close the deal. At the end of the day, I don’t trust apologists much more than that, I think they are just trying to sell me something.

    I think you’re right. Apologists are selling god-belief, but they’re primarily selling to people who have already bought into the product. As far as I can tell, apologetics is more about keeping believers in the fold than bringing others into it.

  • 11. atimetorend  |  August 5, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    chaplain, I agree, apologetics is more about keeping believers in the fold. I think it is also to make people feel good about what they already believe. It is difficult to compare apologists for other positions than theism. Richard Dawkins for instance could be seen as an apologist of sorts, but as a scientist, he is approaching the data using different means, of course the scientific method. So even if he is trying to sell something he would be going about it differently.

  • 12. Like a Child  |  August 9, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    I had forgotten about Keller’s book. I read it when it came out. He did an excellent job of describing the problems people have with accepting Christianity, but I wasn’t convinced with his arguments. In all, I think the book actually intensified my doubts because it allowed me to conceptualize them better, and I was left disheartened when his apologetics failed to win me over. The book also helped me have additional doubts regarding the problem of evil, something I didn’t struggle with.

    Here’s a link of a book that was helpful when I read it:http://www.tunl.duke.edu/~cwalker/scifaith.htm
    I also liked Mere Christianity 5 years ago. Books that were unhelpful include Keller’s book, CS Lewis Miracles, Enns I&I, and Falks Coming to Peace with Science.

    Thanks for stopping by at my blog.

  • 13. Mark  |  August 11, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Careful that you don’t hold a book to more than it was intended or more than its ability. When I read Tim’s book I had a lot of negative feelings toward it because he tried to tackle HUGE subjects in a couple of pages. How could he address all the difficulties in the moral law argument or the problem of evil?!? At the end of the day, I feel that the book’s result was to make believers more firm in their beliefs and doubters and unbelievers more firm in their doubt and unbelief. However, I do recommend the book to someone just getting into this subject, but instruct them that this is just a starting point, and should be followed with a more in depth book on topics that interest them. In fact, I just recently gave my Dad my copy of the book to help him understand the different topics that I struggle with.

  • 14. atimetorend  |  August 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    @Like a Child: Thanks for the link, I will definitely look into it.

    I too found books like this to solidify my doubts in their theology, and set in my ways against apologetics of this sort. I found Enns’ book helpful in that it helped me understand how people can put their trust in the bible, and helpful in the facts it teaches about the bible. But it also confirmed my doubts about the bible, so it was unhelpful if holding onto faith is the definition used.

  • 15. atimetorend  |  August 12, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    @Mark: Thanks for the caution, not that I really want anything but confirmation!

    ” At the end of the day, I feel that the book’s result was to make believers more firm in their beliefs and doubters and unbelievers more firm in their doubt and unbelief.”
    That sounds like a description of a book that is preaching to the choir then, long on persuasion and perhaps short on factual reasons for belief? Not that a book has to be all facts and details. I don’t mind the generalist approach, but the persuasion part seems manipulative. Personally, I don’t find that kind of thing helpful, which is why I would not recommend books like this.

    It is interesting you gave your Dad a copy. I hope that gives you common ground for discussion and relationship. I know you reviewed Rachel Held Evans’ book; that’s a book that comes to mind to me as a good starting point to working through doubts without rejecting faith. But that might be that personally I find her vision of Christianity to make more sense (and therefore be more attractive) than Keller’s?

  • 16. atimetorend  |  August 19, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Like a child, could you elaborate briefly on how the Heart and Hand of God was helpful? I looked at the web page and see I have to either order a $2 copy via email, or learn to read French…

  • 17. Like a Child  |  August 19, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve read it twice – the last time was about 5 months ago. It has been the only book that I have felt refreshed after reading it. But it doesn’t have much historical information, so not as much of an “intellectual” apologetic. I’m not sure if I was just in a more optimistic mood overall and that was why I liked it. I’ve been meaning to re-read it and post my reflections… if I ever survive reading Polkinghorne’s book ;). Walker’s booklet is only 40 pages and I purchased several copies to give out when in my more optimistic mood, and I’d be happy to mail you one (free) – its only 40 pages. Here is a link to some of her discussion
    http://www.dukecru.com/2010/02/05/questions-on-the-bible-and-science/. My gut feeling is that the booklet will not be helpful, but again, I’d be happy to mail it and you can see it yourself. Otherwise, I hope to re-read it when the school year starts up again and I have some down-time when the kids are at school.

    ps- I enjoyed looking through your wife’s blog – I hope she decides to give it another try soon:)

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