The dangers of apologetics

In the comments section of my post on the reaction to Dr. Francis Beckwith’s conversion, an interesting topic came up that I want to expand upon. I mentioned that I have essentially stopped doing Catholic apologetics because it has been harmful to my spiritual life. That is true, and I will expound on that, but I want to make a broader point: apologetics has a place, but it cannot be the primary focus of Catholic evangelism.

Back a couple of years ago, before I was actually received into the Church, when I was intellectually convinced but not emotionally ready to leave the Baptists, I helped moderate a discussion board run by a prominent ex-Evangelical Catholic apologist.* I think I’ve heard–and made–every argument known to man for Catholicism and against Protestantism, particularly in its fundamentalist variety. I’ve probably seen every prooftext thrown at Catholics by our separated brethren, and every Bible verse with which to reply to them. To use an analogy from popular film, I felt like Neo at the end of The Matrix when he realized he could control the Matrix, and fought an Agent with one arm, nonchalantly and serenely.

But, after stepping out of the world of apologetics, I realized something. After all those arguments, all those airtight syllogisms that proved the Fundamentalists wrong, I don’t remember ever hearing anyone say, “You know, Ed, you’re right. I’m wrong. I guess I should join the Catholic Church now.” Our blows did not pierce their armor. In my own case, I was already open to the Church before I ever started arguing with Catholics. That, I think, is the key: openness. If an opponent does not have a self-inflicted chink in his armor, he will not be convinced.

And, conversely, all these triumphalistic arguments that I and others made for the Church only served to create smugness. I had friends very concerned about me because of my sudden air of arrogance. I knew the Truth; I knew how to argue it; but, all I was doing is pushing people away. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks when one of my best friends forced me to step back and look at my behavior. I stopped trying to convert everyone by argument; I started trying to be an example of living out the Faith instead of (or in addition to) arguing for it. My convert zeal had turned me into a Pharisee. I had replaced theological error with pride and arrogance; I’m not sure which one is worse.

So, is there a place for apologetics in the service of the Church? Absolutely. We’re surrounded by people who don’t understand the Church, and have created an absurd caricature in Her place. But, apologetics outside the context of friendship and relationships will fall on deaf ears. We will be more successful at drawing people into the Fullness of the Faith only if we are their friends first, only if we love them and serve them. Our arguments for the Truth are good, and are effective, but only he who has ears will hear.

Imagine, instead, an alternate scene in The Matrix where Neo and the Agent go out for coffee and discuss what humanity can offer to the robots. Wouldn’t that have been a different ending?

* I will not name him because of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the departure of me and almost all his other moderators/administrators. We’ve all moved on, and it’s not worth going back to.

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2 Responses to “The dangers of apologetics”


  1. 1 Argent May 10, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    After all those arguments, all those airtight syllogisms that proved the Fundamentalists wrong, I don’t remember ever hearing anyone say, “You know, Ed, you’re right. I’m wrong. I guess I should join the Catholic Church now.”

    And there’s the key, isn’t it? Humility in realizing that it’s not my eloquence and brilliance of arguments that win the day. If, perchance, my argument pierced through an armor, I have to also realize that previous groundwork was laid elsewhere by Someone Else…well, that’s the beginning of wisdom…

    I have it easy…they come to me by virtue of my job. Some come with lots of ammo ready to shoot down whatever I have to say. In the end, it’s the way I live my life and my care for them that helps to break down resistance.

    …now about those online message boards…truly the underbelly of the beast, as you said.

  2. 2 Bekah May 14, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    You’re absolutely right, of course. We’re called to be able to provide an answer for our faith, but the prerequisite is being asked! Not to go around beating everyone we know over the head with our wonderful knowledge. If what we know doesn’t change us first, we’ve got a problem.

    Given that, I must say that apologetics does help me grow my own faith. I know I’ve encountered questions regarding things that never would have entered my mind otherwise. I’ve discovered wonderful truths responding to such answers. So perhaps I look at apologetics more as an exploration of my own faith, rather than the key to winning someone over to my side.

    But apologetics as it’s commonly practiced on high volume message boards is more a strategic team sport than a sowing of fields for His harvest.


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