A friend of mine once said that apologetics is a mental disease. Obviously, this is an exaggeration; there is a long and noble tradition of Christian apologetics, and many great thinkers have produced apologia on behalf of the Faith. Still, it is true that an over-emphasis on apologetics can sometimes produce an unhealthy frame of mind. Apologetics focuses on the aspects of the Faith that are under attack by various opponents; but if such a focus is not balanced by a more holistic understanding, it can warp our perspective. It is all too easy to see Catholicism as anti-Protestantism or anti-modernism or anti-atheism. Such a view is dull and stunted, however; Catholicism is something positive and primary, and should principally be seen as it is in itself rather than as it is in opposition to something else.
Apologetics can also lead to an over-intellectualization of the Faith if it is not properly balanced by prayer and action. In our hyper-rationalistic age, it is unfortunately common to see the Faith as an intellectual pursuit rather than as a way of life. “Converting to Catholicism” can come to mean “giving assent to a set of propositions” rather than “dropping everything to follow Jesus Christ.”
In this essay, I want to focus on a closely related problem; the perceived need to have a perfectly clear, totally understandable answer to every question. In a debate, an admission of ignorance is disastrous. And since apologetics is nothing more or less than a great debate, apologists strive to provide an answer to every question; not just an answer, but a definitive, 100% certain answer. This can lead to a loss of nuance and a refusal to grapple honestly with hard questions. It can also lead to a cock-sure lack of sympathy toward those who are confused or doubtful or unconvinced. If one believes that there are clear, complete, and compelling answers to every question, then stubborn opponents must be stupid—or evil. If they aren’t won over by such impeccable logic, there must be something wrong with them!
In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis describes the problem of “absolute certainties,” and recommends that we embrace “unfinished thinking.” A productive thought is unfinished; because it is unfinished, it can grow and develop. By contrast, a “fundamentalist” attitude treats the truth as something closed, something finished, something that we can control and that we can use to protect ourselves from the burden of deeper thinking.
One of the problems with a purely logical, rational approach is that it breaks down at a certain point. Logic can clear the way; logic can refute attacks; but the Faith is not ultimately a matter of logic. It isn’t illogical, but it is beyond logic. In fact, the true value of apologetics is not the provision of answers; rather, apologetics clears away false, misleading, or simplistic answers, leaving us free to grapple with the true mysteries of the Faith. God is always larger than our thoughts, and so there will always be much that we don’t know. Just as Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he realized he did not know, we should realize how little we truly know about God. Sometimes, the best answer is a refusal to give an answer. Many great heresies have been centered around attempts to give a clear, simple answer to a difficult question. In rejecting such simplistic answers, the Church clung to the mysteries and seeming contradictions of the Faith.
As well as mysteries such as the Trinity, the Faith also includes other kinds of non-logical truths. For instance, a compelling case can be made that Jesus Christ is God. The factual evidence for this claim is convincing, but not in an absolute sense. It is the best, most plausible interpretation of the facts at hand; but it could never be proved with mathematical certainty. The final choice of Faith is made in rather the same way that we make any other choice in life. Even though Faith is God’s freely given gift, it shares a certain similarity with more mundane decisions. A logical examination of the facts can lay the groundwork for deciding to trust a new friend or deciding to move to a particular town; but logic alone cannot provide the final decision. Interestingly, the biblical meaning of “Faith” is something closer to the meaning of our word “trust”; having Faith in God means that we pledge our loyalty to him.
The Problem of Evil
One of the places where apologetics breaks down is in trying to explain the problem of evil. The existence of evil is a mystery, the “mysterium iniquitatis.” It is, in one sense, very difficult to understand. If God is all good, where does evil come from? Blaming evil spirits gets us nowhere; after all, God created them and keeps them in existence.
As such, any explanation can only go so far. Some of the apologetic answers to this problem are useful and interesting, but others are noticeably weak. Worse, some of them come across as insensitive and unfeeling. I particularly dislike the “punishment for sin” argument: “It could have been worse! We all deserve infinite suffering! God is letting you off easy!” While I’m sure it contains a kernel of theoretical truth, it makes God sound like an abusive parent—and if he can “let us off easy,” then the obvious question becomes: why not let us off altogether?
A better response is that God brings good out of evil, and he allows it for a good reason. This is true. In one sense, it is the only possible answer to this question. However, it runs the risk of portraying God as being limited, as needing evil to achieve his ends. If he is all-powerful, he could in theory bring about any good without involving suffering and evil.
In the modern world, we face a new problem with such apologetical answers. Throughout Christian history, it was common to blame all suffering, including natural evils such as the death of animals, on the consequence of original sin. Human beings fell from their place in the scheme of things, and as such introduced chaos and disorder into the natural world.
This answer still has something going for it in a philosophical and poetic sense. We can see this chaos partially undone in saintly figures such as Francis of Assisi, who could preach to the birds and tame wild animals. As a matter of historical fact, however, this argument has now broken down. Science has conclusively shown that the world existed long before humanity arrived on the scene, and the rock layers that chronicle this long history are full of shells and bones, the mementos of countless creatures who died long before Adam fell. Combined with a growing empathy toward animals, this scientific revolution has required us to revisit the topic of natural evil. We can try to downplay the suffering of animals in an attempt to get around this problem; but whatever its factual merits, this approach can come across as insensitive and callous.
The Book of Job
The Book of Job is the Bible’s most in-depth exploration of the problem of evil. And the rational, apologetical approach does not come off well. In response to Job’s complaints about his suffering, his friends provide a simple answer. Job must have sinned, and all these calamities are the result. Job insists on his innocence, but his friends point out that we’re all sinners before God. They make many good points; their speeches include beautiful reflections on God’s power and justice. But like many modern apologists, their approach falls short. It is too simplistic, too rational, too anthropomorphic. Their answers are all nice and neatly sewn up—and terribly unfeeling into the bargain. Far from comforting Job, they only make him more miserable.
Eventually, God appears up in a whirlwind to answer Job’s complaint and challenge. But he is not pleased with Job’s friends. In fact, their rationalizations seem to have angered him far more than Job’s complaints. It is only through Job’s intercession that they are forgiven.
What kind of answer does Job get? God certainly responds, but in one sense it isn’t an answer at all. Rather, it is a refusal to give an answer. God merely points out the obvious: Job is not God. Job didn’t make the world. Job can’t even understand the depths of the sea, the changing seasons, or the celestial bodies; how could he possibly understand the problem of evil? In fact, Job can’t even wrestle with a crocodile or a hippopotamus—and yet he wants to challenge God’s plans?
Faced with this non-answer, Job admits that he has spoken foolishly, and withdraws his challenge. And yet, while Job may be satisfied, God’s answer may not fully satisfy us. It may be true; perhaps our feeble intellects simply can’t understand the problem of evil. Perhaps any answer God could give would sound like a physicist trying to explain quantum theory to a toddler. And yet this answer based on God’s superiority leaves him seeming just a bit too…superior. He seems too unconcerned about the suffering and pain of his creatures, too remote and too far away.
For a better answer, we must turn to the New Testament. In one sense, it does not add much to the answer given by the book of Job. When the disciples want to know why a man was born blind, Jesus simply answers that it was allowed “so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” (John 9:3) The Gospel tells us that unless we become like little children, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Little children trust their parents; they don’t have to understand. So maybe the analogy of a physicist explaining quantum theory to a toddler is apt.
The Gospel’s real answer to questions about evil and suffering, however, is the crucifixion. On one level, it is the ultimate example of bringing good out of evil. The subsequent Resurrection is a pledge of a future restoration of all things; as Charles Peguy has God say, “I am so resplendent in my creation…In all the good and evil that man has done and undone. And I am above it all, because I am the master, and I do what he has undone and I undo what he has done.” The Resurrection is a vindication of childlike trust in God, even when God seems absent and evil seems to have the last word.
On a deeper level, the Resurrection removes God’s superiority and distance. God is no longer just the mighty figure who tells Job not to attempt to fathom what is beyond him; in the passion of Christ, God becomes Job. God suffers, and God cries out in seeming despair. This is the deepest mystery of all. The death of God is the answer to any accusation that God is unconcerned about the suffering of his creation. Rather, it concerns him most closely, for he bore them himself.
All through his public ministry, Jesus tended to answer questions by asking questions of his own. He certainly seems to have been a practitioner of “the unfinished thought.” Through his death, he solves the mystery of evil by replacing it with a deeper mystery. How could God himself suffer? How could God die? While leaving the question of evil as unintelligible as ever, the death of Jesus can reassure us in moments of doubt. Our God is not a remote deity administering things benevolently from afar, but is with us in our suffering.
Jesus is with us in our suffering and struggles. But he doesn’t seem like he is with us. He suffered and died almost 2000 years ago, after all. And if rational apologetics cannot satisfy those who are suffering, what are we supposed to tell them? That they should be like little children and just trust that God loves them? That could easily be taken as an insult.
Christianity is not a system of thought; rather, to be a Christian is to be a disciple. A disciple is one who follows Jesus and tries to imitate him. And so the only answer we can give to the problem of evil must mirror the answer Jesus gave. We can’t explain away the evil in the world, but we can participate in carrying it. We can take the burdens of others upon ourselves. The only answer we can give to the problem of suffering is to show forth through our lives the love, trustworthiness, and “com-passion” of God.
Apologetics has its place; it has a long, noble history. But apologetics can not spread the Faith by itself. Rather, the Faith has always been spread by “martyrdom” in the wide sense of the world: by witness. Christ came to show the world the love of God. In like manner, we are called to become witnesses to the love of Christ. Having received love and forgiveness, we now must show love and forgiveness to others. During his apostolic journey to Bangladesh, Pope Francis said:
We want the Gospel to be lived as a grace, a treasure, which we have received freely. We need to ask the Lord to give us the grace to feel as Paul did: to feel that fire, that burning in our hearts, to evangelize. This has nothing to do with proselytizing, not at all. The Church, the Kingdom of God, does not grow by proselytizing. She grows by witness. That means showing by our words and our lives the treasure we have received. That is what it means to evangelize.
It is no accident that the patron saint of apologetics is St. Justin Martyr. As his title indicates, he gave his life in witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. His apologetics were no mere verbal statements, no mere logical syllogisms. Rather, they flowed from the truth of a life lived for Christ. We are called to imitate him, both in defending the Faith and in providing a witness with our lives.
St. Justin Martyr, pray for us.
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.