Christian apologetics (roughly the scientific, philosophical, and objective search to describe and prove Christianity) was very appealing to me in college. I no longer find the discipline to be particularly helpful or meaningful. My concern is not with the arguments that are offered, but with a particular assumption necessary to make apologetics meaningful.
Apologetics searches for facts and arguments that prove the truth of the Christian story. This effort works exactly opposite of the way the mind, rationality, and knowledge production work. Humans are fundamentally story telling creatures. We go to incredible lengths to fit facts and evidence into the story of reality by which we coherently view the world. Only when facts and evidence dramatically differ from the story we tell are we forced to learn to tell a better story, and even then it may take a generational change to fully embrace a new paradigm.
This concern is so problematic for my understanding of Christian apologetics because the Christian story is necessarily one of the primary stories into which Christians place our experiences and arguments. To “prove” the truth of Christianity through the tools of apologetics is to presume there is some other more fundamental story of reality or rationality into which we can fit the Christian story. To do so is necessarily to treat scientific, philosophical, and other forms of knowledge as more essential, objective, or true than the knowledge the Christian story is capable of asserting. Thus, in the attempt to find a more objective grounding of faith, apologetics cannot help but subvert the fundamentality of the faith it seeks to prove.
I still find plenty of what apologetics has to say to be fascinating and potentially important. I simply think the Christian faith is the context in which apologetics becomes compelling, not the other way around.
A Prayer by Kings Kaleidoscope is perhaps the most perfect musical encapsulation of the gospel message for our day and time.
In content, the song both lyrically and musically moves from a place of fear and doubt to the assurance of God’s response. God’s response does not reinforce the logic of the beginning questions and instead offers a new foundation of faith. God is not primarily worried about personal action and accountability, but instead goes to incredible lengths to say #metoo as the means by which God makes all things new.
In effect, the song is a critique of the way that evangelicalism tends to focus on a list of dos and don’ts rather than on the goodness of God. The lead singer wrote the lyrics as an authentic expression of the anxiety that his evangelical faith fostered inside of him. That anxiety is powerfully captured and then beautifully challenged over the course of the song. Jesus’s lyrical response is a rejection of the very works focused theology in which the singer was raised.
In response, the song was received by the Christian music world about as warmly as Jesus was received by the religious leaders of his day. Rather than receive any attention for the beauty and depth of the music and message, the only thing most folks cared about was that the song twice includes a single cuss word in the midst of a desperate prayer to God. The band was kicked off of tour stops and radically rejected for merely having recorded a song that includes a cuss word. As so often happens in churches, we look for the easiest identifiable thing to call sin and absolutely reject anything that seems to cross that line. We thereby only have time for superficial talk of symptomatic problems and never get to the point of addressing actual brokenness. In our haste to define sin, we rarely pause long enough to explore the freedom and power of the life that really is life.
In reality, the honesty and vulnerability of the lyrics represent one of the most authentically Christian prayers that can be prayed. At the heart of the gospel is the vulnerability of our God. If we are to love as God taught us to love, we are required to bear all that we have and all that we are to God, from the most pristine and righteous thoughts to the most raw and heartfelt pleas. To muzzle the cry of our hearts is to put up a wall of arrogance that hides behind feigned self sufficiency; it is to reject the point and purpose of the cross.
The Bible is an extended argument over who counts as the people of God and what the implications are of that designation for our life and faith. To read the Bible as though we can simply see what is said about a particular action or belief and uphold that same view of sin and faithfulness is to undercut everything that the Bible is and does. Our goal as Christians is to embody the kind of faith-seeking-understanding that is played out in the pages of scripture – not to pull out the verses that happen to agree with what we already expect to be the case so that we can prove our list of sins or beliefs is the one, right, and everlasting truth. God’s love and relationship come first. Upon that foundation we must continuously seek the grace of God that leads to new understandings and embodiments of faithfulness.
To give shape and meaning to how I will lead and relate to others, these are a few of the hills I’m willing to die on:
- Feelings are never right or wrong, they just are
- People behave the way they feel
- Primary emotion is compelling
- Healing never happens in silence
- Voicing pain is never as bad as causing that pain
- Effect is at least as significant as intention
- Denying feelings harms people
- Everything in relationship is 50/50
- Shaming others is the worst possible way to effect change
If I tell you “I’m not hurting you” and your response is “yes, you are,” only one of us is correct (and it’s not me)
The first and greatest commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But the foundation of our very existence is that God has loved us and called us His own. Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough.
Far too much of church life and faith either rejects the primacy of this foundation or assumes it is already in place and, thereby, puts the burden on the individual Christian to begin fulfilling the greatest commands. Instead of first teaching, preaching, and embodying the love that God is, we move straight to regulations on sin and holiness as though these were first order concepts. Sin and forgiveness will never mean anything unless we first know the depth of love and relationship that can then be broken. Lives will not be transformed until we give up control and learn to trust in the faithfulness of God’s abiding love. Without the foundation of love and relationship first, Christianity will be, at best, a noisy but irrelevant gong; at worst, an active participant in the harm done to children of God in the name of vapid and ultimately meaningless conceptions of righteousness.
At the heart of the gospel message is God’s choice of feeling over fixing. To feel alongside someone is the heart of empathy and the prerequisite for connection. To fix is the clearest sign that we think we are in control of the outcome and can make things right on our own. Empathy changes lives. Self help reinforces loneliness.
One of the greatest downfalls of most modern evangelical forms of Christianity is the radical emphasis on salvation as God’s clear and unmistakable effort to fix all that has gone wrong in the world. While it is true and significant to see the hope that things are not as they will always be, to focus on fixing rather than feeling is to miss the very heart of the gospel message.
In scripture and over the course of history, we see that God did not choose to simply fix the world in the blink of an eye. God chose to feel with us; to take on flesh and dwell among us; to join us in the deepest pit and say “Me too.” The bible itself is the clearest evidence we could hope to find that God is a feeler, not a fixer. What we find in scripture is not a simple reminder of how God fixed everything in the blink of an eye. We find reminder after reminder that God is with us through every season of life, and God will be faithful to the very end.
Truth is only truth inside the story in which it is told.
The best way I can articulate what I mean by that is through a previous post on story and truth.
This idea may be too academic to seem super helpful, but I would argue that it is the essential factor in understanding how we arrived in the chaotic, partisan, broken place where we are as Americans (and United Methodists).
The core problem with partisan brokenness is not really that people believe a different set of facts or that anyone just needs to be convinced about the specific details of what “really happened” in any given moment. The problem is that many of us think that we’re taking part in very different stories. If the story you tell about how things should be has no room for the existence of those different than you, it will, unchallenged and from a position of power, always lead to the overt harm of everyone deemed not “normal.”
To make the jump from one story to another takes far more than pointing out an inconsistent detail or two. It takes the radical experience of being accepted into the life and story of another; a story with enough room for one more; an acceptance that may cause change but never requires it; an experience of already being enough to be worthy of taking part. As long as we focus on proving our point rather than creating the space for acceptance, we’ll simply keep assuming the story that we tell ourselves is the only one that matters.