Thursday, May 28, 2009

Story as Apologetic

This is not, of course, original to me, but I am just starting to really think about story as an apologetic, or perhaps apologetics constructed as narrative. There are potentially a few advantages over the more traditional 'argument-based' apologetics:

1. Stories appeal to whole people in ways that arguments don't. Where a philosophical argument hits the brain, a well-told story goes to head and heart at once. And this is no bad thing. I have heard people say that apologetics and evangelism must be done dispassionately, lest we seem to appeal to a person's emotions; we want people to believe, not just feel. There's something in that, but I would propose that there is such a thing as emotional truth as well as rational truth, and that it is only Kant (him again!) which prevents us from seeing the former as just as important as the latter.

2. Stories involve people. Arguments, for most people, are spectator sports, but you can't help being drawn in to a well-told story. That is valuable epistemologically. The Enlightenment worldview wants us to see the individual as isolated, surrounded by data which he or she can analyse. In reality, truth is not something outside us to be discerned and analysed - we live in truth, in the same way that we live in stories.

3. Stories bring a more subtle challenge. An argument for the historicity of the resurrection based on an analysis of the evidence has value, but a story of the early church and the way the first Christians lived and died has more value. Stories are not so confrontational, and thus win a hearing. But they do nevertheless challenge!

4. Stories join together. My personal story links into many bigger stories, all of which link into the gospel story. Testimony, apologetic, evangelism - much more closely related than we have often thought, I suspect. Of course, the Enlightenment worldview within which we operate privileges 'universal' stories - and in reaction, postmodernism favours the individual story. Might it not be a powerful apologetic in itself if we can show that there is a genuine joined-up story?

5. The gospel is a story. This is the most obvious one!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


A break from Kant, although we'll be back to him at some point, to discuss apologetics. I'm going to assume you know what I mean by that, and that you have some familiarity with different types of apologetic strategies. If not, Wikipedia is a useful starting point.

A bit of autobiography: I have always been sceptical of a lot of apologetics. In my younger days, I wondered whether there was any point in it - shouldn't we just proclaim the gospel? Over my time at Uni, I moved to a more appreciative position. I began to see that reasoning and persuading went hand in hand with proclamation in the New Testament. As my thinking on the subject matured a little, I discovered presuppositionalist apologetics, and the semi-presup apologetic of Francis Schaeffer. All of this was very useful to me. I started to bash evidentialism in apologetics as a failure to understand the epistemological effects of sin. More recently, though, I've started to doubt the presup position. Mainly because it is so strong.

The thing about presuppositionalism is that it is an unassailable position. It is a closed circle position. On Christian presuppositions, Christianity is true and reasonable. On other presuppositions, not so. The strength of the position is that it does not expose the gospel to the twisted logic and arationality of unbelief. The presup apologist is clear that there is no neutral ground from which the truth claims of the gospel can be evaluated. And this is surely true - everyone brings their own worldview to the party.

But that doesn't seem to fit with the way God acts in history. He seems to make himself weaker than this - to base his claim to his people's loyalty on actual events in history. Think about the OT. How often do you get a phrase like "then you will know that I am the Lord"? Answer: quite often, directed both at Israel and at others (notably Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative). God stakes his reputation on contingent facts, and expects human beings to be able to discern from those facts that his reputation has been vindicated, regardless of their initial worldview. God exposes himself to the critique of a watching, sinful world - most notably in Christ.

Presup apologetics is too strong for the gospel. I think evidentialist apologetics is also too strong, for different reasons - it tries to make the evidence unambiguous, clear, solid. I always find it unconvincing. Too strong a claim is being made - did people find Jesus unambiguous, at the end of the day?

So am I retreating, setting the clock back to my 'apologetics = bad' days?

Well, no. Because I note that the answer of many in the no apologetics camp is to disengage, to stop trying to communicate, to just repeat the words of the Bible again and again until people are convinced. It is just as much a power play as sophisticated arguments of the apologists.

Is there an apologetics of the cross?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Postulating God

You could be forgiven for thinking that a person who spent as much time arguing against the theistic proofs as Kant did probably wasn't a firm believer in God. You would, however, be mistaken. Kant most certainly believed in God. His arguments for God rest primarily on morality.

It is worth beginning by stating that Kant believed very strongly in original sin, specifically in the corruption of every human nature. (He does not believe in original guilt, nor does he believe that this corruption is inherited - rather it is chosen in some way by the individual). He sees the evidence of original sin, which he defines as the adoption of a bad moral principle, in human behaviour. People act badly, therefore they must have chosen to pursue bad ends.

Despite this, human beings have a duty to be moral, indeed, perfectly virtuous. This is our moral end. (Incidentally, you cannot really argue for this; on Kant's view it is simply the case that we have a duty to be perfectly virtuous). As well as a moral end, human beings have a natural end, which is perfect happiness. Although the moral end and natural end belong together, and together constitute the highest good for human beings, Kant is clear that the moral end is more important than the natural end - it is better to be virtuous than happy. But the most important thing is that we cannot have a duty to be happy, whilst we do have a duty to be virtuous.

From this, Kant derives the concept of God, in three distinct ways:

1. I cannot have a duty to do what is impossible for me; moral perfection is impossible for me in this life; nevertheless, moral perfection is my duty; therefore there must be an afterlife in which I can continue my progress. (Thus the immortality of the soul is proved - not yet God, but God is very much connected with the concept of the soul).

2. The moral end and natural end of human beings belong together, viz. the good deserve to be happy; but it is often the case that the good are not happy and that the causal link between virtue and happiness is obscured; nevertheless, it is our duty to pursue a situation where the highest good (i.e. the correlation of virtue and happiness) obtains; this situation can only obtain if there is a just, omniscient, omnipotent God.

3. It is my duty to be morally perfect; but in fact I have an evil disposition due to my original choice of an evil principle; therefore, even in eternity I could only ever make progress - I could never actually be perfect; but I cannot have an impossible duty; therefore, there must be a God to make up the shortfall.

I have perhaps not stated those arguments in their most clear and impressive form. It isn't that important. The most important thing is that for Kant God is a concept to make morality work. In fact, in Religion within the bounds of mere reason, Kant is clear that an actual God may not be necessary - it is only necessary to recognise that the idea of God is possible. If God is possible, then there is hope of our duties being possible, and so we will not despair of them. God is a "practically necessary hypothesis", a "postulate of practical reason" - nothing more.

The grand weakness in all Kant's argument is simply put: Nietzsche. Even assuming the validity of Kant's arguments (and that is assuming a lot), there is still the fact that we must assume the duty to be moral. The arguments boil down to: morality only works with God; morality must work; therefore God. Nietzsche will categorically deny the minor premise - and where is God then for Kant?

I raise this because arguments like this are used regularly by Christian apologists - I have used them myself in the past. They are weak, extraordinarily weak. They may have had some subjective appeal in an age when people believed in objective morality, but I think the time has come to drop them. We can still point out that ethics only makes sense on Christian presuppositions, and this may be useful in getting others to re-examine their worldviews, but we need to understand that this in no way proves God, or even contributes a gram of evidence for his existence.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Arguing for God

Kant famously rejects most of the traditional arguments that philosophers advance in favour of the existence of God. He breaks them down into three categories:

At the tertiary level, there are what Kant calls physicotheological arguments. These take as their starting point a particular feature of the world (e.g. apparent design, order, etc.) and argue from these to the existence of a God responsible for these features. Kant is unimpressed, suspecting that any argument of this sort must secretly depend on a cosmological argument. No one would begin to look for explanations of particular features of the world unless they were convinced already that the world as a whole required explanation.

The cosmological argument represents the second layer in the traditional proof for God. It proceeds, not from any particular aspect of the universe, but from the existence of the physical universe at all. In other words, it sees God as the answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing?". Kant is equally dismissive of this argument. He believes that is essentially a cover for the ontological argument. No one would feel the need to posit God as an explanation for the world unless they already considered the notion of a necessary being to be coherent, and to require the actual existence of such a being.

At the most basic level, there are ontological arguments for God. These move from the concept of a necessary being, arguing that by definition the most perfect being must exist. Kant refutes the argument by asserting that existence simply is not a predicate and does not work in that way. In this opinion most philosophers have followed him. I'm not so sure myself, but I'm certain on other grounds that any form of ontological argument must ultimately fail.

In this fashion, Kant dismisses all traditional natural theology. You could argue that in fact what Kant shows is that one only finds God at the conclusion of the traditional theistic proofs if one is already predisposed to seek him there. This is the death of natural theology as traditionally conceived.

A question I would put to fellow Christians is whether they are content to take these arguments seriously? Are they prepared to leave natural theology behind? Note that this is something that we have to do even if we find the arguments convincing. Because of course we would find them convincing. We are looking for God, and lo and behold there he is. If you find design in the world around you that requires explanation, fair enough - so you should! But if your Christianity needs this philosophical foundation, I honestly think you're in trouble.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pretentious Fragments

The First:  The 'Enlightenment' is nothing more than the infection of epistemology with Pelagianism.

The Second:  Representatives make bad leaders; democracies make bad governments.

The Third:  Evangelism begins with common ground, but ends by redefining that ground as Christ's, and not common at all.  Compare Paul in Psidian Antioch and Athens.

The Fourth:  Hypocrisy is a highly desirable quality under the sun; who wants to meet people who show what they are really like?

The Fifth:  All words are sacred, and the act of speaking is worship.

The Sixth:  Writing is to speaking as a statue is to a living person.  Then what is the relationship between Christ the Living Word and the spoken word of the gospel?

The Seventh:  It is easy to write things that provoke questions, but much harder to provide answers.

Here endeth (this particular form of) pretentiousness...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Religion within the bounds of mere reason

Sorry, apparently when I say "tomorrow" I may well mean "sometime next week if you're lucky..."

Kant's starting point has a very serious effect on his approach to religion. Because he starts with the autonomous human being, and makes the autonomous human being the measure of many if not all things, he is inclined to emphasise the things that are (in principle at least) open to everyone, and to minimise anything particular. In religion, that means Kant is keen on things that can be worked out about God by reason, without revelation. He is not keen on anything that requires a particular story to be told, or things that rely on particular facts. He wants us to run after "a plain rational faith which can be convincingly communicated to everyone" rather than "a historical faith, merely based on facts". (This is also tied up with Kant's idea of duty in the field of ethics - possibly more of this later). So natural theology is in (except that Kant doesn't think you can do much of it - again, more possibly to follow on this) and revealed theology is out, or at least is strictly speaking superfluous.

And Kant's direction has a similar effect. He is interested in practical reason, with the emphasis on practical. Kant has no time for any doctrine which does not improve us (morally). Into this bracket fall such things as the idea of atonement, the historical incarnation and the like. If the incarnation is to be of use, it can only be as presenting a perfect example of humanity for us to follow, in which case it must not be strictly a historical incarnation, but a simple idea of reason. Everything is about what it means for me in practice. The further we get from this concern, the more we veer into speculation and useless debates. Religion, for Kant, is basically a department of ethics.

I think both these concerns still lurk in our church culture today. The latter is most obvious - how many times have I been in a Bible study discussing the most astonishing truths about Christ and been asked "yes, but what does it mean for me? What do I have to do?" And this is antiChristian through and through. The former concern shows itself more subtly, most obviously in the desire to make natural theology work, primarily as an apologetic (i.e. an answer to "what about those who haven't heard..?") I think this is also antiChristian.

At some point in the future, I'll suggest some steps to shake these things out of our minds...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I've been doing a lot of reading in Kant over the last few weeks, partly refreshing my undergrad knowledge and partly expanding my Kantian repertoire. The more I read, the more I become convinced that Kant is Public Enemy Number One as far as Christian theology is concerned. I plan to write a few posts over the next couple of weeks to explain why. Here is post number one.

Kant represents the high point of the intellectual and cultural movement which we refer to as the Enlightenment. He was a self-conscious advocate of this very self-concious movement, and provided the clearest definition of the heart of Enlightenment thought in an essay titled "What is Enlightenment?" The motto of Enlightenment, says Kant, is "Sapere Aude!" - dare to understand! The movement is all about being bold enough to use and rely on your own understanding without external guidance.

We could talk about this in terms of starting point and direction. For Kant, the starting point is simple: oneself. Adopting this starting point is inevitable for Kant - as far as he is concerned, there is simply no other to choose - but it is also essential to his entire project. If we begin anywhere other than with ourselves, we are already denying ourselves enlightenment. Only if I am the starting point can I be truly free; only in a world in which my own reason is an appropriate beginning to thought about life, the universe and everything can I trust my reason to guide me.

As far as direction goes, Kant favours practical reason. In the snappily-titled essay "What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?", Kant outlines the necessity of restraining speculation and training our reason to be guided by practical usage. Nevertheless, he is clear that reason is king - "only do not dispute that prerogative of reason which makes it the highest good on earth". Reason, oriented towards practical living rather than metaphysical speculation, is the direction of Kant's thought. The further reason departs from experience, the more likely it is to end in dead-end speculations about things that cannot be known. Reason that restrains itself will be able to venture forth from the starting point of autonomy in the direction of good living.

Now try to forget Kant for a moment. What passage of Scripture might pop into your mind if we mentioned the word "enlightenment"? 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 occurs to me. Have a read of it. There is a radical difference of vision here, relative to Kant. For the Apostle, enlightenment comes from above, and he is essentially a passive recipient. God shines in a person's heart - that is the source of enlightenment. The starting point is God, and the direction is toward Jesus and his glory. (Read the end of 2 Corinthians 3 for a description of this journey!)

The point is this: if the most important thing a human being could possibly know - namely, how to relate to God - cannot be found within the framework that starts from the autonomous human being and proceeds in the direction of practical reason, what use is that framework?

To be worked out in more practice tomorrow...

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The invisibility of God

We more or less write into our definition of God that he is the one "whom no one has seen or can see", and that must be right. But I dare say you've noticed the problems it causes our generation, raised to believe that what you can't see simply doesn't exist.

Sometimes I've tried to side-step this problem. I have said something like "if you'd been in Palestine in the early first century AD, you could have seen God face to face". And I think that's true, theologically and historically. If you had come face to face with Jesus Christ, you would have seen God.

But recently I've become profoundly uncomfortable with that answer, and I don't think I'll give it anymore. Because another question has come up in my mind.

Was God ever more invisible than when he was the man of sorrows? Was the invisibility of God ever more evident than at Golgotha - a felt invisibility, like a shadow, or a dark spot where you know you should be able to see something?

Might the invisibility of God be a vital part of life on this side of the day when I will see him as he is? Might the only visibility available to us now be that by the Spirit's power, through faith and not sight, we can "see" the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?

Friday, May 01, 2009

It's not you, it's me

One of the things I've been discovering about myself, and that having this blog has really helped me to clarify, is that my creativity comes in spurts.  I am fitfully and sporadically creative.  Hence there being weeks when I write every day, and months when I write almost nothing at all.  I could go into lots of analysis of how creativity fits with my mood cycle (I write at the highest and lowest points - odd, huh?) or the effect that work and other commitments have on my ability to write.  But I'll spare you.  My main question is:

I wonder what that means for future ministry?