The Hard Labor of Christian Apologetics

A Pew survey last month projects very bad news for Christians in the United States. If current rates continue, by 2070 Christians will comprise somewhere between a bare majority to a minority in our country. “Over that same period, ‘nones’ are projected to rise from their current number of 30 percent to somewhere between 34 percent and 52 percent of the U.S. population,” observes Pew.

Obviously, that presents quite a crisis for American Christianity, whether we are talking about Catholicism or any other Christian group. People are abandoning the Christian faith in unprecedented numbers. Can they be brought back? Is there hope we can evangelize the millions of Americans with little if any exposure to Christianity?

The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era, a series of over forty short essays by prominent Catholics, presents a vision for what apologetics in our aggressively post-Christian society might look like.  Contributor Stephen Bullivant notes that about 70 percent of American “nones” were raised religiously — that includes 16 million ex-Catholics, 7.5 ex-Baptists, 2 million ex-Methodists, 2 million ex-Lutherans, and 1 million each of ex-Episcopalians and ex-Presbyterians.

Persuading even a small percentage of those ex-Christians to return to Christ seems a herculean task. To succeed, the New Apologetics, says editor Matthew Nelson, “must seek to know the enemies of Christianity better than they know themselves and understand the history of religious skepticism.”

Bobby Angel urges us to awaken our indifferent interlocutors through patience and personal interest in them, as well as “be ready for the long game.” Catholic journalist John L. Allen Jr. reminds us that we must affirm more than we condemn, so that outsiders understand what Catholicism stands for, rather than what we stand against.

And Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto directs us to what will not only save others, but ourselves: “The early Dominicans built trust through austere, sacrificial lives that were radically different from those of the corrupt clergy of their day, and through a life of prayer and simple piety they touched the hearts of those who had deserted the Church.”

Several strong essays addressing science and religion help readers navigate a narrative that unfortunately still has much currency – namely, that the two conflict with one another. Scientist Stephen Barr offers excellent, easily digestible replies to some of the most popular attacks against Christianity, expertly explaining how it’s a Christian worldview that gave us the idea of an intelligibly ordered nature that could be rationally evaluated and understood.

Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P.  defends the historical Adam and Eve; Daniel De Haan explains the reality of free will. Robert C. Koon, in a fascinating essay, shows that recent discoveries in quantum mechanics have surprisingly confirmed concepts in Aristotelian philosophy.

But there’s a certain tension among the contributors. One of the best essays, by Word on Fire fellow Andrew Petiprin, urges us to “move completely out of the shadow of our preoccupations with the twentieth century’s cultural cohesion and the evangelistic strategy that accompanies it.”

It’s hard to know exactly what Petiprin is talking about in this brief treatment, but it seems he’s partly responding to the disappearance of a Christian majority: “Our work is to build up substantial, enduring things around the void, rather than bothering to knock down the many weak and temporary ones already in place. . . .We must take seriously the call to reform and beautify our Christian culture(s) to offer a refuge from exhausted cultural seekers.”

And yet significant space in The New Apologetics is devoted to moral relativism, an idea Catholic (and evangelical) apologetics have been fighting for decades. And editor Matt Nelson cites Bishop Barron, who writes that “Ratzinger’s ‘dictatorship of relativism’ is now taken for granted. Any claim to know objective truth or any attempt to propose objective goodness tend to be met now with incredulity at best and fierce defensiveness at worst: ‘Who are you to tell me how to think or how to behave?’”

Yes, it’s true, from some non-religious or nominal Christians, we still hear that. Yet however many people speak of “your truth/my truth,” the aggressive character of progressive, woke ideology is anything but relative.

Our culture expresses aggressive, unequivocal moral outrage over race, sex, gender, abortion, and climate change, to name but a few hot-button issues. Prominent representatives of this culture, such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dan Savage, and Greta Thunberg, are anything but relativists. If you are not “anti-racist,” pro-LGBTQ+, green activists, you are morally repugnant.

For that reason, the best essay in the collection may be by philosopher Edward Feser, who perceptively appreciates that we are encountering a very different species of anti-Christian ideology:

Now, an intellectual culture in which all ideas are evaluated in terms of political utility or the suspect motives their critics impute to their defenders, and in which canons of reason and objectivity are rejected, is one in which the project of natural theology (and indeed any other rational enterprise) is impossible. It is also bound to degenerate into one in which disputes are settled not by argumentation but through intimidation or worse.

Feser recognizes that our activist, victim culture of outrage “lacks even the bare minimum of common ground necessary for rational engagement – namely, respect for rational engagement itself.” America (and the broader West) is increasingly so deeply defined by disordered passions that it is incapable of reasoning, which is in large part what apologetics is all about.

So what does this mean? It means that even the most air-tight, logically persuasive arguments for God, Jesus, and the Catholic Church will have little, if any effect on people who have been catechized to believe their emotions, not their intellects. “Since irrationalism is the consequence of such sins, they [apologists] will also find that philosophical enlightenment of the intellect may increasingly require, first, a moral reform of the soul,” writes Feser.

In other words, in our emotivist America, apologists have their work cut out for them.


You may also enjoy:

Eduardo J. Echeverria’s Inculturation and the Law of Evangelization

Brad Miner’s ‘Euanggelion’: The Triumph of Fr. Barron’s “Catholicism”

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.