On the value of arguments in defense of Christianity
In recent weeks, I’ve been corresponding with a young man who has been wrestling deeply with Christianity’s hard questions. As I read him, he has been doing so not only with a view to giving answers to others but also with seeking answers for his own mind and soul.
His most recent email to me expressed frustration on two levels: his own inability to reach absolutely final answers to his own questions and the temptation toward pride in giving answers to others. I’ve reproduced my reply to him here; perhaps it will be useful to others struggling with similar issues.
Lots of interesting thoughts in your email. I appreciate the things you’re wrestling through and I’ll be continuing to pray for you.
I recall times during my PhD studies, especially when I was taking philosophy courses at Arizona State, that I felt a bit of envy of those believers whose trust in Jesus was never troubled by knowledge of difficult questions. We both know that there are Christians who have simply never considered the objections to Christianity. They find believing the gospel to be a simple thing. Obviously, that kind of innocence is lost with deeper study. The pursuit of these difficult questions leaves a person irrevocably changed; even assuming a person that finds satisfactory answers and remains a believer, that belief is never as untroubled as it was before.
Even typing this out, I can feel again that certain kind of jealousy for the believers in my church here who have never felt compelled to wrestle with the epistemological implications of Christian belief. And yet my calling is not their calling. Nor could I be content to ignore questions. I suspect you are of the same mind.
Many of your comments are about the place of apologetics and arguments—and really whether arguments have any proper place in defense of Christianity at all. A helpful distinction (at least to me) that I first read in this book is the difference between the reasons that we know that Christianity is true and the reasons we’d use to show that Christianity is true. When I teach apologetics, or when I’m in a situation in which I’m offering answers to someone expressing skepticism, I can offer all kinds of reasons that I think should help convince a person that Christianity is true: how I’d show the truth of Christianity.
But if you ask me why I believe that Christianity, I would never begin with these kinds of arguments. My belief in the truth of Christianity, practically, is rooted in much more personal, less external reasons. Unavoidably, a major factor is my own personal conversion experience and walk with Christ for these past three decades. Now, that experience is internal to me; it does not function as a public defense of Christianity. But I think it is important to acknowledge that the kinds of arguments I am likely to appeal to in a debate are not the foundation of my own belief.
So why go to such arguments at all? Isn’t what I’ve just said fundamentally self-refuting? Why offer arguments to others if I myself don’t ground my faith in them?
The answer here is complex, I suppose. The factors that bring a person to a point of conversion (or considering conversion) are not always those factors to which a person would attribute his actual belief. Consider the person who comes to saving faith through tragic circumstances (not an uncommon phenomenon). He would, in hindsight, understand that the tragedy played a large role in bringing him to saving faith. But I don’t suspect he would ever say that he believes that Christianity is true because of the tragedy he experienced.
In a sense, the arguments for Christianity are an attempt to provoke a kind of philosophical tragedy for an unbeliever. Most people who convert to Christianity as adults have to be convinced that something is amiss with their current situation. That can happen through a set of tragic circumstances. But it can also happen if a person is brought to realize that the system of thought he had previously found adequate is not at all adequate.
So I think that arguments have a place there. They also genuinely buttress my own faith. Having had to wrestle not only with the difficulties of Christianity, but with (what I’m convinced) are the even greater difficulties of unbelief, I am confident that Christianity provides a rational answer while unbelief is left with little more than wishful thinking.
This is a good point to transition to your comments about arguing in online forums. I can give you the conclusion that I have come to for myself, but it is not one that I would ever insist that everyone else must also adopt. There are a number of topics (especially in theology, politics, and worship) about which I have strong opinions. But I have virtually ceased engaging with strangers on those topics online. My reasoning is two-fold.
First, there is something intrinsically offensive about some of these debates. Ultimately, we are making claims that a person is deeply misguided about some very core beliefs that he has. I have found, in general, that those arguments are more likely to be received as intended by someone with whom I already have some kind of relationship, who already has reason to believe that I care for him. This, I focus most of my work on the local assembly and community to which I have been called.
Second, the nature of public debate (whether on a platform or in an internet forum) is set up in such a way as to fundamentally discourage a person from ever conceding any ground whatsoever. To be sure, there are wonderful exceptions, when a person is actually willing to engage in honest give and take in a public forum. But the reality is that the format itself encourages debaters to dig in their heels and never concede the slightest point. “Debate” of this sort is not for the sake of the debaters, but for the sake of the readers, and that has value. But the temptation to arrogance that you mentioned—the goal of winning the debate, rather than winning the person—is epidemic in public disputation.
I think I’ll stop here for now; let me know if I’m on the right track in addressing the concerns you raised.
About Michael Riley
Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.