The Constraints On Defending Christianity

In the midst of a review of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, Alan Jacobs relays the story of a summer he spent teaching a course called “Practical Apologetics” to a group of Christian pastors in Africa. When they spurned his advice on how to reach out to Muslims, he realized there was something missing from his suggestions – as Jacobs puts it, there was “a human dimension to this enterprise that I had failed to take into account”:

Would-be apologists cannot think only of the needs of their audience; they must think also of their own limitations. Those limitations may be intellectual: as Sir Thomas Browne wrote in the 17th century, “Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity. Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth.” They overrate their own intellectual capabilities, and embarrass not just themselves but the faith they had planned to defend.

But equally important are emotional or spiritual limitations. ‘I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist,” [C.S.] Lewis wrote in 1945, when he was at the apex of his career as defender of the faith. “No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate.” The key word in that second sentence is “successfully”: the greatest spiritual danger presents itself not to the one who has manifestly failed (in Milton’s phrase) “to justify God’s ways to man,” but to the one who succeeds, or thinks he succeeds. And the greatest danger is not even pride: it is the discovery that a doctrine put into cold print, or into one’s own (fallen, fallible) mouth, loses much of its reality and power.