Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How not to share your faith

At the bookstore of the retreat center in Atlanta I came across this slim volume by Mark Brumley, published in 2002 by Catholic Answers, with a Preface by Avery Cardinal Dulles and a Foreword by Archbishop Charles Chaput. The subtitle grabbed my eye as well: "The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelization." I haven't gotten to this yet, but the contents list these seven deadlies, and I can't wait to dig in:
  • Apologetical Gluttony

  • Reducing the Faith to Apologetics and Apologetics to Arguments

  • Confusing the Faith with Our Arguments for It

  • Contentiousness

  • Friendly Fire

  • Trying to "Win"

  • Pride
Can one get an "Amen?"

The brief Preface by Cardinal Dulles is a gem of a summary of the development of apologetics in the twentieth century.
The fortunes of apologetics have been volatile indeed. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth it practically devoured theology. Not only did theologians write books on apologetics; they tended to give an apologetical slant to almost every theological treatise, as though the reasonable person unfailingly could be persuaded to accept what was being taught. The freedom and grace-given character of faith were overlooked; the mysteries of faith were made all too accessible. Especially in liberal Protestantism, the doctrines of the faith were diluted so as to make them credible to supposedly modern men and women.

After the First World War, Karl Barth and others protested against this trend and launched the movement sometimes known as neo-orthodoxy. Revelation, they claimed, must be accepted on its own terms, not on the basis of human arguments. God is not bound to speak and act within narrow limits of human reason.

Toward the middle of the twentieth century, Barthian influences flowed into Catholicism. Eschewing apologetics, Catholics began to speak the language of neo-orthodoxy. They refused to give reasons for believing. This trend entailed some dangers. Christian belief now began to look like an arbitrary stance -- a mere matter of family tradition, personal temperament, or sentiment. Catholics lost interest in challenging others to accept the faith. Evangelization sank to a low ebb. The flow of converts into the Church, which had been vigorous in the first half of the century, slowed down to a trickle.

In the United States, the tradition of Christian apologetics was maintained by Fundamentalists and by many Evangelicals. They insisted that there were solid arguments for accepting Christianity as attested by the Bible and the early creeds. They combined reliance on reason with firm commitment to the central Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. They were as orthodox as the neo-orthodox, or rather more so. And their efforts met with considerable success. They sent missionaries all over the world, and as a result their churches grew rapidly, sometimes by converting nominal Catholics to their brand of Christianity.

Some Catholics in the United States saw this situation as a call to action. This was especially true of Catholics who had a Protestant Evangelical background, such as Peter Kreeft. recalling that the Catholic Church has a long apologetical tradition of its own, he, together with Karl Keating and a growing body of colleagues, have built fruitfully on the work of English-speaking apologists of the early and mid-twentieth century: Catholics such as G. K. Chesterton and Frank Sheed and Anglicans such as C. S. Lewis. These outstanding writers avoided the pitfalls into which apologetics have often fallen. They cannot be accused of tailoring the faith to fit what reason can prove. They knew better than to think that all the mysteries of the faith could be directly proved. And they escaped the "sacred dishonesty" that has prompted some to bend the facts of history so as to conceal the sins and errors of Catholics in the past.
In writing about the seven deadly sins of apologetics, Brumley is not rejecting apologetics but rather defending it from itself. He shows how an apologetics that seeks to prove too much can undermine the very faith it is intended to support. He also shows how an apologetics that builds on reason alone, instead of deferring to the word of God, can impoverish the faith of Christians, as did liberal Protestantism. In his last chapter he shows how apologetics can be effective when it adheres to the fullness of the faith and respects the primacy of love.

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