Is faith based on evidence, or is it trusting in something you cannot see? Can it be both?
Today marks the feast day of St Catherine of Alexandria, who is regarded by Catholic tradition as the patron saint of apologists. Legend says that Catherine was born in Alexandria, Egypt, a sophisticated hub of culture and learning. Her noble birth granted her an excellent education and she was a gifted scholar. A vision at a young age brought her to Christianity, so when the Emperor Maxentius began persecuting Christians, the teenage scholar denounced his actions.
Instead of having her executed, Maxentius ordered 50 orators and philosophers to debate Catherine. The story says however that Catherine, moved by the power of the Holy Spirit, spoke with eloquence in defence of the faith. So convincing were her words that many of the pagans were themselves converted in response. Catherine could be neither defeated in argument, nor forced to give up her beliefs. Legend even states that Maxentius's own wife was converted, before Catherine was eventually put to death.
We don't know exactly how much of this story is true, or if Catherine really existed, but she remains a prominent and important saint in Church tradition. St Catherine's story teaches us about the power of an apologia (a defence or explanation) for the faith, using reason and rhetoric to point to the truth of Christianity.
In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter writes: "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer (Greek: apologian) to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."
Verses like that, alongside the story of St Catherine, have inspired many to read and study arguments and philosophies that ground Christian faith. Christians have been doing it since the early days of the Church as they seek to explain their faith to a world to whom it can make little sense. As we celebrate the feast day of St Catherine, why is apologetics important?
Making sense of God
Perhaps one of the most important arguments for apologetics is that it takes the time to make sense of what for many people seems either difficult to understand, or just plain absurd. Early Christian apologists like Justin Martyr (a convert from paganism) had to explain to a hostile world why they weren't bloodthirsty cannibals just because they celebrated eating the body and blood of Jesus. Christianity was rooted in the Jewish faith, but it was a thoroughly new way of understanding the world, and it needed to be explained in order to make sense to people, especially those with no Jewish background.
A classic example of this is seen in Acts 17, where Paul finds himself in the Athenian Areopagus, debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of the day. Some accuse him of being a 'babbler' and 'advocating foreign gods' by teaching about Jesus and the resurrection. But Paul doesn't respond by simply shouting louder or insulting these thinkers, but by engaging with them. He says:
"People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you." (Acts 17:22-23)
Paul starts with what people know, and then makes his case from there. He shows how their philosophers capture parts of the truth (Acts 17:28), and then shows how Jesus fits into their view of the world.
C.S. Lewis stands out in the 20th Century as someone who sought to do this for his own generation, in many different forms. In Mere Christianity he tackled common objections to the Christian faith and made a case for why Christianity wasn't just true, but actually made more sense of the world. As he once wrote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
New York pastor Tim Keller has been called the C.S. Lewis of this generation, for seeking to do the same with books like The Reason for God, and more recently Making Sense of God. Good apologetics is rooted in a love of people, taking them and their questions seriously, instead of just preaching at them and assuming its their fault if they don't understand.
Another reason apologetics is so important, is because it lays the groundwork for theology, and good theology matters. If we say that there are no good reasons for Christian faith, or that Christianity really is just a bit absurd and nonsensical, then how do we justify trying to say anything reasonable about God? Especially considering how non-believers might grow into the faith if they are converted, good apologetics sets a precedent for reason, study and asking good questions that is integral to good theology, preaching and discipleship.
If a pastor only appeals to 'my personal spiritual experience' or 'my personal interpretation of the Bible' as an authority then it becomes very difficult to have a real conversation or good disagreement about his or her beliefs. Scholarship, Bible commentaries and philosophy are not infallible, but they bring credibility to a discussion, and are helpful adjudicators for reasonable dialogue. They do justice to the fact that yes, faith and trust are integral to Christianity, but that God has given us brains too, and we should use them.
Heart, soul, and mind
That said, apologetics is not everything. While some Christians can get a bad reputation for making no sesne at all, some Christians can be so wrapped up in apologetics that rather than being helpful to outsiders, they come across as smug, more-clever-than-thou Christians who are only interested in winning arguments. They may also be missing out on the more intimate and experiential sides of faith, or the truth that not all of faith can be explained with mere logic and reason.
God has given us a heart and a soul as well as a mind. They are all important aspects of what it means to be human, and all are essential in knowing God too. Some people may need a certain argument to challenge the assumptions of their mind, but others may need something deeper like honesty, kindness and love to move their heart and soul.
To return to 1 Peter 3:15, it's important to remember that one is giving an apologia (reason) not for 'how clever you are' but "for the hope that you have". Peter's assumption is that you would live a life that is so full of hope that people would have to stop and ask you – "how do you have that?"
It might be worth asking yourself exactly that question.