Apologetics and Deconversion: How We Murder to Dissect
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.
Faith was a beautiful thing, and I miss it sometimes. I finished my degree in Evangelism with a concentration in apologetics twenty-two years ago. I learned to read the New Testament in the original Koine Greek. I served as a missionary in China and Mexico. I’ve done street preaching, and I’ve walked up to perfect strangers and asked them if they know Jesus.
I now identify myself as an agnostic. It’s been fourteen years since I left.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Youth pastors and well-meaning friends said, in matters of religion, it’s best not to think too hard. When I showed an interest in philosophy and apologetics, some shrugged, and said, “Well if that is where God leads you.” My motives were pure. But it’s an open secret that many who delve into theology and the science of answering doubts and arguments with an apologia seek to convince themselves. Many of us aren’t successful. Even those who remain sometimes use convincing others as a means of avoiding their own questions and doubts.
Apologetics are a dangerous terrain for faith. When most people think of the subject, they think of CS Lewis, Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias. You have a doubt or a nagging question, or some quandary that won't go away. Then, someone hands you a book, or sends you a Youtube video where someone answers that question. Your faith is renewed. We know how to handle these things in the church. Get some extra rest, read this book, and call me in the morning.
The truth is more complicated.
Why are apologetics so dangerous? Is faith something we can only murder to dissect?
For many questions, there are no easy answers.
This seems obvious to me, now. But as a young theology student, I had the confidence of youth combined with a toxic inexperience of the questions mature people really ask. You can blow through the major arguments for the existence of God in an hour. But as a student of philosophy, I know that philosophers have been tearing down and reconstructing the ontological argument, the teleological argument, and the cosmological argument for thousands of years. That’s not even addressing modal or symbolic logic. The only way to use those arguments to convince anyone that God exists – especially your particular God, out of all the possible choices – is to hope they haven’t delved too far into the matter. Go for the low-hanging fruit. Hope that you planted seeds with the others.
If you read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity carefully, the first half of the book could be titled Mere Theism. It could just as easily be used as a preface to Judaism or Islam, or any monotheistic, morals-based believe system. At some point in the book, Lewis does a little two-step shuffle and starts talking about Christianity. But wait a minute? Even if I grant that my morals point me to a Moral Giver, how did we arrive at the conclusion Christianity is true? That’s an awful lot of baggage someone snuck in the door.
There are so many questions. Why does God allow suffering? More specifically, why does God allow suffering in my life? Which inevitably leads to a story about death, or pain, or events like the Holocaust or the slaughter of various peoples during Christian conquests. Maybe a loved one who died. The answers I was trained to give, like the free will defense, tasted like sand in my mouth. I found the most useful tool often wasn’t any of the clever arguments I’d read, but shutting up and listening.
But why should I continue to believe this stuff, if the answers it gives are so unsatisfying? Listening is a human response. It’s not uniquely Christian. Listening certainly wasn’t a skill they taught in my classes. The danger of listening is that you may realize the question the other person is asking is superior to any answer you have to offer. That’s what happened to me.
Even when there are answers, often those answers aren’t very satisfying.
Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher at Notre Dame, once made the distinction between philosophical answers and pastoral counseling answers to the problem of evil. Basically, philosophical answers to the problem of evil serve almost no purpose in answering the questions people really ask, and the suffering they experience.
Plantinga might baulk at my summarizing God, Freedom, and Evil like that, but nobody is ever going to read Plantinga’s work to relieve another human being who is suffering. It’s dry, tasteless stuff. It solves nothing. It answers nothing. Reading it made me feel empty inside. It’s like learning academic biology when you wanted to study trauma medicine. The tool is unsuited to the task. I have shelves full of books answering questions nobody cares about, offering answers I’m not even sure the authors believed, and full of arguments that wouldn’t survive a harsh grilling in a freshman philosophy class.
Why did I study this stuff again?
There’s just so much to defend.
It’s exhausting. One subject that often comes up are the sins of Christianity. Church history is a dark, dark place. Take a stroll through Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies, if you don’t believe me. You can hear the flames of the Holocaust crackling in Luther’s vile prose. It’s hard to square Martin Luther, hero of the faith as he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church, with Martin Luther, venerated by the Nazis and advocate of burning synagogues with the Jews and their holy texts inside.
Missionaries and pastors have sometimes been heroes, sure. No denying that. There were Jesuits who laid down their lives for the indigenous peoples of South America. Martin Luther King, Jr. is another example. But more often, Christians were the conquerors and missionaries followed in the wake of merchants, businessmen, politicians, soldiers and mercenaries. Christians have done a decent job scrubbing this history, and painting a rosy picture of righteous soldiers of the faith peacefully spreading the Word, but the more you delve into church history, the more skeletons you discover. Modern Christians aren’t much better. When someone says, “We’re not perfect, just forgiven” I remind myself to relax and breathe.
And, questions multiply. You can approach faith, or question it, from any number of angles. Each realm, from philosophy to theology to science, frames its questions differently. Each discipline can take a lifetime’s study to unravel and understand. At best, a dedicated apologist is a generalist. Delve too far into any particular question, and the apologist quickly finds himself out of his depth. Maybe it’s true that I sought a greater sense of certainty in my studies. But is some amount of certainty an unreasonable expectation? A favorite Bible verse in my youth was Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That sounds an awful lot like wishful thinking. It doesn’t satisfy a curious mind.
It also doesn’t help that many of us come from a branch of Christianity that insists any watering down of its doctrines is a surrender of the true faith. It’s all equally important, and you can’t let anything go without crucial compromise. I’ve heard pastors insist that any interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis that isn’t painfully literal is an act of rebellion against God. Faith is a tapestry, and if every thread in its fabric is sacred, then apologetics simply becomes the art of denial. Honesty compels me to say that the tapestry of faith contains a lot of loose threads waiting to be pulled. The observant person will sees this, and knows them for what they are.
Why should an honest person deny that?
Roping your faith to your ability to argue is a bad idea.
In retrospect, I should file this under D for duh. But it’s not an uncommon failing for any kind of training. Martial arts classes can’t completely prepare you for a real fight. Driving on a slippery road in heavy snow is different from taking Driver’s Ed. Real life is harder and more unpredictable than any class, and that’s true of apologetics. Life is not something you can throw a tract at, and expect to solve. Life comes at you fast, as they say. Even when you answer someone’s questions, you can’t wrap up that answer, put it on the shelf, and expect it to work the next time you encounter that same question. Prepackaged answers have a short shelf life. Apologetics starts to feel like running around a leaky home placing buckets under every new torrent of water that spills through the roof.
I love arguing. It’s one of the best methods to learn. But good arguing involves listening, getting inside the argument of the other person, and looking honestly at its strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of good arguments against Christianity. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
C.S. Lewis learned this during his debate with the Oxford analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. In 1948, at a meeting of the Socratic Club, Anscombe read a paper critiquing Lewis’s argument in Miracles that naturalism is self-refuting. By all accounts, Anscombe was a ferocious debater who took Lewis – the famed apologist – apart. As a result of the argument, Lewis rewrote several parts of his book. Many biographers have noted that after the debate Lewis steered clear of writing apologetics and stuck to scholarly work in his field – Renaissance and Medieval literature – or imaginative works like The Chronicles of Narnia.
I think most of us who tried to be apologists can remember arguments like this. I know I can. After arguing with a man on an airplane one time, he basically told me to shut my mouth because I knew nothing of pain or suffering in the world. He described the experience of waking up one night to realize his wife had died on her way to the bathroom. She took two steps out of bed and crumpled to the carpet dead.
“What do you have to say to me about that?” he asked.
Like Lewis, I wisely learned to keep my mouth shut about things I didn’t understand.
Learning is an unpredictable adventure.
Learning is an open-ended experiment. It's dangerous to hand tools of inquiry to a curious mind, because you can’t predict the outcome. I'll never know what my life might have been if I'd remained content to leave questions unasked or unanswered. I only know that once I started down that road, I never stopped.
My doubts, my arguments were a complex hymn I sung to the universe. I never felt that using my mind dishonored any potential Creator, even as my questions led me to doubt the certainty of the answers I took for granted. I felt like I discharged a debt by employing my natural curiosity, and any God who might be offended by that wasn't worthy of my praise.
Apologetics are a poor form of spiritual nourishment. I was good at getting inside other people's questions. I wasn't so good at getting out of them. It’s also worth pointing out that not all forms of faith are built with the resiliency to survive scrutiny. I was trained to discern other people's "heart questions." You look for the question wrapped inside another question; not what the person was asking, but what they really want to know.
What were my heart questions, I wondered? Was my faith actually answering those questions? Would my faith survive the sort of grilling I gave to others?
So far, the answer is no.