Apologetics is in the air! And what is that you ask? No, it’s not the art of giving good apologies. Apologetics is that branch of Christian theology “concerned with the intelligent presentation and defense of the historical Christian faith.” Its the discipline that seeks to carry out Peter’s admonishment to “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” [1 Peter 3:15 NRSV]
There is a flowering of this in Malaysia if we look at the number of interfaith dialogs going on in our campuses. During such dialogs representatives from the major religions will be asked to give their views on major religious topics like their concept of God, the basic tenets of their faith, and the reliability of their holy scriptures. There will usually be a session of questions and answers involving the floor at the end.
Such events will be advertised as an exercise for folks to better understand the faiths of others. Often they end up as exercises in “my God/holybook/beliefs are better/truer than yours.” The atmosphere of such events can end up being fairly acrimonious with more heat than light generated, and the feeling of “my team took a beating tonight but you just wait till the next game.”
Yet on the whole, I view this flowering of interfaith encounters positively.
For one such encounters discourages the post modern inclination to deny any sort of absolute truth. Perhaps as a reaction to the damage done by radical religionists, we are now encouraged to say that all communities have their own truths. No one is really absolutely right or wrong. Let’s play nice.
The core beliefs of the various faiths are so different that it makes nonsense of any approach that says they are all true. Such an approach is an insult to all faiths and impossible for those who believe in the Jesus who said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6]
Such dialogs also help to shake up middle class Malaysian Christianity from their ghetto mentality. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy where freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution. Yet Islam is the state religion and all states have laws that punish both Muslims that convert out of Islam, and those that supposedly cause them to do so. Because of this tension between these two legal realities, middle class Christianity have basically kept their distance from any continuing meaningful dialog with their Muslim neighbors.
But in today’s connected world, such avoidance is no longer possible. TV and the Internet makes it a very much “in your face” world. We can no longer escape the task of helping others understand our faith and the task of truly understanding the beliefs of those outside the Christian community. Therefore we must seek to grow in our ability to do apologetics well.
The Christian faith has internal logical coherence and is true to history. We should not be afraid to enter into dialog with representatives of any faith. However we must also remember that the primary Christian ethic is love and that we must be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” [James 1:19.20]
And if we find ourselves undergoing trials and difficulties, James says: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” [James 1:2-4]
If we find the odds stacked against us, well, it’s situation normal. In fact we are told to rejoice! But we are never told to hate. Christians are not into suicide bombing. One distinctive mark of followers of Jesus is that we are called to love and to love even our enemies.
Indeed James goes on to describe what sort of wisdom should characterize God’s people.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” [James 3:13-18]
James’ understanding of Godly wisdom is not the type that produces debating champions. His understanding of wisdom is wisdom for righteous living. Therefore when people get to know Christians, their response is not so much “how clever they are” but “how whole they are.”
I believe Christianity is intellectually and rationally true and defensible but I also believe that the ultimate “proof” of the reality of the gospel is the kind of people it produces, people who are “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
The new millennium is a “in your face” world. We must be utterly clear of the challenges before us. We need to work hard at being better at articulating our faith. We need to recognize those among us who may be specially called to this ministry and give them every encouragement. We need to help believers at all levels to know the basics of what they believe and why. Intellectual laziness does not honor God.
But the real battle ground continues to be encouraging all believers to grow in Christlike maturity. After all the ancient world didn’t see Christians as intellectual giants. But what was “in their face” was a community of people who:
*loved each other so much they were willing to die for each other *sacrificially cared for all in need without thought of return *willingly suffered and died for the privilege of following Christ *welcomed people equally without thought of sex, race, social status, economic status, age…
It just won’t do to win the battle for the apologetics of ideas and ignore the apologetics of life. We mustn’t let the recent flowering of interfaith dialogs make us focus on the former to the neglect of the latter. We must press on in both.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan