Apologists Behaving Badly: Dan Story

I am fascinated by religious apologetics.  Apologetics is the defense of faith or a defense of THE faith, given the particular religion of the person offering a defense.  I consider myself to be an apologist for faith, generally, and have no interesting in defending any particular dogma, belief, or practice.  I have found, however, that most religious apologists engage in the defense of specific religious truth-claims.  Dan Story is one such apologist and defends conservative Christian theology quite confidently and aggressively.  And, while I appreciate Story’s sincerity and faith, I have been disappointed with some of his specific arguments/claims made in regard to 1) the exclusivity of Christian truth and 2) criticism of other religions and/or philosophies.

In Story’s book Engaging the Closed Mind (Story, Dan. Engaging the Closed Minded: Presenting Your Faith to the Confirmed Unbeliever. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999.), Story brazenly states:

Anyone who lives an active Christian life, that is, anyone who is not too embarrassed or intimidated to let people know he or she is a believer, will be called upon to defend his or her faith. It’s one of the ironies of the modern world that Christians must continually demonstrate that what they believe to be true is true. Christians are always put on the defensive.

It shouldn’t be this way. Why? Because Christians are the ones who possess the truth, not unbelievers. We are the ones with a grasp on reality as it really exists. We are the ones who can demonstrate the legitimacy of our truth-claims. Unbelievers—not Christians—are the ones who should defend their worldview. (pp. 63-64)

It is no surprise that Story boldly proclaims his Christian beliefs.  However, Story’s suggested approach is anathema — in my view at least — to the core faith Story is trying to defend.  If Christians had absolute assurance that their beliefs explain “reality as it really exists” then what is the purpose of faith?  Peter counseled the Saints to defend their beliefs with gentleness and reverence.  Trying to shift the burden of proof to critics circumvents this counsel.  No longer is the Christian simply defending their beliefs but rather, they are becoming critics themselves; attacking the beliefs of others, albeit politely.

Story continues:

But there is another apologetic strategy that we will examine in this chapter. In this approach, rather than defending our beliefs, we challenge unbelievers to defend their beliefs. This is “positive” apologetics or what I prefer to call offensive apologetics. I don’t mean offensive as in bad taste, but offensive as in a football game. We become the aggressors. We force the unbeliever to take the defensive position and account for his religious or philosophical beliefs. In this approach, the “evidence” for Christianity becomes the unbeliever’s inability to defend his worldview. Christianity is supported by default. (p. 64)

Story surely realizes that poking holes in competing views does not establish the fact, or reality, of one’s own position.

Story advocates using the Socratic method to essentially tie Christian critics up in knots.  But again, even if a Christian is successful in demonstrating flaws in the metaphysics of others, this does absolutely nothing to promote — or even defend — the worldview of a Christian believer.

Do you see what’s being done here? Rather than defending our beliefs, we are challenging unbelievers to account for their beliefs. We are shifting the burden of proof away from Christianity to the non-Christian. (p. 76)

This advice is completely contrary to the counsel found in 1 Peter 3.  Christians are to defend their faith by answering critics with gentleness and reverence.  What Story is advocating is a rhetorical word game which, ultimately, accomplishes nothing.  Apologetics isn’t about winning debates.  It is about expressing Christian devotion by demonstrating 1) a firm commitment to Christian discipleship and 2) showing respect to critics through understanding their viewpoint and offering a substantive explanation of the Christian position.

I do agree with Story on one important point, however.  And that is the need for Christians — or any religionists — to be prepared to answer questions about their faith with a working knowledge of competing worldviews.

Using the Socratic Method demands that we know the Christian solution to the problems inherent in the unbeliever’s position. If we don’t know the subject at hand, we can’t identify hidden assumptions, inaccurate data, or misconceptions.

Moreover, once an unbeliever concludes for herself that her present view possesses fatal flaws, it’s necessary to demonstrate that the Christian alternative is correct. Otherwise, the unbeliever may opt for still another erroneous worldview, and you are back to square one. It’s impossible to be effective using the Socratic Method (or any apologetic tactic) without a background in evidential apologetics.

Fortunately, a good self-education in apologetics is available to all Christians. The answers to 99 percent of the questions unbelievers ask, and the arguments they present, can be found in many introductory books on apologetics. (p. 84-85)

Of course, I find Story’s confidence to be both misplaced and potentially damaging to the Christian position.  I will provide more detail in subsequent posts but suffice it to say, Story’s grasp on competing views is problematic and his claim that “99 percent” of answers can be found in existing apologetic literature is simply false.

Social Orthodoxy and Silencing Opposing Views

There exists a social orthodoxy; rarely explicitly defined, but clearly and broadly understood.  Such an orthodoxy is not surprising, nor regrettable. Indeed, the prevailing orthodoxy is a reflection of not just current taboos, but long-held and important social mores which govern modern civil society. It is good, for example, that social orthodoxy labels racism and its expression abhorrent and unwanted; that delinquency in caring for children is socially untenable and that women are, by their nature, constrained to a rigidly defined and pre-determined set of roles.  The expression – if not always achieved – that social mobility is the so-called “American Dream” where anyone, quite literally anyone, can go from rags to riches with a good idea, tons of good luck, and a lot of hard work, is also an encouraging aspect of Western social orthodoxy.  Even if some ideas constrained by orthodoxy are problematic — or even incorrect — they are still widely accepted and embraced as part of existing social constructs.

One of the functions of social orthodoxy is that frames political and social discourse within the context of a modern sensibilities.  This is one reason it is so vital when considering the past, that we understand the words and actions of our ancestors within the context of the prevailing orthodoxy adhered to in their time.  Don’t’ misunderstand.  I fundamentally reject moral relativism so this is not to say that historical persons can be excused from bad behavior even if such behavior was in accordance with contemporary social mores.  Relativism exists, without question; even when considering ethics.  But the moral principles – even if not their specific application – are present in considerations of both past or present.  In short, there are many ideas which at one time were not only freely expressed, but widely held, that we reject today because we have concluded that such behaviors or social constructions are immoral.  We may well have good reason to do so.  But we must never forget to ask ourselves, “why did our ancestors think this was morally acceptable?”  Regardless of the answer, we will be instructed; either in the moral rightness of our present view or, in discovering unseen, yet foundational, assumptions used to support our current understanding.

Of course, it is not our adherence to social orthodoxy which is admirable but rather, our willingness to question assumptions and accepted wisdom.  Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr., for example, identified immoral, but widely-held social views and challenged them successfully; bringing about more fundamental civil freedoms for minorities and women.  All social reformers question orthodoxy and raise awareness — often with strong opposition from those who seek to retain the status quo.  And, while it is quite fashionable to cast such opponents as ignorant degenerates seeking only to retain their preferred, or comfortable, social position.  By doing so, however, we rob ourselves of important voices which should be part of broad social discussion.  This is not to suggest, of course, that KKK leaders be invited to a summit on civil rights.  But the KKK are free to hold meetings, public demonstrations, and distribute literature.  They more unorthodox groups express their views we — collectively — have the opportunity to examine their arguments and, if necessary, refute them.  More often than not, however, groups on the fringe of orthodoxy rarely make substantive contributions to social discourse and as a result, are largely ineffective in swaying others to their viewpoint.  So we should not fear the free and open expression of heterodox ideas; we should embrace such expression.  Free and open civil discourse is the easiest way to marginalize a bad idea — not by simply labeling at such but rather, by demonstrating — through reason — why  the idea is incorrect, harmful, or just downright silly.

The absolute worst thing we can do is stifle speech; even the most offensive and inept. Labeling any opinion as “unspeakable” makes us ideologues of the worst kind. We all question social orthodoxy in one way or another and to silence others is to eventually silence ourselves.

On Forgiveness and Liberation

Forgiven

One of the significant downsides of internet communications broadly, and social media specifically, is the perpetuation of what some have termed “outrage culture.”  That is, a culture driven by a selfish need to feel angry, bitter, indignant, self-righteous, and enlightened.  Individual “tweets” of 140 characters or less drive major primetime news coverage where not just celebrities are condemned and criticized, but also regular folks who may have had the audacity to voice an unpopular opinion or — *gasp* — commit some faux pas perceived as offensive, insensitive, hateful, you name it.

This intentional outrage, the eagerness which often attends it and the apparent Schadenfreude this faux outrage produces, has caused me to ponder both the nature of anger, and the necessity of forgiveness.  I should state quite clearly that there is a place for anger and outrage; these emotional responses can potentially drive us to combat injustice and come to the defense of the helpless or oppressed.  Outrage and anger are incredibly powerful emotions.  They can easily overshadow our other cognitive faculties such as reason and compassion.  In the heat of anger many of us have said or done things we later regret; sometimes quite deeply.  As such, our willingness to embrace, rather than eschew anger, must be tempered by a desire to remain in control of both our actions and our minds.  It is far too easy to let anger overtake and engulf us; depriving us of our ability to think clearly or morally.  Again, this is not to say that we should never be angry or outraged.  But these are the “nuclear option”, so to speak.  An important tool to have but destructive and counterproductive if used inappropriately or to the point of excess wherein anger and outrage lose all substantive meaning.

It is easy to be angry when we feel personally wronged, disrespected, or insulted.  Especially so when we feel our personal injury has been intentionally inflicted as some sort of punitive insult.  And, even when we have been wronged unintentionally, we may still feel anger and frustration.  When we believe we have been insulted, it is simple and rather effortless to fall into the mindset of ancient Israel wherein “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was a driving ethical principle.  As Ghandi once observed, if we were to accept this precept of reciprocation, the whole world would eventually be without both teeth and eyes.  Why?  Because any injury inflicted on us — based on our own previous behavior or not — will always be perceived as injustice; an act to reciprocate in kind.  Thus the pattern continues endlessly with disputing parties hurling insults and accusations; each convinced that their position is the correct one being completely unable to see that injustice and insult can rarely be pinned on just one individual or group.  Rather, injustice is often a vicious cycle of anger, insults, and the desire for revenge or vindication.  And yet, even when these things do come, we often find that we still feel slighted; believing that the apology, vindication, retribution, what have you, was insufficient.  Our so-called opponents feel the same way and thus entering back into the cycle of trading insult for insult is all too easy.  All too human.

The root of the problem, then, is not insult or anger.  As human beings we have very little control of what happens to us but we have complete control over our reaction to any insult or injustice.  The Buddha expressed the idea this way in the Pali Sallatha Sutta using the example of a painful physical sensation followed by mental duress:

When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.

The experience of a “noble disciple” is notably different:

But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will no worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

Jesus too, similarly taught that, in wisdom, we may choose a response to insult that nullifies or eradicates internal pain and perceived injury:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:38-41)

And:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV)

Above anything else, both the Buddha and the Christ have taught us that we are in complete control of our own reaction to insult, injustice or injury.  If we unwisely choose to react to insult in kind, we will do nothing but amplify the negative and bring nothing of any value, whatsoever, into our lives.  Elsewhere in the Pali Canon in the Brahmajala Sutta  (part of what are known as the Long Discourses of the Buddha), we are told of a story of monks traveling with the Buddha as he moved from Rajagaha to Nalanda.  Part of this company was a teacher, Suppiya, and his student, Brahmadatta. Throughout the journey Suppiya criticized the Buddha and his teachings while Brahmadatta offered vigorous praise.  When the company of monks reached their destination they began discussing Suppiya’s criticism of the Buddha and began to counter it by heaping great praise upon the “Exalted One, he who knows and sees, the Worthy One, the perfectly enlightened Buddha.”

When the Buddha heard what these monks were discussing he came to join them and said:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?

Here the Buddha reminds us of the absolute futility of resentment, displeasure, and animosity.  Harboring such feelings only creates unnecessary “obstacles[s] for [ourselves]” and robs us of the ability to see and speak clearly.  The Buddha counseled members of the Sangha (Buddhist monks) to only answer criticism (or praise) with dispassionate truth.  The Buddha understood, and Christ later taught, that it is the truth that will ultimately make us free.  Free from the shackles of anger and resentment.  Free from the need to “keep score” against those who speak or act against us.

To create a lasting and meaningful harmony between ourselves and those who may oppose or insult us, we must be willing to unloose ourselves from pointless anger and forgive.  In a seeming paradox, it is the act of forgiving and praying for our opponents and “enemies” that is the most empowering;  an act which brings internal harmony regardless of the actions or words of others.