“Do you really think ‘anti-apologism’ is a problem?” wrote my friend Mark Barrett in response to last week’s column, “The Reasons the Heart Wants,” which tried to defend the craft of defending and explaining the Faith against the claim that’s it’s pointless if not counter-productive.
He was thinking of Catholics, while I had been thinking more of hip, postmodern Evangelicals and Orthodox writers who contrast Eastern “mystical theology” with Western “rationalism,” as well as of conservative believers in every tradition who seem to have despaired of Christianity getting a fair hearing and decided not to try.
I had, though, also been thinking of Catholics who associate apologetics with presumptuous, bumptious converts who upon conversion claim instant expertise and authority, like someone who marries into an old family and immediately tries to arrange the family reunions and tell everyone what great-grandfather actually meant, or like the northerner who moves south for the weather and keeps telling the natives (with some reason, I just might note) how this was done up north. I can understand why Catholics who grew up in the Church find this so annoying, and think they are right to believe the convert—and I speak as one—doesn’t know enough to say as much as he tends to.
Mark was thinking of a different group. Many Catholics, he wrote, “have steroided up on apologetics.” For many serious Catholics his age (he’s in his early thirties), and many much older as well, the Faith
is a set of intellectual propositions and political positions, which they can defend very well (if they couldn't they wouldn't be practicing), and they are very proud of this ability, and will argue all day long. However, they lack Holy Cards, which as you know by now is the single greatest issue facing the Church in the modern age. When will First Things address this crisis in the Church?
He continued: “I'm not attacking intellectual work or making a sentimental point that ‘our lives are the only Bible some people will ever read,’ or arguing for the restoration of some mythical simple pious past (which is simply a manifestation of precisely the same phenomenon under a different guise).” He was arguing for the priority of culture in a world in which ideas are more easily adopted than a culture found and lived.
In the culture of the past few decades, because the catechesis has been so bad, “Catholics have been forced to turn to apologetic resources, staffed disproportionately by converts.” These do very good work, but usually “fail to pass on the cultural foundations on which the intellect builds.” They never mention holy cards, for one thing.
The problems comes for Catholics “when the apologetics subculture becomes a substitute for an authentic Catholic culture.”
Knowing one's faith and explaining it is very important, but just as important is the preservation and passing along of our Catholic culture, and in that department we are in dire straits, up to and including very educated and apologetically-minded Catholics. There are legitimate reasons why this happens, not all of them bad, and the intentions are benign. However, it is a problem, and it unquestionably erodes our identity as Catholics.
This analysis applies, I should say, to almost any Christian body or tradition. Just look at how many young Evangelicals leave Evangelicalism or Christianity entirely.
I think Mark is right about this. Culture precedes apologetics—or maybe it would be more accurate to say apologetics only matters for the believer when it leads him to a greater comfort with or confidence in the culture that has formed and continues to form him, freeing him from doubts so that the culture can mold him more deeply. (Critical reflection on that culture and argument is the job of theology, and theology may, of course, suggest doubts. It’s complicated, as they say in movies.)
Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees might apply to many of us, cut rate Gnostics that we are, who assume—partly, perhaps, because we like to argue and think we’re good at it—that knowledge and particularly success in argument is the essence of the Faith. We could easily be found praying “Lord, I thank you that I am not like that poor guy over there with his holy cards, who wouldn’t know what to say to Richard Dawkins,” when he is having a lively and intimate conversation with Our Lord, His Mother, and several saints with whom we are not yet on speaking terms.
Pride goes before a fall, as Proverbs notes. Accepting an argument is not conviction, even when you think the argument final and conclusive. You may change your life or your life may be changed and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem so final and conclusive any more. We can all think of obvious cases when someone made a moral choice, usually sexual, that led him to reject beliefs he had believed with all his heart and mind, and should assume that we might be equally affected by choices more subtle and harder to see. That you can defend a doctrine now and win does not mean you will believe it tomorrow.
But a culture, a culture has more power to hold you, to restrain you, to make you see and feel the real costs of moral decisions, since they may tear you away from the world you know and love. It presents you with something you want, which is something you can lose. (This argues for much better church discipline than any church now offers.) In that, culture works apologetically. It makes an argument for the Faith, if the argument is only, “This is a life worth living, and you know that because you have lived it.”
There is much more to be said for the necessity of a specifically Catholic (or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Methodist) culture. But to put it simply, the Church, and therefore the world, would be better off if more Catholics had holy cards and knew what to do with them, even if that meant they didn't know the arguments quite as well.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. He suggests to young writers finding smart and interesting friends, as they make your life easier.