[Re-edited May 16, 2011, but in need of further edits..  You might find it useful to compare and contrast this introduction to apologetics with the prefatory material in the Bush anthology (pp. ix-xviii) and the Dulles book (pp. ix-xiii; xix-xxiii)]

REL 492 (Christian Apologetics)

Introduction and Overview

Quo Vadis?

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that he was headed to a place they could not follow—at least, not yet. A puzzled Simon Peter asked where Jesus was going (in Latin translation, Quo vadis?).  It’s a good question to ask at the beginning of every course—and especially this one.  Where are you going?  And why? Quo vadis? I suspect that every one of you has a slightly different reason for taking this course.  I suspect also that what you are going to end up getting out of this course is not quite what you expect--though I hope you find it perhaps somewhat better than you expect as well.

The course is called “Christian apologetics,” and I suppose that for many of you what you are expecting is a course emphasizing the evidences for Christianity and answering some of the objections to Christian faith.  Some of you perhaps are hoping to find  reassurance for you own faith or useful tools in winning others. Others are perhaps hoping to learn the arguments on the other side, looking for material that will call into question Christian ideas.  Certainly we will touch on those kinds of themes in this class.

Thirty years ago, when I first started graduate school, that would have been exactly the kind of class I would have wanted to teach.  My sister Marta had been taking a New Testament course at California State University at Sacramento.  The professor's class was, in large part, an attack on the integrity and reliability of the Bible: pretty typical of university courses in religion in it's antagonism toward traditional Christianity.  Talking with Marta made me think it might be well worthwhile to leave high school teaching and coaching behind for a while and re-enter the academic lists. I had dreams of someday writing a great apologetic work, a work that would answer every conceivable objection to Christian doctrine, that would answer the (IMO often silly) criticisms of the scripture made by people like my sister's professor.

But not long into my studies, I  discovered I didn't need to write that great apologetic book.  That book had already been written. Christian scholars had already done everything I had planned to do, much better than I could hope to do it.  In the writings of Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, and contemporary writers like G. B. Caird, everything I might have contributed to the great debate over Chritian truth was already written.

But a question.  I had had just about as good a "liberal arts" education as anyone got in the 1960's and 1970's.  Why hadn't I learned about this stuff?  There was a curious gap in my education--a gap in what Robert Maynard Hutchins called "the Great Conversation."

The Great Conversation

What is this Great Conversation?  Here's Hutchins' description:

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.

Especially important, Hutchins idea that nothing is to remain undiscussed, no proposition is to be left unexamined.  What we are going to do in this class is talk about a part of the Great Conversation, that has (in recent times) been undiscussed and unexamined, that has been way too much neglected: the connection between faith and reason.  And this is a problem way more serious than it might seem at first.

There has been in recent years a kind of divorce between the academic community and the faith community: in my opinion, to the detriment of both.  Without the proper intellectual tools, one can’t really understand the Bible and faith gets muddled.  On the other hand, in trying to understand humanity without taking into account what for most people is a primary factor in their lives, the academic community gets muddled. We live in an age of confusion.  “Sometimes I think the whole world has gone crazy,” says one recent Aberdeen American News columnist: and, to a certain extent it has.  So what we are going to do in this class is work together to see if we can be a little less crazy, a little more clear-headed in the way we think about certain important issues.

In the beginning….sort of

So where do we start? Well, let’s start at the very beginning--a very good place to start—or at least as close to the beginning as we can—with the first attempts of human beings to understand the world around them and their place in it.

What motivates human beings?  According to Freud, we have within us three different motivating forces, the Id, the Ego and the Super-Ego.  Abraham Maslow says human behavior is driven by a hierarchy of needs.  The utilitarian philosophers argued that we are seeking a way to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Nietzsche argued that the “superman” would focus on what he called the “will to power,” the desire to dominate and control other human beings.

There is, of course, value to all these ways of understanding human behavior.  But in understanding the development of the first human civilizations, one might use a model suggesting a synthesis of these ideas viewing human beings as motivated by 1) a will to comfort 2) a will to power 3) a will to community 4) a will to order and 5) a will to truth.

Religio and the birth of civilization

Now of course these things are inter-related.  Gaining power or being part of a community obviously can contribute to a more comfortable life.  And the “will to truth” likewise helps a lot.  Here’s a plant.  Is it good food?  Is it deadly poison?  Knowing the truth makes a great deal of difference!  Knowing the truth about the length of the year, for instance, is an extraordinarily useful truth for an agriculturally based society.  And increasing one’s power likewise can contribute greatly to one’s ability to procure comforts or (perhaps) to one’s ability to order a society and provide community.

But sometimes these fundamental drives end up at odds with one another.  Living in a community makes it necessary for us to control some of our desires, as Freud notes in “Civilization and its Discontents.”  But, ultimately, societies tend to find a working balance, a way of life that works well, even if not perfectly. It finds what the Romans called religio: not exactly religion, but something broader--an established set of beliefs, practices, and customs--ways of relating to others and to the world.

Now religio in part is produced by the will to truth, and the champions of religio view themselves as the preservers and defenders of truth: often rightly!  The Egyptian priests with their hieroglyphics and the Mesopotamia priests with their cuneiform maintained business and agricultural records, transmitted, medical knowledge, explored questions of practical mathematics and (in general) were champions of an ordered, rational way of life.

But the will to truth can, at times, create real problems for religio and for those who have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  And when religio breaks down for one reason or another, the will to truth…well, consider what happened among the Greeks.

The rise of Greek philosophy

As Greece revived after its dark ages, the Greeks established colonies throughout the Mediterranean, and (particularly) on the west coast of present-day Turkey, a region we call Ionia.  Ionia was a splendid area for trade, but living in the multi-cultural environment of Asia Minor made it difficult to preserve Greek religio intact. The fundamental mythology, the stories the Greeks told about their gods and goddesses, stories in some ways fundamental to Greek life were considerably more difficult to believe as the Greek encountered people who had never heard of Zeus.

To a certain extent, the Greeks were able to preserve their ideas by a kind of syncretism, assuming that the people they encountered really did worship the same gods they did: they just called them by different names.  But for those with a strong will to truth, the conflicting stories (and, really, conflicting ideas on religio) made it impossible to accept so facile an explanation.  This led to the rise of an attempt to reexamine traditional beliefs and to the rise of philosophy.

Major divisions of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, ethics

So what exactly is philosophy?  The word itself comes from Greek words for love and wisdom, and, in general, philosophy is the love of wisdom.  But the Greeks themselves divided philosophy into three major areas of concern: ontology, epistemology, and ethics, and, for us too, these are useful divisions.

"Ontology" comes from the Greek word "ontos," being.  Questions about what is and how what is came into existence in the first place are ontological questions.  The physical sciences in particular are all investigations into ontology and ontological questions, but ontology deals with questions also in the realm of metaphysics, questions that move beyond just the physical world.

"Epistemology" deals with the nature of knowledge.  How can we know for certain the things we claim to know?  How do we go about acquiring knowledge/certainty?  All academic disciplines rest on an epistemology particular to that discipline.  The various scientific methods, the historical method, the methods of the social scientists, etc. all are based on an epistemology appropriate to that particular field.

Ethical questions deal with the proper relationship of human beings one to another--areas obviously core to the study of humanities and the social sciences.

Thales and the Pre-Socratic philosophers

The first of the Greek philosophers was Thales of Miletus (c. 600 BC).  According to Aristotle, Thales said that water was the source of all things.  Obviously, this was a step toward answering fundamental ontological questions: Where do all things come from? What are things made of? Thales begins, not with myths, but with an analysis of what the Greeks called "physis," nature--the physical world.  Thales is in a sense our first physicist--and, with the birth of philosophy, we have, immediately, the birth of another important academic discipline, physics.

Later Greek philosophers found Thales' answer less than completely satisfactory.  One speculated that air, not water, was the source of all things.  Another said earth was the source of all things.  Another, fire.  By the time of Aristotle, the Greeks seemed to have settled on the idea that there was not just one, but four different fundamental constituents of the universe: earth, air, fire, and water, the four elements. Now notice that, while today we list more than 100 elements on the periodic table, the Greeks had started us in the right direction more than 2000 years ago.  At the same time, one of the Greeks, a man named Democritus, came up with the idea that there was something even more fundamental than the elements: invisible, indivisible particles that he called "atoms" (from the Greek "a," not, and "tome," cut=uncuttable).  While today physicists posit particles even more fundamental than what we call atoms (quarks), note that Democritus still has come up with an idea fundamental to physics and to a discipline that wouldn't really get started until the 18th century AD--chemistry.

The early Greek philosophers also investigated another important ontological question: the nature of change--coming up with two very different theories.  One philosopher, Parmenides, said that *nothing* changed.   While things appeared to change, change involved logical contradictions and had to be an illusion.  He and his followers investigated all sorts of paradoxes of motion including what's called Zeno's paradox (nicely summarized here.)

[This by the way, is, Zeno of Elea, who died c 430 BC.  Don't get him confused with Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, who lived a century later.]

Note that, while Zeno's paradox is based on a misunderstanding (an infinite series doesn't have to add up to infinity: it can add up to 1, -15, 42, 3.14159, or anything else), Parmenides and Zeno are establishing an important scientific principle.  One cannot assume something is what appears to be, and sometimes reason will show us that things are not at all what they appear to be at first.

Another philosopher, Heraclitus, dealt with change very differently.  Heraclitus said *everything* changed constantly: you can't step into the same river twice.  But this shouldn't worry us.  Hot things cool off, cold things warm up, etc.  As things change, they are moving toward a natural balance: "things find repose in change," said Heraclitus, taking an approach very much like that of the Taoists.

But notice that we are running into a potential problem here. While philosophers like Heraclitus and Parmenides were asking good questions, philosophy wasn't yet leading to solid, universally agreed upon answers.  The “will to truth,” isn’t producing much worthwhile here. And so, for a time, the influential teachers of the Greek intellectual elite began moving away from true philosophy toward what we call Sophism.

Sophism: the will to truth destroys the will to truth!

The Sophists were professional teachers who claimed to be able to teach their students the art of persuasion: essentially, how to win friends and influence people.  The parents of well-born young men, or the young men themselves (particularly in Athens), were willing to pay high sums for what promised to be a very valuable skill.  While the term "Sophist" comes from the same root (sophia) as philosophy, the sophists weren't interested in truth: they didn't exactly believe in truth.  "Man is the measure of all things," said one famous Sophist.  Truth is relative--whatever you can persuade others to believe, well, that's the truth--until they are persuaded to believe something else.

Now one ought to be getting a sense of deja vu here because the modern academic world has drifted toward sophism once again.  Paid teachers, not searching for truth, but training students how to win friends and influence people--how to get a better career.  It's a rare student (and a rare professor) who sees college as a place to search for truth.  Now, of course, career preparation is well and good: but when accompanied by the notion that truth and morality are relative--changing according to the winds of popular opinion--the underlying foundation of academic study is in real trouble.

But it’s not just sophism that is a potential source of trouble.  Philosophy itself and the philosophical mindset is a threat to religio, and those who value religio or profit from it: around 180 BC, Cato the Elder warned of the potentially destructive nature of Greek philosophical ideas on Roman character, and later Roman emperors (including Vespasian and Domitian) did in fact ban philosophers from Rome.

So notice two things here: philosophy is a danger to religio, but it is also a danger to itself, and always threatens to create a new sophism, and new skepticism: the pursuit of truth may well destroy belief in truth!

Abraham and the Hebrews

Even before the rise of the philosophers, there was another major potential challenge to religio in the eastern Mediterranean, a challenge arising among the people we call (in their successive stages of development) the Hebrews, Ancient Israel, and the Jews.

Around 1900 BC, a man named Abram had a series of religious experiences that, for him, meant a dramatic change in religio: the abandonment of his traditional gods for the worship of one god only, the abandoning of his prior home, and even abandoning of his old identity.  He was now Abraham, the “father of many,” and, according to the Bible, a man whose descendants would change the religio of the whole world: in thy seed shall all nations be blessed.

Moses and the prophets

The stories of Abraham and his descendants include a series of what are called theophanies, appearances of God. Each of the theophanies involves a change in religio, a change in one’s way of life, one’s relationship with others, and in one’s personal identity. And every one of them is uncomfortable: Woe unto me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I have seen the living God.

The most dramatic and transforming of the theophanies are those associated with Moses.  In the most significant of these appearances, Moses is hidden in a cleft of rock as God’s glory passes by.  What he sees is “The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.”

Now in this story there are all sorts of challenges to all of the most common forms of religio here, and especially to the form dominant in Moses’ native Egypt. The story of the exodus in particular shows a sharp challenge to the “ruler as god” type of system that was at the heart of Egyptian political, economic, social and cultural life.  And the idea that there is only one true God leads naturally to another consequence.  Historians point to ancient Israel as the source of, not just monotheism, but ethical monotheism: a divinely ordained standard of human behavior the trumps human ideas of how we should live.

This, of course, points to a new religio, vastly different from anything followed elsewhere--and, as the Bible makes clear, a very difficult religio to follow consistently, a religio constantly drifting from its original principles and needing the restorative voice of the prophets—or, perhaps, divine judgments—to get back on track.  And there is something easy to miss here.  This is, in many ways, the first religio that can, if necessary, be independent of a specific social and political system, and a religio that, like philosophy, has a natural tendency to question the political and social status quo.

Now what is going to happen is that, inevitably, these two products of the will to truth, Greek philosophy and the Hebrew prophetic tradition, are going to meet.  The result of that meeting?  That’s what we are going to be looking at in this class and, whether one realizes it or not, something we are looking at every day in one way or another.  It is this meeting that stands at the heart of Western civilization and that, in many ways (particularly in America) stands at the heart both of our religio and most of the challenges to it. Quo vadis? Perhaps some readjustments in the way we balance the elements of our personal religio with just a bit more emphasis on the potentially valuable (but always dangerous) will to truth.