Is Defense of a Boiled Down Faith a Defense at All?
Over at a blog I hadn't seen before, Thinking and Believing, the author (apparently, Micah Cobb) published a post back in February which discussed a book he/she was reading entitled How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith. Professor Smith's work is an re-writing of the work of Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age. As Professor Smith notes, the ultimate question that underlies Taylor's (and hence, Smith's work) is whether Christianity has become too secular in it's viewpoint. Has Christianity become so much a part of the culture that Christians have lost the ability to say anything meaningful about a different, better way. Micah Cobb's blogpost entitled "How Apologetics Can Diminish Christianity" does an excellent job of discussing the substance of the book and I invite others to read what Cobb has written. For me, what is truly important in the article for apologists is an extended quote she put in the article from Professor Smith's book. I reproduce it here:
Taylor offers an analysis of the apologetic strategy that emerges in the midst of these shifts — not only as a response to them, but already as a reflection of them. In trying to assess just how the modern social imaginary came to permeate a wider culture, Taylor focuses on Christian responses to this emerging humanism and the ‘eclipses’ we’ve just noted. What he finds is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways (Taylor will later call this ‘pre-shrunk religion’ [p. 226]). As he notes, ‘the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to a Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian beliefs are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity — as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice.Cobb than gives a summary which is as good as anything I would say, so I simply share it here:
When Taylor broached this theme earlier, he specifically noted that the ‘religion’ that is defended by such apologetic strategies has little to do with religion in terms of worship: ‘…Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any essential place for the worship of God, other than through the cultivation of reason and constancy.’ What we see, then, is the ‘relegation of worship as ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant’ (p. 117). This is the scaled-down religion that will be rejected ‘by Wesley from one direction, and later secular humanists from the other’ (p. 226).
…And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a ‘disengaged stance,’ that the project of theodicy ramps up; thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable.” (p. 51-2)
In effect, much of Christian apologetics is forced to reduce Christianity to its minimal defensible unit (my phrase) in order to, well, defend it to the skeptics around us. But you get a Christianity that is close to losing some of the aspects needed for Christianity. (How many apologists argue for and talk about God in a way that leaves out the triune nature of the Christian God?) And you get a Christianity whose emphases are different from those of historic Christianity. The exciting, life-changing bits of Christianity aren’t the narrow set of historical stories and statements of Jesus whose historicity can be strongly defended. The Christianity that results is often one that our predecessors in the faith would not have recognized.
And so many apologists leave their arguments with a great gap between what they have defended and what historic Christianity. Or, if they do argue for these parts, the quality of the arguments for these tenants is often much lower than the quality of the arguments for more generic teachings. One famous apologist has compelling arguments for the existence of a Creator of some type, but his arguments that this Creator is personal lacks the rigor of the other arguments.
So maybe we should take care not to do apologetics that is cut off from the rich theology of historic Christianity. Though I admit that some of these teachings are not the easiest ones to defend, but, as Taylor notes, ours is not a ‘disengaged stance.’ We believe we cannot know the answer to many of the problems, and some of the reasons and justification for beliefs or commands have not yet been laid bare. But that is the nature of our faith. When we deny this to better answer the skeptic’s questions, we end up pushing aside many aspects of Christianity, losing it in the meantime.
And if we lose Christianity in the process of defending it, what are we really defending?
Yes, if we pare away historic Christianity in an attempt to "sell" it to a broader public, are we really giving them Christianity? An excellent question. I may need to start reading Thinking and Believing more often. Good stuff.