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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Apologetics and Evangelism: A Dialogical Manifesto

I remember a year or so ago I attended an apologetic conference up in Chicago at which Ravi Zachariah was speaking. At this same conference was an old preacher who also spoke. For the life of me I’m not sure why he was scheduled to speak with these high profile speakers, but speak he did – and it was painful for me. He rattled on for what seemed like an eternity ridiculing the irrationality of the so-called “postmodern” person. His presentation was a mixture of reductio ad absurdum appeals combined with jokes and strawmen arguments all designed to demonstrate the absurdity of anyone who would subscribe to these “postmodern” ideas.

I certainly took issue with his incorrect portrayal of the “postmodern.” He was quite obviously unfamiliar with primary texts of the usual postmodern suspects: Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, etc., etc. But this for me was only a minor irritation. The main problem that I had with the old preacher on that day was his obvious superiority complex.

The old preacher was clearly in business to prove the dominance of the church over and against other ideas and rivals. As I will show later, there is nothing wrong with stating one’s position and believing that one has a superior view. But his was a superiority with a focus on dominance and defeat. There were several things that were implicit in his tone, ideas, and presentation:
1 - The church must prove its superiority to the world.
2 - Having proved herself superior the church is now worthy of the world's attention.

The preacher obviously was working under a model of apologetics and evangelism that sought to seek-and-destroy. And in so doing he gains a hearing from the world who will recognize the superiority of his position. And an added bonus, of course is that he will simultaneously assure all of his devoted Christian listeners that their faith is sure because their worldview is so much better than anyone else’s.

One needs to do little to show that this model will gain no hearing with those who are among the “postmodern.” It is speaking a language of alienation, which will only confirm the suspicions of the postmodern who believes that religion is merely another form of domination and control.

The old preacher’s model gains no hearing and garners no respect in the public square.

Furthermore, I do not think it is all together consistent with biblical teaching. Where did we get the idea that the church was to be a tool for domination? Jesus exhorted his disciples to teach obedience and make disciples. Interestingly, Jesus seems more interested in long-term dedication than in quick converts who are only impressed by the superiority of the Christian worldview.

But there is the other end of the spectrum: The antithesis of the old preacher. In reaction to the superiority complex presented above many that we might call post-evangelicals suggest a model of conversation with the world. There is, as far as I can gather, a willingness to surrender or suspend one’s beliefs or positions in order to enter into conversation with those of differing religions. One might even hear talk of “learning” from these other perspectives and world views. In this way the model of dominance and superiority is turned on its head. The point is not to convert or conquer but to engage and to converse. This model serves as an important corrective to the old preacher and those of similar ilk because it opens up the public square to give Christianity a hearing and provides an opportunity to make the case for faith.

However, the question that I have for this conversational engagement has to do with identity. Does Christian faith lose its identity by seeking to blend itself in with conversation and “learn” from other worldviews? The problem I have is the suspension of belief and what I see as a suspension of controversial positions for sake of conversation.

But this raises the important issue: Must the church have a superiority complex (like the old preacher) in order to establish an identity?

Now, my problem with suspending our beliefs is not to suggest that we must always come out with guns-a-blazin.’ A must not always put their worst (or most controversial) foot forward when presenting the faith. The problem is not in a temporary suspension of controversy, but in a permanent suspension of tension.

As such, I present two reasons why tension and controversy is crucial for Christian dialogue:

First, the controversial claims of Christianity are at the heart of the faith. Like it or not Christ made the claim that he was the only way to God. The John 14 passage is perhaps the most famous of these in which Jesus claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life.” And, just so as to make sure there was no confusion as to whether or not there were other “ways” or other “truths” or other “lifes” outside of himself he added that “no one comes to the Father but by me.”

To claim the Christ of revealed Scripture is to claim an exclusive Christ. A Jesus who demands not only personal allegiance from his followers, but also demands that all persons in every place acknowledge his pre-eminence. The heart of Christian faith is the lostness of everyone who rejects Christ. Jesus claimed that he was the only true connection between a broken human race and a God who seeks to mend that brokenness.

Deny the Christ-connection to God and you deny the heart of Christian faith and biblical revelation.

But besides being essential to Christian faith there is another reason to embrace the tensions of the faith: It is the only way to have real and genuine dialogue.

I’m not sure it is possible to have dialogue apart from position statements – you believe this and I believe that. Perhaps you believe the Bears are the dominant team in professional football (the American “football”) and I believe that the best case is for the Indianapolis Colts. But what kind of fun can we have if we suspend our beliefs because there is tension? Can we ever engage in true dialogue about the better team if we deny our heart-felt belief in the superiority of our team?

True dialogue means openness. It means opening one’s belief up to analysis and attack. It is a passive willingness to be examined, and it is an active engagement with that examination. It begins a process of exchange that centers on truth and discovery. This is what opens to door for issues to come to the surface that might otherwise have remained hidden. (For example, I might not have realized how superior the statistics were for the Bears’ defense over and above the Colts, and likewise you might not have truly considered the dominance of the Colts in the past 4 years.)

Real learning happens when we are open, and this openness requires an uncompromising statement of our own position on an issue regardless of how controversial it may be. Openness has two sides: Openness to learn and openness to teach. The learning comes as we are critiqued and analyzed. The teaching comes when we present our views and the reasons that we hold them. Real dialogue never compromises or completely suspends identity, but at the same time it opens itself up for examination.

Call this my Dialogical Manifesto.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
The dialogical man, himself


ktismatics said...

Manifesto? Dude, now your talking! I'll be back here, but first may I commend this blog on general principles: interesting, diverse, well-written, engaging, courteous, principled. I'm pleased to be a frequent guest.

ktismatics said...

You've couched this manifesto in terms of apologetics. As a Christian engaging in open dialogue you presumably want the other to remain open to the possibility of changing his/her mind, perhaps even to accepting the Christian faith. Does the other have reason to believe you are similarly open to changing your mind, perhaps even abandoning your faith? How open do you think your God wants you to be?

I can imagine dialogue that has no interest in persuasion in either direction. The intention is mutually to explore ideas that each person finds potentially enlightening for him/herself. Is that good enough?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good questions....I think part of openness in dialogue depends, in part, in not trying to pre-determine the nature of that dialogue. I don't know that I am going to always have expectations of having someone change his/her mind - that would depend on the situation. And, to be honest, I don't know that my goal is to change minds and make converts as much as it is to simply present my faith as I understand it and as I have lived it and allow the dialogue to go from there.

One problem that I think we Christians can have is to measure the success/failure of a dialogue based on whether or not we make conversions...but I don't really see the numbers game as being a big emphasis in Scripture. There seems to be more of an emphasis on a genuine lifestyle that is lived out and puts itself in the marketplace of ideas.

ktismatics said...

I can imagine participating in a conversation where I try to hear what you're saying from your perspective rather than my own. So if you speak as a Christian, I do the best I can to construct a Christian perspective, then I put myself inside that perspective as I absorb what you have to say. So in a sense I'm already converted, though it's on an experimental, simulated basis rather than as a firm commitment. Likewise when I speak I can try to project myself into your perspective. I make what I have to say fit into your worldview rather than trying to draw you into mine.

Let's say we both converse according to these same principles of engagement. If things like goodness and truth operate on a universal level, then perhaps they can make themselves evident inside our two radically different points of view. Would those two points of view then converge on the one truth? Or would the truth separately enlighten and improve both points of view separately?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Interesting thoughts. Your last two questions sound very "Gadamerian." Gadamer, from my readings of/on him seems to think along these lines.

But, I can't help but ask: Ktismatics believes in universal truth and goodness?

ktismatics said...

Hey, this is your Manifesto, not mine. I think option 1 is Gadamerian; option 2 is perhaps more Derridean. I also contend that option 2 is more elohimic -- truth and goodness are relative to the particular created reality in which they manifest themselves.

So if two people who occupy two separate realities engage in dialogue, do the two separate realities get truer and better, or is there some high bridge that links the two, some sort of transcendence or synthesis? So, e.g., must empirical science and Judeo-Christian faith remain "non-overlapping magisteria," as Stephen Jay Gould argued?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, I'm not a science guy, so I can't give too much input into the Science/God quibbles....I've personally never seen what all the fuss was about. Just as in philosophy, I think the Scriptures allow room for different scientific perspectives - but beyond that i'm pretty much useless...

Interestingly the issue of truth seems to be a something of a dividing point between Gadamer and Derrida. While I certainly don't see D. denying or even relativizing truth (as some might claim) there certainly is not the same emphasis as in Gadamer's writings. In G. we see a pursuit of truth: dialogue exists to somehow get at truth. (There are passages in G. that can be taken as relativistic, but I think it is just part of his internal struggle between a search for truth and the knowledge of our historical situatedness "horizon".)

The differences can easily be overblow due to the conference at which D. seemed to distance himself from G. by talking about a "hermeneutics of suspicion." From what I understand D., himself regretted taking such a hardline against G. So, I think that there is probably more continuity between the two, just with different emphasis: G. being more proactive in trying to attain something (usually truth), while D. seems to focus more on the limiting aspect of "writing" that results in the ability for all language to be deconstructed - based upon its own, internal make-up.

Jonathan Erdman said...

So if two people who occupy two separate realities engage in dialogue, do the two separate realities get truer and better, or is there some high bridge that links the two, some sort of transcendence or synthesis?

Within Christian theology the answer to this question would seem to be an emphatic affirmation. (1)The existence of truth, (2)the presence of God in the community, and (3)the guidance of an authoritative canon would provide the "high bridge that links the two."

This, of course, can only seem to be a pipe dream in some circles, though. But this, I believe, is why the entire New Testament repeatedly emphasizes the aspect of love, charity, and unity. If a community develops mature, stable, and edifying relationships then the ground is fertile for sincere and productive dialogue. This unity opens up the full utilization of the three factors mentioned above.

Interestingly, Christian communities who have only focussed on one or two of those factors and done so to the neglect of others and in a spirit of disunity have found dialogue rather unnecessary and trite. But the key is a spirit of goodwill and charity within the community of faith.

ktismatics said...

1. Your rather dismissive "science-God quibbles" remark certainly positions your discourse within a framework that a lot of other people -- especially scientists -- don't share. But that illustrates my point. In your worldview, you can't see what all the scientific fuss is about; others can't see what all the religious fuss is about.

Say I'm trying to make my empirical worldview as "good" and "true" as I can make it. Is it possible for me to benefit from dialogue with a non-empiricist, a dialogue that doesn't degenerate into debate into which worldview is better? And vice versa for the religionist, of course.

ktismatics said...

2. This whole Gadamer vs. Derrida discussion has gotten way out of hand. I've read lots of Derrida, but as for Gadamer? 15-20 pages tops.

Still, I think Derrida presents excellent support for a multiple-realities point of view. The same text can mean something completely different when framed inside a different set of assumptions.

Here's Zizek: Postmodern relativism is precisely the thought of the irreducible multitude of worlds, each of them sustained by a specific language-game, so that each world "is" the narrative its members are telling themselves about themselves, with no shared terrain, no common language between them; and the problem of truth is how to establish something that...remains the same in all possible worlds.

It's a question of antagonism versus difference. Antagonisms are opposite poles of the same continuum, and so they can potentially be resolved somewhere along that continuum. Differences aren't resolvable so easily because they don't have enough terms in common.

ktismatics said...

3. It's election day back in your country, no? So here are two realities: those who support the war in Iraq, and those who don't. I happen to be in the second camp, and have been from before the beginning. I know two war supporters. I've tried engaging them extensively in what I would regard as logical, evidence-based discussions of the war. I put forward what I regard as unassailable arguments about why the war is stupid, corrupt, futile, etc.

But it's impossible. (These are smart guys, mind.) They see the world from an entirely different perspective. What I consider strong evidence for truth, these guys see as deception. I can't even replicate their arguments because I think they're being deceptive.

Time for dinner, but I hope you've had a similar experience. Pro vs. antiwar people just seem to see different realities. Those who move from one camp to another aren't typically persuaded from within their own reality. Instead, they shift entire realities. Time for dinner: can't elaborate further. Hopefully you get my drift.

ktismatics said...

As I'm sure you'll acknowledge, arriving at agreement on truth even within the Christian community has been problematic. Let's say you enter dialogue with a non-Christian. From your Christian perspective, the high bridge extends across the abyss from your side. Essentially this means extending the Christian worldview across into previously uncharted territory. The non-Christian, on the other hand, sees the high bridge extending from his side of the abyss. Perhaps a Hegelian or a Confucian or a Stoic would hire some independent bridge-builder to start from the middle and work toward both sides simultaneously.

But suppose no one tries to build the bridge. Both the Christian and the non-Christian build the best buildings they can on either side of the divide. There is no conflict between the two: neither wants to absorb the other. Can there be conversation across the gap, such that each side helps the other to build the best building he can?

This I suppose is my limited hope for conversation. There may be conversion from one side to the other; there may be synthesis -- but let's assume there isn't. Can there be dialogue across the unbridgeable divide, or must both sides resolve themselves to speaking only among one another and never to those on the other side?

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