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Positive Apologetics: A Critique (Part II)
February 5, 2014 D.J. Clark

Positive Apologetics: A Critique (Part II)

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[Continued from Part I. Here’s a brief synopsis of what I said there:

1. The Church needs positive apologetics in addition to negative apologetics. Why? Because for a good many people, the mere absence of reasons against the Christian Way in not sufficient for their believing and committing themselves to the Christian Way.

2. This shouldn’t be taken as a blanket acceptance of every sort of positive apologetics. There are different sorts of positive apologetics, and my position is that some are more necessary (vis-a-vis the aforementioned need) than others.

3. I don’t think natural theology is the most necessary (at least with respect to the aforementioned need) sort of positive apologetic.

4. To see why, we need to start by noting that apologists are in the business of giving “public”, not “private” reasons (for details on the distinction, see Part I).]

Natural theology, and apologetics in general, deals in “public reasons”. But here we find what might be the single greatest problem for the apologist: Most people hold their deep-seated religious and existential beliefs and commitment on the basis of either private reasons or a mix of private reasons and very-hard-to-discern-and-even-harder-to-verbalize-and-communicate public reasons. This is especially a problem for natural theology, as it relies on the employment of public reasons which are supposed to be, as I said earlier, accessible — which is exactly what the reasons for which most people believe are not. What this means is that natural theology will not suffice to fill the need that I argued positive apologetics needs to fill (which is not to say that it does not fulfill other needs). It will not suffice to fill this need because, to say it again, the reasons employed by natural theology are not the sorts of reasons on which people form their deep-seated religious/existential beliefs and commitments. If negative apologetics doesn’t make Christian belief and commitment sufficiently rational and attractive to some (or many) people, neither will negative apologetics plus a smattering of natural theology.

I say this as someone who was formerly of the opinion that my commitment to the Christian Way really did ride epistemic piggyback to various natural-theological arguments. I really did believe that I believed on the basis of historical reasons and on the basis of biological and physical facts about the world. But gradually I came to realize that I didn’t. This gradual realization began when I fell into a period in which I lost my confidence in all the historical arguments and natural theological arguments. I scratched and clawed to hold on to these arguments, but I just couldn’t. (To be clear: it’s not that I became convinced that these arguments were unsound; I just found the premises, when considered all together, too complex and indiscernible for me to maintain my confidence in the soundness of the entirety of these arguments…law of diminishing returns-type reasons.) At first, I fell into a good deal of worry and doubt — “How can I keep on believing and following if the basis for my belief and commitment has fallen away?”. I had made the plain inference that if these arguments supported my faith, and if these arguments no longer held sway for me, then my faith was without support. That was a troubling conclusion. But as many times as I ran through these arguments and their perceived shortcomings, and as many times as I ran through this simple inference, I continued to find myself committed to the Christian Way — what’s more, I continued to find myself believing in the truth of the Christian Way.

This was hard to understand. But it became less inexplicable the more my worry and (what my worry gradually evolved into) my curiosity and wonder forced upon me habits of introspection. What was going on inside of me that was causing me to continue believing in the Christian Way despite my believing that I had lost much of my grounds for believing in the Christian Way? Was this some sort of psychological dysfunction? Or some sort of wishful thinking, self-deception, or defense mechanism? Or was this believing justified, rational, epistemically above-board and all that good stuff? I peered inward more and more often and the first thing I realized was that I didn’t feel as though I was caught in psychological dysfunction or functional deception; I felt as though I was believing on the basis of very good reasons. Of course this didn’t by any means guarantee that I was in fact believing for good reason. But very often when I believe or act for bad reasons – reasons stemming from dysfunction or functional deception -, I do not have this strong sense of confidence. Self-deception, for instance, is powerful and prominent, but very often self-deception carries with it phenomenological signposts and warnings that, while not usually strong enough to entirely reveal itself (wouldn’t that be nice?), do keep the deceived from feeling the strong sort of confidence I’ve described.

A strange experience it is, looking inward at a particular set of beliefs and, in so doing, feeling a strong sense of confidence about the justification of those beliefs despite not being able to see clearly the grounds that would justify these beliefs. So I continued to look inward, to see if perhaps I could recognize any signs and hints that might point towards those reasons for which I was in fact believing — whether they be good reasons or bad reasons. I thought the best way to do this would be to pay attention to my responses to various arguments, experiences, and so forth. “What experiences most produce in me feelings of confidence regarding my Christian beliefs and commitments?” This experiment – and it was a very, very gradual experiment; the way I’m speaking of it here makes it sound much simpler and scientific than it really was – yielded a surprising discovery. I discovered that I most felt that distinctive “ring of truth” (a feeling similar to the one you get when you encounter an argument that you find overwhelmingly compelling) regarding the rationality and/or truth of the Christian Way, not in response to experiencing some apologetic argument, but in experiences that did not involve any (or at least many) inferences at all…

[To be continued. I must finish telling my rather dull story, and then come back to look at the prospects for natural theology and the prospects for other sorts of positive apologetics.]

Comment (1)

  1. Todd 4 years ago

    Very interesting and candid observations.

    “A strange experience it is, looking inward at a particular set of beliefs and, in so doing, feeling a strong sense of confidence about the justification of those beliefs despite not being able to see clearly the grounds that would justify these beliefs.”

    I think the only time I experience anything like this when I feel the social support of others with the same beliefs. That is, I can continue to believe things even when I’ve lost confidence in the arguments for them if I’m surrounded by others who seem to believe with confidence. But I find that even that doesn’t last. Without the arguments and evidence, the belief will wither away.

    I look forward to the rest of your story!

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