Friday 20 June 2008

Whose rationality? Which apologetics?

Okay, I’ve never been an enthusiast for apologetics. But some time ago I wrote a little article for the Case magazine on an “Apologetics of Imagination” (summarised here) – a proposal for a kind of Barthian, non-foundationalist approach to apologetics. The Aussie theologian Andrew Bain then published a lengthy critique, entitled “An Apology for Imperialist Apologetics.” His main point was that my proposal is too postmodern and too relativistic; that I evacuate truth from Christian speech. Drawing on Oliver O’Donovan’s view of authority, Andrew Bain argued that I was undermining the gospel’s own commitment to Christ’s “imperial” lordship. So anyway, the new issue of the magazine includes my response to this critique. In case it’s of interest, I’ve reproduced the full text here:

Whose Rationality? Which Apologetics? A Reply to Andrew Bain

In his “Apology for Imperialist Apologetics,” Andrew Bain observes that the Christian message sometimes requires “strong, forceful rhetoric,” and that Christ’s imperial authority should not be downplayed in the interests of a peaceable apologetics. Indeed, he notes that to “eschew strong assertions of Christ’s rule” would simply be to misrepresent the gospel, since the gospel proclaims Christ as Lord, not merely as one option alongside others.

I could hardly agree more. When I criticised a rhetoric of violence and called for an ethics of apologetic discourse, my point was not that Christians ought to be nice, or that we should speak the gospel only in a soft tone of voice. On the contrary, I believe the Christian message is concerned with truth – and that means universal truth. The gospel is nothing else than an announcement of the universality of a particular event in history. To say the word “God” is to speak of reality as a whole, and it is thus to speak a truth which concerns everyone without exception. To be a Christian is to be seized irresistibly by this truth, and so to become a witness, a subject militantly committed to the universal reach of this truth.

To say that the gospel requires “forceful rhetoric” and “strong assertions” is thus saying still too little: it requires my very life, so that even my body is seized and commanded by the militancy of the gospel’s truth. That is why, etymologically, the “witness” is precisely the “martyr”: the rhetoric of the gospel unfolds not merely as strong speech, but as the most radical bodily gesture which performs truth’s powerless victory and boundless reach.

My critique of rhetorical violence was not, therefore, a summons to soft-spoken niceness. Bearing witness is not always a nice business (when done properly, it ends in a bloody death). My point, rather, was that our gospel-speaking should look more like imaginative story-telling than like rational argumentation. It should sound more like an invitation and a summons to decision than like a proof which constrains and coerces.

In his celebrated book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that there is no universal rationality which could adjudicate between the claims of rival traditions, since any given rationality is always already constructed and mediated by a particular tradition. This means that there is no neutral rationality. Every seemingly innocent appeal to a neutral, objective rationality conceals the hegemony on which such rationality depends. As John Milbank rightly remarks, “every supposedly objective reasoning … disguises the power which is its sole support.”

The crucial question, therefore, is whether the Christian message is itself transformed into something quite different when it is submitted to quasi-objective (Kantian) rational norms, or when it becomes an instrument of coercive reason; whether an apologetics of rational persuasion undercuts the fundamental character of the gospel as a call to decision and a summons to freedom.

Let me put it another way: where there is rational persuasion there is no longer any need for decision, since I am simply compelled by force of reason. A rhetoric of peace and freedom, on the other hand, is a mode of speech in which the gospel’s decision-character is preserved and maintained, so that the gospel is articulated as a call to conversion, a summons to a radical reorientation of life (which includes a reorientation of reason itself!), so that the whole world is now re-envisioned through the lens of the gospel.

This is the approach which I labelled an “apologetics of imagination,” and which John Milbank rather playfully describes as the endeavour to “persuade people – for reasons of ‘literary taste’ – that Christianity offers a much better story.” To proclaim the gospel is to tell this “better story” – a story which is, empirically, one narrative alongside others, but which functions as a kind of metanarrative, since its truth reaches out and comprehends all things within itself.

To grasp this story (with its own internal coherence and rationality), one must be grasped by it in a moment of decision. This decision is what the gospel calls conversion. To clarify the nature of this decision is the task of apologetics.


::aaron g:: said...

A great response, Ben.

The problem with most contemporary apologetics is that it is so unimaginative. The only people who can get excited about its dehydrated imperialism are those who are already on the “right” side. Ironically, apologetics based on the dull claims of “reason” actually works against its own aim – it bores people, not persuades them.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting a very clear response. Of course, I found it particularly clear because I agree with you; moreover, because I've been made aware that I've been gathered up into the very narrative to which you seek to bear witness. There are stories (some of which might persuade, even the most boring of people), and then there's the Story, the so-called 'authorised version' of reality which creates, as you say, 'a summons to a radical reorientation of life (which includes a reorientation of reason itself!), so that the whole world is now re-envisioned through the lens of the gospel'. What is more, we are given no other word to speak ... and it takes literally our whole life in order to do so.

Mark said...

I'm not sure how you're using the term 'rationality' (nor, for that matter, how MacIntyre is using it).

Rationality is a relation between individuals and propositions. This relation obtains if some criteria are satisfied (what the criteria are depend precisely on how we analyze the concept of being rational). One attempt might be: p is rational for S iff S has sufficient evidence for p.

There doesn't seem to be anything that is specific to a tradition about this analysis of rationality. What I think might be specific to a tradition is what premises (or basic claims) that the proponents of the tradition are willing to take seriously. If that's what MacIntyre is talking about, then his claim is not directed at rationality per se, and instead at rationality + some basic theoretical claims.

Nathan Rinne said...


Here’s my Lutheran take (yes, in *some sense* reason is the devil's whore :) ): You are not trying to “convince” them. You are not trying to evoke them to decide. You are trying to *wake them*, to help them to see. It is more about creating the conditions where persons will look to the snake on the pole in simple trust, not to get them to “decide” to do so.

I think this is the way that Lutherans (who take their Confessions seriously) at least, need to see the situation.

Now, this waking comes in the context of story as you say, a story that assumes tha t the Sender and Receiver share a common worl,d, a common humanity, some conmon concepts, and a common ability to use reason based on evidence (regardless of what MacIntyre says): So, we get this kind of “empirical” (not as in empiricism, rationalism, positivism, etc.) and narrative-based invitation: “This was not done in a corner, God has provided *proof* by raising Him from the dead, etc. Repent and believe”.

This is a unique kind of invitation. As one can see, before one says “come to the feast” (namely believe) there is an aspect in which there is a “sounding of the alarm” (i.e. your construction of reality, God, you, relationship, “laws of nature”, right, wrong, etc. is wrong), since human beings rationalize themselves into all kinds of wrong ideas. We need conversion, but this is not really about our action, our will, our power (even by the Holy Spirit’s power): this is about waking up to recognize who man is in Christ: namely, the one who has been placed into Jesus Christ’s very own incarnational (hence evidential) life, by His cross, resurrection, etc. It is to come to trust in, to acknowledge, this pronounced fact.

So, this really is about persons responding to Imperial Truth: Note, responding in the sense of “waking”, not deciding: the fundamental character of the Gospel is not about our response, but about that which *creates* our response, namely that message delivered by faithful followers that God is already reconciled to us through Christ (He forgives us in His heart). Lutherans like to say that as soon as you start reflecting on *your deciding* you are done – if it gets to be *the focus*, you may have very well lost the faith.

At the same time, Lutherans say all theology is for proclamation, not to create the systematic theological map. Maybe we could put it this way: Do not reject the One who creates true cooperation, harmony, unity, life.

This is why for Lutherans everything starts for baptism: one must be willing to be nothing but given to, and since infants don’t even will, but trust marvelously, they freely receive (and hopefully are continually nurtured that faith will not die).

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

You say,"Let me put it another way: where there is rational persuasion there is no longer any need for decision, since I am simply compelled by force of reason."

If I get your point, I'm not sure it's quite right. There seem to be lots of scenarios in which I can be perfectly well rationally warranted in believing that such and such is the case, but fail to *trust* in the right way. For instance (and this is someone's example, I think, but not sure whose), one could believe rationally that when the doctor puts you under, you won't feel the knife, i.e. you've looked at the relevant evidence and found that it overwhelmingly supports belief that you'll be fine. (In fact, we can suppose that this is a situation in which you'd actually be *blameworthy* for *not* trusting the doctor's word, since your evidence overwhelmingly favors his being right and reliable.) And, anyway, it's still perfectly possible to be scared as hell about going under -- to lack faith or trust in what (intuitively) you believe with full rationality, and feel rationally compelled to believe.

Of course, you could say, "But if you're still scared, etc., then precisely what they shows is that you really don't believe the doctor -- or you really aren't convinced that reason supports his position." This is a hard problem, I think, but I tend to think this view isn't quite right. It does seem to me that I sometimes have beliefs about certain matters that I furthermore take to be fully rational, yet there's a part of me that doesn't come along, as it were.

All to say: the mere fact that someone's convinced rationally that, say, Christ is lord does not entail that no decicion of faith is required. That person could say, "Yeah, I see that reason supports (perhaps overwhelmingly)his being lord. And you know what? Screw him -- at least for now. I like how I'm running things, thanks very much."

Anonymous said...

One other thing, Ben. Suppose I'm persuaded "for reasons of ‘literary taste’ – that Christianity offers a much better story.”

And you've persuaded me. So far, why shouldn't I say, "You know, Ben, that's really a fantanstic story -- I really like what you're telling me. Now, I just wish you could provide me some reasons for thinking it's true -- I mean that the story you tell is the right description of the world. Because, you know, what I find attractive in this way and how the world is can come apart pretty radically. So don't depress me by not being able to give me any good reasons -- or at any rate not to be able to answer some of my objections or questions -- for thinking that this great story you've told is the right one."

At any rate, that's how I imagine apologetics going. You tell the story, and hopefully so and so finds it attractive. But there's such a thing as wishful thinking, so we need to have something beyond the attractiveness of the story for actually believing it in the way we do. So when so and so objects ("too much evil", "NT doctuments are unreliable", "concept of God is incoherent", "science has undermined..."), you've got something good to say. And, perhaps, once these blocks have been cleared away, the attractiveness of the story will be compelling.

Anonymous said...

The dominical paradigm for Ben's narrative apologetics is, of course, the parable.

The parables of Jesus are winsome, yet provocative and subversive; quotidian, yet strange, counter-intuitive; declarative ("The kingdom of God is like this..."), yet interrogative ("So what do you think...?"); disarming, yet polemical (Jeremias called them "weapons of controversy") - and a matter of life and death. They can, indeed, get you killed. They are powerful yet non-violent speech, a poetics of peace inviting an imaginative response that construes reality sub specie Patris. This response is not the kind of apodictic, invulnerable, QED certainty that some Christian apologists are looking for. It is called "faith".

Anonymous said...

This is one Lutheran that thinks apologetics is pretty much a waste of time, unless you can convince someone to come and hear an unapologetic sermon where they can be summarily executed by God;s law, and the raised by the gospel.

They looked right into His eyes, They witnessed great miracles...the raising of the dead no less... and did not believe. If that's not going to "wake someone up" I don't know what will. Actually I do know what will. God's law and gospel preached in it's full force, not to make us better...bit to slay us...and then that free, unmitigated Word of forgiveness, handed over without any response needed.

God will go to work in that Word.
Do you really believe that, or are you just paying it lip service?

With the apologetics stuff, you don't know whether or not they are just sizing up a good deal.

I'll stick with the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

Poets make the best theologians.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, I wonder why you lack enthusiasm for apologetics. Is there an interesting story behind that statement? Related to this, I wonder whether the forms of universalism that are sometimes expressed on your blog lessen the urgency of apologetics, either in principle or in practice.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these extremely interesting and suggestive comments, which have given me a lot to think about. Sorry I haven't been able to post any proper responses — unfortunately, I just haven't had time...

Anyway, just two quick things: Nathan, I really like your emphasis on "awakening" instead of "decision", and I think we're roughly heading in the same direction here. My own concept of "decision" is a very Calvinistic one — i.e., it's a decision that happens to us (see more here).

Jonathan: For me, it's not universalism that undermines the importance of apologetics. Instead, it's a realism of the gospel: if the world of the gospel is the real world, then there's simply no need (and indeed it's a delusion) to try to prove, establish, ground or justify the gospel in the terms of some "more real" non-theological context.

M. Anderson said...

There's been a lot said, so hopefully I'm not coming in too late; just a couple points.

Mark - Coming from the analytic side of things, Plantinga goes to work on that view of rationality in Warranted Christian Belief. Whether or not you agree with his assessment, it at least shows the other ways in which rationality can be thought.

Ben - I guess my concern is that for some people, at least, hearing the beauty of the Gospel message just isn't enough. It may be a good story, but I need to also know that it actually happened. Of course, my assessment of its beauty will affect my assessment of its truth, and vice versa, so it's not as though the two were completely separated. In the end, though, for some people at least, boring historical work is more important than exciting tales, and to those people it is more important to give old school apologetics, even as the tales are given to more poetic folks in place of propositions.

Also, it seems that literary taste is just as relativistic as reason, leading to the same problems if it is lifted up as the single canon. Of course the Christian story looks wonderful from the Christian point of view, and, say, the Buddhist one looks deficient. But from the Buddhist point of view, the opposite attains. If I were a non-Christian, I at least would not be terribly persuaded by claims to a "rhetoric of peace."

Mark said...

M. Anderson, thanks for the reply.

I agree, there are other ways than the (broadly) evidentialist way of construing rationality. I was just giving an example for the purposes of exposition.

Whether you adopt the evidentialist conception of rationality or the Plantingian Warrant account, the abstract structure of the concept of rationality is the same; namely, p is rational for S iff S has _________ for P. Fill in the blank however you like.

This structure didn't seem to fit with the way that 'rational' was being used in the post and that is why I commented.

Nathan Rinne said...

Steve Martin:

"They looked right into His eyes, They witnessed great miracles...the raising of the dead no less... and did not believe. If that's not going to "wake someone up" I don't know what will. Actually I do know what will. God's law and gospel preached in it's full force, not to make us better...bit to slay us...and then that free, unmitigated Word of forgiveness, handed over without any response needed."

Good thoughts Steve. I tend to think that the Law and the "evidential" aspect of apologetics go hand and hand. The evidential aspect of the Gospel proclamation (what I call the fact of the Gospel Act, or an "eventful proclamation") is not only this but is often times, to the unbeliever, *not* good news, just like the proclamation of the law to them is not good news. As such, I think apologetics of this sort: "“This was not done in a corner, God has provided *proof* by raising Him from the dead, etc. Repent and believe” is a "handmaid of the Law" and an inspeparable part of the proclamation of Law and Gospel, the "whole counsel of God". So "slaying persons" with a "humble apologetic", simply based on the facts of the Gospel acts is what is in view here. Again, this is not about convincing persons (although using reason to defend the resurrection like N.T. Wright does to counter fallacious arguments is not a bad thing either - its just not what "preaching apologetics" is about) or rational decisions.

I always keep in mind that many persons here the Law (understood as not involving apologetics as you seem to think) and Gospel clearly proclaimed *in full force* (as if we know exactly how this happens or what this looks like) and do not believe. They don't wake up with this either.

But I will still proclaim Law and Gospel (with the facts of the Gospel acts playing in organically in the proclamation), of course - because that is what being faithful is all about (waiting for God to give the opportunity, with gentleness and respect, addressing them where they are at, at their level of understanding, etc).

And by the way, this is one Lutheran who really believes that if my brother, for example, who I often think is on the edge of faith, ends up in hell, it will be more due to my decisions actions (Spirit-led [in Christ] or not) than God's (of course not discounting my brother's responsibility as well). God really does mean to be efficacious with His Word in all persons in His time, which is why I am a Lutheran.

M. Anderson said...

Mark - thanks for the response. I guess my problem is twofold. First, to simply say that someone is rational iff one has ____ for a proposition s seems to be too broad a definition, as the earlier one is too narrow. We need to narrow it down, but any specific narrowing is culture-relative. There may be family resemblances between the definitions of rationality, but the very meaning of the word changes across cultures (for instance, your problem with this post seems to be more than simply a different starting set of propositions).

Second, your definition, even when narrowed, assumes that there are propositions. Many cultures would simply disagree, and so their notions of rationality would not fit into your schema. One example would be a synthetic worldview, in which there simply aren't individual things of any sort (let alone propositions) which could be isolated for "rationality." Rationality would be about an entire way of life, and much less about the relation of a specific point to the knower. Alternatively, a pragmatic rationality might do away with the rationality of beliefs altogether, and instead talk about the rationality of actions which could performed equally rationally by people of conflicting beliefs.

Anonymous said...

That picture of Kant always makes me feel coerced. It screams, "MY BRAIN WITH ITS FEARSOME MAXIMS IS COMING TO GET YOU."


Mark said...

Hi M. Anderson,

'someone is rational iff one has ____ for a proposition s' isn't a definition of rationality. It's a schema. There are different ways of filling in the blank. Depending on how the blank is filled in will lead to different theories of what rationality is.

We could fill in the blank accordingly: someone is rational iff one has a warm fuzzy feeling for a proposition s. That would then be an analysis of the concept (albeit a false one) of rationality.

My initial point was that there is no way of filling in this blank that seemed to fit the way that 'rationality' was being used in the initial post. That's it.

On another note, it might be that different cultures fill in the blank in different ways. One explanation is that when different people fill in the blank differently, they are all filling in the blank correctly. That's NOT because rationality is relative, but rather because they are using the same term 'rational' to refer to different concepts.

however, if you and I (suppose we're arguing about what our concept of rationality) fill in the blank differently, then it is probably because we disagree about the right way to characterize the concept of rationality. In this case the right response is not to say that we're working with different concepts of rationality, but rather that one of us is right and the other wrong. We then proceed to give arguments for our respective views (ideally starting with premises that we'd both accept).

Generally, I think that people are FAR too quick to jump to the "relativize" bandwagon. If we moved a little more slowly, we'd often find out that there are propositions we both accept that can be used as premises in arguments for or against one or the other of the positions on the table.

byron smith said...

@Nathan & Ben - in various envangelistic and pastoral contexts recently, I've been finding the language of "wakefulness" very fruitful (over against "decision", which although I know Ben doesn't mean it this way, can sound fideist). Oliver O'Donovan really does have some great material on these issues: check out his recent lectures in Sydney.

Anonymous said...

Plato characterized the spools of his day as the philodoxers, the lovers of opiniion, the twice ignorant, like Fabricious, who did not know that they did not know, and so developed the tools of the philosopher, such as raeason, les dialectical non-obvuscatorinesses, that put them to flight with a well do you rationally buy any other argument that is not reasonable; is it non reasonable to be persuaded emotionally or not? if not, as herr newman would say, then you cannot believe, or was that Pope Icarus, nevertheless the point is well taken, afterall If I believe then there must be a reason. Non?

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