The Essential Missing Prologue To All Apologetics

The practice of Christian apologetics faces a new and mostly unrecognized hurdle. Although this hurdle’s pieces and parts are familiar to apologists and worldview thinkers, few have recognized their full implications. It is the new fundamental obstacle to listeners’ and readers’ saying “yes” to Jesus Christ and to Christianity, so much so that for many it stands as a strong barrier against their hearing anything we say. For that reason, addressing it has become essential as a prologue to all apologetics.

For years, apologists have dealt with widespread confusion surrounding the word “truth.” We know that we have to lay a certain groundwork before we can identify and defend the truth of Christianity. We have to explain what we mean by the word truth, so we can effectively persuade others that there is one God revealed uniquely in Christ, whose way of life and salvation is for all persons at all times everywhere.

What we have not grappled with (as far as I have been able to discover) is the quandary this puts our listeners in. We know how to deal with the logical questions of absolute truth, but we have hardly noticed the moral questions attached to it. Maybe that’s because we know that objectively there is no moral difficulty there. The problem is, our listeners don’t know it.

Our listeners are deeply inculcated with the morality of relativism. I am not speaking of moral relativism, but rather the morality of relativism, which is (for our culture) as absolute as it could possibly be. It is the belief that virtue consists in holding all beliefs as equal, and that the one who holds to an absolute truth is arrogant, intolerant, and generally a bad person. When we tell some audience that Christ is the unique and only Truth, and when we amass arguments in support of that, our listeners might agree to our evidences and reasons. But there’s something else going on in their minds at the same time:

I am being asked to believe there is one truth that applies to all persons at all times, regardless of whether they agree with it or not. All my life, though, I’ve been persuaded that to believe in one truth that way is to be a bad person. Therefore I perceive that this speaker/writer/teacher is asking me to become a bad person.

Is that wrong thinking? Sure. But it’s pervasive. We can address it, and we have to.

Four times in the past two months I’ve given my talk titled The Truth Holds Us. (It’s an adaptation of my blog’s theme post, also called “The Truth Holds Us,” with material also included from “Not One of the Universe’s Nice Ideas.”) At the end of that recorded talk I asked, “Was this helpful?” and you can hear someone emphatically answer “yes!” I asked a similar question another time, and one person said, “This is refreshing!”

(Update 1/6/2011: The full-length (28-minute) version of that talk.)

What’s so helpful about it? It shows that it’s morally okay to believe in Christ as the one truth; that we can be Christians and we don’t have to worry about it making us bad people. Imagine not knowing that! Imagine how hard it would be to say yes to Christ while thinking it’s going to make you an immoral person. Imagine the sense of freedom when you finally understand it’s not that way!

You can consider this a plug for my talk if you like. I would be glad to come share it with your conference, class, church, or other group (click the “Speaking” link above).

Beyond that, though, I’m speaking to other apologists. The basics of what I’ve shared here are very familiar to you, and you could easily develop your own message on this topic. By all means, take the idea and run with it! And if you’ve already been speaking or writing on this topic, I would be grateful to hear about it.

Series Navigation (Arrogant Christianity?):

<<< The Truth Holds Us (Short Version)<<< We Don’t Hold the Truth, the Truth Holds UsArrogant Christianity? (The Truth Holds Us: Full Version) >>>

Comments

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  2. ordinary seeker

    I don’t see any argument here that supports your view that Christianity is the truth. I went back and read your “The Truth Holds Us” post, and I still see no argument. WHY would I believe that it’s ethical to believe in one truth?

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    Tom Gilson

    Let me clarify. You asked two questions. The first one is implied here:

    I don’t see any argument here that supports your view that Christianity is the truth.

    I don’t intend to mount an apologetic argument here for the truth of Christianity. That would be a diversion. Now, if you didn’t see an argument for why it would be ethical to believe in one truth, you missed it. It’s more of an explanation than an argument, as I think is suitable to the intended Christian audience. It is more developed in the talk than it is in the blog post, I’ll admit, but it’s there in both. In the talk I also bring in this discussion, which (with your reminder here, thank you) I’m going to edit back into the body of this post.

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    Tom Gilson

    A further clarification: I was working off my mobile phone when I answered you earlier. Sometimes I miss things that way, and I did then: I missed your second question. I’ll try to keep that from happening again.

  8. SteveK

    Tom,
    One other missing piece of the puzzle is that few have been taught anything about ontology – who we are as humans.

    I think people need to understand the basics of this before they can make sense of The Truth that holds us all. Your recent post about the essence of marriage hit on that subject.

    Our Western culture is steeped in the traditions of scientism and the like – where WHO you are is either (a) WHAT you are made of (physical stuff) or (b) what you DO (the physical function). I believe that people know neither option represents the truth when it comes to human beings, but they don’t understand how Christianity supplies a satisfying answer.

    As an aside – this past Sunday our church had the pleasure of watching a Christmas Story musical perfomed by a cast of disabled adults.

    Compared to other Christmas musicals I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, this was a horrible performance. You often couldn’t understand what they were saying, they missed their marks and they sang off key – waaay off key. But it was GREAT! I had tears in my eyes at the end of the show. God loves them because their value doesn’t depend on what they do. Their value depends on WHO they are.

  9. Jason Pratt

    Although there were a few other things I decided were more “essential” to cover first, back ten years ago when I was writing a ‘progressing metaphysic’, I did cover this topic fairly early, too–long before I arrived at a conclusion that I ought to believe theism is true (much moreso trinitarian theism, much much moreso the Incarnation.)

    I’ve been posting up that disciplinary exercise for several years now (in big seasonal batches) over at the Christian Cadre. Here is the currently updated table of contents for what I’ve posted so far–the topic of metaphysical relativism, and of the morality of relativism, is in the third part of Chapter 7.

  10. Dave

    Hi ordinary seeker

    I don’t see any argument here that supports your view that Christianity is the truth.

    I’m just catching up here and so may be speaking out of turn, but my understanding of this and the related posts is that Tom is asserting the existence of “truth” as a concept which imposes itself upon us. The question of “what is true” is not addressed because Tom’s intent is to address the common belief that “truth” is something we impose upon reality rather than something imposed on us by reality. The belief that truth is subjective, “true” only in relation to the person who believes it.

    WHY would I believe that it’s ethical to believe in one truth?

    I don’t know if I would say it is “ethical” except in the sense of “ethical” as being “true to oneself.” Oddly enough, for all my philosphical and theological meanderings, and all the different things I have believed to be true in my lifetime, I have never really been a relativist. Although I have, a different times, believed different things to be true, I always thought that I was moving toward a “true knowledge of truth.” I would change my mind about “what is true” because I came to the conclusion that my former belief was “not true.” I don’t think I am mentally capable of believing two contradictory things are true and so have never been particularly tempted by relativism as a philosophy.

    I will say that this is a question which fascinates me and to which I return again and again. “What is truth?” This question has been answered in innumerable ways by innumerable philosophers and few have had the courage to face “the truth.” Perhaps Aristotle said it best, “If one says about what is that it is and about what is not that it is not then one speaks the truth, but if one says about what is that it is not and about what is not that it is then one does not speak the truth.” All the other philosophical answers struck me as avoiding this simple, common sensical, and obvious definition usually – it seems to me – to avoid the reality of “what is” in favor of some personal preference for “what is not.”

  11. Mike Anthony

    Good point Tom. There is one other related word that we are having problems with as far as the world is concerned. Its “Faith”. People have been taught that implicitly the word faith cannot be synonymous with truth because “faith” is allegedly fact-less. In other words its what you have when you don’t have the facts (truth) to back it up. Faith in biblical times and for centuries was related to relationship. It didn’t imply a lack of facts anymore than having faith in your parents was fact-less but through a very clever change across cultures faith became synonymous with blindness – when you don’t have any facts. By the time the phrase blind faith ( a phrase that would have made the early church shudder in their own unbelief that we could actually combine the two) we found ourselves on a track to where we are today.

    The problem that I see with modern apologetics is that it essentially plays into this concept by being entirely too philosophically driven to address the issue of facts behind faith. When asked to defend our faith we often present our argument and its therefore assumed that argument is all we have. When we argue our point on philosophical or logical ground we find ourselves arguing for a particular set of beliefs not necessarily pointing to any indisputable fact and so often we go round and round because quite often the other side has none presenting either
    (just merely an interpretation of the facts). We find ourselves arguing about the need for a creator not really pointing to his prescence showing him at work. The early church had exhibit A – an empty tomb, Exhibit B – first hand testimony of events that had not been done in a cornet, Exhibit C – prophecy that had come to pass.

    When we constantly engage in debates that are purely philosophical we butress the idea that we have nothing to point to by way of raw evidence. And yet here we stand in the 20th century with Israel a nation again, already having fought a battle eerily reminscient of Zechariah 12, an entire country without walls, fruit bearing in the desert. world political movements that seemed perched toward more fulfillments and even the kind of military mechanics that was unknown at the time yet prophesied hundreds of years ago. We literally are living in a time when outside of the first century there has never been more evidence of God at work in the realm of men but so often we are only engaged in philosphy or intelligent design. Perhaps thats because of differing views on eschatology but surely we can find solid biblical ground. We will continue to have a hard time sharing the concept of truth unless we can present facts.

    The greatest endorsement for your blog to me is Josh McDowell. To me he still stands as one of the fathers of modern evidential apologetics, For sure there were flaws in the book he is most well known for but he stands today as probably the most hated individual among atheists (which is a stellar recommendation). Why? because he tried to hit the mark that all apologetics needs to aim for – facts. He hit far more than his critcs give him credit for but theres more work to be done. People will buy the concept of truth but not in the absence of fact so its a work worth pursuing.

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