The Project of Apologetics

Michael Murray

Institute for Research in the Humanities
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Franklin and Marshall College

Michael Murray Michael J. Murray ( is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. He received his B.A. magna cum laude from Franklin and Marshall in 1985 and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1991. He has published numerous articles on seventeenth century philosophy, metaphysics, and contemporary philosophy of religion. In addition, Prof. Murray has been the recipient of a number of awards and fellowships including a Solmsen Fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin and a Fellowship for College Teachers from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Prof. Murray has three books forthcoming: "Reason for the Hope Within", Eerdmans, 1998 (a series of newly commissioned essays in Christian philosophy and apologetics for church leaders and laity), "Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions", Blackwell Publishers, 1998 (with Eleonore Stump) (a reader in contemporary philosophy of religion), "Leibniz's Commentary on Gilbert Burnet", Yale University Press (a translation of a previously unpublished work of Gottfried Leibniz). He is currently completing a manuscript entitled, "Psychology, Theology, and the Nature of Human Freedom: A Study in Leibniz and His Precursors".

This article is taken from Reason for the Hope Within, Michael J. Murray, editor. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998. Forward by Dr. Alvin Plantinga.

As indicated in the Introduction, this book is an attempt to present a broad reaching Christian apologetic or defense of the Christain faith. Before we begin, however, it is of the utmost importance that we pause briefly to discuss exactly what it is that a "defense of the Christian faith" is supposed to do. Is it supposed to present us with arguments that will bring all non-Christians to their intellectual knees? Is is supposed to show without question that the Christian world view is more compelling than any other world view? In order to understand how this book should be used, we need to answer these questions first.

Defenses of the Christian faith of the sort we are offering in this book have two aims. The first, and I think primary, aim of such a defense is that it builds up the believer by helping him or her to understand the deep, puzzling, of seemingly paradoxical riches of the Christian faith. Such building up helps the believer better understand their faith and, more importantly, to appreciate in more profound fashion the glory of the Creator they love and serve. In addition, this deeper understanding helps the believer to share their faith with others. It can do this because the more intimately we understand what it is we are sharing the more intelligently and convincingly we can do so.

Ambassadorial Apologetics

The Biblical notion of the Christian as ambassador for the kingdom of God is particularly instructive in helping to sort out the relationship between these two aims of apologetics. Imagine that you are the leader of a small island nation that is economically dependent of tourism. For you and your nation, it is very important to have ambassadorial representatives who will go to other nations in order to represent your interests and to portray your land in a positive light. Whom would you choose? I, at any rate, would choose someone who was both head over heels in love with their nation and who knew how to generate that sort of enthusiasm in others who had never before visited. Part of what is required to have those abilities is a very thorough knowledge of the land. You would need to be able to tell people all about the place and why they would love it as much as you do. The Christian ambassador in a way has similar aims. God wants believers to love their "homeland" and to know enough about it to be able to tell others about it effectively. And to do this we need to have a detailed understanding of the "lay of the land."

Notice, however, that in both cases, we would want someone whose love for the homeland is primary, and which in turn motivates their wanting to know it inside and out. In other words, the president searching for his ambassador doesnít want someone who simply sounds like he swallowed the almanac. Having the facts down is important, but the job canít be effectively carried off if one is just s a proficient reciter of facts (Imagine a travel brochure that consisted of a photocopy of the relevant page from the world almanac. That, we can all agree, would not be effective advertising!). It is odd, then, that we often think of Christian apologetics in just this way. When I have taught adult Sunday School classes on apologetics I find many people who simply want to memorize all the relevant facts so they can go out in the world and recite them in just the right order. Their aim is noble, but the procedure is wrong. Like the ambassador, we need to become people who want to understand our "homeland" simply because we love the Lord and want to know him better. When we have gotten this far, we are ready to absorb the depths of the Christian faith which in turn makes us ready to share it with others.

I fear that putting it as I have above will make some readers think that evangelism is only for the experts. Far from it! While the Christian faith is as deep, puzzling, and unfathomable as any aspect of theoretical physics, the fundamental message of the gospel is straightforward. And as believers it is this simple message that we are compelled to share with the world. Nonetheless, we have all encountered people whose doubts about the Christian faith run deep. And although it is often times difficult to know what to say to such skeptics, we are obliged to do what we can to honestly address their doubts. What follows in this book, is an attempt to provide some assistance with this task.

As mentioned in the Introduction, our aim is to give the late twentieth century church a chance to look in on the discussion of these matters that has been unfolding in the arena of academic Christian philosophy. In doing this, we hope that this book will act as a primer for an apologetic for the church as it enters the third millenium.

Recent Challenges to the Apologetic Enterprise

But before we turn to this task, let's consider some recent challenges that the late twentieth century is offering to the project of "defending the Christian faith" or religious belief of any sort. These recently raised challenges come as much from within the Church as from without. As I discussed this project with a number of folks over the last few years, I often met with a remark that went something like this: no one will read a book like that because people just donít ask those sorts of questions anymore. To this I responded "why not?" And the answer that came back (when there was an answer at all), would almost always point to one of the three "bogeymen" of our so-called postmodern age. These three bogeymen have as their task to scare people away from doing apologetics or even raising apologetic-type questions. And so, before we get down to business, it is only appropriate to pause long enough to say something about the bogeymen in order to allay our fears about them and give us confidence to press on.

The three bogeymen are skepticism, relativism, and anti-realism. Christians are often at least acquainted with the first two, few have met up with the third (at least as far as they know). Below I will give a brief description of each and how each can be seen as undermining the project of Christian apologetics. After this I will take a look at each of these three challenges and say a few words about how the Christian should respond to them.

One more word before I go on. The aim of this book is to take what has been happening in the halls of academic Christian philosophy and make it accessible and useful to church leaders and laity. I am aware of the fact that no small number of professional Christian academics will have a look at this book, and no doubt at this chapter. My aim here is not to resolve all the intramural academic disputes about "presuppositionalism," "deconstruction," "meta-narratives," "paradigms," "incommensurability," "plausibility structures," the "autonomy of human reason," and the long list of other technical jargon-filled topics. I think that the things that I say here will carve out what I take to be a new position in much of the literature which worries about apologetics. But my aim is not to make heavy weather over that fact. My aim is simply to present what I take to be the very best and most current philosophical thinking about the epistemology of "world views," presented in an accessible manner.

Bogeyman Number One: Skepticism

In general, a skeptic is someone who thinks that people are duty bound to refrain from coming to hold beliefs on some matter or other. Skepticism comes in a wide variety of flavors. Some think that the scope of our skepticism should extend farther than others. Mitigated skeptics think that we should refrain from coming to settled beliefs only about certain areas of knowledge; global skeptics, on the other hand, think that we ought to withhold belief on all matters (or at least all matters except one: that we should withhold belief on everything except the skeptical injunction). Some skeptics are more humble in their skepticism than others. That is, some skeptics think that we should withhold belief because, for example, we have not yet collected enough evidence about a certain matter to know the right answers with confidence (so, one might be "skeptical," for example, about whether or not physicists have now identified the true fundamental particles in nature); others, however, might think that there is something about our human powers of inquiry that simply make knowledge about certain things absolutely impossible, no matter how much data we gather. Knowledge of some things, they argue, is just beyond the human intellectual capacities.

It should be clear then how at least some versions of skepticism might serve to undermine apologetics. If one thinks that religious or theological claims are ones that are simply beyond the reach of human intellectual powers or that the evidence available to us simply canít settle the matter, then one will think that apologetics is simply doomed to failure. This is one issue that comes up semester after semester in my discussions with college students. Students are usually convinced up front, without ever having examined the matter, that these subjects are just not fit for resolution by us meager-minded humans. And so, a Christian who wants to defend his or her faith will need to say something about why skepticism does not undermine this project.

Bogeyman Number Two: Relativism

Relativism is a bit more insidious doctrine. A relativist holds that the truth cannot be known about some subject matter or other. In this way the relativist is like the skeptic. But the skeptic thinks that the problem is that we, for some reason or other, canít (yet) get to the truth. The relativist on the other hand thinks that we canít get to the truth because there simply is no truth to be known. Even this characterization oversimplifies matters a bit. An example will help us to sort out exactly what the relativist has in mind. Imagine that someone stops you on the street and says the following "I am with the ABC market research firm and we are doing a survey trying to determine which tastes better: vanilla or chocolate. Could you tell us?" You reply, "Well, I am not sure what you mean. Are you asking me what flavor I think is better." "No," the inquirer replies, "we want to know which is actually better, not just which one you think is better." It is pretty clear that the person asking the question here is confused. They think that there is a single right answer to the question of which tastes better. But of course, which flavor tastes better depends on whom you ask. To me, chocolate is better, to another vanilla is better. The claim, "Chocolate tastes better than vanilla" is neither true for everyone nor false for everyone. Whether it is true or false depends on whom you ask. And, in this sense, the claim is relative.

Put this way, you can see that what I said above is strictly speaking false. The relativist doesn't think that there is no truth to be known. There is a truth to be known, but the truth in question is not inter-subjective. That is, the same claim might be true for some folks and at the very same time false for others. Most of us think that claims concerning manners or matters of taste are relative in this way. Whetherputting your napkin in you lap at mealtime is good or bad is dependent upon the customs or beliefs in a given culture. Similarly, whether "Vanilla tastes better than chocolate" is true or false depends on whom you ask. Most of my students believe (at least initially) that all ethical claims are likewise relative or subjective. But some want to claim that religious claims are like this as well. If they are right, of course, then the project of apologetics, the project of trying to convince the unbeliever of the rational superiority of the Christian world view, looks as silly trying to convince the vanilla lover that chocolate really is better.

Bogeyman Number Three: Anti-Realism

Anti-realism and relativism are not unrelated doctrines. But let me try to separate them as completely as possible here. A "realist" as I am using the term here is someone who thinks that there is an objective, mind-independent reality to be known, and that the beliefs that we come to hold about the world represent (or fail to represent) the world "as it is." An "anti-realist" on the other hand is one who thinks that the description of the world that we carry around with us is one that might be thoroughly adequate for our purposes, but they deny that this description maps onto "the way the world really is."

A brief example will help us to get a grip on what the anti-realist has in mind. Most of us are aware of a bit of physics, at least enough physics to know that perceiving the color of an object is something that happens when light reflects off some object with a certain wavelength. Visible light with short wavelengths appears purple, whereas visible light with long wavelengths appears red. Wavelength in both cases is a measure of the energy level of the light which is reflected. Short wavelenght equals higher energy, long wavelength equals lower energy. To summarize our brief physics lesson, what happens when you see color, is that light of a certain energy level bounces off some object, and hits you in the eye!

Now letís say that you are admiring your friendís blue dress one day. What is it exactly that you are admiring here? "Well, the color," you say. But imagine that I am a physicist, a physicist who then responds to you in the following way:

You say that you are admiring the color, and I agree. But what this really means is that you are admiring the sensation of blue that you find inside your mind when you perceive that dress. You may think that is an odd way of putting it since you may think that the blue color you am admiring is not "in your mind" but is a feature, property, or characteristic of the dress. But of course, you canít be right about that. All that this dress does is reflect light of a certain energy. That light then cause nerves in your eye to fire in a certain way, and those patterns of firing generate a sensation in your mind, a sensation of the color blue. But this means that the color blue isn't really out there in the dress. The dress is just a bunch of molecules reflecting energetic light. It is your mind that converts stimuli produced by the energetic light into a "picture," and in doing so it makes different wavelengths of light result in colored sensations of a certain sort in your mind. As a result, it is not that the dress is blue, it is just that the dress reflects wavelengths of light which your mind converts into a sensation of blue. If the point is still eluding you, think of it this way. There is no reason in principle why those wavelengths of light that you perceive as blue might not have instead have been perceived as red. And the wavelengths you now perceive as red, might have instead given rise to sensations of blue in you.

This physicist is explaining why it is that we should think that color is not really a feature of objects (or, you might say "in" the objects), but is instead an result of how we "digest" certain sorts of external stimuli.

This is not an easy point to see. But once one sees it one realizes how compelling this picture is. The same point seems to hold for other qualitative components of our experience. There is no "salty taste" out there in the world, there is just sodium chloride which gives rise to a certain pleasurable sensations (a "salty" one) in me. Further, there is no hot or cold "out there in the world." There are simply objects with molecules of varying energy levels. Energetic ones give rise to a sensation of "hot" in us whereas ones with less energy give rise to sensations of "cold" in us. The famous seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes made this point by noting how odd it is that we think that boiling water really does have heat in it since it feels hot when we put our hand nearby, but that we do not think that pain is in the water, even though that is the sensation we get when we put our hand in the boiling water! Why do we think heat is in the water but not pain? Descartes' solution is to say, as our imaginary physicist has above, that neither the heat nor the pain are in the fire. Both are merely sensations in us.

What does all of this have to do with antirealism and apologetics? Notice that our common practice is to think of the world as having objects that are really colored or really hot or cold even after we recognize the points made above. Our operating picture of the world puts these characteristics out there even though in our more reflective moments we realize that they really are not. I talk about the "blue dress" though I donít literally mean "the dress which itself is blue." In this way, you might say, I am an anti-realist about color. While the view of the world that I carry around inside and work with every day attributes properties of color to things in the world, in reality, I think there is no color in the world. And this fits nicely with the definition of anti-realism I gave above according to which " An anti-realist . . . is one who thinks that the description of the world that we carry around with us is one that might be thoroughly adequate for our purposes, but they deny that this picture maps onto "Ďthe way the world really is.í"

Now as with skepticism, anti-realism comes in different varieties. Some are anti-realists about color and heat, others might be anti-realist about the fundamental particles that physics proposes (quarks, etc.), others might be anti-realists about the existence of a material world, others might be anti-realists about anything "non-scientific," and, increasingly commonly, some are anti-realists about "everything." It is not hard to see how an anti-realism with broad scope might undercut the project of apologetics. If one were an anti-realist with respect to religious matters, or with respect to everything (the view that is characteristic of most species of so-called "postmodern" philosophy), then apologetics would be tantamount to arguing with someone about whether or not the water in the swimming pool really felt cold or not. For some it will feel cold (those who just jumped out of the spa, for example), whereas for others, it really does feel warm. Each view is right and "works" for those situated in that way.

Handling the Bogeymen: A Christian reflection

What then should the Christian say about these three challenges to the project of apologetics? Most Christians, upon considering the threat posed here are tempted simply to dismiss all three challenges. If we deny Skepticism, Relativism, and Anti-realism, then there is no foe to worry about. But this would be a mistake. While certain forms of these positions might undermine attempts to defend the Christian faith, this is no cause to reject them entirely. So letís take a more careful look at these three positions, finding what we can in them that a Christian an agree with.

On Skepticism

Letís begin with skepticism. Above I noted that skepticism comes in a variety of flavors. Some are mitigated skeptics, others global skeptics. As everyone knows, the most global form of skepticism, the one that says "doubt everything," is incoherent. The reason it is incoherent is that it is self-refuting: believing in it would require that you not believe in it, and that is an impossible trick to pull of! So, coherent global skeptics instead argue that our mental faculties are so weak or their resources so limited, etc. that the best we can do is to withhold judgment on all of our beliefs except those few that explain how beliefs should be governed. Seen in this way, the difference between global skepticism and mitigated skepticism is merely one of degree. Mitigated skeptics might carve out certain areas of knowledge as beyond our grasp, global skeptics might argue that all areas are beyond our reach.

But it is worth noting to start out that Christians themselves are obliged to be skeptics in certain respects. That is, like the mitigated skeptic, we too think that there are facts about reality which are simply beyond the grasp of our finite intellectual powers. Scripture itself tells us that "Godís ways are not our ways" and that "His thoughts are not our thoughts." Most Christians take this to mean that there are some things known to the mind of God that just are not knowable to us (notice, I did not say there are some things known to God which are not known to us; rather, the claim is that there are some things that are known to God that are not knowable to us). The nature of the Trinity or the way in which God brings about creation out of nothing might be two things which are simply beyond our comprehension. But it might turn out that even much more mundane things are beyond the grasp of the human mind. For example, we might think that the ultimate make-up of physical reality is beyond our grasp.

But if we are going to count a certain area of inquiry as beyond our grasp, we need to have some good reason for doing so. So, the person who is skeptical about our ability to discover the ultimate make-up of physical reality might be skeptical about such matters because they think that such knowledge could only come, say, from building particle accelerators that are bigger than any that we can build. When it comes to the topics discussed in this book, then, the obvious question to ask is: does the skeptic have any good reason for thinking the sorts of things discussed under the heading of apologetics are beyond our grasp? While any answer to this question would be controversial, I think we can safelyanswer "no." Without a doubt, there are some philosophers who think that we must be skeptical about the things discussed in apologetics. But their reasons for thinking so are not at all widely accepted. I will discuss some of these below, since some think that relativism and anti-realism themselves are good reasons to be skeptical when it comes to matters of religion. But aside from these, I think that the skeptical challenges raised as a challenge to the project of apologetics are not compelling.

But if the sorts of things discussed in this book are not beyond our grasp, and if we have arguments to offer in favor of the Christian perspective on them, then, if the arguments really are good ones, we should be able to win the unbeliever over to our side, right? Not exactly. And it is a question like this that leads us straight to the heart of the issues raised by relativism and anti-realism.

On Relativism and Anti-Realism

When someone who is not a Christian comes to you and asks you why you believe in the Christian faith, what do you say to them? The answers Christian have given me when I have asked them this question vary widely. Some say things such as "I believe in Jesus because he changed my life" or "I believe in God because I have felt the power of His presence in prayer or in the Word." There are, to my mind, perfectly satisfactory answers. But they donít really answer the question that the unbeliever meant to ask: why should I believe the things that you believe about the Christian faith? Why should I think that the Christian story or the Christian world view is true? This is a harder question to answer because while it might be true that I believe in God because I have experienced him working in my life, the unbeliever has no such experience to draw on. So, why should they believe?

"Sledgehammer apologetics" and its discontents

The official line taken by most Christian apologists is this: they should believe because it turns out that certain claims they accept entail distinctive parts of the Christian world view. For example, the official line says, the unbeliever thinks that order does not arise out of chance but instead occurs by design. In addition, the unbeliever thinks that the universe exhibits a significant amount of order. Thus, they are obliged to think that the universe arose not out of chance but by design. And, the official line continues, we can continue this exercise for other distinctive areas of the Christian world view. In this way, we show the unbeliever that they are rationally compelled to believe in the central features of the Christian view and that failure to do so leaves them irrational in this respect.

This is what one might call "sledgehammer apologetics." The sledgehammer apologist thinks that apologetic arguments deliver the intellectual equivalent of knockout punches by making it impossible for the unbeliever to rationally continue in their unbelief. But there is a serious problem with sledgehammer apologetics. Let me explain what it is by way of an example.

Consider Fred, a city apartment dweller who returns home from work one day to find his window smashed and his television missing. Fred takes note of these facts and asks himself what the explanation for the facts is. He thinks that it is likely that he was robbed. But, unsure, he invites over two of his friends, Charity and Kirk, to help him figure out what has happened. Charity is a warm, kind person who thinks that other people in the world are essentially warm and kind as well. Whenever something bad happens, she always prefers to think that the parties involved had good motives driving their behaviors. Kirk is an odd character. Having spent his childhood buried in science fiction comic books and now hooked on the series the X-Files, he often favors fantastic and otherworldly explanations for things.

Charity looks over the situation and says this: "It is clear to me what has happened here, Fred. Some kids were playing with a ball and accidentally threw it through your window. They must have then climbed in and removed the ball. Then your neighbor, seeing the broken window, climbed in and removed your tv in order to keep it safe until you returned."

Kirk, on the other hand, draws a quite different conclusion. He looks over the scene nervously and says, "Oh no. Oh no. Thatís not what happened! I have seen this sort of thing before! I have heard that every once in a while, monitors on alien spaceships need to be replaced. Rather than going back to their home planet, the aliens swoop in on a nearby planet with an advanced society and beam up working television sets. When they do this the tractor beam can create a great deal of heat which causes the air in the room to expand and BOOM!, the windows in the room where the television is located shatter. Thatís whatís going on here. Yep. I am sure of it."

Fred considers these explanations and asks himself what to make of them. What is most reasonable to believe here? Is it more reasonable to believe the crook story, the neighbor story, or the alien story? Notice that each theory gives an explanation for all the facts. Fred decides that he needs to collect more evidence in order to sort through the explanations, and so he begins with a visit to his neighbor. He knocks on the door and politely asks the neighbor if he knows anything about the broken window. The neighbor shrugs his shoulder and offers no help. "Well," Fred says to Charity, "so much for your 'friendly neighbor' theory."

"Not so fast," Charity replies. "This doesnít necessarily refute my explanation. I stick by my original theory, and I think I have an explanation for what just happened here. The explanation is this: your neighbor believes that an impostor would be coming to his door trying to get hold of the television that he is protecting. When you knocked, he believed that you were the impostor and so he denied having the television set."

Fred has provided evidence that seemed to refute Charityís hypothesis. But Charity revised her view so that it now accommodates that new evidence. She could have simply caved in and given up on her theory altogether. But maybe, as far as she is concerned, the next best theory to herís is Fredís, and she is very reluctant to accept any theory which includes people doing bad things (like being crooks).

And we could perform the same exercise in Kirkís case. If a check at the local airport revealed no UFOís on the radar screens that day, Kirk might conveniently reply: "Whatís the matter with you; donít you know that aliens have the most sophisticated radar jamming equipment available!"

In both cases, new evidence which seems to count against a theory is instead incorporated into the theory. And the lesson we learn here can be generalized: no matter how much further data we gather, we can never decisively refute any theory. Philosophers sometimes call this issue "the underdetermination of theory by data." That is a fancy way of saying that any given set of data admits of a large variety of explanations. And that no amount of data can decisively select for one theory or explanation over all of the competitors.

A lesson for Christian apologetics

But what does all of this have to do with apologetics? Earlier I said that the standard line on apologetics holds that the Christian can show the unbeliever that certain beliefs the unbeliever holds entails the truth of certain features of Christianity. So, using the example I employed earlier, one might try to show the unbeliever that her belief that order requires a designer should lead her to believe in a cosmic designer. But the problem for the Christian in this case is the same as the problem for Fred. As soon as the Christian makes the argument for his order-explaining "theory" the atheist can always add some other feature to her own view which accommodates the new bit of evidence or argument. So if the Christian says:

1) Order arises from design, not chance

2) The universe is ordered

3) Thus, the universe arises by design, not chance

The atheist, upon recognizing the consequences of the two beliefs she holds (1 and 2), can either retain those beliefs and accept the conclusion, or backtrack and deny one of the beliefs. She might say, "Well, I used to think that order arises from design, but I now think that while order rarely arises by chance, it does sometimes happen, and that the order in the universe represents one of those rare occurrences."

Most theists would look at this as an unreasonable attempt to patch up a sinking ship. But it might not be all that bad. Consider a case in which the believer is put on the defensive by the unbeliever. Now the atheist goes on the attack and tells the Christian that he cannot possibly believe that God exists in light of all the evil in the universe. She argues:

1) If God existed, there would be no evil except those that were necessary for bringing about greater goods or preventing lesser evils.

2) But there are evil which donít bring about any greater good or prevent a lesser evil.

3) So, God does not exist.

The Christian will likely deny premise 2. But when it comes to giving an explanation for why this or that specific evil actually occurred, the Christian will usually be at a loss to do so. Still, the Christian will say: "I know there is some reason, I just canít say what it is." And canít the atheist look at this as just as much an attempt to patch up a sinking ship as their response to the design argument?

One lesson to be learned from this is just that there is no seldgehammer apologetics. There are no arguments for the truth of Christianity which force the atheist or non-Christian to their intellectual knees. The unbeliever can always backtrack and give up some other belief instead.

But if someone can always backtrack and patch up their world view to accommodate any sort of evidence or argument whatsoever, then it looks like the project of apologetics is, in the end, unrealistic. If no argument or bit of evidence can rationally persuade someone to change their views, then what is the point of trying to do so? These are good questions, and they take us back to our discussion of the other two bogeymen: relativism and anti-realism. One might think that what I have just shown here is that world views, like ice cream flavor preferences, are subjective. What beliefs I choose to preserve and give up in the face of arguments and evidence is determined more by which beliefs I want to retain than it is by the evidence. So, why bother to offer any evidence at all? Doesnít all of this just show that people will believe what they want to believe and that arguments will never change anyoneís mind?

What Christian apologetics can do

Not exactly. To see why, letís go back to the case of Charity above. Letís say that after Charity tries to explain the neighborís behavior, Fred goes back to the neighborís house with her and searches it from top to bottom. "Now," says Fred, "will you agree that the neighbor did not take the set?" Again, Charity can backtrack and say that the neighbor has surely moved the tv to a secure location outside the house. But after a couple of rounds of such maneuvering, even Charity will begin to feel that her theory is getting too cumbersome to sustain. When we are forced to add so many twists and turns to maintain the theory, we start to see it as less and less plausible. The now-cumbersome theory might still account for all the data. But the accounting begins to look so forced and ungainly, that even Charity has a hard time continuing to believe it. And so, eventually, she gives up and admits that her hypothesis is not a good one. Why does she makes such an admission? Is it because her theory no longer explains all the evidence? No. The theory still accounts for all the evidence, but it does so in an unsatisfactory or unsavory way. And thus, after a time, she begins to think that there must just be a better way to keep intellectual order.

When we offer the unbeliever arguments for the Christian faith, we are trying to do for them what Fred tries to do for Charity in the above example. We canít sledgehammer unbelievers into belief. At best, we can show them how the beliefs that they hold, or that they ought to hold, lead to or support the Christian view. They can continue to backtrack and re-adjust to avoid these conclusions. And so the best we can hope for is to show them that their world view, like Charityís view in the tv case, becomes so ungainly and cumbersome in accounting for things, that it is more reasonable to give a different intellectual accounting of the world.

This is one half of the apologistís task. We can call it the project of "positive apologetics." That is, this is the project of trying to point out the uncomfortable fit unbelievers experience in their belief structure, a belief structure which includes the denial of Christianity. This is the sort of approach that is found in the chapters in this book on theistic arguments, fine-tuning, ethics, religious pluralism, etc. But there is another half to the apologistís task. This other half amounts to an attempt to resolve the uncomfortable fit that unbelievers claim exist within the Christian view. Just as Fred points out the troubling evidence to Charity, Charity might produce some troubling data for Fred. She might point out, for example, that there is a very low crime rate in Fredís neighborhood, or that his burglar alarm never sounded. And Fred, in maintaining his view must explain how it is that his view can accommodate these difficulties. Likewise the Christian is obliged to be able to give some explanation to the unbeliever of how puzzling and paradoxical features of the Christian faith can be understood and reasonably maintained. We can call this the project of "negative apologetics" (the rebuffing of attacks) and this is the task we will undertake, for example, the chapters on the problem of evil, the Trinity and the Incarnation, and heaven and hell. It is in these corners of our own world view that we feel pressures, and so we must we concentrate some of our efforts in trying to ease those pressures.

What is right about relativism and anti-realism

Notice then, that the Christian apologist is obliged to acknowledge some measure of relativism and anti-realism in the apologetic project. Why? If for no other reason than because we are forced to recognize that there is more than one world view that can fully and completely accommodate the facts. Charity values explanations that maintain the goodness of people, Kirk values explanations that keep central the activity of extra-terrestrials. Both of these are adequate explanatory frameworks. One might prefer one sort of framework to another. But which framework one adopts is not a matter that can be settled by the data or the facts alone (just as which theory one adopts about the missing tv isnít settled by the facts alone). So, we might be relativists about "frameworks." This doesnít mean, though, that we will be relativists about "the facts" (or at least some facts). One can think that different frameworks can all agree on a wide range of facts, and admit that these facts are objective: that there are TVís, that one is missing, that burglars exist, that balls can break windows, that rapid expansions of air in a room could break windows, and so on. But one might be a relativist about what the "best way" to explain the facts is.

One thing that the Christian cannot accept however, is that the facts themselves are relative. The claim that God exists is either true or it is not. Itís truth does not depend on the person asserting it in the way in which the claim "Vanilla tastes better than chocolate" does. My undergraduate students are almost without exception utterly confused about this point. They will often say, "You think that God exists, I donít. It all just depends on what you believe." To this I reply, "Well, I am not sure what you mean by ĎIt all just depends on what you believe.í No doubt, we believe different things. But there is also no doubt that one of us is wrong. Either there is a being that is God or there isnít. If there is, I am right. If there is not, you are right. Now figuring out the right answer to our question might be very hard to do. But that doesnít mean there is no right answer. It just means that the answer will be hard to find."

Thus relativism has a certain place in Christian apologetics. We need to be aware of the fact that which world view one selects depends on the assumptions they make in inferring to the best explanation. And which assumptions one adopts are sometimes a matter of mere preference. This is why people are able to "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Stubborn refusal to rightly understand the truths that God has made clear to us in creation (Romans 1) is something we are fully capable of because we can continue, like Charity and Kirk, to stubbornly refuse to see things "as they are." But let me be clear about one thing here. What is relative is only the perceived "bestness" of a theoretical explanation. "Which world view is best," we might ask, "Christian theism or atheism?" The Christian and the atheist will likely give us different answers to this questions, just as Fred and Charity are likely to give us different answers to the question, "Which explanation is better, the Ďrobbery theoryí or the Ďneighbor theoryí?" Given what each thinks a "good explanation" looks like, they will each favor their own theory because, given the beliefs that each wants to preserve, their own theory is the best for them. That is, for each of them, their own theory best satisfies the conditions for what a good theory looks like. But this does not mean that none of them is wrong in the end. Even if the "bestness" of the explanation is relative, we need not think that the "truth" is. Which explanation is preferable depends on certain facts about the person doing the explaining, which one is true does not.

Likewise, it seems that anti-realism also has a place in Christian apologetics. Without a doubt, there are certain forms of anti-realism that the Christian is obliged to reject. The most extreme versions of contemporary postmodernism which say that, at rock bottom, the only reality that there is, is reality constructed by our minds, is a view that must be rejected out of hand. There is just no good reason to find this sort of anti-realism compelling and, what is worse, the view borders on the incoherent. (If you donít see this, consider for a moment what it would mean to say that there is no reality at all except that which the mind constructs. Does this mean that there are no minds unless there are minds around to construct them? One wonders how these non-existent minds pull off the task of constructing themselves!)

Furthermore, the Christian is obliged to reject the sort of theological anti-realism that would require us to think of the resurrection story or the creation story as "mere stories," that is, merely provocative ways of thinking about the past that donít describe how the past really went. This doesn't mean that the Christian must reject all forms of theological anti-realism, however. To take one simple example, consider the responses that Christians give to the problem of evil. When the Christian is challenged to explain why it is that God allows evil, the humble truth is: we donít know. We may know the reason that God allowed some evils (such as the death of His Son). But it would be absurd to think that we do or even could know the reason that God allows all of the variety of evil that the world contains. Nonetheless, we might offer some suggestions or models which we think show how it might be that an all-good God allows evils of the sort that we see in the world. Likewise, when we discuss the Trinity, we might not know how it is that there can be a single being with divine nature which is yet composed of three persons. Still, we might be able to offer coherent models as to how this might be understood. If it turns out that our models are wrong, so be it. But at least we can offer a model to the critic which shows that the whole notion isnít incoherent, since there is at least one way that it could be worked out (and, of course, there might be other ways as well). And so, when one reads the chapters on evil or on the Trinity and the Incarnation, one might think of them not as attempts to explain how it is, but as attempts to provide useful models that we can help us get an intellectual grip on how things might be. In this way, we can be anti-realist about these explanations for evil or the Trinity. They provide good models for thinking about the Christian faith, even if the models themselves turn out to be incorrect.

Notice that we need to make a distinction here that is similar to the one made before. We can be anti-realist about our models, but not anti-realist about that which our models are trying to explain. Even if I fail to construct a model to make coherent sense of the Trinity, the Christian is still obliged to stand by the objective truth of the claim that God is three-persons-while-yet-one-nature.


This then is the aim of the apologetic task we are undertaking. Some of us are aiming to do positive apologetics, that is, we are aiming to show that certain things that the unbeliever thinks make a very uncomfortable fit with her atheism or disbelief in Christianity. In doing this we will try to take a look at the most recent resources that Christian philosophy offers us for sizing up and criticizing the various world views of the unbeliever. Can the unbeliever evade these arguments? Yes. But they nonetheless raise troubles that the unbeliever will have to accommodate, and usually the accommodation will make for a more or less uncomfortable fit.

Others will be engaged in negative apologetics. For the most part, doing this will mean providing models that attempt to make sense of the deep, puzzling, and seemingly paradoxical components of the faith. Again, much has gone on in recent years in Christian philosophy that helps us to construct effective models and we will try, in these pages, to make these new and innovative ideas clear and engaging. Our hope is that all of this will not only help you answer questions that unbelievers might raise when you are discussing your faith, but that it will help you to develop a richer appreciation for the glory of God and His creation and that this in turn will lead you to deeper, more intimate relationship with Him.