David Foster Wallace begins his commencement speech with the following parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'” DFW’s point is that the most obvious and important realities are often the most difficult to see. That is true and applies here, but there is another point we can draw that can help us reflect on the role of apologetics. The parable has the older fish fail to understand the situation and particular life experiences that the two younger fish bring to the conversation.
A woman recently told me why she does not believe in God. It turns out that she recently lost her son in a freak accident. Her son passed quickly and painlessly, but he still passed.
The Usual Process
Because here is what ends up happening all too often when people study apologetics. You read a couple neat arguments that you happen to think are pretty good and should persuade reasonable nonbelievers. You might even sit around and discuss the various strengths and weaknesses of the various theistic arguments. Along the way, you read a bit on responses to common atheistic arguments. You come to think that these arguments are not particularly good, all of which makes you think that you hold the keys to enlightenment for those who are blinded by bad reasoning.
The next step is to memorize the structure of some of the theistic arguments. You store the premises, the rules of inference, and the meaning of the key terms. You commit to memory the top five best and worst objections, bearing in mind that these will come up. With respect to the atheistic arguments, you memorize some of the best and most concise replies. You might even remember the name of Plantinga, the publication date of The Nature of Necessity, and, if you are really on top of things, a quote from an atheist saying that the logical problem of evil is dead. After all, the logical problem of evil is all too common amongst the less informed people we will be talking to, so we need to keep all of these relevant facts in mind.
The woman was a Christian all her life. She grew up in the church and said she was strong and consistent in the faith. She raised her son to be a Christian and as such he died, but now she was no longer one.
Then the opportunity to shine comes. You get in a discussion with someone on the existence of God or the truth of Christianity or whatever. Maybe the discussion is even on Facebook with someone you are friends with, so this naturally increases your chances of showing others just how informed and smart you are.
What Happens Next
What happens next is that you have a conversation that shows zero signs of being a human conversation. For all an outsider knows, the conversation could have been preprogrammed. He mentions the logical problem of evil. Response: brief outline of Plantinga’s defense, name drop of his book and its publication date, and citation of atheists who think the problem is dead. He gives bad objection 2. Response: bad objection 2 fails and here’s why; insert rhetoric about how philosophers don’t accept the logical problem. So it goes.
She was hurting. Her son passed less than a month ago. His body was pulsing with life only 30 days ago. She had heard his voice, was assaulted by his raucous laugh, and participated in his joy so recently. And now he was gone. Forever.
And somehow in a weird twist of logic the person you were discussing religion with becomes more enamored with his atheism. He becomes more entrenched in his views. He takes it as further proof that theism is intellectually vacuous and that theists have no good responses to the best and most simple of arguments. All of this leaves you dumbfounded. You completely demolished their argument. They had no good defense of their views. You even mentioned the philosophical consensus that the argument is a bad one.
So further alienation ensues which means that later conversations with nonbelievers will be further detached from human reality thereby exacerbating the whole cycle, etc. etc. until you are completely burnt out on the whole charade. So what happens is the charade changes from one of feigned human conversation into one of discussing just to show superiority, which is seen by the fact that these conversations somehow increasingly happen in public places because the charade is now one of showing how superior you are and you can’t do this unless you have an audience.
So she didn’t believe anymore. As she explains, I smirk because the reply is obvious. “Well, while you were a Christian you thought the death of a great many children was compatible with God’s existence. Your child is no different or somehow special compared to these other children. Therefore, to be consistent, you should see your child’s death as compatible with God’s existence too. Any other conclusion is just completely irrational.”
A Dangerous Apologetic
So what went wrong? Why did things turn out this way? Is this how all endeavors in apologetics must turn out? I don’t think so. But what went wrong is that we forgot we are talking to human beings. We turned the people we are talking to into people to be argued with instead of people to be loved (Matt 22:37-40). Because here’s a secret that will help you the most in learning the proper place of apologetics: most (if not all) of the people you will encounter don’t need an argument. They might think they need an argument and so sometimes maybe you should give them one, but an argument is really not what they are looking for. I can’t tell you what they are looking for because it is going to be different from person to person. That’s where the fun and messy work of actually talking to and loving people comes in. Because unless you actually love the person you are talking to, you will never figure out what they really need.
As soon as my rejoinder ended, she started weeping. I figured it was because of how airtight the logic was. Thanks to me, she was confronting her own irrationality. Later that night I read the following, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” This woman did not refuse to be comforted, but that’s because I never offered.