Concerning Pope Francis: “He knows that the way faith is presented makes a difference: people are rarely argued into the church, but they are often loved into it.”
-John M. Buchanan (“Pastor as Pope,” The Christian Century; October 30, 2013)*
Boy, this one’s not going to make me any friends, but it is precisely the concept above that strikes at the very heart of why I am not a fan of apologetics. There, I said it.
Perhaps it boils down to how the venture of apologetics has been practiced and presented over the years. Take, for instance, the early church apologists. I sort of understand why they did what they did, wrote what they wrote, and at times felt the need to stridently defend the relatively young Christian faith and Church. Up until Emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal, the Christian Church largely existed in a pre-Christian (or at least a pre-Christendom) era. Theologians, monks, priests, bishops, and all of the other early Church Mothers and Fathers were arguing for and defending the Church largely to distinguish Christianity from the multitude of other religions and religious practices found throughout the Roman Empire. (NOTE: Ployd, I apologize if this is too simplistic a description).
The practice of convincing a person that their beliefs and/or religious convictions are wrong, and subsequently attempting to convince that person that your particular flavor of Christianity is right misses the whole point of what the earliest of Christian apologists were trying to accomplish. There was no Question, no “Do you know where you’re eternal soul will end up if you die today?” followed by a string of arguments and proofs for God’s existence, all finally wrapped up with a sinner’s prayer at the end…like a nice neat little bow, perfectly packaged to convert the heathen masses. Joining the Church, so to speak, was actually a very lengthy and difficult process. After a period of at least a year, you were brought into the body of Christ, Baptism being the sacrament signifying your incorporation into the life and community of the Church. This marked the beginning of your journey, not the end.
I say all of this to point out that the world of ancient Christianity, the world of the early Church was far different than our world. The unique theological issues and socio-historical milieu that early Christians dealt with and operated within were just that…they were unique. We are not them. We will never be them. We would be foolish to ever think that their experiences are the same as our experiences, even in light of our strange fascination with dredging up and re-igniting some of those old debates.
So, in what is now described as a largely Christianized (in some form or fashion and similar to the idea of the Hellenized world) and postmodern world, what are we defending Christianity against? Itself? Each other? Because honestly, whose brand of Christianity is the right and true manifestation of the Church? Who gets to claim the designation “Arbiter of the Christian faith?” Realistically, not only do we live in a multicultural and pluralistic world, but if you’re a Christian you are part of a pluralistic religion, at least as it concerns practices, rites, rules, sacraments, a vast number of theological concepts, and well, I guess the list really goes on and on. This is okay. I repeat, THIS IS OKAY. It’s nothing to lose any sleep over.
What concerns me, however, are Christians who subscribe to a form of apologetics that I have found to be rampant in the Western Christian Church (i.e. the United States), particularly within many Protestant churches. In tapping into Pope Francis’ way of presenting the Christian faith, John Buchanan puts into words what I have for so long struggled to say. Why must we feel the need to argue Christianity into someone’s life? Really, why do we feel that we must argue at all about something that is really not arguable? There are NO legitimate proofs for God, no proofs that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God, no proofs that the Holy Trinity desires salvation and reconciliation for all. We know these things not because of well-argued proofs and scientific data. We know them because we have faith, which requires a leap into the unknown and the never fully knowable. And are we so arrogant to think that we are the agents of faith and conversion? Really? It’s not about us. It’s about God, and I’m pretty sure God does not want us going around beating faith into people with, at best, tenuous arguments.
And so we come to Pope Francis, or rather, we come to the title of this post: it’s all about delivery. It’s all about love. As Buchanan states of Pope Francis’ method of sharing and showing his faith, people are more often loved into the church, not argued into it. Ironically, or interestingly (or both), this concept brings to mind a saying by Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who was noted to have said (roughly quoted), “Preach the gospel in all places, and if you must, use words.” Ultimately, how are we, as Christians showing others love, particularly God’s love? How are we loving them into the church, into a more open understanding of faith in God, into the embrace of a God whose love and grace knows no bounds? Maybe the question should be: Are we doing that? Are we loving others into the church, to God? If not, perhaps we need to change our delivery.
Ideally, and in my opinion, apologetics (or at least the argumentative and coercive kind that I have commonly run into) should be a needless venture, a dead idea. How we live and love and respectfully interact with each other should be “apologetic” enough. May we learn to do just that. May we love others into the Church. May they know we are Christians by our love, our actions, the gospel preached both with and without words. For this I hope. For this I pray…for all those who bear the name Christian, most especially me. Lord, in your mercy, hear this prayer.
*Buchanan, John M. "Pastor as Pope," The Christian Century. October 30, 2013; page 7.