Christian Apologetics Already Ceding Ground to Secularism

by Dec 22, 2014Mission, Theology2 comments

Screen Shot 2014-11-28 at 12.52.06 AMI’m really enjoying James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith is a guide to Protestants who want some help from Taylor’s massive A Secular Age but who don’t have the gumption to wade through it all. And I just keep highlighting and highlighting. It’s really trenchant stuff.

As someone who finds presuppositionalism extremely useful (By Faith We Understand), I’m accustomed to the idea that Christian apologists may concede their debates before uttering a word, simply by agreeing to the just-the-facts-ma’am terms of their opponents. I won’t agree to those terms—but not because the facts are on the non-Christian’s side! Instead I say that there are no “facts” of the sort Christianity’s cultured despisers often demand: uninterpreted facts, facts sans worldview, facts without presuppositions attached.

But Taylor has picked up on another, related way that Christian apologists can cede debate to non-Christians. (Taylor, who seems to be quite the coiner of memorable phrases, calls a Christianity which does this ceding “pre-shrunk religion.”) It can accept the “immanentization” which, to use Francis Schaeffer’s language, removes the “upper story” from human thinking and forces everything into (back to Taylor’s language) the “immanent frame.” The cosmos—a reality ordered from outside it—becomes the universe—a self-contained system of material cause and effect. Here’s Smith with quotes from Taylor:

There is…an important epistemological concession already at work in apologetic responses to immanentization. This mode of “Christian” apologetics bought into the spectatorish “world picture” of the new modern order. Rather than seeing ourselves positioned within a hierarchy of forms (in which case we wouldn’t be surprised if “higher levels” are mysterious and inscrutable), we now adopt a God-like, dispassionate “gaze” that deigns to survey the whole. In this mode, the universe appears “as a system before our gaze, whereby we can grasp the whole in a kind of tableau” (p. 232). And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a “disengaged stance,” that the project of theodicy ramps up; thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable. But this apologetic project — particularly with respect to the “problem” of evil — is taken up in a way that is completely consistent with the “buffered self.”*….

While earlier the terrors and burdens of evil and disaster would have cast us upon the help of a Savior, “now that we think we see how it all works, the argument gets displaced. People in coffee-houses and salons [and philosophy classes?] begin to express their disaffection in reflections on divine justice, and the theologians begin to feel that this is the challenge they must meet to fight back the coming wave of unbelief. The burning concern with theodicy is enframed by the new imagined epistemic predicament” (p. 233).

I’m not ready to say that theodicies are worthless. I am ready to say that they can be counterproductive—if indeed they cede the debate to the non-Christian. For my lost neighbor’s own good, I may maintain humble confidence in God’s goodness and power without being able to explain individual evils in the world.

*Taylor’s idea of the “buffered self” is basically a description of the modern man, who can retreat to a place in his mind which is safe both from God and the devil. The premodern (Western) self was “porous,” meaning that people assumed that both grace and evil could access them from the outside world.

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  1. bethyada

    I agree that the we mustn’t be presumptuous. Though having tried to have this debate with another I can see how hard it is for others not to realise that their “objectivity” is really them standing as judge pretending that they are a dispassionate observer.

    Nevertheless, “God has higher ways”, while true, can leave out what he has told us. I think theodicy can be done a lot better if we don’t concede other (non-theist) “facts.” Some (theist) facts: humans facilitated (? conceded to) evil’s entrance into this world. Further, if God were to end evil right now (he will sometime) then we have no further opportunity for redemption.

    That is a lot for starters. I would add more that you may not agree with (such as love necessitates freedom), but the above (when worked out fully) is the beginnings of a very strong theodicy.

  2. Mark Ward

    Helpful thoughts, definitely. I don’t mean at all to say that apologetics are not necessary (I’m writing a book of apologetics right now) or, as I said in the post, that theodicy itself is worthless. Seems to me that you gave the Bible’s main theodicy: humans are the reasons evil came into the world, and God is patient with us to give us time to repent.

    I indeed can’t agree that love necessitates freedom, because at the places where the Bible might be expected to use that argument, that’s not what we get. But your other thoughts are great.


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