#4- Myron Penner on The End of Apologetics [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: This episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast focuses on the topic of apologetics, or defending the faith. I’m joined today by Myron Penner. He’s an Anglican priest from Canada. We’ll be discussing his new book called The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. In the book Penner describes various problems he sees with certain modern apologetic methods, but they might not be what you expect. He writes, “Our passion for the truth is connected as much to the form our witness takes as it is to the content of that to which we witness.”
Excerpts like that reminded me of an October 2008 Conference address by Elder Robert D. Hales. So before we get to Dr. Penner I’ll have you listen to this excerpt from Elder Hales’ address, “Christian Courage.”
CLIP: Robert D Hales, October General Conference (2008) Recently a group of bright, faithful young Latter-day Saints wrote down some of the most pressing questions on their minds. One sister asked, “Why doesn’t the Church defend itself more actively when accusations are made against it?”
To her inquiry I would say that one of mortality’s great tests comes when our beliefs are questioned or criticized. In such moments, we may want to respond aggressively—to put up our dukes. But these are important opportunities to step back, pray, and follow the Savior’s example. Remember that Jesus Himself was despised and rejected by the world. And in Lehi’s dream, those coming to the Savior also endured mocking and pointing fingers. But when we respond to our accusers as the Savior did, we not only become more Christ like, we invite others to feel His love and follow Him as well.
To respond in a Christ like way cannot be scripted or based on a formula. The Savior responded differently in every situation. When He was confronted by wicked King Herod, He remained silent. When He stood before Pilate, He bore a simple and powerful testimony of His divinity and purpose. Facing the moneychangers who were defiling the temple, He exercised His divine responsibility to preserve and protect that which was sacred. Lifted up upon a cross, He uttered the incomparable Christian response: Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
Some people mistakenly think responses such as silence, meekness, forgiveness, and bearing humble testimony are passive or weak. But to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them which despitefully use us, and persecute us takes faith, strength, and, most of all, Christian courage.
BLAIR HODGES: Alright, today I’m joined by Myron Bradley Penner. I think we should start off, Myron, if you’ll tell the listeners a little bit about yourself. I think that’s a good way to begin.
MYRON PENNER: Sure. I’m a Canadian. I’m an ordained Anglican priest who is currently working in a non-denominational church down in Bolivia. I’m from Canada. I grew up in a conservative Evangelical background. So that’s generally who I am. Is there more you’d like to hear?
HODGES: Yes. So when did you decide to become an Anglican priest?
PENNER: That’s a good question. Because I don’t really remember deciding it. I remember it kind of being decided, but I don’t remember making the active choice. My wife and I started going to an Anglican church when we were in Scotland and I was doing post-graduate work over there, just because we were looking for a church and this one was one that we connected with. It was foreign to both of our backgrounds. She’s Baptist. I would describe my background as sort of generic Evangelical Bible-believing community church type background. So we were there. We couldn’t find a church, so we started going to this because we met some nice people there. Over time we kind of developed I guess a love for the liturgy and an appreciation for it and started going to the church on a regular basis.
Then when we ended up back in Canada we started going to an Anglican church and as that happened it came up that I had a PhD from a divinity school and then they wanted me to be a lay-preacher, and it just kind of went from there. I didn’t want to be a lay-preacher; I should say it first. I was opposed to that until it was pointed out to me that that’s probably not a good thing for someone in my position to oppose. Then I said, “I’ll be open to it if that’s what God is trying to tell you I should be doing.” They said, “Yeah, that’s what we think.” So anyway. It kind of happened by degrees. Pretty soon we didn’t have a pastor at all and I was doing services and that led to conversations, mostly by others, about my ordination as a solution to a problem and I guess at every stage I was willing to go along with it so that’s kind of how it happened.
HODGES: Yes. So it was sort of like a call for you then. You felt called to do this.
PENNER: Oh definitely.
HODGES: It seems like, the little that I know of your ministry, it seems like you have also a pretty healthy emphasis on social justice issues. Is that right?
PENNER: Yes. That’s really important to me. I think largely because my understanding of the gospel that was given to me growing up, at least the one that I understood so I won’t cast any stones, was that the gospel was primarily about us changing our minds about something and dealing with a sin problem that I had. So I had to deal with my sin problem. It’s not that that’s not part of the gospel, but what it ends up being is a gospel that’s just about words that are said.
I can still remember at one point formulating the thought in my mind that if the gospel was really about the things that I thought it was about, God could have done a much better job if he’d just sort of sent a giant billboard and put it in the sky than sending his Son. I realized that was really problematic and I needed to rethink that. That’s when I really began to think through concretely, and I mean in terms of how I actually lived and thought together, what it meant for the gospel to be incarnated. So to use the sort of category that’s often used, the gospel comes to us as word and deed. So the social justice component to me is extremely important because I think of the gospel as something that is packaged in, first and foremost, in our practices, not just our words.
HODGES: It sounds like you’ve traveled to different places in the world too, right? As part of this ministry. Is that related to that?
PENNER: Yes, definitely. I worked in east Africa, mostly in Nairobi and Uganda doing water-cleaning projects for a year and a half. I was on the board of that organization for about a year before that. So yeah. I’ve been around.
HODGES: Another thing about your ministries is your educational background. In Mormonism we have a lay ministry that doesn’t typically focus on a priest who has to receive higher education in order to become a priest. So maybe you can tell the listeners a little bit about your educational background.
PENNER: Right. Sure. Well I have degrees actually from three different countries and different kinds of institutions. I have an associate of arts degree from a Bible college and then I went on to university in Canada, the University of Lethbridge, which is a public university, and did a double major in my undergraduate, phys ed and philosophy. I was going to be a phys ed teacher. What I discovered at university is that there was a place where all the questions I had about myself and my faith and meaning there was a discipline that looked at those called philosophy. Not only was there a place that I could go to sort of search those out, but I actually seemed to have a kind of knack for that.
From there I went on to do an MA in philosophy of religion at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. From there I went on to do a PhD in philosophical theology from New College, the divinity school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
HODGES: Your comment about temperament’s really interesting. I remember reading about C. S. Lewis and he sort of started out in philosophy and then it just wasn’t for him temperamentally. He couldn’t sustain it. He became more into literature, and then through his conversion to Christianity and so forth. But it’s interesting. So you sort of felt naturally inclined toward philosophy in tandem with your theological views.
PENNER: Yeah. I did, but I really did not feel at home in analytic philosophy, which is probably clear if you’ve read the book The End of Apologetics. So I was always having to operate in analytic space, if you will, and according to the categories and methods of analytic philosophy, but all my questions were deeply existential. The very first philosophy course that I took was existentialism in phenomenology and that’s what got me started in philosophy. So then I got into all these other analytic classes and I was like what is this stuff? And I kept constantly trying to pull in all the existential stuff. Fortunately there were two faculty members who were both very capable and interested in those questions so I was able to sort of flourish in that. Then I finally was able to articulate to myself at some point in my graduate philosophy career where this divide that I was spanning and sort of work out what that meant and then how to cope with that.
HODGES: I think that’s actually a really good segue into the book. You’ve recently published a book called The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. This is a book that sort of speaks about contemporary Christian apologetics. It has some bearing on Mormonism but we’ll focus mostly on your arguments in terms of broader Christianity. Let’s start then by talking about the origins book project itself, so the practical things that led you to write this particular book.
PENNER: Sure. You can probably tell from my brief little story about myself that coming out of this background that I had, conservative Evangelical Christian, I think it would not be unfair to say fundamentalist, and quite sectarian. I grew up at a Bible college that was essentially a commune, it started off more out of necessity than in any kind of theological set of values, but started by some farmers in their farms back in the twenties, early twenties, in Alberta. There was nothing around, so people started coming there for Bible teaching and they had to provide for themselves. It grew up into this communal space where they had a farm, they had a pasteurizing plant, they had a carpenter shop, they had all these different things and everybody took care of everybody else. So it was very insular in a lot of ways.
I had a lot of anxiety around issues of faith in myself, and a lot of questions. I remember formulating the question to myself when I was about seventeen years old in grade twelve, thinking, I guess in my mind my eighteenth birthday was coming up and I was going to be “a man” and an adult. I remember really clearly it just striking me, well it’s time for you to decide whether this faith thing is really you or not, because it was absolutely clear to me that I was a Christian and believed what I did because it was the easiest thing to do. I mean if I didn’t it would have been a very hard road. Very hard road. That was difficult. So anyway, I had all these questions. That’s always been part of my spiritual quest, if you will, and along the way in that class that I mentioned, that first philosophy class, I encountered Søren Kierkegaard, and I remember reading him and going, that guy’s got something and I resonate with what he’s talking about.
So I got into Søren Kierkegaard, but at the same time I discovered the world of apologetics and it just seemed so nice, neat, and tidy. Suddenly all of the questions I had I found out, hey, there are people that had answers for these things. They seemed so nice and they all fit together like a nice little puzzle so I started sort of just unraveling that and breaking the puzzle apart and figuring out how it all fit together. At some point I went, “You know what? This is a nice puzzle but I’m not sure it connects to my life in any particular way.” That’s where I went back to Søren Kierkegaard, and along the way I encountered, and I talk about this in the book, I encountered his little phrase written by one of his pseudonyms, Anti-Climacus, whom he describes as a much better Christian than he is. He says that whoever invented Christian apologetics in Christendom is a Judas number two whose betrayal instead of with a kiss is with stupidity.
HODGES: Those are fighting words,
PENNER: Exactly. In a sense this book is my attempt to try and make sense of that.
HODGES: So apologetics in general. I think what will be really useful then is to sort of zoom in on what we mean by that. One thing that you do in the book is you refer to Steven Cowan, I believe that’s how his name is pronounced, do you know?
PENNER: I think that is, yes. I’ve only met him once, but I think that’s how he pronounced his name.
HODGES: Steven Cowan, who outlined five views on apologetics. So I’ll sort of list these out and have you just briefly describe what they are. So there’s first of all the classical method. So what’s the classical method of apologetics?
PENNER: Well the classical method is the one that William Lane Craig likes to use and self-describes as following. In the classical method it’s sometimes called a two-step method. You begin by establishing arguments for the general rationality of belief in a God that is theistic, so a God that is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and personal. Then you move from those general evidences, sometimes called natural theology, to evidences of the specific God of Christian theism, so the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
HODGES: I think that classical method has sort of been absent in Mormonism. Mormons tend to just begin from the proposition that God exists, that sort of thing, so the classical method I don’t think has received a lot of attention in Mormonism. So that’s classical.
The second one is the evidential method.
PENNER: This is a one-step method, and actually my thesis mentor for my MA thesis is a representative of this method. He likes to argue directly for the God of Christian theism, so one of the big, I guess, areas of evidence for this would be things like the resurrection. So you argue straight from the historicity of Jesus Christ’s resurrection to his being God. So it’s a one-step method instead of arguing for a general world view that allows for there to be a God. You just go straight for the goods and say Jesus’s resurrection demonstrates as a piece of evidence that Jesus Christ is a particular kind of God, the God of Christian theism.
HODGES: So the evidence, as far as evidence goes, seems like that would be mostly based on the biblical witness then right? So it’s mostly an evidential case based on written witness?
PENNER: Well that’s not how Gary Habermas would put it. It’s historical evidence, which is evidence. So it would not be treating the sacred texts as sacred, but treating them as evidentiary.
HODGES: Okay. Okay.
PENNER: So they would need corroboration. He’s famous for his minimal facts argument, he calls it. So we go from minimally accepted facts generally agreed upon by scholars of New Testament Jesus studies and so on and argue for the historicity for the resurrection.
HODGES: Okay. Cool. Okay. So the third one is the cumulative case apologetics, cumulative case method.
PENNER: Yeah. The cumulative case is different than the other two because the other two take either, in the first case, in the classical, usually some kind of deductive form of argument, whereas the evidentiary argument, evidential method, is going to argue for sort of an inductive case that says this is the best way to explain the evidence. The cumulative case is going to sort of piece things together more like a patchwork. Sometimes it’s called the, I think Richard Swinburne called it the “ten leaky buckets method” where none of the arguments really holds water, but you put these different things together and they build off each other and say we’re piling up evidence here and cumulatively you’ve gotta account for this stuff.
HODGES: It sort of says this is a superior way of accounting for whatever evidence exists then other—
PENNER: Exactly. It’s looking for overall explanatory power of the evidence, and of the world in general. It says this one has more explanatory power than other alternative ways of accounting for this.
HODGES: Right. Okay. And then the fourth out of five is the presuppositional method. What’s that one?
PENNER: Yeah. This mostly comes out of a conservative Calvinism and the reformed tradition. It actually sounds a little bit like the method that you described that Mormons take when they assume God and then argue. This presupposes that the God of Christianity exists and then works from there sort of deductively, or what they call a transcendental argument to say that nothing else could be explained without that. So we wouldn’t know anything if God doesn’t exist and things like that.
HODGES: So God’s like the first principle, a condition of knowledge. In order to have knowledge some first principles must exist, therefore it is God, sort of thing?
PENNER: Yeah. Exactly.
HODGES: Okay. Then the final one, the fifth one is reformed epistemology method. That’s a nice funny word. What’s this one?
PENNER: That’s obviously Calvinist in its origin as well. It is a little bit like the presuppositional method except it’s much more overtly philosophical and in particular analytic in its philosophy. It comes largely out of the work of Alvin Plantinga, but also his cohort Nicholas Wolterstorff. They sort of pioneered this epistemology in the early 1980s. These guys were highly trained and extremely gifted analytic philosophers who were working in major university philosophy departments and they are very good epistemologists. What they did is they argued that belief in God, and this was coming sort of just past the hay day of verificationism and logical positivism, where when they were in school that’s what they were being taught. That talk about God is cognitively meaningless because it’s non-verifiable and so on and so forth. They started with their Christian, specifically Calvinist, assumptions of saying yes God does exist, how is that not meaningful because it seems to meaningful to a large number of human beings throughout history.
So they formulate an epistemology that says belief in God is rational, even if a given person has no evidence to support that. The way they do that is by looking at the theory of knowledge itself and the basic outline of that is you start by asking what makes something knowledge, and the primary way that’s done and they actually argue that the best way to do it or the only way to do it is in terms of an epistemology that’s foundationless, that there are some beliefs that they accept basically and we do so without evidence but we do so rationally and then from there we build on those beliefs to non-basic beliefs, which are then evidenced and based on those beliefs. And they say belief in God is properly a basic belief.
HODGES: Okay. Now one element that seems to be, that you didn’t mention in all of these descriptions, is the strictly reactive or defensive mode of apologetics. How would that fit in? This is the idea that Christianity is criticized and then those criticisms must be answered. So how would that fit into this overall five point structure?
PENNER: Well there tends to be a distinction in apologetics between negative apologetics and positive apologetics. Negative apologetics is defensive. Reformed epistemology tends to be almost completely negative in its approach because it’s not trying to tell you that atheism is false but that Christianity is rational. Then positive apologetics wants to say this is positively rational and anything else fails rationality so you must believe it. The interesting thing is, as you pointed out, these arguments sort of depend on there being a backdrop against which the questions have to emerge in the first place as to whether or not Christianity is viable. So they all just kind of share that as a common backdrop.
HODGES: Okay. So if you had to sum up, when you talk about the end of apologetics in your book, if you had to sum up sort of the common core of what defines apologetics what would that be?
PENNER: Well apologetics as I’m against it in the book is specifically modern apologetics. By that I mean that the kinds of questions that apologists are responding to are coming out of a worldview that is modern, or modernist if you want to say it that way. So this modernist paradigm, if I can use that word, is one that’s shaped by enlightening epistemology and they demand absolute certainty and are looking at human belief completely in terms of… well the criteria for rationality are those that are operating with a very specific enlightenment understanding of human reason, which is going to be foundational and absolute and disconnected from the kinds of things that are standards in premodern world view would be allowable.
HODGES: Okay. So can you conceive of any sort of technically apologetic approaches that you wouldn’t discourage or something that you could technically call apologetics but that you don’t see as falling under this sort of criticism that we’ll go on to talk about a little bit more as we proceed.
PENNER: Yeah. I mean I’m not against apologetics in its basic form, and that’s sort of answering the question that someone has about whether or not Christianity is intellectually viable or something, which maybe somebody says, “Well it’s absolutely rubbish to say that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” I think a proper response would be, “Why would you say that? That doesn’t seem like rubbish to me.” And then engage in a conversation about why it is that you believe that, and be able to articulately and intelligently say why you think that Jesus rose from the dead. I have no problems with that kind of thing.
HODGES: We’ll get more into that. That’s a good preliminary clarification. I think one of the most important elements of your overall book, The End of Apologetics, is the way that you pay close attention to the cultural context in which Christian faith is being discussed. So you’re arguing that context matters. So the context in which arguments are happening can affect the way that the arguments happen.
So let’s talk a little about the history then. The rise of the enlightenment and rationality and how the rise of what we now call the enlightenment impacted the way that Christians understand their faith. So we’ll talk about the enlightenment and then kind of into this more secular age. Let’s talk briefly about that historical change.
PENNER: Sure. Something happens very distinctly and dramatically in the enlightenment even though it might not necessarily be something everyone notices, but the way we start to understand ourselves and the world shifts dramatically so that even how we think about human reason is something fundamentally different than it was before the enlightenment. Now it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s not like there was a light switch that was flipped on, but I really like how Charles Taylor puts it in his book, A Secular Age, where he says, “Listen, if we go back to the sixteenth century and look at that society, disbelief in God was almost impossible.” At least not in the modern sense of “I have no idea whether or not there is a being greater than myself that exists, or human beings that exist in the universe.” You had to work really hard at trying to not believe in God.
Whereas today the opposite is true. Believing in God might not be impossible, but it certainly is almost counterintuitive. It’s not the thing that you would naturally expect one to believe growing up the way we do in our, as you said, secular age.
HODGES: So how is the modern public sphere conceived of in a secular age?
PENNER: Well that’s the thing. In the move from pre-modernity to modernity there is a concerted effort to shake off the shackles of superstition and tradition and the different forms of authority that come along with a modern world view. This happens across the board in society, and it doesn’t happen the same in every sector in society, but it happens across the board. So in religion, in politics, etc. there is this concerted effort to move away from the inherited forms of authority for belief and practice to ground in this new age of enlightenment our beliefs and practices in, for lack of a better word, human reason. To do so in such a way that they become rational and scientific.
So science sort of replaces tradition and God. The way we view the world has to change completely. In the pre-modern world these things all sort of come together. There is no sort of distinction between public and private and that’s something that one has to create in modernity in order to isolate a sphere that’s neutral and a place where political authority, civil authority, and religious authority can’t sort of contaminate our beliefs or our thought structures.
HODGES: So it’s an age where human reason is privileged to sort of delve in and solve the mysteries, and beliefs should measure up to a certain standard of rationality in order to be acceptable. So it’s this sort of expectations about what truths can be, and if something doesn’t measure up to that standard it’s seen as superstitious or sort of out of bounds and belief in God has increasingly kind of fallen into that category.
PENNER: Yeah. I think it’s really important to emphasize the “to a certain standard” part of what you said because the certain standard is this understanding of human reason as foundationally important and as capable of understanding and grasping the most important things in the universe, so that there’s this assumption made of the adequacy of human reason and understanding sort of plumb the depths of what is true and what is good and what is beautiful, and arrive at absolute truths about these things.
HODGES: Right. The subtitle to your book, Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context, points to a shift in the secular age. We’re in an era what some philosophers refer to as postmodernism. I want to explore that for a minute, what exactly you mean by postmodernism. Some people are inclined to understand it as a denial of any sort of foundational truth claims, or an explicit denial that there are any foundational truths, or that it’s entirely relativistic and this sort of thing. But you’re pretty specific in anticipating those types of objections as to what you mean by postmodernism, so I hope you can sort of clarify what you mean by being in a postmodern context.
PENNER: Well when I talk about postmodernity, at least in terms that apply to me, I’m not sure I can control how other people want to use the word, but all I mean by postmodernism is our being aware of ourselves as modern. What that means is it relativizes where we are culturally located as moderns. In other words, this is an option that we have opted for as opposed to the inevitable result of human achievement and progress.
So what that does say is we might not be at the acme of human progress. It might just be that we chose a road and there are other alternatives. Once you start to be aware of yourself as modern, then it opens you up, or frees you up, to saying well what does it mean to be modern? And you start asking that question, as opposed to well this is exactly the way things have to be. So we just are sort of trapped in our current cultural logic and we can’t get out of it.
HODGES: You’re pretty specific. I have a quote here where you say, “I do not deny that there is a real world that exists independently of human minds, or suggests we never encounter reality. I don’t think for instance that all we ever experience are our own thoughts.” So expand on that.
PENNER: Yeah. So often this is one way, as you already highlighted, of disparaging the move to postmodernity or the acceptance and embrace of it, is that well post-moderns don’t believe in absolute truth, and they’re relativists and they don’t believe in a real world because they believe that everything is language and so on and so forth. And that’s just simply not true. What post-moderns of the sort that I’m talking about believe is that the grass that we have of the world of language isn’t absolute. It’s contingent and the perspectives that we occupy aren’t perspectives that are all-seeing and all-knowing, and we never get to the bottom of anything.
So language mediates the world to us, and the symbols and the categories that we use function as perspectives on the world. But what I don’t mean by that is there isn’t a real world out there and all we ever encounter are our own thoughts. I think we encounter the world through language, through symbols, and so on, that we have that enable us to function in the world. In fact, I’d like to turn that argument around and say if it weren’t the case we would never know there’s a real world, so they become the conditions for the possibility of having the experience of the real world. Many times you’ll see especially certain kinds of Christian apologists trying to debunk postmodernity as sheer relativism than the belief that’s almost solipsistic, all we have are our own minds. That’s just simply unintelligible to me.
HODGES: Yeah. That’s not your position. That’s the impression I get from the book then is basically just an assertion of epistemic humility, when you say we’re aware of where we are so we’re aware of the limitations of human reason. I think this is where you really come to a head against some of the Christian apologists that you talk about.
You mentioned William Lane Craig, he’s a prominent Christian apologist, a very smart guy, an excellent debater, and I think he senses that there are some problems maybe with taking his own approach too far. This anxiety I think shows up in the distinction he makes between knowing something versus showing something. So let’s talk about that for a second. What’s the distinction that William Lane Craig makes between knowing and showing?
PENNER: Before I go on to answer your question, I think you really hit the nail on the head when you talked about the anxiety that he exhibits, because there’s a definite underlying sense of anxiety that one gets, and he’s trying to quell as he goes through his apologetic methodology, and his apologetics himself. He talks about this distinction between knowing and showing, which for him, he doesn’t say it was revealed to him by God, but it was certainly an aha moment at the very least where it seems that suddenly the truth was revealed to him about how things really are. He says that there’s this distinction between knowing Christianity is true and showing it to be true. Apologetics functions in the latter, showing, part, but it isn’t necessarily part of the knowing part.
So what he wants to say is that believers can know in their hearts through the testimony and the Holy Spirit that Christianity is true and he does actually if he draws this out into a full epistemology, doesn’t want to say he didn’t know a lot of things that way, but there are certain things that you can know that way and that for the rest of it you need apologetics to show someone else.
It’s really important to me, and ultimately it is to him as well, that these are both, first of all epistemological categories, and there are ways of describing the rationality of Christian belief, that ties into the standards of rationality that I was speaking of earlier. So these are ways of showing us or articulating Christian belief so that it is rational and meets the standards of rationality laid out for beliefs in modernity.
HODGES: Is that where he would house knowing would be something that the Holy Spirit would communicate to the believer? Is that where the knowing comes from? Because it’s the same in Mormonism, the idea that the Holy Ghost is what confirms truth, and that’s different from what he would say then is showing, right? So he would house that ability to know in revelation to a believer. Okay.
PENNER: Yup. And that’s an epistemic process that fits into his wider epistemology.
HODGES: Okay. So you see modern apologetics as, despite this distinction, it’s still thoroughly modern an approach. The way that you sum it up is with this acronym OUNCE. So talk about OUNCE and how that sort of sums up how you read this modern apologetic project.
PENNER: Yeah. OUNCE, as you mentioned, stands for Objective Universal and Neutral. Those are sort of the three primary criteria that are used to judge whether a given belief is rational or not.
HODGES: That’s sort of his main anxiety, right? Like he wants to say this is a rational belief, these are the ways by which you can tell that it’s a rational belief.
PENNER: Exactly. So for a belief to be rational it has to be objective, neutral, and universal. It has to be the kind of thing that anybody anywhere can access, it has to be the kind of thing that is free from subjective bias, and it has to be the kind of thing that is completely neutral about any of these other forms of influence. So it operates as this objective standard by which everything is judged.
HODGES: There’s a really great quote actually that segues well with that here in your book. It says, “According to this modern sense what is essential to being Christian is an objective event. The cognitive acceptance of belief, of specific propositions or doctrines.” So being a Christian is about accepting certain propositions or doctrines. “And because Christianity is essentially objective in this way, it’s propositional, it can and must have an objective basis or a rational foundation that complies with OUNCE.”
So this is sort of the fundamental expectation, then, is that Christianity is about accepting these certain propositions. In order for a proposition to be true it has to be objective, neutral, universal, and this sort of thing, right?
PENNER: Yeah. Precisely.
HODGES: The thing that fascinates me is how this critique actually cuts against liberal and conservative views here. This is where your book really surprised me. It cuts both ways. You see theological liberals, the stereotype of them is that they’re willing to sort of put Christianity on the procrustean bed and cut off the limbs and everything to make it fit; so they’re just willing to just sort of jettison things that aren’t rational. Like, oh, the miracles in the New Testament? No, none of that happened. Right? They’re willing to sacrifice certain things according to modern rational standards.
HODGES: And the conservatives who do the opposite, they sort of adopt modern rational standards to argue for, even the miracles and even these sorts of things. So both these liberal and conservative perspectives are acceding too much to the modernist mindset.
PENNER: For sure. This also connects to the discussion that we had about what postmodernism is. Most people just assume that postmodernism is progressive liberal. That drives me nuts, because while definitely I’m against some really deeply engrained conservative impulses that come out of the modern mindset, I’m just as against, in fact at times it depends on the context even more against the liberal idea that the human being and the rational experience of a human being is the standard for truth.
That’s really I think the major issue that I have with apologetics on both sides. Whether the rational apologetic project of liberals, which is sort of to weed out everything from Christian doctrine that isn’t rational. Or the conservative one that is to sort of demonstrate how all of it, from orthodoxy which is defined very particularly by whatever group is trying to do the proving, all of it is rational, but both of them are making the human rationality of the modern sort the rock-bottom basis of reality, which I think is fundamentally idolatrous.
HODGES: Right. I think this is actually a way that can cut against some people who criticize apologetics. There are critics of certain apologetic approaches that say that it’s not rational enough or that it’s not academic enough or that it’s pseudo-scholarship and these types of criticisms. I think you would say that the problem with those criticisms is like the apologetics that it criticizes it’s sort of putting too big of a stake in human rationality and human’s ability to access this objective truth.
PENNER: Yes. It’s also completely overlooking its own position and thinking that it stands on the ground that it doesn’t actually stand on.
HODGES: Okay. Before we move to the second part of the podcast, which will talk more specifically about your own proposals, because you don’t just say do away with apologetics, you also talk about things that the Christians can do to witness effectively. So we’ll move onto that.
Before we do that though, toward the end of the book you talk about apologetic violence. So without going into too much detail about your own view of how to properly witness to Christianity, can you speak for a moment about what you mean by apologetic violence? It’s a strong word to use.
PENNER: Yeah. Do you want me to get into it in detail or just sort of generally?
HODGES: Just kind of generally. Then if I have any follow-up we’ll go that way.
PENNER: Yeah. Generally apologetic violence is when we use our arguments to do things that are un-Christian, mean spirited, and wrong and unethical to other people. That’s the bottom line. What I don’t assume is that an argument that has a valid form with a true conclusion, and the conclusion somehow fits or connects to what Christians are supposed to believe, that using that argument in any circumstance is therefore always right. I don’t assume that. Because we can use any words and any arguments to do things that are very unloving and un-Christian. So we can use good “apologetic arguments” to do very wrong, mean, and violent things to other people and tear them down.
HODGES: Is this just like insulting people or like what sort of things are you talking about?
PENNER: Well in particular to make them feel small, to demean them, to tell them that they’re worthless or unreasonable or not as smart as me or irrational or whatever. Using apologetic arguments to do that I think is a form of violence against them.
HODGES: I mean there can be, when you get into arguments and discussion, you can get to a point where you take sort of glee in showing how someone else’s argument is dumb, right? You can almost get sarcastic. It can become an argument. The irony then would be that you might be saying true things, you might be saying “Christ is Lord” or whatever you’re saying, but you could be saying it in a way that communicates completely the opposite message.
PENNER: Yeah, and where your intentions are to do that. Most often we’re blind to it ourselves because we just get carried away by the force of our own brilliance or our fundamental rectitude and we just think that we have the right of way to do whatever we like because we’re right. If that’s how we’re feeling, the chances are we’re probably acting in a way that’s deeply un-Christian.
HODGES: Yeah. Well I’ve done that.
PENNER: So have I.
HODGES: Just to issue a confession here. So kind of to sum of this first part of the podcast then, just give a brief recap of some of the key problems that you see with much of modern Christian apologetics.
PENNER: Well the fundamental problem with it, modern apologetics, is it doesn’t give us the ability to address what I find the deepest spiritual problem with modernity, and that’s the fundamental nihilism or meaninglessness that comes in a world where God is superfluous. The big problem is that for apologetics that buys into the modern paradigm is that it so thoroughly is immersed in that paradigm that it has no ability to argue outside of itself.
So it buys into the meaninglessness of the universe, tries to argue on those terms that there’s meaning, and in the end it just sort of perpetuates the nihilism of modernity. We haven’t really addressed that aspect in the argument here but to me that’s the real problem. That’s the betrayal, is it’s buying into the sort of death of God as we sometimes refer to it, that happens in modernity when reason takes the place that God used to take in pre-modernity.
HODGES: By chance have you read Richard Beck’s Authenticity of Faith?
PENNER: I have not, but I’m aware of it.
HODGES: He basically talks about apologetics failing on rhetorical grounds, or failing on the grounds of not addressing sort of the more crucial existential issue that you mentioned, which is living in an era when people felt disconnected from God and meaning and purpose, or they feel spiritual malaise, and there are people who are looking for something and if they start to read basic apologetics it just seems like these arguments that are going on, it’s not really spiritually fulfilling, it’s just these back and forths about who’s right and who’s wrong.
PENNER: They feel like parlor games. I absolutely agree with that.
HODGES: Now on the other hand, there is one thing I would say, is like do you have any sense that at least for some people the sort of apologetic approach is that you criticize? For example, you talk about a debate that occurred at a college where an atheist showed up to debate a Christian apologist and they took a vote at the end and the Christian apologist was sort of the victor and you realized that most of the people who attended were already believers.
Do you think there were some people there who it still might have maybe caused to think twice? Can it still be an avenue? Can this method that you criticize still be an avenue for some Christians to find Christ even indirectly?
PENNER: Well for sure. I don’t want to put limits on God’s ability to redeem anything. In the Old Testament he uses Balaam’s ass to communicate his word. So he can use whatever he wants, including this donkey, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the way he always wants to speak, and it certainly doesn’t absolve us of the ability to be the prophetic witness that Balaam was supposed to be, that God has called us to be. So I’m not trying to address the question of whether it’s salvageable in any way, shape, or form.
I would point out, though, that it can do even more harm, and I think this is part of what Kierkegaard is getting at, when people think they’ve been helped by it, precisely because it helps them fall or sink further into their delusion about who they are and where they are and what they’re all about.
HODGES: And the power of rationality and this sort of thing.
PENNER: Yeah, so if they walk away thinking, “Yeah, I really am that clever” I’m not sure that’s a help. They might feel better, but I’m not sure they’ve been edified by it.
HODGES: Okay. So that kind of sums up part one. Moving into part two then we’ll talk about your alternatives that you talk about. I think the title of the book The End of Apologetics can be read in a double sense. I wrote this in a little review earlier that The End of Apologetics can talk about the succession of a type of apologetics, but it can also mean that you’re focusing on the end or the telos, the end, the objective of apologetics, the goal of apologetics, the end game of apologetics. It’s sort of a meditation on that.
PENNER: You’re absolutely correct, by the way, to read it that way.
HODGES: Okay, good.
PENNER: You got it.
HODGES: Excellent. So there’s a quote here that I want to read that I’ll have you sort of talk about here. It says, “One of the serious problems for modern apologetics is that it treats Christianity as if it were an objective something, a set of propositions or doctrines, that can be explained, proven, and cognitively mastered. Kierkegaard’s favorite response is to point out that being a Christian is far less a matter of knowing the truth than that of becoming the truth, that is of being truly, rather than thinking truly, so that the truth is expressed in a fully integrated life before God. Christianity then is much more a way, or an invitation to live in the truth, than it is a doctrine or a set of beliefs whose truth we can grasp and cognitively master.”
Okay, so this kind of points to your alternative then, Christianity as more of a way of being than a series of propositions. So I like the sentiment here. I think one of the responses might be, and you have a footnote here, that Christianity does have propositional content. The apostles in the New Testament make propositional claims about Jesus rising from the dead, Jesus’s ability to reconcile humans with God, and these types of things. So it seems like there’s sort of a fundamental tension here where you talk about Christianity as being more of a way of becoming, but there also is propositional content to it. So maybe explore that tension for a minute.
PENNER: Oh for sure. The way I’m trying to emphasize it here is not that there are no doctrines, but what is the role and nature of those doctrines and why do we have them and why should we hold to them? What I’m trying to say is first of all they aren’t the point. The point is not that we all have this sort of objectively agreed upon set upon set of things that we all say and then we all do at the appropriate time. We kneel, we bow, etc. I do somewhere in the book, I can’t remember now off the top of my head, but I do reference somewhere a discussion about this. What the apostle James says in the Book of James when he says, “You believe there is one God. Good. So do the demons and they’re frightened.” But that doesn’t mean they are somehow more in the truth.
I have often said in conversation in the classroom that it’s entirely possible, in fact it’s plausible that the demonic world has better doctrine than all the rest of us because they probably know a few things that the rest of us don’t. But that’s not what saves them, or damns them. That’s not the primary issue. Now it’s not completely irrelevant, but it’s not the primary thing. So it’s a question of what role do doctrines play then? Are they indicators that we’re in the truth or are they simply categories by which we are to live then? I think that’s probably more of what they’re supposed to be. They’re supposed to be reflective of realities that are then to be appropriated by us and structure our lives and our understanding in ways that change who we are.
HODGES: You point to hermeneutics as a way of analyzing or understanding Christianity. Hermeneutics is sort of the interpretation of texts, so this probably grows out of your interest in postmodernism. I think what you describe it as, as a shift from our focus from like what’s true and justified towards what’s intelligible and meaningful. But can’t people find just about anything meaningful? It seems to sort of leave people unrooted.
PENNER: Well it does if you think of something that’s meaningful in a completely subjective sense. So we think, for instance, of happiness as this interior state that I access through introspection and it becomes this state of whether or not I have more serotonin in my cerebral cortex or not.
But when I talk about meaning I don’t mean feeling meaning, whether it feels meaningful. I talk about whether or not it’s something that is connected to a wider vision of life and the good. So it’s going to have a historical dimension to it and it’s going to have a dimension that includes human flourishing and so on. So I’m not just simply saying in a subjective sense do I feel like that was really nice? I’m talking about meaningful in a much richer sense of meaning.
HODGES: I think the difficulty there, like when we use postmodernism as an ally to underscore the idea that human reason is fallible or that even just relying on pure emotion isn’t the way, like there’s a biblical witness that we have to be attuned to. I think a lot of people sort of in a skeptical society already have an implicit regard for scientific enterprise and objectivity and despite the turn to postmodernity in the higher academy I think most people still think about things in terms of things being objective and able to verify. So is that a problem for your approach then because you’re shifting the conversation? Do you sense pushback from that other direction of the people who think of themselves as being very sophisticated and scientific minded and they see your approach as being wishy-washy?
PENNER: Yeah for sure. In fact I moderated a debate which was an interesting thing between a theist and an atheist, and of course I ended up getting fire from both sides but the atheist kept calling me a science denier, which I’m not at all, I just don’t think science tells us what’s truly important about the universe. I don’t think it tells us nothing. It gives us models for how to think about the universe for sure, and how to be successful in different kinds of ways if those are the things that we want to do.
I guess what I would like to tell people who are captivated by science I think you’re absolutely right, I think that’s the way we think, is that perhaps the realities that we access that way and that we’re staking all of our hopes on aren’t the ones that are most important and that we’re missing something profound, and when you can point to other aspects of our culture that seem to be verifying that, like the meaninglessness that we all feel and the sense that this really can’t be all that there is and so on, and saying that experience that we have is connected to the way we look at the world through the scientific lens.
HODGES: So with that in mind then, how would you say the Christian beliefs can be verified? How would you approach someone who says, “I read Richard Dawkins’s book and I read Daniel Dennett, and they’re very convincing and I’m just not really interested in God. Why should I pay attention to the claims of Christianity?” I know you’d respond to an individual person, like you’d make it a personal engagement, but what sort of things would you do to talk to that type of a person?
PENNER: Well I appeal to them as people, as persons, probably not as people in the generic sense of a group of people, but as a person, and say I can’t make sense of the world and find it meaningful the way that you’re trying to draw that out. So I’d want to talk to them about what’s so particularly appealing about the universe as Richard Dawkins wants to imagine it. Maybe point out along the way that he is imagining things and sometimes he’s making things up, and that the thing that he seems so absolutely certain about maybe isn’t quite as certain as they think, and maybe they’ve been duped or trapped in a particular way of thinking that isn’t helpful to them as a person.
So I’d try to find out where they are as persons, what’s motivating them, what kinds of things they think they’re getting from Richard Dawkins that is so particularly helpful and just explore that with them. I might get to the point where I don’t know what to do with that person except tell them that personally this isn’t fulfilling or meaningful to me because of the experience I’ve had with God and Jesus Christ, but that’s not going to be particularly helpful for them maybe.
HODGES: So what would your suggestion be? I mean you sort of point to witnessing about your way of life as well, like Christianity bears fruits in your life in terms of peace and these types of things, and that’s sort of part of a witness. What about people who don’t feel like they can witness with such surety? They might encounter a conversation like that and just say, “I can’t stand up in front of somebody and tell them that I really know this stuff about God. I have faith in it, I believe in it, but this isn’t something I can just declare.” What would your advice be to people who feel that way?
PENNER: To say that. That sometimes, as C. S. Lewis once said about his atheism, sometimes he woke up in the morning and his atheism didn’t seem very certain. Tell them that’s what true about me and my relationship with God and it goes up and down and I don’t know what to do, and I wrestle with this stuff everyday, and if you’re feeling these kinds of feelings and having these kinds of thoughts I completely understand where you’re at because I live there a lot of days too. I think that’s entirely appropriate, and important and necessary if that’s really true. The point is don’t tell them something about God that isn’t a lived reality in your life.
HODGES: There’s so much more that I’d like to talk to you about. Unfortunately we’re running short on time. Maybe we can get a blog post with you or something in the future to talk about things like when you talk about the role of irony in Christian witnessing and agonistic approach to discussing faith and apocalyptic apologetics. There are all sorts of great things in the book. I really recommend that people pick up the book. It’s The End of Apologetics by Myron Penner.
But before we go then there’s one more thing I’d like to cover and it’s this distinction you make between appealing to people rather than coercing people. I’d like you to sort of explore the difference. When you’re talking to someone about your faith you make a crucial distinction between appealing or coercing.
PENNER: Yeah. It has everything to do with why we’re in this conversation or in this encounter and what we want to come out of it. My suggestion, my insistence, is that we need to be in these kinds of conversations or encounters because we care deeply about persons and that we’re concerned about their edification as persons. So when we are in these kinds of interpersonal encounters then our goal needs to be to build that person up.
The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel says that when we try to coerce someone or when someone tries to coerce us they forget or they pretend to forget that we’re actually persons. They forget what it is that we actually desire and want in our particular location and where we are at with life and things in general, and they just say, this is where you should be. Go there. And they push us in that direction either physically or cognitively or whatever, emotionally, whereas appeal is exactly the opposite. It takes stock of who the person is and what their position is, where they are at, and say, I think this is what you want and this could help you become that or to go there.
He uses the word sympathy, this taking into account who the other person is and this identification with their overall wellbeing. We make that as important to us as our own wellbeing, and when we do that we appeal to the person and say I believe this is something that would be very helpful to you, as opposed to, this is something you must believe. If you don’t then you fit into this category, if you do then you’ll be in the one that I accept. I just find that last way of thinking really really unhelpful.
HODGES: Yes. So like on the one side appealing, the focus is on the person and the goal is edification, right? You used the word edification. Then if the focus is on coercing, or if the method is coercive, the focus is on the person’s beliefs specifically. So oh, this isn’t personal, I’m just talking about the things you believe.
HODGES: The end game is justification rather than edification, right?
PENNER: Yeah. The key is to see beliefs as reflective of personal existential realities, not just simply abstract cognitive events that are loosely connected to me somehow.
HODGES: Okay. So in closing do you have time to just share that story that you tell about a person who encountered a couple of apologists in college and I think the person was kind of an atheist? Do you have one second to sort of share that in closing?
HODGES: I think it’s a really good concrete example of the kind of problems that we’ve talked about.
PENNER: Yeah. This is actually post-graduate. It was while I was doing research for my PhD and I was at a study center. I’ll call him John, it’s not his real name, but I haven’t asked him for permission to use this story because I’ve lost track of him. He and I got to this study center early because it was just as the academic year was ending here in North America. So he and I were at the study center. I got to know him a bit. He described himself as an atheist Roman Catholic. So he and I hung out a bit and got to know each other, had a really good time getting to know each other.
I found out that he had been to, on two different occasions, monasteries looking for God and that he really lost something important to him when he lost his childhood faith. He was just trying to find a way to believe in God. I still remember one time we were walking down by the river and he just looked at me and said, “You really believe it all, don’t you?” We weren’t talking about anything religious, we were just kind of walking, chatting about stuff. I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “You really believe that Jesus was God’s Son and he died on the cross. You believe all that, don’t you?” And I was like shocked, it was not typical of philosophers to ask direct questions like that. I says, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “You know, you should be a priest,” this was before I was even thinking of it. He said, “We need priests like that.” I was like, “What are you talking about, John? You said you don’t even believe in God.”
So I knew that John was on a real deep spiritual quest and then we were joined by two seminarians who had just taken an apologetics seminar, actually it was with Bill Craig, I didn’t say that in the book, and Bill Craig had described himself as the hired gun who comes in to sort of clean up the streets of all the atheists. We were sitting out on the back deck in the evening, which is what the group of us tended to do, and I knew these guys, where they were coming from quite well because I was raised in that whole context.
They started asking John questions. He didn’t clue in at first as to what they were doing. They were trying to find what he believed about different things. Then they were building what his position must be and they started saying, “Well if you say that then don’t you also have to think that?” And at some point he started realizing what they were doing and he stopped them and he said, “Hey guys. Stop, stop, stop. I don’t like what you’re doing here. You are starting to really offend me because you’re trying to treat me as if this is all an abstract objective game. I was just answering your questions and being honest with you.” They said, “We don’t care if you’re offended. We don’t want your blood on our head.” And they just started going at him.
I was like shocked. I jumped in on John’s side and started saying, “I think he’s actually a better Christian than you guys are.” John told me the next day, because I got so upset with them I just went to bed, John told me the next day that they told him they didn’t think I was a real Christian. It’s Christ like. That’s what Jesus would do.
HODGES: So basically, I mean, it kind of shows the distinction, and not all apologists, I think we can both agree there are people who do classic apologetics or this sort of modern apologetics who they’re doing this out of faith, they’re doing this for good reasons. The issue becomes one of approach and when you begin to approach it in terms of these logical categories that you can just lay out. It can feel coercive to the people that you’re talking with and that’s sort of where you’re saying that’s not edifying. You can’t edify and rejoice together under those circumstances, whereas if you were having a real interpersonal conversation you can kind of gauge it to the extent that are we all being edified here is sort of a good benchmark I think for that.
HODGES: Anyway, I really appreciate you joining us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Myron. This has been a great conversation. I hope to be in touch with you again and maybe we can get a blog post or two.
PENNER: Well thanks, Blair. I really appreciate it.
HODGES: Thanks for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I was joined today by Dr. Myron Bradley Penner. He’s the author of The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Be sure to check out the Maxwell Institute blog post for this episode. I’ve included some links to some of the sources that we talked about. That’s maxwellinstituteblog.org. You can email questions or comments about this episode to me. That address is email@example.com.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)