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A New Apologetics

Dr. Jeff Mirus

Apologetics, or the defense of the Faith, generally takes one of two forms. Either it offers convincing arguments which show the truth of various doctrinal propositions, or it offers persuasive demonstrations that the Christian faith is the best way to fulfill legitimate human aspirations. Both approaches have their place, but I believe a third approach is also needed.

Can You Hear Me?

I don’t mean to offer something totally new, but I think it is time to bring to the fore what classical apologists have generally regarded as merely a preparation for apologetics: a consideration of the impediments to faith. Such impediments are all the intellectual, emotional, cultural and psychological factors, both conscious and subconscious, which make it impossible for a given person to genuinely consider the Christian message. It seems to me that the modern world is so tilted against faith, and in so many different ways, that this problem of clearing the impediments must now be the greater part of apologetical work.

Essentially, the effort to clear away the impediments to faith is the effort to determine why a given person or group simply doesn’t take the arguments for the truth of the Catholic Faith seriously. They aren’t interested, or they’re uncomfortable, or they “know” the arguments are absurd, or they just can’t relate to all this talk about the soul, truth and God. The question is, why? And how can the apologist overcome these impediments so that the person or group in question really hears what he has to say?

We Have Issues

Some of the impediments are universal in every age. Human pride, with its refusal to serve, always undermines the virtue of religion. We’re also quite capable of trying to ignore the “last things” because we don’t really want to think about death. Then again, in every age there is a constant temptation to prefer expediency to truth. And, though it may just be another form of pride, it often takes us quite a long time to learn to accept our own limitations, both the limitations of human nature and our own personal peculiarities and deficiencies. It is hard to be open to God when we’re in denial about ourselves.

Other impediments arising from attachments are similarly universal. We have a great capacity for material enjoyment which we often find difficult to transcend. If we do think about turning toward God, it always seems that we must relinquish control; there is an element of risk which deters us. Worse, when we have given ourselves up to this or that vice, we become enslaved. Our own bad habits make it very hard to open ourselves to God. Universal as all these issues are, I think it is fair to say that modern culture exacerbates nearly every one of them by specifically reinforcing all the wrong attitudes, feelings and attachments.

For example, it is difficult to conceive of a period in history so preoccupied with the tangible as to essentially deny the existence of anything that cannot be measured. It is also of the essence of the “modern” outlook that the new is always better than the old, which engenders a disdain for traditional beliefs and values. In many other cultures, tradition has been a chief means of inculcating a healthy regard for the supernatural. The modern era also boasts a distinctively false idea of freedom, which is always defined as an absence of restraint rather than a perfection which leads to the fulfillment of potential. Finally, for a variety of reasons, the modern period is intensely relativistic. The lack of comprehension of absolutes is certainly an impediment to faith.

And That’s Not All

You may think that’s a lot of impediments, but we’re just getting started. Consider the prejudices most people grow up with in the modern world. Many are taught by their parents, and all of us are taught by the mass media, that religion is silly, weak or dangerous. Nearly all of us grow up infected by the prejudice of liberalism—that is, the notion that legitimate authority is either untrustworthy or non-existent. Politically, we’re all very committed to democracy and, whatever else may be said for democracy, it tends to foster excessive individualism and the notion that everyone’s ideas are equal. All of this creates a tremendous peer pressure against commitment to any absolute value or belief system. Even when we don’t reject such systems from within, we refuse to embrace them for fear of looking foolish to the world.

Then there are all the distractions common to humankind which we’ve also raised to new heights in modern times. Consider the tremendous press of modern affairs, the unrelenting rapidity of the pace of life, the difficulty of finding a quiet space and, because of the ubiquity of attractive entertainments, the difficulty of even wanting to find a quiet space. We are so full of commotion that we scarcely know what to do without it. Sometimes we are actually afraid to be without it. Under these circumstances, how hard it is to “be still and know that I am God!”

The Final Mystery

As if all this did not make the apologist’s task sufficiently difficult, we know from Scripture that God rarely makes Himself known to those who lack the correct disposition. A passage from the Book of Wisdom, which I recently quoted in my blog, is well worth repeating in this context:

Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord with uprightness, and seek him with sincerity of heart; because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him. For perverse thoughts separate men from God, and when his power is tested, it convicts the foolish; because wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin. (1:1-4)

For all these reasons, it may be time to take up apologetics again with a new emphasis on the impediments to faith. It may be time to attempt to clear away the intellectual, social, cultural, psychological and personal debris which prevents people from seeing things as they are. Instead of initially offering arguments for the Catholic Faith, we might better start by challenging fundamental assumptions and urging others to question the very things they take most for granted. There is an important book to be written here, a book to help the modern world understand its own blindness.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For every impediment I’ve listed, you can probably think of one or two more. Before we write that book, let’s get the whole picture. Please send me your ideas.

June 11, 2007

Jeff Mirus Writes Jun. 19, 2007.
In my last message, I promised I'd return to the question of why modern man finds it so hard to take the Faith seriously. This discussion is continued in
More Impediments, based on the ideas CatholicCulture.org users have sent in.

More Impediments
by Dr. Jeff Mirus

Following my recent column outlining the impediments to Faith characteristic of the modern world, many have written to suggest other aspects of our current culture which impede our relationship with God. These fresh ideas fall into several categories.

Electronic Media: The first category includes the problems caused by the omnipresence of electronic media. Several readers pointed out that young people are inundated with electronic information, entertainment and stimulation from stereos, radios, televisions, movies, computer screens and various hand-held communication appliances. The result is exposure to huge numbers of images, massive amounts of commercial propaganda, and enticing virtual worlds long before a person is mature enough to handle it all. All of this tends to arrest human development and lock the individual in a self-centered sensory world in which the God question is kept at bay.

Competing Authorities: A second and closely-related category covers the problems posed by competing authorities. Our pervasive media exposes us to disparate authorities which compete with the traditional authorities of home, church and state (which, in the modern world, have been disparate enough). Mass culture imposes its own authority, and the Internet puts people in instant touch with various self-proclaimed authorities on every individual subject. Even before complete media immersion, the mass media frequently broadcasted a sort of authority of the fashionable, including the so-called intelligentsia, which undermined traditional thinking and behavior patterns. Competing authorities undermine our sense of God as a single authority who speaks truth about reality.

Diabolical Influence: Other readers have suggested that the more sinister features of modern life, at least when pushed to their extremes, constitute a category of growing diabolical influence. Thus the devil’s grip increases as each individual person tends to become separately addicted to certain stimuli, becomes more focused on self, and is ultimately drained of meaning. This in turn very often leads to a fascination with sexual experimentation and, for reasons psychologists and exorcists may combine to explain, preoccupation with death. Obviously, not all are affected in the same way or to the same degree, but this pattern poses a grave danger for our culture, with isolated individuals enclosed in impenetrable false worlds throughout much of their lives.

The Failure of Relationships: Several correspondents also called attention to the contemporary crisis of relationships. To be sure, the problems of all the preceding categories have militated against deep and abiding relationships, which have been discouraged by media dream worlds and replaced with virtual relationships in virtual worlds. But other forces have clearly been at work, including the extensive individualistic mobility of modern social and especially commercial life. This individualistic mobility has profoundly damaged all social ties, especially the family and even marriage itself. The divorce rate and widespread use of contraception support the contention that our deepest relationships are defined by the proverbial egoism à deux. When human relationships are truncated or broken, the natural ground and model for relating to God is swept away.

A Crisis of Thought: A fifth category of impediments, or perhaps a new consequence of all the others, is what readers describe in various ways as a crisis of thought. Indeed, there does appear to be a singular absence of deep thought in our world, almost in direct proportion to our material dominance and our power to publish (ahem). Sadly, not a few who contributed to the discussion also pointed out that, in opposition to this flight from reason which characterizes our age—and on which Pope Benedict XVI has so frequently remarked—the Church in general has not had a great deal to offer.

The Church: And so we come at last to an enormous sixth category, the failure of those who have been given much to credibly represent the Faith to others. Complaints range from the failure of leadership and zeal on the part of clerics who are way too comfortable to the lukewarmness which afflicts us all. Particular note was taken of the seeming refusal of many bishops to teach the whole truth about any sensitive topic. And of course there are all the scandals. I’ve commented on much of this in various columns and blog entries over the past couple of years. I wish this were sufficient to prove I'm not lukewarm myself, but it isn't.

This is a depressing catalogue, to be sure, but it is hardly the last word about anything. If you’re still wondering what it’s all about, see the column that started it, A New Apologetics. I’m deeply grateful for all those who sent me their insights on the important question of what keeps modern man from taking the Catholic faith seriously.

I am grateful to Jeff Mirus of www.catholic.culture.org for permission to reproduce these articles. The original article can be seen using this link. On the right hand side of the original webpage you will see a list of other (recent) articles as well as archives of previous years. The original follow-on article can be seen using this link.

Version: 21st June 2007

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