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The Point of Intellectual Engagement: Why Thinking Matters

October 9th, 2008 by Matt

For some faith and reason is an anathema; Christianity is the realm of feelings and is totally separate from academia, reason and logic.

After the Craig v Cooke debate a Christian reporter asked me “aside from people being intellectually stimulated, what was the point of having a Christian Philosopher dialogue with an Atheist Historian at Auckland University, what was gained from it? The assumption appeared to be that engaging at the intellectual level as opposed to the emotional level [a false dichotemy but that’s for another post] was not what Christianity was about – where were the immediate conversions?

When Dominic was recently asked what the point was of Thinking Matters (an organisation dedicated we sometimes contribute to), I found his answer to have broader application to the issues of faith and reason and apologetics in general and spoke to the heart of the inherent problem found both within and without Christianity mentioned above. His comments are reproduced below.

The purpose of Thinking Matters and Apologetics

Darryl Burling recently asked the Thinking Matters Contributor mailing list,

“What is the purpose of thinking matters? I know the answer that is here, but what I want to understand is what constitutes success? What is the purpose of “examin[ing] and explain[ing] the defense of the Christian faith”? I have my ideas but want to know what others think.”

1. The purpose of Thinking Matters is primarily to provide a “common area” for New Zealand apologists. Our aim is to give some focus to the various individuals and groups in New Zealand who would otherwise be doing their own thing without much awareness of the efforts of others. In that vein, I think we’ve been fairly successful already; although admittedly we need a new injection of enthusiasm to galvanize some further action.

2. Because of (1), the purpose of apologetics is not something that Thinking Matters, as an organization, has taken a specific position on. I think it has, so far, been sufficient simply that we all agree apologetics is necessary and important. The views of the individuals who contribute to TM may differ on the precise purpose of apologetics—some widely. Similarly, our views on apologetics methodology may differ. As you know, I’m strongly presuppositional. But to be a well-rounded apologetics organization, I think we also need some classical and evidential apologists filling out the mix.

3. For my own part, I believe that apologetics is an important pre-evangelical, and post-evangelical discipline.

(i) In terms of pre-evangelism, apologetics is often necessary to remove the epistemic defeaters to Christian belief. Since faith is rational, we cannot expect it to obtain in situations which would render it irrational; such as when people hold strong beliefs which contradict that faith. This is especially important given that we aren’t living in a Christian society any more, but a post-Christian one. People are increasingly skeptical of Christian faith-claims because they increasingly (a) fail to understand them, and (b) are influenced by scientism/modernism (I don’t believe post-modernism has actually had the societal effect some people think it has had). Apologetics in this context isn’t only or even perhaps primarily about laying the groundwork for evangelism itself; as you commented to me privately, the rational defense of the faith is a necessary condition for “ensuring ongoing freedom to be Christian in an increasingly hostile, left brained, rational and intellectual world.” Christianity needs champions in the academic arena to show that our faith is intellectually justified and defensible. This is very important in the universities in particular, since they are the breeding grounds for the upcoming movers and shakers in society—and they are largely secular.

(ii) In terms of post-evangelism, apologetics is extremely important for dealing with doubts, and for growing in faith. Again, faith is rational—so where defeaters exist for it, cognitive dissonance occurs. This can be really damaging; especially for people who are converted through more emotional and less intellectual means. A lot of people have powerful conversion experiences, but then later when they start to really think about their faith, and perhaps share it with others, they encounter a lot of objections and doubts. This is especially true online, where there are lots of New Atheists who are highly hostile to Christianity, and have prima facie reasonable objections to faith, backed up by a lot of attitude which replaces the work of actual reasoning and underwrites the appearance of a righteously indignant worldview which opposes Christianity because it is so irrational. Without apologetics, this can be fatal to faith. Christians need to know that (a) doubts are not sinful; and (b) that answers do exist. And currently, I don’t believe that most pastors in New Zealand are actually equipped to provide the sorts of answers that some Christians may need. A lot of questions are not really considered seriously and addressed, so such as dismissed and swept under the rug (particularly in less conservative churches; I think Pentecostalism has a lot to answer for with its generally anti-intellectual, emotion-based faith).

Note that none of this is to say that faith is only rational. Thinking Matters’ declaration of belief is thoroughly Reformed in its view (albeit implied) that faith is an actual ontological change caused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the new believer. However, it’s important to still affirm that faith is rational; and that because it is rational, doubts will occur where certain presuppositions or beliefs conflict with it. Apologetics is a means God uses to defeat unbelief, and to then preserve the saints in faith.

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  • You’ve just inspired me to read FIDES ET RATIO. A book I’m currently reading uses a quote from it, the bold part being the only part used, but the whole paragraph deserves to be quoted:

    Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).