Traditionally, Christian theologians have always acknowledged that there is an aspect of our faith which can be communicated in rational terms, what they called the apologia, and an aspect which doesn’t operate at the cognitive level but can only be lived into as a mystery, the kerygma. So in early Christian history, an apologia discussion, at its best, was mostly a discussion about language and symbols and how the Good News of Jesus’ new peaceful reign could be humbly shared with another culture, which might think in different categories and resonate with different images than one’s own.
With the rise of evangelical fundamentalism in the United States, the bastardized term “apologetics” became less about humble translation and more about the macho game of “providing a defense” for the faith, usually with a red face and a raised voice. It became less about love for the other, who could use some genuinely good news in her life, and more about proving that I am right, and she is an infidel.
Generally, I haven’t discovered a very Christ-like way to prove to others that they are infidels. And I don’t remember Jesus spending much time trying to do that. Lots of healings, yes. Lot’s of deep and open-ended parables. But no apologetics. What I remember most about the Handbook of Christian Apologetics was its answer to the question that has wrecked centuries worth of brilliant thinkers, Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t remember much about the answer it gave. I just remember that it was about twenty pages long.
Ju...Ju…Just…Just stop and think about that for a minute. Everything you needed to know about the tragedy of conscious mortal life IN TWENTY PAGES! In fairness, the title did say that it was only a handbook. Maybe this lone genius was able to solve the riddle which has plagued every generation of Homo sapiens and get it off to his editor before supper time. Or maybe this handbook was being written by someone who wasn’t very in touch with his or anyone else’s real suffering.
None of the books in the Bible could be classified as handbooks. Instead, what the Bible has a lot of is art: poems, stories, prayers, images, parables, campfire tall tales, and the like. If apologetics has any such thing as an opposite, it would be art.
An apologist starts out with the intellectual assumptions that God must be a certain way, that pain exists, and that the one needs to be justified in light of the other.
A painter just expresses her pain and assumes that God will justify Godself—that is, of course, if God is God. She doesn’t defend God. She dares God to respond with action. A musician doesn’t explain how he can suffer and there still be a loving God. He gives expression to his suffering and sends it careening out into the universe. Poets feel no pressure to speak reasonably or cover all their bases. In fact, they’re liable to air all kinds of short-sided, irrational, even unfair grievances because they're only responsibility is to be honest, whether or not it’s true.
Here’s an analogy from our bodies (if you’re medically trained, don’t correct any inaccuracies or the analogy won’t work). I understand there are certain types of back injuries where our body’s first impulse is to engage and enflame the muscles around the injury in order to protect us from feeling it fully. But eventually this becomes counterproductive as the tightening and inflammation becomes the source of a more enduring pain long after the original injury would have healed. What we really need to do is learn to relax those muscles. This will initially cause us to feel the pain more, not less, but it will also allow the natural healing process to work more directly.
Although the apologist will always claim all of the credit for the strength of his faith in his efforts to defend God’s reputation, art actually requires a much more profound faithfulness. The brutal honesty of the artist is only possible if, in her “secret heart” (Psalm 51:6), she actually withholds some unspoken hope that God is something more than her own nihilistic words.
Compare a faithful marriage to an unfaithful one. Putting aside the obvious, in which are the partners more likely to speak hard feelings and difficult truths to one another? Clearly, the faithful one. Moments of painful honesty can only be held safely within a much more enduring container of unconditional fidelity. A more tenuous marriage must either avoid the truth like the plague or see it destroy externally what’s already been destroyed internally.
If there is anywhere in the Bible where someone tries to provide a handbook-like defense for why good things happen to bad people it is the friends of Job, and it is intended as a negative example (i.e. don’t be like this). Job has just spent the entire book blaming, demanding, and even mocking God for God’s failure to intervene in the midst of his suffering. His friends reprimand him for his blasphemies and correct him with all the right pieties, ever careful that they “honor [God] with their lips.”
Any pious and sensible reader would assume that Job is on thin ice by the end of the book and that his friends are in the clear. But when God finally gets a chance to speak, it is actually Eliphaz, the leader of the friends, who gets admonished: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
Could it be that the divine humility is so mature, the divine motherliness so tender, the divine fatherliness so steadfast, that what God wants from us most is not our piety but ourselves?
If you’re suffering, don’t start offering up explanations for how there can still be a loving God in the midst of your pain, or how it must be your own fault somehow. Talk to God. Be truthful. Be honest. Be direct. Make art. Don’t ask if God is real. Demand that God be real.
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.