My Trouble with Apologetics

June 11, 2008 | 30 comments

C.S. Lewis said he was never less convinced of the truth of Christianity than when he had been vigorously defending it.

I have the same kind of problem but not just with Christianity or Mormonism. Politics or history or economics or culture or beauty, its all the same. I get into a good debate, maybe I win, maybe I lose, but to my own self my arguments seem like straw and my convictions like wisps of clouds.

(Disclaimer: I am not one who objects to Mormon apologists. I see that they do necessary and honorable work in the service of the King of men. My trouble is with *my* apologetics, not with the enterprise of apologetics, and is mine alone. Whether anyone other than, perhaps, C.S. Lewis, shares it I do not know and cannot say.)

Monday a possible explanation for my trouble popped into my head. My trouble might be that when I get into a debate my object is to persuade the other person, or defend myself, or even just to win, and I’m using arguments mostly not because they are true (though they are usually true) but because they are helpful, and my convictions not because I am convinced of them (though I usually am) but because they block my opponent’s lines of attack.

That explanation has a lot of evidence behind it:
-In my general experience argument is a good source of new insights but I never really develop the insight until later when I am mulling over the new line of attack I came up with the debate and decide that there’s something to it.
-Elder Moro and I got into a long, fruitless debate with a Jehovah’s Witness girl on her doorstep. When we gave up on persuading her and gave up on touching her with the spirit, we bore testimony anyway as we turned to leave, because testimony was our refuge. The Holy Ghost came on all three of us and she leaned against the doorway, sobbing.
-a Missouri soldier in my basic training company came from a strong anti-Mormon Baptist background. He kept needling me and I kept parrying. He made me angry enough that I eventually gave up arguing, or explaining that I had a spiritual witness, or recounting my experiences. I told him the restoration was true and he could got to hell. The Holy Ghost came on us. He started to cry and I started to cry and he looked as disconcerted as I felt.

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30 Responses to My Trouble with Apologetics

  1. Bryce Haymond on June 11, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Mormon apologetics are never effective unless accompanied by the Spirit. That’s one of the reasons why I think Br. Millet is accomplishing a great work in his dialogue with our evangelical brothers and sisters. He’s not about proving a point, but trying to understand God in a mutual way that invites the Spirit to witness to the truth in all things.

  2. snow white on June 11, 2008 at 11:49 am

    “I told him the restoration was true and he could go to hell” LOL
    Well if that’s what it takes to get someone to feel the Spirit, then I’m definitely trying that line!

    But seriously, I absolutely agree that the Spirit is the most important thing, and I have often felt like arguing with someone is counterproductive to that. I don’t usually feel that way about written apologetics, though, I guess I feel writing gives the passions time to cool a little.

  3. BHodges on June 11, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    It’s weird, isn’t it? I have felt similar thoughts. (phraseology sic).

  4. Julie M. Smith on June 11, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    What was it that Elder Maxwell said about apologetics being to shore up the faith of those who already believe and not to create faith in those who don’t have it?

  5. Bryce Haymond on June 11, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    “Let us be articulate for while our defense of the kingdom may not stir all hearers, the absence of thoughtful response may cause fledglings among the faithful to falter. What we assert may not be accepted, but unasserted convictions soon become deserted convictions.” – Neal A. Maxwell, “‘All Hell Is Moved,” in 1977 Devotional Speeches of the Year (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1977), 179.

    “Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.” – Austen Farrar, cited by Neal A. Maxwell, “Discipleship and Scholarship,” Brigham Young University Studies 32:3 (1992)

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 11, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I think that having the ability to respond to an attack is important for one’s own sense of intellectual integrity.

    Since I argue for a living, I think there are basic practices that can apply even to confrontations in which the Church is attacked or we are attacked for believing in it.

    First, I try to understand what the attacker is saying, what he thinks are the facts, and why. I try to restate his position so that both of us acknowledge that I understand him.

    Second, I acknowledge places where I agree with him. This often takes people aback, but it is not unusual to find that someone is attacking a straw man, a false image of the Church rather than its reality.

    Third, with all respect for him and his right to his view, I explain my own view and the specific places that it departs from his and why. I hope at this point that hearing him out fully gives me the credit with him to let him listen to me without interruption. I avoid ad hominem attacks on him or co-believers. I try to approach him as an intellectual equal.

    Since many of my professional discussions are in the context of defending a company or the government against criticism over its management of nuclear waste, I figure if I can have a civil discourse in that context, it ought to be achievable in a religious discussion.

    My objective is not to persuade the other person to assume my position or viewpoint, but to have mutual understanding of both the commonalities and the differences, with the goal of establishing mutual respect for both sides’ sincerity and intelligence as a foundation for mutual trust that will allow us to come to agreements, so that both sides can achieve its fundamental objectives.

    It is one thing to argue a case in front of a neutral magistrate, a judge or hearing officer or a jury, who will declare a winner and a loser. It is an entirely different matter to think that your goal is to convince a person to render a judgment against himself. Clearly, Christ did not do that, nor Noah, nor Peter, nor Paul, nor Nephi, nor Mormon, nor Joseph Smith. The people who knew the gospel the best and most authoritatively have always met determined opposition. If a smart person could have persuaded their enemies to change their minds, wouldn’t they have done it to their persecutors? But they clearly could not.

    What we can do is have as much as possible a spirit of love for others that will let us be guided by the Spirit in what we say and do, so that if a person is sincerely questioning and willing to listen, we can give them the option of doing so. Short of that, what we can hope for is that the other person will be able to say to himself, “I cannot accept what he believes, but he seems to be sincere and rational and consistent in his beliefs about Mormonism. I will respect HIM regardless of how I feel about Mormonism.”

  7. Seth R. on June 11, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    “Second, I acknowledge places where I agree with him. This often takes people aback, but it is not unusual to find that someone is attacking a straw man, a false image of the Church rather than its reality.”

    Raymond, the only problem with that approach is that it often encourages people, especially blogging Mormon types, to criticize their faith in inappropriate contexts.

    There’s a new type of anti-Mormon out there these days that has decided to take a more subtle approach to discrediting the Church. They don’t directly attack Mormonism. Instead, they encourage Mormons to gripe about their own religion while stirring the pot occasionally.

    I also know of at least a couple anti-Mormons who spend their time cruising the bloggernacle for fresh criticisms and material. They let slightly disaffected Mormons do most of the work for them.

    As for the idea of apologetics in general, I long ago came to the conclusion that apologetics is not so much about convincing outsiders of our position as it is about helping INSIDERS not feel stupid for believing in all this “stuff.” Apologetics’ primary audience is believers, not non-believers.

  8. TrevorM on June 11, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Amen. Seth R.

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 11, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    #7 (Seth R.)–Maybe I misunderstand, but I did not mean to say that I agree with criticisms of the Church, or of Joseph Smith, but I would notify a critic of those things where I, as a Latter-day Saint, do agree. That would include ideas like the essentiality of Christ’s atonement to our salvation, and man’s inability to save himself without the atonement. A lot of Anti-Mormon criticism includes the false notion that Mormons believe we can save ourselves through gradual perfection of our attributes, like perfect attendance at meetings (a false notion that has certainly been promoted by some Mormon self-help books in the past). I certainly am not going to join in a general gripe session about the Church or its leaders, past or present. I don’t think what I have outlined is essentially different from what Robert Millet does in his establishing bridges of comunication with ministers and professors of other denominations.

    I must admit that I do visit sites like Christianity Today and offer comments from my perspective on the internal controversies that beset Evangelicals, such as the contest between Calvinists and Arminians that has been identified by the newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention as an issue he wants to address (He identified himself as NOT a Calvinist). It is helpful for Mormons to understand that many of the criticisms of our doctrines are made from narrow sectarian grounds that even people in the same denomination as the critic might disagree with.

    As for the value of apologetics being to those who already have made a faith commitment to the LDS Church–I generally agree that this is the highest value of such rebuttals. Better to do that now, and bolster faith, than wait until a person has become ossified in his disaffection and then try to persuade him that the criticisms he used as his excuse for inactivity or rebellion were invalid. Only someone who sees LDS teachings as desirable in some way is going to go to the trouble of obtaining and keeping a spiritual witness. Few people are so purely intellectual in their deliberative processes that intellectual arguments alone can lead us to a commitment of faith (as they apparently did for C.S. Lewis). Apologetics can bring us to a condition of intellectual equilibrium, where we do not feel compelled by the authority of academic learning to go either way, and where the subtle influences of the light of Christ and the still small voice of the Holy Ghost can reassure us that faith is sensible.

  10. Matt Donaldson on June 11, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Adam, I completely sympathize with your feelings about your own apologetics because I frequently feel that way about mine as well. I think the reason for that, quite simply, is that no matter how sound or powerful our arguments may be they’re still just that – our arguments. We are relying on our own methods of persuasion which are inherently weak. At their best, our arguments can have the power to change someone’s mind, but they’ll never have the power to change someone’s heart. What’s more, our arguments will always be insufficient because, as the apostle Paul taught, “the things of God knoweth no man except he has the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). Logic and reason certainly serve a purpose and can be helpful but they will never be enough to fully explain spiritual matters. They will always leave us short of the mark. It is quite telling that the experiences you mention demonstrate that very thing. People’s hearts were affected only after you dropped an apologetic approach and picked up a testifying approach.

    I believe that’s why the Lord warns us that if we preach “the word of truth” it must be “by the Spirit of truth” because if we try to preach the gospel in “some other way it is not of God.” (D&C 50:17-20). It’s not that the tools of apologetics are inherently bad. They can be useful in helping those within and without the kingdom understand how the gospel harmonizes with reason. But these tools will always be insufficient in preaching because its goal is to help men come unto Christ and be perfected in Him. That can only be accomplished by the Spirit.

  11. Keith on June 11, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Interesting post, Adam.

    It seems to me that one potential problem with argument (apologetic or otherwise) when it comes to the gospel is that one may be won to the faith by the force of argument, rather than the force of the Spirit that bears witness of what has been taught. One is moved to accept the word because of another person’s reasoning, not by their coming to know and have “reasons” of their own. Christian persuasion always has to allow God to do his own work independent of my argument. Christian persuasion, in other words, must be careful not to be too good.

  12. Greg Smith on June 11, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    The key is why Lewis felt as he did:

    I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality–– from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 103.

    One does not–or ought not–to do apologetics to persuade others. One does apologetics (in whatever form) because one is called to bear witness, and different types of witnesses are called for at different times. How one bears that witness, and why, will determine whether the Spirit can bear witness:

    All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one; it is rather a new organization which exploits, to its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. . . . I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious–as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. . . . The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman becomes spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.” – C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War–Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 25–26

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 12:16 am

    People’s hearts were affected only after you dropped an apologetic approach and picked up a testifying approach.

    One thing I wanted to make clear in my post that I didn’t quite was that in these experiences both argumentation *and* testimony were useless as long as they were approaches. I don’t think we’re saying anything differently but I wanted to make sure.

  14. Adam Greenwood on June 12, 2008 at 12:37 am

    Thanks, Greg Smith.

  15. SilverRain on June 12, 2008 at 6:52 am

    The feeling I currently have on this subject is one of empty resignation. I don’t like arguing. I don’t like it at all. I’m not terrible at it, coming from a family of debaters, but I passionately dislike the feeling of contention which so often arises from any attempt at apologetics.

    The balance I have found is to state my case once, address any arising questions once, and then let it go. Most people aren’t in a position to be convinced of anything they’re already convinced against.

  16. StillConfused on June 12, 2008 at 10:30 am

    I think that arguing and contention go against the spirit of God and I find it is never productive.

  17. Rich Knapton on June 12, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I seldom enter into apologetics. A number of you are far better at it than I. However, when I do it is to explain why I believe as I do and not to convince others. When compared to the rich feeling of my testimony, this type of engagement is far less fulfilling.


  18. Adam on June 12, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    Adam G., I had this same conversation this past Sunday with my wife. We were arguing about whether we should go back to our home ward for the last hour or just stay at my in-law’s ward where we were to bless our nephew in sacrament meeting (ironically, we are in Virginia, not Utah, and I was in favor of staying at my in-law’s ward =).

    Back to why I’m sharing this.

    So I used a whole bunch of reasons why we should stay (and they were good ones), but I didn’t share why I really wanted to stay. And I couldn’t convince her. Later I realized I had used reasons that I didn’t really feel, but thought were more powerful in winning the argument. And of course, I apologized later when I realized my folly.

    Perhaps our feelings/instinct are much more in tune with truth than we realize.

  19. Nate Oman on June 12, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    I think that it goes without saying that the best response to anti-Mormon Baptist needling is to tell the needler to go to hell. In the future, I just suggest skipping to this step.

  20. brandon e on June 13, 2008 at 12:56 am

    The intentions are a key part in responding to negativity, or criticism. The doctrine can stand for itself, we often mess things up by having ulterior motives to the debate.

  21. Todd Wood on June 13, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Since we are talking about Baptist anti-Mormonism, may I slip in a word?

    Adam G. and Nate (#19), I do feel the Spirit’s impressing upon me about the realities of hell — that is the crux. And going beyond modern hermeneutics, the scriptures themselves are what offer me no relief in denying hell. In regards to hell and this present dispensation, I wish the torment on no one, especially to those who are strongly anti to the doctrine of eternal punishment.

    And knowing full well that I deserved an eternal hell for my awful offenses against an eternally just God, I can’t get angry when anyone tells me I need to go to hell. Justice would be served.

    Yet where do I even begin on sharing my awe over the substitutionary sacrifice and amazing grace.

    Yes, it was much more than apologetic arguments and typical logic that brought me to this understanding while living in S.E. Idaho.

  22. Seth R. on June 13, 2008 at 2:17 am

    Todd, standing against something will always be a rather inadequate substitute for standing FOR something.

    “You’re going to hell” simply doesn’t work. It’s a poor excuse for true ministry.

  23. Gary on June 13, 2008 at 9:23 am

    No, Todd, you did not deserve to go to hell. That would not be just–it would be monstrously unjust. You would never consign one of your chilren to such a fate. God, whose capacity for love, far exceeds our own, must be devastated that one of his children would think that he would do such a thing.

  24. Todd Wood on June 13, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Seth, Jesus said, “I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”

    Should we not talk about what we are “saved” from? I suppose I could talk about being saved from poverty and poor education (that is one level). But delving into the text, I could talk about being saved from the corrupt laws of men’s religion that only abuse. And then I could talk about how I am being saved from my sin and hell. This is not bad apologetics. This is good testimony that I long to hear in others. I want to hear that they are safe. Completely safe in Christ.

    I don’t know how that you can maintain scripturally that being saved from sin and hell is a “poor excuse for true ministry”. Do we take our cues from cultural attitude or from Jesus?

  25. madera verde on June 13, 2008 at 9:34 am

    G.K. Chesterton wrote that he was never less convinced of christianity than when he read apologetics. To the contrary it was when reading the Dawkins of his day that he became convinced of the truth of christianity.
    I gather that his explanation for that would be that apologetics are based on reason and that reason alone is particularly inhuman.

  26. Todd Wood on June 13, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Gary, I think Jehovah’s suffering Servant went through righteous wrath and hell in Isaiah 53 that should have been mine to bear. I am not innocent. He was.

    The devastating part is that people, even religious people, blow that off. What must the Father think of that rejection?

  27. Todd Wood on June 13, 2008 at 9:39 am

    #25 – I would accept that.

  28. Sumner on June 13, 2008 at 11:12 am


  29. Sumner on June 13, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Doesn’t the meaning of the word argue mean, “to put forth reasons for or against” or “give evidence” or “persuade or influence”. If these are the guidelines that apologetics follow than by all means go ahead and more than that we need them. I think we get mad at apologetics when they committ certain fallacies, the most common I think is attacking the character of the person. The quote from C.S. Lewis makes me laugh, its a great quote but has anyone read mere christianity.
    I served my mission in Idaho and anti-mormon material was everywhere. Almost every investigator seemed to get a book or a video from a concerned friend when they were learning about the book of mormon. Some of these good people came to us missionaries and asked, “can you please help me explain this?”, they were not saying, ” Aha I knew it you are wrong”. Praying about things and having faith in something an be assisted by information. I remember I taught a man who was raised to believe magic was of the devil and mystism was evil and so Joseph Smith wearing a magic necklace really bothered him. I found an article regarding why and gave it him and said, ” I don’t know why Joseph Smith owned a jupiter talisman but I know he was a prophet but here is someones perspective on it if it helps”. I have to go back to work but it has its place

  30. Greg Smith on June 13, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    The quote from C.S. Lewis makes me laugh, its a great quote but has anyone read mere christianity.

    There’s no question that Lewis was an apologist, and a good one. It’s also clear that he considered it the duty of some Christians to carry on apologetics.

    To be ignorant and simple now–not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground–would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. – C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War–Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 28

    His statement is, I think, a warning. Apologetics can be a spiritually hazardous occupation. (This is especially true in Mormon apologetics, because one must sometimes wade through the sewer that is anti-Mormonism.) Like many things, the spirit and intent behind which one conducts apologetics is key, which I think was what Lewis was warning about.


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