Thursday 29 December 2011

Six problems for modern Christian apologists - and a solution?


Historical Christianity came into an already religious world and won converts from Jews and then pagans - the modern situation of converting secular, materialist, utilitarian hedonists is very different:


1. Paganism absent

Christianity is a much bigger jump from secular modernity than from paganism. Christianity seemed like a completion of paganism - a step or two further in the same direction and building on what was already there: souls and their survival beyond death, the intrinsic nature of sin, the activities of invisible powers and so on. With moderns there is nothing to build on (except perhaps childhood memories or alternative realities glimpsed through art and literature).


2.  Incomplete

Modern Christianity as experienced by converts tends to be incomplete - precisely because modern Christianity has nothing to build on. This means that modern incomplete Christianity lacks explanatory power, seems to have little or nothing to say about what seem to be the main problems of living. For example, modern Christianity seems to have nothing to do with politics, law, art, philosophy or science; to inhabit a tiny, shrinking realm cut-off from daily concerns. Modern Christianity often deletes miracles; original sin; the virgin birth, the incarnation and dual nature of Christ; Christ's death, resurrection and atonement; the Holy Trinity; angels, demons and unseen spiritual warfare and so on - yet without these and other elements, Christianity does not really hang-together nor does it satisfy human yearning.


3. Shallowness.

Modern Christianity often feels shallow - it seems to rely on diktat of scripture and the Church - this is because moderns lack a basis in the spontaneous perceptions of Natural Law, animism, the sense of active supernatural power in everyday life. Modern Christianity (after the first flush of the conversion experience) thus feels dry, abstract, legalistic, prohibitive, uninvolving, lacking in purpose. 


4. Judaism absent.

Modern Christianity has to do without the centuries of Jewish tradition developing an understanding of the nature of God, the prophets and their prophecies, the devotional life of the Psalms etc; but modern Christians have to discover all this from scratch and for themselves, and often do not.


5. Confusion.

Modern life is hedonic, distracted - often drugged. Consequently people are often unclear about the nature of life. On top of this, in recent decades the prevalent ruling culture has been actively against the Good. Modern art is anti-beauty, modern philosophies are anti-truth, modern morality is an inversion of Natural Law. Propaganda (implicit and explicit) inculcates that the spontaneous ideals of humans (native religion, sex differentials, family, nation, loyalty, courage) are wrong. In sum moderns are deeply (deliberately) confused about deep matters. Therefore, modern Christian apologists have to explain the human condition, the basic nature of life; before explaining how Christianity is the answer.


6. Anti-Christian inoculation

The ruling culture now inoculates specifically against Christianity and the prerequisites of Christianity. It supplies ready-made arguments grounded in modern materialist hedonism to be used against all evidence or steps in argument that might lead to Christianity if rigorously followed. Christian apologetics cannot advance one step without eliciting these slogans, and modern impatience, distractability and a short attention span does the rest. That these hedonic materialist arguments are circular, incoherent and ungrounded is irrelevant in practice; because they effectively block the development of an alternative metaphysics from which their invalidity would be apparent.


In sum - modern Christianity lacks both pull and push - it lacks the pull which comes from people being grounded in Paganism and Judaism; and it lacks the push of being a complex and complete explanation of the human condition, relations, meanings and purposes.  If apologists both know and also attempt to supply all of this, to supply the depth and completeness of Christianity, they find they cannot do so all at once. If they try to be exact and comprehensive, the apologist comes-up against the modern inability to follow a long and complex line of argument; yet if he tries to present Christianity all at once then what can be communicated is inevitably a gross simplification: incomplete and shallow.


So what is the answer? If the fullness is too complex and the essence is incomplete?

And since people cannot become like pagans or ancient Jews - from where could they start?

Perhaps as children again, children re-awoken and reborn in us; since children have spontaneously the prerequisites which our culture fails to provide and has suppressed:

Mark 10.13-16

And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.


How strange that children should be our repositories of ancient wisdom - and childhood memories the basis of salvation; but there it is, explicitly - Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein....



SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,

I follow and concur with your analysis, but I think you have missed something very large.

The modern world is in fact full of pagans.

Some of them actually call themselves so.

I refer to the very popular New Age tendency.

They accept the existence of a spiritual world.

They accept the special nature of Christ.

They accept intercourse between the spiritual and earthly world.

They accept the possibility of miracles, miraculous cures, resurrection and much else.

They accept the need for spiritual discipline.

Etc. etc.

There are millions of these people.

In many ways I am one of them.

How can you convince me to climb on your bandwagon and abandon theirs?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - New Age is not truly pagan - because neo-pagans do not *fear* their 'gods'.

Real paganism is all about propitiation and is pessimistic about life and the after life.

(I have blogged many times before on real paganism and neo-paganism/ New Age - if you do word searches on these you could find them).

"In many ways I am one of them.
How can you convince me to climb on your bandwagon and abandon theirs? "

If you believed those things you list, then you would not remain a pagan (not want to remain a pagan) *if* or when you understand Christianity.

So you will sooner or later become a Christian (and attain salvation) if you remain a sincere seeker of truth.

I'm not worried about you - you'll get t/here if you stay honest!

PhilR said...

Spot on and deeply depressing. It really does seem as though Christ is the answer to the questions no one is asking.

Anonymous said...

Modern Christianity has to do without the centuries of Jewish tradition developing an understanding of the nature of God...

The history of the Jews shows that they kept straying as far from God as possible.

Jesus sought to replace Judaism.

If Judaism were *really* absent, that would be closer to Jesus' intention than the current state of affairs.

But in fact Judaism is prevalent in the modern West. Jewish values put menorahs on the White House lawn.

If anything, Judaism has stamped out the old Christianity, and left a "Vichy Christianity" in its place.

tenkev said...

What are you describing as Modern Christianity seems to me a description of Protestantism. The answer then would be for apologists to speak from the fullness of the faith, the holy mother Church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@pg - hat just sounds bizarre to me. Judaism is Orthodox Judaism at least (not Reformed) - the Chief Rabbi is Jonathan Sacks, a very decent character and more honest than any comparable public figure in the UK.

Judaism is a religion with distinctive characteristics that are not at all prevalent in the modern West. It is a minority thing. The ultra-Orthodox are certainly growing very fast - by ultra-high fertility, but remain a minuscule and quiet minority.

Also, the fate of Judaism is linked with Christianity, and the Biblical prophecies say that it will endure until the end of the end times. Indeed, the rebuilding of the Temple is supposed to be one of the defining events - although prophecies have a way of fulfilling themselves in unexpected ways...

Cameron said...

Bruce, I think pg is comparing Old Testament Judaism to modern Talmud Judaism.

The case could be made that Christianity and modern Judaism were both religions that evolved out of the Old Testament. For some reason a lot of people seem to assume that modern Judaism has an unbroken line to the pre=Christ Old Testament Judaism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tenkev - I agree that Protestantism is radically deficient if strictly followed - on the other hand the average level of devoutness seems much higher. The Roman Catholic Church contains all the good stuff, but does not much emphasize it - since it has become terribly lax, liberalized and legalistic. Orthodoxy is potentially the highest form but depends on harmony with the state, which perhaps needs to be a divinely-ordained monarchy.

There is no easy answer!

But (for example) CS Lewis did well with a *mixture* of Protestant and Catholic elements - and by his writings has become a kind of spiritual father to the West - and introduced many people to the fullness of which Christianity is capable.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Cameron - good point. I was surprised to find out much the idea of Sheol (Hades/ Hell) had changed (apparently in medieval times), and that ultra-Orthodox Judaism has a 'heaven' which superficially sounded similar to the Christian one. But I am no expert...

Cameron said...

While I'm at it Bruce I must thank you for this blog. It has been of a great sustenance and inspiration to me.

PS- While we're discussing the eternal: Check out some of the Aus v. Ind highlights from the 1st Test. Closest fought Test Match I've seen in Australia for some time. Though only a 4 dayer!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Cameron - You're welcome. Yes, I've been following the reports and highlights. Both India and Australia (the two best batting sides for the past couple of decades) have got much worse at Test cricket quite fast, and pretty much kept pace with each others decline - it makes for exciting cricket.

And a smug sense of English superiority, too; because from both teams combined only Dravid (but where?), and maybe Watson (at number 6, replacing Morgan) might get into the English side!

Cameron said...


I thought you were bound to get me over the 'closest fought Test' comment. Something like 'that's because England toured last summer'.

In Australia's declining defence I'd like to think our great players retired a few years ago now and we are now on the rebound.

Though the batting is a massive worry and Ponting was the difference , with twin 50's, between victory and defeat in this Test. As for our bowlers we actually pitched it up there for once rather than worrying about the modern day mantra of 'length'. Lo and behold we bowled the Indians out.

Fingers crossed and we get a competitive Ashes next year...and Pattinson and Warner can make your team by then!

SonofMoses said...

Now I know your true religion, Bruce.

And you've had me fooled all these years!

Anonymous said...

This is one of your finest, Bruce. Thank you for sharing.

By the way, I agree with Cameron. There are three religions: the religion of ancient Israel, Judaism and Christianity. The two latter derive from the former.

Although Judaism tries to identify itself with the religion of ancient Israel, it is in fact a different religion, which is more centered on the Misnah than on the Torah.

After the destruction of the Temple, the ancient religion of Israel became impossible. This is why modern Judaism and Christianity were born and integrated parts of the ancient religion.

The fact that "Judaism" is often used to refer to the ancient religion of Israel muddles things.

Bruce Charlton said...

The question is whether the *essence* of Judaism has changed.

The same argument rages within Christianity, it has changed, it is extremely different in its branches - some parts retain the essence, others not.

Kristor said...

Bruce, you've pretty completely explicated the scope of the problem. There is yet one further thing, I think: miseducation. No one today is taught how to think, or about the history of thought.

So, almost no one knows how to reason. If you explain to them how their doctrines contradict each other, or refute themselves, they can't see it.

And, they are ignorant. Almost no one today is educated about much of anything that happened before 1700. What they have been taught is often simply wrong.

This means there is literally no way to get started on the apologetical project. There is no commonly known language in which the discourse will be understandable.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor (good to hear from you!)

I tend to think that the 'mis' of the education is the key - people 'know' plenty about the past, but framed such that they know in advance that all the past has been implicitly superceded.

(Especially morally - the average teenager is put in judgment over the whole of human history, to see how well it matches-up to his own ideas. This is applies to everything - so in learning about religions the teenager is checking whether God measures-up to the teenager's standard of thought and behaviour. Was God a sexist or racist, perhaps; or can he be excused as a victim of his benighted era?...).

(To say that this is to inculcate the - worst - sin of Pride is to put things very mildly! Has there ever been a society which systematically set out to train children into the habitual belief in their own superiority over all previous generations? I know adolescents are like that anyway - but why make teen 'self-esteem' the focus of so much propaganda? Well - the answer is simple enough when you realize whose agenda is being pursued - who, after all, would want each and every human to be consumed by the worst of all sins?)

"So, almost no one knows how to reason. If you explain to them how their doctrines contradict each other, or refute themselves, they can't see it."

This is the thing. What I sense in such discourse is a tremendous *impatience* - a demand that the argument be presented in one brief sentence (sound bite), or else it is regarded as obvious nonsense.

And to present any different 'ideology' in one sentence does always sound either like nonsense or else irrelevant.

So, I assume people start out able to think well enough to understand what they need to understand, but that this ability is wrecked. As you say it is an active mis-education. The main agent is the mass media. It is my impression that those outwith the media can still think, just the same as ever

(doesn't mean they always get everything right of course - but their ignorance and errors are *reasonable*, plausible (hence potentially correctable, indeed self-correcting) and not systematically and delusionally insane, like the errors propagated by the mass media).

Pierre said...

"Apostasy is allowed by God: do not attempt to stop it with your feeble hand. But remove yourself from it, and guard yourself."
--St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

"Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved."
--St. Seraphim of Sarov

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Bruce. As far as I know, Judaism after the Council of Jamnia and the religion of Israel are very different.

But how do you define the "essence" of a religion?

Anonymous said...

What I sense in such discourse is a tremendous *impatience* - a demand that the argument be presented in one brief sentence (sound bite), or else it is regarded as obvious nonsense.

New generations are unable to grasp a complicate argument because:

1) Modern society completely stifles the ability of abstraction, that is, of imagination, i.e, of thinking about things you cannot see (like God, metaphysics, the electromagnetic field or the objects in a software program).

Imagination is a by-product of a culture centered on the word, whether it is an oral world (H-G) or a written word (books). In an audiovisual world, you don't have to imagine: you see everything. For me, it was TV who killed God (à la Nietzsche).

2) Modern society completely stifles the ability of processing information. The overload of information and the pressures of daily life don't give you time to think about information deeply and calmly. You have to process quickly a piece of information and do something about it and then rush to process the next piece of information. Thoughts are half-baked. The attention span is ridiculously short.

3) The powers have taken advantage of this historical developments designing

3a) an education that ignores methaphysics and do not teach to think but to apply pre-made ideas, procedures and formulas.

3b) a worldview where metaphysics is regarded as fairy tales and the myth of progress is elevated to a dogma ("everything old has been overcome")

To these generations who are unable to process the simplest arguments, the powers have built slogans that are basic enough for them to grasp. "Freedom is doing whatever you want, as long you don't harm everyone else", "All cultures are equal", "All kinds of families are equal", "Don't judge", "You only have only life: take advantage of it".

The result of all this: Ideology has become imagology, as Kundera said. There are no ideas but images: a dove of peace, the image of a starving African child compared with the image of the Pope with his ritual clothes, slogans shared through Facebook (like, etc.

One hundred years ago, it is likely that an educated leftist had read "The Capital" of Karl Marx, which is a flawed but complicated argument (or, at least, "The Communist Manifesto"). Today an educated leftist feeds himself with slogans, simple ideas, Facebook quotes and so on and so forth.

Politics have been reduced to image (Obama as a young energetic man), to simple bites and simple sentences. You only have to compare the Lincoln language with today's politician's language.


Anonymous said...

The question is whether the *essence* of Judaism has changed.

The Old Testament spans a long, long period of history with many versions of Judaism.

None of the ancient forms of Judaism are medieval Talmudism, but perhaps medieval Talmudism can be considered more or less the same thing as modern Talmudism.

@Cameron: thanks for your comment; it helped me organize my thoughts.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Pierre - thanks for this. By 'coincidence' I was reading exactly that first quote just two days ago, here:


@ Anon 12.46 (Please use a pseudonym).

The essence of a religion is one of those things that cannot (necessarily) be defined. If it could, life would be simpler; but presumably that is not the intention...

Vladimir said...

I have been struggling to gain a foothold in faith, having realised that I don't (didn't) actually believe in anything. And thus I seek reconnection with truth. It is already obvious that this is a good and right thing to do.

But it's a struggle, because when I attend church, I often feel like I am being a bit silly, because the things I am told seem... implausible. I get the same sense when I read the Bible. I cannot shake the rational materialist part of my mind, telling me that events described have been exaggerated or distorted by the passage of time, most particularly the time before the gospels were written down. People are prone to such distortions, perhaps especially in the service of what they believe is good. It is not easy to believe that the most major details of the message have been carried correctly when the minor details are suspect.

How is your mind settled on such matters, Professor Charlton?

I'd hoped that reading C.S. Lewis's books would help, but other "rational materialists" point out that his interpretation of scripture are not in line with the Bible itself. For instance, C.S. Lewis's hell is a place apart from God to which people have condemned themselves, whereas Jesus's hell is apparently a place of fire where God sends the goats after dividing them from the sheep. The C.S. Lewis explanation makes sense to me, and may well have been what Jesus meant, but if so, then what he said must have been distorted by confusion between metaphor and fact. It is hard to seek truth when faced with this sort of thing. I worry about believing not in the real Jesus, but in a false Jesus existing only in my mind.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Vladimir - Don't worry too much but keep seeking. You may be miserable, but He who seeks WILL find.

The tradition of understanding scripture is broken, and we cannot just pick up the Bible and read and expect it to be lucid in the same way that the daily newspapers seem lucid.

You need a spiritual advisor - whether living or dead; Lewis is a good one.

Only disbelieve Lewis if or when the person who disagrees with him is of greater SPIRITUAL authority (in your best judgment).

Don't be swayed by logic, evidence or rhetoric - no matter how *apparently* convincing - when it comes from an untrustworthy source or a source of unknown authority. (There are too many possible tricks and errors and distortions; and you cannot trust yourself to detect them.)

Anonymous said...


Welcome to the club. I am exactly in the same position as you.

Besides what Bruce said, it gets better over time. For all your life you have trained your mind to be a materialist. It takes time to undo the programming.

It helps to read books of apologetics, like C.S. Lewis' books and others. It also helps to think that a man trying to understand God is like a dog trying to understand man: there are things that are beyond our logic so we think they are absurd..

I guess if a dog saw me when I get home, he would think: "This guy is crazy. He has a chunk of meat and he does not eat it. The meat will become rotten". The dog cannot understand that I have a freezer where I put my meat so it remains good to be eaten. This is beyond his logic, as literature or mathematics are.

Having said that, this is my experience and I defer to Bruce to see if I am right. The same way Bruce admits C.S.Lewis has a greater spiritual authority, Bruce has a greater spiritual authority than me.


Pierre said...

I would recommend You the writings by Lev Shestov - a Russian theist of Jewish descent. His book (I bought them all translated) helped me overcome the scientist/logicist nebula of my mind and urged me to read the New Testament; thus I left the nihilism that was suffocating me in my early 20's behind.

Other useful readings are Blaise Pascal's "Pensees" and Fr. Seraphim Rose's "Nihilism". Read also Dostoevsky's novels, especially the "Notes from the Underground" and "The Karamazov Brothers".

Blaise Pascal:

Fr. Seraphim Rose:

Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Archimandrite Justin Popovich:

(read "Orthodoxy: The Philosophy of Life"; sorry, there's only the foreword and two of the chapters available)

Pierre said...

"It seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms."

Simone Weil (1909 - 1943)

Pierre said...

Imnobody wrote:
"The overload of information and the pressures of daily life don't give you time to think about information deeply and calmly."

Christ said:
"Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42)

"Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
If God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?" (Matt. 6:26/30)

But we (almost) all forget that... and wait for another antichrist/utopia/bright tomorrow to turn the stones into loafs of bread (while "occupying" something).

Vladimir said...

Thankyou all for your advice.

I'll be thinking further about it all, and will try reading some of the suggested books... a good use for the new Kindle!