In a recent interview with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis caused waves among both Christians and Christianity’s detractors in his apparent condemnation of those who actively seek to convert others to Christianity. “Proselytism is solemn nonsense,” said Pope Francis,
it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.
Though many Christians have criticized the Pope’s statement as one that might dissuade Christians from missionary work, his thoughts, in fact, reflect a return to an often forgotten and far more efficient form of missionary and evangelistic work.
Apologetics is now almost exclusively identified with rational argumentation which seeks to persuade others to give intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity. The definition of “apologetics” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is “systematic argumentative discourse in defense (as of doctrine).” A Google search of the term brings up a similar definition alongside links to websites of writers and speakers like Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias, and William Lane Craig, who are famous for their reasoned defenses of and arguments for the doctrines of Christianity.
This identification of apologetics solely with rational argumentation is a dangerous course. This rationalistic apologetics has overemphasized the rational faculty in man and the place of intellectual understanding of and assent to Christian doctrines. It has failed to engage the full human being. The legacy of rationalistic apologetics has been nominalism among Christians, who have come to believe that mere intellectual assent and outward practice are adequate to the Christian life, and atheism, the rejection of faith altogether, by those who are unconvinced by the rational arguments which have been offered. There is even a nominalism among evangelists, as Father William F. Lynch has noted, as many of these have become “more interested in baptismal statistics than in people.” Pope Francis’s comments urge us to renounce rationalistic apologetics and return to a more complete and effective apologetics, which might be termed existential apologetics, that seek to address the human being not only in his rational faculty but in total, including his experience and his emotions.
Two Contrasting Examples
The Russian Primary Chronicle, an early and often legendary history of Kievan Rus’, and William of Rubruck’s account of the Mongols are two documents, written only 100 years apart, each of which records an attempt by Christians to persuade the leader of a nation to convert to Christianity. In his account, William of Rubruck records the failure of his and his fellow Christians’ attempts via rational argumentation to persuade a group of Muslims and Buddhists as well as the Khan of the Mongols to convert to Christianity. The Russian Primary Chronicle, on the other hand, records the successful attempts of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the clergy of the Hagia Sophia to persuade a delegation sent by Vladimir, the Prince of Kievan Rus’, to convert to Christianity; their approach, quite different from that of William and his fellows, is simply to expose them to the beauty of Eastern Christian worship spaces and services. When contrasted, these two accounts present representative examples of the nature and efficacy of the two types of apologetics.
William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols
William of Rubruck was a 13th century Franciscan missionary who traveled from France to Constantinople and finally to Mongolia as he followed a desire to convert the Mongols to Christianity. During his stay in Karakorum, the location of the court of the Mongol Khan, he was invited by the Khan to participate in a debate between representatives of the three major religious groups of Mongolia: Nestorian Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. His own memory of this debate provides us with an example of the failure of rationalistic apologetics.
According to William, he was able to so thoroughly refute the arguments of his primary Buddhist interlocutor that the man had to scramble desperately for answers and finally “remained speechless.” He and the other Christians then turned to the Muslims, who refused to argue with them, insisting that they believed the Gospel to be true in addition to their own religion. At this point, says William, the Nestorian Christians began to address
an old priest of the Iugurs, who say there is one god, though they make idols; they spoke at great length with him, telling him of all things down to the coming of the Antichrist into the world, and by comparisons demonstrating the Trinity to him and the Saracens. They all listened without making any contradiction, but no one said: “I believe; I want to become a Christian.” When this was over, the Nestorians as well as the Saracens sang with a loud voice; while the Tuins kept silence, and after that they all drank deeply.
The story of William of Rubruck is demonstrative of the inability of rationalistic apologetics to bring people to a true acceptance of the Christian faith. Rationalistic apologetics may, as in William’s account, silence some of the purveyors of certain simplistic arguments against Christianity and even persuade some to give intellectual assent to specific doctrines of Christianity, but it is incapable of convincing a person to make the kind of radical change in their life which a conversion to Christianity entails.
The Russian Primary Chronicle
Compiled near the opening of the 12th century, the Russian Primary Chronicle records a sometimes legendary history of the Kievan Rus’ from the 9th through 12th centuries. One of the most remarkable of the events it records is the search of Vladimir, the Prince of Kievan Rus’, to find the true religion. In his quest, he sent a delegation to learn about the religious customs of the nations around his kingdom: the Roman Catholic Germans, the Muslim Bulgars, and the Eastern Orthodox Greeks. Upon their return, they reported to their prince what they had witnessed and learned.
Their reports of both the Roman Catholics and the Muslims were terse and overwhelmingly negative. Of the Muslims, the delegation reported that they were unimpressed with their worship services and that “there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench.” From this they concluded, “their religion is not good.” After their sojourn among the Bulgars, the delegation travelled to Germany to learn about Catholicism. About this, their only comment is “then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there.”
These impressions of the Russian delegation are indicative of their assumptions and their desires in their search. Their conclusion that the Muslim “religion is not good” is derived from their observation that “there is no happiness among” Muslims. Underlying such an inference is the assumption that a good or true religion must produce happiness in its adherents. Similarly, the note that they “beheld no glory” in the Catholic worship services they attended is a vague but no less illustrative observation. The delegation was concerned primarily with fulfilling an existential longing for happiness, fulfillment, and transcendence, rather than what was rationally appealing or persuasive.
While many elements of the story reflect a uniquely Russian character and there is, no doubt, a great deal of anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic polemic at play here, the basic assumptions expressed in these comments on Islam and Catholicism are representative of universal desires and assumptions. One recent survey, for example, found that
the [religiously] unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another. Those who leave the ranks of the unaffiliated cite several reasons for joining a faith, such as the attraction of religious services and styles of worship (74%), having been spiritually unfulfilled while unaffiliated (51%) or feeling called by God (55%).
In other words, those who move from unbelief to belief overwhelmingly do so because they are seeking beauty, fulfillment, and transcendence. There is here a basic assumption that what is beautiful, fulfilling, and evocative of awe must be what is true. This is precisely the same set of assumptions with which the delegates of Prince Vladimir went about their task and it was these things which they found in the worship of the Greeks they witnessed in Constantinople.
According to the Primary Chronicle,
the Emperor sent a message to the Patriarch to inform him that a Rus’ delegation had arrived to examine the Greek faith, and directed him to prepare the church and the clergy, and to array himself in his sacerdotal robes, so that the Rus’ might behold the glory of the God of the Greeks. When the Patriarch received these commands, he bade the clergy assemble, and they performed the customary rites. They burned incense, and the choirs sang hymns. The Emperor accompanied the Rus’ to the church, and placed them in a wide space, calling their attention to the beauty of the edifice, the chanting, and the pontifical services and the ministry of the deacons, while he explained to them the worship of his God. The Rus’ were astonished, and in their wonder praised the Greek ceremonial.
In their actions, the Emperor and the Patriarch fulfilled with precision the biblical admonition to apologetics: “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” They demonstrated to the Rus’ delegation that the reason for their hope was coterminous with the sanctification of God. The effect of this exhibition on the delegation is evident in their words to Prince Vladimir upon their return home. Upon entering one of the churches, they said,
we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.
The delegation from Kievan Rus’ had been so overawed by the beauty of Christians at worship that they had become convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. The existential apologetics of the Byzantine Emperor and Patriarch worked in the opposite direction of the rationalistic apologetics of William of Rubruck, and to much greater effect. Where William of Rubruck had tried to convince the Mongols of the reasonableness of the doctrines of Christianity in order to lead them to an embrace of the Christian life, the Byzantine Emperor and Patriarch had shown the Kievan Rus’ the fulfillment, beauty, and joy of a Christian life and they had thereby become willing to adopt the doctrines of Christianity as their own.
Conversion According to St. Augustine of Hippo
In his writings, St. Augustine of Hippo provides a great deal of insightful analysis of the process of conversion to Christianity. He derived his insights primarily from his own experience as one who had become convinced of the correctness of Christian doctrine well before he made the move to embrace a Christian life. His descriptions of the process of conversion provide experiences and observations that are valuable sources for a proper approach to apologetics.
Fear to Wisdom in On Christian Doctrine
In book two, chapter seven, of his On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine of Hippo provides a short but illuminating description of the processes of conversion and spiritual development from their earliest stages to their most advanced. He bases his remarks on the assertion of Psalm 111:10 that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (KJV). Out of this scriptural assertion, St. Augustine draws a seven step process from the fear of God to wisdom, which he describes as “the seventh and last step” in which the Christian “enjoys … peace and tranquility.” Although his entire description is immensely penetrating and fascinating, his description of the first four steps of the process hold particular value in an exploration of the use and nature of apologetics.
The first step in this process, according to Augustine, is the fear of God, which “will of necessity excite in us the thought of our own mortality and of the death that is before us.” Fear of God, then, for Augustine, is synonymous with fear of death. Humans fear death because, whether they realize it or not, and even if they disbelieve in it, they naturally fear the entrance into the presence of God which occurs upon their bodily death. Fear of death is fear of standing before God in judgment. Once such a fear takes hold in a person, he will “seek the knowledge of His [God’s] will, what He commands us to desire and what to avoid.”
This is the point at which, according to Augustine, one enters the second step, piety, which is the desire to avoid sin and to do good, motivated by fear of damnation and hope of reward after death. “Fear,” says Augustine, “leads him [the Christian] to think of the judgment of God, and … piety … gives him no option but to believe in and submit to the authority of Scripture.” The coupling of the two, in turn, “compel[s] him to bewail his condition.”
This, Augustine goes on, is the third step, knowledge, which is a knowledge of the condition of fallen humanity in separation from God. The fear which began this spiritual journey has not subsided or weakened; instead, it is exacerbated and widened. The Christian, at this third step, sees how thoroughly “entangled in the love of this world — i.e. of temporal things –” he is and how far this love of the world has driven him “from such a love for God and such a love for his neighbor as Scripture enjoins.” He sees how great the distance is between what is commanded of him and what he able to do through his own effort. Only “unremitting prayers” and God’s help prevent him from being “overwhelmed in despair” at this point.
There are three possible routes which can be taken at this point. One is to fall away into despair and reject faith altogether. Another is for the Christian to fall back into an earlier step and remain there, becoming a nominal Christian who practices only the externals of the religion. The only way to progress deeper and higher into the spiritual life, however, is for the Christian to make the leap of faith described by Søren Kierkegaard throughout his works. The external piety which has been practiced thus far must, as Kierkegaard says, act as “the role call that brings the soldier to his feet,” the “externality” of piety exciting the Christian to “inwardness” of faith. St. Seraphim of Sarov, a 19th century Russian mystic, succinctly described the purpose of externality and the movement to inwardness:
Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.
The Christian who is willing to make this leap of faith moves on to the fourth step of Augustine’s process, strength and resolution, “in which he hungers and thirsts after righteousness.” In his thirst, he turns away from earthly things, places his trust in God, and focuses on God only, seeking with renewed vigor to follow God’s commands.
These initial four steps in the spiritual life as described by St. Augustine can concisely be summarized as a movement from existential crisis to external observance and from external observance through a further and deeper existential crisis to what can finally accurately be referred to as faith. Notably, the only step in the process which Augustine insists involves giving intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity is the second, the step of piety, or external observance. And the sort of intellectual assent which Augustine requires is not that one be convinced of the ultimate truth or even philosophical soundness of Christian doctrine, but, rather, “not to run in the face of Holy Scripture … as if we could be wiser and give better commands ourselves.” In other words, Augustine insists here on submission and trust, not rational persuasion and conviction. The purveyor of rationalistic apologetics, then, is attempting to bring others into the conversion process at the second step without passing through the first, an impossibility itself, and is insisting on intellectual assent rather than obedience, on the shallow and flimsy rather than the effective and enduring.
The points at which apologetics properly enter into this process of conversion are during the two periods of existential crises, particularly the first. It is at these times that Pope Francis’s desire to “get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us” are especially important for both parties. Perhaps the first job of the Christian apologist is to evoke this desire in others and stoke the flame once it begins to burn. The greatest hurdles in the conversion process are the indifference, ignorance, and facile perceptions of the world and human life which allow one to persist in a state of unconcerned unbelief or even nominal Christian affiliation. Without overcoming these hurdles, the recognition of one’s own mortality found in the first step remains impossible.
The job of the Christian apologist at these points is also to be willing to listen to and identify with the concerns of those undergoing such a crisis. Christianity is a more complete, and more fully human, worldview than unbelief in that Christianity embraces the totality of the human experience, whereas any atheistic philosophy only embraces a small portion of it. As G.K. Chesterton points out in his Orthodoxy, “there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism.” Whereas the materialist must automatically deny and dismiss any report of a spiritual experience, the Christian readily affirms, for example, the experiences of isolation, despair, and doubt that pervade the atheistic worldview. All of these are quite real and even indispensable aspects of the human experience. There is no need for the Christian to deny the legitimacy of the atheist’s assertions that his everyday experience indicates no existence of any divinity and that the suffering of the mass of humanity cries out in rebellion against cosmic mercy and justice. These, indeed, are experiences the Christian himself, as a student of the human condition, should enter into and readily acknowledge. As Leland Ryken points out, “to understand the universal human condition is something that Christians owe to themselves and to the human race, and it is an obligation imposed on them by the Christian faith itself.”
Finally, the job of the Christian apologist during these existential crises is to show the alternative. In his first letter, St. Peter orders Christian to be “honest among the Gentiles: that … they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” C.S. Lewis’s reference to salvation as a “good infection” which entered humanity via the Incarnation of Christ is an allegory illustrative of the work of the apologist at this point. By cultivating the “infection” of holiness, the apologist becomes someone who carries and spreads the “infection.” In the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, “acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved.” This is also exactly what the Patriarch and Emperor of Constantinople were doing when they showed their worship services to the delegation from Kievan Rus.’
St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions
St. Augustine’s record of his own conversion to Christianity also demonstrates the effectiveness of the existential over the rational. According to Augustine’s own account, his conversion to Christianity was a long process of struggle with intellectual assent that finally culminated in an existential crisis.
Augustine was raised by a Christian mother and was, therefore, familiar with the doctrines of Christianity from an early age. He remained unconvinced by them, however, and found what he believed were more sound doctrines in Manichaeism and, later, Neoplatonism. Even the eloquent and persuasive preaching of St. Ambrose of Milan, of which Augustine describes himself in book five, chapter 13, of his Confessions as “a careless and contemptuous spectator,” was insufficient to convince Augustine of the truth of Christian doctrines. Ultimately, though he found the other religions and philosophies spiritually unfulfilling, he continued to struggle to give intellectual assent to Christian doctrines which he found confusing and contrary to reason.
What finally convinced him to convert to Christianity was not that he was able to work out the last of the doubts he had concerning Christian doctrine and come to a rational understanding of the faith, but instead a combination of exposure to holiness and an existential crisis. His exposure to holiness came through a Christian friend who told him the story of St. Anthony the Great, one of the first of the Egyptian monks who founded Christian monasticism. This story, according to Augustine’s own account in book eight, chapter six, of his Confessions, caused him to be “amazed” and listen in “wonder.”
After this, the existential crisis which he was undergoing as a result of doubts about questions of truth and morality reached a zenith. As he describes it in chapter 12 of the same book, “a profound reflection had, from the secret depths of my soul, drawn together and heaped up all my misery before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by as mighty a shower of tears.” In such a state, he heard a child outside of his window, chanting “take up and read” and interpreted this as a command given to him by God. At this, he opened the Bible and read the first passage his eyes fell on, Romans 13:13-14: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” At this, says Augustine, “instantly, as the sentence ended,—by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart,—all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” The apologetics of St. Paul, an existential apologetics rather than a rationalistic apologetics, had brought Augustine to finally convert to Christianity.
From a very early point in the history of Christianity, Christian intellectuals sought to make Christianity appear reasonable to their non-Christian neighbors. St. Justin Martyr, Origen, and other Christians of the second and third centuries sought to demonstrate that Christianity’s doctrines posed a real challenge and a meaningful alternative to the various pagan philosophies of ancient Rome as well as Judaism. During the Middle Ages, especially, rationalistic apologetics came to the fore with the works of Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury, who attempted to demonstrate the compatibility of faith and reason. In their work, they ended up attempting to prove by “reason alone” what can only be understood or proven by faith alone. It is faith, after all, says Scripture, which is “the evidence of things not seen.”
The legacy of the endeavor of rationalistic apologetics has been doubt, nominalism, and apostasy. Already before Christ, Cicero, in his dialogue on The Nature of the Gods, pointed out that very act of attempting to prove, for example, the existence of God through rational argumentation involves an admission that there is some possibility that God does not exist. “You deploy all these arguments to prove that divine beings exist,” says one of the characters in his dialogue to another, “but by these very arguments you cast doubt on something which to my mind is not doubtful at all.” The character who is being addressed has, even in attempting to prove that God does exist, placed his own individual reason above the collective experience of mankind, thereby making what is, from the perspective of this collective experience, quite obvious into something that is doubtfully, even if only partially.
Wise Christians of every generation, however, have insisted that faith must precede reason. Even Origen, whose works often focused on making Christianity appear reasonable to non-Christians, warned in his On First Principles, book four, chapter one, that the belief which comes through “rhetorical arts or by the wisdom of philosophy” is not the true faith which is attained by “the manifestation of the Spirit and of power.”
If what a Christian apologist really wishes is to bring people to salvation, it is precisely the kind of existential apologetics proposed by Pope Francis which he must take up. The Christian who wishes to share his faith with others should become an attentive student of the human condition and a walking example of holiness. He should be willing to learn from others as well as to teach when called upon to do so. He should be a constant reminder, through his words and actions, that human life is valuable and meaningful and that there is such a thing as “The Good.”. William J. Vande Kopple has argued that all of this is a kind of sacred duty for the Christian, urging “we must keep a covenant with each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other to express views of reality, listening to each other, making sure we understand each other, and correcting each other.” It is through this direct engagement with others on the most human level that the Christian apologist can inspire others to take the first step on the path to wisdom.
3 William F. Lynch, Christ & Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004), 17.
4 William of Rubruck, William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols, University of Washington, William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols, trans. Peter Jackson, ed. Lance Jenott, comp. Janeen Richards, April 2002, under “Religious debate at court,” accessed November 14, 2013, http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/rubruck.html.
10 Cross, Rus’ Primary Chronicle, 10.
11 1 Pet. 3:15 (King James Version).
12 Cross, Rus’ Primary Chronicle, 10-11.
13 Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, trans. J.F. Shaw (New York: Digireads.com Publishing, 2009), 29.
14 Ibid., 28.
20 Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. 12.1, Kierkegaard’s Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 382.
22 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 28.
24 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1909), 41.
25 Leland Ryken, “Formalist and Archetypal Criticism,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 19.
26 2 Pet. 2:12.
27 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 172.
28 St. Seraphim of Sarov, quoted in Chad Hatfield, “Evangelism,” in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, ed. John Anthony. McGuckin, 1st ed., vol. 1 (Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 238.
29 Augustine of Hippo, “The Confessions of St. Augustin,” trans. J.G. Pilkington, in The Confessions and Letters of Augustin, with a Sketch of His Life and Work, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 1, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 88.
30 Ibid., 122.
31 Ibid., 127.
32 Ibid., 127-128.
33 Anselm of Canterbury, “Why God Became Man,” trans. Janet Fairweather, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 305.
34 Heb. 11:1.
35 Marcus Tullius. Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, trans. Horace C.P. McGregor (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 196.
36 Origen, “De Principiis,” in Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Arthur Cleveland. Coxe, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 355.
37 William J. Vande Kopple, “Toward a Christian View of Language,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, eds. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 224.