Book Review: The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton has taken up a tremendous task with this book and spectacularly accomplished his goals. Here, he sets out to explore and explain the nature and history of man in relation to the central event in the history of the species: the Incarnation of God as man in the Person of Jesus Christ. To accomplish this goal, Chesterton begins with the beginning of man in prehistory and proceeds through to the rise of Christianity. His goal along the way is to demonstrate the singular uniqueness of man among the animals coupled with his simultaneously insufficiency in the accomplishment of his own salvation.

The points that he demonstrates along the way include the great difference even the most primitive of man shows when compared with any of even the highest members of the animal world; the preparation for the Gospel that took place in the religious thought of the Jews, the philosophy of the Greeks, and the military and political domination of the Romans over the Mediterranean world; and the essential difference between Christ and all other teachers and religious figures the world has ever seen. And all of this Chesterton argues with his characteristic wit and wisdom, stringing together his paragraphs and chapters out of aphorisms rather than sentences in the dry, academic sense that word has taken on.

This book is a book that will have one of two effects upon the sensitive reader: it will either lead him to a conversion (or to a deepening of faith, should he already be so convinced) or it will lead him to irrevocably harden his heart against ever converting to Christianity. Either way, it is a book that will have a permanent effect on those who read it well. And that is indeed the mark of a great book.

Only two arguments for Christianity

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides, which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place in which beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell. . . . A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Orthodoxy Among the Pragmatists (a response to the Ochlophobist)

Owen White, the author of a once-popular once-Orthodox Christian blog The Ochlophobist, has returned to blogging after a long hiatus with a post detailing his reasons for leaving Orthodoxy. He asserts, in addition, that he believes his reasons for leaving Orthodoxy are in concert with those of other apostates with whom he has communicated. Although, of course, his post should be read in full if one desires to most completely understand his reasoning and his articulation of that reasoning in his attempts to create a narrative framework for the fairly frequent movement of Americans into and out of the Orthodox Church, he does offer this succinct summary, upon which my own commentary will focus, in the course of his explanations:

I left because I came to believe that the practices and peculiar beliefs it [the Orthodox Church] espouses simply do not achieve the results it asserts correspond to those right beliefs and practices.  I witnessed, and eventually acknowledged, that the vast majority of people I saw attempting to embrace Orthodox asceticism in good faith did not become more holy, more human, better people, etc. 

In his recent (and wonderful) book The Cave and the Light, Arthur Herman points out that it was specifically American philosophers who developed the peculiarly American philosophy of pragmatism and that this movement in many ways embodies thought processes already present in the American mindset well before its explication by William James and others. The central assertion of pragmatism is its position on epistemology: in short, that which is useful is that which is true. This is, as Herman correctly identifies, precisely the American mindset, exhibited in the adventurous and innovative American spirit. We are, and long have been, a nation of go-getters with can-do attitudes. If something works, we pick it up; if something doesn’t work, we drop it. What matters is what works. I believe this is a positive character trait incubated within those raised in the context of American culture and society. It allowed us to break free of the stale and decrepit political and economic systems of our European and African homelands long before those European and African homelands were able to do so. It created a nation which leads the world in invention, discovery, and production.

I am myself, as an American, very much a pragmatist. This applies in matters of faith as well. As an American in the pragmatic tradition, I think it very important to understand and examine the stated goals of a particular religious system and whether those goals are attained through the faith and practice therein prescribed. One obvious example might be Transcendental Meditation, which makes the easily verifiable (or, rather, easily dismiss-able) claim that its most advanced practitioners achieve the ability to levitate, an ability they refer to as “Yogic Flying.” American that I am, when I encounter a claim such as this, I investigate. I want to see scientific studies which corroborate such claims. Even more importantly, I want to see this for myself. The result, in the case Yogic Flying, is that one sees (and so the scientists also concluded that it is) little more than jumping with one’s legs crossed. It may be a great way to gain leg muscle, but it is, alas, far from the acquisition of a special spiritual state or miraculous powers.

Before and while coming into Orthodoxy, I, generally unconsciously, applied these same principles to the Orthodox Church. Any philosophy has a certain sort of ideal man in mind, into whose mold it seeks to shape its adherents. Islam has the obvious example of wishing all to become like the perfect man, Muhammad. The Hadith include not only his sayings, but even information about Muhammad’s daily habits from how he talked and walked to how he relieved himself, all to serve as an example for the Muslim to imitate. The first question that must be asked, then, of any philosophy is: what sort of man does this philosophy wish me to become? And, of course, the related question without which the answer to the previous question is incomplete: Why?

Mr. White avers that Orthodoxy wishes us to become more holy, more human, better people, etc.” Most of his terminology is too vague to work with, and I believe the vagueness in his statements is the result of Mr. White’s own mental vagueness on the point, implied by the unnecessary “etc.” at the close of the sentence. Let us first dismiss the most easily dismissed: Orthodoxy emphatically does not wish us to become “better people.” C.S. Lewis once, with his usual erudition, made the same point about Christianity more generally. The purpose of the Christian life is not to become a “better person.” The purpose of the Boy Scouts is to make you a “better person.” While you may (and hopefully will) become a better person through your practice of Christianity, this is largely incidental.

To be honest, one might wonder just what a “better person” is anyhow. Is a “better person” a nicer person? A person with better manners? A more polite person? While the Enlightenment fixation on politeness and the Victorian preoccupation with etiquette are charming (even when I eat alone I conscientiously avoid putting my elbows on the table, sucker that I am for decorum), they are hardly the sort of thing which leads one to turn to any particular religious system. Enough on this.

Mr. White comes much closer to the truth of Orthodoxy’s claims in his assertion that it desires of us to become “more holy, more human.” These words seem to me to be accurate summaries of the statements of two outstanding Orthodox theologians of the past two centuries. St. Seraphim of Sarov once famously summarized the purpose of the Christian life thus: “The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” In other words, it is to become, in Mr. White’s words, “more holy.” And Fr. Dumitru Staniloae echoes Mr. White’s contention that the purpose of Orthodoxy is to make us “more human” in his own summary of the purpose of the Christian life: “The glory to which man is called is that he should grow more godlike by growing ever more human.” We have, then, discerned Orthodoxy’s stated purpose for the lives of its adherents. The sort of man into which Orthodoxy would like to mold us is one who is “more holy, more human” — who has acquired the Holy Spirit and who has grown more like God in becoming more human. This goal, in the technical terminology of Orthodox theology, is called theosis, or deification. It is to attain unity with God and to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

In the world of professional pragmatists (as opposed to us amateurs-via-American-identity), perhaps the best-known and most important application of the pragmatic epistemological principle to the world of religion is Willliam James’ Varieties of Religous Experience. In that book, James examines the reports of mystical experiences of the divine by adherents of certain faiths. His conclusions are helpful here. If, as most of the major religious traditions of the world claim, the direct experience of God is the highest end of man, the most important experience that any individual can attain and the intended purpose of mankind as a whole, all other considerations are secondary.

In his short article “Why I ditched Buddhism,” John Hogan explains that he abandoned Zen Buddhism because of the wild behavior of so many Zen masters, a tradition which Zen adherents celebrate. Bodhidharma, the founding figure of Zen Buddhism, for example, is famous for having cut off his own eyelids to prevent himself from falling asleep while meditating. Zen literature is rife with stories of masters who behaved in excessively immoral ways, abused their students, and otherwise acted bizarrely and, so to speak, impolitely. Hogan, unable to digest all of this, left the Buddhist practice he had adopted. The proper pragmatist, however, would praise the Zen Buddhists’ nirvana-or-nothin’ attitude, if indeed these practices, in spite of their apparent abrasiveness, do accomplish their stated goal (enlightenment/nirvana) and this goal is what we (should) desire.

So, should we desire the goal of Orthodoxy? Should we desire theosis? I believe so, and the proof seems to be in the human experience itself. Human beings seem to universally desire a connection with the transcendent. One can see this not only in the great mystical traditions of the world, present in nearly every culture of every time period, but also in the production and appreciation of art and poetry. Humans seek the sublime. Even science and mathematics begin with awe at the wonders of the created order, and, therefore, one with a coherent metaphysics might argue, at the wonders of its supreme author. The highest function and end of the human being is mystical experience, unity with the divine. 

And Christianity, and Orthodoxy in particular, is the mystical religion par excellence. The other great religious traditions of the world (with, perhaps, the exception of Buddhism) have developed their mystical systems incidentally. Hinduism, for example, began as a set of disparate but related tribal religious systems. Hindu mysticism arose within the context of a widespread dissatisfaction with the established formalities of these religions and the vision of man and the cosmos offered by them. The result was a complex mystical tradition later integrated, often haphazardly and often as a means by which to establish official control over this mystical element, into the framework of the tribal religious systems. Christianity, on the other hand, was a mystical religion from its inception, emphatically asserting as its central truth claim that “God became man that man might become God.” 

If theosis, then, is what a human being should desire, the next question that must be answered is do the practices of Orthodox Christianity actually lead to this goal? Mr. White claims they do not. He says that his experience, which he spends some time elucidating in his blog post, is that the practices prescribed for Orthodox Christians to attain their goal do not lead to this goal and even sometimes seem to lead those who practice them further away from this goal. He also exhibits an aversion to many of these practices in themselves, echoing John Hogan in his condemnation of the eccentricities of the Zen masters. The proper pragmatist, however, balks at the statements of Mr. White and Mr. Hogan on this point. The proper pragmatist is not deterred by the strangeness or impoliteness of the method; he is interested only in its ability to attain the desire results. If a friend were to tell you in all seriousness that jumping off of certain cliff will magically make you young again, the rational response is not to immediately scoff at the notion; the rational response is to invite him to demonstrate. 

Does the Orthodox Church, then, provide such demonstrations? Does it have examples or case studies which one may investigate to confirm its claims? Indeed, this is precisely what the many saints of the Orthodox Church are. They are the examples, the demonstrations, and the case studies, painted on the walls of every Orthodox temple for each of us to examine and choose to imitate (or not). The saints are those who attained the goal which we all desire to attain. They are those who have experienced theosis. The cases are too numerous and the nuances and intricacies of each case too personal (dare I say peculiar?) to examine at any length here. The short of it, however, is this: many of the saints were not “better people” in the modern sense of the phrase as used by Mr. White as a result of their immersion in the ascetic practices of Orthodoxy. There were saints who were cantankerous, saints who were bizarre, saints who were rude, and, yes, even saints who were sinners (in fact, they all were — and recognizing such of oneself is the first step to sainthood). What each of them experienced, however, is the unsurpassable experience of the presence of the living God. While this might not have made them “better people,” it undoubtedly made them “more holy, more human.” I leave it to the reader to investigate for himself and discover whether this is affirmed in the plethora of accounts of their lives and deeds. In his recent masterpiece of modern philosophical-religious thinking within the context of Orthodox Christianity, David Bentley Hart eloquently articulated an observation I have made, though less eloquently, on many occasions: “In my experience,” he says, “those who make the most theatrical display of demanding ‘proof’ of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God.” When pressed by the Holy Inquisition to deny his claims concerning the discovery of hitherto unobserved heavenly bodies and the implications of the motions of these bodies for cosmology more generally, Galileo invited his accusers to take a look through his “perspicillum” (that is, his telescope) and so see for themselves. They refused and condemned him as a liar. Do not be among them. If what you desire is to confirm or deny the claims of the Orthodox Church, observe the models and, like the mad scientist who drinks the vial of his own experimental solution, try them for yourself. The Buddha once told his disciples (as recorded in the Kalama Sutta):

Now, … don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.

The sentiments of the Buddha in this wise statement are quite similar to those of St. Thomas Aquinas, that monumental figure in the history of European thought. There are two ways (here Aquinas followed an early Christian tradition first evidenced in the Didache and almost certainly borrowed from its Jewish forebears): there is a way that is out of harmony with the divine will and its imprint upon the cosmos (natural law) and there is a way that is in harmony with this divine will and its imprinted in the created order. The means by which one might discern which of these paths one is strolling down is to use the gauge of his own happiness. This is happiness, not in the modern senses of giddiness or delight in bodily well being, but in a more complete and full sense. It is the joy of the many martyrs throughout history who have sung hymns, prayed beautiful prayers, and even danced in the midst of their sufferings. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).

If the problem, then, is not that the practice of Orthodoxy fails to live up to the theory, why did Mr. White leave the Orthodox Faith? Why did he not experience the joy of the martyrs? Why did he not make headway down the river to theosis? The answer lies in the statement which precedes the statements from his blog post I quoted at the beginning of this post. He says there: 

I still have no problem communing in an Orthodox parish, though I also commune in Catholic parishes, on the very rare event that I commune …

I believe that the issues which divide the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions are insignificant, trivial and easily resolved. I am in the camp, a rather large camp within Orthodoxy, which believes that a union could be accomplished tomorrow between the two sets of churches without the need for either to change its faith or practice. For that matter, I believe the same is true of unity between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, with only a few exceptions. With that said, I would never dream of communing in an Oriental Orthodox parish until such a union is accomplished. My bishop, Archbishop Nikon, the locum tenens of the Diocese of the South in the Orthodox Church in America, is not in communion with the bishops of the Oriental Orthodox Church. I am, therefore, not in communion with them. In other words, I have submitted myself to the Church and the hierarch she has placed over me. Mr. White, on the other hand, even having “left” Orthodoxy, and condemning essential elements of its faith and practice, here admits communing at Orthodox parishes as well as at Roman Catholic parishes. Who is his bishop? Who is his spiritual father? To whom has he submitted himself and entrusted the care of his soul? Only to himself. At the heart of Mr. White’s apostasy, as with all apostasy, is self-will.

St. Augustine of Hippo, in his On Christian Doctrine (Bk. II, Ch. 7) explains the movement of a soul from unbelief to unity with God as a seven step process. He begins with this:

First of all, then, it is necessary that we should be led by the fear of God to seek the knowledge of His will, what He commands us to desire and what to avoid. Now this fear will of necessity excite in us the thought of our mortality and of the death that is before us, and crucify all the motions of pride as if our flesh were nailed to the tree. Next it is necessary to have our hearts subdued by piety, and not to run in the face of Holy Scripture, whether when understood it strikes at some of our sins, or, when not understood, we feel as if we could be wiser and give better commands ourselves. We must rather think and believe that whatever is there written, even though it be hidden, is better and truer than anything we could devise by our own wisdom.

The first step, then, according to St. Augustine is precisely what we have identified. It is the existential thirst for meaning, transcendence and fulfillment. The second step is to be “subdued by piety,” to submit oneself and not “feel as if we could be wiser and give better commands ourselves.” Until this preliminary step into the Christian life is accomplished, no further progress is possible. Self-will blocks the entrance deeper in and further up to God because it demands control. Until this control is relinquished, one is unable to cooperate with God. Though he might fast and pray and attend the liturgies of the Church, he does this all out of a sense of his own duty rather than being motivated by authentic submission to the will of God. This is the reason that the Orthodox Church prescribes that those entering upon the spiritual life must seek the guidance of an elder, one who is more experienced than themselves, and must submit themselves to the will of their elder and their bishop.

Before I joined the Army, I had never shot a rifle. During Basic Training, one of the greatest challenges I faced was learning how to shoot properly. I did what seemed right to me, based on my own sense of things, and failed miserably each time. It was only when I finally gave up and began to apply the counterintuitive guidance of my drill sergeant that I finally found myself hitting target after target. For the rest of my eight years in the military, I never qualified anything less than expert (hitting 36 or more out of 40 targets) on rifle marksmanship.

If theosis is what we desire, the way has been demonstrated to us and is open for us to follow. We must, however, be willing to follow.

Two Types of Apologetics: Rational and Existential


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.


1 Pope Francis, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” interview by Eugenio Scalfari,, October 1, 2013, accessed November 15, 2013,

2 Merriam-Webster, s.v. “apologetics,” accessed November 15, 2013,

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,

5 Ibid.

6 Samuel H. Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, trans., The Rus’ Primary Chronicle, University of Toronto, SLA 218: Ukrainian Literature and Culture, page 10, accessed November 15, 2014,

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Faith in Flux, Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS, April 27, 2009, under “Entering and Leaving the Ranks of the Unaffiliated,” accessed November 15, 2013,

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: Publishing, 2009), 29.

14 Ibid., 28.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

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.

21 N.A. Motovilov, “St. Seraphim of Sarov’s Conversation with Nichola Motovilov,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, accessed November 15, 2013,

22 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 28.

23 Ibid.

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.