I am currently reading Ephraim Radner’s Spirit and Nature: The Saint-Medard Miracles in 18th Century Jansenism and it made me think about an evangelical apologetics meeting which I’ve been attending recently.
It seems to me that, unwittingly, our contemporary Christian apologetics have failed to avoid the pitfalls which plagued the same apologists of Enlightenment Europe. They have not come to terms with evangelising in a mutlreligious environment and have responded by unwittingly advancing very strong secular and sceptical principles in a ham-fisted attempt to falsify their religious competitors, principles which obviously could backfire on them very easily.
The Confrontational Apologetic Tradition
A thesis which I’ve been toying with is the idea that secularism was not some alien force which emerged from hell to destroy Christian Europe but was the product of the collapse of Christian civic dominion (by the coercive suppression of heresy) and the failure of Christian apologetics to adapt to the religious pluralism which emerged in its wake.
“The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12) Christian apologetics and evangelism did not shy away from making very strong universal truth claims, how they did so however would be the focus of discussion in this post.
In the early stages of the church’s history, philosophy and the myths of other religions were looked upon sceptically, if not with outright rejection and ridicule, we shall call this the “confrontational” tradition. (The thunders of Tertullian should be familiar to most of us.) Although later on an attempt was made to rehabilitate the myths and philosophies of other religions as leading to Christ, the sceptical tradition never truly disappeared. We need but recall St Augustine’s City of God which did not look upon the myths of the pagans too kindly and which was treated with outright scorn.
The Assimilative Apologetic Tradition
However even the “assimilative” posture of Justin Martyr, and the others who looked upon other religions with a much more friendly eye, as possessing the signs of true religion which would find their fulfilment in Christ, were no less forceful, and theologically violent, than the sceptical posture, albeit somewhat disguised. Christian narrative accounts of how Christianity fulfils pagans/non-Christian religious aspirations or completes it would appear, to the non-Christians in question, to be nothing more than an attempt by an outsider and non-believer to control the narrative of their own religion. It is in effect, it is a hostile take over of their faith.
How amused would a staunch Buddhist or Hindu be to be told that you a non-believer of their faith, holds the truth of their religion? Would a Roman Catholic look kindly upon the Protestant narrative that the purer and less corrupt form of their religion is to be found in Protestantism and that the Reformed Church was the providential purification of the medieval church? Nobody likes an outsider trying to define their own religion for them. One might wonder who are the true audience of such narratives. The narrative seems more like for the benefit of the Christian to help them make sense of other religions than as a serious apologetic address to non-Christians.
In effect, ironically what the church fathers did to the pagans, the Muslims did to the Christians. After all, in an exactly parallel manner, Muslims do claim that Islam eschatologically perfects what is incomplete and lacking in Christianity. Christianity becomes the ironic victim of eschatological transcendence which it subjected the pagans. (It is very easy to spin a narrative justifying this eschatology. One can say that the contradictory pagan myths as well as their shameful behaviour is an apophatic sign towards the true Allah which transcends all such empirical sensuality and Christianity arrived at an intermediate eschatological moment to draw the still sense addicted pagans towards Christ, God’s perfect visible agent and representative, who points man towards the worship of the true transcendent Allah. Thus after having prepared the ground for a pure monotheistic reglion, albeit imperfectly as they started worshipping this man, the Prophet Mohammed appears at the last eschatological stage to fulfill both paganism and Christianity and lead to the pure worship of the one true God is sharp distinction from the creation and sever the Christians from the errors of the incarnation. This incidentally illustrates the problem of trying to do theology by narrative, one can spin any tale to justify anything.)
Thus, I am not quite sure exactly what is the value of saying that other religions find their fulfilment in Christianity. Few adherents of these other religions would take too kindly to Christians attempting to control the meaning of their own religion. It also opens us to hostile take overs by other religions attempting to impose an alien eschatological directive to our religion.
Civic Coercion as a Supplement for Apologetics
It is an open question as to how many non-Christians were truly converted by such “assimilative” narratives, the point however would become moot with the dawn of Christendom and the shortfalls of Christian apologetics were made up with civic muscle and the lure of other all too earthly and temporal benefits to conversion. As an interview with a church historian puts it:
In the end, medieval pagans seemed more willing to submit to forced conversions than Christians under similar circumstances. Why is that?
The common factor in paganism all over medieval Europe was polytheism. Pagans had lots and lots of gods—gods of weather, of harvest, of the sea, of the sky, of beer making, of battle, and so on. Anthropologists who’ve studied conversion in polytheistic culture in Africa, for example, have found that such peoples think they can just add Christ to their existing pantheon. This is what seems to have happened in medieval Europe. The exclusive claims of a monotheistic faith didn’t sink in at first. That’s why even after “conversion,” we find a long period in which ideas about gods and goddesses, spirits and fairies, elves and goblins coexist with faith in Christ.
Another reason was that pagans were impressed with the sheer material power of Christendom. Paganism was a faith that was largely geared to gaining material prosperity. There were gods for the crops because they wanted their crops to grow. They had gods for cattle so that they would produce more milk. When these pagans looked at the wealth and power of Christian Europe, they were impressed: the Christian God was obviously one who could deliver the goods. Christians built bigger buildings, made more beautiful jewelry, possessed better ships, and so on. Many pagans were not adverse to converting to Christianity because they believed it would, in fact, give them more material prosperity than had their gods.
In Europe, we see evidence that this wasn’t a by-product but a deliberate tactic of missionaries. When the bishop of Winchester sent his pupil Boniface to evangelize Germany, he stressed that Boniface should remind the pagans just how rich and powerful the Christians were.
To appreciate this point, note how Christian missionaries fared in sixteenth-century China. Here was a non-Christian culture that was in many ways superior to the West. In that context, Christianity makes practically no headway.
(For an “alternative” history of a church without Christendom, look to the Church of the East, which though was no less zealous in evangelism and brilliant in theology and philosophy than European Christendom, did not manage to convert the entirely of its own locality, having lived under non-Christian rulers for most of its life.)
Fast forward to post-Reformation Enlightenment Europe Christendom and the European Church was faced with an unprecedented crisis. The Church, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, had lost its civic muscle and monopoly over religion. There would be no more coercive suppression of heretics. Religious pluralism and conflict of theological claims threatened to give way to scepticism on theological truth claims.
Christian Apologetics in the Enlightenment
Christian apologetics had two objectives which were not easy to reconcile, the demonstration of the truth of their religion and the disproof of religions contradicting theirs. Together with the new epistemologies struggling into form at this stage of the Enlightenment, it is task only for the strong in faith and the philosophically courageous.
The Protestants had a head start in grappling with this problem. From its inception the Protestants had no miracles, the Roman Catholics considered this as evidence of their falsehood. For the Protestants, formulating a “common ground” natural theology and “common sense” epistemic principles, which could distinguish between the “true” miracles of the New Testament and the “false” miracles of the papists, began in earnest. The challenge was to come up with non-circular religious epistemological principles which would justify proper miracles and exclude undesirable theological conclusions from “unorthodox” miracles, all the while avoiding crippling scepticism on theological matters at all cost. It was a hit and miss affair. There were ingenuous and creative propositions for reconciling the existence of “heretical” and “pagan” miracles with Christianity, there were also the clumsy use of excessive sceptical principles to negate the miraculous claims and evidences of other religions, sceptical principles which the atheists and deists promptly seized on at once to negate Christian claims.
The Roman Catholics’s epistemic system survived for a while simply due to a sheer reactionary and entrenched posture. However when confronted with other religions its apologetic was mostly a failure. Most of its overseas conversions were mostly an imperial and colonial affair, the product of Christendom rather than apologetics. The few areas which were not converted through colonialism, e.g. China and Japan, failed spectacularly. Roman Catholicism was virtually wiped out in Japan and declined dramatically in China after the Chinese Rites Controversy.
However the weakness of Roman Catholic apologetics was revealed, not by its failures in the Far East, but from within Europe itself when it was confronted by its own “miracle” crisis: the Jansenist miracles of Saint-Médard. Two hundred years before this event the miracles of Roman Catholic saints were evidence of the heterodoxy of Protestantism; at Saint-Médard the Roman Catholics could not consistently draw the inference that the miracles of the Jansenist were evidence of the heterodoxy of the Jesuits and the Pope himself. The ironic appeal to Enlightenment sceptical principles to negate the miracles of Saint-Médard, and the use of state coercion to forcibly suppress a miraculous event, was a grim foreshadowing to the rabidly anti-Catholic and secular French Revolution which was to come only a few decades later.
The Unsolved Problem of Christian Apologetics
This brings us back to the present. Whither Christian apologetics? The true challenge of Christian apologetics is not about being able to articulate historical or empirical evidence for the Christian faith. The true challenge is to attempt to answer the objections, or even account for, the existence of other religions. It is a challenge which was never truly met by the ancient Christians, it is doubtful that telling other religions that their true meaning is found in Christianity is all that rhetorically persuasive, especially when nowadays self-definition, in opposition to external oppressive forces, alone is the legitimate means for defining a religion. Anyway even in Europe, Christendom, not apologetics, was primarily responsible for the conversion of Europe. It is also a tactic which wouldn’t really work for Muslims which is now one of the world’s most populous religion. After all, their religion is precisely premised on the narrative that Christianity is incomplete and finds its perfection in Islam!
For all the aspersions and accusations thrown at the British Enlightenment and Anglophone deism, the natural religion and natural theology so highly spoken of by them was an attempt to find a common base from which they could evangelise and demonstrate the truths of Christianity. Rather than attempting to seize control of the narratives of other religions, or simply appeal to debilitating sceptical principles which could backfire on them very easily, the British Christian apologists attempted to appeal to what was “natural” and common to all humanity qua human as a suitable base from which the truths of Christianity can be demonstrated and the claims of all religion, not only Christian, could be fairly and impartially scrutinised. This base of natural theology was extremely robust, capable of scrutinising revelations and the theological meaning of miracles.
The project has largely been forgotten. Sadly only bits and pieces of its remains in contemporary Christian apologetics. Sadly, it seems to me that contemporary Christian apologetics seems to be making the same sort of mistakes which some of the British Enlightenment Christian apologists made, and are also failing to avail themselves of their better insights and ways of avoiding those same mistakes.