The New Apologetic

The church may be on the verge of a Renaissance, a movement forward via a movement backwards. This weekend a group of college-aged Christians who work on Christian journals at their respective campuses gathered under the auspices of the Augustine Collective to discuss their publications, fellowship, and learn from Christian scholars who are investing in their movement. Many of the conversations at this gathering focused on what what we called, somewhat misleadingly, “The New Apologetic.”

The New Apologetic is the untapped potential of the church to be a force for the common good. What Peter Maurin once said about the Catholic Church is true for the whole Christian body: “If the Catholic Church is not today the dominant social, dynamic force, it is because… Catholic scholars have taken the dynamite of the Church, have wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in an hermetic container; and sat on the lid.”

What is  this “dynamite,” this hidden potential that is being unleashed as the New Apologetic? As I said, the name is misleading, because the New Apologetic is actually old—as old as the church. It is, quite simply, orthodoxy, in all its depths and richness. The dominant model of American Christian engagement over the past forty to fifty years has been three-fold: modernist in apologetics, culturally impotent, and politically combative (i.e. “the culture wars”). The new model of engagement seeks to move past all of these, to a thicker gospel that doesn’t seek to translate Christianity into just another worldview or subculture or voting bloc.

In apologetics, we have taken our lead, by and large, from C.S. Lewis and his intellectual descendants. It is fashionable for people chafing under Lewis’s hegemony to insult or dismiss him. Hence Tony Jones recently called Lewis a “theological hack.” But that’s the wrong response. Lewis was undeniably brilliant, and it would be silly to pretend that we don’t have much to learn from him. But it’s nevertheless true that he wrote for his time and place, and never saw himself as the once and future king of Christian intellectual life.

Lewis was a modernist. He believed in building up logically tight arguments from supposed neutral premises that he would share with a skeptical or doubting audience. Learning how to argue this way is still very important for Christians, and many of the arguments and counter-arguments Lewis advanced continue to bear fruit in individual Christian’s lives. He should still be studied. But modernist apologetics no longer has the same kind of resonance in our culture as it had in Lewis’s.

Steven Harrell put it well in an article he wrote for Relevant, called “Why We Need a New CS Lewis”:

When we try to insert Lewis’ cultural observations into our culture today, we become like Indiana Jones—still fighting the Nazis through the 1980s. The Modernist war between reason and theology is over. In England, Christianity got put up on the same shelf as Zeus and witch hunts. In America, the debate morphed into the culture wars. At this point, we’re pretty well over those, too, now working through our own unique relationship between our faith and our call to love the ever-flattening world around us.

Pastors, bloggers, Narnia fans and meme-generators all co-opt Lewis to be their ambassador to the cultural climate for which he never wrote. It’s like sending the Lone Ranger to fight space aliens. We live in a postmodern, post-secular age that doesn’t respond well to the intellectual arm-twisting and large-scale historical criticism that Lewis excelled at.

But Harrell is wrong, in one respect. We don’t really need a new C.S. Lewis; we need an old one. Lewis, as great as he was, is not among the greatest Christian thinkers. He is not an Augustine, or an Athanasius, or an Anselm. What Christians need today is both a new approach that moves past Lewis and a deeper understanding of the forgotten treasures of the Christian intellectual tradition. We need to move both forward and backward, at the same time. And, in the paradoxical, transhistorical nature of our faith, the two are actually the same.

By moving backward and forward at the same time, we will gain a deeper, richer understanding of the core Christian doctrines: the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, doctrines which will speak to our culture. We will rediscover the primacy and beauty of sacramental worship (this is true despite diverse opinions about the precise theological meaning of the sacraments). We will once again learn the prophetic approach to politics, and re-emphasize concepts like “place,” “stewardship,” “social justice” and “hospitality.”

The proliferation of movements suggesting a new way forward is dizzying: radical orthodoxy, the emerging church, post-liberalism, post-secularism, anti-foundationalism, new monasticism, traditionalism, Ressourcement Thomism, etc., etc. One of the things we hope to do at FF is sort out the wheat from the chaff here, and suggest some ways forward that join the increasingly popular theological concerns of these movements with the traditional Christian doctrines: the creed, the authority of scripture, and the exclusive uniqueness of the person of Christ. We aren’t trying just to comment on these trends, but embody them in what we do and write, actually being the new apologetic to a generation longing for it.

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