Why Apologetics? An interview with David Skeel

Mr. David Skeel is the S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Icarus in the Boardroom (Oxford, 2005) and Debt’s Dominion: A History of Bankruptcy Law in America (Princeton, 2001), as well as numerous articles and other publications. He has been interviewed on The News Hour, Nightline, Chris Matthews’ Hardball (MSNBC), National Public Radio, and Marketplace, among others, and has been quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other newspapers and magazines. Mr. Skeel has twice received the Harvey Levin award for outstanding teaching, as selected by a vote of the graduating class, and has also received the university’s Lindback Award for distinguished teaching. In addition to bankruptcy and corporate law, Mr. Skeel also writes on sovereign debt, Christianity and law, and poetry and the law, and he is an elder at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. His newest book, A True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of A Complex World (Intervarsity) is due out in September 2014.

 

You have had a long history of teaching law at the University of Pennsylvania, and you have long been involved as an elder at your church. Recently, you have increased your time spent involved in Christian apologetics, especially on college campuses. What motivated this shift?

Although I began doing an increasing amount of writing about Christianity and law in 2003 or 2004, the principal motivation was two invitations from the Veritas Forum: an invitation to participate in Veritas Riff, which is designed to train young and midcareer scholars to address a more public audience, in 2010; and an invitation to participate in a Veritas Forum event on the theme, “What is Justice?” at Amherst College in 2012. The mission of the Veritas Forum is to encourage public conversations about the most important issues in life on college campuses and to ensure that Christianity is part of those conversations. I have since spoken at a number of other Veritas Forums. I have repeatedly heard Christian and non-Christian students say how much they appreciate these events and that they wish there were more discussion of these issues on college campuses. In part as a result of these conversations, I became increasingly convinced that I should make apologetics a focus of my own intellectual life and that there were opportunities to bring my legal expertise to bear on apologetics issues.

How did your past experiences prepare you for more focused work in apologetics?

I was not raised in a Christian home, and I did not become a Christian until my junior year of college. I still remember the questions I had about Christianity and the kinds of apologetics that I did and did not find helpful. In addition, I hope that my career as a scholar has given me insights that will prove valuable to others. I think, though, that the best preparation for apologetics for me is knowing the kind of questions that gnaw at many people, because these questions have gnawed at me.

What is the purpose of apologetics and who should participate in apologetics?

I believe that all Christians are called to be apologists in one way or another. As Peter writes in Scripture, each of us should be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” But, I also believe that this will mean different things for different Christians. In some Middle Eastern countries, it is dangerous to engage in public apologetics, so apologetics will usually take different forms. I happen to be a legal scholar in a country that values free speech. For better and worse, I love to talk, as most lawyers do. So, public apologetics seems just the right fit for me, at least at this point in my life.

What are some of the benefits and challenges of oral apologetics, particularly in the format provided by the Veritas Forum? How have you responded to the challenges?

The Veritas Forums I have done have generally been structured as a conversation with another scholar who does not identify him or herself as a Christian. If the conversation works well, each of us will offer both scholarly insights and more personal comments on why we believe what we believe, and there will be an opportunity for extensive engagement with the audience. This gives students and others who attend an opportunity to see their professors share much more personally about themselves, and it is also an opportunity to see the professors address big issues in a more candid fashion than they would in an ordinary classroom. Probably the biggest challenge, though, is to have a vibrant conversation that brings out the deep differences in our perspectives, but does not simply become a debate. When a forum works well, it can be almost magical. It can be the kind of deep and personal engagement with important issues that most of us long for.

This fall, you will be publishing a book, A True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of A Complex World. Can you provide a brief synopsis of your book?

The complexity of the contemporary world is often seen, even by Christians, as an embarrassment for Christianity. A True Paradox proposes that this perception gets things exactly backwards. Christianity actually explains the central puzzles of our existence—such as consciousness, our experience of beauty and suffering, or our inability to create a just social order—far better than materialism or any other set of beliefs. After describing several popular recent apologetics strategies that seem to deny the complexity of the world, A True Paradox explores a series of paradoxes that each of us experience. A True Paradox argues that Christianity has a more compelling explanation of each of the paradoxes than materialism or any other religion or system of thought.

What motivated you to write?

My friend Bill Stuntz—a brilliant criminal law scholar who died of cancer in 2011—and I had talked about writing a book like this one together, but we were not able to write it before he died. I knew I would want to revisit the project at some point. In Spring 2012, after I moderated a Veritas Forum featuring the Oxford mathematician, John Lennox, an atheist postdoctoral fellow at Penn’s medical school contacted me. We began meeting for coffee periodically to discuss the truth of Christianity. He is remarkably well informed about Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists, as well as about current apologetics debates. After a couple of these coffees, I started thinking that perhaps I should go ahead and write the book to put on paper the answers to questions like the ones he was asking. So that is what I did. It took me about a year to figure out what the book was actually about, so I have had to do an enormous amount of rewriting. But not for a moment have I regretted writing it the way I did.

What have you done to ensure that your book addresses a pertinent topic to your reader?

I have tried to make the book pertinent in several different ways. One strategy has been to try to address a wide enough range of issues so that people with very different interests will find the book relevant. One chapter talks about beauty and the arts, which may be of particular interest to those who love poetry or art; whereas another chapter talks about questions of justice; and still another talks about idea making and consciousness. The second strategy was to include chapters on issues that are relevant to every one of us, such as the reason for suffering and the question whether there is an afterlife. I have been very encouraged that different readers have pointed to different chapters as their favorite in the book.

What are some of the benefits and challenges of written apologetics? How have you responded to the challenges?

Perhaps the most daunting challenge is saying anything new, given that so much great apologetics has been written already. Every time I think I have developed a new idea, I discover that C.S. Lewis wrote about it seventy years ago. What I hope is novel about the book, however, is that it has a different focus than most apologetics. Rather than assuming that most people hold loosely Christian views, or trying to demonstrate that non-Christian views have no foundation, I focus on how Christianity explains the world as we actually experience it. Remarkable features of our experience, such as the fact that seemingly arcane mathematical insights have proven essential to understanding how the universe works, make sense if the universe is a reflection of an intelligent God and we are made in his image.

What is the relationship to the church of those engaged in apologetics?

One risk with apologetics is that it will take part entirely apart from the church and will leave the impression that our faith is something that involves only the individual and God. But Christianity is a community. That is why the Bible refers to the church as the body of Christ. So apologetics should always point toward the church. Similarly, I believe that the church should be involved in apologetics, rather than simply circling the wagons and leaving apologetics to others.

What is most rewarding about your work in apologetics?

Probably the most rewarding aspect of my work in apologetics has been the relationships that have developed. I hope all of these friends will be persuaded by the truth of Christianity in time, but even if they are not, I cherish the friendships. I also have found the opportunities to directly combine my scholarly interests and expertise with my faith to be a great blessing.

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