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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"The End of Apologetics" (Myron Bradley Penner)

TITLE: End of Apologetics, The: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context
AUTHOR: Myron Bradley Penner
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (192 pages).

What is wrong with current models of Apologetics? Is it the method? Is it the technique? No. It is the underlying set of assumptions that has been outdated and irrelevant to the postmodern mindset.  This provocative work is not against the Apologetics that we have come to be familiar with. It is re-describing the postmodern culture so that Christians can speak within its context. It is realigning strategies toward an environment that is less Enlightenment but Postmodern. It is a humble acknowledgement that we need to learn what postmodern cultural paradigms are, and to speak in a way that people steep in postmodernism can understand and appreciate.

The Apologetics of today do not work anymore, says Anglican priest and academic Dr Myron Penner, because of different aims. For instance, Conventional Apologetics are based on an understanding that if truth is presented as it is, people will be convinced, if not, a step closer to be convinced. No. Truth must be presented in a way that a postmodern mind can understand, not in a way that assumes a postmodern person having a 17th Century Enlightenment mindset. Penner weaves in the perspectives of Alistair MacIntyre, Soren Kierkergaard, and to some extent, John G Stackhouse, and slowly builds up his case to argue for a new form of Apologetics. This form will be a shift away from epistemological paradigms toward a hermeneutics of faith. It approaches that of Alistair MacIntyre's argument for both "consistency and coherence," that in order for any convincing to be done, parties must all come to a common understanding of the world and themselves. It embraces Kierkegaard's caution that rejecting a particular form of reasoning does not necessarily mean rejecting reason altogether. It supports John Stackhouse's attitude that humility is necessary when doing any Apologetics. Having set the tone, Penner goes on the offensive against conventional Apologetics.

First, Penner takes the underlying beliefs of the popular apologist William Lane Craig to task. There is an overwhelming dependence on reasoning to prove the consistency of Christian claims. Such a belief led to a heavy reliance on reason for faith, to the detriment of other non-rationalizing aspects. In other words, through reasoning and knowledge, people will come to faith. He argues that WLC's normative philosophy errs on the side of wrongful assumptions, that conventional kinds of apologetic arguments and debate are "normative" in a postmodern mind. In fact, Penner warns that Apologetics of old can even hinder the gospel. All because apologists like WLC are "disembedded" from what is meaningful to the postmodern mind. Penner points out the mismatch as follows:

"The task of reason in modernity is principally epistemological: its function is to measure, categorize, and exercise intellectual mastery and control over an otherwise brute and irrational universe that does not necessarily have a purpose, a center, or even a unifying principle. But reason is also the possession of individuals—not the universe—and is something each person has and must exercise." (30)

Having said that, Penner takes a softer stance to acknowledge that there are at least 5 other kinds of apologetic methods, but still asserts that all of them have the same central goal: justify Christianity to the postmodern mind, by assuming they still possess Enlightenment thinking.

In Chapter 2, Penner tackles the popular religious debates, usually between a famous believer and a prominent unbeliever. After that, a general poll is taken to check which debater does best. The problem with such debates is that many in the audience can find it difficult to follow both sides of the debates. Either it is too philosophical or overly academic.  Penner argues that instead of helping, modern apologists could very well be hurting the fragmented environment even further. What then is the best way to deal with postmodern skepticism? How does one speak to the sense of meaninglessness? It is one thing to be an intellectual expert. It is yet another to be understood beyond the mind. In doing good Apologetics, one must move toward a greater emphasis on revelation rather than reason. Following Kierkergaard's way of distinguishing between geniuses and apostles, Penner argues that genuises are born while apostles are called. Moreover, human reason can only scratch the surface of revealing truth. It is only the Holy Spirit who can reveal the whole truth. Point is: Are we establishing the reign of God because of our reasoning and argument? Or are we recognizing the reign of God because of God's revelation and redemption? For Christianity is not about an objective something, but a personal Someone; not about having the truth, but about being IN the truth; to do less of imparting knowledge in order to dominate and control, but understanding in order to care and to reveal the love of God.

Chapter 3 further exposes the vulnerability of modern apologetics in its fruit. Modern apologists seem more concerned with "epistemological justification" instead of people's "edification." Christians need to become more like apostles of exhortation, encouragement, and edification rather than genuises of arguments and reasons. It involves listening, being with, caring, and even living together. For Christianity cannot be reduced to mere arguments. Christianity is about the person of Christ, the confession that we do not know it all. God does. The ethics of belief Penner argues for is one that is more concerned with "how one believes" rather than "what" of belief. He then talks about features of prophetic speech, contrasting them with modern debates, cautioning one that we can win debates but still lose the person. Moreover, if one is not anchored on the gospel proper and depends only on reason, as listeners become unconvinced or remain skeptical, even the apologists can be disillusioned with the gospel.

Thankfully, Penner moves toward constructing a proper response in the light of his dismantling of modern Apologetics. This is done with an eye on eschatological aspect and the revelation of God through the gospel. God is not represented through arguments. God is presented in Christ. Two key things are said. First, we cannot presume to argue in a manner that seems to communicate we have all the truth. Only God has all truth. Second, becoming too objective in our pursuit of truth can do injustice to us being created as persons, and as creatures of subjective understanding. Truth must move from "correspondence" theories of facts toward "edification" of persons. Only edification can help bring people together. It can be humbling for apologists to acknowledge that there are many ways to understand truth, not necessarily the way advocated by the apologists. It takes humility to accept that people are free to look at truth a different way than suggested. At the same time, it takes good language that reflects truth-telling that seeks to understand rather than to be understood. Build more bridges instead of depending on arguments and debate to build bridges. Learn to use Luther's way of attesting to the truth to "belief in" rather than to "belief that."  Not all truths need to be proven. One can testify to the truth, and then let the Holy Spirit convicts the listeners.Truth-telling is not just about transferring knowledge. It is about edification of all. Penner asserts once again that there is no need to dichotimize objectivity from subjectivity, for truth embraces both of them!

In the final chapter, Penner moves away from Western based theologians and philosophy toward African style cultural symbols and how the Africans have exemplified a nice balance of objectivity and subjectivity. Western civilization tends to adopt a colonizing mindset, and then impart them to the Africans. In that manner, the biggest problem with modern Apologetics is that it resembles the colonizing activities of the Imperial West over the rest of the world. Telling the truth cannot be simply reduced to bullets of scattered arguments or the cannons of great intellectual apologists trained in Ivy League schools or famous institutions. For truth edifies. We need to make sure that we love our neighbour as ourselves, to not only talk about truth, but to LIVE in the truth. Gradually, Penner warns about how our "ethics of witness" (through over emphasis on reasoning) can lead to a "politics of witness" (through dismembering thoughts of others).

So What?

Is this then the end of the Apologetics that many of us have come to embrace? Are apologists really being less helpful than before? I think Penner is not saying that. While the language and criticisms he uses tend to be controversial, even confrontational, I perceive that he is not arguing for an abandonment of Apologetics altogether, but a realignment with the postmodern mindset, so that any arguments will not just convince the head, but care for the heart. What is needed is a bridge that modern apologists need to construct with much love and compassion. Personally, I believe the title of the book is a challenging invitation to talk about how to improve on the way we do Apologetics, and not meant to declare the death of Apologetics altogether. Apologetics is still alive and well. In fact, it cannot be abandoned altogether for three reasons. First, it is too early to say "the end." There are many people still familiar with the modernist mindset and the enlightenment thinking of the 17th Century. Just because we live in a postmodern world does not necessarily mean everyone is postmodern. That is why existing models of Apologetics still have its place. This is even more so because many modern educational systems and structures are still based on an Enlightenment foundation of truth seeking. Apologetics is here to stay for quite a while. Second, Penner's argument for a more edifying way to do Apologetics is to challenge any arrogance or overemphasis on knowledge over faith. In other words, do not see Penner as directly opposing what WLC or other apologists are doing. Penner is actually helping them to see that there are important changes happening in the world we live in now, and our Apologetics must speak not only intelligently to them, but be edifying.

Third, we need to adapt toward a more audience sensitive format. Key to understanding Penner's argument is to accept that the postmodern philosophical context and cultural climate have changed from a well-ordered ideal to a disordered reality. It has moved away from a world of harmonized and meaningful garden to a warring and increasingly meaningless world. It has become very individualistic, with communities increasingly more and more fragmented. Pluralism is not the hallmark of society. Fragmentation is. It is to this environment that Penner argues all believers and apologists speak meaningfully with. Just because one can put forth reasons for belief is not sufficient for faith. This is especially when the audience's very fundamental need is not even scratched at all. 

Still, I find three flaws in the book. First and foremost, the chief flaw to me in this book is this. As Penner tries to direct the focus of apologetics from an Enlightenment mindset to a more Postmodern sensitive mindset, the vehicle to do that is still very much the same rationalizing mindset that reasons and thinks like conventional apologists. In other words, Penner is essentially using the same kind of reasoning language! Granted that the book's audience is most likely people who come with that background. That said, will it not be more effective for the book to do what it says? That is, argue in a manner that is more postmodern sensitive. Second, postmodernism is a culture that is very hard to tie down because it is too diverse, too relative, and too slippery. Try as one may, eventually, one will have to realize that Penner's assertions work only for a particular group of Apologists who are overly focused on rationalization as a vehicle of faith. Anyone can dispute the definition of postmodernism. If Penner is right about society being fragmented, then there are more than one way to talk about postmodernism which then puts everyone in a relative spin. Third, more specifics are needed. The book is high on its critique but low in the application of what it prescribes. Maybe, give more examples of Apologists who have come close to Penner's model.

In summary, lest anyone accuses Penner of placing too much attention on postmodernism, readers ought to be reminded that Penner is arguing for an understanding of postmodernism as a "starting point" and not the end in itself. Another starting thought is to recognize that the world now is less of pluralism but more of fragmentation. Thus, any Apologetics cannot be geared toward individual groups in bits and pieces, but to learn to put fragmented pieces back together through common understanding and faith. The way to do this is not through thinking, reasoning, or sole dependence on our rationalization brilliance, but on the Holy Spirit. The mind may convince, but only the Holy Spirit convicts. Faith comes and grows from the latter.

This is a provocative book that does not end but instead extends the reach of Apologetics toward a more Postmodern sensitive audience. Kudos to Dr Myron Penner for highlighting his brave new work.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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