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I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one's own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the Reality-- from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself.
-- C. S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian
The above comment by C. S. Lewis is sometimes offered as a sort of "corrective" to the exercise of apologetics and the necessary primacy of faith. Of course, with the point that faith is itself reliant on evidence, the distinction between what Lewis saw between "intellectual counters" and "Reality" becomes somewhat less pronounced, if it does not disappear entirely.
Nevertheless, I have turned my thoughts to this quotation, which has (oddly) been introduced to me again in more than one way. Is Lewis' experience my own experience as an apologist?
The answer is no, it is not my experience, but I can understand why it was Lewis'. Lewis, though an excellent thinker and scholar of literature in his own right, was not a Biblical scholar. I can understand why he would think certain doctrines were "spectral" or "unreal" - I might well feel the same without much the information we now have about the Biblical world (the impact of honor and shame; the use and relevance of "probabilities," etc.) which makes it clear that any spectre comes of our own disconnected views as modern Western people.
So as an apologist, I do NOT see myself as "taking my life into my own hands" at all. Nevertheless, I do feel like I am someone who "takes bullets" for others (even as I happen to be wearing the "Kevlar" that sound scholarship provides). And that's a critical point for anyone who wants to pursue apologetics seriously: You should keep "hands off" until you are reasonably "bulletproof".
And how is this to be done? It depends on what personality type you are, but here are some points:
- Be a master of a few trades and not a jack of all trades.
One of the mistakes of certain popular apologists (whose names will here be withheld), as well as those now apostates, is/was to dip their fingers into far too many pies for their own good. As a result, they become "experts" (in quotes) in many fields and experts (no quotes) in none. This can cause incalculable harm to the person who tries to defend too many fronts at once.
Do not take on more than you can fit on your plate - this is A1 prime advice and I can't emphasize it enough.
- Acquire patience and prudence.
Learn not to assume that what you read in any critical source is the "final word" and that there can be no rebuttal. Scholarship is a huge field and chances are some sort of answer is out there - even if it has not been applied to the particular problem before. (Of course, Skeptics may as well take this sort of advice too.)
- Don't worry about not having answers to everything -- and not having them right away.
Those who wonder why I shun most forums and all oral debates need look no farther than this -- settings in which it is pretended that you have to answer at once, or else there obviously is no answer, are a poor venue. It is of far greater value to be in a setting where time is on your side -- so that as competent and thorough job as possible can be done initially.
Obviously this does not mean that you might not change your views as you learn (this happened to me with preterism, the doctrine of the atonement, and a few other issues over the years) but it's still better to take time rather than take immediate impact.
Of course, if you can, do both. And once you do have a "library" of personal knowledge, and given the tendency out there to repeat the same arguments again and again, it won't take long for you to do both.
Some of your opponents may pretend that there's some problem with you not answering, right away, some question you know nothing about at the moment they ask. Keep in mind that it is they who are wrong to pretend expertise in a field.
- Read the works of the opposition. Don't shun the works of those who may ideologically disagree with.
You need to "know your enemy" so don't stand back from their works (keeping in mind the condition in point 1 above). Also, do not make the mistake of acting like people of "moderate" or even "liberal" Christianity are automatically suspect. The insights they offer can be invaluable; and many are far from "enemies for the sake of the Gospel."
- Read as broadly as you can so that you can "cross fertilize" ideas.
Findings in one field may give you insights for a solution for a problem in another field. Yes, this IS certainly advice that sounds hard to reconcile with point 1. It is -- It's very hard to set limits.
- Feel free to leave other issues to those who are "expert" -- and try to consult with them if possible.
This follows naturally from points 1 and 3 above. Thus for example, I have refrained from trying to become an "expert" on Islam -- because it is apparent that answering-islam.org has done the job already, and/or is further along than I could be to make my own work on the subject worth the time. I also have a roster of "expert witnesses" that I check with on subjects of which I am ignorant (for example, technical aspects of Koine Greek -- for which, I have at least 2-3 contacts).
And of course, this also applies to things like technical assistance and web design (much thanks, as usual, to the team that lends me a huge hand).
Now beyond this, here is some more practical advice. You need to decide also whether this will be merely a "hobby" or else a profession. Some considerations:
- Making it a professional venture means risk and investment.
You'll want/need to gather support, file all the needed paperwork (501[c]3 non-profit and other IRS forms, plus quarterly tax reports; then there's every state and county and city form of paperwork and annual fees, which depends on where you live), and "count the cost".
If it seems to risky for your tastes, and you don't have an irresistible "call" -- keep it as a hobby. And make sure that whatever you do, the amount of time you have should correspond to the depth of work you do (per points above).
Of course, you could also work this out from the perspective of hoping you can land a job with some larger apologetics organization. That's a limited market, and you'll undoubtedly sacrifice a great deal of freedom to pursue topics of your own choosing and maybe even peform duties you would not prefer to do (like fundraising, which I personally dislike). Your call.
- Find a church that will support your mission.
This may be hard, as many local church bodies still think "apologetics" is "saying you are sorry to be a Christian." If the fellowship you currently attend says that supporting an apologetics ministry is not a "priority" -- leave and find one that does, because their "priorities" are wrong. (Obviously this assumes that they COULD support it with resources that they have; I'm not talking about a church that is struggling to just pay the electric bill.)
- Get credentialed.
You can go to Biola University or Liberty University for their degrees in apologetics; or go to school like Trinity in Chicago (a reader recommend) or any seminary and get a degree in some field there. Bible college may not be that helpful -- you won't get into serious scholarship in many of those.
Pick such a college carefully as you would a secular college. Also, you may consider a degree from a "secular" field that will offer a unique perspective for apologetics -- history, for example, or even (hee hee) library science. And that also helps you have another field to get into if apologetics gets slow.
Finally, I have compiled a bibliography of useful "starter books" in apologetics here, with reviews.
That's all I have for now, but as I get more questions, I may add to this article. A reader has also helpfully compiled this list of relevant Bible verses that support the practice of apologetics; which these days, may be a good thing to have when we have churches that do not even know what it is. And as always, feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any specific questions.