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Humble Apologetics: Persuasion with Humility and Respect

David Horner

Why arrogance plays a particularly powerful role in eroding both the immediate and the long-term persuasive power of a message, and what to do about it.

Humility does not leap to mind when most of us think of apologetics. An apologist, one who steps into the fray to give a rational defense of the Christian worldview, is hardly a stereotypically humble soul—in C. S. Lewis’s words, “a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.”1 Indeed, many think of apologists as aggressive, arrogant jerks.

But these stereotypes rest on misunderstandings of both humility and apologetics. Recent work by Christian thinkers in The Table and elsewhere shows true humility to be fully compatible with a robust self-confidence and an appropriate appreciation of one’s own value and gifts—undercutting the perceived incompatibility on humility’s side. A case can also be made on the side of apologetics. I suggest that good apologetics and true humility, biblically and strategically, are inseparable. Here are three brief reasons to see good apologetics as humble apologetics.2

Humble Apologetics

The first is a simple, strategic one: Few people want to listen to someone who’s arrogant, even if what they say might be true. The task of apologetics, it is easy to forget, is one of persuasion. The science of apologetics involves mastering evidence that the Christian worldview is true, but the art of apologetics is in tailoring that evidence to listeners in such a way that they may come to see it to be true and believable. Aristotle observed that effective persuasion requires not only that your listener regard you as credible (logos), but also that they respect your character (êthos) and experience an emotional connection (pathos) with you. A speaker’s lack of humility subverts especially the latter two elements, derailing the persuasive power of even a logically impeccable argument. In fact, arrogance plays a particularly powerful role in eroding both the immediate and the long-term persuasive power of a message. It’s the stink on the skunk; it repulses on first contact and its tainting effect lingers long after. Second, humble apologetics is biblical. The locus classicus for Christian apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer (apologia) to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (NIV) Although the word “humility” does not appear in most English translations of this passage, it takes little imagination to envision humility’s role in engaging people with “gentleness and respect.” It’s about orientation.Biblical apologetics is humble apologetics.Consider someone who is not humble. In conversation, a proud person is “full of himself,” looking to score points rather than listen. As Lewis observes, “[p]ride is essentially competitive.”3 In apologetic contexts this is typically expressed in one’s not really listening to the other person in the dialogue, focusing instead on how to respond, reply, and rebut—to “win” the argument. By contrast, truly caring about what the other thinks, taking her thoughts and arguments seriously—treating her “with gentleness and respect”— involves a fundamental shift of orientation away from oneself toward the other. Which is the heart of true humility. According to Lewis, if you meet “a really humble man” (not the stereotype noted above), “[p]robably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.”4 A truly humble person is not full of herself, nor does she disparage herself; she is able to forget herself and focus on the other. “[The humble person] will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”5But the connection between humility and apologetics in 1 Peter 3:15 is not merely implicit. The term rendered “gentleness” (prautês—“meekness” in older translations) belongs to a cluster of humility-terms in biblical Greek. That is, prautês is not only related to humility, it is a form of humility—as it would be linguistically appropriate to render it in 1 Peter 3:15: “But do this with humility and respect.”6 Biblical apologetics is humble apologetics.

Moral Apologetics

A third reason to see humility as essential to apologetics applies the first two reasons to what I think is the most pressing apologetic need in our present context—moral apologetics: helping people see the Christian message as not only true but good.7Until recently, Christianity in western culture has been regarded, even by many of its critics and detractors, as beneficial and even admirable. Christian morality, reflected in believers’ high personal standards and in distinctively Christian social contributions like hospitals, schools, and charities, was generally respected as good—if anything, as too good: admirable, though perhaps a standard beyond the reach of most people. In the past the Christian faith may have been considered false but good: too good to be true. Now it’s widely regarded as false because it’s not good. It’s too bad to be true.In case you haven’t been watching lately, this is no longer the case. Today, the most potent objections to Christianity and Christians—to the Christian worldview as such—are not simply assertions that Christianity is false (unscientific, irrational, etc.), but that it’s bad. In the past the Christian faith may have been considered false but good: too good to be true. Now it’s widely regarded as false because it’s not good. It’s too bad to be true. You may agree with me that this gets things exactly wrong. The Christian worldview really is true, and it is good—as well as beautiful, to round out the classical transcendental values. That’s how the pagan world into which the early Christians introduced the gospel message saw it. People were drawn to Christianity precisely because they thought it was too good not to be true.Apologetics’ aim is to remove obstacles that hinder people from seeing God for who he truly is, in his worth or glory—his goodness, truth, and beauty. To portray the Christian story in that light is the rightful aim of followers of Jesus in every age and context. But each context presents its own challenges to that picture. In ours, believers face a perceived goodness deficit. We are regarded, rightly or wrongly (sometimes “rightly,” we should admit) to be bad people—unloving, hypocritical, uncaring, intolerant, racist, etc. It’s natural (for reasons I’ll note below) for people to conclude from this that our message of “good news” is actually bad news. Hence the pressing need for moral apologetics. Moral apologetics focuses on the roles goodness plays in coming to see the gospel (and ultimately, God) as worth believing. Here’s one important way humility relates. Apologetics’ aim is to remove obstacles that hinder people from seeing God for who he truly is, in his worth or glory—his goodness, truth, and beauty. Traditional historical and scientific apologetics are aimed at removing obstacles to people’s seeing the truth of God and the Christian worldview. Moral apologetics, by contrast, is concerned to help them see that God is good. Both tasks are important, but they involve crucial differences. For someone to grasp something as good involves more than mere cognition; it engages their affections. Seeing X as good requires an experience of goodness associated with X. Arguments and reasons are insufficient.Following Jesus in humility opens the door for us as apologists to truly care about the person we’re engaging, not just winning a debate. So for someone to come to see God as good, they need an experience of goodness associated with God. Often the primary (in some cases the only) tangible experience people have with Christianity is contact with Christians. If their experience with Christians is bad, it becomes very difficult for them to see the Christian story—and God himself—as good. This is why moral objections to Christianity, warranted or not, can be so devastating. On the other hand, when Christians exhibit goodness, it points to God’s worth—as Jesus affirmed in the Sermon on the Mount: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Indeed, the evidence shows that it was primarily the radical goodness of Jesus’s followers in the early centuries that so powerfully attested to the gospel.8It has always been important for Christians to be good, of course—to be like Jesus in their character and behavior. But it’s also crucial for apologetic reasons, especially now. Yes, given prevailing prejudices in the media and elsewhere, believers will often be perceived negatively, no matter what they do. But one huge barrier we can do something about: arrogance, the stink on the skunk. Following Jesus in humility opens the door for us as apologists to truly care about the person we’re engaging, not just winning a debate. And it turns out, in our present context, that’s far more important than winning the debate.