Moral ApologeticsA 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.