Another Look: My Ambiguous Apologetic

Sheep on a Tuscan hillside (2019)

I confess. I have no apologetic.

There is no defending God. There is no proving his way is right. To do so would require that I understand God, that I can substantiate the claims of truth my faith calls me to hold.

I can explain what I believe well enough. I can demonstrate to a certain degree that my faith is reasonable and not the delusions of a crackpot. But I can’t prove anything. I can’t argue an airtight case. I can’t campaign for Jesus on a platform of certainty.

You see, all the “evidence” is ambiguous. It is capable of being interpreted in a variety of ways. What convinces one person to believe may lead another to have serious doubts.

Even the bedrock occurrence in the story of our faith — the resurrection of Jesus — was not what you would call a public event. It was unexpectedly discovered by a few common people in the hazy dawn of Easter morning. All of Jesus’ appearances were reserved for people who became his witnesses. It is their word we have to trust. I happen to be convinced that they were trustworthy and that they had no reason to invent a story so fantastic, but I can see why people might have doubts.

I suppose this is why some Christians feel the need to posit an inerrant Bible, a fully trustworthy revelation directly from the mouth of God that demonstrates in incontrovertible terms that it is TRUTH™. Thus, all we have to do is open up the book and — there it is! — a sure and certain foundation for our beliefs. However comfortable that might make believers feel, in reality it just creates another proposition Christians must defend. Proving the divine perfection of the Bible requires herculean efforts and, as centuries of dispute over Scripture’s nature, meaning, and interpretation show, the evidence here is muddy too.

So, I don’t really have an apologetic. At best, it’s ambiguous.

The other day I was thinking about the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story. Surely they had a sense of certainty. Surely what they experienced was so unambiguous, so transformative, that they lived the rest of their lives in the assurance of faith. Surely God had proven himself to them. They beheld the angel hosts! They heard the gospel announced directly from heaven! They saw the baby Jesus in the flesh!

However, sometimes I wonder what happened next. The Gospel tells us they went back to work later that night. We never hear from them again. What was it like for the shepherds a week later? a month? ten or twenty years? I don’t know if they were around when Jesus went throughout Judea proclaiming the Kingdom. I’d like to think their faith was confirmed and strengthened over the years, perhaps by personal encounters with Jesus in his ministry.

On the other hand, it is possible they didn’t hear much about Jesus again, perhaps for the rest of their lives. If so, what would that long silence have communicated to them? Based on the angel’s message they would have expected, somewhere along the line, a Son of David to ascend the throne in Jerusalem, bringing lasting peace and relief from their enemies. An unambiguous fulfillment of God’s promise. But even if they did become part of the crowd and followed Jesus around Judea and Galilee, they never saw that happen, did they? How might they have reconciled that grand birth announcement with reality on the ground years later — an itinerant rabbi with nowhere to lay his head? And then, the cross? Some king. Some throne.

All this is pure speculation, of course, but I think it makes a point:

In my opinion, Christians (and I include myself) have been far too cocksure in talking about Jesus and our faith. As though it’s about having a sense of certainty that carries us blissfully through life. As though what we believe and the reasons we believe are so clear, so transparent, so unambiguous that we just can’t imagine others being unable to see it.

I had a spiritual awakening in high school, and it was prompted by relationships I developed with a group of Christian young people in school and church. What I liked about them was that they were real. I saw their imperfections and could blow holes through their arguments. But I couldn’t get past their joy, their belief that life was worth living in spite of problems and doubts. There was something that kept them moving forward to embrace the goodness of life and faith and hope and love. They were pitiful at trying to explain it, but it was there. Ultimately, I found I couldn’t resist the song their lives sang to me.

So this is what I keep coming back to. Sometime long ago, on a dark night I heard angels sing. I saw the face of the Savior. And it was real.

My experience wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the show the shepherds witnessed. However, it just as effectively got my attention and caused me to change direction in ways that I suppose were as crazy as leaving your job in the middle of the night to go see a stranger’s newborn baby, and claiming you heard the news from angels.

But then, like the shepherds, I had to return to life, plain old life, everyday life.

Through the years I’ve had reason to doubt over and over again whether that experience was real. I have wondered whether the promises I received were genuine, or whether it might not all have been some adolescent fantasy born of hormones, naiveté, and group dynamics. It can get awfully ambiguous at times.

Whether or not the shepherds ever saw Jesus again, I can testify that since my epiphany, every once and awhile along the way I have encountered him. Thing is, he’s never what I expect. He constantly confuses me and makes me scratch my head. The more I try to define what he’s all about or what he’s doing in my life, the more mixed up I become. And when I go to speak, I fumble around for words to explain him, to express what he means to me, to put my finger on the gifts with which he has so graciously filled my life.

He’s real, and that’s about the best I can do.

And there you have it. My ambiguous apologetic.

Maybe you were hoping you’d read something today that would nail it all down for you, relieve your doubts, answer your questions, make it all certain.

Sorry. Just a shepherd here.

Most nights are pretty quiet.

32 thoughts on “Another Look: My Ambiguous Apologetic

  1. During my (short) time at Bible college, I put a questionnaire in each student & staffs pigeon hole, asking them explicitly what their “Monday morning apologetic” was.

    Didn’t go down too well…

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  2. You can start by not assuming because something is foolish it IS automatically of God.

    I’ve seen that one in action too many times.

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  3. But they refuse to engage the things that are common to humanity — like love, loss, doubts, celebration, depression, crisis, joy

    They have become so Spiritual and Godly, they have ceased to be human.

    “Just like Pod People, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

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  4. “I try to communicate with them that nobody actually talks like that, or engages actual day-to-day life, on those terms. But they refuse to engage the things that are common to humanity ”

    The whole point of that formulation is to deny that commonality.

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  5. Well said. I was enamored with apologetics in my 20s. Not too long after, I spent years at a good seminary getting a Masters and learned how little I really knew. Now in my 50s I see much more clearly how important it is to serve and love others and how unimportant it is to win an argument, or even (gasp) to have precisely the right doctrine.

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  6. For the past couple years I’ve been struck by how completely and wonderfully nuts the Gospel message is, and I take heart that Paul agrees with me. In a passage that Christian apologists tend to ignore, Paul tells his Corinthian readers that “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

    Proclaiming “Christ crucified” may be a stumbling block and a folly, but “to those who are called” it is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”

    How does one make reasonable “the foolishness of God” that is “wiser than men”?

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  7. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)? I’ve seen parts of this movie, but I can’t remember the scenes about the Magi. It’s been a long time.

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  8. (A reply just got lost in submission. I’ll assume it’ll show up eventually, but I just wanted to quickly say, No, that’s not it…LOL.)

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  9. –> “The other day I was thinking about the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story. Surely they had a sense of certainty. Surely what they experienced was so unambiguous, so transformative, that they lived the rest of their lives in the assurance of faith… However, sometimes I wonder what happened next.”

    Many, many years ago, I saw a foreign film that depicted the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem. It’s a very plain movie, intentionally devoid of anything wondrous. When they arrive at the stable and look in on Jesus in the manger, all they see is a baby and a young grime-covered mother and an older father-figure, all rather plain looking, and some animals and straw and dirt. No bright lights, no glowing Jesus, no choirs of angels. They kinda look at each other with a “Weren’t you expecting something different?” expression, shrug, deliver their gifts, then leave.

    And I just LOVED that moment!!!! It captured something rarely captured because of what “tradition” has taught us, that it probably was a very ho-hum experience.

    I’d love to watch the film again, but for the life of me I can’t remember its name. I’ve google searched for something several times, hoping to find it again, but to no avail.

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  10. Sometimes my faith is blind. I cannot see the way or the truth. But somewhere hidden in memory it still lives and moves me forward. Or backward. In my memory, the story still lives. I remember my baptism. I remember verbalizing my faith in Jesus, renouncing sin and the devil, and saying a yes to the unseen way. This probably sounds way too simple, and after many years of life, it is. But it still boils down the essentials for my life. No other explanation is needed. And if all else fails I remember the song of Sunday School when I was six years of age, “Jesus loves me this I know.”

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  11. I know people that are very into presuppositional apologetics. Their gist is to prove that any worldview claim offered by an atheist/agnostic is incoherent without a Christian worldview foundation. They believe in “shutting the mouth of the fool” (a horrible misappropriation of 1 Peter 2).

    I try to communicate with them that nobody actually talks like that, or engages actual day-to-day life, on those terms. But they refuse to engage the things that are common to humanity — like love, loss, doubts, celebration, depression, crisis, joy — without accusing the unbeliever of being inconsistent in their worldview approach.

    Thankfully, not all apologetic approaches are this cold and dry. And many of these types of people run in their own circles and debate other fundamentalist types of atheists online only, which is a grace to people who are living in the real world.

    So cheers to the ambiguous apologetic, which is probably the only kind that can actually be incarnated into the real world. “A long obedience in the same direction,” with its ebbs and flows, will stir hearts much more than a cold and condescending theoretical framework.

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  12. From the Letters of Flannery O’Connor:

    I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

    Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.

    That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

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  13. Chaplain Mike didn’t you get the memo?

    You’re not allowed to be reasonable on the Internet!

    I hope you’ll work on that.

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  14. Great Christmas message as well as great view on the subject, great writing. My faith is the size of a mustard seed also but I keep it, it is enough if you look at it as CM does. I think the gospel group the “Monkees” summed it up with their old hymn “I’m a Believer”. Thought love was just a fairy tale, then I saw his face, now I am a believer, it will be in my head all day but somehow it fits the message today.

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  15. “However comfortable that might make believers feel, in reality it just creates another proposition Christians must defend. Proving the divine perfection of the Bible requires herculean efforts and, as centuries of dispute over Scripture’s nature, meaning, and interpretation show, the evidence here is muddy too.”

    There’s an old military dictum – “Whoever defends everything, defends nothing.”

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  16. Your a young man to me that clearly has a way of describing a Jesus shaped spirituality in the continuing legacy of Michael Spencer. This post is right on, in his wheelhouse as they say, and this blog has to parallel those quiet nights and days as it were. When get real is mentioned, this is about as close as you can get.

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