6 May

Questioning the world’s assumptions down to their very roots

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

John Milbank on the need for a more robust apologetics

On Volume 115, of the Journal, I interviewed theologian Andrew Davison about his 2011 book Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition (Baker Academic). One of the things he talked about was how he persuaded John Milbank to write the foreword to the book. That foreword bears the title “An Apology for Apologetics.” In it, Milbank notes that apologetics “has come to mean a theologically secondary exercise: not an exposition of the faith, but the defence of the faith on grounds other than faith — on one’s opponent’s territory, where one risks remaining in a weak or even a false position. The best that such a posture can hope to achieve would be the occasional demonstration that one’s adversary has somehow missed the authentic wider ground of her own standing. But calling this very standing into doubt would appear to be beyond the apologetic remit.

“For these reasons apologetics often fell into disfavor within twentieth-century theology. Instead, what was recommended was an authentic exposition of faith, capable of persuading the non-believer to start to inhabit the alternative world which that exposition can invoke. In this light apologetics appeared to be a compromised exercise, unlikely in any case to succeed. And yet, the latter assumption was belied by the wide popular reach of some apologetic writing, most notably that of C. S. Lewis — the sign of the success of his Screwtape Letters being that they were often much admired even by those whom they did not convince.”

Milbank goes on to ask whether it was ever correct to assume that apologetics should have a secondary and deferential role. “Perhaps the exposition of faith always includes an apologetic dimension?” Perhaps “any successful exercise of apologetics, like indeed that of Lewis, must contain a strong confessional element which convinces precisely because it persuades through the force of an imaginative presentation of belief. . . .

“Instead of . . . a falsely ‘neutral’ approach (and one can think here of the folly of much ‘science and religion’ debate in our own day) which accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world, we need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else an atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether. . . .

“[W]hile the truths of the Creation, the Incarnation, the Trinity and of Grace are replete of themselves, they complete and safeguard rather than destroy our sense of natural order and human dignity. This means that they themselves presume such a defence [as is offered on behalf of revealed doctrines], and therefore that belief in these supernatural truths cannot survive the threatened collapse of the ordinary and perennial human belief in soul, mind and will, and its intuition of a teleological purposiveness in all existing things.

“For this reason today apologetics, which is to say Christian theology as such, faces the integral task of at once defending the faith and also of defending a true politics of civic virtue (rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions), besides a renewed metaphysics of cosmic hierarchy and participatory order.

“Yet today also we have a more specific sense that such a metaphysics was lost through an assumption that the only ‘reason’ which discloses truth is a cold, detached reason that is isolated from both feeling and imagination, as likewise from both narrative and ethical evaluation. Christian apologetics now needs rather to embrace the opposite assumption that our most visionary and ideal insights can most disclose the real, provided that this is accompanied by a widening in democratic scope of our sympathies for the ordinary, and the capacities and vast implications of the quotidian — like the road running outside our house which beckons to endless unknown vistas.”