by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 45 - Apr 2012

Christian 'apologetics' is the defence of Christianity against critics by means of argument. As one would expect, whenever there have been critics there have been apologists, from the biblical book of Acts onwards.

There are recurring themes: philosophical arguments for the existence of God, spiritual arguments for a religion of redemption, moral arguments for a more-than-human standard of behaviour, historical arguments about Jesus and the gospels and scientific arguments about the creation of the universe.

Without arguments like these, criticisms of Christianity would go unanswered. Nevertheless some theologians have opposed all apologetics, none more forcefully than Karl Barth whose influence was immense throughout the twentieth century.

Barth objected that apologetics submits Christian truth to alien standards. It takes seriously the perspectives of critics, based as they usually are on the culture and presuppositions of the age, and looks for a common ground or shared criteria on which to base a case for Christianity. Barth argued that there is no common ground, so Christians should speak purely from divine revelation. In effect this means that instead of using reason to argue, Christians should use revelation to assert.

For a long time, for Christians living in a predominantly Christian culture, Barth's theory could seem credible. Outside such a culture it quickly collapses; after all it would leave everyone with no reason to be a Christian. Hardly surprisingly the 'new atheists' of today, like Richard Dawkins, are keen to agree with Barth and discount as irrelevant any reason-based attempt to defend religious belief.

Modern Church stands in a very different tradition: less Barth, more Acts. It has always had a high regard for human rationality as God's gift to help us understand ourselves and the universe. This is why, last year, we embarked on the production of six books on the theme of 'Making Sense of Christianity'. Gone are the days when most people felt they ought to be good Christians. If Christianity is to have a future, people need to be persuaded that there is truth in it, and this means it has to make sense.

The first two of these books were published last summer. The third and fourth are due to be published in June, Adrian Thatcher's Making Sense of Sex and my Making Sense of Faith in God. Both are due to be available at our annual conference in July.

I look forward to reading Adrian's, but I already know what mine will say.  The question of whether there is a God is central to current debates about religion. 'Religion', in the modern sense of a self-contained social phenomenon disconnected from other social phenomena, is a nineteenth century western invention. Before the nineteenth century, as far as I am aware no known society had such a concept. Questions about divine beings, prayer, worship and the afterlife, far from being separated out and kept in a box marked 'religion', were integral parts of each society's attempts to understand the nature of the universe, the nature of humanity and how we ought to live. God was relevant to most things. The arguments used by Anselm and Aquinas were more a matter of justifying reason in the light of faith than justifying faith in the light of reason. Arguments in favour of belief in God only became popular after the rise of atheism. 'Enlightenment reason' in a narrow, nominalist form attempted, and failed, to prove the existence of God. Thereafter atheists anticipated that the existence of God would be disproved, so they classified 'religion' as a distinct phenomenon which could be jettisoned without harm to the modern scientific understanding of reality; and frightened believers did much the same in order to immunise spiritual entities against scientific disproof.

With respect to the existence of God, therefore, I see the apologetic task in terms of pointing out the limitations of the modern God-free account of reality. The obvious starting-place is with its effects. It fails to account for major elements of the human experience of life. Most obvious are our moral sense and our values; for all the claims that 'we create our own values', we persist in treating our values as though they were more than just our personal creations, and when other people do not we quickly deplore declining standards and clamour for more police. Other effects are religious experiences and the sense of design.

The other main limitation of the God-free account of reality is its justification. Philosophers recognise that all science depends on two presuppositions: that the world is ordered and that the human mind is capable of understanding this order. Without accepting these two presuppositions there would be precious little we could ever know. They may seem self-evident. Yet they are not. They are the result of thousands of years of theological speculation. Only in the later Middle Ages, when Jews, Christians and Muslims developed a consensus about the nature of God, and the Cathars who disputed it were cruelly suppressed, did a confidence in these two theories become strong enough for modern science to develop. Viewed in this longer historical perspective, the atheists who denounce religion in the name of science are sawing off the branch they are sitting on: if there is no such God, there is no reason for confidence either in ordered laws of nature or in the human mind's capacity to know them – especially if we have evolved as survival machines from animals with no such knowledge.

British society, like much of western Europe, is full of people who have not been taught about Christianity, who do not know why Good Friday is a bank holiday, and who will judge Christian ideas, like any other ideas, on their merits.

To defend Christianity we need to articulate good reasons for it, allowing others to judge whether our reasons are good enough. This is why we think a series of books on 'Making Sense of Christianity' is timely. We are doing apologetics, and despite Barth we do not apologise for it.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.