Monday, January 20, 2014

The Apologetic Dance

Apologetics: (from Greek ἀπολογία, "speaking in defense") is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information.

What none of the definitions I saw on the Web clarify is that apologetic work is concerned with defending a conclusion that has already been arrived at. It is, at its foundation, the antithesis of the scientific method. While apologetics wants to defend the conclusion by any means necessary, the scientific method aggressively attempts to poke holes in the proposed theory.

Apologetic work goes relatively unchallenged within one's own religion. The only way to see its deformity is by observing it in another. I live in the heart of Mormon country. When I was an Evangelical, I would often hear my friends snicker at Mormon apologetic attempts to defend the veracity of the Book of Mormon.

Of course, what my Evangelical friends could not see was how quickly and wholeheartedly they accepted the weak structure of Evangelical apologetics. Again, one only tends to see the absurdity of apologetics from the outside.

My wife recently got a view of how quietly apologetic work had influenced her throughout her life. Part of apologetics is knowing when to avoid a topic. Though raised in Christianity, my wife had never dealt with what the bible had to say about slavery. After researching it a bit, she declared on Facebook:
I wish Jesus would have taken the opportunity to address slavery. His apostles certainly did. Imagine the radical shift in society if Jesus would have sided with "mercy and compassion" toward those who were owned (abused) by another.
Christians quickly swooped in to do the apologetic dance. The conclusion is that Jesus is divine, good, and perfect... so defenses are offered to support that.

Of course, those apologetic moves only convince the convinced. Their defenses work for Christians in the same way Mormon apologetics work for Mormons - the explanations only satisfy the already converted. To the outsider they are weak and often absurd. On the contrary, to one in the religion, the conclusion is already sure... so almost ANY explanation will do.

For my wife, the answers did not satisfy. She is no longer convinced of the conclusion. Apologetics only works as long as the dancing partner is willing to follow the apologist's lead.

For me, it is clear why Jesus had nothing to say on the issue of slavery. He was ahead of his time... but not that far ahead. Slavery was embedded in the cultures of biblical ages. It was in no way viewed as inherently wrong. So neither he, nor any of the bible authors, conceived it as being immoral.

On the contrary, the bible is supportive of slavery. It tells you how to do it, when to do it, and whom to do it to. It does not in any way, shape, or form reference slavery as an immoral practice. For example:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.  (Ephesians 6:5)
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21)
The apologist will attempt to dance around verses like these with talk of context, and bond-servants, and culture (but mostly they will work at directing the conversation elsewhere). The Christian listening will nod, satisfied, and go back to reading John 3:16.

I often wonder how apologists would need to dance if other sins were substituted for slavery in these verses:
If a spouse is caught in adultery, he or she shall be punished. But if the affair is not caught after a day or two the affair shall not be punished, since the adulterer was very clever.

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Bruce Gerencser said...

Great post, Andrew.

I have had countless Christians try to explain away slavery in the Bible. I always find it interesting how quickly that discard their literalistic, plain meaning interpretation of the Bible.

I say Christians. Really I mean Evangelical Christians. Liberal Christians seem to accept that the Bible is pro-slavery and are willing to condemn such teachings as immoral.

Andrew said...

Bruce have you noticed a lot of Left Christians - Bell, Jones, McLaren -taking pot shots at Atheists lately? I wonder if they are seeing many leaving fundamentalism and shooting straight past them.

Bruce Gerencser said...

I wonder about that too. I was really surprised by some of the things Jones has said of late. Seems like some of these guys have finally found someone to hate on. :) Maybe they are becoming aware of the fact that their writings are often instrumental in people losing their faith. They want people to question, doubt and investigate, as long as they come to the "right" conclusions. They embraced postmodernism and it's questioning and doubting everything, but now it seems they don't like where questions and doubts have taken some of us.

Andrew said...

That was one of my complaints on a piece by Rachel Held Evans recently. For all of her talk of questioning, she still had a set location you needed to arrive at. I was talking about this with a group of friends the other day and the reality is... if you are in a religious environment, regardless of how liberal or conservative... there is a set of questions you may not broach, and there are results you need to arrive at. There just can never be an open field in religion.
I think folks like Jones thought he was in open fields... then he saw folks going Atheist, and he is experiencing that conservative drive to batten down the hatches. :)

Bruce Gerencser said...

Yeah, it seems that questions are Ok until they stray past heterodox or heretical Christianity. Most every doctrine can be called into question as long as you hang on to the big guy upstairs. Deny or doubt God exists or that Jesus was divine, and all of a sudden you are the enemy. I have always felt this way about men like Jim Wallis. He can sound like a wonderful liberal and then turn right around and sound like a fundamentalist.

I appreciate all the help these men gave me. They gave me the space, time, and freedom to question and to determine what it was I really believed. I hope they realize some of their rhetoric about atheists sounds an awful lot like the Evangelicals they criticized a few years ago. Maybe they are reacting to some of the more vocal atheists...thinking that these people represent all atheists? Again, they used to hate such guilt by association thinking.

Jon Eastgate said...

Interesting Andrew. I agree with you, this is exactly what apologetics is. A lot of it is also quite dire and unconvincing. Josh McDowall's whole apologetic card-house falls down with the slightest tap.

What interests me is that atheist apologists like Dawkins and Shermer do the same - not about science (both practice it as scientists) but about the religious implications of their scientific findings. I find them just as unconvincing as many of the Christian ones, hence I remain a Christian because I like Christianity more than atheism.

You did quote the slavery passages out of context though, especially the Ephesians one :)

Andrew said...

Jon, how would you say that I quoted those pages out of context (aside from not printing their entire chapters with them)? The context I have them in is that the bible tells you how to do slavery, and that it in no way casts slavery itself as an immoral act... so, how am I misrepresenting that aspect of the bible?

Jon Eastgate said...

You haven't really quoted the OT passages out of context, and you're right about them. As for the Ephesians one, Ephesians 5:21-6:9 presents a series of balanced pairs - husbands/wives, parents/children, slaves/masters, framed by the opening statement "be subject to one another in love". You've only quoted the slaves side of the pair. The masters part says "masters, do the same to them" - i.e. whatever instruction he gives to slaves also applies to their masters.

Andrew said...

Yes, but my point is that the writer of the epistle assumes that believers could and would own other believers... let alone owning anyone. It never occurs to the writer that the simple act of slavery should be pointed out as immoral.

Jon Eastgate said...

Yes, that's a fair point. I think that's because Paul (and his disciples, if Ephesians was not written by Paul himself) is a situation ethicist not an absolutist like most modern Christians. He would naturally assume that some of his readers owned slaves because about one third of the population of the Roman empire were slaves.

I think you've read my views on slavery in the Bible. Part of my point is that in a slave-dependent economy, simply releasing slaves was not necessarily helpful. An ex-slave still needs to live somehow, and they have no assets and their skills are for work that is always done by slaves. Paul wanted his followers to take responsibility for one another, not follow some absolute law. The book of Philemon illustrates how this might work in practice for slaves and masters - Philemon's slave becomes his son.

Of course this won't do for us, with a different culture and different social and economic arrangements. But the problem is still with us. Slavery is illegal everywhere but there are still and estimated 2.5 million slaves in the world, including an estimated 2,000 here in Australia, not sure how many in the US. Having a law that says it's bad isn't helping them, but people who intervene in practical ways do.

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