Apologetics and the impossibility of certainty

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

My wife was recently talking with someone who said that she had been a Christian, but she lost her faith when she went to Bible college. It was because of an apologetics presentation. Her rational mind was activated, and she realised that unless she could find a perfect argument, she couldn’t believe.

No such argument exists or ever will exist.

For pretty much everything.

Even if my beloved St Anselm thought he could prove the Holy Trinity using logic alone.

But apologetics — which is the defence of the Christian faith — frequently presents itself as giving airtight arguments for the existence of God. If only those poor, benighted agnostics and atheists knew, they would become theists. And then they present arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and expect that the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims will join our faith as well, because Christianity is a perfectly rational faith and perfectly defensible.

And, of course, if you can’t prove something beyond the shadow of a doubt, can you trust it? (At which point, can you trust your existence? What about that of other minds?)

I have met other people who, having been to Bible college, abandon the faith or at least orthodoxy when they realise the world is not dominated by the narrow, simplistic, pat answers of their particular Bible college. This is not a tirade against Bible colleges in general, just those that seem to have had this effect.

That Christians seem to think that our faith is entirely defensible in an airtight, scientific way is evidence that we have allowed ourselves to get sucked into Enlightenment rationalism to far too great a degree. There is no airtight argument for God. Nor is there one for the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean Christianity is irrational (all the time). One of the ideas that stuck with me from one of the few apologetics books I’ve read, Little’s Know Why You Believe was that, while our faith may go beyond reason, it does not go against reason.

Hence apologetics.

I have two directions I want to go. One is mystery. The other is the unproveability of most stuff. I’ll stick with the second for now, and get back to the first another day.

The ability to definitively prove anything is actually very slippery, especially in the humanities — and not just philosophy and theology, which is where some of the basic apologetics stuff resides. The slipperiness of proving stuff is evident in history, for example. For example, there are people who deny the existence of Napoleon — they say he was just a propaganda tool of the French government and the man arrested was just an actor/figurehead.

The Phantom Time Hypothesis exploits the holes in our knowledge and the difficulty of matching material and textual evidence for the years 614–911 to argue that they never actually happened and that it’s all a conspiracy by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II.

Pretty much all Roman history before the Punic Wars was made up.

Now, I would never subscribe to the Phantom Time Hypothesis. But the fragmentary evidence it exploits is very important to consider, because it reminds us that there is much we do not know for certain. We might have textual evidence for an event — but can we trust that evidence? Sometimes it turns out we can’t. Sometimes we can.

100% certainty is an impossibility.

I go on faith that plausible historical accounts of events are to be trusted unless the contrary evidence from material culture or other historical accounts is too much to ignore.

Christian faith is not about being able to provide airtight arguments for the existence of God, or about proving 100% that Jesus rose from the dead.

It is about an encounter with the living God — and, whatever logic may figure into relationships, they are different creatures from philosophy textbooks.

I’m not jettisoning apologetics. Just relativizing its importance.

We all live in and with mystery. Let’s see where we can find God in that, in the uncertain. For He is there as much as He is in our rational arguments for his existence.


7 thoughts on “Apologetics and the impossibility of certainty

  1. Ah, but in fact God is Absolute Truth, and Christianity is likewise Absolute Truth. We cannot be 100% certain of anything in this life *except* our faith. Everything else is missing something.

    I am reading Nihilism, by Fr Seraphim Rose. It is very interesting. You would definitely enjoy it, and it’s short.

  2. This post reminds me (profitably) of C.S. Lewis’s poem “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”:

    ‘From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
    From all the victories that I seemed to score;
    From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
    At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
    From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
    Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

    Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
    Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
    From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
    O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
    Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
    Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.’

  3. Let’s talk for a moment about what apologetics is. In traditional Catholic terms, it is philosophy with a twist. Much of philosophy is pure unaided reasoning — starting from scratch. Apologetics is philosophical reasoning that starts with an assumption, a belief. Thus St. Thomas Aquinas would start with a belief in God’s existence and then philosophize (or theologize) about it; the purpose being to analyze the nuances of true beliefs toward a fuller comprehension.

    I used to believe that it was impossible to prove God’s existence using human logic alone. I’m not so sure about that now. A lot depends on the premises with which you start. I agree that getting at certainty is difficult and slippery. Most of the time we have to be satisfied with just getting higher levels of probability. But in certain situations, given unambiguous true statements, it is possible to arrive at 100 percent certainly.

    The first is deductive reasoning; that is, reasoning from a generality to a specific. So if it is true that God is omnipresent, then we can know with 100% certainty that He is in this room (otherwise he would not be omnipresent). The second is by a complete inductive enumeration. So if I can demonstrate that each of four apples available was eaten by Harry, then I can be 100% certain that Harry ate all the apples.

    Faith, however, is not logical certainty. It is a choosing to believe or “take on faith” something that we do not know for sure. It involves hope because we then hope we are right. Remember, hope is part expectation. It involves uncertainty or doubt. Once we arrive at certainty, and “know” that something is true, then we don’t need faith anymore, since the object is no longer an unknown. Both St. Thomas Aquinas and Alma (Book of Mormon) discuss this and seem to concur, although I believe St. Thomas refers to it as Intellectual Faith as contrasted with emotional faith.

    Finally, I agree that the important thing is our encounter with God. There is a difference between having knowledge of God and having a personal relationship with God. What value is there in seeking learned knowledge of God if in so doing we displease God through our arrogance?

    Thank you for your post.

    • Thanks for the reminder about what good, humble apologetics is and is about. I think I may have caricatured the whole field when thinking not even about apologists in general but mostly about the attitudes of certain evangelical-types I have known! Well said.

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