What's New about the New Apologetics?
It is hard to believe that it is a century ago that Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) and his close friend G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) were pouring out their quenchless creativity and indefatigable labor in defense of the Catholic faith. Their battle cry was aptly captured by Chesterton in his Ballad of the White Horse: “When pride and a little scratching pen have dried and split the hearts of men, heart of the heroes, ride.” Ride they did, with poem and story, essay and biography, travelogue and pen-and-ink sketch, and book after book explaining the “Catholic thing” to a generation adrift.
Theirs was a work of translating and reminding. To an Anglo-American audience that had come to think of worship as an eccentric weekly ritual, Belloc’s Europe and the Faith gave a vision of a world in which the Mass was the central and noblest activity of life. To a generation of Christians retreating in the face of a confident eugenics and family planning movement, Chesterton bravely defended motherhood. To a world drowning in corporate profits, nationalizing its industries, and planning—forever planning—the two “Distributists” defended the nobility of human work and the everyday exercise of justice in making and selling, employing and serving. Thanks to them, thousands upon thousands of Catholics were strengthened in their faith, hope, and charity, and an untold number of Protestants were able to see the Faith with new eyes and come home to the Holy Catholic Church.
It is perhaps not customary to think of Belloc and Chesterton as apologists. Names such as Frank Sheed, Fulton Sheen, and Ronald Knox may come to mind before theirs. And yet we have much to learn from the ChesterBelloc’s defense of the Faith, for it was to them instinctual, habitual, an art as lawful as eating.
And so the new apologetics must also be if it is to be effective, for the principalities and powers against which today’s apologist contends are the everyday expectations and assumptions of the secular world.
To be sure, foes of the Faith today will throw in our faces such traditional stumbling blocks as immoral clergy, hypocritical lay leaders, the simplicity and uninstructed character of the typical Christian’s piety, and the many sins of our fathers: the brutal mistreatment of the Jews and other innocents during the Crusades and in the Reconquest of Spain, the rise of slavery under Henry the Navigator and its criminal extension to the New World, the selfish ambitions of the crowned heads of Europe, the perfidy of the Renaissance popes and cardinals, the Vatican’s ham-fisted and impatient response to Galileo, and on and on and on.
Belloc and Chesterton themselves responded to charges such as these from time to time, and it is always well that there should be learned students of history and doctrine who can do so. Yet the fundamental work of apologetics today is deeper and hidden beneath these issues. “The student concerned with general truth,” as Belloc once counseled Philip Hughes, “is really conceding everything to the enemy if he makes these details points of importance.” For to do so is to fight the battle on the enemy’s chosen terrain, which is the wrong choice, because the Catholic apologist’s true task is to take the fight to the very gates of hell, attacking them.
The best defense of the Faith, then, is actually a proclamation of the Gospel more essentially than it is a response to this or that charge against Christians and the Church.
It is just such a proclamation that the writers and editors of Why Believe? have attempted to offer. Imitating Chesterton, Belloc, Knox, and other great apologists, the contributors have sought to translate the central truths of the Faith into language accessible to today’s youth and young adults and have labored to present the intelligibility and internal coherence of the Faith with an eye to responding to the presuppositions of the secular world.
As with many other apologetic works, Why Believe? includes a good deal of philosophy, because the Christian faith includes answers to the deepest questions that men and women ask about themselves and the world. Yet it does not begin with philosophy, because the deepest and most essential question of all is not a philosophical one, but one of faith and love: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15) Christ is the light of the world, and he is the light that illuminates the entirety of both volumes of Why Believe? It is true that our apology today must be a defense of reason and the human mind’s ability to attain truth, a defense of virtue and the human heart’s ability to choose wisely and live well, and a defense of beauty rightly understood as the sensible form of truth and goodness. Yet our apology is first and foremost a witness of gratitude to the Lord who leapt from Heaven and humbled himself that he might save us poor sinners.
It is fitting, therefore, that each of the two volumes of Why Believe? should begin with a meditation on the Gospel, the first with Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16) and the second with the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15). Each volume also ends with a chapter summing up its contents: the first with a consideration of the Creed and the Catholic practice of professing it; the second, with an invitation to follow the Lord as a disciple.
Within those bookends, each volume has its own proper task. The first explains why Christians believe what they believe, and the second why they live as they live.
The work of doctrinal exposition in the first volume of Why Believe? begins by situating our personal quest for truth within our search for happiness. The most essential response to the secular world’s myth of self-creation is to ground ourselves in the reality that we each have but one life to live and that that life will necessarily be either tragic or comic, that is, that our lives are stories that we write by our choices. Those stories, of course, are on a stage that is not of our own making, as today’s environmentalists rightly remind us. Accordingly, the middle chapters of volume 1 examine our knowledge of ourselves and of our nature and of God from the perspective of our common experience of the world. With the essential arguments for the immortality of the soul and the existence of God having been treated, the authors then take on the radical denial of our ability to know truth and the typical Darwinian objection to the Christian account of Creation. Although the material in these philosophical chapters is at times necessarily somewhat technical, the exposition is always kept as close as possible to our ordinary language and our everyday questions about the world.
Why Believe? I then turns to the person of Jesus and his claim to be the Eternal Son of God. In six closely-reasoned chapters, the reader is introduced to some of the principal passages of the New Testament—in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles—so as to understand the Scriptural foundations for our belief in the divinity of Christ and in the goodness of his New Law of charity. These chapters put on display a truly Catholic reading of the Bible, treating the Lord’s resurrection, his moral teaching, the establishment of the Mass and his Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, and the Church as his enduring representative and Mystical Body here on earth. Certainly, these chapters have in view the common Protestant objections to Catholic belief, yet they also and more essentially respond to misconceptions about Jesus and his mission that are common in today’s culture.
The work of moral teaching and explanation of the Christian way of life that is found in volume 2 of Why Believe? also begins with a direct confrontation with secular culture. Much as the famous literary figure Don Quixote was guilty of seeing the world as he wished it to be, so is today’s relativist guilty of willful self-deception. If we are honest with ourselves—as we should be—we will soon recognize that even if we want to have the carte blancheof relativism as our own personal prerogative, we cannot truthfully say that we want others to treat us as though there were no moral truth. Nor, finally, when we look in the mirror of our own deepest aspirations, do we find room to doubt our desire to be good so that others will trust and love us. This personal and communal quest for goodness itself takes place on its own stage, the stage of human nature, and so Why Believe? II then examines that nature: that we are each of us body and soul with emotions and reason, creatures born from love and enabled to procreate in love, and children who may become parents. The truly liberating vision of human family life and sexuality that the Christian faith gives to the world is here gratefully unfolded, with appropriately medicinal responses to the common misconceptions of our day offered along the way.
Having set the stage, the text then gives the players their direction, by examining the Christian understanding of human flourishing in terms of God’s law, the grace that enables us to keep it, and the virtues of character that grow in us when we do. Why Believe? II then examines the common way of life of Catholics, showing with the help of many examples from great Christians of the last century that making charity our aim, relying upon God’s grace given to us through the sacraments, and putting prayer and the prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture at the heart of our daily life will enable us to flourish and to find the happiness that this life affords. But remembering that this life is not our end and that this world is not our lasting home, Why Believe? II comes to a close with a frank examination of suffering and death, all within the horizon of our hope for eternal life and the vision of God’s face.
What is then new about the New Apologetics? Nothing less than the perpetual newness and freshness of the truth of the Catholic faith. The modern, secular world is old and tired. It is a purveyor of false optimism and an empty promise of earthly fulfillment. Reason rightly deployed brings us to the threshold of faith. A heart open to God and yearning for eternity hears the voice of the Beloved, and his offer of salvation is not only our unique hope of crossing the chasm of death but also the sure and trustworthy light for our steps on our pilgrimage back to the Father.