Friday, January 12, 2007

Apologetics as Dialogue

Philip Johnson's recent visit to the United States for the teaching of an intensive course began the first day with a concluding session for the prior semester's Apologetic Traditions course. This included a healthy supplementary reading packet of some good materials. One of the articles included in this packet was written by Keith Mascord of Moore Theological College in Australia on the topic of "Apologetics as Dialogue."

After a summary discussion of various approaches to apologetics the author turns to consideration of dialogical apologetics as developed by David K. Clark of Bethel Theological Seminary, but which has also been discussed by Graham Cole of Ridley College in Australia. This approach is understood as a "person-specific, multi-method approach" that differ from other apologetic approaches that tend to be "content-oriented."

Mascord provides an important qualification to this recommendation of dialogical apologetics by way of definitional considerations that avoids compromise situations among dialogue participants. To support the approach he is defining and advocating, Mascord quotes Alistair McGrath:

"It is both logically and practically possible for us, as Christians, to respect and revere worthy representatives of other traditions while still believing - on rational grounds - that some aspects of their world-view are simply mistaken."

McGrath concludes in this quotation by stating:

"Dialogue thus implies respect, not agreement, between parties - and, at best, a willingness to take the profound risk that the other person may be right and that recognition of this fact may lead to the changing of positions."

It is this latter aspect of dialogue that may pose the greatest challenges and perceptions of threat to the participants and observers of certain expressions of interreligious dialogue, such as the Mormon-evangelical dialogues on scholarly and popular levels.

I will quote the last few paragraphs of the article, and while this will make for a lengthy blog post, these ideas are worthy of reflection. Mascord writes:

"It is this sort of dialogue that I believe a Christian can and should be engaged in. Dialogue, understood in this way, can still be genuine dialogue, for a number of reasons. It is genuine in the sense that the Christian is open to being corrected and challenged, and this even though such dialogue proceeds from a basis fo firm conviction that what one believes as a Christian is true. Dialogue is also genuine in the sense that the Christian can learn and grow through the process. McGrath notes that significant doctrinal developments within Christian theology have often taken place in response to dialogue with those outside the Christian faith. He mentions the example of how dialogue with 'protest atheism' led to a rejection of the long held belief that God cannot suffer or experience pain.

"McGrath sums up the point:

Dialogue is one pressure to ensuring that [the] process of continual self-examination and reformation continues. It is a bulwark against complacency and laziness and a stimulus to return to the sources of faith rather than resting content in some currently acceptable interpretation of them.

"It is my contention that a fresh approach to understanding the work of apology is needed. This is not only so because the old debate between the various apologetic schools now seems somewhat dated, but also because the world we live in, and want to evangelize, has become increasingly pluralistic. The need to listen, the need to be caringly sensitive to those we speak with as we commend the gospel, and as we persuade people of its truth, is greater now than it has been for some time (perhaps since the time of the New Testament!).

"If we do not engage in 'dialogical' apologetics, we simply will not be heard or understood. Nor, I think, will we deserve a hearing if we are not willing to respect people enough to listen, as well as to speak."

This form of apologetics is challenging to various segments of evangelicalism, including those engaged in apologetics to new religions and in the context of religious pluralism, as well as those engaging post-modernity, but I believe it holds great promise.

I try to practice these ideas in my own work among the new religions and alternative spiritualities. Dialogical apologetics would seem ideally suited and especially needed in the post-Christendom, post-modern Western world. My hope is that more Christians will see the value of this approach and incorporate it in their missional endeavors.

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