Almost twenty years ago, as a zealous evangelical Young Life leader at the University of Virginia, I sat on the trunk of my car with a high school senior at Charlottesville High School. He, an intelligent secular Jew, had taken my Gospel-sharing bait, and was willing to converse on God and Christianity. There we sat, for two hours, engaged in fierce back-and-forth debate. The senior would offer his criticisms of God, the Bible, and Christianity, and I, well-trained in apologetics, would confidently articulate the standard responses. Finally, flustered and frustrated, he threw up his hands, declaring: “You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
Well, as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate, I probably did think I had the answer to almost everything! And his criticism wasn’t a particularly good one. Wouldn’t you expect someone who professed to be knowledgeable in a subject to have answers for everything, or almost everything? I certainly want my family doctor, my accountant, and my plumber to have answers to all my questions. Yet looking back at that parking lot tête-à-tête, I better appreciate my Jewish friend’s annoyance. Here I was, trying to persuade him to abandon everything he believed, to trust me, and to accept something completely different. Did I not have any reservations or concerns about my Christian faith? Were the answers I gave really as straightforward as his AP Calculus class? Perhaps, in my zealousness to give my friend the “what,” I had neglected the “how” of good apologetics.
I thought about that conversation when considering 1 Peter 3:15b-17, a recent Mass reading:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
This passage, particularly the “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account…,” is perhaps the most commonly cited slogan of Christian apologists, evangelical and Catholic. John Martignoni, founder and president of the Bible Christian Society, cites the verse in a 2004 article at Catholic Answers: “Always be prepared!…We must be prepared to defend our faith. God wouldn’t tell us to do something that we are incapable of doing.” Steve Graves, in another 2000 article at Catholic Answers, calls the verse the “New Testament’s great clarion call to apologists.” Popular Catholic apologist Matt Fradd begins a 2018 YouTube video on apologetics by quoting the verse. Christian apologetics books have the verse in their title, like Edward D. Andrew’s 2016 The Christian Apologist: Always Being Prepared to Make a Defense.
This certainly seems appropriate, given that Saint Peter’s words are perhaps the most explicit scriptural exhortation for Catholics to share and defend their faith. With deep respect to the great work done by Catholic apologetics organizations like Catholic Answers and popular evangelists like Fradd, Trent Horn, or my personal friend David Anders, I do increasingly wonder if there is a certain imbalance in the “cottage industry” of Catholic apologetics. The apologist’s vocation is important, and I’d grant it is even essential. Indeed, I’ve relied heavily on Dave Armstrong’s exhaustive research in debates, articles, and a recent podcast interview. Yet, in an American culture that is increasingly siloed into various ideological camps that make dialogue even harder, I would argue that Catholic apologetics needs to focus on the “how” of good apologetics, as much as the “what.”
The very nature of Christian apologetics tends towards a framework encouraging lay Catholics to believe that everything in the Bible or Christian history can be easily explained and then leveraged against non-believers with bullet-point exactitude. All potential dilemmas or contradictions, Catholic apologetics organizations seem to suggest, can be resolved in a nice package—or four-page tract, as the case might be. Whether the topic is transubstantiation, the Crusades, or contraception, there’s a pamphlet that succinctly and incontrovertibly defends Catholic doctrine and the Catholic Church.
This approach, in its brevity and simplicity, has obvious benefits—but it can also seem manufactured, robotic, and impersonal to non-Catholics. “Here are ready-made answers to criticisms of Christianity you didn’t even know existed,” apologetics books and articles seem to often tell us. When I was an evangelical, I was given The Norman L. Geisler Apologetics Library (12 vols.) software. There was so much data to memorize and use on my intellectual sparring partners! And yet, quite ironically, I often couldn’t find the answers to the novel, creative questions offered by non-religious family, friends, or classmates.
I would argue that the reality of religious-themed conversations is a bit more complicated. Most people don’t like having lots of data spit at them, nor answers that seem rote and formulaic. Moreover, acting like we have all the answers or can readily acquire them can be off-putting. “How can you be so sure there are easy answers to questions you haven’t even thought about?” our interlocutors ask. Indeed, all of us, no matter how much we’ve studied our faith, still have questions about God, Christianity, and the Bible. These are complicated subjects that can require expertise across a breadth of disciplines—philosophy, history, literature, and languages. All of us are trying to understand better our faith and resolve lingering questions or concerns.
And all of us have had to work through various objections or frustrations with Catholic teaching. Being honest about our own intellectual and spiritual journey—with its many dilemmas, solved and unresolved—can create a level of trust and authenticity that builds important social capital with our interlocutors. Further, investing in intimate friendships with non-Catholics, rather than viewing them as verbal sparring-partners, will also reap dividends. My last year in college, I had an agnostic friend over for dinner and religious conversation every week. After graduation, we lost touch. Then, ten years later, he contacted me to tell me not only that he still had the Bible I gave him, but that he had returned to the Coptic Orthodoxy of his youth.
The second, often-overlooked clause of 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts Christians to offer a defense that will “account for the hope that is in you.” And what is our hope? Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and risen from the dead to grant us eternal life. That is an apology all Catholics, regardless of their knowledge of biblical exegesis or ecclesial history, must be able to offer. We may not be able to provide an artful defense of the biblical and patristic data supporting infant baptism, but we should be able to explain our faith in a God who did not spare His own Son, who died to save us and secured heaven for us. How we came to believe that, and why we believe that, is a story every Catholic can tell.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that Catholic apologetics—including its tract or radio call-in approach—is useless or wrong. Indeed, I would argue it is essential. For every critique of Catholicism, there should be an answer, and I’m grateful, especially in our digital age, that we can find so many with a few clicks of a mouse. Rather, I want to ensure apologetics is balanced between the “what” and the “how” of religious-themed conversation. And, per Saint Peter’s words above, our “what” should prioritize, above all else, the story of how the crucified, risen Christ gives us hope and meaning. That powerful, personal apologetic worked for Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It will work for us, too.