By David Barr When I was young, I became quite enamored with something called ‘apologetics,’ the art of defending the Christian faith against intellectual attack. At the time, it felt like learning Christian nerd karate. My friends and I would read up on things like the ontological argument for God and exchange CDs of debates between apologists and atheists like they were underground mixtapes or bootleg DVDs.
Now, I don’t want to come across as dismissive of the very laudable attempt to articulate the Christian faith in an intellectually clear way. It is great for young Christians to learn to think for themselves and to learn how other people think differently. I think this phase was good for me, at least in the long run.
Simplifications help young minds learn to think; the danger is when they persist in mature minds.
The version of Christianity that emerges from lessons in verbal combat is—not always, but often—simplified, rationalistic, and antagonistic. It is shot through with defensiveness. It is formed with the purpose of refuting claims by secularists that religion is irrational and baseless superstition. The result is an almost manic insistence that, if we begin our thinking correctly by presupposing that God exists, then Christian belief is perfectly rational.
In describing Christianity as the rational conclusion of the right starting point, apologetics often reduces the fullness and messiness of any authentic life of faith to a set of presuppositions, propositions, and inferences. Nothing about it requires the sort of humble introspection that leads to contrition, empathy, and love. To steal an image from the philosopher Mary Midgley, in the hands of apologetics, religious truth often becomes the sort of thing that can be won or lost in contests of wit between clever boys. It requires no moral or spiritual transformation. It certainly didn’t for me.
Of course, truly thoughtful faith is obviously not something that follows neatly from one fundamental presupposition. Authentic Christian thinking does not give us a world that makes simple rational sense. No, having a mind transformed by faith means having the intellectual courage to live with your eyes open in a world that will never make simple sense. For the most profound Christians I know, the thought that Christ died for them doesn’t make simple sense. They know it, but they can’t explain it or give rational reasons for it. They describe it like knowing that your experiences are real or that your choices are your own or that you are loved. Faith is a weighty gift from God that humbles, repeatedly. It strips away pride—including the pride of thinking that we know all the answers—and opens up our imagination to possibilities for empathy and compassion.
I’m not arguing against rational thinking in favor of unthinking faith; I’m arguing against self-satisfied rationalism—born from defensiveness—that simplifies the world, in favor of thoughtfulness—grounded in faith—that can account for the messiness of life. 
I don’t imagine you would have to visit many seminaries or churches to see the effects of a generation of evangelical church leaders raised on the same sort of defensive, us-versus-them, rationalistic Christianity that I fell into. I fear too many evangelical pastors were once clever boys who won their contests of wit.
Fear and a siege mentality has made the church reactionary and defensive. As in my experience of apologetics, defensiveness has led the church to turn the messiness of real life into simple rational rules. It makes us put up walls and draw boundaries: if you are a Christian, then you act a certain way and think a certain way on every issue. If a community has problems, then they just need Jesus. If you don’t think like me, then you have abandoned scripture and fallen prey to the culture. Clear distinctions and boundaries are not bad, but forcing the complex messiness of the world into us-vs.-them, absolute, rational dichotomies is often more the result of fear, than rigorous commitment to the truth.
When I listen to political conversations, I see a sort of rationalism similar to the one afflicting Christianity. For far too many people today, politics makes straightforward sense. Of course the current craziness baffles a lot of us, but most people think that what ought to be done is clear. These simple political visions are based on simple visions of human beings. Take our thoughts on poverty policy: some people defend the poor by saying poverty is a simple consequence of injustice and people’s lives are the products of institutions and structures. They advocate sweeping policies aimed at structural change. Others come to the defense of human freedom and responsibility by claiming our fortunes depend on our choices. The advocate policies that leave people’s economic fortunes entirely up to them.
What should be simple debates about which policies work become heated battles over simple, rational, and opposed visions of what it means to be a human being. Those loyal to the idea that human beings are responsible for their choices see government efforts to help the poor, not just as unwise policy, but as a dangerous denial of human freedom. Those committed to the idea that our economic fates are beyond our control (and thus not a cause for praise or blame) see the other side’s opposition to helping the poor as placing the moral blame for social injustice on its victims. Instead of talking about whether a given program promotes the common good, we dig in to defend either the autonomy or the virtue of the poor.
Our political “debates” become fruitless contests of wit between folks with one-dimensional, rationalistic, and opposed visions of human beings. Such contests about foundational worldviews and overarching political visions may seem deeper and more profound than seemingly more banal debates about effective policies. In reality they reflect a retreat away from the messiness of real life (which requires courage, depth, and subtlety) to the simple security of rationalist abstraction.
We need to have the courage to think and speak with depth and complexity. The truth is that human beings are both free choosers and products of our histories, families, social structures, and culture. We make choices and are responsible for our behavior, but we are not free to choose which choices we’ll have to make, or to choose how we are brought up to make them.
When we aren’t caught up in political arguments, we know that both matter: what happens to us and what we choose to do about it are both important. All good parents try to raise their kids to make good choices. This shows that they recognize that their kids’ choices matter and that how they are raised can help them to choose well. Parents regularly act as if what is beyond a child’s control—parenting, society, the accidents of life—affects how he or she makes choices, choices for which we can then rightly hold him or her responsible.
To stick with parenting, think about inheritance: even those folks who are most committed to the political argument that our economic successes and failures depend only on our choices and character nevertheless work hard to leave something behind for their children. If they really thought that poverty is not often the result of what happened in previous generations—say they really believed that the denial of property to African Americans until very recently is not a major cause of poverty in black communities today—then they would give all their money away to charity or a random stranger when they die. Leaving money to your descendants is a tacit acknowledgement that our economic lives depend to at least some extent on those who came before us.
In the same way, even those folks who are most committed to the political position that economic successes and failures depend only on social and historical factors nevertheless teach their kids to work hard and make sound financial choices.
We all reveal in our personal behavior that we know that this is not a simple either/or choice.
The commitments about what human beings are like that lie behind our political choices—such as that we are free choosers or products of our environment—are thus clearly not exclusive of each other. So, why do we get in fights in defense of positions that we know don’t conflict with one another?
Just like with apologetics, it is our defensive posture that makes us turn from obvious complexity to simplistic either/or positions. Folks on the left see the morality and character of the poor under attack. In response, they talk about poverty only in terms of social injustice. Folks on the right, understandably, see such absolute statements as implying that economic success is entirely a result of what happens to you, not your choices. That would mean our choices and character don’t matter. They rush to the defense of autonomy and responsibility and insist that issues of inequality are exclusively about morality and culture. We end up spouting simple, either/or, and absolute rational rules, which our everyday behavior reveals we don’t really believe.
We have to have the confidence to express in our politics the complexity we accept in our daily lives. We need to recognize that politics is messy.
Conservatives: you have to admit to yourselves that the outside world plays a major role in people’s life outcomes and that social injustices, past and present, really matter today. You have to see that, while our choices do matter, in our current social and economic reality, they matter much less than how much money our parents have. You must concede that, if we don’t pursue substantial public education and welfare programs, millions of people will live impoverished lives through no fault of their own. If you doubt our life outcomes are largely constrained and shaped by what is beyond our control, stop parenting, let your kids go to whatever failing school is nearby, and don’t leave them any money.
Liberals: you have to admit that individual character and choices matter. You have to concede that some people are poor because they are lazy and have made irresponsible choices. You should admit that public spending on social welfare programs will create a certain level of dependency and that some people will take advantage of the system. If you doubt this, go talk to social scientists who study poverty, housing, or healthcare. They’ll tell you that helping people from without is really hard. Almost any government effort to help will have unavoidable negative tradeoffs.
Let me close with a very important clarification: I’m not saying the best political vision or approach must be in the middle. I’m not saying that it's necessarily not the case that the policies favored by either the left or the right might be decisively better than the other. Even recognizing the tradeoffs of the previous paragraphs, the right course of action in a given situation might turn out to look exactly like what one camp or the other wants. In a society with abundant opportunities and a history of race and class harmony, the conservative position might be the clear choice, even if a few people are left behind. In a society with a stark history of injustice and in which your race and class remains largely determinative of your fate, the structural interventions wanted by the left might be clearly better, even if they will not be perfectly effective and will cause some dependency. Even recognizing messiness and complexity, the right course might be clear. That said, it will be a lot easier for the side with the appropriate approach in this situation to make its case if it gives up its fear-driven, rational simplifications and has faith that an honest expression of messiness will be a more recognizable vision of real life to those they need to convince.
Maybe, in the end, a messy vision of political life might be the best path to a clear vision of what must be done.
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 As Russell puts it: “theology at its best helps us grapple with hard questions of faith, whereas apologetics at its worst assures us that hard questions have easy answers.”
 Consider our dread of the ‘slippery slope’: “what you say is fine, maybe right, but think where it leads!” Fear drives a rigid inflexibility that banishes thoughtful and prudent analysis and action.
 This is why our myths matter so much.