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February 17, 2011

In apologetics, we need to not only listen to what people say but to what the meaning is behind what they say.

A favorite riposte of apologists is heard when a  person declares, “There is no absolute truth.” The apologist quickly unsheathes, parries, and thrusts with the reply, “Is that an absolute truth? You’ve just contradicted yourself!” The non-absolutist might feel the point but the apologist miss the real target altogether.

I think that answer is trotted out much too quickly, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

Is this reply ever appropriate? I think it may be, such as when the person is just playing games, or trying to sound superior by tossing out a comment he’s overheard. Or when someone of influence (say, a teacher or professor) is spreading his silly ideas among students and needs to be questioned for the students’ sake.

But might there be times when a serious sentiment is being expressed that calls for a different, more thoughtful response? Think of the person whose parents divorced and who maybe lost a sibling in a car accident; whose friends turned against him; whose wife left him; who lost his job; who has advertisers selling him the ultra, greatest, most perfect item today only to try to sell him the perfecter item tomorrow; who sees so many people talking out of both sides of their mouths that he doesn’t know what to believe; and maybe who’s watched a supposedly good religious person go down in the flames of immoral behavior. What does that person mean by “There is no absolute truth”? Maybe he means nothing is fixed, that things are constantly changing, that there is nothing he can really rely upon. Maybe his comment is more social and relational than epistemological. The reply, “You’ve just contradicted yourself” isn’t going to move the conversation forward, and might move the person to walk away.

Too often apologists think within the narrow bounds of epistemological correctness. That’s understandable, considering that apologetics today in America is too often more concerned with getting the ideas right than with connecting a person with God. Arguments and evidences are what we think of most so we try to follow the rules, and we expect others to think and speak in this fashion, too. This is one way modernism affects our apologetics. We separate ideas from life. That’s not how most people live; it isn’t even biblical. This isn’t to cave in to current postmodern skepticism. It’s simply to bring more parts of the picture into view.

So my suggestion is to ask the person who says that what he or she means. It could lead the conversation into a different direction than expected, and could bear fruit the deft riposte would not.

From → Apologetics

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