Apologetics and the Academy

I originally got involved with philosophy in college because I love ideas. Historically, the academy is where ideas are discussed, assumptions exposed, and a sustained reasoned exchange takes place. Yet, lately, some ideas are not welcome in the academy. Some topics are off limits, regarded as settled, or worse, ridiculed rather than discussed. For example, discussion of the existence and nature of God is off limits in the secular university setting. In my fifteen years at the secular university in the disciplines of Philosophy and Religious Studies, where one would expect to discuss matters of ultimate reality, I have had one discussion about God in the classroom setting as a student. Yet, ideas are irrepressible and will find an outlet.  In the case of discussing ideas about God, there are voluntary campus associations that seek to carry on the tradition of rational discussion of the existence and nature of God in the university setting.

Ratio Christi is one such organization. Because I love ideas, and I love the academy, in conjunction with the topic of God, the eternal One, I have joined Ratio Christi in the function of Chapter Director of the student apologetics club at Arizona State University, Tempe campus.  ‘Apologetics’ comes from the Greek apologos – and is a reasoned defense.  Ratio Christi is a Christian student apologetics alliance. Christian Apologetics has as its purpose a rational defense, as well as commendation, of the Christian worldview.

A rational defense involves the give and take of reasons for belief. Reasons for belief can be subjective or objective.  Apologetics seeks to provide objective reasons, or proof, for Christian belief. Objective proof, or reasoned defense, is not the same as a subjective religious experience.  Reason is distinct from intuition, sense perception, tradition, testimony, or common sense.  Reasoning is not the same as proselytization, which has as its goal conversion.  Apologetics has as its goal knowledge of the truth about reality.

The original purpose of the academy is the pursuit of knowledge, and academics are to follow an argument wherever it may lead in pursuit of truth.  That is why we consider the Western Intellectual tradition “The Great Conversation”. Conversations require the sustained give and take of reasons and argument. In addition, the liberal arts, as part of the Western academy, are meant to liberate students from provincialism, false assumptions, and ignorance. Philosophy, as queen of the liberal arts, is that discipline that has as its job the critical examination of basic beliefs and assumptions, and to provide a foundation upon which the individual, the academy, society, and culture may rest.  Yet, today, the academy has allowed uncritically held assumptions to become dominant, and to go without critical analysis, and the foundations are crumbling. Some of these assumptions are a result of the Enlightenment, whose most notable philosopher, Immanuel Kant’s cry was “dare to reason”. What did Kant mean by reason?

Rather than being led by reason, how did the academy come to be dominated by empiricism, and its resulting skepticism, and naturalism and resulting moral relativism? The contemporary discipline of philosophy has failed to critique these assumptions, or to offer viable alternatives. The so called failure of philosophy, declared as such by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and Lawrence Krauss, has resulted in the rise of the New Atheists and the staging of Atheist “Reason Rallies”. Do the Atheists have a corner on reason? The New Atheists speak from their authoritative positions within the academy, and their desire is for the minds of the youth. Is the New Atheism above rational scrutiny? If not, will a critique of the dominant secular worldview come from within the academy or from without? Is the empiricist, naturalistic worldview a sufficient foundation for the lives of our young people, for the academy, for society, and for Western culture?

The first academy originates with the Greek philosopher, Plato.  Plato was the student of Socrates, who is best known for his dialogues through whom we come to know the fate of the infamous Socrates.  Socrates was executed by a majority vote in the courts of Athens for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens and teaching them about gods not sanctioned by the state. He was killed for critiquing the dominant worldview of his day. We like to think that we are more enlightened than Socrates’ Athens, and that we would not have killed Socrates.  But would we seek to silence Socrates today? Plato tells the story of the trial of Socrates in his dialogue ‘The Apology’. ‘The Apology’ – apologetics – is a reasoned defense.  The academy begins with an apologetic.  Socrates gives his defense, and explains that he is doing Athens a service in his critical examination of assumptions. Socrates gives a reasoned defense of his method of questioning in pursuit of the truth, and the academy has largely embraced this Socratic method in the exchange of ideas in its pursuit of knowledge.

Why was Socrates such a threat to Athens?  His questioning of those in authority jeopardized their position of power and influence. The young people, presumably following Socrates because of the insight he displayed in his discussion with others, saw these men of authority exposed for their lack of insight. Those in authority did not know what justice, beauty, or the good was.  Do those in authority in our society have knowledge regarding these things? What if the young people were to start asking questions and presenting reasons for alternative worldviews to those that prevail in the academy today? Would those in the academy resort to the appeals to fear that killed Socrates? Or would they ‘dare to reason?’

It is largely because of Kant’s division between the world of fact (the world of the senses) and the world of value (what cannot be known through the senses) that did away with talk about God in the academic world.  He assumed that we can only know through the senses, and reasoning about the senses. God cannot be known through the senses, therefore, if God exists we have no (empirical) evidence for God, and must believe by (blind) faith.  Kant separates the “objective” world of the senses from the “subjective” world of faith, and many within the academy and the church have assumed Kant’s division without critique. But what if Kant is wrong? What if Kant’s empiricism is a mistake? What if his definition of reason and faith follow from that mistake? What if his division between fact and values is also mistaken? Then discussion about these topics is still open.

Western tradition does not end with Kant. The great conversation continues. And the existence of God continues to be part of that discussion. We ought to bring the discussion of these topics back to the academy where they belong, using the Socratic method of dialogue to examine assumptions. Yet, until this becomes a reality, critique will have to come from outside the secular academy until the topic has a viable defense. This is where Christians need to do a lot of work to show the rationality of belief. The church needs to reexamine some of its assumptions to see whether she has bought into the same mistaken notion of faith and reason that the academy has accepted. Apologetics can serve to help both the church and the academy in their respective pursuits of truth.

Ratio Christi, as a student apologetics alliance, serves to support students who desire an alternative discussion to the dominant secular worldview in the academy, and a rational defense of the truths of Christianity.  Students who desire to discuss the reasons for belief in the Christian worldview, whether believer, unbeliever, doubter, or seeker after truth, are welcome to join the discussion happening on a campus near you. Lets dare to reason together.

Tags: , , ,

About

Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton holds B.A. degrees in both English Literature and Philosophy; an M.A. in Philosophy; and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Arizona State University, with an emphasis on Religion and Public Discourse in America. She has been teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies courses at the college and university level since 2003, and has recently joined Ratio Christi as Arizona Regional Director. When not teaching, talking with students, or studying, Kelly enjoys playing percussion instruments.

Disclaimer

The views represented on this site are solely those of the author, who takes full responsibility for such views, and which views do not represent those of any individual, organization or institution with whom the author may be affiliated.