Athens in the ancient days was a city rich in Greek culture and religion. It was also a center for philosophy and education. The people in this city were highly educated but also religious minded as they worshipped many gods. Many were philosophers. Among them were two principal groups of philosophers. One group was called the Epicureans who taught that the goal of life was to seek happiness through pleasure. The other group was called the Stoics. They had a disdain for feelings and pleasure. Instead, they were more intellectual and rose above feelings and senses to reason and discipline. Happiness in life for them was to live a life in harmony with nature and reason. Regardless of which philosophical position they held, their favorite past time was to debate and engage each other on intellectual issues and expound new ideas. They were receptive to novelty. Hence, Paul was invited by the Council of the Areopagus to address them. It was an opportunity not to be missed by Paul as he had an attentive audience.
But it was significant that in engaging this audience, Paul did not go by way of apologetics but that of theology. Today, we are faced with many intellectuals who are asking questions about the faith. With the advent of mass media, the world has become very complex. More questions are raised for every question that is answered. Today, even with young people, many who are asking questions are sincerely searching for an answer. But no answer seems to be adequate. This is because every question can be approached from different perspectives, science, philosophy, faith, tradition and pragmatism. No one answer is adequate to satisfy a person with a question. So in this bewildering state of information overload, of views and questions, many resign to agnosticism or surrender to simple faith.
So we can either take flight or fight. The agnostics take flight. They say that they do not know and they do not wish to know. The simple believer on the other hand, also take flight by fighting in an irrational manner. Falling into fundamentalism, they reduce everything to faith without the ability to show reasons for their faith. They would just quote the scriptures and doctrines out of context to justify their simple faith for fear that more discussions and discourse would shake their faith. Such faith does not require intellectual understanding but simply to submit in faith. This can lead to radicalism and fundamentalism. It is either you believe or you do not. There is no middle ground or discussion possible, because they claim to be dealing with revelation and therefore only faith is required. But in truth there is no need to take flight or fight! Both ignorance and apologetics will not help any serious believer or seeker for truth.
What is the difference between apologetics and theology? When we speak of apologetics, we are concerned with defending our faith against detractors and heretics. In apologetics, the fundamental objective is to defend the position that we have the truth. In being defensive, we are often on the offensive as well. Our task is to destroy the objections of those who find fault with our doctrines. The objective is clear but very narrow. In most instances, apologetics is to give short and direct answers to short and concise questions. It is not a treatise to explain but to defend. In most cases, apologetics are conducted against those who already know something about our faith and where we have something in common yet disagree on some doctrines. This is particularly true between Catholics and Protestants. As we already share a common faith in Christ but differ in the way we interpret the scriptures and the corollary doctrines, then it leaves each Christian community or church to defend their doctrines, showing that they are rooted in both scripture and tradition. Indeed, apologetics have a place still in our faith discussion, especially with those who already have some knowledge of the faith.
The use of apologetics is also useful for those who lack the capacity, whether intellectually or time to have a systematic understanding of our faith. There are many people who do not have time to read so much information about everything. That is why young people prefer to go into Instagram, Facebook and tweeters. Today, even blog is out of fashion because few are keen to read long discourses unless interest is already presupposed. Otherwise, the young generation only wants to read a one to three line sentence. Even homilies such as this, are only read by those who are serious about their faith and their relationship with God. The danger is that our modern generation, which is bombarded with so much information on the internet, is taking flight by choosing to read only short messages. This perhaps is the cause of much misunderstanding, misinterpretation and accusation, leading to social disorder and even rioting. We all know how a picture, a video or just an extract of a speech taken out of context, when put on social media, can instantaneously go viral and cause either enormous outbursts of sympathy or anger, often without consideration of the full story of what really happened.
Unfortunately, the reality is that if we are really keen in knowing the truth of something, we must invest time to investigate, to read widely and to see the logic behind the propositions. Jumping to conclusion without proper study or believing something from hearsay can do us more harm than good. Fanatics, whether religious or ideological, abound in this world and are often the cause of severe harm to the unity of peoples.
For this reason, the way forward is through theology, which is a systematic, logical and holistic presentation of doctrines and faith. A theologian should not be confused with a simple believer, even though all in some ways theologize, even if done naively. Unlike a simple faith believer who justifies his position from his experience and his own level of thought, a theologian does not base his arguments simply on his own experience, but he goes through the history of the Church, the Fathers of the Church, the tradition, the other religions, the scriptures, the development of doctrines, the different theological positions, the contribution of science and particularly philosophy, so that he can present a systematic understanding of the continuity and progress of a doctrine in a logical manner. At the same time, he must show that what he holds as a doctrine of faith must also be consistent and coherent with the other doctrines held by the Church. No doctrine can contradict other doctrines because that would be inconsistent and contradictory.
It is within this context that we can appreciate the approach of St Paul in his dealings with the Greek philosophers. He began with where they were. Unlike his dealings with the Jews, where it was appropriate for him to employ the methodology of apologetics because the Jews and Christians shared a common faith in the scriptures and the prophets, with the Greek philosophers, the Jewish scriptures would have made no sense to them. So he began with their experience and their beliefs. He began by acknowledging their faith in God and their religiosity. “Men of Athens, I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because I noticed, as I strolled round admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: To An Unknown God. Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.”
From this common faith that the Christians and Greeks shared in the Sacred, Paul enlightened them further, that “since the God who made the world and everything in it is himself Lord of heaven and earth, he does not make his home in shrines made by human hands.” He continued to argue systematically that “he is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist, as indeed some of your own writers have said: We are all his children.’” Then he came to the fundamental point of his thesis. “’Since we are the children of God, we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks like anything in gold, silver or stone that has been carved and designed by man. ‘God overlooked that sort of thing, when men were ignorant, but now he is telling everyone everywhere that they must repent, because he has fixed a day when the whole world will be judged, and judged in righteousness, and he has appointed a man to be the judge. And God has publicly proved this by raising this man from the dead.’”
This is an important consideration. In His systematic presentation, he began with reason but ended with faith in Christ. Theology is not complete without presenting Jesus as the fullness of revelation. Although theology is a reasonable explanation of the faith, it is not pure reason, but faith is required. When we are able to present in a credible manner that our faith is a reasonable faith, intelligent men can then take the leap of faith. To do so without providing the intelligibility of what we believe and why, would only brand us as credulous people. Even the resurrection of Christ requires us to systematically present the logic of faith in the resurrection.
Of course, at the end of the day, after all explanation is done, faith is required. For this reason, we should not be surprised that we can explain all that we could, yet not all would believe unless they are receptive to faith and humble enough to take that leap. The response to St Paul’s preaching would not be different from ours as well. Some were cynical and laughed at the incredible claims of Jesus’ resurrection. Others said, “we would like to hear you talk about this again.” Some needed more discussion but “there were some who attached themselves to him and became believers.”
Faith and understanding come from the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learnt; and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me, since all he tells you will be taken from what is mine.” We should therefore ask the Holy Spirit to grant us wisdom, understanding and knowledge so that we can grow in faith. Only He can bring us to faith. Conversion is not our work but the work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely witnesses and catalysts and messengers. So in seeking to convert others, according to the needs of our audience, we can use apologetics or theology in helping people to find the fullness of revelation in Christ, but never without praying to the Holy Spirit to touch the minds and hearts of our listeners.