December 15, 2008

The Problem with Apologetic Thinking

The ancient Greeks astound me. They understood nearly everything it took a Dark Age to forget and a Renaissance to relearn. Using a few numerical relationships that they’d uncovered, Greek mathematicians accurately estimated the distance to the sun and the circumference of the earth. They were so advanced that after their learning reached its zenith, a thousand years passed before European thinkers contributed anything more of significance to the world’s ability to reason and its knowledge of science.

The Greeks were especially clever at geometry, which they developed using a system of proofs and a handful of axioms that were deemed self-evident. Among the axioms were these:
  • An object is equal to itself, and

  • Parallel lines never cross

Upon such simple assumptions, they created a powerful analytical tool that for a millennium stood as an accurate description of the natural world and a manifestation of an elegant natural symmetry. Some people saw in it a reflection of the mind of God, but that wasn’t destined to last forever. When one of the axioms—the one about parallel lines never crossing—was found to be untrue once curved space was allowed into the picture, the mathematical world was turned upside down. (You’d think they might have noticed earlier how longitudinal lines were parallel at the equator, but intersected at the poles). Nevertheless, logicians everywhere were perplexed. What did the discovery mean to the body of work they’d always thought to be without fault? Did it mean the entire bridgework of proof and reasoning was corrupted?

In the end, the discovery was one of the best things to happen to mathematics. It led to the creation of new geometries that were based upon other sets of axioms. Had it not been for such developments, Einstein wouldn’t have developed his General Theory of Relativity, which depended on a method to model curved space. Furthermore, Greek (or Euclidean) geometry wasn’t abandoned, either. It was eventually understood to have limited application when dealing with a flat plane.

Here is where I make a point about truth and the problem of apologetic thinking. Like the Greeks, Christian apologists have built frameworks of philosophical thought, too, but their axioms sound something like this: The Bible is God’s word and it’s without deficiency. The problem with this is that once an axiom is accepted as generally true, all worldly experiences are forced to conform to it, when in fact it may have only limited (or no) application. Furthermore, any learning that can’t be made to fit—no matter how tortured a conformity—is rejected without consideration. Just ask Galileo how problematic that can be.

There are other dangers associated with apologetic thinking. In the end, what did St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas accomplish? Did they teach truths of eternal value? Not really. What they sought to achieve was to “prove” the validity of Christian concepts—to leap logically from the axioms in the Bible in order to extrapolate to God’s true laws. As someone who cherishes the works of CS Lewis, I can appreciate the effort. However, in the final analysis, I’m sure Christ would rather we were doers, than provers, of the gospel.

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