Those who use the language of insult and derision will not agree, but Christianity is a reasonable religion. By that I mean that we have centuries of articulation of what the Church believes, and why she believes as she does. We call such a reasoned explanation and defence of Christian belief apologetics. The early Christians were particularly good at it, and anyone who is ignorant of Justin Martyr or Origen, for example, is missing something really good. It is not of these that I am thinking today, however, but of the self-appointed defenders of Christian orthodoxy who rage and rant all over the internet. Often what they say is (largely) true, but sometimes it is given a little twist of their own — and a large dollop of venom is not infrequently added to the mix. In the Catholic Church we have seen this at work in the discussion of same-sex unions, the re-admittance of the divorced and re-married to Holy Communion, Pope Francis’s decisions, and so on.
My problem with all this is very simple. I believe — with every ounce of my being — that exploring Christian orthodoxy is the most exciting and fulfilling activity we could ever undertake because it means exploring the beauty and holiness of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. In other words, it is all about Christ and seeking to know and understand him. Rancour, attempts to denigrate others, trying to force them into believing as we do, has no part in this. We cannot argue anyone into belief. We may argue someone into thinking more deeply about faith and acknowledging the inadequacy of previously-held beliefs. We may even succeed in prompting them to see aspects of Christian faith and practice in ways they had never dreamed possible; but faith itself, the ability to believe, is a gift, at no one’s beck and call.
So, what is the secret of good apologetics, of effective evangelisation? I’d say it was not only intellectually-satisfying apologetics as such but also the experience of Christian love. No matter how brilliant our words, no matter how wonderful our understanding of Christian subjects, unless we can, in some measure, reflect the love of God to others, it avails nothing, as St Paul says. This can be quite hard to do on the internet because the comment sections on blogs and, even more, Social Media both invite instant reaction rather than the fruits of reflection. I’ve always been an advocate of ‘contemplative computing‘ and never more so than where apologetics are concerned.
St Francis de Sales was bishop of Geneva at one of the most difficult periods of Christian history. His insistence on quiet, courteous dialogue with those who held contrary views is an example to all of us. No matter how ‘fired up’ we may be about some particular subject, charity is as important as clarity. That doesn’t mean that we water down or deny truth. Rather, it means ensuring that it is truth in all its fullness that we share with others, not some shrunken version of our own. We need to read more, pray more, and listen more. God deserves nothing less.