Briefly Noted: On Human Emotion & Christian Apologetics: Or, Why Friedrich Nietzsche Has Something to Teach Christians

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In a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement, Theo Hobson reviews Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.[1]In the book, Spufford pushes back against the arrogance of the New Atheism and seeks to demonstrate the emotional, and thereby rational, intelligence of Christian faith. Hobson notes that Spufford’s book is interesting precisely because Christians have long wrestled with how to make their claims attractive to a doubting majority, especially since unbelievers often do not respond well (at least, immediately) to authority claims and rational syllogisms.

Spufford speaks to this point precisely. In the introduction, he notes that his purpose is to show that he is a Christian because he “feels” it. He writes, “‘the feelings are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.’” The next chapter describes, from an emotional angle, the reality of sin. Spufford calls it the propensity of people to err (this is a redacted version of Spufford’s more “colorful” description), a propensity that “lurks in all our desiring.” Subsequent chapters look at Jesus–“the dusty drama of the gospels is nicely evoked,” says Hobson–and the church. Each chapter contributes to the larger point: Christianity is emotionally reasonable and reasonably emotional and, therefore, not an easy “punching bag” for  the New Atheists . (If I may speak out of turn for a moment: The New Atheists’ mockery of Christianity displays an almost-encyclopedic ignorance of Christian theology. Whenever Dawkins, for example, meanders into theological territory, one wants to say, “If what you don’t know can’t hurt you, then you’re nearly invincible.”)

As Hobson summarizes, “The book’s theological weak spots are in a sense beside the point. The point of apologetics (which this book is, though it rejects the term) is to show those on the fence that belief need not mean the abandonment of intelligence, wit, and emotional honesty. In this, Francis Spufford succeeds to an exceptional degree.” For those with an interest or calling in apologetics, this book, while not a manual as such, may provide an inspiring if not controversial read.

In response to Hobson’s question and Spufford’s answer, I’ll limit myself to two points. First, God created humanity in his image and likeness. Many theologians have viewed the image of God as being “seated” in the rational dimension of our humanity. However, as I see it, this is not quite right. It seems to me that the “whole person” is the image of God. We are not so much image-bearers as we are imagers, and we image God though all of who we are, including our spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical capacities. The rational and cognitive dimension of our humanity is important, but so are the other dimensions. For this reason, it makes sense that our gospel witness (in word and deed) would draw upon each of these dimensions.

Second, and tangentially related, I think there is a lesson to learn from some of the Continental philosophers (at this point, you think I’m certifiably insane, don’t you?). Unlike the Anglo-American analytic tradition, Continental philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus drew upon the whole range of human being in order to make their arguments. Nietzsche philosophized by means of aphorisms and apothegms that were intended to strike the reader like a hammer, evoking both the intellectual and emotional dimensions of the reader. Sartre and Camus wrote not only hefty tomes (e.g. Being and Nothingness), but also plays and novels (e.g. No Exit). Kierkegaard likewise.

American philosophers might be well-served to become “bi-lingual,” in the sense of being able to do philosophy both in the analytic and continental veins. Eleanore Stump put it well in Wandering in Darkness: “Philosophy as it is practiced in the Anglo-American tradition (a tradition to which I count myself an adherent) prizes lucidity, analysis, careful distinction, and rigorous argument—all unquestionably worth prizing. Nonetheless, those more sympathetic to other traditions in philosophy have regularly complained about what they call ‘the aridity’ or ‘the narrowness’ of Anglo-American philosophy; and in my view, this reproach is not altogether unjustified. To the extent to which one prizes rigor, one will eschew or even disdain breadth, since it is obviously easier to achieve rigor if one limits one’s focus. And so Anglo-American philosophy sometimes looks like a species of the lapidary’s art” (23-24).

I am not saying that analytic philosophy is unhelpful. It is deeply and profoundly helpful. Instead, I am making the very limited claim that a robust theological anthropology sets us free to take a page from the Continental “playbook” once in a while, and make our case via narrative, film, poetry, and song. In so doing, we’ll be more likely to engage the emotional and aesthetic dimension of human existence rather than merely the logico-syllogistic dimension. Atheistic philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus did this well. Christians such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Lewis, and Schaeffer did this well. And by God’s grace, we, in this day and age, can do it well also.

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[1] Theo Hobson, “States of Tangled Wanting” review essay of Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (Faber, 2012), in Times Literary Supplement (Sep. 21, 2012, p. 28).

 

  4Comments

  1. Jason B. Hood   •  

    “It seems to me that the “whole person” is the image of God. We are not so much image-bearers as we are imagers, and we image God though all of who we are, including our spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical capacities. The rational and cognitive dimension of our humanity is important, but so are the other dimensions.”

    YES AND YES AND AMEN.

    “I am not saying that analytic philosophy is unhelpful. It is deeply and profoundly helpful. Instead, I am making the very limited claim that a robust theological anthropology sets us free to take a page from the Continental “playbook” once in a while…”

    LOVE IT.

  2. Emily Honeycutt   •  

    I think this suggests a need to reform the perception of apologetics in the Church (in discipleship of believers and discipleship in the form of evangelism). Because of the tendency to view it as a strictly “mind” engagement as you attest, it ignores the heart-emotional work and transformation that inevitably goes on behind the scenes while apologetics is happening. It may as a discipline first engage or primarily entertain the mind, but the heart is also there being worked on in some metaphysically mysterious way.

    When it is contained to only the mind, and further limited to a certain form of expression of the mind (ex: analytical philosophy), it prevents it from being the practice of every believer as I believe it is meant to be in its purest and most general form. Every believer engages in apologetics every day whether they know it or not, (to themselves in self-talk and reflection, to other believers, and in evangelism it often occurs). It’s a requirement for an elder in the Church to be able to defend the faith, and elders of course are not required to be a certain personality set (someone who has an engineering type mind) or wiring. Yet because of the misappropriation of how we practice it in public (whether through the vehicle of only one way of presentation or only one type of personality set who seems to engage in it); we end up labeling and defining apologetics by its outliers or examples of its out workings rather than by its general form (defense of the faith).

    When just viewed as “the defense of the faith”, it seems obvious that it cannot possibly only engage in the mind, though it may primarily lean upon it. Something much more holistic has to be occurring or be coming about as a result, or the defense of the faith itself isn’t really working and causing regeneration or conversion in a person. I think the error comes when we move away from the center (defense of faith) into a specific form of it (analytical philosophy), and don’t remember to take the specific expression and work it back to the center (Christ….therefore the Triune God, Gospel, Scripture)– who inevitably works to transform our whole selves. The center of it all is where we are always doing apologetics….We shouldn’t categorize or limit apologetics to certain people or expressions, or think that if we don’t struggle with a certain topic or come across it in evangelism, we are never doing apologetics. I think in general our mishandling of apologetics goes into over-decorating something that is meant to be simple in its basic form in discipleship, which inevitably engages our whole selves. From that understanding, I think apologetics becomes more familiarized and normal as a holistic worker in the life of believers and in the holistic body of Christ.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    J-Hood, thank you for stopping by the site man! BtT is honored to have such a distinguished visitor.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Emily, well put. You articulated the point better than I did. Thank you for jumping into the discussion.

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