5 Stars Out Of 5
Apologetics in Relation
May 30, 2012
[I would like to thank Dr. Metzger for inviting me with the opportunity to read several early drafts of his book and to give feedback. I would also like to thank him and Thomas Nelson publishing for sending me an advanced reader's copy]
The first thing that students learn in apologetics is undoubtedly also the first joke the professor will say to the class: we're here to apologize, not say sorry! Dr. Paul Metzger disagrees. While certainly not sorry for being a Christian, or for believing Christian things, or living a Christian lifestyle, Metzger's latest book venturing into inter-faith dialogue argues that a quintessential posture of the apologist is the gesture of repentance. Why apologize in this sense? "So many things have been done over the millennia in the name of religion, including the Christian religion," (32) says Metzger, "We bear the same family name--`Christian' or `Christ follower'--as these religious perpetrators and/or evil masterminds . . . That alone gives Christians today sufficient grounds to repent and make confession of sin in their stead. By claiming to bear Christ's name and speak [for him], they negatively impacted Christian witness, the effects of which can be forcefully felt today in many sectors. . ." (33-34). To win minds, one must first unburden hearts. And to unburden hearts in apologetics often means to suffer with them just as Christ entered into solidarity with humankind in the incarnation. Thus, it turns out, to be zealous to apologize for the faith is (perhaps surprising to many) not the same thing as being insufferable.
This gesture of repentance to those whom, in our corporate solidarity as Christians, we too are responsible for wounding, alienating, oppressing, is a key movement within what Metzger terms a "relational-incarnational" apologetic: "our task as Christian witnesses is not to build on some supposed neutral, logical philosophical system but to retell Jesus' story and show in word and deed how the Christian story makes . . .sense of life in view of Christ's sacrificial love." (xvi) "I am not espousing a denial of reason," says Metzger, "but an affirmation of reason at its best. Such reason entails basing one's claims [and lifestyle] on the revelation of God in Christ Jesus." (28) This narration not only makes "sense" of the world, but we, as embodiments of the story, are "incarnate" sense-makers whose self-giving and self-sacrificial love for and long-term relationship building with others emit the signs of Christ's love--and, if it comes to it, his wounds. We must not, as Paul Tillich once wrote, hurl the gospel like we were throwing stones, "but we create space for life-on-life encounter when we engage them." (47) Apologetics is truly a martyrdom, that is: a bearing witness.
Metzger's book is thus different from many other apologetic works on offer. In 1997 Metzger's mentor at King's College, London, the eminent British theologian Colin Gunton lamented that the Western church only sees the Trinity as a barrier to belief, so that apologetics is always shyly shoving it into the background as a bugaboo to be brought out later with a somewhat uncomfortable "Oh, by the way..." when the converts are comfortably couched on the proper side of the church's doorsill, perhaps just after they have already contributed to the offering plate. Gunton's belief was quite the opposite: "that because the theology of the Trinity has so much to teach about the nature of our world and life within it, it is or could be the center of Christianity's appeal to the unbeliever . . . .In the light of the theology of the Trinity, everything looks different." Though lamentably Gunton passed away in 2003, his spirit and vision live on in Metzger whose entire book is an exploration of Gunton's tantalizing remarks.
Understanding that the Christian belief in the gospel and God as a triune community of love provide a narrative lens through which to view the world, Metzger interacts with a variety of traditions--from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism, to Islam, Mormonism, New Age, and Atheism--and a variety of themes, such as homosexuality, hell, and evolution, in order to demonstrate that the Christian gospel itself is a fecund resource to not only account for other people's sensibilities and desires, but also by preserving them in a more consistent way. One example of this that I found particularly insightful was Metzger's interaction with the Mormon understand that man becomes God by appealing to Patristic doctrines of Incarnation and theosis: "it would make sense for Mormons to affirm this historic teaching of the church [the Trinity and Incarnation]; for we do not worship a human who becomes God, but the Almighty God who becomes human," (127) so that we might become "partakers of the divine nature" as Peter records in his second epistle.
Though as Christians we believe the Word became flesh, it remains, as ever, a difficult thing for the complexity of our lives to be carried upon mere words. Some might accuse Metzger of merely talking the good talk; I can assure them that he also walks it. I had the opportunity to be a part of Dr. Metzger's World Religions class this summer, where we traveled around and spoke at length (sometimes for four or five hours) with representatives of various faiths local in the Portland area. Dr. Metzger was not only generous in these sessions, but the dialogue opportunities our class benefitted from represented the reaping of long-term relationships that Dr. Metzger cultivated over the years. Without abandoning or circumventing his Christian convictions, Dr. Metzger nonetheless engaged with these leaders (who were themselves quite respectful) in a dialogue of mutual enrichment and mutual placing, where true similarities and true differences could come to the fore without becoming barriers to civility or solvents watering down conviction.
All in all this is a remarkable volume. Its uniqueness finds a fitting denouement in the responses of the various faiths to Metzger's own claims as the volume closes. Here the texture and architecture of the book reflects the lifestyle Metzger himself recommends: there are no counter-rebuttals by Metzger, no retorts. No comebacks or last words. The responses are allowed to stand as they are, and I think quite rightly so. As Christians part of our triumphalism comes from the structures of our apologetics books themselves, which create microcosmic worlds of victory and a landscape of thought unmarred by not-yet-overcome dissent. Regardless of the profundity of works which are organized in this manner, they often either cause us to steamroll our opponents with steely confidence, or become shattered by the realization that whatever our conviction and pristine quality of our power-point slides, non-believers remain as they were. If Metzger's "relational-incarnational" model can remind us of anything it is that the Christ we are called to imitate remained an image of steadfast love, even when his shouts were met only with a silence holding magnitude over his figure nailed to a cross, and interrupted solely by the jeers of an onlooking crowd.
At the end of the day we as believers will be met often with either silence, jeers, or perhaps merely the staid resolution and stoic indifference of believers in other faiths, and their rebuttals. It is here that Metzger has done us a favor and recalled to us the notion that, instead of becoming militant at this, this painful expanse of silence and revile is another opportunity to love and serve our neighbors. Because at the end of the day our lives do not end when we close our books, nor do the multitudes of people disappear when the debates end. Our only option is to live among our fellow humans in the expanses between resolution as bearers of Christ's commission, and as mirrors of his divine love.