This past weekend, I had two occasions on which I might have been said to go into “apologetics mode.”
In the first (which was not really apologetical, strictly speaking), it was a study circle led by Roman Catholic theology and philosophy professors with their students, discussing Roman Catholic theology. I ended up speaking entirely more than I had intended, especially considering that those folks didn’t go there to hear an Orthodox Christian cleric telling them about Orthodox Christian theology. But I was encouraged to attend by an Orthodox couple who regularly participate, and the leaders of the group were encouraging regarding my contributions and even invited me to return. I doubt I interested anyone in Orthodoxy by my words and/or presence, but I did at least get for myself a slightly better picture of where that theological sector of Roman Catholicism has gone. (In some ways, I am heartened that some of them seem to have moved closer to Orthodoxy, but I really do not know how the whole institution could do it in any permanent fashion. After all, once the genie of development of doctrine has been let out of the bottle, how does one put it back in? With us today, perhaps, but somewhere else tomorrow. Certainly somewhere else yesterday.)
The second occasion was a dinner invitation, which included a rather sudden assault by one of the other guests on the Orthodox tradition of the limitations on ordination, specifically, regarding gender. In that discussion, my interlocutor was approaching things from an essentially Marxist perspective, that hierarchy within the Church must be understood to mean inequality, that ordaining only men meant that women were “substandard.” In that conversation, although I tried my best to explain what the Church’s purpose is (i.e., to become saints, not to become clergy), I don’t think I really made much headway, especially since it became clear that my conversation partner only wanted to deal with this one datum, ordination and gender, and not with the larger context of Christian life in which that datum is made meaningful.
In both cases, I was reminded that earnest contention for the faith means not only discussion (as with the study circle) or straight-out apologetics (i.e., defending against attacks, as with the dinner invitation), but at its heart means seeking the salvation of those involved, both those directly involved and those who may be listening. Sometimes, that may mean suggesting something for consideration. Or, it may mean rebuking.
I am really not, at heart, an apologist (despite what some folks may think from the O&H podcast), but I do try to be a teacher, if I can. In all cases, there is a context in which the discussion is occurring, and that context is critical. I should not (and do not) speak the same at a discussion circle whose purpose is to discuss Roman Catholic theology as I should at a class whose purpose is for me to teach Orthodox theology or to criticize non-Orthodox theology. I should not (and do not) speak the same with a person who is not interested in the core data of the Christian faith but questions it as I should with someone who is a committed parishioner who questions it, or even with someone who is not yet a parishioner who is exploring the faith.
In the end, though, our witness to our faith should be vigorous and borne up by serious prayer, both private and corporate. But we have to witness to it. We can’t just roll over and say, “Well, that’s just how it is” or delude ourselves into thinking that Orthodoxy is not substantially different from some other theology. There really is a coherent, distinctive Orthodox Christian way of understanding our God, our life, and our world. I think the overall weakness of our witness in this age is due mainly to our collective refusal to dive deep into our own theology, not just by study, but by serious doxological and ascetical engagement. That is, we are not particularly effective missionaries because we are not particularly effective Orthodox Christians.