I was invited last week to listen to a professor of theology—quite famous for his Evangelical orthodoxy and at the same time his ecumenical openness. I was impressed. I was impressed by his tight case, his grasp of his opponents’ logical mistakes and unexamined assumptions. Overall, it was a marvelous ride for an overly educated Orthodox priest who mostly agrees and similarly wishes to resist the forces of religious indifferation. And as pleased as my intellect was by the thorough thrashing given to the religious pluralists, I walked away troubled at heart. I was troubled because I knew by experience that no proof is final. Medieval proofs for the existence of God are disproved by later philosophers whose proofs are again overturned by their followers’ followers: “Of making many books there is no end.” Heretics and gainsayers must be answered, and the answers, we seem to assume, must be in the common coin of the realm—reasoned argument. Nonetheless, there is a deceptive sense of self confidence that assaults my mind when I hear a good argument for “our side.”
This perhaps comes from the Kantian illusion blanketing our culture that differences really just boil down to lapses in clear thinking. And what is particularly ironic is that this good feeling of winning the debate comes even when “our side” seems to triumph by attacking the Enlightenment foundations of the opponent’s argument, without admitting its own enslavement to the very same paradigms. This is not to say that the “enlightened” rules of reasoning are inherently more or less evil than those of the Neo-Platonists or Medieval Scholastics; rather, it is to say that when push comes to shove, we must admit with the Apostle Paul that the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. And any apologetic effort from St. Paul on Mars’ Hill and St. Justin Philosopher and Martyr all the way through Carl Olson’s and Sandra Miesel’s The Da Vinci Hoax, is just that: an apology, a defense, a proclamation, but not a proof. Yet I want a proof. I want to satiate my intellect in order to subordinate that part of my psyche that knows without knowing, that merely trusts the message heard, the Tradition handed down by faithful men and lived by the holy (the saints): I’m looking for Life in all the wrong places. Once the adrenaline that comes from a good argument dissipates, the heart is still left longing. I return to my icon corner and say my prayers—not very well at first, fighting the intrusion of “good points” and better counters. I stand there, restarting the Lord’s prayer for the third time, for I can’t even seem to get through the most basic prayer without distraction. “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Slowly I begin to recognize the joy-filled sadness gradually warming my heart. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner…” And so I come home.
May God bless all apologists, for theirs is a difficult job: to defend foolishness (the foolishness of the cross), for which there is no defense, no defense but the Great Defender Himself. Like the great St. Nekarios of Agina (Metropolitan of Pentopolos), I feel compelled by the love of Christ to teach and guide and proclaim; but unlike him, I am sometimes fooled into thinking that arguments and defenses, explanations and proclamations are somehow the Truth rather than just clanging cymbals awaiting the Sprit of God to fill them to draw the hearers to the Truth. And especially since I am usually just one who listens, who already believes but is not wise enough to make such arguments myself, I must be careful not to fall into the same trap as the unbelievers do. I must not mistake good argumentation for Truth, even when the argument supports (or most usually merely appears to support or intends to support) the Truth. This is one of my weaknesses. May God help me (as the Fathers say) to keep my mind in my heart.