Even though we never met, Dallas Willard played a significant role in my decision to become a philosophy professor. I remember reading his classic book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, when I came across the following passage:
“As a response to this world’s problems, the gospel of the Kingdom will never make sense except as it is incarnated – we say “fleshed out” – in ordinary human beings in all ordinary conditions of human life. But it will make sense when janitors and storekeepers, carpenters and secretaries, businessmen and university professors, bankers and government officials brim with the degree of holiness and power formerly thought appropriate only to apostles and martyrs” (pp. 243-244).
As I read this, I realized that I wanted to become a philosophy professor. I believed then, and I believe to this day, that God spoke to me through these words. The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus contains the same spirit present in the passage, a spirit of living out the good news of the kingdom in our daily lives. This is the ultimate apologetic. Debates and arguments are important, too. When done in the manner of Jesus, apologetic activity is neither arrogant nor antagonistic. Rather, it is a helping ministry engaged in for the sake of both believers and non-believers who want such help.
We do apologetics as “relentless servants of truth” (p. 3). We humbly speak the truth in love, and engage others in love. We try to help others deal with their doubts in ways that will help them to know and love God, and fully participate in God’s kingdom. Apologetics matter because reason matters. Ideas matter. Willard points out that we are at the mercy of our ideas, and because of this reason is very important. It is a gift of God, a capacity that is part of what it is to be made in God’s image.
But we must first be disciples of Jesus; only then can we also become apologists. This is because there must be something different about us if we are to help others as servants of the truth. People should ask us,”Why are you hopeful? What’s going on in you? Because something is obviously different!” This relates to the favorite verse of many apologists, 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV), which states: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. I recall thinking and being told back in college that since no one would ever ask me about the hope that is within me, I should learn how to initiate spiritual conversations with others. While I think it is great to initiate such conversations, and pursue them with others who are interested in doing so, something is wrong if we’re never asked about the hope within us. If this isn’t happening, perhaps we need to learn more about how to grasp this hope and anchor our lives more deeply in it.
Willard also offers a helpful definition of a biblical apologetic, “the best use of our natural faculties of thought in submission to the Holy Spirit to remove doubts and problems that hinder a trustful, energetic participation in a life of personal relationship with God (p. 39)”. We use the gift of reason and understanding without leaning on it. We lean on God, but we use the tool of reason for good purposes. Our goal is not to win arguments, and we should not be intellectual bullies. Instead, we should offer our best answers to the existential questions and struggles that people have. We should seek truth with others, and when they show us our mistakes, we should be humbly appreciative rather than defensive or antagonistic.
The book also includes some excellent material on faith and reason, the logical argumentation of Jesus in the gospels, some very interesting thoughts about hell (“hell is simply the best God can do for some people”), and discussions of materialism, science, technology, the problem of evil, and much more. The content here is concise, deep, and thought-provoking while remaining clear and accessible. I plan to go back through it again.
The final chapter, “Living and Acting with God,” centers on the ultimate apologetic: a life grounded in the resources of God’s kingdom, lived in friendship with him. We ourselves are living proof of the reality of God and his kingdom, or we at least should be. We aren’t perfect, but we are doing progressively better as we learn to live in him. Apologetics include argument, but they must go beyond this to the level of real life experience. What are the hard questions that smother the faith of others, and us? As we relate to others, and reflect on this question for ourselves, we will see which issues we ought to pursue. Once we do this, we can offer people something that will be helpful to them.
As we engage in gentle apologetics, we will step out and risk, such that we will fail unless God shows up. We do what we can in partnership with God to help others step out and try something themselves, to experiment in life. As God meets them there, they may respond in faith. But whether they do or not, we continue in “a posture of joint discovery and of understanding together” (p. 170).