Apologetic Tips for Orthodox Christians

apologeticsI’ve been thinking about writing on this topic for a long time. I hasten to write it now while the thoughts are still fresh on my mind. I need to get it down, no doubt, more for myself then for my readers.

Over the years I have witnessed some of the most frustrating and, in the end, pointless exchanges over religious belief. And not just with atheists. In fact, wrestling with atheists is often pleasurable in comparison with many Christians I encounter. Both can be incredibly dense, but the know-it-all Christian is one of the most intolerable creatures of all (Lord have mercy on me).

I know that some of my regular readers might be pointing the finger at me right now, but relax; I’m not blind to my own issues on this count. When I have a point to get across I can be just as dense as the next guy in receiving counter information. This is often the case because I assume I know what the other person is going to say, or what he is trying to say, even before he says it. Nobody need waste their time reminding me of this.

With that clarification out of the way, for me, apologetics (“a defense of the faith”), done right, is one of the most important aspect of the faith. When done wrong it is just as powerful as a deterrent for those seeking truth.

The Can-Nots and the Will-Nots

There are a thousand and one ways to do it wrong, and I’ve been guilty of nearly all of them at one point or another (the best way is to be an arrogant, self-righteous ass), but in my experience when it is done wrong it is almost always a case of trying to present an idea to someone who either (a) cannot receive it, or (b) has no intention of receiving it.

The “cannot-receive-it” type is usually a case of poor education. Often a person will engage in a religious or philosophical discussion who has not taken the time to learn even the basics of what is being discussed—the type who assumes they know something about something because they read a blurp on a Facebook feed, or heard a professor vent about it for 5 minutes during a class, but have never worked on the issue themselves with any sort of seriousness. At times the lack of knowledge among both atheists and Christians who claim to know something about theology is mind-blowing. Even worse is the complete ineptitude many show in their understanding of basic philosophic concepts, yet attempt to muscle through debates over issues so far over their head it borders on the comical, sometimes the tragicomical.

The “will-not-receive-it” type account for almost all the occasions where apologetics go wrong, and this is where most atheist vs theist debates begin and end. These are the types who have at least a scant knowledge of what they’re talking about and are so thoroughly convinced of their position that they only enter debates to either work off steam or work off pathologies, but the last thing on their mind is to work through the truth. Truth for these types takes a back seat to whatever ideology serves to insulate their fragile egos from the terrifying threat of subjectivity to the truth; the threat that whatever ‘golden calf’ of security they have formed will be crushed to powder and made into a cocktail (Exodus 32:20).

The Best Advice I’ve Heard

The best advice I’ve heard for dealing with the Will-Nots comes from my own patron saint, St. Nilus of Egypt (cir., 350AD). He wrote:

“It is useless to offer advice to those who have no intention of taking it, but continue regardless on the downward path. In particular, those with a lust for any kind of gain, however shameful, are completely deaf to advice.”

This was perhaps never better illustrated than when Pilate questioned Jesus asking: “What is truth?” and then took the Truth and crucified Him (John chapter 18).

What good would it have done For Christ to have given Pilate an apologetic on truth? Pilate was in no position to receive it, not because he couldn’t but because he was not earnest in his question. Debating with Pilate would have been an insult—an antithesis—to the truth. Love doesn’t push, it woos.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic wrote in the Prologue of Ohrid:

“What does it help to speak with an enraged, unrighteous man? Speak of evil to him and you enrage him more. Speak of what is good and you’ll make him a mocker of holy things.”

Nikolai taught that silence is best for this situation. Just as Christ was silent to Pilate’s question of truth, one is well advised to allow silence to have its perfect work:

“Left to interpret the silence of the righteous one by himself, the unrighteous one can interpret it for the benefit of his soul; while any answer, good or bad, will be interpreted for evil.”

I have a lot to learn from these words. As I said at the beginning, I’m not sharing this for anyone in particular, save myself, and certainly not from some imagined soapbox of superiority. I find myself wearied from past apologetic work, but I do not want to stop. I just want to get it right. And silence is the hardest part, probably because it’s the most godly.

Thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “Apologetic Tips for Orthodox Christians

  1. This is excellent advice, Orthodox or else, frankly. For the record, I think you’re a first-rate apologist. It’s funny, I first found your blog searching the web looking for different species of arguments that folks make after an atheist scared me half to death with polemical invectives that read to me now more like mash-ups direct from the “unholy trinity of biologism.” Took me to your Finest Argument Against Atheism. Even more “heck, yeah!” was the corresponding Finest Argument Against Christianity and that one may not need to lose hope in dismay just because of it! All that said, I’ve certainly fallen well below the bar in a number of discussions and disputes. What I’m beginning to think is that there is a certain validity to the following hierarchy of Truth:


    This tends to get ignored, I feel, too often, particularly when info and facts get jumbled around (and our society seems to love jumbling them up!) until they seem to fit a semblance of the latter two. This can distressing. A theory, anyway.

    One final question for you: What (assuming any) would be the Orthodox perspective or take on the Ontological Argument? Too cataphatic? I ask because I sincerely don't know what to make of it, what I think about it either way. The curious thing is I can't figure out whether the intention with it is expressly to be apophatic or cataphatic, seems to linger in a bit of a liminal fog in that way. Anyway, your thoughts appreciated.

  2. I live in a cocoon of evangelical protestants and share a ‘house church’ /bible study with a missionary family each week – and I think a lot about how to share a faith with people who I feel, surprisingly, that I share little common ground with (I am often curious if they even prescribe to the creed). Reading your take on things is very refreshing for me and this post in particular reminds me of the proverbs and ecclesiastes I’ve been sitting with – and the incredible emphasis on the wisdom of holding ones tongue. Love does woo indeed.

  3. Perhaps Pilate’s saying “What is truth?” was a rhetorical question, an insinuation that truth is non-existent, an individual thing, or said with a huff as if he didn’t care what truth was anyway. According to the scripture he did not even wait for an answer but went back out to address the Jews.

    Pilate’s previous question, “So you are a king?” seems rhetorical too, a statement or accusation more than a question. And Jesus treats it as such, calling him out on it by replying, “You say I am a king.”

    If he followed up in the same manner with “What is truth?”, then no wonder Jesus didn’t answer him.

    Those who frequently use questions as statements can be near impossible to have a rational discussion with. Most also use statements as questions. They are slippery conversers who manoeuvre about in preparatory argument mode. I prefer not to answer them too.

    • I like this take. On a side note, it is funny that Italian culture today and ancient Roman culture seem to share an affinity for conversing with questions.

  4. Yes. The ancient Greeks too, and many contemporary western groups. It depends how questions are used, of course. Constructively to gather information or promote thought in a particular direction, or obstructively, to sidestep, set up, ambush, insinuate, hurt… while claiming innocence because, “It was only a question”. And for what cause? In pursuit of or in opposition to truth, goodwill and love.

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