Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Dialog and Apologetics - Johannes Aagaard

Is dialog possible and what are the presuppositions?

The present world situation is marked by a violent increase in religious radicalism. Large numbers of people are mobilized by Moslem zealots, extremists - all of them more or less fundamentalist by orientation.

At the same time, there has also been a radical increase in religious syncretism. Large numbers of people are mobilized by new religious movements or rallied round the banner of the New Age, brandishing the symbol of the rainbow, which in its spectrum unites all colors .

Statistically speaking, at the moment every third person in the world is a Christian, every 5th person a Moslem, every 7th person a Hindu and every 15th person a Buddhist.

This statistical picture is surprisingly stable. Moslems have, however, gained a considerable advance, whereas Buddhists have lost ground. As far as Christianity is concerned it comprises today the same percentage of the total human population as it did at the beginning of the century. But in spite of this seemingly unchanged situation there has been a radical shift in geographical distribution. At the beginning of this century most Christians lived in the northern hemisphere. Now the majority of Christians are inhabitants of the southern hemisphere! The reason for this is simply Christian mission work. Without mission the numerical decline within Christianity would have been colossal.

The losses are, however, profoundly serious. What has been gained outside so-called Christendom has been lost within the same Christendom. The Christian world is quite simply no longer Christian. The identification of the Christian world with the Western world is no longer either valid nor possible.
The Christian Mission Begins at Home

All this makes the contemporary missionary situation quite different. For a long time, we have closed our eyes to the real challenge. Missionary work, not only ecumenicism, begins at home.

In order to grasp the nature of the dilemma between fundamentalist fanaticism and pervasive syncretism, we must first of all have a clear understanding of the Biblical suggestions on which we must act. As Christians, we are engaged in dialog with people beyond our front door, and that is where our mission begins. If we do not know how to meet the need of our next-door neighbor, how can we pretend that we can fulfill our wider, global obligations?

The term apologetics is often used in a derogatory sense. To become apologetic often means to become uncertain and defensive, sometimes even to become aggressive. Still we cannot do without the term apologetics. It is a necessary and natural part of our faith (1.Peter 3:15). But the term needs to be interpreted from a new viewpoint in the light of dialog. The basis for such reinterpretation can be found in the Gospels and in St. Paul’s Letters

What is needed is a new approach to tomorrow’s mission in dialog, an approach which will renew and revitalize our apologetics. We must be able to see the larger dimension of the present situation, and see it in its true and proper perspective - as a challenge, but also as a sobering fact which throws us back on our fundamental principles.
The Approach of Jesus

When you read the New Testament you will notice that Jesus is in constant dialog with either his friends or his opponents. Jesus never relies on generalities, but engages himself in concrete dialog all the time. Often this dialog takes the form of a defence against attacks from Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus responds to the various challenges, it is as simple as that.

Reference to the Scriptures has been essential in such dialog. The "Schriftbeweis" carried authority in relation to the Scribes and Pharisees. They shared with Jesus the same scriptural tradition, but differed in interpretation.

There is, however, in the approach of Jesus an even more fundamental criterion which has to do with the idea that actions speak louder than words. You should judge a man by what he does, rather than by what he says, consider a tree by the fruit it bears. If not, hypocrisy may well raise its ugly head.

For Jesus, what matters is not saying "Lord, Lord or Master, Master", but to suit the action to the word.

Jesus knew that such hypocrisy, where you say one thing and do another, is typical of enslaved people, people who have lost their freedom and dignity. He always defended human freedom and dignity. Only where freedom and dignity is restored, is it possible for people to act in a true and genuine way. In this he helps us to restore a true relationship to God, and thus make a genuine relationship among Christians a human reality.
The Pauline Approach

Paul in his missionary approach takes dialog for granted. Whenever he went to the synagogue, to the marketplace, to Areopagus dialog was his method. What alternative was there? None! He simply responded to the situation. Dialog was a necessity.

The cultural context of Paul’s time was one of philosophical and religious turmoil, the breaking up of old structures and the coming into being of new philosophical and religious systems and sects. A new age was in the melting pot. The Greek language and Greek thought-forms were instrumental in communicating these new ideas.

Paul addressed the Christian message to Jews and Greeks. The Jews wanted signs and the Greeks wanted wisdom, and he answered with faith in a crucified master who had risen from the dead. That sort of Kerygma had to be developed in dialog. Proclaiming the Good News was not a monolog. It had to be put forward as a real two way communication, i.e. in dialog, as we see it developed in 1st Cor. 2 and 3, but also in many other contexts. In short - Paul argues! He does not simply state and insist. He develops rational arguments in response to the different groups with which he communicates. He becomes a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles.

He is not at all soft, as Jesus was not at all soft. He argues in the form of polemics and apologetics, he attacks and defends. His arguments often seem rather martial, as when in the letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 6, he puts forward the wellarmored warrior as the prototype of the Christian apologist.

Apologetics in the Bible is not meant as a means to prove the faith. Faith is an outcome of the Gospel, a result of the Kerygma, a response to God. Faith seeks a form, a way of making itself known. It will express itself as a text must express itself within the framework of a wider cultural context. Apologetics is an attempt to find a form for the Christian faith. And dialog is a means of communicating the Christian faith to the contemporary world. In dialog we express the content of our faith in a form adapted to the thought- forms of the modern world.

A leap of faith is fundamental, but it is not a blind leap! It is not an absurd and desperate act of the will devoid of reason. The reasonable service, as Paul describes the worship or liturgy of the Church in Rom 12:12, is meant to be an expression of reason healed by faith. Faith and reason join hands, but faith remains the master, and faith determines the direction of their common journey.
Some Basic Bible Teaching

The biblical approach can briefly be described as follows: The basic assumption is always that God is the God of creation. And God the creator is always with his creation. No single person is without God. God’s presence is for all human begins.

The Gospel is preached and was preached to all mankind. Paul refers to Psalm 19 and its vast perspective.

What follows is an expression of the perspective which determines the whole Pauline approach: The Gospel has been preached to everybody in the world (Col 1:23). All people under the sun have heard the Gospel! Is it true that they did not hear the message? Of course they did! So the Scripture says, and Psalm 19 is cited as proof (Rom. 10,19).

In short: No single person ever lost salvation because of lack of knowledge. No one was ever lost without having an alternative! If there had not been an alternative how about the justice of God? God’s justice means that God opens his arms to disobedient and rebellious mankind, not to the ignorant!

God is never far away from mankind, but mankind can be far away from God, because of its evil thoughts and acts. It is the problem of evil which keeps people away from God, not the problem of ignorance. This is the message of the biblical texts.
The Biblical Context

According to the Bible God offers salvation to man. He reaches out his hand to fallen man. The Hellenistic world placed the emphasis differently. Salvation was man’s own doing. Salvation was through knowledge. The problem was ignorance and the solution was knowledge or gnosis.

In the biblical text, as we have seen, the problem was recognized as that of evil, and the solution was seen as that of faith in the risen Christ overcoming evil.

The biblical view of salvation is still the mandate of the Christian Church and of Christian mission and should be emphasized in our apologetics and dialog. Today there is a real danger that we might be tempted to fall back on Hellenistic and New Age assumptions concerning what constitutes the salvation of man. Man is in need of a higher consciousness, the prophets of New Age will argue that the goal is the attainment of saving knowledge. According to the Christian point of view, mankind has become unaware of God’s will, but we all have a human heart. Man is not without God, but he is turning against God. He is not without God’s guidance, but he insists on running his own life without God.

This then is the foundation of our mandate as apologists and dialoguers! We shall have to remind people, to appeal to people: On Christ’s behalf, we beg you, let God change you from enemies to friends! (2nd Cor. 5:20).

An open mind or a closed mind; sympathetic attitude or hostility; enmity or friendship, that is what is at stake. No one is abandoned by God. God is not far from anyone, for in him we live move and exist (Acts 17:28). It is our relationship with God which needs to be put right.

Our mission, therefore, should be a mission of reconciliation, not a mission of warfare. We are not living in a Christian fortress, surrounded by enemies. We are living with the people and for the people, but fully aware of the critical state of the modern world, of men who turn away from God in spite of the fact that God holds out a helping and saving hand.
The Religious Context of Today´s World

As mentioned at the beginning of this presentation, we live in an age where the propagation of religious radicalism is on the increase and the propagation of religious syncretism is also increasing. This makes our job very difficult indeed. We shall have to steer our ship carefully between the Scilla of fanatical fundamentalism and the Charybdis of indiscriminate syncretism. As you probably know, Scilla and Charybdis in Greek mythology were two monsters who lay in wait for sailors in the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Scilla among the rocks on the Italian side and Charybdis in a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily.

The radical fundamentalist attitude has a clear profile. It attracts many people because of its conservative stand and seemingly faithful support of tradition.

The syncretist and relativist attitude also have a clear profile. It attracts many people because of its preference for synthesis and a basic attitude of tolerance.

Could there be a third attitude? Neither Jesus nor Paul can be used in defense of fanatical fundamentalism nor in defense of extreme relativism and synthesis.

A genuine "Religionskritik" is needed. We must develop a sound understanding of biblical apologetics and make it an integral part of our evangelism in dialog. We shall therefore finish this presentation by putting forward ten guidelines for "Religionskritik". They are meant as suggestions for a sound theology of dialog on the basis of biblical apologetics.