The Gentle Art of Apologetics

Many people dislike platitudes. Just the other day, I was part of a conversation on Facebook in which the original poster was complaining about the silliness of saying, “Count rainbows, not thunderstorms, and walk on.” The thread participants all riffed on this platitude, and my contribution was that paying attention to the rainbows instead of the storm while walking is a great way to slip in a puddle and break your ankle.

But sometimes we can be too quick to dismiss the wisdom of common adages out of cynicism for their overuse. Yesterday, also on Facebook, a fellow apologist expressed concern about being too nice while doing apologetics. He wrote, in part:

People (including myself) love that old saying “You catch more bees with honey rather than with vinegar.” No doubt, this is true. It’s human nature. But as a full-time apologist I can’t ONLY do all the nicey nicey stuff that no one would object to.

Overall, his post was very good, and I agree with the substance of what he had to say on the subject. The apologist took care to include in his remarks that he prefers the positive approach, and dislikes negative apologetics.

But what caught my attention was the adage this apologist used here to warn against “nicey nicey” apologetics. Most people have heard of how to better catch flying insects, but it is not widely known where the advice originated. I had just recently heard from a friend that this bit of wisdom was coined by none other than the premier Catholic apologist during the Counter-Reformation, St. Francis de Sales. Since the Internet is filled with misattributions of quotations to famous people (or so says Abraham Lincoln), I searched for a primary source for this. Priest-blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf wrote:

According to the Louis de la Rivière in his Vie de saint François de Sales (1624—p. 584), the doctor and bishop of Geneva of St. Francis de Sales (+1622) told friend and prodigy Jean Pierre Camus (+1652), Bishop of Belley: “Soyez toujours le plus doux que vous pourrez, et souvenez-vous que l’on prends plus de mouches avec une cuillère de miel qu’avec cent barils de vinaigre. . . . Always be as gentle as you can and remember that one catches more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.”

While this apologist was measured in his remarks about the necessity of confrontational apologetics, not all who labor in the apologetics fields speak as carefully as he did on the subject. Another well-known Catholic has made it the signature line of his apostolate that “Catholics are born for combat,” and has coined the phrase “the Church of Nice” to express disdain for a dialogic approach to evangelization instead of verbal jousts in which enemies of the faith are rhetorically pummeled into submission. 

What Would Jesus Do?

In making the case for confrontational apologetics, many times we hear that Jesus himself was confrontational. “Jesus overturned tables and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple!” (John 2:13–17). Or, “Jesus called the Pharisees ‘hypocrites’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matt. 23:27)! He wasn’t very nice, now was he?”

Rarely is note taken that, in these cases, Jesus did not tell us to go forth and do likewise. He did not say, for example, “Learn from me for I busted up tables, drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, and gave those hypocritical Pharisees a round of dope slaps.” No, the explicit model he gave to us to follow was something very different:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11:29).

Frankly, one of my personal idiosyncrasies is that I have a white-hot loathing for the spirituality-lite slogan, “What would Jesus do?” Sometimes Jesus did things and said things that only God could do and say because he was, you know, God. And that includes instigating a public ruckus in the Temple and engaging in scalding public denunciations of the leaders of his people (whom he also directed his people to listen to and obey).

What Would the Apostles Do?

Well then, what about the apostles? St. Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira with their lies about the size of their gift to the apostolic community, and the two dropped dead in his presence (Acts 5:1–11). St. Paul bitterly wished that the circumcisors would go ahead and finish the job they had started upon themselves (Gal. 5:11–12). Tough, bold actions and words in response to sin and heresy!

First of all, in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, there is no hint that St. Peter wished them dead or struck them down for their lies. At most, he merely announced the consequence of a mortal sin (Acts 5:9–10). In St. Paul’s case, he was writing a private letter to a particular audience. His words, while heated, were a rhetorical flourish to make a point to his followers. He did not go up to one of the circumcisors and suggest to the man that he mutilate himself.

And, secondly, elsewhere both St. Peter and St. Paul had very different advice for how Christians were expected to share their faith:

Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Pet. 3:15–16).

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–3).

It should also be noted that Catholics are not required to believe that every action of an apostle in the New Testament is saintly and requires emulation. If we believed that, we would have to conclude that there was nothing wrong with St. Peter chopping off Malchus’s ear (John 18:10–11), or that the infighting among St. Paul and his companions is a model of teamwork for Christian evangelists (Acts 15:35–41).

The Fault Is In Our Wars

I was asked recently whether I have managed to avoid all confrontation in my own apologetics work. To be perfectly honest: No. I know what it is like to be drawn into heated debate, and I have found it difficult to say what needs to be said in a manner that consistently maintains charity. I know what it is like to have to take stands that are unpopular, both with society in general and with the individual whose concerns I am addressing.

But when I have descended into these conflicts, the fault has been on me and I know that I have not been as effective an apologist as I could have been. While the fault for conflict might not always have been mine alone, I cannot deny that some of the fault is mine. As I said in a past blog post:

In short, yes, religious apologists, whether for Christian or for non-Christian religions, do bear some responsibility for how their actions affect others. We have a responsibility to present our arguments fairly, accurately, and with real consideration for the plight of individuals. When we do not, we can add to the burden that suffering people already carry.

Apologists have to be willing to accept that when we have spoken sharply, acted without concern for the feelings of others, or have taken part in a flame war, we have fallen short of the dignity of our calling. We may not be solely to blame, but neither should we refuse to acknowledge any responsibility. Even those of us who dislike confrontational apologetics will keep finding ourselves slugging it out online and on other apologetics platforms unless we repent instead of justifying ourselves.

The Strength To Be Gentle

The core confusion at the heart of the problem some apologists have with gentleness in apologetics lies in the equation of gentleness with weakness; with the idea that you have to project a take-no-prisoners attitude to be a good apologist for the faith. Part of the confusion undoubtedly lies in the idea some have that gentleness is girly and therefore unworthy of a manly man. That may be why you hear complaints that the so-called Church of Nice is “effeminate.”

Setting aside the easy reply that the Church has traditionally been referred to in feminine terms (e.g., “she,” “her”) and is explicitly referred to in the New Testament as the Bride of Christ (e.g., Rev. 19:7, 21:9, 22:17), it is a misconception of gentleness to understand it to mean that the one who is gentle compromises, waters down his position, or has no conviction.

Rather the gentle soul tempers his strength because he knows that strength can cause great harm when it is used indiscriminately against those who are vulnerable. That is why an adult is gentle with a child—not because the adult is weak, but because his strength can injure the child. That is why a teacher is gentle with a student; the teacher who overwhelms his student with his vaster knowledge of a discipline discourages the student from learning to master it himself. When the infinite God became finite man, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7) precisely because he is all-powerful.

How To Be Gentle

So, how can you be a strong defender of the faith, but gentle in your defense of it? Here are some ideas:

Listen. All too often defenders of the faith seem to think they must make their opinion known on every scandal to cross their radar. Sometimes all that people need is for someone to listen to them. To listen to their concerns, not necessarily to offer solutions. This can be difficult when you are already formulating what you are going to say in response while someone is talking. Consciously make an effort to focus on that person and let him say what he must.

Refrain. Do not be the fly in every jar of ointment. No one puts up for very long with the person who is the constant critic, who seeks to put others in their place with pithy words showing why others are wrong. You don’t need to be the person who is constantly typing away at the keyboard because “Someone is wrong on the Internet.”

Assume the best. Always, always first try to find a positive interpretation of someone’s words or actions. Play Pollyanna‘s glad game: “There is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.” If you fear being called a Pollyanna, well, wouldn’t you rather be compared to a gentle child everyone loved than to be dismissed and pitied by the world as a hater of a man beloved by all?

Don’t be predictable. If you always give the response people expect, they stop listening to you. There is little that is more satisfying in apologetics than when you manage to gain rousing agreement from someone who never expected to agree with you on a controversial issue because you were able to find an aspect of the issue you both agreed upon. To be told “Wow, I’m glad you said it” by a friend with whom you disagree on some important issues can feel like an unexpected pat on the back. It also can keep the lines of communication open.

Stay silent. When Jesus was on trial for his life, one of the most remarkable features of his demeanor was his silence. Yes, he answered questions that required an answer (John 18:33–37), but he remained silent in the face of baiting and questions he had already answered (John 19:8–9). Sometimes the most powerful answer is no answer at all (Matt. 27:11–14).

Apologetics for the Catholic faith is important. Knowing the faith and being able to help others to know it is a great good. And, yes, occasionally there will be contention in the face of your defense of the faith. But the contention should not come from you. You should not be the contentious one. However satisfying it might be for you to imagine giving an anti-Catholic a verbal dope slap, indulging that desire is what is weak. It is strong to act gently in the face of provocation—not because you are unable to verbally crush your opponent, but because the person opposing you just might be masking vulnerabilities and might be in need of protection from the consequences of his own overheated rhetoric.

I think we too are the people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: Mercy. . . . This is the Lord’s most powerful message: Mercy (Pope Francis).

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.
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