The art of apologetics – now and then

Earlier this month my father and I visited the medieval city of Chartres in France to celebrate his 80th birthday. Setting out from Dover on the ferry to Calais I already knew that Chartres cathedral boasts the finest collection of 12th/13th century stained glass in the world but as we approached the city it became clear that it is one thing to know about Chartres and another thing to visit.

From a distance the cathedral dominates the surrounding fields. Up close the west front soars into the sky. Inside the nave our senses were saturated by the sounds of a visiting choir soaring in rehearsal and by the colours of the stained glass shining like sapphires, rubies and emeralds set in gold. It was for us, as for any medieval pilgrim, like stepping into a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem as described in the Book of Revelation.

The experience was a transcendent one, inviting us, through our senses to participate in the spiritual reality of God’s presence to which the architecture points. Shortly though, it was to become an educational experience as well as we joined a tour of the cathedral with the English speaking specialist on the glass of Chartres, Malcolm Miller.

Malcolm Miller described the 150 windows of Chartres to us as a complex yet coherent single theological text.  He began by teaching us to read a window so that we might understand its message… ‘always begin at the bottom; always read from left to right,’ for like icons in the eastern orthodox traditions, medieval stained glass windows are not primarily an artistic endeavour but a theological one.

Having thought that this visit to Chartres was time off, I began to realize that here was material to help me in preparing the course in apologetics that I am teaching in January as part of our international Doctor of Ministry programme in partnership with Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC.


What is apologetics?
Apologetics is the business of explaining the Christian faith.  It is an enterprise that is addressed to a public audience in order to demonstrate the coherence, credibility and power of the Christian faith, and to a Christian audience to help us love God not only with our hearts, souls and strength but also with our minds. Loving God with the mind is an important part of sustaining the Christian life and helping us think through the challenges that life presents to faith in every generation as we encounter ideas and world views that raise doubts and questions about the claims of Christianity. It is what, for example, I am engaged in on a regular basis as I offer Thoughts for the Day on Radio 4’s Today programme.

In the twentieth century apologetics became particularly associated with the project to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity; a project that perhaps culminated in the claim of Oxford philosopher, Richard Swinburne, to have demonstrated the statistical probability of the existence of God.  Attempting to prove the existence of God, however, presents several problems. First it tends towards a focus upon what is most uncertain in Christianity rather than on what is most important, risking God being seen as first cause (or last resort explanation) for the origins of things rather than as an intimate and incarnate presence in daily life. Second, the evidence presented for intelligent design in the universe can equally plausibly be explained without the need for positing a designer. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is a real danger that in seeking to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity Christian apologetics colludes with its critics in allowing reason to be of ultimate value, rather than faith. As John Hughes, the late Dean of Jesus College Cambridge put it in 2016, ‘if one proves God on the basis of reason then secretly one establishes reason as the more ultimate foundation and thus the real object of worship.’

During the French Revolution the cathedral at Chartres was overtaken as a Temple to reason as the Republic sought to replace the irrational beliefs of Christianity with a modern rationality. The episode was short lived. Whilst for the new atheists, like Richard Dawkins, this might be considered a shame, apologists like the Anglican physicist, John Polkinghorne, point out that even science is based on trust in its own presuppositions. In fact, science as well as religion is a matter of faith as well as reason.  Both have a coherence; both can be articulated; both must be consistent with sense experience.  Yet the presuppositions of both faith and science cannot necessarily be proven, they must both be taken on trust.


Faith, Reason and Beauty
So, the thirteenth century builders of the cathedral at Chartres, as Malcolm Miller explained to us, were engaged both in an artistic endeavour designed to inspire faith through the beauty and scale of the space and in a sophisticated presentation of a coherent theological vision. Beginning with the oldest glass incorporated into the west end of the cathedral, here is the Jesse tree explaining the genealogy of Christ. Here also is the story of the incarnation. Here also is the story of redemption. These pictoral stories were first addressed to a non-literate audience and yet here there is no lack of theological sophistication. Noah’s ark might have been represented in stone but this is not because medieval glaziers didn’t know that stone sinks… it was to make the theological point that the ark is a prototype for the church as a vessel of salvation.

In a similar way, in another window, the stories of Adam and Eve and the story of the Good Samaritan are presented together – not by accident or because they were the favourites of the person who paid for the window – but for a theological reason. At the bottom of the window Adam and Eve, though created for paradise and shalom/salaams/Salem are thrown out of the garden. In the same way in the story of the Good Samaritan, a man sets out from (Jeru)salem and embarks on a dangerous journey. The Law and the Prophets (the priest and the Levite) cannot help him. Only the one who risks his life in crossing the divide between God and humanity can bring the wounded man (Adam) back to shalom/salaam/peace.

Perhaps today it may seem that presenting a coherent account of Christianity is a lost cause.  In the postmodern western context where identity politics insist that everyone’s experience and beliefs are equally valuable, those to whom we present Christianity as a coherent view of the world may simply shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, it’s a point of view – it’s as reasonable as anything else.’  If we accept this then we are left with a privatised Christianity that relegates Christianity to one amongst a pick and mix choice of worldviews.  Christianity is a perspective and a value system, but it cannot be defended as Truth so why try?

In this context, Scottish philosopher, Alasdair McIntyre suggests that Christians should acknowledge the fact that God cannot be proved – statistically or otherwise – but not abandon reason altogether.  Like the medieval university in which faith sought understanding, the contemporary Christian apologist should seek to dialogue with all seekers after truth, humbly accepting that we do not have knock-down proofs but that our role is to offer as best a rational account of the faith that is in us as we can.  In the process, like the medieval cathedral builders we must harness both reason and art to invite participation in the life of faith – we must adopt a rhetoric that persuades by virtue of its ‘inherent beauty and goodness.’ (John Hughes).  So contemporary apologists like Andrew Davison in Cambridge and Holly Ordway in Houston invite us to think about the apologetics of the imagination.

As my father and I wandered around the cathedral in Chartres the power and beauty of the place was inspiring.  So was the apologetic work of Malcolm Miller.  At one point, trying to be heard, he turned to a group of French teenagers and shushed them, twinkling as he did so and getting away with it because he is 85.  Turning to us he said, ‘This should be a place of peace (shalom)…  I tell them…’ reminding us again that the cathedral was built to invite us all to participate in the shalom of God manifest on earth.

In the evening we wandered around the streets amongst the crowds enjoying the digital light displays projected onto the city’s public buildings. These images – generated by contemporary rather than medieval technologies – were also breath-taking and awe inspiring, especially those projected onto the west front of the cathedral.  Here scientific and religious imagery were blended into a coherent theological text addressed to a less than theologically literate contemporary audience. Accessibly and attractively presented these images were an invitation not only to those who would enter the building for worship but to those who would pass by. An invitation to contemplate the things of God.

I came home, faith strengthened by the apologetic endeavours of the artisans of the 13th century, and by those of Malcolm Miller and the digital artists of the 21st century, and encouraged to apply myself again to the apologetic task – not only in the classroom or on the radio – but in my daily life continuing to ask how I might present the goodness and beauty of God in ways that might make sense both to me and to those I meet.


Questions for reflection

  • What experiences have you had of the beauty and goodness of God?
  • What challenges do you find in explaining the Christian faith to yourself or others in contemporary Britain?
  • What place do you think reason and art should have in the life of faith for Methodist Christians?


This article was first published in the Methodist Recorder on 16th November 2018