Someone sent me Rachael Slick’s commentary about growing up in the home of an apologist and asked for my comment. There’s almost no way to do so, though: it’s her testimony and so is inevitably one-sided, and the portrait she paints of her father is not flattering. But I think regardless of your stance toward Christianity the whole thing reads like an unmitigated tragedy.
Still, while the judgment about the story’s truthfulness is well beyond our capacity, that does not mean we can’t learn anything from it. Perceptions matter, after all, and Slick distills a popular stereotype about conservative Christians who have a disposition to engage in apologetics. It’s an unfair stereotype, as many apologetics folks are some of the most patient and winsome people you’ll meet. But persist it does, so let us consider it, again without necessarily granting the truthfulness of this particular description:
As my knowledge of Christianity grew, so did my questions — many of them the “classic” kind. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, why did He create a race He knew was destined for Hell? How did evil exist if all of Creation was sustained by the mind of God? Why didn’t I feel His presence when I prayed?
Having a dad highly schooled in Christian apologetics meant that every question I brought up was explained away confidently and thoroughly. Many times, after our nightly Bible study, we would sit at the table after my Mom and sisters had left and debate, discuss, and dissect the theological questions I had. No stone was left unturned, and all my uncertainty was neatly packaged away.
I don’t have children, so I can’t imagine the temptation from that standpoint. But I have sat with friends who have struggled with such questions and know that sort of response well. You might say I’ve been a practicioner of it, in fact, once. Or maybe twice. (You know, the memory goes in old age.)
The instinct to answer and defend is, in fact, one of the most difficult temptations for those with an interest in apologetics to resist. Some of that is sometimes rooted in insecurities: we don’t want to let the questions fester for fear of where they may ultimately take us. Sometimes, though, it’s simply rooted in an overactive eagerness to help, a hastiness that wants to skip past the discomfort of the questions for the sake of putting them to rest and moving on to the next topic. Such answering appears to be a love for ideas and the truth, but ultimately isn’t. Unlike Pilate, it takes answers seriously. But it treats such answers as reasons to close the discussion, rather than the substance for more contemplation and deliberate reflection about them. (More on all that, of course, here.)
And therein lies the difference between debating and inquiring, a distinction that people often miss but is fundamental to keep hold of if we are to question well. There is a time and place for bringing out the intellectual gloves and going a few rounds. Pugnacity isn’t a spiritual gift, but it has its uses within the kingdom. We need more Doug Wilsons, who models this better than anyone we’ve got today.
But the time and place for that is generally not in our friendships or families, and not with those whose faith is quavering. Nor can we make a steady diet of debating, at least not if we don’t want it to corrode our intellectual life. A steady diet of polemics will inevitably dry us up: it’s inquiry and understanding that we are made for, and if those are not the automatic reflexes of our minds and hearts than we have more growth ahead of us. Debate needs to be the form we undertake deliberately: inquiry should be the default mode of the intellectual life.
I say all this with some trepidation, especially as it could come across as suggesting that had things gone otherwise Rachael might have stayed in the faith. These movements in and out of Christianity are mysterious and the reasons and causes often come from places that we do not realize while they are underfoot. There is a danger of a “parenting-health-and-wealth” gospel that I want no part of that suggests that if people only questioned well then their children would stay Christians. I suspect it improves the odds, but the ways of teenagers are stranger than the ways of God. And “staying a Christian” should never be the goal of being a parent, it seems to me. “Training up a child” in righteousness, peace, joy and the rest of them is a much more robust vision and one defined by its positives, not by the tacit negation of “remaining a Christian.”