by William A. Decker, editor (January / February 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 1)
Years ago, I ran into my first apologist. I had the fortune of being able to study English literature in London during my junior year of college way back in the 1970s. When classes were over, I would sometimes enter the huge Hyde Park, and head straight toward the famed “Speaker’s Corner.” There you might find a socialist, communist, capitalist, or politician from any conceivable political stripe, one of the faithful from a particular religious tradition, a writer, scientist, and others.
Covered by trees and circled by a crowd, the person was placing his or her passionate opinion before the general population. This was an instance in which a person was willing to take a risk, moving from the confines of one’s fellow “insiders” (that is, those who generally agree with you) into the marketplace of ideas among society’s common men and women.
Some would say that London’s Speaker’s Corner represents a picture, more or less, of true democracy in action.
One day as I approached the “Corner,” a monk was taking his stand, dressed in a traditional brown robe of his Order. I listened to the back and forth banter of Christian believer and those who heckled him or asked sincere questions. At one and the same time, the monk was both confessing the faith and sharing reasons for the faith. While some questioners were obviously aiming to undermine the faith or poke fun at him, he tried not to fire back at them disrespectfully.
I saw him as one who was acting out what the apostle wrote in 1 Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense (apologian) to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (3:15). An English definition of the Greek word for defense, apologian, is a “formal justification: defense,” according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1987).
The Greek origin of the word breaks it down: apo plus logos. Apology is closely tied to the Greek logos, which means it is also closely tied to the world of communication — speech and word — and for the Christian, the world of revelation — God as the Word, Jesus Christ incarnate.
Is there a place for both confession of faith and its defense in our congregational life? We might remember that our early Lutheran history is wrapped in the ecclesiastical cloths of debate and defense. One example: The Augsburg Confession of 1530 was met with a “Confutation,” or rebuttal, of the Confession. The reformers, in turn, met the Confutation with an “Apology,” or defense, of the Augsburg Confession. The Book of Concord now records the Apology’s words for us and our posterity.
But, today, is there a place in sermons or educational settings to help fellow Christians know how to account for the “hope that is within them”? What are the reasons to believe in the God of Jesus Christ and follow this One through the institutional expression of the Body of Christ?
People who enter our sanctuaries for the first time or are long-term members do carry with them a marketplace of ideas — religious, political, economic, scientific — even as they enter wanting to hear a word of hope from the life-giving gospel. Most of us are saturated with media images and values as they are portrayed on television, cinema, radio, news print, internet chat rooms, and book stores. Can the faith stand on its own two feet amid the culture’s cacophony?
To defend the faith would not be an occasion to grandstand or minimize the faith, to simplify complex issues, or to misrepresent or show disrespect toward the views of others. I was struck that those who “defend” the faith, according to 1 Peter, are called to do so with “gentleness” and “reverence” even if others are treating them unfairly (3:16).
Perhaps the following topics could fit into educational programs or sermon series during Lent or at other times of the year. Perhaps they could be an occasion to join with ecumenical partners in an outreach into the community:
- How does the Christian faith portray what the meaning and purpose of life is in comparison to other sources of “meaning and purpose” in U.S. society?
- How have Christians understood the faith’s relationship with scientific inquiry and discoveries over the centuries?
- Why do Christians center their faith on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What difference has this had for society as it faces issues of life and death?
- How might the Christian concept of vocation benefit the world of work?
- How do Christians relate the truth claims of Jesus Christ to the truth claims of other religions?
Having a voice which is heard is clearly vital to the workings of our society. Hence, the importance of “Speakers’ Corners” of one sort or another through debates and forums and multiple perspectives on op-ed pages in newspapers.
And for disciples who wish to “continue” in Jesus’ word, accounting for the hope that lies within us is likewise important to the workings of our faith communities. We are worshippers of the truth. We seek understanding of the truth. As Jesus promises, truth resides in the word and the Son who has the power to make us truly free (John 8: 32-33, 36).
What would cause a monk to take up a defense of the faith at London’s Speaker’s Corner? And what lies behind the calls which you and I have received to serve the church and world? Hope, freedom, and truth, all gifts of the gospel, are all worthy of our best apology.
Inside this Issue...
The emphasis of this issue — Parish Education — takes a look at the intersection between education and evangelism. Can a congregation “teach” evangelism? Three pastors share their thoughts. Much teaching is done by example, but all the authors know that this is an act of discipleship which must be intentionally designed within parish life.
J. Elise Brown describes what this means as a Manhattan parish pastor in New York City. Mary Leigh Boyd Hovland, a pastor of a two-point parish in Minnesota, provides a rural experience. And Rayford Grady looks at the issue from the perspective of his urban ethnic congregation.
Researchers are able to tell us much about the human brain these days, including how people learn. Vicky Goplin, from Augsburg Fortress Publishers, outlines some of the ways in which current brain research may be useful in helping congregations teach the faith that is both engaging and transformative.
Our columnists take us on journeys which deal with issues concerning retirement, spiritual direction, a coherent view of faith and science, and other matters.
William A. Decker is editor of Lutheran Partners magazine, Chicago, Illinois.