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Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Karl Keating

At his blog Catholic apologist Mark Shea has posted "Some Thoughts on the Apologetics Subculture": (scroll down to June 16).

Among other things, Mark bemoans the tendency, among some Catholic and not a few Protestant apologists, to get bogged down in minutiae. As an example, he refers to a discussion about the interpretation of the Greek behind the word "until" in Matthew 1:25: "and he knew her not until she had brought forth her firstborn son."

The link Mark provides takes you to an interminable tit-for-tat between a Protestant and a Catholic. Read just the first few paragraphs (you won't be able to get through the whole thing). What will come to mind is Macbeth's soliloquy in Act V: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The writer (in this case a Protestant, but Catholics have done the same) offers up thousands of words--19,000 of them in fact--that supposedly demonstrate that his understanding of "until" is true and that his Catholic opponent's understanding is false. In fact, the most he can hope to do is to prove that this particular Catholic committed an error here or there; he can't (and doesn't) prove that the traditional Catholic understanding of "until" is wrong.

Such a waste of time!

Look, I'm an apologist, and I like engaging in apologetics, but there are limits. There are limits to what apologetics can accomplish, and there are limits to my patience. When I come across a 19,000-word dispute about the meaning of a single term, I don't think: "This is impressive work." I think: "This guy needs to get a life."

Apologetics is the explanation and defense of the faith. It comes into play only when someone asks for an explanation or attacks the faith. It is not the same as evangelization, which is the promotion of the faith.
Apologetics is reactive; evangelization is pro-active. The two often go hand-in-hand, but they are not coterminous and should not be confused with one another.

I think apologetics is important, and that is why I have been engaged in it for a quarter of a century. I think it is so important that I don't want to waste time writing or reading 19,000-word exercises in futility.

It is said that Joseph Conrad once spent the better part of a day trying to decide whether to describe a character as "penniless" or "without a penny." There is a subtle distinction between the two, but it is so subtle that I am sure that no reader of his story ever came across the passage and wondered to himself why Conrad didn't choose the other term.

To Conrad, choosing one word over the other was important. It was important to absolutely no one else. Sometimes apologists reduce apologetics to the same level.

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