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Hard Apologetics, Soft Apologetics

By George Sumner

This reflection is really meant as advice for the Episcopal Church. It may make it more likely that I can be heard if I make it clear, here at the outset, that my idea is equally applicable whatever one’s view of marriage is. It is also not limited to one political view or another in our very polarized environment.

Assume with me that there are two constellations of belief in our Christian faith. For the purposes of shorthand, let us call these “soft Christianity” and “hard Christianity.”[1]

Soft Christianity organizes itself around claims related to the doctrine of creation. We are part of the natural order, we are made for community, and summoned to a virtuous life therein. Hard Christianity’s focus is on claims related directly to our salvation. We creatures are distorted and lost, both in ourselves and collectively (what the New Testament calls “the powers and principalities”). We are recipients of Christ’s atoning work in the cross by nothing we have done, but by free grace. We look forward to the coming of the Kingdom of God and the last things.

These two constellations are inextricably intertwined. This is not a matter of making a counter-claim that “hard Christianity is good and soft Christianity is bad.” And of course, one might dispute applying the labels “soft” and “hard” to them in this way. After all, isn’t my eventual death as a creature hard? And news of my Savior’s dying love for me, is that not a sweet sound? These retorts are fair enough, but on we go.

When our contemporary church makes its case, to the extent that it does, it reaches for the first cycle of themes, soft Christianity, in a way that appeals to our creaturely goodness. Creation is beautiful and fragile, to be cared for. Society calls for truth-telling and reform. We need a more caring and accessible ethic. Now to be sure, each affirmation assumes something wrong with how things now are, but each also has a strong emphasis on our ability to improve things, and the imperative that we rise up and do so. So the apologetic of our church tends to be this: come be part of this appreciative and morally sensitive community, replete with pageantry.

The second cycle, hard Christianity, seems to many harsh, negative, perhaps outdated. I remember a parishioner who once objected to the Prayer of Humble Access this way: “all week I hear how worthless I am, so I don’t need to come to church and have it reinforced.”  But, in fact, soft Christianity, on its own, lacks the explanatory power to make sense of this tragic and broken world, especially in a time that seems to many “out of joint” like our own.

The reality of addiction requires the doctrine of sin to be comprehensible (it in fact is derived from that concept). The insidious power of technology around us, within us, requires something like the concept of the “powers and principalities” to make sense of our feeling of lost agency.  In an era short on transcendence, the word about the last things is for many strongly evocative: just look at lists of new movies!

Finally, the scandal of the death of Jesus comes sharply into focus in certain historical moments (though of course it is always true). In the wreckage of the world wars hard Christianity was rediscovered by theologians in Europe, and imported here, at least for a time. Jürgen Moltmann, beginning with his time in an internment camp after the Second World War, brought into contact the doctrine of the vicarious sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross and the question of liberation. Why is his Crucified God not being rediscovered instead of the self-involved bromides of the writer like Richard Rohr? Likewise the voices of critique and liberation in South America, for example those of Gustavo Gutiérrez on the Catholic side or Orlando Costas among the Protestants, spoke from a base in the doctrines of hard apologetics which were their inheritance. Why not read them once more, theologically as well as politically?

Of course one should not chart a theological course, even an apologetic one, in pursuit of some goal like church growth or cultural approval. First of all, it won’t work. Why churches grow is more complicated than that. Secondly, as to motive, one plumbs a doctrine because it is compelling and true, not for some ulterior motive.

The themes of hard apologetics are probably not plausible to many anymore. But we should at least call into question the assumption that sticking to soft apologetics will necessarily be more appealing to potential newcomers, especially the younger generation. No such generalization can be broadly substantiated. Maybe the real issue is as simple as the fact that we Americans always list toward the pragmatic, though joining a church is not in most cases a pragmatic thing to do anymore.

Just the same, there is a potential confluence ready at hand. The fraught era we live in, the explanatory power of the themes of hard apologetic, and our prayer book tradition: together they sound a chord. The last has a great deal to say about sin, atonement, and the last things. Many wider theological movements started with smaller groups and their out-of-step interests. That is part of the calling of a group like Covenant, to help to incubate those doctrinal themes which need perennially to be rediscovered, and then planted more widely.


[1] A generation ago, the commentator Michael Barone wrote a book called Hard America, Soft America, in which he contrasted the ways in which the young were alternately coddle and brutalized in our educational and work settings. (Mostly I am lifting the rhetorical turn).

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