There are those of us who feel strongly enough about a given position that we spend large amounts of time defending it against intellectual objections. This is particularly the case in the Christian tradition, where objections to the Faith arise on a daily (almost hourly) basis. But one need not be a Christian to be called an “apologist”. There are Muslim apologists, apologists for the Democrat party and even big-tobacco apologists.
Having practiced Christian apologetics for over fifteen years, I’ve come to realize that there are (at least) four big things that make a good apologist. And should I ever be fortunate enough to stand in front of a Sunday School class with the task of teaching them how to be good apologists, I’ll lay out these four traits on day one.
1. A good apologist is in the right.
No matter how savvy you are with words, or how many books you’ve read, if you’re defending a position that is false, you’ll eventually lose. Usually, it will be to some uneducated individual like the boy in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” story — the one who shouted: “…but the king’s naked!”
This does mean, ultimately, that to be a good apologist (for any position at all) you must be a Christian, or at least, you must argue from a Christian perspective.
2. A good apologist is in control of his emotions
When I’m teaching my hypothetical Sunday School class, I will pound this home, over and over. In apologetic encounters, they’ll hear insulting rhetoric, experience arm-waving, chest-beating, and all sorts of deplorable statements and devices. This is because the people involved have let their passions cloud their judgement.
The good apologist never *ever* lets his opponent control his emotions. If he does, no matter how right he is, the discussion is lost and he may as well leave. A really good apologist knows how play on the emotions of the other person — to unbalance them and show them to be unhinged to the entire audience.
Remember: whatever rage is felt during an encounter, bottle it up. Release it onto a library! Funnel it all into research and meticulously deconstruct the opposition’s position. This fuels the fires of motivation that the apologist needs for the next step:
3. A good apologist does his homework!
Most apologetic encounters will be won or lost based on which side has done their homework. It’s easy to get into discussions (whether on the internet or at the workplace) and casually mention this or that controversial opinion, then defend it off-the-cuff. It’s a lot harder to defend that position against someone who has studied it thoroughly and is ready with a counter-argument.
Remember what Swayze says in “Roadhouse”:
“Someone that goes looking for trouble, usually aint a problem for someone who’s ready for it.”
Study! When someone makes a seemingly-simple statement, you should know something about the sophisticated accounts of the argument going on in academia, and the back’n'forth on the issue in the relevant community. You need to know where you stand.
For instance, when someone snidely asks: “if God created everything, then who created God”, the apologist should be able to bring to mind contemporary discussions of cosmological arguments, discussions about “cause” in the literature, and have a good idea of where he stands, as a Christian, in light of it all.
Sometimes this isn’t possible and the apologist has to respond on the fly. It’s always best, in that situation, to simply admit that you’re not prepared to deal with that particular objection or question. It’s far better for the apologist to admit that he simply doesn’t know something, than to try and bluff his way through a discussion to save face.
4. A good apologist can think on his feet.
This is the really hard part of being an apologist. Any Christian can be “right” about his beliefs. Anyone can train themselves to be masters of their emotions, and anyone can read, study and research, but what makes a truly good apologist, is being able to keep those things together in the heat of debate.
The greatest apologetic encounters occur when both apologists are equally in charge of their emotions, and have equally done their homework. Then, whoever comes out on top in that discussion (if either of them can), will be the one who can demonstrate that his position is the correct one, and this takes a certain finesse.
It’s not easy to take what has been learned, and tailor it to a particular debate encounter. It’s a skill that can be learned with practice, although some take to it naturally. In either case, the ability to defend one’s position from unexpected arguments as well as the ability to cleverly turn them back onto the opponent, is the mark of a really good apologist.