Most of us fear difference. But I’m drawn to difference. This isn’t because I’m better than others. I believe it’s psychological: partly genetic and partly because of my childhood experiences. You see, I was the oldest of eight children in a low-income home. For many years growing up, my siblings’ dietary schedule revolved not around a traditional three meals per day. Instead, our caloric intake ebbed and flowed around Friday, my dad’s payday. He’d bring home a couple big pizzas for us to devour like locusts at the end of the work week. That would be a quick business for us. The rest of the week, we’d try to make his Saturday grocery shopping last until the next pizza party. Wednesdays were often little more than refried beans with ketchup, mayonnaise toast, or peanut butter spoons. One Thursday, my brother swept up pancake mix that had collected on the bottom of the pantry and made a few little flapjacks for us all to share.
In any case, before heading out to the grocery store, my pop would often take requests. Some asked for lemonade, deli sandwiches, and potato chips. I would ask for brussel sprouts, grapefruit juice, liver, and smoked oysters. Why? Because none of my siblings would touch them. I could let a can of oysters, for instance, sit unprotected in the pantry all week. Come Thursday, I then could have the protein all to myself.
After a few years, however, I developed more than just a tolerance for strong flavors. Through conditioning, exotic, spicy, strange, and daring flavors became an obsession for me. Today, there is no food I won’t try at least once (except for whale and monkey for ethical reasons), so long as somebody on this planet has determined you can eat it without puking or dropping dead.
All this affected my academic life. As much as I’m committed to my own tradition, I’m also insatiable when it comes to exploring new and different ideas, philosophies, and religions. I love going deep into conversations with those who share entirely different beliefs. I love it because it adds flavor to my life. As with food, by being willing to explore difference, I’ve been enriched. I may not change my views after a conversation—though it has been known to happen—but I do learn to love, listen, and understand. And this has led to positive benefits in my life together with others. Moreover, genuine conversation has been the only way in which I’ve ever seen someone move from unbelief to belief in Christianity. I never bring a “hard sell.” I don’t, after all, sell anything. I merely point to a beacon of light, using the intellectual tools at my disposal to discern where the light’s coming from. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone and ask, “Doesn’t that look like a beacon of light?” Then we casually debate our interpretations of the matter.
Why do many Christians dislike apologetics? Because difference makes sectarians and xenophobic people gag. A sect, according to my dean Steve Mueller’s glossary, in Called to Believe (Wipf & Stock, 2006), is:
... a group that has separated from some other group, and generally refers to a fringe group of Christianity which has split from a denomination. Sectarianism is overzealous commitment to this sect and extreme isolation from the rest of the group, coupled with a refusal to acknowledge true elements of the other group.
This refusal to see the truth in others is as tragically common as it is sociologically predictable. Sometimes, there are good motives at work. Folks want to remain pure in faith, so they try to avoid being contaminated by falsehood. Nonetheless, such a position clearly hinders a Christian’s ability to engage outsiders. Those infected with xenophobia, a fear of people from different backgrounds, exhibit entirely natural but equally problematic behaviors toward others.
Xenophobes don’t sincerely converse with outsiders because they fear those outsiders might become insiders and contaminate the in-group.
With apologetics, if I put all my energy into defining, maintaining, and defending ideological boundaries, I’ll be ineffective at introducing people to Christ’s alternative kingdom. Likewise, if my sect fears and, through subtle social cues, excludes those from different backgrounds, then any lip service we pay to apologetics and evangelism will be undermined by our lack of hospitality.
Good apologetics requires the Christian to truly understand their conversation partner’s perspective, and this can be a psychologically uncomfortable experience. Xenophobic sectarians, therefore, would rather focus on preaching to the choir than let the unwashed heathen into the party. In addition to intellectual inbreeding, this can lead to the paradoxical disintegration of the movement at hand: Christianity.
Christianity must walk a tightrope between what Jürgen Moltmann described (The Crucified God, p. 7) as the double crisis of relevance and identity. Here’s how I apply that problem to apologetics today. If a church is perfect in its ability to maintain its identity—through avoidance of outsiders—it paradoxically loses its identity as the people of God who proclaim the Good News to outsiders. This is where fundamentalists often err. Likewise, if a church focuses entirely on being relevant, it will simply figure out which way the wind is blowing and follow trends. It will thus lose its prophetic voice, even when it thinks it’s being trendy and prophetic. This is where liberals often falter.
Addiction to identity collapses in on itself and causes a church to lose itself, while addiction to relevance makes a church comically irrelevant. What’s the antidote: faithfulness to the Jesus who hung out with outsiders, and brought them close to the source of life, and faithfulness to the Jesus who didn’t shrink back when a prostitute drew intimately near, washing his feet with her hair and tears. With such faithfulness, the true Christian boldly ventures into the land of difference, and—by the grace of God—makes a real difference in this mad but redeemable world.