What is moral apologetics and how does it impact the average person?
When I say moral apologetics, I’m referring to various versions of the moral argument. It’s doing apologetics—a rational defense of the faith—using the resources of ethics and moral truth. Of course the phrase “moral apologetics” can also simply be used to express the idea of doing apologetics in a moral way—respectfully, politely, kindly—and I think that’s a good idea too. Particularly if one wants to offer a moral argument for God’s existence, it ought to be done morally. Otherwise it’s like cheating on an ethics test—which would be more than a little ironic.
Moral considerations in favor of theism generally or Christianity particularly come in lots of forms. Formal arguments are just one way; but other ways include casual conversations, a sense of conviction over sin, the need for forgiveness, recognition of the dignity and value and equality of people, the primacy of love. I’d hazard to guess that the sorts of considerations central to most people coming to faith are moral ones. C. S. Lewis gave a version of the moral argument in Book I of Mere Christianity, in which he said that the existence of an objective moral standard and the way we all invariably fall short of it are the two most central concepts in coming to understand the universe. By the way he also first gave that chapter as a radio address in England during World War II—you don’t get much more practical than that. Lewis also wrote that until we recognize that we’ve fallen short of the moral law, we have little sense of any need for forgiveness and salvation, so the considerations of morality can function well not just to point people to God, but to the need for the gospel. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, when asked, has said that the moral argument is likely the best argument on offer from natural theology. Christian apologist William Lane Craig, when asked, has admitted that when he has debates on various college campuses, the moral argument tends to be the most effective one.
So when we actually give a moral argument for God or Christianity, the basic idea is that we start with foundational moral realities of which most all of us are readily aware, and then we try to make the case that theism can explain these realities better than can the alternatives—like atheism or various secular efforts.
The average person likely doesn’t think about the argument in its formal versions very much, but there’s something deeply intuitive about recognizing moral truth when we see it and allowing it to point us beyond ourselves—and perhaps even all the way to God. There’s something about axiomatic moral truths that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the human condition. Where did these moral standards come from? It’s not just a matter of what a society happens to dub morality, because societies can be wrong, just as individuals are. There’s an objective standard out there; what does that say about the world we live in? Moral apologists tend to think it says quite a bit.
What’s the history of moral apologetics?
The history of the moral argument is rich indeed. The first really big name associated with the moral argument is Immanuel Kant, who gave a few different versions of it. Before him, you can find precursors of the moral argument or aspects of it in numerous thinkers—from Plato to Aquinas, Descartes to Reid, Pascal to Locke, Pascal to Berkeley. It was Kant, though, who put it together in a systematic way. He saw the reality of the moral law, its authority, our inability to meet the law on our own resources alone, the need for an account of the full rationality of morality. Since him, in the English speaking world, nearly every luminary in the field of moral apologetics has had something to say about Kant. Agree or disagree, we can’t responsibly ignore him. In the 1800s and into the early 1900 several dozen major European thinkers devoted considerable thought to the evidential force of morality where God’s concerned. John Henry Newman is an example, a famous evangelical-turned-Anglican-turned-Catholic. A big aspect of his moral argument is the role of conscience as a faculty that puts us in touch with the deliverances of the moral law. Other major thinkers subsequent to Newman were A. E. Taylor, William Sorley, Hastings Rashdall, and lots of others. A number of these gave whole Gifford lectures and wrote whole books on the topic. Of course in the mid-1900s Lewis popularized the argument in Mere Christianity, and since then, in the United States, there’s been a veritable explosion of interest in the moral argument in which a number of top-notch philosophers have devoted to it their considerable analytic skills. Jerry Walls and I are putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling this fertile history.
What’s the nature of your work in moral apologetics?
When I was in graduate school I decided to write my dissertation on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which arose in an early Socratic dialogue: Is something moral because God commands it, or vice versa. (At least that’s a common contemporary version.) It struck me as interesting because it related to this matter of God and ethics and whether there’s a connection between them. It’s thought by many to pose an intractable objection to theistic ethics. I didn’t agree, but wanted to figure out what I thought about it. After doing that work it freed me up to extend the argument all the way to the moral argument. If we can defend a strong account of the dependence of morality on God, while effectively critiquing secular ethics and basing the whole thing on moral truths that most everyone agrees on, we have the ingredients for an effective moral apologetic.
So in my work I tend to focus on moral facts like objective moral values and duties, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality, and argues that these realities are better explained by theism than by atheism. It’s interesting and important work, endlessly fascinating to me. Take moral duties, for example. What is it about the world that can account for their existence—these binding, prescriptive, authoritative moral duties that impose obligations on us irrespective of whether we want them to or not, or whether we have any intention of obeying them or not. What does their existence say about the nature of reality? Or take the essential dignity and value of people. What accounts for such a thing? What does such a moral fact have to teach us about the nature of ultimate reality? In books like Good God, God and Cosmos, and The Morals of the Story, those are the kinds of issues we spend time exploring.
Why have you developed an interest in writing about Mr. Rogers?
That might seem a bit odd, right? But I actually see it as integrally related to moral apologetics. I grew up watching him, of course, like most of us did, and always loved the guy. But the recent documentary got me more interested in finding out about his life. There was much I didn’t know—that he was an ordained minister, personal friends with Henri Nouwen, a graduate of seminary, someone with a vibrant spiritual life. The documentary does a remarkably good job talking about his life and ministry—and he really did see his television work as ministry, though nothing ever heavy handed. Watching his story is deeply moving; most leave the theater in tears. I’ve seen the documentary three times already and it deeply touches me every time. Bullied as a kid, he went on a lifelong quest to see the good in others, even if it was hard to see. He was a wonderful man, and as I thought about it I realized that in his quiet, gentle, loving way he was embodying the sorts of principles I talk about when I do moral apologetics. He didn’t give an argument, or paint people into corners, but he lived its truths, and in the process demonstrated their power. St. Francis said, "Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words." We as evangelicals can underestimate the power of a life lived well to communicate important truths and inculcate in others a hunger to know God. Mr. Rogers did this, day in and day out; he was a prayer warrior, someone who took spiritual formation seriously, someone who saw his work in television as a calling and ministry. He saw himself on a mission to protect kids and their innocence, to let them know they’re loved, that they’re special and unique. He saw the absolute primacy of love. His whole life was a moral apologetic.
What are some of the ways Mr. Rogers connects with your work on the moral argument?
He took seriously the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. It wasn’t a coincidence his show was “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He saw that love of God is inextricably tied to love of neighbor. He aimed to be a helper, someone who made the world better in big ways and small, a repairer of creation. He took friendship seriously, investing his time and money and energy in cultivating them with great care. He challenged us all to make goodness attractive—nothing Pollyannaish, but real, actual goodness—and he modeled what doing that looks like. Believers and unbelievers alike look at his life and can see there was something special about him; they can see the love of Christ within him. He didn’t just talk about the primacy of love; he showed us what making love the priority actually looks like.
Part of what drew me to him was that, though he was all about the same principles we talk about in moral apologetics—taking our responsibilities seriously, protecting the innocent, preserving human dignity, making people feel loved, loving your neighbor—he did it in a way that wasn’t heavy handed or off putting, but eminently attractive. Having done a lot of thinking about the theology and theory behind all of this, I’m deeply inspired to see it play out in flesh and blood in a life like his. So I’m aiming to get a trade press contract to write a book about him—particularly about the influences on him like Henri Nouwen, like the child development expert he studied with, Margaret McFarland, and his favorite seminary professor, William Orr.
How do you teach your students to view pop culture through the lens of moral apologetics and why is this important?
Truth can be found in all sorts of places. We just need to cultivate the eyes to see it. I consider it providential that after grad school I was able to get involved with my friend Bill Irwin’s series on philosophy and popular culture. It was a brilliant idea to use the medium of popular culture to talk about important issues in philosophy that arise in fun and unexpected ways in our music and movies and television shows, and its staying power demonstrates what a smart idea it is. In a sense we can do the same with apologetics, including moral apologetics, and see all around us all sorts of important truths that point us to God. My wife just wrote a piece on the television show “The Man in the High Castle.” There’s nothing specifically Christian about the show, which is an adaption of a novel by Philip K. Dick, but implicitly in the story is a strong moral lesson that we need a moral anchor that mere people or even whole societies alone can’t provide, moral truths that go beyond political power or mere expediency. Whether it’s “The Man in the High Castle,” Harry Potter, or Mr. Rogers, apologists can tap into pop culture in all sorts of ways to build bridges and generate important conversations.