HOUSTON The university campus has long been the intellectual caldron in which students stew over the “big” questions, roil in their doubts and bubble over with newfound convictions—or at least it should be. Political correctness, trigger warnings and flagrant attempts to stifle ideological foes threaten to douse the fires of inquiry that lead to the truth, particularly the truth of the gospel. But an upstart Christian apologetics program at Houston Baptist University has kindled an enthusiastic response from students and scholars alike.
Launched part-time in the spring semester of 2013, HBU’s Master of Arts in Apologetics boasts a robust (and growing) academic program on campus and launched a full-time online presence in 2014. Students can take the philosophical or cultural track of the interdisciplinary program taught by a coterie of the top Christian apologists in the nation. Sharp minds instruct students not to win arguments but to engage in civil, confident dialogue for the sake of the gospel.
“Apologetics lays the groundwork that makes a serious consideration of the Christian claim possible,” Holly Ordway, professor and director of the MAA program, stated in an email interview.
Ordway speaks from experience. Formerly an atheist, she could not seriously consider the notion of God much less the precepts of the Christian faith. But “rational apologetics,” along with the writings of C.S. Lewis, put a crack in the wall of her secularist defenses.
“Rational apologetics is very important because it helps remove obstacles to belief—if someone genuinely believes that what we call God is a big man in the sky, then of course the Christian faith will seem ridiculous,” she said. “Rational apologetics also helps to show that our faith is reasonable, that we don’t ‘check our brains at the door.’”
Ordway’s colleague and fellow former atheist Mary Jo Sharp explained that philosophical and cultural apologetics provide an inroad for sharing the gospel within a society that is increasingly offended by the truth of Christianity.
Quoting from Augustine’s Confessions, Sharp said, “’They love truth for the light it sheds but hate it when it shows them up as being wrong.’”
Part of the problem lies in society’s separation of the secular and the sacred, as people compartmentalize their lives and relegate religion to the “no facts to be found here” category. This separation is evident even in the church, where believers all too readily accept secular notions of what is true.
“The truth of Jesus Christ relates to all of life,” Sharp said. “It doesn’t matter where you are. You can’t separate the sacred and the secular.”
HBU president Robert Sloan agrees. A polarized society where people dig their heels into the ground they claim as truth and refuse to hear another perspective, Sloan said, creates a problem for the Christian witness.
Some Christians are not open to apologetics, often associating it with arguing. Not long ago a woman asked to pray with Sharp following a speaking engagement and went on to beseech God to undermine her ministry because “it teaches people to argue.”
Sloan contends that every Christian must give an answer for his faith. That is the basic tenet of apologetics, which is derived from the Greek apologia, which means “to defend.”
“If apologetics is approached as simply argument to score points—and unfortunately it often is—then frankly it’s not very useful for communicating the gospel,” Ordway said. “That’s one of the premises behind our program: that it’s not enough to know things about God; we want our students to know God and to be able to draw others to him through personal witness, rational argument and imaginative engagement.”
The interdisciplinary nature of HBU’s cultural apologetics program teaches students to recognize and then communicate God’s truths that can be found in philosophy, the arts and literature. Speaking God’s word is always effective, but the manner in which it is conveyed is key to gaining the opportunity to speak in the first place.
Enrollment in the program has swelled from 10 to 50 in just a year and a half. These students represent recent college graduates, pastors, lay leaders and one surprising subset: mothers.
Both Sloan and Sharp said that mothers are concerned about the ideas their children bring home. Many moms feel ill-equipped to prepare their children to hold their own in matters of faith.
“It has been thrust upon us,” Sloan said. “There is more vocal challenge to the Christian faith.”
The students and faculty represent the breadth of Christendom, with roots in Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and non-denominational evangelical churches. All of them, Ordway said, share “a commitment to Christ, a passion for sharing the gospel, and a desire to love God with their minds as well as their hearts.”
In addition to full-time faculty—an amalgamation of authors, bloggers, philosophers, ministry directors, male and female—visiting scholars include names like William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Nancy Pearcey and HBU Provost John Mark Reynolds.
Still in its fledgling stages, the HBU apologetics program is just beginning to teach and train its students to use cultural apologetics as a means to an end—the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the interim, Sharp recognizes the work to be done.
“I’m not seeing bold Christian witness—people who are naturally living their faith in public,” she said.
But Ordway is seeing students gain confidence in her classes.
“The more frequent ‘aha!’ moment has actually been as students realize how they can use what they’re learning to transform the culture rather than fleeing from it—that they are becoming equipped to use literature and the arts to convey the truths of the faith; that they can articulate why science and faith are not at odds; that they can engage in constructive dialogue and creative work.”
The professors and Sloan see the program only growing and being duplicated on other campuses. The reason, Sloan said, is obvious.
“I believe [apologetics] is increasingly effective because it is increasingly necessary.”