The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era
Edited by Matthew Nelson.
Word on Fire Institute, 2022.
Paperback, 288 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Scott D. Moringiello

I regularly teach “Introduction to Catholicism” at DePaul University. Of the 40 students in the class, 15 are part of families that have come to the United States from Mexico. Five have families that have come to the United States from Poland. Another 5-10 are third generation Irish- or Italian-American. There is always a smattering of students whose families originally hail from South Asia or East Asia. Most of the students, therefore, have some familiarity with Catholicism, even if it is only in the broadest of outlines. Indeed, many tell me on the first day of the term that they chose the class because they figured they knew so much about Catholicism because their grandmothers were Catholic and they had gone to Catholic school.

My guess is that you already know the punchline. Perhaps the students can recite some vague generalities about the Trinity or Mary. But the idea that Christianity might be a way of life that makes claims about the truth of the world is completely foreign to them. They think Christianity is somehow about going to heaven when you die, but no one ever told them (it seems) that Christianity is about loving the ones you see so that you can participate in the Kingdom now and after death. 

In other words, we have failed the current generation by depriving it of the truth of the Gospel. 

There are many reasons for this ignorance. Chief among them, I would argue, is that my students have not encountered enough people who could offer a credible account of how and why their hearts were on fire with the love of God. The students certainly know Christians, but they do not see Christianity as applicable to their own lives. They do not have mentors who have answered questions they have had about the faith. They have not had mentors whose lives they want to emulate.

If you have encountered such people—or if you have questions about Christianity yourself—Matthew Nolan’s edited volume The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era is a helpful reference. The book contains 41 essays divided into four parts: New Audiences, New Approaches, New Models, and New Issues. New Issues is further divided into Science and Faith, Psychology and Anthropology, Theology and Philosophy, and Atheism and Culture. All the essays are brief. I took each to be the starting point in a discussion with an interlocutor concerning specific questions about the faith.

A review of this size cannot address all the essays in the volume. I would like to discuss the essays by Stephen Barr on scientific materialism, John Allen on affirmative orthodoxy, Grant Kaplan on René Girard, and Jennifer Frey on happiness. I chose these four because they represent a progression I see in my own students when I present Catholicism to them. 

We should note at the outset that most “non-believers” do not spend their time thinking about God. The question of God is not an issue of rejection but indifference. One of the biggest reasons for this indifference, I have found, is that people believe that “science” has solved or will eventually solve human problems. “Science” here is left deliberately vague. But we have structured our lives around the idea that physics, biology, chemistry, and even economics constantly offer better and newer solutions.

Stephen Barr argues that the best way to counter scientific materialism is to note its three major claims: (1) “religion” and “science” have historically been at war; (2) “religion” and “science” have fundamentally opposed outlooks; and (3) scientific progress since Copernicus has only deepened the rift between the “scientific” and the “religious” worldview. In a short space, Barr dismantles each of the arguments. 

To counter scientific materialism is to begin to open oneself up to a deeper understanding of truth. But to say “science doesn’t answer all our questions” is not to say anything about Christianity. I have found that most people know only caricatures of the Church and its history and they know next to nothing about the Jesus of the Scriptures. 

This is why John Allen’s discussion of “affirmative orthodoxy” is so important. Allen defines “the heart of affirmative orthodoxy” as the goal of “plac[ing] the focus not on that to which the Church says no, but rather on the much deeper and more satisfying yes to full human flourishing that underlies those specific nos.” Affirmative orthodoxy, and this is key, “begins with the premise that if someone sees the beauty and passion of Christian living, only then will the rules of the game, so to speak, makes sense.” Allen hails Benedict XVI’s masterful encyclical Deus Caritas Est as a beacon of affirmative orthodoxy. As a professor who ends his Introduction to Catholicism class with that text, I can affirm that Benedict offers an attractive vision of Catholicism to the students. 

Once Christianity becomes intellectually compelling, people need to recognize witnesses who live it out. Grant Kaplan’s essay on René Girard offers an important companion to Allen’s article. Kaplan rightly focuses on Girard’s discussion of violence, but I think his discussion of mimesis is even more appropriate for today. My students know all too well the desire to copy their friends and the various celebrities they find appealing. Kaplan reminds us that Girard believes Christianity “shows a path to channel mimetic desire in ways that allow for pacific, rather than escalatory, mimesis.” In other words, Christianity offers people a true community in which they can flourish by becoming more like those around them whose goal is to become like Christ.

Too often we all see the Church as an organization that provides rules for people so they can get to heaven. This is an impoverished view of human life and human community. Jennifer Frey reminds us that the Church teaches “that the point and purpose of human life generally … is perfect happiness, understood as complete human fulfillment.” After showing how unfulfilling our society’s view of happiness is, Frey argues for the importance of the virtues in securing a unified vision of “meaning, morality, and happiness.” Once again, I have discovered that my students crave exactly this unified vision. They just have never had anyone present it to them this way.

These four essays can make a core argument in the volume, but many of the articles are useful for when a friend asks a question about the faith that you have not considered for a while. In this way, I found the essays in the “Science and Faith” and the “Philosophy and Theology” sections quite helpful. For example, Robert Koons leads the reader through a discussion of quantum mechanics, Joseph Lunine explains cosmology and creation, Turner Nevitt discusses the immortal soul, and David Baird imagines the resurrected body. 

Overall, Nelson has done an excellent job bringing together the contributors for the volume. All of them have done important work on apologetics. One hopes that by reading their short essays here, the reader will want to read more by each of them. Nelson also includes a welcome “further reading” section.

I would not give the New Apologetics to a friend with questions about Catholicism. I would give the New Apologetics to a friend who was answering another friend’s questions about Catholicism. For as we all know—and as the contributors would surely agree—apologetics is done person to person. As helpful as the words on these pages are, the word must always become flesh.

Scott D. Moringiello, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Catholic Studies Department of DePaul University.

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