by Timothy J. Peck
The way some of my friends make sense of the big questions in life fascinates me. The method by which they process reality and make decisions about what is real and true often teaches me lessons of great value. Justin is one such friend.
A 30-something, highly educated non-Christian, Justin works as a professional in the entertainment industry. He began attending the church I pastor when he started dating a young woman who visits on occasion. As she introduced us, Justin described himself as being “on a spiritual journey,” and requested a meeting. I suggested my favorite coffeehouse, making plans to meet on a Thursday night.
I came to our meeting armed with an arsenal of arguments for the trustworthiness of the Bible, the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection, and classic arguments for the existence of a transcendent Creator. However, Justin was unimpressed. He told me that he did not know me well enough to talk about such personal matters. Instead of a stimulating intellectual debate, Justin appeared to want a relationship with someone who experienced God.
Justin is not alone. In fact, among people under 35 years of age, this story is becoming more and more common. Communication transcends the need for facts and arguments composed of words.
Four centuries before Christ, the Greek philosopher Aristotle discussed in his Rhetoric three components to the communication process. Aristotle divided communication into logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is the content, what apologists consider as the “guts” of the message. This is the inner coherence of arguments and counter arguments, the logical and sequential manner in which we seek to present the claims of Christ to unbelievers. Pathos is an appeal based on emotion. Often this takes the form of stories, metaphors, and illustrations that tug at the listener’s heart. The third element is ethos, which refers to the credibility and character of the communicator.
Apologists are accustomed to focusing on logos. An assumption is made that the logic of reasoning will be self-authenticating to any honest, clear-thinking listener. If a person rejects the case for Christ, it is either because the apologist has not accomplished the goal of communicating clearly or because the person lacks the capacity or willingness to think rationally. This assumption is largely a product of the Christian community’s response to the Enlightenment. As Reason (with a capital “R”) became the canon for all things true and real in the Western world, Christians clamored into the public square armed with facts, arguments, and evidences to persuade unbelievers in the Age of Reason.
Though some churches may have elevated pathos and equated demonstration of emotions with spirituality, the logos-focused approach to apologetics tended to neglect pathos and ethos. Perhaps a few stories and metaphors added a more human dimension to the presentation, but these elements were clearly window dressing. Moreover, regarding ethos, one’s credibility only stood in the way if he or she lacked the academic qualifications to address the topics at hand. Thus, apologists relied on academic achievements to bolster credibility in fields such as philosophy, science, and history. All of this worked quite well in an Enlightenment context.
However, as many diverse thinkers point out, civilization is entering a post-Enlightenment era of discourse in the Western world. Whether called “postmodernism,” “postfoundationalism,” “the dark ages,” or whatever, the fact remains that many people process reality differently today from the way they once did.
Today’s post-Enlightenment skeptic is likely to be distrustful of logos. The proliferation of diverse theories in most fields of study has led many people to suspect claims of “sure knowledge” of the way things truly are, as impossible. At the very least, people believe sure knowledge to be nearly unattainable. A list of facts and evidences sounds dogmatic and arrogant to post-Enlightenment ears and may have led to a church movement based on pathos—one that throws reason out the window.
What’s an apologist to do in such a time? I believe more interaction needs to stem from ethos, bringing it into balance with logos and pathos. Relationships need to be built with people before credibility becomes established enough to allow a presentation of content. Credibility emerges from a transparent, authentic relationship with an individual. Opening up my life by sharing my struggles, my pain, my joy, and my questions—and caring for his or hers—builds a credible base from which dialogue arises.
No longer can I conceive of apologetic resources as an arsenal of weaponry from which to shoot down arrows of skepticism and storm the gates of unbelief. Instead I will think of them as gracious gifts to share with friends. I must be brutally honest about my own doubts and questions, even when I cannot find a clear compelling answer to an objection or an explanation to a question.
Several years ago I heard a sermon by Joe Aldrich, the former president of Multnomah Bible College. In that sermon, Dr. Aldrich likened sharing the gospel to a song. The content of the gospel (logos) is like the lyrics of the song. Our lives (ethos) are like its music. More and more people today need to hear the music before they become willing to listen to the lyrics. The music is no longer an incidental add-on to enhance the lyrics (if it ever really was!).
I walked away from my meeting with Justin concluding that though he was thinking about spiritual matters, he simply was not yet ready to discuss the specific claims of Christ. However, upon reflection, I’ve realized that I was the one not ready to move beyond my exclusive reliance on logos. The question I need to answer is whether or not I’m ready to invest long-term in Justin’s life. He wants to hear the music, not just the lyrics.
Tim Peck, D.Min., is pastor of teaching at Life Bible Fellowship Church in Upland, California, and serves as an adjunct instructor of Christian Thought at Biola University.