My exposure to apologetics began in the late 1980s when I was still in high school. That first wave came by way of Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, and Norman Geisler and focused on many of the occupations of Christian fundamentalism including the defense of a six-thousand-year-old earth and a global flood. On the latter point, I remember, for example, memorizing a list of factoids defending the claim that Noah’s ark was hidden in a glacier atop Mt. Ararat. (For a brief discussion of that ignominious chapter, see my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?).
By the mid-90s, my reading had shifted to scholars like William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, and as a result, my focus in terms of arguments had moved onto topics like the cosmological argument, historical resurrection, and the critique of naturalism.
But while my first decade of reading in apologetics saw a lot of change, one thing remained consistent: I always assumed that the ability to debate or argue is the summum bonum of apologetic skill. And so, I devoted most of my time to constructing arguments and anticipating rebuttals which I could then dispatch with power and efficiency.
I still think that the ability to debate is important for apologetics. But I now believe that it is superseded by another skill: the ability to listen. By listening, I mean not simply auditory recall, but the ability to be present when others share their views and to enter into the views they share in an attempt to understand them from the inside.
To begin with, listening leads to understanding. Too often, the consummate debater misses nuances in her interlocutor’s views because she has not taken the time truly to understand them. As a result, she instead ends up directing a battery of arguments at a position which may be some distance from her interlocutor’s actual views.
Shadow boxing with an imagined opponent is not simply a matter of time wasted: more fundamentally, it undermines trust that you have an open mind and are willing and able truly to listen to others. By contrast, carefully listening builds that trust by conveying the message (presumably a true message) that you are interested not simply in winning an argument but in coming to a deeper understanding of your interlocutor.
Finally, listening to another and establishing a bond of trust with them provide an excellent basis for you to share your views in kind. Ideally, the interlocutor will echo your behavior by lowering the rhetorical ramparts and seeking instead to understand your views as well.
In my experience, this dynamic of genuine listening and mutual sharing is far more productive of understanding and persuasion than the deft execution of a list of arguments. And so, while I continue to value the importance of careful reasoning (indeed, hopefully I’ve exemplified that virtue in this article), I nonetheless believe the best apologetics begins with listening.