“The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context” by Myron B. Penner

Professional scientists may complain about science popularizers and all the inaccuracies, oversimplifications, or even just outright falsehoods that are published to the credulous masses, but I think this all just underscores how important are the jobs of so-called “middle management” whose jobs it is to help the common culture gain at least some connection to the work of the brightest minds (the ‘geniuses’) Those who recognize (too often with considerable arrogance thrown in) their own status among the brightest may often despise “the man on the street”, but these geniuses show the limited, highly selective nature of their genius if they do so, because that common person is, after all, a participant in society, a voter, a consumer, a parent, a decision-maker about many things like vaccines, etc. And for any of the brightest to think they can carry on their research independently of the rest of the working world would be like thinking you can have a knife edge without any other supporting substance behind that edge. It simply wouldn’t exist. Geniuses don’t even get to be geniuses without patient childhood and adolescent teachers. And nor would they live in a world where there work could mean anything to anyone (much less find application) without something of an educational “middle class” that can grasp their work enough to appreciate or even begin to apply it.

And that “middle class” is in large part created through the publishings of the “Billy Grahams” of the intellectual world - the ones who can be something of a go-between, helping the common person make connections to the more challenging concepts. Thank God for good science writers and popularizers. I doubt science would exist at all today without people like them.

Sorry that this didn’t have much to do with Penner - but I’ll bet there is a parallel to all this in the world of piety and seminary as well.

I hope to do more “chapter 6” discussion - maybe from the epilogue. Like you, @Kendel, I’m not done; even though work currently prevents me from being able to take much time here right now.


Okay I’ll also shout out one more quote, literally the last sentences of the last chapter in the book.

The temptation for the Christian is to allow the fact that reason comes to us through others and is confirmed by them to somehow act as a substitute for hearing from God, to reduce faith to the staid reasons of an interpretive community. Instead, I want to linger in that liminal space William Lane Craig identifies (and then immediately feels the need to escape from) as the impulse to cling to Christ even if reason turns against you. Ultimately, what I find decisive for the Christian witness is not what is reasonable, what the crowd tells one to believe or to say, but the voice of God—*a wisdom whose secret is foolishness” and a “hope whose form is madness."" When this is forgotten, suppressed, or denied and God’s existence (along with the rest of faith’s affirmations) is made out to rest confidently on the processes of human reason, we should look for the specter of Judas lurking somewhere nearby

I’ve long said I think what gives rise to and supports God belief still is real, important and dynamic. I find placing that in a liminal space entirely preferable to a supernatural one.

Regarding “liminal” google says:

  1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.

  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

But I can see where supernatural can be thought to mean essentially the same thing at least as google defines as:

  1. (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.

“a supernatural being” adjective

Perhaps they nearly are synonymous but I do prefer the epistemic humility in identifying it from within our subjective experience, as “liminal” does, rather than the speculative category of the “supernatural” which is assumed to have no footing in our world whatsoever. The part of “liminal” said to “occupy a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold” is significant. Otherwise what exactly is the metaphysical status of the Holy Spirit and how are we who inhabit the physical world ever to come into contact with it? I understand that theology goes on to elaborate more specificity than the liminal can likely support. But anyone who can hold on to their faith fully understanding that some of how they in faith is that. The only thing lost is the cocky swagger of the traditional apologist. Good riddance.

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Mark, I will respectfully and subjectively disagree in faith as well as in good faith.

While I understand your experiences that you’ve described are real, important and dynamic, as we have discussed, they are different from mine and other Christians’ as well as other theists of different types. Just as your experiences defy complete explanation or description, so do ours.

Actually, many of the Christians I’ve met around here have demonstrate a genuine humility regarding our subjective experiences that we understand to be supernaturally grounded. Since we’ve neither see nor handled Jesus, we recognize that we are operating on faith, which is openly recognized as not sight. I am not familiar with any attempt to explain the mechanics of the operation of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and recognize that that is taken on faith as well, but that in faith we believe we have evidence of his work.

I understand that there are other types of experiences one might deem as spiritual but not supernatural, which also defy mechanical or physical or a clear psychological explanation. Not everything we experience can be explained. I am used to living with that.

Christians understand our theological statements to be our best attempts to summarize in some organized fashion, the most important teachings from our Scriptures regarding God, the relationship between God and humans, and how we ought to live our lives. We are also all too aware that that is fairly limited in comparison to the questions that remain.

We recognize that our attempts go summarize what is available to us are flawed, because there are so many variations. While it’s easy to simply rest in one tradition and go with that, it ignores an awful lot. However, if sticking in one tradition allows a Christian to live a genuinely good and purposeful life, then I think that’s adequate. Not everyone is plagued with the same questions and needs.

If I understand you right, you are saying that Christians must recognize that we are operating on faith, and that’s it.

I am unaware of anyone who would deny this. But maybe I haven’t asked them the right questions. Or I’m making assumptions. The revelation that I have to work with is explicit about the absolute necessity for faith. I am not aware of any other biblical teaching on the matter. I believe that’s what Penner was getting at invoking Judas.


And not all Christians’ experiences are subjective. They can be personal, but still very objective. Who first comes to mind is Phil Yancey (and not Maggie ; - ). There is no humility at all in an a priori denial of the existence of the supernatural, especially for a subjective reason.

Fair enough. But is it the reasonableness of my preference for liminal over supernatural over which you disagree? If so is it because you think both are required?

My hunch is that we both think liminal applies but you go further to take that as personally grounding belief in the historical events central to Christian belief which must certainly be supernatural if true. I don’t disparage that but without the prior inclination to link what is liminal to the historical and supernatural it simply doesn’t connect for me. I’m not questioning it’s doing so for you. What I’m really saying is I find meaning in what remains outside our rational grasp even without the biblical back story.

I don’t think anyone else should be as content with what I believe as I am but that is just how it is. Certainty will remain out of our reach in either case. But admittedly your view comes with a rich tradition and community structure with a common cause (at least in principle). Those are real advantages and I’m happy for you. But I sense you’re questioning how the liminal disconnected from the backstory can possibly be at all like what believers experience.

Maggie was certain in her correctly justified true belief and it was well within her reach, and ours. That is not swagger but epistemic honesty, as opposed to its opposite.

(ETA: “correctly” above, directed to those who want to play Gettier. ; - )

The Christian nods knowingly (but hopefully without too much cocky swagger) and replies that God had an idea about how to do just this … cue all the theology of incarnation. The pilot program for the unveiling of that whole project was launched about two thousand years ago .

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That’s exactly my situation.

The impulse is hard to detect above flatline. It’s like I’m treading water, deaf in the still dark over the abyss, hopelessly yearning to Him out of reach. My favourite film of 2015 was All Is Lost. Are you yearning back Mate? Can you reach down?

We will all live and die not having the impulse reciprocated.

Well I didn’t have your experience of being all in before being all out. So I guess you have (had?) more to deal with and surely much disappointment. From the perspective you had there would be an expectation of something like reciprocation.

But when I believed it was based on no book learning and no theological instruction that I can recall. And by the time I could read we didn’t go to church anymore. Reason took over and booted out the beliefs I’d acquired somehow. But not before I’d acquired the habit of reflection and the expectation that insight and inspiration could come of quiet and patience. Happy to say I’ve never lost that.

So later I wondered, so where do those things come from if it isn’t You Know Who. That got me to wondering how we’re wired and that habit prevented my having the idea that all there is is me my thoughts and what I could learn. Much later, Not all that long ago really, started wondering if it was grounding that habit and helping it make sense which had given rise to God belief. Of course another possibility is that it really was an amazing being with enormous goodwill toward people who does it all. Either way life is better not feeling it all comes down to my own efforts, and gifts always have and probably always will be given whether by that One or something innate distributed amongst us all. I’m not a big fan of Occam’s Razor; but I’ve never known who/what it is and I mostly just don’t need to know.

Mark, I’m going to go back to Craig’s quote you brought in and start there.

I believe this quote refers back to page 22&23:

He [Craig] recounts how “frightened and troubled” he was when one of his theology professors remarked that he would renounce Christianity if he could be persuaded of its unreasonableness. This fear led to outright alarm as Craig discovered extremely intelligent students were leaving behind Christian faith in the name of reason. His encounter with Jesus Christ was so genuine and real, and his experience with Jesus had invested his life with such significance, that Craig simply could not throw it all away just because it was deemed irrational. “If my reason turned against Christ,” Craig told one professor, “I’d still believe.” [emphasis mine]

Which is referenced on page 90:

What is needed in our witness, if those we engage are to be edified, is a poetics that performs the essentially Christian in which there is no gap between the form of witness and its content. We do not need a philosophical argument that rationally justifies the objective content of Christian belief to show us it is edifying. Another irony, of course, in Craig’s testimony is his open acknowledgment that genuine Christianity was shown to him powerfully and convincingly, without arguments or evidence, through the lives of those who witnessed to him. [emphasis mine]

I am reading your comments about what is liminal through what I understand Penner’s use of the idea to be: the space between the form of witness and its content. Ultimately Penner says there should be none, but when he speaks of a gap, it is liminned by the impulse to cling to Christ.

I can understand that you would see that gap filled differently, but that belief and practice must be unified. (I’ve tried to faithfully characterize what I understand you to mean.)

What I understand from your further comments, though, and vigorously disagree with, is a general judgement against Christians’ understanding of our experience as rooted in things supernatural and a claim of superiority of yours. I’m not sure how else to read it, particularly these:

Thus my overly long-winded reply, attempting to demonstrate that Christian belief absolutely includes an understanding of what I think you mean by “epistemic humility.” In spite of our regular failures to live that humility, it’s part and parcel to the teaching. It is what we’ve signed up for.

Of course.

Or so Penner and you would say but I can’t see how it applies for me and don’t think it does. I don’t have what can be described as a practice.

I cannot imagine where you’re getting any claim of superiority on my part. I really don’t. Obviously my opinions and beliefs are what I hold but how is that a a denunciation of Christianity?

I know Christians who embody that humility. I do not think belief in anything supernatural lacks humility. I simply said.

Preferring something else is not a strong condemnation of those with other preferences. When I say

I am asserting that claims regarding what in reality accounts for our liminal experience are less epistemically modest and I think they are. That doesn’t mean I look down on those whose beliefs encompass them. I don’t. I have beliefs regarding what gives rise to that liminal experience which I prefer to account for in the natural world. I can’t adequately justify that either so I too live in a glass house. But I simply do not begin with any expectation that there anything at all for which the natural world is insufficient - whether or not we can ever demonstrate that to everyone’s satisfaction. I will always believe that shortchanges the natural world. But that doesn’t mean I think that holding such beliefs is crazy or deficient in any way. With Penner I think the justification for such beliefs is that they propel you into a greater truth which enhances meaning and fulfillment in life. But I don’t think Christian belief is the only such truth available and I do find satisfaction in the truth I’ve found. That’s where I am at with it. It isn’t intended as criticism and I’m sorry if you took it that way.

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Thanks for explaining, Mark. That helps.

Regarding practice, I mean that one tries to live according to what one claims to be right and true, being in the truth as Penner called it. I don’t specifically mean practices particular to religion.

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CHAPTER 6 – The One We Write
This is the continuing discussion of The End Of Apologetics for those of us who have a hard time leaving this book.

A bibliography of materials referenced in The End of Apologetics is now linked from the Resources Slide, and here.

Last edited: 9/2/2022

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Here is another candidate drawn from a list of recommended books that @jpm passed along a while back. (Jayber Crow was #1 on that list.) Here is the recommendation from that list:

James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010)

“The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians—and Christian conservatives most significantly—unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.”

I find the quote very suggestive of Penner’s thesis though I haven’t (and don’t intend to) read it myself.

Here is the link shared for anyone interested. There are some majorly great books on it.


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Very descriptive of so-called ‘Christian’ nationalism, which is substantially YEC.

Thanks for this recommendation, Mark. I read Hunter’s 1992 book Culture Wars (where the term comes from, I believe) about 5 years ago. The dear man, after laying out an incredibly (at times boring, and overly thorough) history of what in 1992 was barely recognized, he ended the book on a cautiously hopeful note. I haven’t read any of his many other books. This one, you mentioned Mark, sounds necessary. Thanks for pointing it out.

Well he seems to reach roughly similar conclusions but I suspect with much less nuance. Perhaps his approach would be more accessible for readers unable to take on Penner’s take on Kierkegaard?

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I’m sure it would be more accessible. At least “Culture Wars” was very accessible. His approach was completely different from Penner’s, working as a historian rather than a philosopher.

I just looked at the blurb on Amazon. This part really stood out to me, and probably to you as well:

What is really needed is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one that Hunter calls “faithful presence”–an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life. He offers real-life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through the practice of “faithful presence.” Such practices will be more fruitful, Hunter argues, more exemplary, and more deeply transfiguring than any more overtly ambitious attempts can ever be.

“Faithful presence.” To read that fleshed out in today’s context sounds very valuable indeed. Instead of fighting for worthless, impotent scraps of power that has become the focus of so much of the church in the U.S. today. It breaks my heart to think what valuable contribution to the wellbeing of people (thinking about the deep politics that Penner legitimizes, rather than disparages) that Christians could actually be making, if we as a fairly massive group, performed a living hermeneutic. But we don’t. And everybody knows it. And people get angry, because forceful apologists can’t win over people like “John, the self-identified Roman Catholic atheist” who sums it up well, “I don’t want to be like you.”

Sorry for another soap-box-moment. Thanks for the book suggestion. This sounds really good.

So many, many, many, many books…


Says the librarian ; - ), sounding somewhat familiar:

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Hey I enjoy your soap box moments. I like the way you express what you think. Plus I learn something more often than not. So thanks.