Apologetics is loaded with opportunities to err. Like ice cream, the errors come in a bewildering assortment of flavors. Some are as mild as vanilla, others as shocking to the palate as chunky raspberry-lemon. You can commit vanilla errors endlessly and never be tripped up by them (and seemingly never trip up others), but a single chunky raspberry-lemon error can throw you off track, can throw your listeners into the ditch, and even can sink your career.
There never has been an apologist who hasn’t bungled. The tradition started early. Peter, visiting Antioch, must have been embarrassed when he realized he undercut his own principles when he removed himself from the table of the Gentiles. Surely he was doubly embarrassed when Paul upbraided him for throwing a stumbling block in front of new Christians (Gal. 2:11–14).
Notice what Peter did not do. He did not hide himself away but went on to spread the faith at the seat of the Empire. We should take a cue from this. He anticipated by nineteen centuries G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”—not that Peter evangelized badly, of course, but he no doubt wondered whether he was up to the task. He likely thought, at times, that he was doing evangelization badly.
I remember with vivid and acute embarrassment some of my own blunders. (A poor memory has preserved me from the pain of recalling a far longer catalogue of failures.) Some of the errors have been of fact; I simply didn’t know my stuff. Fortunately, this kind of blunder has become less common over the years, as I have increased my store of facts.
More of my blunders have been of facts misstated, the mind thinking one thing, the tongue speaking another. People who are not public speakers wonder how people with lots of experience in front of audiences can find themselves so tongue-twisted at times. It happens.
(The young radio announcer Harry van Zell once offered an on-air biography of the sitting president, Herbert Hoover. During the course of the broadcast he spoke the president’s name about twenty times but, at the very end, he pronounced it as “Hoobert Heever.” Van Zell thought it was the end of a promising career—he said he looked for a window to jump out of—but the blunder did him no harm in the long run.)
The blunders most regretted in my career as an apologist are not those of ignorance or of clumsy speech but of tone. What I said may have been true and may have been voiced without tongue-twisting, but it should not have been said at all, or it should have been said but came out harsh instead of gentle.
This sort of error—unsaintly speaking, we might call it—is a common failing among apologists. The vocation appeals to people who tend to be argumentative by nature. Someone without any argumentative bones in his body would make a poor apologist. He would find himself crushed whenever a weighty objection was thrown against him. An apologist needs to be able to see through weak syllogisms and misstatements of fact and and to be agile enough to not let those syllogisms and misstatements pass without comment.
When I say I take it as a given that an apologist will like arguing, I hope you understand what I mean by the term. I use arguing in the good sense. I don’t mean raising your voice and lifting an opponent off the ground by the lapels, trying to shake sense into him until he agrees with you. That isn’t apologetics—that’s a misdemeanor. By arguing I mean discussing differences charitably, coolly, without pretending the differences don’t matter.
Arguing is like a hammer. A hammer can be used to pound in nails, and it can be used to pound in skulls: a use and a misuse. Arguing is good if conducted properly; it can bring the errant to an understanding of the truth. Arguing doesn’t produce the virtue of faith, but it can help prepare an individual to receive that virtue. It does this by removing stumbling blocks—presuming the arguing itself hasn’t become a stumbling block, of course.
Back to apologists’ bungling. Most of our bungles seem to appear in the form of misplaced or misshapen arguing. Our vanilla errors aren’t too serious. Often they aren’t even perceived. (How many listeners will realize you erred if you referred to the Reformer as “Fred Zwingli” instead of “Uldrich Zwingli”? The average listener has never heard of him anyway.) But the chunky raspberry-lemon errors might have far-reaching effects.
I know of a few apologists who use a slash-and-burn speaking technique, their chief aim being, it seems, to win an argument at any cost. Not smart. “Win an argument, lose a soul,” cautioned Bishop Sheen. An apologist should be less interested in winning an argument than in winning a mind.
I know of other apologists who ought to apologize for engaging in apologetics. Many of the “facts” they relate about the faith are simply wrong; they haven’t done their homework. They still don’t know the difference between the Virgin Birth and the birth of the Virgin. They should be at the receiving end of instruction, not the giving end.
I know of still other apologists who seem put off by some Catholic teachings. They end up giving only a partial apologetic. That can lead, at best, to only partial evangelization—not good enough. If the blind can’t lead the blind, then the half-blind can lead at best halfway to the truth.
Of the errors committed by apologists, the greatest may be to fear errors inordinately. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul said (Rom. 3:23). We can’t expect not to err, at least occasionally and in small things. We shouldn’t allow fear of erring to dissuade us from the work that needs to be done.