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The Making of an Apologist

Before the days of iPods and portable mp3 players, my wife, Kelly, gave me an armband FM radio to listen to whenever I went for a run. I tried using it a couple of times at the gym but wasn’t able to tune into any stations there. Then one day I noticed that a woman on the treadmill next to mine was using an identical armband radio. Curious what station she was able to tune in, I asked her what she was listening to.

“K-Wave,” she said. “It’s a Christian radio station. Are you a Christian?” I said I was a Catholic, and thus began a series of conversations that would eventually propel me into the world of apologetics.

My new acquaintance, TC, was a devout Christian who attended a large nearby Protestant church. She told me she was raised Catholic but had denounced the faith as a teenager when she was drawn away by anti-Catholic preaching such as that of Calvary Chapel, the organization behind K-Wave. She knew her Bible well, and her passion for talking about Scripture inspired me. Our conversations about theology began at the gym and continued for a couple of years after TC began working at my mortgage company.

I, too, was raised Catholic but in a nominal sort of way, such that I couldn’t really tell you why I was a Catholic, nor could I articulate my faith well. TC exposed those weaknesses over time and caused me to seriously question the truth of Catholicism.

For example, one day TC asked me what I thought about the Eucharist. Was it really flesh and blood or just wine and crackers? I’m ashamed to admit that I explained that the Eucharist was only bread and wine that acted as symbols of Jesus’ flesh and blood. TC explained to me that the Catholic Church taught that the Eucharist was magically transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus and how ridiculous and unbiblical that teaching was.

Little by little our discussions chipped away at my Catholic faith, but the process didn’t draw me into her tradition of Protestantism. Rather, it made me question religious faith altogether. I didn’t give up on Catholicism, but I did determine that I needed to research religion from the ground up. And being self-employed afforded me the time and resources to do that.

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Nineteenth-century anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described the first stage of intellectual development with a metaphor: One “kneels down like a camel wanting to be well loaded . . . stepping into filthy waters when they are waters of truth” (The Portable Nietzsche, p. 138). This is much the way I approached my research into religion. I loaded up on everything I could get my hands on in order to discover the truth. And I was determined to embrace the truth wherever I found it, no matter how difficult that might be.

I began with the question of whether or not I should believe in God at all. I found that there were no reasonable arguments to prove that God doesn’t exist. There were arguments for why a person might not want to believe in God, but no one could prove that it is more reasonable to deny God’s existence than it is to believe in it.

On the other hand, I found ample proof that it is reasonable to believe in God. For example, in Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli provide “Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God,” ranging from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways to Pascal’s Wager. Of course, reading brief descriptions like these just led me to more resources, and my library began to build. This happened at each step in my research, and it continues to happen today.

It was at this stage that I came to realize that “proof” doesn’t necessarily have to be absolute. To prove something really means to provide sufficient evidence for it such that it can be seen to be the most reasonable conclusion. This leaves room for faith. Certainly, to conclude that God exists is by far the most reasonable conclusion on that topic. But what can we know about him?

What others believe

The next step was to explore what other believers believe. My research there began with Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions and then moved into such expansive resources as Macmillan’s 16-volume Encyclopedia of Religion. Although my library was growing, I didn’t limit myself to books. For example, I regularly listened to a K-Wave broadcast on which Chuck Smith, founder and pastor of Calvary Chapel, answered callers’ questions.

One day Smith explained that world religions can be divided down into two broad categories: those who are seeking God and those who claim that God has revealed himself to them in an explicit way. This seemed to make sense, since many of the Eastern religions I studied were more broadly based on a founder’s philosophy than on purported divine revelation. While such religions certainly espoused some truths, there didn’t seem to be compelling evidence for any one of them to be embraced as a whole.

But the world’s largest religions, Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism, all claimed that God had revealed himself in explicit ways. Not only that, they all claimed a common patriarch, Abraham, and they seemed to offer some proof of God’s revelation.

It was around this time when I began seriously studying the Bible and exploring the Koran. Judaism and Christianity clearly stood apart from Islam, though, with Judaism containing not just the origins of God’s divine revelation but his continuing revelation beyond Abraham, finally reaching its fullness in Jesus Christ. Recognition of this, of course, narrowed things down to Christianity.

The witness of Scripture and history

The final step, then, was to determine which tradition of Christianity I should embrace. I had become familiar with Christian apologetics of various traditions, but the most convincing of these by far were the Catholics. I already owned Catholic apologetics books such as Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism and Dave Armstrong’s A Biblical Defense of Catholicism as well as volumes of non-Catholic and anti-Catholic resources. In my discussions with TC, I had grown capable of offering convincing evidence for embracing the doctrines of the Catholic faith over their contradicting Protestant alternatives. For example, we revisited the question of the Real Presence in light of John 6. This time I got it right.

Ultimately, I discovered that Scripture and history reveal that Jesus established only one Church and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it (Matt. 16:18) to the present day. The Holy Spirit had led me back home to the Catholic Church.

I had never really left the Church, though, because no evidence had ever compelled me to draw closer to another religion than to Catholicism. But now I was compelled to fully embrace the Catholic faith in a way I never had before. I went to confession and fully resumed living out my Catholic faith from that point on. But now I knew exactly why I was a Catholic and I could articulate my faith. The beauty of the truth of the faith was so radiant to me that I wanted to share it with everyone, even non-Catholics and anti-Catholics.

Throughout my research I shared bits and pieces of the knowledge I had gained with others, and by the time I fully embraced Catholicism again I had become a sort of go-to guy in certain circles for questions about religion. I had become an amateur apologist of sorts, and my passion for engaging in apologetics was intensifying.

A step out in faith

One day I saw an advertisement in This Rock (now Catholic Answers Magazine) for an apologetics cruise to Alaska, and Kelly and I realized that it would be a great opportunity to spend time with like-minded people. That cruise sailed in July 2003. I said to Kelly afterward, half-jokingly, that I was going to sell my mortgage company and become a Catholic Answers apologist. She said, “Go ahead.”

So I drove down to Catholic Answers, about 80 miles from my home, to tour the facilities and express my interest in becoming a staff apologist. I learned that the apostolate’s president, Karl Keating, wanted to expand the Q&A department, and there was a possibility that I could join the staff in a few months.

After nearly 20 years in the mortgage industry, 12 years of that as the owner of my own company, going to work for Catholic Answers would be a significant change not just for me but for my family. The mortgage industry was still thriving at the time, so I would be giving up a lucrative business in order to venture into something completely different and much less financially rewarding.

We didn’t take the decision lightly. But we prayed extensively about it and decided to tighten our belts for a greater purpose. I thought of it as a transition from helping people buy earthly homes to helping people secure their eternal home.

I announced the decision to my staff members, including TC, and allowed everyone plenty of time to make their own transitions. In the meantime, Catholic Answers put me through a battery of tests to assess my knowledge level and apologetics skills. I joined the staff on March 15, 2004.

Apologetics takes place in many different forms and venues, from answering questions via email, letter, or telephone to writing articles, authoring books, speaking at seminars, and so on. A well-rounded, experienced apologist might engage in all of these, but beginners usually need to focus on becoming competent at a few specific skills before expanding into other areas.

I started by focusing on one-on-one correspondence by email and letter, soon after adding telephone calls to the mix. The written form of Catholic apologetics has been around since apostolic times (see sidebar) and has continued to be popular and effective to this day, so every apologist would do well to develop skills in this area.

I had hoped to be an immediate asset to the organization, but I soon realized that I had a lot to learn. Little did I know how little I did know! Questions poured in that I had no idea how to answer. I quickly learned the value of saying, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out and get back to you.” Every apologist, even a seasoned one, needs to say those words from time to time, and there is no shame in that. But as a new apologist I had to say them far more often than I thought I would. Fortunately, Catholic Answers had all the resources I needed to find the answers.

Learning gentleness and reverence

The Catholic Answers online discussion forums at catholic.com opened just a couple of months after I started, and I was excited to engage in this venue where my answers would gain a new level of exposure. Exposure brings new opportunities for criticism and growth—something I found out early on when someone complained about an answer I had provided to a forum member’s question.

The question concerned a delicate situation in which a man’s daughter had left the Catholic Church. My answer was technically correct, but it lacked the necessary sensitivity. This struck a nerve with another forum member, and any attempt at resolution, including taking down the Q&A, only fueled his fire. He expressed his intention to write to the bishop, notify the local newspaper, and call Karl Keating to have me “formally removed.” I feared my career in apologetics might be over. Of course, my superiors handled the situation with dignity and grace. I survived to work another day.

Even so, the experience moved me to reflect on how I say things, especially in writing. I realized that there is much more wisdom in St. Peter’s exhortation to engage in apologetics (1 Pet. 3:15) than simply being prepared and making a defense; gentleness and reverence are a necessary part of the delivery. Apologetics isn’t about being right and winning arguments; it’s about the conversion of souls. Mark Brumley’s book The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics was a tremendous help in my growth in this regard.

In January 2006 I ventured into two new areas: I became a regular guest on the Catholic Answers Live radio program, and I began writing articles for This Rock (now Catholic Answers Magazine). Since radio Q&A Open Forum shows require “thinking on your feet,” I began taking live apologetics calls throughout the day a few months prior. This was a big help in preparing to do the same thing on radio.

Also, by this time I recognized which aspects of the faith people were most commonly dealing with, and this provided me with topics for magazine articles. It’s important to write about things people want to read about!

Finally, public speaking

One area of apologetics I opted not to engage in for many years is seminars. Public speaking requires a substantial amount of travel, and I didn’t want to be away from home too much while my children were still attending school.

But a few years ago I did join a local public speaking club to begin developing my skills in this area so that I would be prepared for the real thing by the time my children graduated from high school. I was honored to be a speaker on the 2008 Catholic Answers Apologetic Cruise to Alaska, and I began giving parish talks throughout Southern California in 2010. My children (triplets) graduated in 2011, and I have since become a member of the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau.

As you can see, apologetics is a diverse field offering a variety of opportunities. If you are interested in becoming more active in the world of Catholic apologetics, I hope that reading about my background and experiences will benefit you. The Church is encouraging apologetics today and this just might be the time for you to get more involved.

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