Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Common Ground Apologetics

Written by: on February 27, 2020

Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature argues that the popular idea that human beings are born sans innate properties is fallacious. Related concepts such as the Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine fall under the same misunderstood categories that must be corrected. Pinker offers at least three reasons why this correction must take place: (1) Arguing for a Blank Slate distorts the nature of human beings and much research is guided by these false assumptions; (2) It has discredited logic, civility and common sense in the academy and beyond; (3) and finally, it has done harm to the lives of real people.1

These are valid concerns and if left unchecked we risk perpetuating the harm to others. For example, we tacitly believe that to raise the best children, parents must be loving and intentionally training them towards maturity. But if children do not turn out well then it must be the parent’s fault. However, this conclusion depends on the belief that children are blank slates.2 Parents and anyone who works with kids know this is not the case. 

In one sense the opposite of a Christian is an atheist. Pinker is an atheist. In Evangelicalism today, especially in the rarified group of Christian apologists, the sine qua non measure of successful ministry seems to be about converting an atheist. The strategy appears to be a two-step process. First, create an atheist straw man with all his attending false ideas. Second, eviscerate him with the truth. This would be a good strategy if words posses magical powers on their own to transform people. No, it is more complex than that. In this case, an atheist reminds Christians of the pitfalls of sloppy thinking. Many times, an apologist’s zeal might lead them to blur the distinctions between “some” versus “all,” “probable,” versus “always,” “is” versus “ought.”3 Establishing clear distinctions is a mark of sound and valid thinking. Ignoring this guarantees failure and irresponsibility.

Instead of employing an “us” versus “them” mentality in apologetics engagement may I suggesting another way. What if apologists engaged the skeptic on their own turf? What if they used disarming language in their presentations that skeptics can relate to? I call this Common Ground apologetics. Common Ground apologetics seeks to establish commonality in first-order ideas with an interlocutor. From that base, arguments can be built upon, furthering discussion. Examples of these fundamental ideas include aesthetics, ethics and agency.4 Pinker offers the faithful a few of these commonalities, specifically the blank slate. This is a point of connection. Scripture says that human beings are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Pinker says this “image” is partly composed in the human genome structure. Both are grounded differently but both share a vision of humanity that does not invoke a blank slate. This ought to be considered a significant win for both sides. If Christians and atheists can agree on certain items of knowledge regarding a first-order idea such as human nature, then the chances of continued conversation increases. 

The Christian worldview has exclusive claims. But it does not have to sound arrogant, pretentious and condescending which regrettably have become all too common. Using analogies is another helpful tool to establish common ground. Instead of leading with an exclusive bent, consider the path to truth like a maze.5 What is helpful about the maze analogy is that it (1) places value on exploration and self-discovery; (2) it is careful not to understate or orverstate the claims of others since the different paths in a maze denote distinctions; and (3) at times some routes head in the same direction or run parallel to each other. First-order ideas such as human nature, soul, origins, purpose and things of the same nature, while may posses disparate grounding, do run parallel to each other at times. These are the opportunities of further discussion. Sometimes an apologist must learn to moderate their goals, especially in today’s polarized culture. Making the case for Christ sometimes may mean just enough effort in reasoning to be invited back to the table. 

          1 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 2019), ix – x.
          2 Ibid. ix.
          3 Ibid.
          4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Cambridge, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 596.
          5 James Porter Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff, The God Conversation: Using Stories and Illustrations to Explain Your Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017), p.51.

About the Author

Harry Edwards

Harry is married to Minerva and has the privilege of raising two young men. He is the founder and director of Apologetics.com, Inc., an organization dedicated to defending the truth claims of Christianity on the internet, radio and other related activities. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Education and a Masters of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University where he currently works full time as the Associate Director of the graduate programs in Christian Apologetics and Science & Religion. Harry is currently pursuing a DMin (Leadership & Global Perspectives) from George Fox University. He is an active member at Ocean View Baptist Church where he leads an adult Bible study and plays the drums for the praise and worship band. In his spare time, Harry enjoys doing things with his family, i.e., tennis, camping/backpacking, flying RC planes and mentoring others to realize their full potential in the service of our Lord.

8 responses to “Common Ground Apologetics”

  1. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent wisdom, Harry. I really appreciate your approach. It seems to be the model of Jesus and Paul. Going where the people are, joining them on their turf, not intimidated or intimidating, rather earning a voice in the conversation.

  2. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    “Common Ground Apologetics” Harry that can preach my friend! Love your example, thank you.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great post and love that idea. To many times we want be to know what we are against instead finding out what are we all for 1st. When emotions are at a negative high we are closed to new ideas because we are in survival mode. Starting with good emotions may open one up to actually hearing the other side and not just waiting for a pause to begin to argue.

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Harry, I like your ideas of finding common ground, somewhat, with those like Pinker. However, I am just wondering how far something like this can go given Christianity teaching man is made in the Imago Dei. This would fly in the face of Pinker, who implies that some by virtue of their genetics are more intelligent than others. Where would the next move be of commonality? However, I do like the fact that you are not trying to out-argue another person since that never works. I am glad you are thinking about the soul of an atheist like Pinker instead of just trying to win an argument. Kudos to you.

    • Hi Mary. Good stuff. Being in the world and not of it is perhaps one of those tough things in our sanctification process that we won’t be able to perfect on this side of glory. In some ways it’s the reason I’m in this program. How to lead in these difficult times when being in the world and of it is often times blurred.

  5. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Harry, enjoyed your post. Like you, I quite like atheists because they are so close to being religious. Though it’s not true, while I was reading Pinker this week I felt as if he was desperately trying not to sound Judeo-Christian because quite frankly, all his research points to what theologians have been dealing with for centuries – he just gave a nice evolutionary twist to it. That’s why I like engaging with all this material – it provides a degree of reasoned proof to apologetic theology – not just to argue a point, but rather enter the public discussion as voices worth hearing.

    • The more vehement and angry the atheist, the better it is for me. Not because they’re more lost, but because, as you say, it seems like they’re closer to Christianity than a pure secularist is. After all, they are angry at a being they’re convinced doesn’t exist.

  6. Great post Harry, I like the idea of finding a common ground and instead of trying to argue. I covered this approach to resolving conflicts in my masters program but I like it that your interest is leading atheists to faith.

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