“(How) Should I Explain my Faith as I Enter University?”

The beginning of university life is filled with uncertainties, and also great opportunities. You will no doubt already have received more than enough advice on what to get involved with, what to avoid, how to prioritise, what to pay attention to … and how to avoid Freshers’ Flu. (If you haven’t received info on the last, don’t worry; the truth is nothing works!)

Besides new people, places, activities, interests, ideas, and challenges, you might be excited at the prospect of sharing your faith with others – or intimidated! You might be afraid of putting across the wrong impression, or you might be thinking about how to fit in and stand up for what you believe in at the same time. You might be uncertain how – or even whether – to talk about ‘religion’, ‘God’, ‘belief’, ‘faith’, ‘church’, ‘Jesus’, and other loaded terms.

But whether through your academic work, through new friends and points of view, because of the culture around you, or because of personal questions, issues, and problems you or a friend will face, these topics will come up.

This article is to help you start thinking through some issues around the question of how you can explain your faith. It is not intended to be an exhaustive step-by-step for every situation you will be in, but serves as an introduction; using a holistic understanding of apologetics as a prompter for you to prayerfully develop how you explain what it means for you to follow the way of Jesus.

The Nature of Apologetics

Apologetics can be an off-putting term, with unhelpful connotations of an apology, or brow-beating Bible-bashing, but it is broader and simpler than you might think. The term ‘apologetics’ stems from the Greek (‘ἀπολογία’) and means ‘to speak up in defence’, or ‘to tell fully.’ Christian apologetics, then, is concerned with explaining the gospel, or showing the reasonableness of the Christian faith.

“Character may be called the most effective means of persuasion”
- Aristotle

An understanding of apologetics begins at the core of the gospel: it begins with Jesus. Understand that Jesus is God’s apologetics. Christ doesn’t just do apologetics; He is, by the incarnation, God’s answer and full explanation of Himself in terms that we can understand. The only thing capable of fully communicating the gospel is Christ Himself. All other forms and channels may be helpful, but are by their nature limited.

Just as you might be able to explain a symphony through a paragraph of text, or a picture, it won’t be able to contain the fullness of the symphony contained in music. In the same way, the gospel can only be communicated through a form that has the width and strength capable of supporting it; that is a relationship with Christ. Anything less than this can still be helpful, but is most helpful when it points beyond itself to the giver of the bread of life.

Follow the Way of Jesus

Following the example and command of Jesus, we always live by the Golden Rule: Love God completely, and love your neighbour fully. In apologetics, your ‘neighbour’ is your audience (that is anyone with whom you are communicating), so make sure that your first goal is to love them!

At university you will find people who are more intelligent than you. It may be the first time in your life this has happened, but it certainly won’t be the last. If not for this reason, then certainly because we follow the way of Jesus, humility should govern how you talk about your faith. There are things you don’t know – especially about other people’s beliefs. Be honest about that.

As a result, the apologist’s role isn’t about proving that Christianity is true and everyone else is in the wrong. Andrew Davison writes in his introduction to Imaginative Apologetics:

To be an apologist is to accompany our fellow searchers as we consider whether the Christian faith, or atheism, or any other worldview, does or does not make sense of these [topics closest to the heart of every human life].

1st Peter 3:15 tells us to always be ready to give an answer with reasons for the hope that is within us, and to do so with gentleness and respect. It’s an opportunity for you to share why the gospel makes sense of the questions that occupy the human heart and mind – your heart and mind, your questions, your hopes, desires, fears, and passions. You may not have the theological or philosophical training to explain and defend a particular Christian doctrine, but you have reasons for the hope you have within you. You can start to answer the question ’why do you believe what you believe?’.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else”
- C.S. Lewis

In his recent book Mere Apologetics, renowned theologian and former atheist Alister McGrath says that apologetics should be seen as a “welcome opportunity to exhibit, celebrate, and display […] the intellectual, imaginative, moral, and relational richness of the Christian faith.” Arguing for the Christian faith with reason requires a Christian understanding of reason. It is, for example, not simply a matter of rational arguments, because the Christian faith is not solely a matter of rationality. The Christian faith is nothing less than rational, but is so much more. In submitting to rationalism (the idea that rationality is the sole and flawless diviner of truth) in how you answer a question, you are signing away the outcome of the discussion before you have even started. In terms from The Lord of the Rings, it’s the equivalent of seeking to fight Sauron by arming yourself with the One Ring.

Relational Communication

There are many ways of communicating at a distance: Letters, phone calls, radio and television, Instant Messaging, e-mail, Skype. But these are all only improvements on distance communication. The strongest form of communication is still face-to-face, inhabiting the same room, interacting with the same space. Beyond this even, in allowing a relationship to grow, is community – a sustained relationship that develops over many face-to-face moments, interaction with shared space, and flourishes with the insertion of other relationships. Of this latter point C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke [i.e. of Charles]. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

“…make good people wish that [the Christian faith] were true, and then show that it is”
- Blaise Pascal

University is a wonderful and unique opportunity to develop relationships in community through which you can witness with the fullness of that relationship – the intellectual, imaginative, moral, and relational aspects – by loving the other person, humbly giving the reason for your hope, and pointing beyond yourself to the only form that is capable of expressing the fullness of the gospel: The revelation of the truth, beauty, and goodness of God through the person of the resurrected Christ, the word become flesh.

Wrestling with these issues can be very rewarding, but is also challenging and draining. You will not be able to do it on your own. Seek out support when you need it, and make sure that you have a community of Christians around you who can sustain you and accompany you and celebrate with you on your journey of faith as you accompany others. Above all, rely not on your own strength, intelligence, wit, wisdom, and love, because they will fail you. Only by trusting in the power of Jesus and letting Him work through you will you be able to point to Him. Practicing an apologetics that seeks to love in the manner of Jesus does something beautiful: it leads not only to more fruitful apologetics, but fosters healthy relationships to those outside of the faith, and importantly helps the apologist become ever more like Jesus.

How you explain your faith is a personal thing, not a matter of regurgitating phrases you’ve heard. So I’ve tried to avoid providing you with apologetics arguments, but there are many good sources readily available (and, sadly, many poor ones too).

What I hope I have presented here are some pointers to a framework from which you can wrestle with developing an answer based on your gifts, talents, experience, resources, and influence. Match how you communicate the gospel with your passions, what makes sense to you, and how you can speak into the culture you’re part of.

© 2012 James Connoly
This article is published by the kind permission of the author.