In an age when ‘my truth’ is often elevated above ‘the truth’ Kay Carter asks the Christian apologist Kristi Mair whether students are rejecting research.
Over the past 25 years a subtle but significant change has taken place in Christian apologetics, particularly student apologetics. Where once a typical evangelistic talk might be titled “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” and deal with the historical evidence for faith, these days you’re far more likely to be invited to an event called “Why does my search for happiness leave me disappointed?”.
While this may look like a simple adjustment in presentation, it is the result of an important shift in the tectonic plates of Western culture. In seeking to identify those things that Westerners hold to be true, there has been a movement away from looking outwards and asking questions about evidence and fact, and towards looking inwards and asking which theory is a good fit for us personally. Or, put more colloquially, “that is your truth, what is my truth?”
For an organisation such as Tyndale House, which is tightly focused on evidence-based, empirical knowledge, it’s a crucial issue. Tyndale House was set up, in the words of founder W J Martin, because “our faith is inseparably linked with certain historical events recorded in an extensive corpus of written documents, hence its credentials are open to objective investigation”. Back in 1945 it wasn’t unusual to doubt the historical truth of the Gospels, but questions of faith were still largely approached as objective questions, the focus being whether or not the claims of Christianity are universally true. Today, it’s more common for people investigating Christianity to ask whether it is personally satisfying and whether they prefer it to other faiths. Modern-day Tyndale House exists in a context that asks of Christianity not so much “Is it objectively verifiable?” but more often “Do I like it?”.
To explore this issue further I am meeting Kristi Mair, a research fellow at Oak Hill Theological College in north London and a Christian apologist who travels the UK speaking to students about faith and philosophy. Mair is also the author of MORE>Truth, a book that explores the modern world’s simultaneous longing for, and cynicism of, certainty, especially as this relates to Christianity.
Recently Mair was one of the main speakers at the Oxford and Cambridge University Christian Unions’ events weeks, giving a series of talks with titles including “I wonder why success never satisfies me” and “In an age of connection, why do we feel so alone?”, which were specifically intended to address the wants and desires of the 500 or so listening students. She says: “It was interesting because when we sat down to generate the talk titles, we were clear that focusing on existential, felt needs would be the best way to connect with students.”
Before joining Oak Hill, Mair worked for eight years with the Universities and Colleges Christian Unions (UCCF) as a staff worker and then an assistant team leader, giving her a clear insight into the issues that matter to students and how they have changed in recent years. She also holds a master’s in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics and is a doctoral candidate at Birmingham University, researching philosophical theology. “Students are typically interested in questions such as: Is it relevant? Is it good news for me? Is it liveable?,” she says. “There is definitely a shift away from modernity and the modernistic emphasis on empirical questions. It’s not that students are discarding questions of truth though, it’s more a change in the ordering. Rather than saying: ‘Is it true? Yes it is. Therefore, okay, I’ll try it on personally.’ They’re saying, ‘let me try this on to see if it fits me. It does seem to make sense of my real-life questions and my existential angst, my desires and hopes. So is it actually true?’ There’s just a different sequence that has come about quite recently.”
At a fundamental level, students are asking the same two questions people have always asked: Is Christianity desirable? And is Christianity credible? Mair points out: “This pairing of desirability and credibility of Christianity is what Blaise Pascal was referring to back in the 17th century when he said, ‘Make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.’ Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and in him we see both the desirability of the Gospel and the credibility of the Gospel. However, this is very different from the way we look at faith in our culture, where we tend to extrapolate at one end or the other. The challenge we have as evangelists is bringing the two together as we seek to engage with the culture.
“We’ve certainly seen a shift from evangelism that starts with credibility, to evangelism that starts with desirability,” says Mair. This means that people in their forties or older may look at the way younger generations make decisions about what to believe and conclude that they’re not asking the right questions. “That’s because older generations have been told that what it means to have faith is to assent to an intellectual proposition. Younger people are likely to look at that and ask, how does that give me the authentic life that society is encouraging me to seek after?
“The danger on both sides is that we tend to overcorrect. For apologists and evangelists in 2020 it’s easy to become unmoored from the authority of Scripture because you want every person to desire Christ. But if you’re too focused on their experience and don’t ground that encounter in the historical events of the Gospel, you can be left with a sort of moral therapeutic deism.