Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Towards a dialogistic approach

In this essay, I present proposals for a new missional approach to complement the traditional field of apologetics. Insofar as the church wants to reach out to atheists, agnostics and non-religious people, I suggest that a dialogistic approach is developed.

Over the past five years, I wrote various essays about the challenge of reaching the people of our day and age with the gospel – especially the growing number who describe themselves as atheistic, agnostic or non-religious [1-7]. I have not only discussed the severity of the situation in the Western world [7] but have also developed proposals as to what the church should do. In this essay, I present the outlines for a new approach that I believe would be much more successful than the traditional ones. I call it the "dialogistic" approach.

I previously discussed the current approaches to reaching non-believers with the gospel [7]. Although all such approaches may be called "missional" in the widest sense of the word, they vary insofar as they are directed at different groups of people. One may distinguish 1) the traditional missionary approaches in which the gospel is taken to people who live in communities beyond the so-called "Christian world", 2) the traditional evangelistic approaches in which the gospel is presented to people who share a Christian worldview, but who do not have a personal relationship with Christ, 3) missional approaches in which the gospel is taken to the fast-growing number of people who belongs to a culturally distinct, postmodern society. Each of these approaches uses different tools that are applicable to their particular challenges.

What about the growing group of atheists, agnostics and non-religious people? Although they might belong to the mentioned postmodern society, they form a distinct group for which the other kinds of tools do not seem to work. They are well-informed and have developed a particularly anti-Christian mindset. Although there are many people in the marketplace of ideas who at this stage reserve judgment, it seems that many are joining their ranks since they find their narrative more convincing than the Christian one.

Historically the church has used "apologetic tools" in this context but these are developed for defending the gospel, not reaching people with it. In fact, in our time the traditional "proofs" of God's existence have lost its power since they have been effectively challenged [8]. We know today that our world is much more complex than originally thought and even in science the idea of "proof" is generally discarded insofar as questions regarding "reality" are concerned [8]. In the place of "proofs," we have conflicting narratives – and the only way that these people can be swayed (from a human perspective) is if they can be convinced that the Christian narrative (including its worldview) is credible. This requires not only a repackaging of the Christian narrative using good Biblical hermeneutics but also the skill to engage in dialogue with such people.

Towards a dialogistic approach

Although the traditional apologetic approaches may have their value, in my view the church needs a fresh approach if she wants to effectively reach these people. The best place to start in our search for an effective approach is in the example set by the apostle Paul, who was not only sent to the heathen in general but who also engaged with the non-Christian intellectual community of his day.

We read about the approach that St. Paul used in Athens in Acts 17:17: "Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him". The apostle conversed not only in the synagogues but also on the marketplace. When we want to rework his approach in contemporary terms, one may suggest that synagogues be replaced by churches and all kinds of outreaches that take place within that context. The marketplace finds its contemporary equivalent in the marketplace of ideas, which include both physical conversations in public areas as well as discussions on social media. In my view, the internet has become the most important forum for dialogue in this regard.

What did St. Paul do on the marketplace? He is said to have “disputed’ daily with those that he met there. Now, the Greek word used here is "dialogomai". At heart, this word involves conversation, which corresponds with our word “dialogue”. St. Paul was able to present the gospel in a relevant way in the context of the kind of discussions that people have on such marketplaces. We gain some insight from what he said during his marketplace conversations when we consider his address to the philosophers on the Areopagus.

St. Paul did not preach the gospel in the traditional way! No, he engaged with their religious and philosophical views on various levels. In making an intellectual argument for the Creator God who sent Jesus Christ as the Messiah, he took their religious practice as the point of departure, mentioning an altar that he saw in Athens that was dedicated to the unknown god. He also referred to one of their poets, whom he quoted. St. Paul’s approach was all but traditional: he packaged the gospel in a relevant way and he engaged with conversation, both on the marketplace and when given the opportunity to speak to a gathering of philosophers.

Of special interest is his engagement with their way of thinking. St. Paul did not participate in a debate in which each side stands as opposites to each other. He engaged in dialogue – which means that both sides meet each other in conversation. As such he really tried to understand their perspective and seems to have had a good knowledge of their way of thinking. If we are not really interested in people, in their views and carefully listen to them, it is difficult to see why they should listen to us. “Meeting” on the marketplace is at the same time a meeting of minds – similar to the Platonic dialogues. In fact, St. Paul’s approach is much more in the Greek tradition of dialogue than in the later Christian tradition of preaching!

My suggestion is that we take this Pauline approach as the basis to develop a missional field called “dialogics”. The person who engages in such an approach would be a “dialoguer” or “dialoger” - the equivalent of other similar names such as theologian or apologist. In Afrikaans one may call such a person a “dialogikus” from the Greek "dialogikos" or Latyn “dialogicus”. Such persons would follow a dialogistic approach to reaching people. I will now give a broad outline of what I have in mind.

Image result for market place ancient
Ancient marketplace
A dialoger

Traditionally the church had not been good at dialogue. Although this is a primary requirement for the kind of discussion that is necessary in our times, the church has not effectively trained ministers in this skill nor educated them in the disciplines necessary for successful dialogue. Although ministerial training is focused on Biblical studies, for the most part, it does not involve sufficient education in those philosophical (hermeneutical) tools that enable sophisticated readings of the text nor the development of sophisticated Christian narratives and arguments. 

Ministers have traditionally been trained in oratorical skills in line with ancient Stoic norms, not in dialogical skills. They are usually dogmatic and not very interested in the opinions of those outside their particular Christian community. Insofar as they are educated in a Biblical Criticism context, they often live under the illusion that their field should be operated as a “science", whereas it can never be more than a hermeneutical discipline [9]. Traditionally in science scholars tried to formulate "truths" about reality (although this ideal has been shipwrecked in the context of quantum physics [8]), whereas in hermeneutics one engage with texts (and even life itself) in dialogic terms. The outcome is not good: I do not know of many churches where open discussion and dialogue are allowed during services!

Again, we may take St. Paul as an example. Insofar as St.Paul’s education is concerned, he was well-trained to converse within the context of the Greek culture which dominated within the Roman world. His studies with Gamaliel seem to have included philosophy since he quotes such a poet not only in his speech on the Areopagus but also elsewhere (Titus 1:12). When St. Paul became an apostle, he did not cast his education behind him; rather, this was what made him such a remarkable apostle. Both his dedication to the Lord and his training contributed to him being able to break through the Jewish-heathen barrier of his time. We can learn from him insofar as we are confronted with a similar barrier.

What is necessary to be a dialoger who is able to effectively engage with atheistic, agnostic and non-religious persons? I would suggest three things: 1) a practical walk with the Lord, 2) a broad-based education within a dialogical framework and 3) creating “spaces” where such dialogue can take place. Insofar as the first is concerned, I believe that we are in need of people who are not merely serving the Lord, but who are fully surrendered to Him [4]. Where are the Christian leaders who do not run for their own spiritual house (denomination, church) and always consider what they might gain, but for whom the House of the Lord (the church in general) is a central concern (Hag. 1:4, 9)? A dialoger’s ministry should be widely accepted within the Christian community – even though some traditional Christians would obviously not easily accept change.

Insofar as education is concerned, I would suggest that in our contemporary circumstances a dialoger needs to be able to excel in two dimensions, namely in presenting a sophisticated Christian narrative and to engage in constructive dialogue. Both these skills are of cardinal importance. If the Christian narrative that we present are not well-informed and consistent with good hermeneutical principles as well as science, informed people would not take it seriously. If we are not able to present our narrative to others within the framework of successful dialogue that may take place in a wide spectrum of creative spaces, we will not be able to bring such people to Christ.

What is necessary to develop well-informed narratives? In my view, a broad-based education in especially four fields of study is needed, namely Biblical studies, philosophy, science (empirical sciences) and ancient Middle Eastern studies. As such, students would engage not only with the Biblical text but also with the basic tools of good hermeneutics and dialogue, with current scientific thinking and with the world from which the Bible originated (on a much more substantial level than is the case in current Biblical studies). I cannot see how one can formulate a well-informed and sophisticated Christian narrative if you do not have a good knowledge of all these fields. This is one important reason why we are unsuccessful – our traditional narratives are for the most part not convincing enough! The problem is not with the Biblical text, but with our packaging of the Biblical story.

Establishing a dialogistic school

In fact, I believe we need some kind of dialogistic school where Christians are formally trained in all these disciplines (not another version of the typical Christian university). Such an education should not only include a basic education in these fields, but also inter-disciplinary coursework allowing such students to develop a wider perspective on life (so often academic education is extremely one-dimensional!). As such Christians would be able to argue for the reliability of the Biblical text (and worldview) within a multi-disciplinary context and would not be stuck with unconvincing literary tools such as "metaphor" to overcome contemporary challenges (a typical tool used by those trained within a Biblical Criticism context).

A dialogistic school should focus on the challenges of the time. As such it should challenge students to think creatively within a safe thinking environment (and not merely to accept the traditional Christian narratives, some of which are not based on good hermeneutics!). Insofar as such a school creates the space for the fusion of bright Christian minds, various challenges should be attended to. One is to develop new approaches to church life itself – most people who are brought up in postmodern society find it extremely difficult to adapt to traditional church life. Closely related to this issue is the effective usage of the internet and all social media to create spaces for effective dialogue.

Another challenge is to explore good hermeneutical philosophy – the challenge is to develop a-modernist approaches between the usual modernist and postmodernist ones. Such a well-balanced philosophical framework should guide all academic studies in all disciplines at such a school. Also important is the development of sophisticated Christian narratives (and formulations of the Christian worldview) that are consistent with both good hermeneutical practice and science. God’s revelation in his Word would not be in conflict with his revelation in nature! I have previously given some guidelines regarding some of these issues [6,7].

There is much to be said for educating Christian students in all disciplines in the framework of such an approach. This would enable them to make sense of their own Christian views within the challenges of our time; it would also enable them to engage more effectively in dialogue on the marketplace of ideas. Not everybody needs to become a dialoger – but all may acquire the basic sets of skills for good dialogue.

Such a school should educate students to the highest possible level. Students who proceed with study would be able to do doctorate and masters degrees in various fields. The true requirement for a dialoger is to be a master of various field of study, especially the four fields mentioned. This does not mean that such a person should be formally educated in all these fields to the highest levels (maybe in two or more), but that they should have an exceptional knowledge in all those fields.

Although the calling of a dialoger is primarily directed to reaching atheists, agnostics and non-religious people within contemporary society, it is immediately clear that such an education would provide students with a wide variety of skills which does not necessarily involve such a ministry. In fact, these are the basic skills that would enable Christians to effectively engage with others in any particular discipline in which they may become qualified.

One might hope that professionals with such an education would be able to play an important role in society to promote a Christian way of life. Alumnae may form a network of Christians who do not only support each other insofar as inter-disciplinary work is concerned but even to deepen the level of networking with the church herself. If would be a wonderful day when non-pastoral ministries would become fully integrated into church life within the context of a wider Christian community.

In the final instance, being a dialoger is not to have a particular academic qualification. Rather, I would suggest that dialogers should be appointed by other dialogers who have established themselves as such. Here I think along the lines of the ancient schools where philosophers and rabbi’s were so appointed. One may also remember the appointment of the apostles by Jesus. Although the apostles did not appoint other apostles (except in Acts 1), the apostolic ministry always formed an important part of the church's equipment for service - even to this day (Eph. 4:11). The best contemporary example is probably that of appointing life coaches.


In this short essay I propose that a new missional field called dialogics be developed which is directed to reaching atheists, agnostics and non-religious people with the gospel. In my view, the field of apologetics is not suitable for this task. Although traditional apologetics has its place in the wider spectrum of Christian engagement with non-believers, it has severe limits and is not effectively equipped to reach non-believers in this post-modernist age. The "proofs" with which apologists concern themselves had been successfully challenged by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Frederick Nietzsche. It is nowadays not a matter of "proofs" but of good, sensible arguments and narratives - narratives that are both consistent with experienced reality and have rational, emotional and spiritual appeal (we are not merely spiritual beings). Although some apologists have tried to incorporate some of these aspects into their approach, I believe that a totally new specialized field is asked for.

I believe there is an enormous under-developed space in our missional approach, namely one which is centred on dialogue. Such a field would take its clues from the apostle Paul's engagement with the people of Athens. In my view (leaders in) the Christian community should be retrained (!) to move from the modernist mindset that many still cling to and become sophisticated participants in the conversations of our time. For this, we need sophisticated Christian narratives (and convincing presentations of our worldview) as well as dialogistic skills. Establishing dialogistic schools may make such an ideal become reality. 

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)
The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy and science. He also wrote a book on the Sumerian roots of early Biblical tradition - Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012).