After three years of teaching high school Apologetics, I believe I understand the concept.
The idea of going into a full-out debate about religion, is a little frightening to me, even with a Theology degree and three years of teaching experience. My fear is partly because I don’t like tension-filled debates; I prefer discussions.
Outside of the classroom, I have had three notable theological discussions in the past year. They were good experiences because I had started thinking that I teach a class while I have little practical experience with the matter. Now I am realizing that I do have experience and it happens more often than I realize. My three “big” discussions were memorable because of the length of time spent talking as well as the breadth of material covered. Yet a similar experience happens on a more frequent basis–when my students, friends, or family ask a question and I attempt to explain the Church’s teaching on the matter.
Nearly as important as knowing the theological answer is one’s disposition. I don’t claim to do it perfectly, but I try to listen to them and to not become offended when their belief differs from mine. While I do want to make my points clear and provide good arguments for my beliefs, I don’t need the other person to feel trapped or badgered. If I wouldn’t like to be backed into a corner, then I try not to do the same to the other person. It isn’t being two-faced if you approach issues differently with different people. My discussions on abortion are incredibly different based on if they are with my immediate family or my students or with a woman in front of an abortion clinic. The varied people and places required customized responses. In most situations, there is no one-size-fits-all response, as convenient as that might make things.
I could be wrong about this last assertion, but I believe Apologetics works best when it comes in the context of a relationship. It is possible to give a talk to a group of strangers and have someone change their heart because of that talk. But in one-on-one Apologetics, it seems crucial that there be some sort of relationship with the person, a sense of trust that the other person (though they might be wrong) is entering into this discussion out of love and not a desire to just win. Our family and friends might be some of the most difficult people to engage in conversation, but I think it could be some of the most fruitful. In my conversation with a friend, we were able to challenge each others positions without becoming offended. Why? Because we were able to see that the other person respected us and desired our good, even if they were presenting something contrary to my own beliefs. The result was a beautiful discussion that still makes me marvel. I left the conversation knowing that I hadn’t completely changed her mind, but rather had given her food for thought. Walking away, I wished that more in our country could have debates like this. Not devoid of emotion necessarily, but filled with reasons for belief and presented freely with the understanding that the other person would not attack me for my beliefs. It is my mental model for how Apologetics can be done.
Even if you do not have a doctorate in Theology or have the ability to quote Scripture off the cuff, you should be engaging in Apologetics. In the simple truths of explaining why Catholics do what we do. We engage in Apologetics by striving to live the Christianity that Christ proclaimed–with humility, gentleness, self-control, love, boldness, zeal, and a willingness to suffer persecution for the sake of the Gospel. And we engage those around us, in our imperfect, unique, striving-after-more ways. You might be the only Gospel someone encounters. Live it well.