Probably one of the most important lessons that I have learned in my (very) limited experience with tools is the value of having a tool that can be used in a lot of diverse situations. This past summer I worked on the pipeline crew in the oilfield. Part of our job on the line was to go onto a location after an oil rig had left and rebuild the wellhead. Now, assuming that everyone worked in concert, without breaks, and everything went just right, we could rebuild a wellhead in about three hours. But that kind of time could never be achieved without one essential tool: the pipe wrench. In fact, we would have been hopeless without one. We used it for everything: from turning pipe, to bringing the well level. Without a tool like that, we would have been helpless: dead in the water. Every toolbox needs that one indispensable tool. It’s a fact that is as true in apologetics as it is in day to day life.
You might be asking yourself, “What tool does an apologist need more than anything else?” It’s a lot more simple than you might imagine. The apologist needs a critical mind. You read it right. He needs to know how to think, and to think well. The ability to think correctly about life, the world, and everything around us is an invaluable skill, the worth of which can not be overstated. I firmly believe that this is because at the heart of many of our failures is a failure to think correctly. So how do we develop this ability? What can you and I do to help ourselves think better?
First and foremost, I want to encourage you to be an active skeptic. What I mean by that is this: learn to question. Whenever you encounter somebody who makes a proposition, or a truth claim, ask yourself, “how do they know that?” or, “What evidence do they have to back that up?” This is the foundation of the critical mind. Questions will inspire your own quest for truth, and will ultimately help you to expose the error in false belief systems. When you learn to question shaky claims, you will begin to learn to look for answers, and that is what you want: answers.
Second, become an avid reader. A wise teacher once told us in class, “Readers are leaders, and leaders are readers.” There is a lot of truth in those words, because reading is one of the most influential habits a person can develop. Reading does two things for us. First, it gives us an established method by which we can dig into truth. Most of human knowledge is archived in the printed word, making a habit of reading a valuable means of getting that knowledge. When, as an apologist, you are faced with a difficult question, a established habit of reading will provide you with a resource for getting the answers you need. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it will be far easier for you to find an answer if you can read and research well. Second, reading exposes us to ideas. As I said above, most of human knowledge is stored in the written word. So if somebody has an idea they wish to express, they generally do so in writing. This means that if you wish to engage with an idea like atheism or nihilism (or any other -ism for that matter) you will do so by means of writing and reading. Reading is how we learn about ideas, whether true or false. When you begin to do so, you will have a knowledge base to work with in framing arguments for the Christian faith. Without reading, we can not frame arguments truthfully or effectively. And this brings us to an important thought from Ravi Zacharias on engaging with reading, “To refuse to read on both sides of an issue is the height of arrogance.” That’s a stinging truth. So engage by reading both sides. Arm yourself by reading.
Lastly, we develop critical thinking by engaging with the beliefs of other people. People have a lot of bad ideas. It is, in large part, because of these ideas, that they continue to reject the Christian message, and remain lost. One of the best ways, then, to aid them in coming to Christ is to engage with ideas that are false. But not only will engaging their ideas bring them to a fuller understanding of the truth of the Christian message, it will have benefits for you as well. As we begin to engage these ideas in conversations, it sharpens our ability to think critically and correctly. Critically in that we are forced to analyze opposing systems fairly. Correct thinking about your own faith will then develop as you see which arguments you use really are not logical, and so will grow you in the reason of your defense. Now, if we want to sharpen our critical thinking, then we are going to have to do so by engaging in actual conversations with actual people about the gospel. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. But it is totally necessary. So my advice to you: talk to everyone that you can, everywhere that you can.
The critical mind is the most diverse and effective tool an apologist can carry with him. It will allow him to critically analyze concepts and beliefs, and to help other people come to a knowledge of the truth. When we do that, we are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus left us here: to make disciples. So go out into the highways and hedges with a skeptics mind, a book in your hand, and a desire to engage the lost, and this important skill will be yours to nurture and grow.