This is a post I wrote back on January 30, 2009, for another blog I used to write at (which no longer exists). Some of the references are a bit dated, but the ideas are as true as ever, and I thought the content would likely be interesting to NFQ readers.
I’ve always been into etymology and linguistics. I love knowing where words come from, and how all the little nuances in connotation are related to previous forms of the word or previous meanings. In second grade, during a unit about food groups and nutrition, the teacher asked if there were any questions, and I raised my hand and said: “Why is a tomato called a tomato?” The teacher looked puzzled, and said, “That’s an interesting question, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. I’m only looking for questions about the food pyramid.” I nodded seriously and thought I understood, but two seconds later my hand was up in the air again: “Why is a cucumber called a cucumber?”
I suppose it makes sense, then, that today I am fixated on the meaning of the word “apologetics,” in the religious context. Lately, apologist Lee Strobel has been answering readers’ questions over at Friendly Atheist (parts one, two, three) and Martin has been answering Lee’s questions for atheists at The Atheist Experience (parts one and two). A lot of the dialogue, while good and useful, seems kind of old-hat to me, and though I considered it I couldn’t get excited about answering Lee’s questions myself or about questioning/refuting his answers to atheists. I am hung up on people calling themselves “apologists,” though. What does that really mean?
The reason my mind is twisted around this question is because the word is clearly related to apologize, apologetic, and apology. In conventional usage, these mean: to say you’re sorry, how sorry you feel, and the statement of sorriness itself. Are all these Christians really sorry about their faith, sorry about how Christians treat non-Christians, sorry about all the bigotry and violence? Are they expressing regrets about their religion? No, in general they are not (or at least, that’s not their point). Usually they’re doing the exact opposite.
The word apology comes from the Greek apo- meaning “from, off, away from” and logos meaning “word, speech.” Apologos means “account” or “story,” while apologeisthai means “to speak in one’s defense” or simply “to give an account,” and apologia refers to the defense itself. The original sense of apologizing, it seems, was justifying and explaining oneself or one’s actions. The OED says that to be apologetic is to be vindicatory! It wasn’t until 1594 that apologizing was first recorded meaning something like we typically imagine today, and it didn’t enter common usage until the 18th century.
On the one hand, being apologetic means expressing regrets and admitting guilt. Simultaneously, though, it means defending one’s ideas or behavior in order to seek vindication. This difference is more than a dash of nuance. They’re actually opposite things.
It’s nice to know that my confusion was not completely unfounded, but I still feel intellectually uneasy about this. Do Christian apologists continue to call themselves that because it’s traditional, even though most people aren’t used to hearing the word “apology” in that sense? Do they think it makes them sound kinder and gentler? That was the picture it originally painted for me. I thought that apologetics would be the inclusive, interfaith outreach activities. Oh-ho, that is incorrect. I mean, I’m glad they don’t use a more confrontational-sounding vocabulary (I’m looking at you, Campus Crusade for Christ), but I do wonder if it isn’t a bit disingenuous.
(One last question: how did that happen to our language? My only guess is that the meanings do sort of overlap in the case of an apology in the style of William Carlos Williams… in other words, here is what I did wrong, but here is why I did it and why it seemed right at the time.)