We have to have at least one post about religion today, and here it is.
Oy! The New York Times, for its Sunday Christmas Review, features a long interview of Pastor Timothy Keller, an evangelical Christian whom the interviewer, Nicholas Kristof, characterizes as “among the most prominent evangelical thinkers today.” Keller is also the author of the best-selling books The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.
The interview, called “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?“, is characterized by Kristof expressing his doubts about Jesus’s divinity, the truth of the Resurrection, and the Christian doctrine that only acceptance of Jesus as savior will get you to Heaven. Keller slaps these doubts down one by one, assuring Kristof that yes, all these things are true, and that Christianity is certainly based on true statements about how the world is. (That’s a point I made in Faith Versus Fact, but one that many religionists still deny, claiming that much of the Bible is metaphorical, and yes, everyone has the chance to go to Heaven, be they Jew, Buddhist, or Muslim.
In the end, Keller tells Kristof that he, Kristof, is not really a Christian!
Here are a few bits of the Q&A that I’ve put under my own headings (bold). Kristof’s questions are in italics, Keller’s answers in Roman type.
Religion is based on truth statements, not just communality or moral sentiments. Absent those empirical truths, religion is worthless:
KRISTOF Tim, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?
KELLER If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.
Kristof then asks whether one can be properly skeptical of the Virgin Birth. Keller’s response:
If it were simply a legend that could be dismissed, it would damage the fabric of the Christian message. Luc Ferry, looking at the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ birth into the world, said this taught that the power behind the whole universe was not just an impersonal cosmic principle but a real person who could be known and loved. That scandalized Greek and Roman philosophers but was revolutionary in the history of human thought. It led to a new emphasis on the importance of the individual person and on love as the supreme virtue, because Jesus was not just a great human being, but the pre-existing Creator God, miraculously come to earth as a human being.
And that is that! Then Kristof, chastened, asks about the Resurrection: did it really happen? Keller, of course, says “yes”:
Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines. If the Resurrection is a genuine reality, it explains why Jesus can say that the poor and the meek will “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). St. Paul said without a real resurrection, Christianity is useless (1 Corinthians 15:19).
. . . The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection.
They then go back and forth on the Resurrection, with Kristof, who knows his Scripture, pointing out the discrepancies in the different Gospels’ accounts of that miracle, with Keller proffering the usual apologetics, rationalizing these discrepancies and making the dumb claim that the Resurrection must have happened because women were the first eyewitnesses, and who would have believed women if the story wasn’t really true? QED
Can you be a Christian unless you buy the whole hog?
Kristof, then, wonders if he’s a real Christian. Keller dashes what hopes he had:
[Kristof] So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?
[Keller] I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.
Faith, says Keller, is perfectly concordant with science, and, anyway, we have lots of faith-based beliefs.
When asked why would should suspend our skepticism when it comes to religion, and just take things on faith, Keller drags in Tom Nagel, a philosopher who is one of the doubters of materialism when it comes to evolution and consciousness—though Nagel is not a believer. (Read Allen Orr’s negative review of Nagel’s ideas.)
I agree. We should require evidence and good reasoning, and we should not write off other religions as ‘superstitious’ and then fail to question our more familiar Jewish or Christian faith tradition.
But I don’t want to contrast faith with skepticism so sharply that they are seen to be opposites. They aren’t. I think we all base our lives on both reason and faith. For example, my faith is to some degree based on reasoning that the existence of God makes the most sense of what we see in nature, history and experience. Thomas Nagel recently wrote that the thoroughly materialistic view of nature can’t account for human consciousness, cognition and moral values. That’s part of the reasoning behind my faith. So my faith is based on logic and argument.
But of course Nagel is buying the “The Something of the Gaps” argument, one that is deeply flawed. We can alter consciousness (or remove it and then bring it back) by material intervention, which is pretty good evidence that consciousness is indeed a material phenomenon, even if we don’t yet understand how it works or how it evolved. Keller goes on:
In the end, however, no one can demonstrably prove the primary things human beings base their lives on, whether we are talking about the existence of God or the importance of human rights and equality. Nietzsche argued that the humanistic values of most secular people, such as the importance of the individual, human rights and responsibility for the poor, have no place in a completely materialistic universe. He even accused people holding humanistic values as being “covert Christians” because it required a leap of faith to hold to them. We must all live by faith.
Here Keller is conflating the religious view of faith (“believe these fairy tales without evidence”), with a confidence we have that if we treat people better, our society will wind up the way we want. Yes, it is a preference to favor human rights and equality over human non-rights and inequality, but you can at least see what kind of societies result from different interventions, finding out if what you wanted comports with what you do. Morality is also a preference (I don’t believe that moral values are objective), but I wouldn’t call it a “faith”, since it’s not belief without evidence. Your choice of a moral system is no more a “faith” than is your preference for steak over tilapia or chocolate ice cream over broccoli.
Keller’s non-Bayesian view of God.
Keller seems to think that because we don’t really know whether God exists, the odds must be about 50/50. But what about the priors: the lack of any evidence for a god, much less the Christian God? There are, after all, such things as likelihoods, and Keller’s embrace of Christianity seems no more rational than a Muslim’s embrace of the Qur’an as the literal truth:
I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.
. . . I’d also encourage doubters of religious teachings to doubt the faith assumptions that often drive their skepticism. While Christians should be open to questioning their faith assumptions, I would hope that secular skeptics would also question their own. Neither statement — “There is no supernatural reality beyond this world” and “There is a transcendent reality beyond this material world” — can be proven empirically, nor is either self-evident to most people. So they both entail faith. Secular people should be as open to questions and doubts about their positions as religious people.
Of course one can’t prove there is no god, but, as Victor Stenger used to say, “The absence of evidence is the evidence of absence—if there should have been evidence.” If God wants us to accept him and his son, why did he withhold the evidence from us, and in fact allow most of the world to believe in non-Christian faiths that Keller absolutely rejects? I’m sure Keller would reject all kinds of things (like Russell’s teapot) for which there’s as little evidence as there is for his Christianity. We simply have no evidence for a God, just like we have no evidence for a real Santa Claus. The sensible and parsimonious thing to do is provisionally reject a god.
Non-Christians don’t get saved.
Sophisticated Theologians™ twist themselves in knots trying to show that yes, even Jews, Muslims, Hindus and—except for Edward Feser—even dogs can be saved. Keller slaps them all down, though he can’t really give a good reason why all those non-Christians will broil in Hell. In the end, Keller just punts and says salvation is reserved for Christians because the Bible says so. But of course the Qur’an is clear on the same issue, but with respect to Muslims. And, in the end, Keller punts again and says, well, God’s ways are mysterious (my emphasis in the following):
The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:
You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.
Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”
I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.
There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.
What a reprehensible and unempathic little toad Keller is! And why did Kristof and the NYT give his blatherings space in the Christmas issue. Where’s an atheist to talk about evidence?