?

Log in

GCU Dancer on the Midway
Paul Wright's blog
Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller 
25th Nov 2008, 09:40 pm
memetic hazard
Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He's written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you'd like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller's church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller's style, I can see why he's successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there's no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn't completely crazy. That's certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I've read or seen lately, I thought I'd do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We'll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can't be just one true religion

There's no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don't agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren't True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn't have gone on a Crusade and wouldn't shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller's sort of Christianity. However, Keller's assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn't shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

Keller argues that modern philosophers don't accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don't currently understand, and in fact, if he's much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth's analogy, if we're told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don't understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we've been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn't happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He's wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don't like suffering and aren't a sociopath, you've got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of "The Man is keeping you down, Man" statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller's church in New York. There's no logic to this objection, since there's no reason why such a God couldn't exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn't judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don't know what they've been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there's a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It's odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn't it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you'd've thought he wouldn't have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It's almost as if there's no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I'm not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don't see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn't seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don't like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is "Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?" or possibly "Well, maybe not in general, but I'm fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing". Keller's politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn't send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis's New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul's trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying "have it your way". Lewis says "It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud".

To support Lewis's ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God "giving people over" to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God's role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you'll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It's hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller's scheme.

So where did Keller's ideas come from? Lewis's (and hence Keller's) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller's Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you'll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller's Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that "When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing - though a good thing - becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy". This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible's actual view is less palatable than Lewis's, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God's express command. If you believe in the Bible's version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It's no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don't actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone's arguing there can't be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they're assuming their conclusion. I wouldn't disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God's activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there's nothing so stupid that you can't find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn't accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it's not clear what he means by "evolution as a worldview". Quotable quote: "When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy". Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins's views on evolution with Dawkins's general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn't mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there's the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam's sin, Jesus's death for humanity's sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn't tell us what they are and how he knows they're right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can't be used to show that theistic evolution didn't happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he's responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It's a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn't really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God's activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can't take the Bible literally

Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus's life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn't what we'd expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter's denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I'm no historian, so I'm not really able to check these claims out. I'd be interested to know what my readers think, and I'll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were "primitive", but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus's claim that he will judge the world, and Peter's denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus's forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying "bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn't raised from the dead" (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn't been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there's still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren't completely conclusive. I don't find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn't claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they're strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we'll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.
Comments 
26th Nov 2008, 12:00 am (UTC)
I don't know who this God person is, but I've heard that Oolon Colluphid has written several books detailing his greatest mistakes.
26th Nov 2008, 01:29 am (UTC)
Oolon Colluphid doesn't know who he is either.
26th Nov 2008, 12:05 pm (UTC)
*icon love*
26th Nov 2008, 10:48 am (UTC)
there might actually be one true religion.

I kind of don't think this is the key issue. Why do (some) people get hung up on the idea that having more than one religion is a problem? I see no particular difficulty in the idea of having a single, ineffable God, who might or might not be the creator of the universe and might be the arbiter of all that is moral, to whom practitioners of different faiths have different approaches.

It is certainly true that some of these approaches are seen as competing (although often, as with bickering siblings, the greatest competition is seen between the most similar approaches); it is even true that some practitioners define their belief as belonging to the "true" God who is different to "other" Gods. But that sounds like nonsense to me. It seems to me much more like a question of defining an approach, a relationship, than defining a God.

I don't see any reason for either a theist or an atheist to manufacture a problem from there being more than one way to have a relationship with God.
26th Nov 2008, 10:11 pm (UTC)
Your view is exactly the one that Keller is arguing against. He's an evangelical Christian who thinks that his religion is the true one and the others are false, and he's trying to argue against the objection that it can't be.

One of the things he argues against is the assertion that we're all just feeling different parts of the elephant. His argument (due to Newbigin) is that the parable-teller's claim that there's a single, ineffable elephant is actually a claim to true religious knowledge, so using it as an argument that there can't be true religious knowledge is self-defeating. (I'd add that the elephant parable is obviously about science, anyway).
One Religion - Anonymous - Expand
26th Nov 2008, 11:26 am (UTC)
There's no logic to this objection, since there's no reason why such a God couldn't exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

I'm not sure whose point of view this sentence is supposed to be said from. I'm presuming that you don't think every atheist's life is a continual debauch, but does Keller think so? Or does he think God would say so? Or does he (and/or you) merely think that God could say so without being logically inconsistent?

(I have to say, also, that if an atheist's life is supposed to be a continual debauch then I've been shortchanged somewhere!)
26th Nov 2008, 02:04 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure whose point of view this sentence is supposed to be said from.

Mine, in a sarcastic sort of way. I don't recall Keller saying that atheists' lives were continually debauched (although he may have got into the whole sexual morality thing, as that is presumably a large part of this objection).

(I have to say, also, that if an atheist's life is supposed to be a continual debauch then I've been shortchanged somewhere!)

I was very disappointed by that when I became an atheist: where was all that sex I was supposed to get?

Edited at 2008-11-26 02:05 pm (UTC)
26th Nov 2008, 12:20 pm (UTC)
That's certainly necessarily, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it.
As I imagine you already know - most Christians would refer to an encounter with God that is sufficiently compelling.

Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.
I thought Craig addressed this in BeThinking: Religious epistemology, but maybe he didn't. He has made the point before though that the means through which we'd expect God to provide sufficiency for belief would not be through a means that requires someone to be an expert in history, greek and hebrew, philosophy, etc... we'd expect it to be through a means that was available to the average person (and the sub average person).
26th Nov 2008, 10:52 pm (UTC)
As I imagine you already know - most Christians would refer to an encounter with God that is sufficiently compelling.

Jolly God. I'd better hope a sufficiently compelling encounter with God happens before I die, I suppose.

I thought Craig addressed this

I liked the first bits of that, but gave up after Craig's assertion we've no reason to think that God writing "JESUS WOZ HERE" across the face of the Moon would make more people come into a loving relationship with God. That's obvious nonsense. Craig's only evidence for this is that miracles happen in the Biblical narrative and people still don't believe. In the first place, that's asking us to believe the Biblical history is accurate, and in the second, the Israelites aren't doubting God's existence, but rather whether he's a better bet than the many other gods around them. Their position is quite different from the modern agnostic or atheist. Belief in God isn't sufficient for a relationship, as James's epistle points out, but it's certainly necessary.
26th Nov 2008, 08:25 pm (UTC)
Anonymous
Hope you don't mind if I drop my thoughts in one by one rather than I big response. Here's my first one:

I don't think the chess analogy works well, because you a placing yourself in a similar level of information as the chess grandmaster. A better analogy would be a grandmaster playing against someone who could only see one square of the board. You might see one of the grandmster's pieces being taken on the square, you might even see a few being taken, but really you are in no position to be able to say how the grandmaster is doing.

26th Nov 2008, 09:58 pm (UTC)
Hullo, who's that? Is it the artist formerly known as nlj21?

I suppose that the analogy relies on us having some idea of what the end state looks like. Even if we're weak chess players, we can recognise a win, I suppose, and we know the things (losing your queen, say) that make a win less likely during the game. (Oddly enough, Yudkowsky talked about this recently, though not in the context of theodicy).

It also relies on the future being causally related to the past by a commonly understood set of rules, whereas the Christian expectation of a Second Coming is more like God wiping the board, because God sets the rules (perhaps a better analogy from a Christian PoV would be to Mao).

Nevertheless, I can imagine ways in which the world could be better than it is, and God has allowed some pretty horrific stuff to occur, which you might imagine was like losing his queen. Predicting the future from the past seems to be doing OK as well. While I can't rule out a sharp break in the rules in the future, I don't have a good reason to believe it will happen, so it's no more rational to believe it than it would be to believe in a sharp break in the past. That is, believing in the Second Coming is something like believing in Last Thursdayism or that one is a Boltzmann brain, only with the time axis reversed.

Where are the squares we can't see, in your analogy?

Edited at 2008-11-26 09:59 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
27th Nov 2008, 07:40 pm (UTC)
In no position to say how the grandmaster is doing?


Just read Keller's book! The grandmaster is doing fine, in fact he is all-good at chess.


How come Keller can say how well the grandmaster is doing, when we are in 'no position to be able to say how the grandmaster is doing'?
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
27th Nov 2008, 08:45 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Next point. (from nlj21)

"Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better."

I thought Keller's argument that exactly the opposite was true. Christianity calls sinners, so we should expect our churches to attract the worst in society, not those who think they are better than others.

I think his analogy with a hospital works well. Where do you find most sick people? In hospitals. Should we expect people in hospitals to be clearly healthy than those without. No. (Ignoring any points about MRSA). Who is the church for? Sinners.

I think the statement which would make sense would be:

"Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Then delta-goodness for Christians ought to be greater."

as Christianity claims to change people in preparation for heaven (through God living in them as you point out).
30th Nov 2008, 06:30 pm (UTC)
"Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Then delta-goodness for Christians ought to be greater."

I'm not sure why the absolute goodness of Christians should not be greater, too. Is God living in some people less than others, or unable to bring about dramatic changes in some people? What happens to those people who aren't very good in absolute terms when they die? (Lewis's answer is "Purgatory", BTW, but last time I looked evangelicals didn't approve of that idea).
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
(no subject) - Anonymous - Expand
27th Nov 2008, 07:33 pm (UTC) - Chessplaying analogies
Gareth's analogy of an alleged grandmaster playing badly?

I came up with that analogy.

See http://www.theologyweb.com/forum/showthread.php?t=41111

God, of course, might have unknown reasons for letting people believe in Heaven and Hell when they do not exist. After all, parents have reasons for letting their children believe in Santa Claus.

Keller might claim it was an evil for this alleged god to allow people to believe in Heaven and Hell, when they do not exist.

That would be a refutation of my point, if Keller did not claim that his god allows all sorts of evils.

So how can Keller claim to know Heaven and Hell exist, if his god has unknown reasons for evils?

27th Nov 2008, 07:53 pm (UTC) - Re: Chessplaying analogies
I expect lots of people have independently come up with the same analogy. I wasn't consciously echoing you, and so far as I can tell I wasn't unconsciously echoing you either :-).
27th Nov 2008, 08:52 pm (UTC)
Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily.

This is quite interesting; it suggests that atheist popularizers like Dawkins might being doing useful work in helping atheists to disbelieve for rational and coherent reasons, so that they are not easily flustered by arguments of the form "your rationale for atheism is poorly conceived and badly expressed; therefore Christianity is true".
2nd Dec 2008, 05:35 am (UTC) - some
Hello. dragging myself out from under an intellectual rock to sputter a bit at your demolition of one of my mentors. You gave Keller a serious reading and I respect your objections, so there's not a lot to say. I almost resisted the temptation to reply, but then found myself irresistibly drawn, probably by Satan.

1. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

You haven't shared with us your thoughts about time, a puzzle which bears directly on the comments of Peter the Impetuous. Jesus says: Things will get better someday. [n.b. also sez: they will get worse first.] The next day comes and goes; evidently, it was not the day in question. The next week: still waiting. The next year: likewise. The next millenium: likewise.

Your use of the word "evidence" suggests to me that we can scientifically say that the rearriving God is now clearly fictional, while in the 1st century he was only moderately tardy.

***

2. ... if you don't like suffering and aren't a sociopath, you've got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

The trick is "basis." The thrust of Keller's claim is that we have no alternative but to take a faith position, and that the faith position implicit in the Christian life can provide a coherent basis for ethical reasoning. Are you denying that faith positions are obligatory? Or rather that Christian faith is a suitable basis for ethics?

***

3. It's almost as if there's no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

Indeed. It's no more supernatural a process than that by which seeds that fall on different kinds of soil flourish or perish in different ways and on different timetables. (This is not an original analogy on my part.)

***

4. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

Yeah. I think, if you take the trouble to get to know the Christians within arms' reach and they're clearly worse than the general population, you are justified in ignoring the whole mess. That's the profound truth behind the "no true Scotsman" fallacy - it's of enormous importance whether or not Christians act as Jesus taught them to act.

***

5. If you're going to quote Matthew 25:41 as a proof-text of God's self-identification as a purveyor of infinite torment, you should engage with the fact that the goats, in this peculiar story that Jesus is telling, were condemned for withdrawing from the poverty and suffering within their own communities, and failing to act compassionately. And the ones who are saved are explicitly portrayed not as religious zealots ("Jesus? What did it have to do with Jesus? We didn't see you around...") but strictly on the basis of their actions. How bizarre!

***
6. Keller says that "When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing - though a good thing - becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy". This claim is asserted without evidence.

What kind of evidence should he have provided? If he's wrong, it should mean that people can build their lives on things other than God without needing that thing to be happy. Or else maybe you feel that worship is optional, that the idea of people "building their lives" on anything is a religious construct to begin with.
3rd Dec 2008, 12:21 am (UTC) - Re: some
You haven't shared with us your thoughts about time

I'm not sure what you mean, but I did talk about predicting the future in one of my replies to the Artist Formerly Known as nlj21.

Are you denying that faith positions are obligatory? Or rather that Christian faith is a suitable basis for ethics?

I think it's a common Christian apologetic technique to say that everyone must have a position or a worldview, that these are all equivalent since they all rely on faith, and therefore Christianity is no worse than any other. I've been meaning to make a post about that for a while but I've not got around to it yet, but the gist of a response would be that some things require less faith than others. If we're taking a position on ethics, as I said somewhere else recently, it seems to require less faith to say that eating babies is wrong than to say that God is the basis for morality. That is, I would encourage people to take joy in the merely good and not worry that our ideas of what is good would have no purchase on minds radically different from ours.

Indeed. It's no more supernatural a process than that by which seeds that fall on different kinds of soil flourish or perish in different ways and on different timetables. (This is not an original analogy on my part.)

:-) If you think so, fair enough. But you do see Christians claiming that "God turned me around" in a way that was miraculous.

I think, if you take the trouble to get to know the Christians within arms' reach and they're clearly worse than the general population, you are justified in ignoring the whole mess

Not just that: if they are not clearly better, going by the idea that God lives in them. The Christians I know are pretty decent, on the whole, but then, so are the non-Christians. (Interestingly, a Christian arguing about this sort of thing with gjm11 in a newsgroup a while back said "That's all very well for your middle-class existence, but you should see the difference between Christians and non-Christians in my rough neighbourhood": maybe there's something in that, but it seems giving people a better life would serve just as well as making them Christians, in that case).

5. If you're going to quote Matthew 25:41 as a proof-text of God's self-identification as a purveyor of infinite torment, you should engage with the fact that the goats, in this peculiar story that Jesus is telling, were condemned for withdrawing from the poverty and suffering within their own communities, and failing to act compassionately. And the ones who are saved are explicitly portrayed not as religious zealots ("Jesus? What did it have to do with Jesus? We didn't see you around...") but strictly on the basis of their actions. How bizarre!

I've genuinely forgotten the standard evangelical get-out to explain that this passage is actually teaching justification by grace through faith, although I assume I must have known it at one stage. Are you saying you don't want to use the get-out?

What kind of evidence should he have provided?

Well, quite. I think there's some truth to the idea that people can make idols of things (we've all met people like that), but I don't think everyone does it (the evangelical idea that everyone does it is another "well, you do this anyway, so why not just switch your faith position?" apologetic). I find it hard to think of one thing I base my life around, for example: I like my wife, my friends, my job, and dancing, and if I lost any of them, I'd be upset and maybe struggle to cope, but I'm not sure how this is a failing in the way that Keller seems to paint it. Those things seem more reliable than God, after all, who seems to have vanished from the scene :-)
2nd Dec 2008, 05:38 am (UTC) - some more
***

7. Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible's actual view is less palatable than Lewis's, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God's express command. If you believe in the Bible's version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one.

On the one hand, I want to say: preach it. This is exactly why my first attempt to be a Christian foundered. It seemed to me that, according to the Christians' own book, God is the landlord of Hell and sends all infidels there (which removes Hell from any legitimate association with justice, because it's not about someone's righteousness or un-, but only about their creeds... what could be more absurd or repulsive??).

Having been there, I know the unwisdom of trying to talk you out of it. So, on the other hand... there's just this other hand.

***

8. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn't mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

The inspiration God gave the Biblical writers was not this kind of abstract, "Take dictation," kind of secret message-in-a-bottle for later generations: people wrote the same way anyone else wrote, to communicate meaningfully to the people around them. As Christians, we trust that this normal kind of writing was God's instrument for communicating, not only to that generation, but also to later generations.

***
9. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature?

No.

This is a perfectly valid argument.

(I love how you use hyperlinks. Have you created some kind of macro for sticking all these links in? How do you do it?) Anyway, you might consider reading Keller more charitably. There are good reasons to consider the claim that Jesus is the Christ central if not primary to Christianity. It was that claim folks were engaging with 2000 years ago, not (as you have noted) a set of unwieldy claims about awkward documents not yet written. Keller is saying, sure, you'll never take Jesus seriously without placing some credence in at least part of the Bible. (Hence his stress on the gospels. The most important issue to address is that of Jesus. Did he exist? Is there any reason to think he rose from the dead? If you find some reasons, and begin to take Jesus seriously, then you will take the Bible seriously, and there will be a non-arbitrary basis for considering some issues of Biblical interpretation more critical than others.) If you are trying to consider Christianity globally, as some kind of whole (as so construed by you) and ask, "In the abstract, is the Bible trustworthy?" then the answer has to be no and Christianity should be rejected as false. It may indeed be false, but you would have arrived there by a non-sequitur.
3rd Dec 2008, 12:47 am (UTC) - Re: some more
This is exactly why my first attempt to be a Christian foundered.

So now you're a universalist, right? :-)

Keller can have his Hungry Ghosts Hell if he likes, my only objection to it (other than that there's no evidence for it, obviously) is that Keller's supposed to be an evangelical, and the Hungry Ghosts Hell doesn't seem to fit with all that stuff about propitiation of God's righteous wrath that evangelicals were so keen on, stuff which they seemed pretty sure was backed up by the Bible (and if it's not true, why did Steve Chalke have to die for our sins?)

If I were making up my own afterlife, I think I wouldn't fix someone's trajectory at death (and after that, judgement), but rather, would keep trying to turn them round. Perhaps I have been corrupted by scribb1e, but the boddhisattva seems holier than the divine judge, to me.

As Christians, we trust that this normal kind of writing was God's instrument for communicating, not only to that generation, but also to later generations.

Sounds to me like you're rejecting the verbal inspiration of scripture, you heretic.

No

Tell that to Lee Strobel. (Seriously, it's a pretty popular Christian apologetic technique to at least convince you that they're experts in ancient history, if not that you should become one yourself).

(I love how you use hyperlinks. Have you created some kind of macro for sticking all these links in? How do you do it?)

I do a Google search and cut and paste. I'm not bothered by HTML, it's simpler than a programming language. The style where the text says one thing and the link says another was borrowed from various humour sites.

While I agree with Keller that the Bible being sexist isn't a reason for rejecting Jesus's resurrection, he commits an equal non sequitur (on p. 113 in the copy I borrowed from TAFKA nlj21), which was my point. He gets into some arguments that the gospels are historically reliable (which I'm not really qualified to comment on), but then takes a step too far with the "Jesus believed the Bible" argument.
6th Dec 2008, 06:39 pm (UTC) - Re: some more
On the one hand, I want to say: preach it. This is exactly why my first attempt to be a Christian foundered. It seemed to me that, according to the Christians' own book, God is the landlord of Hell and sends all infidels there (which removes Hell from any legitimate association with justice, because it's not about someone's righteousness or un-, but only about their creeds... what could be more absurd or repulsive??).
Hell is considered to be the punishment that all people deserve. It's not that acceptance of a creed saves someone, it's Christ through his death on the cross, but that salvation is not something that is forced on people, it's optional. The creeds only exist to codify what Christians believe, they are in and of themselves irrelevant to salvation.
5th Dec 2008, 07:11 am (UTC) - Why does God send people to Hell?
Amazingly, Keller claims people in Hell are selfish and self-absorbed, and he cites as evidence a novel by C.S.Lewis.

Can you imagine the laughter if Dawkins had taken a novel about Christians and cited it as an example of how evil Christians are?

If Dawkins had taken a Hammer horror movie about a Witch-finder General and cited the Witch-finder General from the movie as an example of how Christians love torturing people?

But Keller can do the same sort of thing, and win a reputation as a great Christian apologist.
9th Dec 2008, 04:12 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Paul, I found this article from your link on The Uncredible Hallq (http://uncrediblehallq.net/blog/?p=199).

I wrote a very long and detailed review (http://www.amazon.com/review/R3RERCQ01WVML2) of this same book on amazon.com, and I see that you have some of the same objections to the book that I do.

You write:
If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you'd've thought he wouldn't have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It's almost as if there's no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

I don't disagree with you, but in Keller's talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9fmKSwuoDE) which I attended here in Berkeley, he actually said that evidence of changed lives of people who become Christians does not count as a good reason for believing the claims of Christianity, because some people change their lives significantly for the better without religion at all. I think Keller deserves a lot of credit for being honest about that.

9th Dec 2008, 10:18 pm (UTC)
Sorry about what LJ has done to your links. It does it as an anti-spam measure for anonymous commenters and I can't turn it off. I'm not sure whether it'd be friendlier if you logged in with OpenID (which would also give you a consistent name attached to your comments: if you have a Yahoo or Blogger account, you probably have an OpenID). Anyway...

he actually said that evidence of changed lives of people who become Christians does not count as a good reason for believing the claims of Christianity, because some people change their lives significantly for the better without religion at all

Yes, I wasn't saying that Keller had claimed that changed lives counted as evidence, but rather that, given what evangelical Christians say about the change that takes place on becoming a Christian (I added the "evangelical" there because it's clear that not all Christians agree), it's odd that significant life changes aren't the norm. nlj21 (the other anonymous commenter) has been arguing that we've no reason to expect these changes to happen instantly.

Edited at 2008-12-09 10:19 pm (UTC)
This page was loaded Aug 1st 2015, 6:10 pm GMT.