God Cannot Care About You

August 27, 2008

Is this world arbitrary? Christians almost always feel compelled to say no. If we believe this world is arbitrary—if it just as well could have been some other way—it seems to undermine the very thing we come to the religion for: meaning in life. If God might just as well have made the world a different way—say, without you—then it seems to imply that you’re not a very important part of the world, or at least not significant in God’s plan. In fact, you are arbitrary.

So instead, Christians want to say that the world isn’t arbitrary. God had a very good reason to make it just the way he did. In fact, this is the best world that could possibly be. (We’re not talking about evil here. See earlier posts.)

If this is the best world that could possibly exist, then making a lesser world when this one is possible would not be fitting for so great a god as He of the Christians. In fact, He wouldn’t be a very great God at all if he choose to create a world that wasn’t as good as another one He might make, right? So by God’s very nature, he would have to create the best of all possible worlds.

So before God ever sets out to create this world (universe, etc.), he has been handed a blueprint for universe building. It is directions for the best world that is possible. Since God didn’t arbitrarily pick this plan, but it was in a sense, chosen already since it’s the best possible plan, God simply functions as the force behind putting it into practice. God is, in a sense, carrying out orders. At best, He is middle management.

So if the plan is already determined (being the best one possible), and God is the force which brings it about, we might look for God from our own point of view and meet him half-way. Is there any force in the universe which carries out its task and formed the world as we know it? One might easily say: the laws of nature. Between the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the law of gravity, etcetera, we have found an omnipresent and omnipotent force which is responsible for the creation of the world. Have we not found “God?”

The other alternative is to say that God picked this world from a really long list of other possible worlds for no good reason at all—completely arbitrarily. Any other world would have been just as good as this one—including one where you don’t exist. But a religion of this God wouldn’t really provide much meaning for life, now would it? If God didn’t care, but arbitrarily chose to create this world, and it just happened to have you in it, it doesn’t communicate very well that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, does it?


The Reason Against God

August 25, 2008

My reasons for leaving Christianity are exactly the same as Tim Keller’s reasons for why you should join it: There is no one overwhelming argument which can’t be denied; instead there are a lot of smaller reasons which, when taken together, provide an inductive force so compelling I couldn’t resist it. Also, like Keller, I like this story better.

Ironically, Keller’s book was fairly instrumental in my deconversion. As I’ve said other places, it was a long and gradual process which finally led me away from the faith. But the last lifeline I had was Tim Keller’s recent book, The Reason for God. I know and respect his work in many other places and was hoping that this book would provide me with the rationale I needed to counter credible unChristian arguments and sustain my Christian belief. The opposite happened.

Keller takes up a two-part strategy: First, he demonstrates how the objections to Christianity, or “defeater beliefs,” assume the same form which they intend to criticize. Second, the constructive portion of his argument can probably be accurately caricaturized1 as: “Christianity is a really nice story, so you should accept it.”

In the first half of the book, the “defeater beliefs” section, Keller astutely lays out the overall problem: there is no objective place from which to judge various worldviews. Kudos to Keller on this because many people never get this, especially many Christians! Unfortunately, the book is all down hill from here. Keller tries to illustrate the issue with his elephant analogy. A summary: Imagine several blind people touching a creature which they don’t know is an elephant. One says, “It’s long and flexible like a snake,” feeling the trunk. Another says, “No it’s thick and round like a tree trunk,” feeling its leg. Another touches the side and says, “No it’s large and flat.” Then Keller says:

In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant? … How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed that none of the religions have?

As someone who was wrestling with this very question, I was thrilled when it looked like Keller would say something profound about it. Excitement turned sour when instead of the profound and rational thinking I’ve come to expect from Keller (and I have read/listened to his work many other places with the highest praise), I was given a very flimsy straw man and logic-less pebbles hurled in its general direction.

My immediate response to this particular analogy was first that it is probably a good analogy, and the many different religions do “feel” different parts of a single great reality. But to answer the last question in this quote above: We would know by listening to each other charitably, thinking clearly, and not by a theological imperialism that claims the perspective of omniscient narrator simply because we already proved no one can hold that position (sic).

The rest of Keller’s first section on “doubting your doubts,” is filled with more of the same: straw man arguments weakly attacked. No person who actually holds the various positions Keller represents would agree with his caricatures—evidenced by each of the non-Christians and even my Keller-loving Pastor friend who made up our book discussion group. By the end of the first half, our group continued reading out of astounded disbelief at what could possibly be in the second half that would redeem the first.

The second half of Keller’s book is nice. He starts with a smart approach which finally recalls his admission in the Introduction that no one stands in an objective position to evaluate other worldviews. So he suggests that instead of looking for airtight arguments, we look at the gestalt of small indicators like: The origin of the Big Bang, cosmological constants allowing for life, the regularity of nature, beauty, and “the clue-killer [that] is really a clue.” This is not meant to be a long book review, so I must deprive you of specifics, but as Keller went through his clues for God, each of them struck me as either having a simpler explanation short of God, or even as full support against his Christian suggestion.

To close, Keller morphs the last six chapters away from almost any rational argument at all. Instead, he describes features of Christianity that are nice and appealing, expecting to make the sale on ideal virtues. Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you paradise after you die? Isn’t it nice that Christianity gives you a justification for morality? Isn’t it nice that God did such a dramatic thing as sending his son to “write himself into the story?” If you’re ready to convert, see the epilogue.

So Keller’s project is actually three-part: 1.) give reasons to doubt objections to Christianity, 2.) Present Christianity as something that “would be nice if it were true,” then 3.) Invite the reader to believe it.

My response to Keller’s book went like this: 1.) every single objection you raised has far deeper merit than you even begin to acknowledge, 2.) There are parts of Christianity which are great and really “would be nice if it were true,” but “want makes not.” 3.) I already want to believe Christianity is true, but it’s the real arguments which your straw men caricaturize that have twisted my arm away from belief.

After reading Keller’s book, I’m left at the last conclusion that Christianity is a nice story—and even my favorite religion—but it’s a long way from being true. But his book is very convincing: It has convinced many Christians that they should be Christians; and it has convinced many non-Christians that they should be non-Christians. But it has also convinced at least one Christian that he should be a non-Christian.

1 I use this word “caricaturize” several times despite my spell-check trying to make it “characterize,” because I mean it as: “a good natured exaggeration of the most significant features: to make a caricature.”



Thinking of God

August 22, 2008

The human brain is ideally suited for inventing God.

In his groundbreaking book, On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkings (the creator of the Palm Pilot) explains his very convincing hypothesis on how the human brain works. The problem up until Hawkins was that neuroscientists were concerning themselves with gathering data about the many complexities of the brain (a very important task) but not hypothesizing about what that data means. As we all know, the scientific method happens by hypothesis and falsification. So without the hypothesis, the science of the brain is only half-complete. So a big thank-you to Jeff from the rest of mankind.

Hawkins’ hypothesis is that the basic function of the human brain is “naming patterns.” Hawkins’ model has the brain organized as a tree-shaped hierarchy. At every stage in the brain’s analysis, the neurons of the neocortex receive input from several other neurons (structurally “beneath” it) and react by sending some kind of signal on to the next neuron (structurally “above” it). The processing done by the neuron in question, Hawkins suggests, is essentially the recognizing of learned patterns and passing the name of that pattern up in the hierarchy. This signal then becomes one of several inputs to the neuron next up in the hierarchy and the process happens again.

Let me give up my summary of Hawkins’ hypothesis with a hearty recommendation to read his book! A consequence of this model is compelling for thinking on religious matters: The human brain is ideally suited for inventing the concept of God. But before I explain what I mean, let me just say that if Hawkins’ hypothesis is found valid and my argument here also, it doesn’t necessitate God’s non-existence. This argument could equally be a rationale for how humans beings are intentionally created to find God, and thus without excuse. But I don’t find it as such.

The hierarchical human brain naturally categorizes. A glance around a coffee shop finds more than just one kind of thing (the coffee shop), but several: people, furniture, decorations, food. We can further categorize; pick furniture: tables, chairs, counter. Keep going; Table: legs, top, surface, edges. Etcetera, etcetera. But I still would mention only one thing if I tell you “I’m going to a coffee shop.”

We categorize in the other direction as well, getting to bigger things. A person is part of a family, which is part of a community, which is part of a municipality, which is part of a state, which is part of a country, which is part of the planet, etcetera.

This happens for events as well. “The ball is thrown; strike out; the inning is over; the Brewers lose the game. The Cubs win the world series. They are the national champions.”

This pattern happens very naturally for humans because it is how our brains function. We see patterns everywhere and we give them names. It’s how we create. Christians are prone to follow these created categories of mind in either direction, increasing or decreasing, and find God at each end. An educated Christian might hypothesize God’s action as the causal force behind superstrings, or even as a grand-unified theory of the cosmos—the next hierarchical category in either case. A Christian-on-the-street might cite God’s providence as the unifying category for several “coincidences” this week.

In any example I might give, it’s the basic suggestion of Hawkins that human beings are naturally inclined to take several disparate incidents and categorize them by finding (creating?) a common pattern. So of course, for anyone who tries, God can be found everywhere since he is by definition the ultimate category; and we are, by design, wired to create and name our categories.


POSTSCRIPT: Whether you find this line of thinking as an argument for or against the existence of God will depend upon your starting point. A Christian will see this as an explanation of how God works in the world: “God created mankind to seek and depend on Him; this is how He did it.” A non-Christian will read this as a simpler explanation for natural things observed: “See? We have an account to explain phenomena which doesn’t require God, so we shouldn’t add him in unnecessarily.” It comes down to a matter of which question you’re trying to answer: “How does God work in the world?” or “How God need not work in the world.” Is it any surprise that each side only ever succeeds in convincing people who already agree with them?


August 15, 2008

“Theocracy is the worst of all possible governments. All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretentions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.”

— C. S. Lewis, Lilies That Fester

What Dreams May Come

August 14, 2008

Intellectual Christian theology tends to include a doctrine of the closed canon. This means that God has already spoken and will not speak any more—at least not in the same way which he has already. Conservative Christians take the Bible to be the inspired word of God (See the earlier post: Inspiration). It functions with a level of authority which no other document can and which no person can challenge. I suggest there is a very good and clever pragmatic reason why the intellectual branches of Christianity (like Presbyterianism as contrasted against less intellectual Charismatic branches—both with which I have considerable experience!) insist upon such a doctrine despite a lack of Scriptural support. This reason is something I will call “Trajectory Theology.”

Trajectory Theology is a fundamentally different way to approach the Bible than what is assumed by most mainline conservative theological traditions. Instead of taking the Bible as a systematic whole meant to reveal truth about the universe we would never grasp otherwise, Trajectory Theology takes the Bible as a document of its time, not meant as the final word, but which indicates the direction in which God is moving the world.

C. S. Lewis coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to indicate the fallacy of privileging a certain period of time (usually the present) and the values, views, and beliefs of that time as being inherently superior to that of a past age. An example of this could be found in Joseph Campbell’s book “Myths To Live By” when he takes for granted that no one actually believes Christianity is historically true any more simply on the grounds that it is impossible in the intellectual climate of his day. Writing in 1966, Campbell says:

“It seems impossible today, but people actually believed [the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden] until as recently as half a century or so ago: clergymen, philosophers, government officers, and all. Today we know—and know right well—that there was never anything of the kind: no Garden of Eden anywhere on this earth, no time when the serpent could talk, no prehistoric ‘Fall,’ no exclusion from the garden, no universal Flood, no Noah’s Ark. The entire history on which our leading Occidental religions have been founded is an anthology of fictions.”  (Campbell, Joseph. “The Emergence of Mankind.” Myths To Live By. New York: Penguin Group. 1993. pg. 25.)

The chronological snobbery of this passage lies in the assumption that no one could possibly believe it today because it is such an outdated belief. Campbell ignores the fact that many scholars of his day and beyond actually do hold the belief in question and even more, it’s not proved untrue simply because it’s unfashionable in his time and “seems impossible today.” What’s more, you’d be hard pressed to find any proof of the non-existence of a thing which doesn’t fail to exist necessarily (which matters of history almost never do). While I respect much of what Campbell has to say in other places, this passage easily earns Lewis’s label of “chronological snobbery.”

But I suggest that this term should apply in both directions. Just as we should not privilege the present day as having a leg up on the intellectual competition because it is later in history, we should also not privilege the values, views, and beliefs of a certain age of the past simply because it is previous. Nevertheless, this is what Christians do with the age of the Bible—especially the New Testament. The message of Jesus Christ is taken to be the last word on the subject by most intellectual branches of Christianity that I am aware of—the notable exception being the Catholics who acknowledge statements made by the Pope ex cathedra as having a similar, but lesser authority. Hence the doctrine of a closed canon: God has revealed what will be revealed and nothing more can be admitted—at least nothing on the same level as the New Testament revelation. I suggest that the unscriptural doctrine of a closed canon is an example of chronological snobbery, but is pragmatically necessary to stave off Trajectory Theology.

Progressive revelation, or “Trajectory Theology,” as I’ve been calling it, is an understanding of the Bible as being divine revelation for a specific time. Therefore, as a 21st century theologian, one must look at the Bible as saying what it means to say to people of a specific time in history, and not (as a chronological snob) being a once-and-for-all revelation to all time. Therefore, given the different time periods which the Bible covers (for example, Old Testament and New Testament—or however one might divide them up), a faithful theologian would examine how doctrines have changed from one era to the next and faithfully conclude that the changes which occurred between those eras will continue in kind on through into new eras, like our own, resulting in a fuller—but different—understanding of the original doctrine.

Here’s a concrete example: Exodus 20:13 says “Thou shalt not murder.” This is the Old Testament revelation. In Matthew 5:21-24, Jesus reinterprets this revelation, saying:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to the judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

In this passage, Jesus reinterprets the original passage, “Thou shalt not murder,” as being a command about the internal emotions of a person and how they affect tithing, not simply their outer actions—even though this is neither what the actual text said nor how the original audience understood it! So in like manner, with another 2000 years of historical water under the theological bridge, one might find it reasonable that pastors of today preach on Jesus’s sayings in Matthew and introduce new meaning to that passage as well. After all, no one today says “Raca.”

The problem that arises for Christian theology is when this practice is applied with equal faithfulness to to the Bible as a whole, and not just selected parts. The most provocative is probably that of salvation. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But this is obviously not what the Old Testament Hebrews believed. They believed that, as God told them, the sacrifices of bulls and goats they offered to God paid for their sins and let them “come to the Father” (which, notably, isn’t “go to heaven;” but that is a topic for later post). Jesus reinterpreted the Old Testament laws to mean something different for a new time. He has support outside of his own words as well, when the author of Hebrews says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

So we have several examples of clearly understood Old Testament laws being reinterpreted for the different time of the New Testament. Trajectory Theology continues this tradition by looking for the path toward which these doctrines are headed through their change over time. Avoiding C. S. Lewis’s label of “chronological snobbery” and assuming that there isn’t one privileged period of history through which all events must be subordinate, we should instead look for the directions that orthodox theology will take as history changes up to the present day.

As stated, the most provocative of the theologies we might consider is salvation. If the Old Testament Hebrews were saved by the blood of bulls and goats, and New Testament believers of any race were saved by faith in the work of a certain man, where might that leave modern day Christians?

Who can say?!? But one thing seems clear: unless we are chronological snobs, we must at least admit the possibility that there could be further revelation which opens the doors for salvation even wider and in ways which we have not yet dreamed—just as the New Testament Jews hadn’t dreamed that a commandment about murder could actually be a commandment about the emotions they felt on the inside and tithing.

Lest you think I suggest these things lightly or alone, I will leave you with a quote from the very patron saint of modern-day Evangelicals and his seminal work: “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”  –C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.