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.”

 

 


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Theocracy

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.

See No Evil

August 13, 2008

There are a only a couple ways for anyone who believes in God to account for evil. I want to trace one path at the present moment and highlight its shocking conclusion: that most Christians deny the existence of evil.

Either evil comes from God or it doesn’t. (c.f. The Law of Excluded Middle) Christians are usually keen to say it doesn’t come from God (“God is not the author of evil.” c.f. The Westminster Confession of Faith) but ambivalent about the actual source. On one account, it comes from the hearts of mankind (Genesis 6:5-6 and many more); on another, it’s from the influence of the Devil (Job 1:12 and many more). Most Christians that I know hold a confused amalgam of both sources. The curious feature I wish to highlight is present among any theodicy which accounts for the existence of evil as part of God’s plan for the world, regardless of its source.

According to most Christian justifications of evil, evil plays an important part in God’s plan for the world. (The most notable exception probably being that of Open Theism, which does not fall victim to this line of reasoning, but has its own set of problems.) God’s view of evil is probably best articulated by Jonathan Edwards’s explanation (or John Piper’s summary) of God seeing evil through two lenses: a zoom lens where God hates evil and its practitioners, and a wide-angle lens where God sees the function of evil in bringing Himself glory through the broad sweep of providential time. It is the later to which I take issue now.

This issues is commonly called the Problem of Evil and lies in the apparently inconsistent premises: 1.) God is all-powerful, 2.) God is entirely good, 3.) Evil exists. Some attempts try to qualify the power of God (ex: Open Theism). Some try to qualify the goodness of God (ex: dualist or polytheist theologies in which the gods are not all good). Some try to qualify or deny the existence of evil (ex: Christian Science). It is this last group where most Christians accidentally fall.

Christians deny that evil exists. The response to the problem of evil is often that God has a use for evil. In the end, they insist, good is displayed or God is glorified in ways that couldn’t have happened if this evil didn’t exist. I believed this line of reasoning for a long time. But if evil ultimately results in a larger good (which wouldn’t have happened otherwise), evil is not evil but rather a particular species of good. It’s a means to an end. Evil is necessarily how good happens. So if you take the long view, like Edwards suggests, whatever evil you might consider is actually a good thing in the long run because it is necessary to bring God glory in the end. “Evil is good in the long run.” Evil is good. Take the blue pill; welcome to the Matrix.

Any explanation of evil which posits a greater purpose of evil falls prey to this same peril. “Evil is an illusion that results from our limited perspective. If we could see it from God’s perspective—the hidden truth—we would see that all evil is necessarily a good thing because it accomplishes God’s plan.” Then the part no one admits: “So evil doesn’t really exist; it is only part of the good.” Therefore, everything is good.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28

Boundaries

August 9, 2008

Another watershed issue that marked the final milestone for my Christian faith can be encapsulated in a statement you’ll find amazingly simple: What’s true is larger than what’s Christian.

As I timidly told my Christian friends about my new admission, the invariable response I got was, “Well of course.” I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this. Christian doctrine wasn’t meant to describe everything that mankind could know. Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” But that seems more like planting an American flag on the moon. The US Government doesn’t own the solar system because Neil Armstrong brought a banner.

The problem comes for the Christian faith when you start considering where the boundaries of truth might lie and why we draw those lines where we do. Let’s start with just one example of what else might be within those bounds.

“Muslims are a problem,” I told my pastor-friend over a back-yard beer one evening. “They worship the God of Abraham and claim to have genuine religious experience, just like Christians do.”

“Yes…” He is a good and sympathetic friend.

“But almost no one wants to say that Christianity is the same religion as Islam. This leaves three possibilities as I see it: Either one of them is true, both of them are true, or neither of them is true.”

“Jesus makes some pretty exclusive claims to truth,” my friend reminds me. “‘No one comes to the Father but through me.’ That probably rules out orthodox Christians believing that both are true.”

“Good point.”

“The same is probably true for Muslims, but I know less about their doctrine.”

We both sip our beers and I start back in, “So if only one of them is true, we have a big problem in determining who’s religious experience is valid and who’s isn’t. Here again, we have three possibilities. Claims to genuine religious experience like answered prayer or healing could be either 1.) real encounters with the God, 2.) self-deception, 3.) deception by a third party like the devil.”

“That’s probably what I would say of Islam,” said the pastor, “that Mohammed was deceived by a demonic spirit. So even if he did believe he was hearing from ‘the God of Abraham,’ the fruits of his teaching demonstrate that the source must have been an evil spirit or the Devil twisting the original word of God that Abraham received.”

“Right!” I start to get a bit more excited. “But therein lies the problem. You have just as much reason to say that about Islam as Muslims have to say about Christianity—and that goes for all three of those options. Everyone loves to trumpet the Crusades or bombing abortion clinics as perfect examples of evils that result from Christian teachings. So a Muslim could look at Christianity and cite those things as proof that the Christian teachings are influenced by whatever the Muslim equivalent of the Devil is.”

“Except that Muslim doctrine supports violently attacking people who hold a different ideology.” He’s a sharp guy.

“But regardless of which doctrines one chooses to highlight, each practitioner, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or something else, has equal justification for applying the ‘demonic’ label to the other religion. The same is true for self-deception. I know you’ve said that you are a Christian because you have a real relationship with the person of Jesus.”

“Yep.”

“But what would you say about a person who claims to have a real relationship with Allah?”

“If not that some demonic power was involved, I probably would say that they had convinced themself of it and now have something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly!” I rounded the last bend, “And they could say the same of you. So in the end, you each have the same justification for claiming that your experience is a real experience of God, or lack thereof. And this brings us back to the first issue: if neither side has exclusive claim to their religion being true, and each claim both religions can’t be true, the only option we are left with is that neither are true.”

Neither of us liked this conclusion. We each sat back in our chairs and took long sips of our beer. I finished mine and set it down on the picnic table as I started in one last time. “But there is another option we didn’t consider: Maybe both of them are partially true. And the parts of truth which each highlight cover different a part of the greater tapestry of truth. It’s like the back yard here is truth, the neighbors property line marking the limits of what’s true.

“Let’s say Christianity occupies the space of the cement patio we’re on,” I continue, “and Islam marks the area where your daughter’s blow-up swimming pool is. They might overlap just a little bit, but each area covers different ground in the back yard. They both reach just beyond the back yard, or outside of what’s true, but for the most part they’re each in different parts of the back yard. Neither is the whole story, and neither are entirely in the yard. But with each taken alone, we don’t cover as much ground.

“Are you saying the exclusive claims are what’s beyond the back yard boundaries?” the pastor asked. “Do you mean that if religions weren’t exclusive, they would both really be true?”

“This will probably be a conversation for another night, but what I mean is that spending our time drawing boundaries around the patio or the pool is missing the point. We have a whole yard to enjoy. I’m going for a swim.”