The Thanksgiving Paradox

Tree“Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”

–Job 1:21

Several years ago, I was invited to represent the local atheist community at an interpath event held at the Unity Church of Dallas. There were all manners of religious traditions present, including several liberal forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a few dozen or so eclectic individuals who had adopted a kind of a mix-n-match approach to their religious worldview, blending certain aspects of Hinduism with various other aspects of Paganism, for example. It was an interesting cohort, to be sure, and I felt unexpectedly comfortable among this metaphysical diversity.

As the event drew to a close, the organizers announced that there would be a circular prayer, in which each of the invited participants would give a culminating invocation to their respective gods or goddesses to bring the proceedings to a close. As the circle drew around to my seat, I briefly considered remaining silent, but then at the last minute offered this supplication:

“Dear God in Heaven, thank you for giving me the intellectual capacity to disbelieve in You.”

After the event had ended, one of the younger Ahmadiyya Muslims in attendance approached me with a wry grin. “That was a funny prayer you offered,” he said. “I totally got the joke.”

I flashed him a smile in return, and said, “Thanks. But I was also being quite serious.”


As a child, the religious character of the Thanksgiving holiday was an obvious example of the manifest destiny concept with which most American history is colloquially taught. And the narrative most of us absorbed is full of justification for such gratitude: after fleeing religious persecution in England, the Separatist Dissenters sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, landed and founded Plymouth Colony, starved through their first winter, and then were contacted by Samoset of the Native Abenaki tribe, who introduced them to Squanto, the last of the Native Patuxet tribe. According to the English Separtists’ accounts, Squanto not only provided them with crucial guidance in survival techniques, but he also negotiated a political treaty between them and Massasoit of the Wampanoag, culminating in a Thanksgiving feast that we memorialize each year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Except that’s not exactly all there is to the story.

The Separatists or “Pilgrims” as we call them were not the last English settlers to come, but neither were they the first. Squanto, the Pilgrims’ benefactor, had previously been kidnapped and enslaved by English explorers, taught their language, and trained as an interpreter. Upon returning to his homeland, he was kidnapped and enslaved again, to eventually be set free by kindly Spanish monks. When he finally did return home a second time, he found that the entire population of his tribe had been wiped out by disease just the year before, leaving him as the sole survivor. Indeed, the very reason why the Pilgrims chose the Patuxet’s former territory for Plymouth Colony was because the land had obviously been cleared and tended but was abandoned, precisely because of this plague, part of the legacy of the introduction of European pathogens to the Americas.

And following the happy Thanksgiving feast, things did not go so well for the Wampanoag. More English settlers, primarily Puritans, arrived in what they were calling “New England,” to the point where the Native Americans were now in the minority. Not all of these settlers were as interested in cohabitation as the original Pilgrims had been, and between recurrent disease outbreaks, pressure to covert Natives to Christianity and English culture, and also the violent retribution against Native attempts to reassert their sovereignty, their participation in America’s history was reduced to a mere footnote.

So looking back at the history of the event we celebrate every year, I have to wonder… is the gratitude of the Pilgrims enough to make up for the calamity of the Wamapoag? To say nothing of the utter disaster that characterized European/Native relations over the following four centuries?

And I feel much the same way about expressing gratitude to the divine.

Author J. Daniel Sawyer has remarked, though he doesn’t believe in God, he’d “like to have someone to say thanks to.” And that desire resonates with me, especially in the middle of an autumn walk through some particularly spectacular foliage. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I sometimes think to myself on these occasions, “to know that someone was responsible for all of this natural beauty, and be able to thank them for the joy that I feel in this moment.”

But it’s a sentiment with strict demarcation.

Because I know too much about the natural world, and I know that for every fiery leaf that catches my eye, there is an innocent creature caught in an inferno and turned to ash. For every streaming cataract that captures my imagination, there is a pool of deadly water that imprisons a drowned child. For every soft breeze that tousles my hair and caresses my cheeks, there is a person smashed into oblivion by a raging tempest.

Consider perhaps, a painting so beautifully transcendent that its subject seems to connect right through into the center of your being, its composition so balanced and harmonious that it evokes an immediate and deep sense of peace and satisfaction, its colors so brilliant and textures so ideal that real life is dull and hazy by comparison. Such a work of art would demand the highest degree of respect and appreciation for the artist, would it not?

But then consider that the canvas for this magnum opus was cut, slowly and with the maximum possible amount of suffering, from the skin of a still-living person. And the pigments used to create the artwork were cunningly crafted from blood, drawn slowly from the same person, while she looked on in full conscious horror. And the brushes used to apply the paints to the canvas were fashioned from bones, cracked and wrenched violently from that same person’s fingers.

Would you still be able to enjoy that painting as you had originally?


What pains me most about offering gratitude to God is not simply reconciling the good things that happen with the bad. Even in a Godless Cosmos, there will be things that humans regard as good and evil; there is no inconsistency there. Because in a world without God, the existence of evil is either a failing of humanity or a happenstance of the apathetic Cosmos; two sources which I have no trouble reconciling and accepting. Instead, what I find myself unable to morally assent to is the prevalence of evil acts which no God worth the name could be inconvenienced to prevent, and yet which occur nonetheless. It would, for example, have been trivial for God to have introduced a strong genetic resistance to the smallpox virus in the Native peoples of the Americas. Such a small change would have had tremendous ramifications on the European colonization of this continent, and would have reduced the death and suffering of Squanto’s people by several orders of magnitude.

Now, theistic philosophers explain why this incrementally better God is not possible, citing any number of theodicies which almost-but-not-quite cover the entire range of natural and human evils we observe. But the same range of evils are consistent with a Godless existence as well; theists and atheists alike can agree that the worst of all human traits would manifest with or without a personal deity, and an impersonal Cosmos would hurl just as many bolts of destruction. So the paradox is that, it is only upon invocation of God that prayers of thanksgiving have any sense, but the tendency of that same God to balance the ledgers with calamity renders that thanksgiving senseless. That is to say, for every event God allows which inspire tears of joy, He also allows those which cause tears of despair. It is not necessarily the case that God has to play a zero-sum game, but it happens nonetheless. Would the Pilgrims have had as much to be thankful for in 1621 if the Patuxet were still living on their land, and if the larger Wampanoag confederation had not been decimated by European disease? Would America have risen to its level of prominence without centuries of slavery bolstering its national economy? Would I be able to enjoy the current privilege and safety I now have without the dripping blood of countless soldiers who are sent into warfare on my behalf?

As long as the God of classical theism cannot resolve this paradox any better than He did for His suffering servant Job, He is no God worth believing in. And yet still I wonder, is there not a God who could accomplish everything that inspires our gratitude without also allowing everything that provokes our pain? Such a God would, if He existed, be much more likely to earn my admiration, and certainly a much different prayer.

The Santa Problem

santa_jesus

Santa and Jesus: the solstice season’s chicken-and-egg.

A pastor friend of mine recently shared his thoughts on the so-called “Santa Problem” with his congregation. Some of the faithful, he noted, had expressed some concern about the inclusion of Santa Claus in their Christian Christmas celebration, and wanted to know his opinion of the matter. Many Christians, he said, see the problem as having either one of two possible solutions: either embracing the Santa story completely and encouraging their children to believe in his existence, or completely shutting their family away from the Claus myth cycle and focusing only on the Nativity. Ultimately, he noted that his family uses a compromise position between the two, where their children are taught about Santa Claus as a fictional character, to be categorized along with Cinderella.

He was amused when I told him that a similar question was rampant within the atheist community, but for a much different reason. Where Christians were concerned with Santa overshadowing or even replacing the importance of Jesus’ birth during the Christmas season, many atheists tended to view the Santa myth as being harmful given its supernatural qualities, as well as problematic from the fact of telling a false story to children. However, other atheists like Dale McGowan see the Santa story as an excellent opportunity to teach children about skepticism and critical thinking. “Do you think it’s possible to visit every house in the world in one night?” they ask their kids. “How is it possible for a reindeer to fly?”

I agree with both my pastor friend, as well as Dale. Santa Claus as we know him today is both a fictional literary creation, as well as an object lesson in the value of critical thinking. And yet even as an atheist, I feel that Jesus and the Nativity story should be included in my family’s celebration of the holiday for the very same reason. For both Jesus and Santa have much in common, and have followed similar paths throughout history.

Obscure Historical Origins

Both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ have appellations in modern culture that are far removed from any kind of historical reality. “Santa Claus” as many people know, is an Anglicized version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” which itself is derived from “Saint Nicholas.” Likewise, “Jesus Christ” comes to us as name “Yeshua,” filtered through Greek, Latin, and English, combined with the Anglicized version of the Greek title “Christos” meaning “annointed.” The reliable historical information that we have for both come only through devotional sources, with little more than a name and a spatio-temporal location to anchor them in history. For St. Nicholas, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that he lived in the Fourth Century in Myra (modern-day Turkey), where he was a bishop in the early Catholic Church. Any more beyond that (including his presence at the Council of Nicea) is pseudo-historical speculation or pure legend. Similarly, the minimal historical certainty with regard to Jesus places him in Palestine in the First Century (although that could even be disputed).

Miracle Claims

The legendarium associated with St. Nicholas is wide, and several tales vie with Jesus’ miracles in terms of quality and quantity. In one such story, the city of Myra was in the midst of a terrible famine, during which a ship entered port with great quantities of grain, bound for the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas is said to have asked the ship’s captain to donate a portion of his cargo to the city in its hour of need, but the captain did not want to risk the wrath of Constantine. When Nicholas promised him that he would not suffer adverse consequences as a result of their aid, the captain relented. Miraculously, when the ship made its final delivery in the capital, the missing weight had been restored, and the donated grain was sufficient to last the citizens of Myra for two years. In another such story, Nicholas happened upon a village suffering economic hardship and famine; the local butcher had enticed three boys into his shop, where he killed them and chopped them into pieces to sell as animal meat. Though the butcher tried to hide his misdeed from the Saint, Nicholas saw through to the truth, and resurrected the boys out of the barrels in which their bodies had been stored. Of course, the modern Santa myths imbue him with all sorts of magical powers that one might also find associated with Jesus, such as the ability to pass unhindered into closed rooms, the ability to transcend physical restrictions on travel, and the ability to discern a person’s internal thoughts.

Moral Authority

“You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” goes the song. And indeed, the value of Santa Claus as a moral authority seems to have given him significant influence over the centuries. After all, any parent knows that the power to give a gift is reflected in the power to withhold it as well, and parents from medieval to modern times have threatened their children with Santa’s poor graces in response to poor behavior. In the Germanic countries, the moral component of Santa Claus is made explicit, as the figure is divided in two, one benevolent and the other malevolent. The traditional “Bad Santas” take many forms, from the human Belsnickel to the demonic Krampus. Each version reinforces the importance of good and moral behavior. In Protestant Germany, the overlap between Santa and Jesus was so clear (and anti-Catholic sentiment was so high) that the Christ-child himself (in German, kristkindle) stepped in to take over duties for the papish figure of St. Nicholas. In America, both Jesus and Santa are combined as one, as our version of the Santa myth gives him the birth name of “Kris Kringle” (derived from kristkindle).

Pagan Parallels

The pagan influence on the stories told about Jesus are under robust debate among theologians and historians, although it cannot be disputed that there are parallel figures in the preceding pagan culture (Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus), as well as among contemporary tales (Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle-Drawer, Pythagoras). Likewise, although it may not be clear precisely how one influeced the other, there is a clear pagan parallel for Santa Claus in the midwinter visitation of Odin, one of the chief gods of the Norse myth cycle. Though prominent largely due to his role as a warrior, hunter, and master of wisdom, Odin was also said to wander among the mortals in the guise of an old man with a long white beard, cloak, and an eight-footed steed (cross-reference the “eight tiny reindeer” of the modern version of the Santa myth). Odin was said to visit and bring gifts during the midwinter festival of Yule, which even now is made equivalent to our modern Christmas season, and from which we derive the Yule log, feasting and merriment, and remembrance of deceased family members.

Modern Commercialism

Both Jesus and Santa have been affected by the influences of the modern commercial culture. Indeed, as American society grew increasingly secular throughout the 20th century, Christian products and services expanded into a new niche market which has only become more pronounced. Christian bookstores, coffee shops, and clothiers are but a sampling of the ways in which Jesus is both salesman and product. Likewise, the warm embrace of Christmas as a holiday centered on gift-giving personified by the ultimate gift-giver has given us a Santa Claus who now is the star of his own films, television programs, books, and video games, but whose image is put into service to market these and all other products to consumers during the lead-up to the Christmas season. Whereas in his past incarnations, Santa reflected a desire of parents to reward their children for good behavior, he now bestows manufactured goodness on the naughty and nice with equal fervor; to do otherwise would be bad for business.

In the end, of course, Jesus is Jesus and Santa is Santa. But I think that the lessons we learn as we critically examine one can be used to help us better understand the other. And so in my house, at least, both figures are welcome; Christmas is a holiday big enough for all.

The Reason for God

LackOfFaith

Skeptics, beware.

It takes a certain kind of apologist to quote the Dark Lord of the Sith extolling the virtues of faith. It also takes a certain kind of apologist to compare the nature of doubt with the protective effect of the immune system. Tim Keller is that kind of apologist.

Though raised in Lutheran and Methodist churches, Keller was drawn to Calvinist theology after college and joined the conservative wing of the Presbyterian church. His Manhattan congregation (a sizable cohort of 5000-odd young Christians) receive from him equal measures of Reformed teachings and pop culture references. Indeed, if William Lane Craig has been relegated to the role of awkward, out-of-touch, and slightly embarrassing uncle of apologetics (especially after this incident), then Keller is the cool, confident, and entertaining uncle of apologetics, equally capable of discussing the finer points of soteriology as well as Star Wars.

In his recent book, “The Reason for God,” Keller engages with seven of the more common skeptical complaints he encounters from his parishioners, and follows them with seven attempts at evangelism. He acknowledges without grumbling that the trend of religious participation in the United States is following the example of Europe (at least with regard to Christianity), and that the demographic shift is heralding a new rise in apathetic irreligion, significant skepticism, and outright atheism.

Keller’s primary apologetic thesis is that doubts advanced by skeptics of Christianity are themselves indicative of an alternative faith-based worldview:

All doubts, however skeptical and cynical them may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.

One or more variations of this thesis are both common among traditional apologists who seek either to 1) minimize the role that faith plays in the formulation of their own worldviews, or 2) drag their skeptical opponents down to their own epistemological level, thus offsetting any rhetorical advantage. But in his endnotes, Keller adds a substantial caveat, exempting both self-evident facts and scientifically-determined conclusions from his recontextualization of “doubts.” For good reason too, as these underlie a significant amount of skepticism with regard to Christianity and other religions.

But Keller is less concerned with these, and more concerned with responding to facile complaints, such as the post-modern “there can’t be just one true religion,” or the tedious “Christianity is a straitjacket.” In responding to “the Church is responsible for so much injustice,” Keller employs the No True Christian defense as he neatly divides the history of violence into that committed by other religions, that committed by godless Communists and their ilk, and that committed by Christian fanatics, not proper Christians like Bonhoeffer, Popieluszko, and King. On “science has disproved Christianity,” Keller clings tightly to Gould’s NOMA and leans heavily on metaphorical interpretation; though neither dismissing creationism outright (lest he anger his colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary), nor embracing modern science, he meekly settles on theistic evolution as a compromise consistent with his faith, and attempts to give his Christian readers sufficient license to follow him to that conclusion. When responding to “you can’t take the Bible literally,” Keller wisely and pointedly avoids any discussion whatsoever of the Old Testament, and makes his best attempt to historicize the Gospels. One wonders how well Keller would fare when confronted by a skeptic who was familiar with ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Babylonian history, or especially the archaeological conclusions of Finkelstein and Silberman.

Lastly, Keller splits the Problem of Evil into two sections, one focusing on the Problem of Suffering and the other on the Problem of Hell. Throughout his book, he borrows heavily from C. S. Lewis, but nowhere more heavily (and with more futility) than here. Suffering, Keller tells us, is evidence for God, since the very concept would be meaningless without His existence. But he somehow fails to grasp that there is no moral outrage from atheism at instances of natural evil, and anthropogenic evils are explainable within natural psychological and sociological paradigms. Keller goes on to explain that since Jesus experienced the ultimate suffering, we all can take some measure of comfort by identifying with Him during even our deepest melancholy. However, Keller admits that even this rings a bit hollow, and notes that:

I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is “not in vain.”

Here Keller hits on the crux of the Christian response to the Problem of Evil: the unflappable conviction that God will make all things right in the end; that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ will restore harmony to the Cosmos. But Dostoyevsky put it perfectly when he wrote:

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

In the second half of his book, Keller largely dispenses with apologetics and instead invites his readers to “put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.” His first step in this direction is an appeal to teleology and aesthetics; a wise move, and indeed I’ve confessed to many Christians that these represent the emotional Achilles heel of atheism. Conceiving of a Cosmos apathetic (and even hostile) to my own existence exposes the raw nerves of my apostasy, even as it fosters and encourages my Humanism. But Keller stumbles hard when he claims that morality without God implies that “whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference at all.” And this is where Christian conceptions of morality always fall short, in linking the concepts of good and evil to some arbitrary cosmic judge, rather than in terms of human suffering and flourishing. Keller (and indeed, nearly every apologist like him) fails to realize that he can’t have his cake and eat it too; if morality is a function of an extra-dimensional intelligence, then “good” and “evil” are still no more than subjective opinions. For morality to be truly objective as he desires, it would have to be completely separate from the mind of God, thus making Him irrelevant to the issue (aside from perhaps acting as a messenger).

Keller finishes the rest of his book with standard conservative preaching about the nature of sin, the message of the Gospel, and the promise of salvation. Throughout he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically; it is clear that this is his element. For example, when discussing the most intellectually problematic concept in all of Christianity:

The doctrine of the Trinity overloads our mental circuits. Despite its cognitive difficulty, however, this astonishing, dynamic conception of the triune God is bristling with profound, wonderful, life-shaping, world-changing implications.

And finally, Keller invites his readers to repent of their skepticism and accept Christ as savior. One wonders if he truly understands what it means to be a “skeptic,” or if he simply has overwhelming confidence in the persuasive power of his writing (or the Gospel message he attempts to convey), but I suspect most self-styled skeptics will chuckle at his earnest if naïve offer.

DoNotThink

Not all that surprising coming from someone who talks about taking a “leap of doubt.”

At the end of it all, I appreciate Keller’s attempt, if not his execution. He is consistently as humble as his theology allows him to be, winsome, and above all else sincere. If Generation X was the generation obsessed with irony, then the Millennials are the generation who desperately seek sincerity. I suspect this is why Keller’s church has been so successful at bringing in new members in their 20s and early 30s; in an environment like Manhattan, where everything is a performance (and indeed some churches have legitimate audiences), I’m sure someplace like Redeemer Presbyterian Church seems like an oasis of candor. Were I still a Christian (and living in NYC), I daresay I’d be calling Tim Keller my pastor. Hell, even as an apostate, I would have a hard time finding someplace else I’d rather be on a Manhattan Sunday than listening to one of his sermons.

Like the New Atheism, Keller’s New Apologetics offers little new from a theological or philosophical context. But I truly do appreciate the difference in tone and approach, and am hopeful that his example is followed by other young apologists seeking to build their own ministries. Even if his reason for God isn’t reason enough to change this skeptical apostate’s mind, I have faith that Keller’s approach will be a positive force for the New Christianity.