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.

The Truce on Christmas

Oh I’m a Christian holiday; I’m a symbol of original sin.
I’ve a pagan tree and a magical wreath and bow-tie on my chin!
Oh I’m a pagan heresy; I’m a tragical Catholic shrine
I’m a little bit shy, with a lazy eye, and a penchant for sublime.
Oh I’m a mystical apostasy; I’m a horse with a fantasy twist
Though I play all night with my magical kite, people say I don’t exist.
For I make no full apology; for the category I reside
I’m a mythical mess with a treasury chest; I’m a construct of your mind.

-Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn

Though an atheist, I still enjoy putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m not alone in that regard.

On my fireplace, a long plastic evergreen bough snakes between an Irish Santa Claus, a Polish Angel, and a sitting Buddha. To the right is my childhood Christmas teddy bear, wearing a red sleeping cap trimmed with white fur, and to the left are Christmas cards from friends and family. In my refrigerator, a turkey from some Muslim friends waits patiently for the tandoori treatment, while homemade peppermint ice cream slowly freezes below. On my Christmas tree, fragile glass ornaments from my wife’s family intermingle with clunky ceramic trinkets from my youth as well as those I’ve collected from my various skeptical and atheist organizations. Hanging behind it are stockings for our son, our two cats, and one that reminds children to fear the wrath of Krampus. Opposite the tannenbaum are a family of snowmen surrounding a menorah, driedel, and gelt. All are framed by glittering white lights that wash the entrance to my house with a warm glow, echoed by seasonal candles in every window.

I think Tertullian would approve:

“Let, therefore, them who have no light, light their lamps daily; let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.”

-Tertullian of Carthage, “On Idolatry”

No surprise then, to find out that this patristic Grinch didn’t celebrate Christmas. Indeed, it wasn’t even until the end of the Fourth Century that St. John Chrysostom in Antioch sought to make the 25th of December the official day to recognize Christ’s birth. A day which, as it happened, also celebrated the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Natalis Solis Invictus), though Chrysostom dismissed the coincidence: “But they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered.’ Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord…? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Thus the early Christian fathers snubbed the original “reason for the season,” namely axial tilt.

Cultures the world over, and throughout human history, have celebrated the annual death and rebirth of the sun, typically with feasting, lights, decorations, and singing. These serve a practical purpose as well as symbolic; the solstice is the darkest of the dark days of winter, when good cheer is at a premium; also heralding the beginning of the coldest months of the year, during which extra livestock become a liability. At this time, the beasts are slaughtered, the new wine is drunk, and the candles are lit while all engage in revelry.

“The delusion you’re trying to cure is called ‘Christmas,’ Duncan. It’s the crazy notion that the longest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens. It becomes true. Works every year, like clockwork.”

-Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

In many ways, the history of Christmas is the history of Christianity itself. As the Western and Eastern churches solidified their power and influence over Eurasia, Christmas adapted itself to the particular cultural mores of each society. The Catholic bishop of a minor Turkish town, whose only notable career achievement was being present during the routing of Arianism during the Council of Nicaea, inexplicably spawned a tradition of gift-giving among the children of Germanic people who lived a thousand miles away. Though the precise origins of this practice are lost to the mists of history, the myth has clearly eclipsed the man.

Saint Nicholas, usually with an unsavory helper (such as the demonic Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands), settled into the well-worn route first used by the perennial visits of Odin during the midwinter festival of Yule. With Nick and friends were blended other traditions, such as the blood-sacrificing Wrenboys among the Celts, the harvest-celebrating Wassailers among the British, and the life-affirming Mistletoe throughout Northern Europe. Thus did Holy Mother Church pacify the newly-baptized heathens, by recontextualizing their idiosyncrasies within the ever-expanding boundaries of orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, it was this Catholic indulgence of paganism that gave the Reformers absolute fits about the holiday. Martin Luther evicted the papish Nicholas and conscripted the Christ-Child himself to distribute holiday presents, and John Calvin (though he personally found moderate Christmas celebrations acceptable) through his theology influenced the Calvinist Reformers to abolish the holiday in Geneva in the 16th century, as well as in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

“…holy days of certain saints commanded by man, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the feasts (as they term them) of apostles, martyrs, virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our lady. Which things, because in God’s scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the civil magistrate.”

-Church of Scotland, “First Book of Discipline (1560)

This theology emigrated to the United States with the British Puritans, and though they could not always ban festivities, made it reasonably clear that European-style revelry was not welcome in the New World. As Cotton Mather suggested (when speaking of not celebrating Christmas), “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…” Indeed, the traditional American Christmas was in danger of being stillborn, were it not for the “Knickerbockers,” a literary circle that included Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Clement Clarke Moore. The former was the author of much of America’s early mythology, and reimagined the rowdy English customs of yore as quaint, cozy, and centered on the family. The latter is best known as the poet responsible for the 1822 verse “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” (also known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), which reoriented the European figure for an American audience.

It was just this gift-giving character that thrilled Yankee merchants eager to sell toys and other trinkets to parents who were increasingly becoming softer in their child-rearing. Thus this refocus on the commercial aspects of the holiday season also depended on the emphasis of familial connection, both of which persist to modern day. Between Thomas Nast and the Coca-Cola Company, the standardization of the Santa Claus imagery and costume by the beginning of the 20th century had become an internationally-recognized signal of the season. From there, it was really only a matter of time before Kris Kringle replaced the Kristkindle as the primary representative of the holiday, along with the department store endorsements, coruscating displays of excess, and pink aluminum Christmas trees that lead many to recoil from the season’s consumerism (though Libanius noted similar excess regarding Saturnalia/Kalends in the fourth century).

“I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

-Charlie Brown, “A Charlie Brown Christmas

As a boy, one of my earliest memories of the holiday is of the Ku Klux Klan seeking to and succeeding in placing a cross on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, in competition with a menorah that had been erected to recognize the Jewish solstice festival of Hanukkah. Although the specific ramifications of the First Amendment to the Constitution were beyond my grasp at the time, I do recall understanding that, at least within a public space, even if one doesn’t like the message being presented, fair is fair.

Which is a concept seemingly inaccessible to the likes of Bill O’Reilly and his co-combatants in the War on Christmas:

Though his protestations and presumptions are likely to send atheists and Christians alike into apoplexy, O’Reilly voices the oft-irrational concerns of the common American: in this case, that the godless heathens are coming to take our Christmas trees away. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the long-suffering President of American Atheists (and, I daresay, most of the infidel contingent he represents) would like to see is for the holiday to resign from its government position, and instead to spend its time exclusively in the private sector. And certainly, when it comes to overtly religious displays (like a nativity scene or an angel or a cross) on public property, I think Silverman is justified in his push for state neutrality.

But I’m willing to consider a truce at this point.

In part because I love Christmas so much, in part because squabbling over the public square diminishes my enjoyment of the season, and in part because I think the holiday has already outgrown its religious heritage, especially here in America. Here’s what I propose: Christmas shall henceforth be treated as a secular holiday open to the interpretation and enjoyment of all. Christians are welcome to revel in the theological implications of the day’s symbolism, while atheists and others may pick and choose those aspects of the day which resonate with their own particular values. The Christmas tree in the square will be a malleable and inclusive symbol, able to support the weight of Magi, Menorahs, and Muhammad, as well as any other marginalized culture that would appreciate a little bit of cheer in the darkness of winter (including we joyless atheists).

Black night behind the tamarisks—the owls begin their chorus—
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors—let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if “faint and forced the laughter,” and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

-Rudyard Kipling, “Christmas in India

Is such a truce possible? Would it hold? I think so, and I think that many of us have already negotiated something similar with our own consciences. After all, if anything has been demonstrated over the past couple centuries in America, it’s that Christmas is a major part of our culture, and it has been able to adjust to the demands of a changing history. I think it can handle a few atheist decorations on the branch.