Tag: Timothy Keller

Wrapping Up Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God”

Wrapping Up Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God”

As a part of my year-long God Project, I’ve spent the past month reading Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  I read Keller’s The Reason for God and Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in order to give ample attention to my Tradition.  Having grown up as an Evangelical Christian like Keller, The Reason for God allowed me to critically reflect on the beliefs that I inherited.

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Sin – an ethical case for God?

In the previous post, I commented on Keller’s existential argument for belief in God in his book The Reason for God.  Keller, sounding a bit like Paul Tillich, argued that each person effectively deifies some role or goal, and the only way to avoid existential disappointment is to put our infinite trust in an infinite God.  If we find meaning in our friends and jobs, we will be shattered when they let us down.

But Keller doesn’t think that idolatry – treating finite goods as though they are the infinite God – is a risk only to the idolaters themselves.  According to Keller, idolatry puts everyone at risk.

The Sin of Self- Centeredness

If our highest goal in life is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic. [1]

In his book A Scandalous Providence, Frank Tupper makes a similar point.

The self turns into iteslf to gain stability within the self, the self-securing a failure to trust God . . . [2]

Unlike Timothy Keller, Tupper, takes his analysis further, locating the origin of this dangerous tendency towards self-centeredness in evolution.

Emergent human persons socialized within a particular community in a world stamped with indescribable, commonplace violence to protect its societal life.  Actually, self-preservation is the most significant factor relating earlier animal forms to the human animal in biological evolution, for self-preservation in the dawning of human existence involved the problem of self-protection through violence, the acquisition of food by violence, and the resolution of the fear of “the Other” with violence. [3]

Early human beings depended on desperate violence to preserve themselves against other animals and other human tribes.  Pacifist tribes, had they ever existed, would presumably have been quickly removed from the gene pool by starving warriors of neighboring tribes.  The genes and societal structures that survived the fires of early human life left a deep, violent mark on “human nature.”  Violent self-centeredness continues to this day.

Imagine a world where everyone could see beyond their own self-interests.  Imagine a world where the well-being of us isn’t more important than the well-being of them.  It’s hard to fit racism, war, and interpersonal ugliness into that picture.  The rich wouldn’t hoard their resources away from the poor, because rich kids would no longer be inherently more important than poor kids.  Nationalism would evaporate.  Globalization wouldn’t be so scary.  I would like to live in that world.  I would like to live that way.  But self-centeredness – sin – holds me (and us) back.

The Solution

What can we do about sin?  How do we opt out of the natural human tendency towards violent self-preservation?  The solution, say Tupper and Keller, is to center our lives around the God of love instead of ourselves and our tribes.  To borrow Paul Tillich’s phrase, if we are ultimately concerned with someone outside of ourselves, someone who loves each person equally, than we will be less taken by racism and self-preserving violence.  Threats to me and my group are less threatening if what really matters to me is God, who loves each person.

Of course, a shocking 81% of white Evangelical Christians who voted in the recent U.S. election say they voted for Donald Trump, a man who expressed precious little sensitivity towards people outside of the in-group of white, Christian America.  A recent conference of global Evangelicals expressed concern, claiming that Donal Trump “will harm the Church’s witness“.  It’s hard to escape the impression that Donald Trump considers American workers to be more important than workers oversees, the safety of American citizens more important than the safety of Syrian refugees, Christians more important than Muslims.  As this election has shown, belief in God does not necessarily inspire believers to care more about outsiders and less about themselves, at least on the scale of national politics.

Like most of Keller’s arguments for God, the potential political payoff of theism does little to demonstrate that God is anything more than a human projection.  As such, Keller fails to address one of my biggest questions.  Even so, I still think that Keller and Tupper have a point.  At least in theory, believing in a benevolent God should help me to resist discrimination and violence in my own heart and in the world at large.

 

References

[1] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 175. Print.

[2] Tupper, E. Frank. A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2013. 185. Print.
[3] Ibid. 186. Print.

Idolatry and Ultimate Concern – an Existential case for God?

In my previous post, I wrote about Timothy Keller’s arguments for the existence of God in his book The Reason for God.  Keller makes the case that nature, beauty, and human morality “point to” a transcendent Being.  But thankfully, Keller doesn’t stop at speculation; he clarifies why belief in God matters in day-to-day life.

Existential Disappointment

Sounding like the good evangelical preacher that he is, Keller states that each person lives for something, whether that be the accumulation of money, sex, career-related success, parenting, or something else.  According to Keller, we each have some goal, some purpose, some center of meaning in our lives.

But this can be a liability.  If a mother lives for her children, what happens when they grow up and leave the house?  If a businessman lives for career success, what will he live for after he’s already become the CEO of the company of his dreams?  If we live for our friends, what happens if they let us down?

Interestingly enough, Keller’s existentialist tone reminds me of a book I read a while ago by Paul Tillich, a theologian with far less concern about towing the line of Protestant Orthodoxy.  In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich makes a similar analysis of the human condition: each person is “ultimately concerned” about something, willing to sacrifice all else to achieve the reward associated with the ultimate concern.  But just as nationalistic Germans became utterly disillusioned and disoriented after their beloved nation was defeated in WWII, we are each vulnerable to great pain if our infinite ultimate concerns turn out to be finite after all.  What can carry the immense weight of meaning and identity? 

In effect, both Keller and Tillich identify this existential risk as idolatry.  Like the ancients who evidently worshiped finite trees, animals, and crafted images as though they were an infinite god, we moderns “deify” finite goals and vocations as though they were something far more – something infinite.

The Solution

What is the solution to idolatry?  Keller’s solution is simply to put our faith in God, allowing the truly faithful, infinite One to fill the “God-shaped hole” in our life.  Nothing short of an infinite God can take that spot in our lives without eventually letting us down.

Paul Tillich’s solution to idolatry is a bit more complicated.  Tillich argues that religion, too, can turn into idolatry when we treat the means of contact with God as though they were God.  He seems to be thinking especially of American fundamentalism with its intense devotion to the Bible, often lapsing into idolatrous Bible-worship.  But even non-fundamentalist faith involves risk, since our way of talking about God can always collapse into nonsense or irrelevance, causing the disintegration of meaning in our lives.  The solution is courage – courage to accept the inevitable risk of faith.  The good news, says Tillich, is that we can never be separated from the infinite, which reaches out to us (see Romans 8:38).

At the end of the day, both Tillich and Keller seem to be saying roughly the same thing: The risk of ultimate disappointment can only be addressed by properly orienting our lives towards God.

An Existential Case for God?

This kind of existential argument moves me in a way that Keller’s speculation about beauty, the origin of the universe, and morality does not.  Maybe that’s because this kind of message was built into my psyche during my Evangelical childhood, or maybe it’s because I’m the kind of person who always has a clearly defined, immensely important goal or interest.  I think that Keller and Tillich are correct: my goals give me short-term meaning but put my long-term stability at risk.

In theory, I would love to protect myself from ultimate disappointment by centering my life around a truly infinite God.  Of course, this is far easier said than done.  But the clear advantage of some form of theism, at least in this regard, re-frames my deliberation over belief in God.  I would certainly rather continue believing in God, so long as I can do that without crossing my fingers.

But it is worth noting that Keller and Tillich’s existential arguments leave unaddressed whether God is mere human projection, something we would like to exist, or if we can honestly believe that there is a God independent of our wishes.  It is uncertainty over that question that continues to bother me, and no practical payoff of theism can erase that problem.

Does God exist? (Reading Keller)

Can I believe in God without crossing my fingers or turning off my brain?  That’s one of the main questions that I’m hoping to address with my ongoing God project.  Timothy Keller faces this kind of general question in two consecutive chapters titled “Clues for God” and “The Knowledge of God” in his book The Reason for God.

Nature as Evidence of God

Keller doesn’t think that one specific argument or group of arguments could (or should) convince every single rational person that God exists, so Keller doesn’t put all of his eggs in one basket.  Instead, he cycles through a variety of arguments that point to a transcendent Being.

Something had to make the Big Bang happen-but what?  What could that be but something outside of nature, a supernatural, noncontingent being that exists from itself.

-Timothy Keller, The Reason for God [1]

What could cause our current system of cause-and-effect?  According to Keller, only something outside of that chain – something god-like.

For organic life to exist, the fundamental regularities and constants of physics . . . must all have values that together fall into an extremely narrow range.  The probability of this perfect calibration happening by chance is so tiny as to be statistically negligible. [2]

Our world seems fine-tuned, as though it were deliberately created to make life possible.  Maybe it was deliberately created!

. . . science cannot prove the continued regularity of nature, it can only take it on faith. [3]

The laws of nature are consistent and reliable.  Why would this be unless there is a God sustaining our world?

Thankfully, Keller acknowledges that these arguments are not airtight.  But remember, Keller isn’t claiming to present any single argument that will force all rational people to believe in God.  Instead, he’s making the case that theism is better than atheism at explaining existence, our universe, and the laws of nature.  At best, these arguments might nudge skeptics a few inches closer to belief in God.

I appreciate Keller’s approach.  Yet I do not sense that any of his arguments settles anything for me.  It all seems so speculative.  For what it’s worth, the fine-tuned universe argument strikes me as the most persuasive.

Beauty and Morality

…regardless of the beliefs of our mind about the random meaninglessness of life, before the face of beauty we know better. [4]

Isn’t it true that innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them . . . ?  Doesn’t the unfulfillable longing evoked by beauty qualify as an innate desire? [5]

Good art tells us that our life really matters, as though our finite lives have inherent, objective value, as though we really matter to God.  Our experience of beauty is like an itch that can never quite be scratched, pointing to a divine Itch-Scratcher.

In a similar vein, doesn’t our sense of right vs. wrong, especially when it comes to human rights, point to some objective morality?  Or is the conviction that genocide is wrong purely a matter of unproveable personal preference?

If there is no God, then there is no way to say any one action is “moral” and another “immoral” but only “I like this.”  If that is the case, who gets the right to put their subjective, arbitrary moral feelings into law? [6]

As far as I can tell, both of these arguments are ultimately inconclusive.  Maybe humans long for Absolute beauty, and maybe we try to force our moral opinions on each other as though they were God-given.  Yet this does not mean that a perfectly beautiful and just Being necessarily exists.  This could just as easily be evidence that humans have invented their gods in order to rationalize their pursuit of beauty and justice.  Where Keller and many other Christians throughout history see a “god-shaped hole” in human beings, atheists can just as easily see a hole-shaped god – a fairy tale made up by superstitious wishful thinkers who were too afraid to admit that their opinions are no more than opinions.

Does God exist?

If these two chapters have done anything, they have simply clarified the important questions for me:  Do I believe in God because I’m too afraid to face an uncertain universe, morality without guarantees, and the unfulfilled longing for beauty?  The more believe-able and vital God is to the human psyche, the harder it is to determine whether humans are created in the image of God or God is created in the image of humans.  Only a detestable and irrelevant god could be immune from charges of imaginative wishful thinking- but even then, such a god would most deserve to be doubted.

Is God a projection?  Keller thinks the evidence points in one direction.  Richard Dawkins, who I will read next, thinks it points in the other.  So far, I don’t see how speculating about beauty, morality, or the origin of the universe could sway me very far in either direction.

References

[1] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 133. Print.

[2] Ibid. 134. Print.

[3] Ibid. 136. Print.

[4] Ibid. 139. Print.

[5] Ibid. 139. Print.

[6] Ibid. 159. Print.