All Religion is Culturally Conditioned Truth (RJS)

Tim Keller has spoken on a number of different occasions about his book  The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Many of these are now available on the internet through YouTube and on other sites. As I work through his book I will link to a number of these videos as appropriate. The video today comes from a presentation in a question and answer interview format with NBC journalist Martin Bashir and with David Eisenbach who teaches at Columbia University and at the Manhattan School of Music.

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The title claim of today’s post comes up at two points in this session, the first at 5:57  when Martin Bashir asks “Is God just a projection of our cultural circumstances?” The second comes at 57:29 when David Eisenbach asks “Why is Christianity so exclusive?”  You can drag to these points on the embedded video here. On the YouTube site there is an index in the description (click show more) that allows direct access to both of these segments.

Chapter one of The Reason for God considers the objection often heard that there can’t be just one true religion. The claim to exclusivity is clearly, or so many think, wrongheaded and dangerous. Religion is a culturally conditioned construct – Moroccans are Muslim and Americans are Christian because of the culture within which they are raised. In addition, the arrogance arising from the conviction that one has access to absolute truth is responsible for much of the evil in our world. Many people believe on some level that religion should be outlawed, condemned, or at least relegated to a purely private sphere of life.

Keller suggests that it is easy to show that outlawing religion is generally ineffective. Condemnation of religion is only possible if one holds to some belief system – and all such systems require a “leap of faith” resulting in an inherent inconsistency. Why condemn one believe system and not another? Privatization is never possible as everyone, no matter what faith or creed, brings a value system into the public discussion.

There is a lot in this chapter worth discussing, but I would like to concentrate on one particular point from p. 9-11 in the book or 5:57-9:10 in the video above – a point that has come into focus quite clearly for me in recent months.

In the video Martin Bashir asks:

5:57 Isn’t it true that the notion of God is simply a projection of our own cultural circumstances. For example, if you were brought up in Pakistan you might well call yourself a Muslim as my parents were. If you were brought up in India, you might call yourself a Hindu or a Sikh. These are projections out of the natural culture in which people live. In your book you’re saying well actually the creative order of things points at God, I’m suggesting to you that actually God is a projection ourselves from our own cultural circumstances. Isn’t that true?

Keller’s response points out a flaw in this reasoning. The view of secular humanism or religious relativism also arises in a particular social context. The social context, which is always present, does not make Christianity, Islam, or religious relativism either true or false.

 7:16 In other words, what you’ve proposed proves too much and it reminds me of Peter Berger. Peter Berger in his book … A Rumor of Angels he has a chapter called Relativizing the Relativizers. … Peter Berger says in Relativizing the Relativizerswhat you actually just said. He was one of the founders of the sociology of knowledge school and the sociology of knowledge says largely we believe what we believe because of our social plausibility structures, that is we are surrounded by people who  also we admire and we need and they all believe this and therefore that makes that belief plausible.

Now here’s what he says then. He says that once you decide that all beliefs are to a great degree socially constructed you have to realize that that belief must be not immune to what you’ve just said. That is, that belief must be to a great degree socially constructed. I’m an academic, he was saying, I live in a certain milieu, I’ve got all kinds of other people that I admire and respect. So he says, as soon as you realize that the idea that all views are relative is also relative, that all views are socially constructed is also socially constructed, we’re back to square one. We’re chastened, we now know of course yes, we’ve got to be careful, its hard to find the truth. But the fact is we’re back to square one. We still have to decide which of all of these competing claims is more reasonable than any other. And so we may not be as haughty now, but we still have to make that decision. And you can’t  say because I was raised in a particular culture therefore all things are relative. That very view of course would be relative and therefore back to square one.

This is a Key Point. Christianity, scientific materialism, and secular humanism are all experienced in the context of a social structure with a history of transmitted knowledge. The truth or error in any of these positions is not based on this relatively clear fact of human society. This is a hard concept to grasp.

I spend most of my professional life interacting with very smart people for whom the ground assumption is secular scientific materialism. It is in the air and the water, the operating assumption in almost all discourse. In this social environment there is a pervasive attitude that relegates religious belief to a sometimes dangerous socially constructed myth, and one which any reasonable (i.e. intelligent, educated) person will realize we have outgrown. The fact that I consider these people friends, respect their learning, and enjoy being a part of this community does not make religious relativism or scientific materialism true. The implicit condemnation of religion is a socially constructed view.

The post last Thursday Soon and Very Soon was a lament, both for a friend and for church as extended family. I believe quite deeply that the church as extended family is a very important part of Christian life. But the fact that I respect the many Christians I have known and that I enjoy the community of a local church does not make the claims of the Christian faith true. A commenter on Tuesday’s post In an Age of Skepticism noted quite correctly that we need to be searching for God, not the people of God. This doesn’t devalue the community of believers, but it does put the emphasis in the right place.

In the comments quoted above Keller brings this around in a productive direction. We’re chastened, and we’ve got to be careful, but we still have to decide which of all the competing claims is more reasonable than any other. The claim that any given position is socially constructed cannot be used to determine truth.

The truth and the community of believers. At the end of his interview (about 30:52 in the video) Martin Bashir puts one last question to Tim Keller: “Are you resolutely convinced today that Christianity is true?

Yeah, more so than ever. … It seems like three things have to come together for you to be convinced that Christianity is true. There’s an intellectual, a personal, and a social. … And until the intellectual work comes together, the personal need comes together, with a community of people you could imagine yourself being a part of who are Christian, Christianity isn’t plausible. That’s where Peter Berger is right, there’s a social aspect to the plausibility of anything, but there has to be a reasonable intellectual aspect and there has to be a personal resonance. And those three things are stronger than they’ve ever been in my entire life.

The church is important. The church as extended family is important. And never more so than when the surrounding culture is pushing the social plausibility of atheism or agnosticism with no holds barred.

How can we make a claim that Christianity is the one true religion and we are the people of God?

Is Christianity simply a socially constructed myth? How would you argue against this charge?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Tim

    Richard Dawkins once gave a presentation that asked the question, “What if science was like religion?”

    Dawkins pulled up a map of the different faiths of the world, and highlighted how geographically determined they were. If you lived in the Middle East, you were most likely Muslim. If you lived in India, you were most likely Hindu. If you lived in America, you were most likely Christian. Etc. Then he parodied that with a scientific issue of which there are diverging views, each with their own merit. Breaking out, for example, what ultimately killed the dinosaurs geographically into regions. Those in America think it was a meteorite, those in the Middle East think that it was their eggs that were eaten, etc.

    And of course everyone laughed at this. Because science doesn’t work that way. You’re not raised in families and communities that identify so strongly with a specific scientific view that their children, their children’s children, and so on inherit that view, such that what you think scientifically becomes in effect a largely communal artificial of geography. But rather as you learn and engage with other schools of thought and ideas, weighing each for merit, your views are determined much more fluidly. This is what we do not see in religion so much. It is the exception rather than the rule that those raised with a particular point of view change are malleable to changing their views. Whereas in science it is the norm.

    Here is the link to the 4 minute video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5TUozIJeOc

  • RJS

    Tim,

    Science doesn’t work like that. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Atheist physicists will get the same result in a properly done experiment. And the math is the same.

    But the ethos of secular humanism and Dawkins radical atheism does work like that.

    The hard part is separating these aspects in any social plausibility structure.

  • Tim

    I don’t know RJS. It seems that atheism isn’t passed along generationally anywhere near as strongly as religion. Nearly all of my siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc. are Christian. And not just Christian, but specifically Evangelical Christian. On my wife’s side, we see a mix. Some atheists. Some spiritual/theistic. Some religious. That’s anecdotal to be sure, but I would have to imagine that it would be far more difficult to find a nearly unbroken line of atheism passed down to one’s decedents across multiple generations, but in religion this is quite common.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, you “converted.” So how will your children be when it comes to faith? The issue of secular humanism or atheism is actually a better way of framing this rather than anecdotally, as you have proposed. Where are the atheists in the world? Much more in the West than elsewhere? Frame this differently, through a more materialistic worldview, and you will see it geographically constrained.

    One of the best books I have read in my entire life if Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality, where they show how socially constructed our “truths” (primary and secondary) are and how much of a plausibility structure has been shaped to prop it up … this could go on… secular materialism is a plausibility structure that appeals only to specific kind of persons. That’s worth thinking about.

    Yet, I find Dawkins proposal that science transcends geography quite helpful and insightful. Yet, science is embraced in a variety of faiths because those faiths are the plausibility structures. Science clearly has not dismantled diverse plausibility structures.

  • David P

    I guess my question then for Keller and indeed anyone advancing his point is how then do you account for the diversity of religious viewpoints? I think one of the central attractions of the relativist viewpoint (other than it allows you to build your own religion to justify whatever you’re already doing) is that it can account for religious diversity in a way that evangelical Christianity struggles with at times. I can remember sitting at lunch with a secular coworker, a Jehovah’s witness and myself (moderate Evangelical-ish). The Jehovah’s witness remarked on the strangeness of a Mormon coworker’s beliefs in terms of the belief in being rewarded with a planet, Joseph Smith and the golden plates, etc. To me, both his and the Mormon’s beliefs were strange because the former’s beliefs included an ‘invisible’ return of Christ in 1918, etc. I’m sure to my secular coworker, all of beliefs were strange and he was comfortable dismissing all of our beliefs at some level. And I was left struggling a bit with coming up with a solution as to why my particularly belief system was more correct than his.

    So I think Keller is right that it’s clear that all beliefs are culturally conditioned: To me, the question becomes which worldview best accounts for all the data of our world. I think actually believing in an afterlife & true faith is more satisfying from a human point of view (CS Lewis religious appetite type argument) but reconciling that with religious diversity is where I struggle.

  • David P

    *all of our beliefs were strange and he was comfortable…

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    RJS wrote – ‘…we need to be searching for God, not the people of God. This doesn’t devalue the community of believers, but it does put the emphasis in the right place.’

    It absolutely does put the emphasis in exactly the right place. The great thing about Jesus is his accessibility. Anyone from any time or place and from any social or religious context can search for him and he will show himself to them. Maybe they won’t know him in the same way I do; he approaches us individually according to our needs and background.

    Here’s an example from Iran. – http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/2008/06/jesus-in-prison-cell.html

  • Tim

    Scot,

    You asked me how my children will be when it comes to faith. I would answer you that they will have the best opportunity I can afford them to consider any faith as well as no faith. And I will do the best I can to respect their journey, and encourage an inquisitive and open mind. I find that the atheists I know are much closer to this perspective and practice than the Evangelicals I know.

  • RJS

    Tim,

    Let’s move away from the US situation and consider Europe. Secularism and scientific materialism are far more entrench in Europe than the US. Do you think this is because it is more “rational” or because it is being passed down?

    In some respects this is a hard question because in both Europe and (somewhat later on the curve) in the US there is a serious change in the underlying culture. We can’t do the precise experiment.

  • Tim

    RJS,

    I think that’s a worthwhile issue to look into. But what is our data? We know how strongly religion can entrench, multigenerationaly within a community. We understand how dogmatism works to quash free consideration of alternatives. While of course the same can be said regarding any secular ideology to some degree or another, does secular humanism and atheism even approach such severe, hardened, and very much tribal levels?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    As I struggle along on the path of faith / no faith, I have asked myself this question many times. Sure, I was born into a very conservative evangelical (eventually reaching the point of cult/sect like) family in South Africa. However, among my grandparents, only one grandmother was a regular church attender (Dutch Reformed), the other belonged to a Dutch Reformed Church, but only attended occasionally, one grandfather was a sort of a christian, almost Deist, and the other an atheist. But the culture of the schools etc I attended was mostly Dutch Reformed. Today, I’m Lutheran (I discovered that my distant ancestors were Dutch Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran, including a French Hugenot).

    That being said, I have worked with people from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, Catholics, Atheists and Agnostics, evangelicals and “nones”. One view of life is very culturally conditioned. With one exception, all the kids that were at school with me (80′s) are still mainly Dutch Calvinists and/or generic evangelicals (according to Facebook, anyway). The exception is an atheist, but one could see that from the direction he was taking even at school.

    But, with all of these, Hindu to evangelical – what would happen if they seriously looked into the claims of their faith? If they test it’s internal consistency, it’s relation to scientific, historic and cultural evidence? What if they all read a work like Bellah’s “The role of religion in Human evolution” , and seriously considered the evidence?

    Somewhere above someone said that Secularism / Materialistic Naturalism is also a cultural construct? Sure. But then, is their any epistemology, any form of looking at Reason and evidence which is not? If that answer is no, well then gentlemen, we have ourselves a nice postmodernist conundrum. And we also have a problem in explaining why science and technology works.

  • Jeff Y

    Excellent stuff. I also think that much of scientific learning is cultural – though it may transcend geographical boundaries (so, too, in some ways religion, including Christianity) – it does not transcend historical boundaries. It advances, but then, as Thomas Kuhn notes in Scientific Revolutions, it does not just progress along a nice tidy line and over time scientists themselves become entrenched in their own culture, unwilling to heed alternative viewpoints. Though Galileo was at odds with the Pope and many religious folk of his day; he was also at odds with the science and scientists of his day (many of whom could have cared less about the biblical text).

    I also think it is important to recognize that science is, for the most part, a lot easier to digest than Christianity on a human level. It’s easy for me to believe in relativity or heliocentrism (or even evolution, for that matter) or many other perspectives. I can still go about my business of ‘life’ – and if the science is helpful in prolonging my life? All the better for me. Whether the local cosmos were geocentric or heliocentric or whether the earth were flat or round – it would not change my pursuit of pleasure. But, the Christian calling radicalizes everything in life (ultimately in a good way in my view, but that’s another issue). It constrains where I want it not to be constraining and looses where I want it to be constrained! And turns our nice little progressions of life all upside down. That makes the digestion of scientific ideas often a simpler thing it seems to me, and so easier to cross cultural boundaries, than religious ideals that impact family and culture in the immediate form.

  • Karl

    Dawkins’ example is interesting. He’s right of course that when it comes to matters of science about which there are competing theories within the scientific community we don’t find whole regions or continents where one theory holds sway. But do we find “family trees” wherein it CAN be pretty closely predicted that if a given scientist received her degree from X school or received training from such-and-such department or scholar, then she is l*highly* ikely to hold the same belief as her mentor/parent institution on the disputed matter?

    I didn’t go in real big for legal theory in law school. But I understood that in general for example, the University of Chicago school of law was known for a heavy emphasis on the economic theory of law, and anyone who cut his teeth their was highly likely to have been very influenced by the “law and economics” movement, and to subscribe to that view – in a much higher percentage than you would find at another equally prestigious institution where “law and economics” didn’t hold quite the same sway and where there was greater diversity of views on legal theory within the institution, or where a different theory of law held primacy.

    So at least in some academic disciplines where we are dealing with disputed theories rather than settled and measurable facts, while geography per se may not be determinant I do think Dawkins’ point is a bit undercut because you can pretty clearly see the culturally conditioned nature of a Univ. of Chicago graduate’s law and economics bent, or the fact that such-and-such scientist’s opinion on a given unsettled area of science just so happens to match that of her mentor or parent institution.

    So – I think Keller’s point holds. We should all be chastened and humbled when we realize the degree to which our beliefs are culturally received, conditioned or inherited. But then we need to do the work of thinking and attempting to be as fair and objective toward the other competing claims. The scientist has to look at the data with as fresh a set of eyes as she can; the law and economics guy has to give a more fair hearing than he has previously given to other schools of thought, the Christian, the hindu and the western secular humanist all have to re-examine the assumptions lying beneath their beliefs and the reasonability of the claims of competing belief systems.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Karl – I’ve lived through some academic wars that was quite funny, if one thinks about it afterwards. There was a school centered around a German professor in German university, and another centred around some scientists working for a big multi-national. Name calling occurred, but when evidence was presented, more and more people migrated to the German school, till a third school, which possibly predominates now (I have left that field), arose which looked at the evidence from both sides, synthesized it, and presented a more coherent theory.

    BTW, I started out as being on the multi-national side, since I worked for them, but the first time the evidence was presented, I switched over to the other side. I am probably on the wing of the Third School now. Why? Evidence.

  • Norman

    Part of the process of understanding theology ultimately for me is to boil the biblical principles that are presented down to the core applications. It seems best to filter much of the surface narrative to background applications that work within a simpler understanding of a Core Belief in God. If we look at how the various authors’ constructed important sections of scripture especially Genesis 1- through Abraham and Job’s story and Hebrews chapter 11 there seems to be this underlying grasp of simple faith which is epitomized through Christ as YHWH. How we work this thought process into the narrative accounts that appear more restrictive is a difficult examination. Indeed the author/authors who constructed the Patriarchal section of Genesis seem to develop the concept of a simpler period of history that wasn’t as constrained with the complications that arose through the development of Mosaic Judaism.

    The NT also appears to foster the idea that through Christ that there is a restoration of the simplicity that was expected with Adam in the initial Garden. This seems to point toward the idea that righteousness with God is developed around the simple concept of acknowledging Him and looking for those higher attributes that one would expect from the Creator God who has our well-being at the center. This may be what Christ is emphasizing when he referred to the 2 Commandments upon which the Law and the Prophets were built, and it may be what Heb 11 is driving at when it says the faithful through the ages saw God/Christ in these simple terms and were deemed righteous. Therefore if one looks to know God which we believe exemplifies Christ then they are seeing attributes (if you will) that have been recognizable from the very beginning starting with their story of Adam.

    Paul however attempts to deconstruct this problem in his Romans letter even though he is difficult for most of us to follow due to cultural loss. His does this in an examination of Abraham’s faith and Adam’s problem which enabled and brought in a form of righteousness through ourselves and was increased through Mosaic law (Rom 5: 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass …) Paul’s great thesis is a return to Christ the simpler and true means of “biblical wisdom” called life through the Spirit instead of through the flesh (mortal means) of walking with God in Garden life. This problem in Judaism was not a recent development in Judaism as the OT and 2nd Temple literature continually illustrate this tension and problems within different factions of Judaism over the centuries.

    The take away from this may be to continue our examination of scripture to determine if the simplest means of walking with God is part of the expectation. Getting it all right is not going to happen for anyone but perhaps grasping the simplicity is what Christ shed His Blood for is more freeing than we realize. Biblical history tends to point out that many different theologically divergent people have been covered by Christ Blood over the eons since Adam first displayed faith in God.

  • MatthewS

    Very interesting and helpful, both for content and style, as well as RJS being the author. This is one of those “and that’s why I hang out at JesusCreed” posts.

  • SKPeterson

    KK @ 11 – An interesting question to be sure (did you come here through the Cranach link? I thought this looked like an interesting post, myself). I’m somewhat reminded of Hamann’s meta-critique of Kant (see this way we can Lutheranize the conversation so that even the errors are right! :) )

    Anyhow, Hamann provided a nice critique of Kant’s theory of pure reason as unachievable because it could not function within the space of linguistic meaning, even where the language may be faulty (think here of the simple use of the English word ‘love’ with the Greek variants of ‘agape’, ‘philo’ and ‘eros’, much less the use of ‘love’ for ‘really, really like, like y’know’?). That language is still a, if not the, primary bedrock upon which culture and its accompanying social structure rests. In essence, Hamann argued contra Kant that reason cannot exist outside the bounds of language. As Peter Leithart describes it

    a profoundly unified vision animated Hamann’s life and work. Hamann believed that the world is language, the Creator speaking “to the creature through the creature,” and he often repeated the Johannine confession, “In the beginning was the Word.” The theological impulse of his Metakritik shows through when he says that “the common language of the people gives us the best metaphor for the hypostatic union of the natures of the senses and of understanding, the communicatio idiomatum of their powers.”

    To Karl’s point @ 13 – I wonder how much of the “if X went to School Y they are likely to therefore think Z” is simple self-selection bias creating correlation, but not causation. In other words, if Chicago Law is known for its economics of law focus, it would make sense that people attracted to such a focus would try to gain entry to Chicago. As a result, the mentoree is as much a part of the process as the mentor in determining the prevailing culture in the academy. Though, I suppose that I myself prove the rule by being an exception to it, having studied under a lapsed-Roman agnostic/deist with a slightly Marxist World-Systems viewpoint. So, while I do value world-systems theory, I also decidedly reject the Marxist interpretations endemic to it, and find that my professor and friend agree somewhat on methodology and on the essence of spatial statistical analysis.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP – I’ve been visiting here for some time now.

    As to Hamann – I’m no philosopher, but I’m somewhat skeptical. I love pointing to mathematics, and information science (as in Shannon and Godel) – especially when applied to evolution, as counter-examples to that – namely that number and bit are universal. I’m not a great fan of Leithart, as he is driven by a very specific matrix of interpretation – preterism/post-millenialism, triumphalist Calvinism, with elements of Reconstructionist thought.

    As to your second point – it is interesting that world views within the academic context itself seems to become less and less influential as you move the the natural and hard sciences. I have yet to come across Marxist mathematics – you have Marxists who are mathematicians, but there are hardly any Marxist lemmas, axioms and proofs. And I have yet to see existentialist sedimentology :) . The last time this was tried on a big scale (Lysenkoism), it failed miserably.

  • Norman

    Klasie,

    I’m going a little off topic here but it may resonate with you.

    I was wondering if you were aware of the possible influence of Jewish Numerology on Pythagoras and his developed views. Or could it be the other way around? :) He lived in the prime of OT literature writings.

    I assume you are already aware of E. W. Bullingers work on Numbers in Scripture which is dated but still useful.

    Let me demonstrate how Jewish numerology was possibly worked into Genesis with theological implications.

    I’ve read a few Genesis commentaries that present this following mathematical recognition of Abraham through Joseph.

    Notice the 7,5,3, 1 and then the 5,6,7 mathematical application which consummates with Joseph’s 110 Death age. By the way the death age of 110 was commonly understood to infer immortality to Egyptian Pharaoh’s death symbolically so there is obviously an Egyptian tie in as well to Joseph. The use of these numbers is too exact to have been randomly arrived at but infer Jewish mystical understanding of numerology in their presentation of this section of Genesis.

    Abraham death age of 175 years =7 X 25 or 5 (squared)
    Isaac death age of 180 years = 5 X 36 or 6 (squared)
    Jacob death age of 147 years = 3 X 49 or 7 (squared)
    Joseph death age of 110 years = 1 X 25+36+49 or the accumulation of the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob squared numbers.

    There are many examples of Jewish numerology within the Old and New Testament along with its use in 2nd Temple literature as well. The multiple of 10x10x10 =1000 projects perfection, completion and eternal life throughout Jewish literature. The more one grasp their symbolic numeral meanings from the Jewish mindset the easier it becomes to decipher their theology because it becomes a consistent marker for meaning over time. Of course recognizing these forms of communication doesn’t always sit well with modern interpreters who aren’t comfortable stepping back into the ancient mystical mindset.

    By the way one can be a proponent of Preterist hermeneutics and not have any affinity for Leithart’s “ post-millenialism, triumphalist Calvinism, with elements of Reconstructionist thought.” And I might add be a “Theistic Evolutionist”. ;-)

    Preterism is simply the result of a hermeneutic tool that attempts to look at scripture through the eyes of the ancients instead of modern ones. Everyone uses Preterist principles but the issue that divides is typically one of consistent application and the tendency to not revert back to modern literal interpretations when one encounters difficult sections that challenge acquired traditional or embedded beliefs. Being a consistent biblical analyst is a very difficult process in keeping our presuppositions from overriding what our examination leads us to. Kinds of like scientist need to adhere to strict controls without prejudice in performing their work.

  • Adam

    “We understand how dogmatism works to quash free consideration of alternatives. ”

    I would disagree with this statement. Yesterday, James Matthew Wilson over at Front Porch Republic had this to say, “For, experience shows us that it is those who live most comfortably within the inheritance of a tradition and the bounds of a natural community that are the most intellectually ambitious, seeking to know the Truth Itself and settling for nothing less. [...] They are more likely to think beyond the immediate concerns of their particular tradition, because their tradition itself has come into being to make possible what transcends it: the contemplation of God.”

    He goes on to say, “Once one has been alienated from tradition and community [...], one falls back upon the more limited resources of the individual reason and tends to settle for the study of lesser truths—those ready and waiting to be number-crunched by a lonely discursive soul. One may expect to see, in any great “society” of isolated individuals, a myriad toiling away at finite tasks that yield readily testable results that, in turn, can produce material benefits, such as the increase of the individual’s control over his immediate environment or an increase in bodily health.”

    A bonafide “culturally conditioned truth” is the idea that it is our “religious” communities that are the purveyors of ignorant dogmatisms. Truly, it seems to me that our religions (particularily Christianity) have become the scapegoat for the ailments of Western secular uptopianism. In as much as religions have been destructive, it seems more plausable that it is a result of bedding “secular” ideas and concerns (i.e. struggles for power and resources), than a reflection of true orthodoxy.

  • Ruth Anne shorter

    I would recommend William Lane Craig’s blog Reasonable Faith for more nformation. I tend to read for hours and really love the debates.

  • esteban braulio

    This whole thread is really hitting me where I’m at. I am posting here for the first time after reading through the original post and all the responses. And now I would like to respond to the 2 questions posed above(but I am putting them in reverse order since they seem to me to flow better this way:)
    1. Is Christianity simply a socially constructed myth? How would you argue against this charge?
    Answer: of course it is a socially constructed myth. It is how Middle Eastern tribal peoples reacted to the world world around them and tried to explain it. Like most ancient and primitive cultures, they reacted by constructing myths. Just read Genesis ch. 1-11 and the sense of myth is powerful. Same thing with the miracles of Jesus.
    2. How can we make a claim that Christianity is the one true religion and we are the people of God?
    Answer: the only possible way that one can make that claim is if you posit divine revelation and inspiration in and only in the Bible. There is no other possible basis. So if you hold to that position, you can claim it. Especially if you claim that you have been divinely guided to the correct interpretation of the divine revelation and inspiration.

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    RJS– Excellent post! I read Keller’s book and so really enjoyed seeing this Q and A video. I also appreciate the two sections that you highlight on the video.

    Your own comments at the end of the post are important. I especially appreciate the reminder in your words below of what is in the air and water in this culture. Helpful reminder!

    “I spend most of my professional life interacting with very smart people for whom the ground assumption is secular scientific materialism. It is in the air and the water, the operating assumption in almost all discourse. In this social environment there is a pervasive attitude that relegates religious belief to a sometimes dangerous socially constructed myth, and one which any reasonable (i.e. intelligent, educated) person will realize we have outgrown. The fact that I consider these people friends, respect their learning, and enjoy being a part of this community does not make religious relativism or scientific materialism true. The implicit condemnation of religion is a socially constructed view.”

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Norman, that was interesting. I haven’t really looked into ancient numerology, but I can see how that could (potentially) be an interesting way of looking at the writings of the ancient Hebrews.

  • Zach Lind

    All positions are to some degree shaped by our experiences and our surroundings. The real question is why are some positions more valid than others. Keller does this to put religious relativists and fundamentalists on a level playing field. I wonder if he’d allow followers of Zeus, who developed their beliefs in a culturally conditioned setting, the same access?

  • Daniel O

    Such a treat to read something about one of my favourite sociologist. I am a Bergerian myself you see… :)

    Of course Keller is correct in bringing this point out, because if social construction is used as means to question the validity/truthfulness of religious belief, then that is the logical fallacy of special pleading. Name one thing in the human world that is not socially constructed?

    Taking science as an example, as most atheists would, science is also a social construct. Finding the Higgs required a humanly constructed site with humanly controlled machines, paid by humanly constructed money based on a humanly constructed world economy to verify a humanly constructed theory, the Higgs didn’t just appear to someone. We could make a similar assertion of evolution. Social construction does not imply that that it is unreal or fictitious. So to say that religion is a social construct and thus not real, can’t we say the say for all of the human phenomenon? of course we can. Is it correct? no, because then all of our human world would be not real. The divide must be made between real and constructed, science is constructed, nature is real. The same could be said of religion, religion is constructed, God is real.

    One more things, what Dawkins did is symptomatic of the neo-atheism and their reductionism. Because a person is born in america, does not mean he will be Christian, the whole point of origin of neo-atheism is that they are mostly from america. The guy on the video Bashir, his parents were muslims but he wasn’t. So it is a non sequitur to say that someone is only religious because of the place they were born. Even atheism cannot be reduced to geographical location. The atheism of america is different to the atheism of the UK, and both to the atheism of Scandinavia.

  • RJS

    Zach,

    I think he’d allow relativists, atheists, fundamentalists, liberal Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, not to mention the followers of Zeus, Jupiter, Kukulcan, Quetzalcoatl, Ra, or Ba’al the same access.

    The real question, as you note and Keller agrees, is: why are some positions more valid than others?

  • Zach Lind

    RJS,

    Right, but it’s telling Keller doesn’t try to answer that question. Instead, he changes the subject to make a fairly obvious point that our points of view is culturally conditioned. I’d say that if you believe people who don’t agree with you will suffer eternal torment in hell is a more exclusivist position than if you believe that redemption is possible for a wider variety of perspectives. And I think Keller changes the subject here precisely because answering the question directly leaves exposes his more exclusivist position.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Daniel O – after reading your comment this morning, I decided to look into the matter. I found this lecture (http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~l38613dw/website_spring_03/readings/ScienceSocialConstruct.html),
    which seems to be an answer to the “Science is merely another social construct” argument. I’d like to hear your opinion on it, not being a sociologist myself.

  • RJS

    Zach,

    Keller does answer that question – although not specifically in this interview, or in Ch. 1. This is going to be a long series and we will get to the why this not that question. (We’ll also get to the question of hell.)

    Of course you may not agree with his answer or reasoning, but it should make for a good conversation.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    esteban – I really, really resonate with your comment. I’m at the same difficult point myself.

  • Zach Lind

    RJS,

    But why not answer the question in the video? The obvious difference here is that Keller believes the interviewer is going to hell and the interviewer doesn’t think Keller is going to hell. It’s easier to answer this question when sitting at your typewriter and writing a chapter of your book than sitting across from someone asking for an explanation. And my point is that it’s very telling that Keller avoids answering the question. Instead he totally dodges the question.

  • Marshall

    find the vehemence of the claim that “Christianity is the One True religion” rather off-putting. Not to mention the requirement that I subscribe to and advocate for it. I find that the stories of Christianity are richly sensible and help me make sense of my life and my world in a way that nothing else in my life does/has, and likewise regular church worship. I would like to invite others in to what I have found. But saying I posses absolute truth, even The One absolute truth, is so far above my pay grade as to be laughable. The Cosmos is absolutely real, with God in it. Everything I know/say/think about it is culturally conditioned . All my ideas are well-thumbed; the only thing I have of my own is my vital experience. Therefore my faith is necessarily private, although the form it takes is social. (Call this “weak relativism”.)

    Even if the claim is TRUE, I think it’s condescending and very poor evangelism to beat people with it. Why bring it up at all??

    … Note that “settled” science is as Dawkins said, new science is not. Science controversies are often vicious, personal, and even geographical. That it converges at all is a recent development of a few hundred years at most. Religion not so different.

  • esteban braulio

    Klasi: thanks for commenting. Your original response in particular really resonated with me too. Maybe because I am also very strongly in tension right now within a Dutch Reformed heritage -theology setting. I was raised and heavily steeped with a strong Calvinistic theology and worldview, which I must say has a lot of good stuff in it, but what brought me to call it into question was when I discovered social constructionism. That and the major inconsistencies and errors in the Bible. But I am in tension because of my work position (in a ministry role) and in my family (no-one else seems to be in tune with my journey.
    So how are you dealing with the issues of growth in the journey of knowledge?

  • esteban braulio

    Marshall: wow that is exactly where I am! I love the “love” in Christianity, the fellowship, the cultural mandate, and on and on. But I now draw the line at absolutism. I have come to consider myself a Christian agnostic. One way that I got here: just go through all the Christian doctrines and positions and seek out how many of which we are willing to say: “we don’t know”. I have a fairly extensive list: What is eternity like? How can there be no beginning and no end? We don’t know.
    -How did God create the world, was it in “24/7”? Or epochs? Or some other way? We don’t know.
    -Does Genesis 1:1 convey the concept of a pre-creation? What was the “chaos” like then, before the processes described in the 7 days of creation? We don’t know.
    -When and how did flesh-eating creatures come about, as part of creation or after the fall into sin? We don’t know.
    -How can God be three-in-one? We don’t know. (Do we understand the trinity? No.)
    -What is the relation between God’s choice and human choice in salvation? We don’t know.
    -How and why does God choose some for salvation and others no? We don’t know.
    -When did Jesus realize that he was the son of God, or did he always know even as an infant? We don’t know.
    -Why did Jesus say, “I don’t know” in responding to questions about the end, etc.? We don’t know.
    -What does it mean when it says that God “changed his mind”, repented of the evil he was planning, etc.? We don’t know.
    -Does prayer actually change things, or get God to change something for us? We don’t know.
    -Do infants and young children who die go automatically to heaven or to hell? Or does it depend on a factor external to them? We don’t know.
    -What is the eternal state really going to be like? Will it be “heaven on earth”, some kind of ethereal experience? We don’t know.
    -If the whole universe will be destroyed/annihilated, as described in certain Bible passages, and then there will be a “new heaven and a new earth”, does it mean God will recreate it all? (as an aside, ask any Christian if they will have their pets in heaven!) We really don’t know.
    -How does it show love that God curses the vast majority of the apex of his creation, his image-bearers, human-kind, to eternal death and eternal torture? We really can’t explain that one.
    -Many biblical passages allude or directly state that we as humans don’t and can’t know many things:
    -Phil. 2: passes understanding
    -1 Cor. We can’t know what eternity is like.
    -Deut. 29:29 – the secret things
    So perhaps we can admit that we really don’t know. Perhaps we are really all agnostics, after all.

  • JamesB

    Esteban,

    Just wanted to jump in and encourage you to keep searching and avoid the temptation to accept easy answers to difficult questions. I was in a similar place to you a couple years ago and challenged myself to read things that disagreed with what I had always believed. It wasn’t easy (and was often painful), but I’m glad I did it. The hard part was divorcing myself from emotional attachment to certain beliefs. Any time an idea made me uncomfortable, I would stop and ask myself why it bothered me. I still practice that approach as much as possible in my life. All the best to you!

  • MatthewS

    I think there may be an editing jump around the 43:00 mark. The discussion about no-see-ums and Eisenbach says, “because it’s reasonable” and suddenly Keller is saying about someone having lost something…

  • RJS

    MatthewS,

    Interesting. I only listened to the first interview by Bashin completely.

  • Jeff Y

    Zach, having read Keller, I don’t think he believes the interviewer is going to hell. I think he is aware enough, as are many Christians, that it’s not our place to judge. That is, as a wise old mentor of mine once put it, “Don’t whittle on God’s end of the stick.” That doesn’t mean we don’t teach what we believe the Scriptures to be saying, but we leave the final judgment to God. I think that’s just what Keller would say. Not only do we not know the final outcome of a person’s life journey (in terms of where they will wind up relative to faith in their life) we also don’t have a lock on the justice/mercy of God.

    Estaban – have you read much on the historical reliability of the NT documents? A couple of books you might investigate (Blomberg’s Historical Reliablity of the Gospels; Richard Bauckham – Jesus and the Eyewitnesses; and Wright’s, New Testament People of God and the two volumes to follow).
    It seems to me the only way to say with certainty (not just belief) that “the documents are socially constructed myths” is to show that they are not historically reliable. I would hope you would continue to investigate this.

    On the second question you noted: “the only possible way that one can make that claim is if you posit divine revelation and inspiration in and only in the Bible. There is no other possible basis. So if you hold to that position, you can claim it. Especially if you claim that you have been divinely guided to the correct interpretation of the divine revelation and inspiration.”

    I am not sure this is the only way to make this claim from a logical standpoint. There are other alternatives. For example, the Bible itself believes in common grace and shows individuals receiving revelation outside of the typical “in-groups.” But, secondly, the truth claim necessary for this is that the historical testimony of Jesus is true (his death and bodily resurrection, in particular). If those are demonstrable (historically; not mathematically) then that would be the core point, it seems to me.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Esteban @ 34 – I’m in a quandary, to say the least (as you are, though I’m not in a ministerial role). I do not have an answer as to how to progress. I am learning all the time, questioning all the time. To be honest, the discussions on this blog are a great comfort, because they help in focusing my thoughts. The problem is not Reason or the outcome thereof per se, but the impact of that outcome on my family etc. That is a difficulty.

  • JamesB

    Klaise,

    As someone who no longer believes but was in a similar quandary to you and Esteban not that long ago, I can empathize. I wondered how my family and friends would react if I wound up no longer believing as they did. I remember getting great comfort from reading stories of former believers and realizing I was not alone in how I felt. I’m not saying that’s where you or anyone needs to wind up, just that there are some great resources out there.

  • RichardG

    I know this is an old thread, but just in case its useful to someone:

    My way of looking at it is this. I am in a valley, surrounded by mountains. One is called Christianity, one is called Buddhism, one Islam etc. I know that if I am to see clearly I must climb one. I cannot climb all. A bystander asks me why I climb the one called Christianity. I answer: because i can only climb one, and this is closest to me.

    For me Christianity is a path I must tread (up-hill!) more than a set of ‘truths’ I choose to subscribe to. I think What Jeff Y says in 12 is brilliant. Translated to my analogy: science is easy to accept because it doesn’t ask you to go up hill.

    Gosh! I’ve found more useful food for thought in your blog (and comments) than in all the discussions I’ve had recently! thanks!


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