Selection Bias and the Christian View of History

Selection Bias and the Christian View of History November 9, 2015

Tim Keller must read history through a highly specialized pair of lenses, because what he sees when he looks back is very different from what I see. In the first chapter of his book The Reason for God (see my treatment of his introduction here), Keller introduces two or three lines of argumentation which he will pick up again later in the book, and I’m sitting on one hand as I type this to keep from launching into a full diatribe against a couple of key assertions he makes a few pages down the road. Those posts will have to wait.  But I have to at least mention them here.

Only the Sith Deal in Absolutes  

Because the overwhelming majority of my education was both private and Christian—including college and seminary—I recognize Keller’s understanding of postmodernism.  I don’t think he uses the word a single time throughout the book, but that philosophical and cultural ethos is what he is addressing when he says:

If you infer from the social conditionedness of all belief that “no belief can be held as universally true for everyone,” that itself is a comprehensive claim about everyone that is the product of social conditions—so it cannot be true, on its own terms. (p.10)

As the subtitle of the book suggests, Keller wants to build a case for “belief in an age of skepticism,” and in this particular instance he seems to be using the term “skepticism” synonymously with both postmodernism and relativism.  But that’s a mischaracterization of skepticism, and many would say it mistakes what postmodernism asserts as well.

The most conservative of my professors always failed to grasp the single most important contribution which postmodern thought has yielded, namely that we do ourselves good to question why why we think we know what we think we know. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called this using a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” and frankly it’s a keen observation to make. It simply says that we should question the validity of the larger stories we tell ourselves (“metanarratives”) into which we fit all our own smaller personal stories.

It does not have to mean that there are no true stories. It does not have to mean that truth cannot be known. As Keller rightly points out, that very assertion is an absolute statement which claims something absolutely, making it a self-defeating statement.  But you don’t have to go all the way to that extreme with this idea. This approach to reality only necessarily asserts that we should doubt ourselves and question our own upbringings in order to weed through the biased angles we inherited from the people and institutions that went before us.  Simple enough, right?

Well, as it turns out, the Christian church is one of those institutions, and the Christian message is one of those metanarratives, and they don’t particularly appreciate what modern and “postmodern” cultures have done with their story. The church makes extraordinary claims and supposes that reading about them in an ancient religious text should be as satisfying to everyone else as it is to them. But this generation is going to need a bit more than that, and it remains to be seen if the contemporary church will be able to supply what it is that the rest of us require before we are ready to accept what they are selling.

Religious leaders keep blaming the decline in their membership among millennials on things like narcissism, liberal media, and the internet, but I honestly think this demographic is just so supersaturated with sales pitches, corny slogans, and dishonest marketing that we’ve finally raised a generation who says, “Show me, or I’m not buyin’ it.” They don’t believe things as easily as so many of us did in the past, and this poses a real problem for any ideology that celebrates faith as a virtue.

I have a lot more to say about Keller’s charge of relativism, but I will save that for my post about chapter three.

Christianity the Key to Human Progress?  

Another key theme Keller introduces in this chapter is the notion that religion in general—and the Christian religion in particular—is what society needs in order to function as it should function.  He seems to view the Christian narrative as an essential component of human moral progress.

In order to make this assertion, he must attribute to his religion virtually every social step forward that western civilization has made. That is among the most agitating of his claims because in at least three of the historical examples he will eventually give, it was representatives of his particular religious tradition who stood in opposition to social progress. Again, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, and I will go into more detail in later chapters (four and six especially). Suffice to say, Keller’s treatment of history displays an egregious selection bias that speaks of a gigantic blind spot in his thinking about the impact of his religious beliefs on large groups of people.

Here at the outset, Keller generally claims:

Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart. (p.19)

I’m going to push back here and point out that the Christian religion hasn’t even been able to keep itself from division, much less can it keep its surrounding society from behaving in divisive, exclusionary ways.  Keller’s brand of Christianity in particular (Calvinism) prides itself in separating what they see as the legitimate from the illegitimate moral agents, and proponents of his tradition are among those working the hardest to wage the culture wars that are making public discourse so caustic and tribalistic today.

Keller throws around facile assertions while showing little awareness of the many ways reality contradicts what he is saying.

Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths. (p.19)

More often than not, what I hear is Christians calling for others to respect their faith, not the other way around. This brings to mind the biblical story of Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27-28), wherein he shouted at them, taunting them by saying that since they couldn’t make their god do things, he must be busy, or asleep, or is using the bathroom.  For all the times I heard sermons on that story, never once did I hear a pastor censure the Old Testament prophet for how he behaved. Usually they join in the mockery, rehearsing the superiority of their religion over all the others.

Keller goes on to argue that any significant overlap between what other faiths deem as “good” and morally upright makes it that much easier for Christians to respect diverse faiths. But later on in the book (when he starts to preachin’) he will argue that “goodness” is actually a hindrance to human progress in that it removes from them a sense that they need to be saved from themselves. It’s rather disingenuous for a religion in one place to claim credit for goodness in humanity, as his does, only to turn around and denigrate the entire species by saying that “no one is good” as his religion also does on many occasions.

Are We Even Looking at the Same Religion?

I would argue that his faith does not in fact present us with a superior basis for moral reasoning because, aside from its assertion that humans cannot be good anyway, at the heart of its narrative you find a warped sense of justice whereby one person can suffer the consequences of another person’s wrongdoings while the perpetrator walks away unpunished. Vicarious suffering and substitutionary atonement are no bases for a rational or fair system of justice.

Nor does fundamentalism of any kind lend itself to effectively and fairly governing a large and diverse nation of people. And yet Keller first lumps all people into various forms of fundamentalism (because all beliefs are faith, right? Which means everyone is religious) and then goes on to suggest that we simply need to evaluate which kind of fundamentalism is predicated on the best fundamental beliefs.

The real question, then, is which fundamentals will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ? Which set of unavoidably exclusive beliefs will lead us to humble , peace-loving behavior? (p.20)

Honestly, when I ask myself this question I cannot think of an ideology more guilty of failing at inclusion than Reformed Christianity. In this book Keller will make a case that the Christian faith, broadly conceived, provides a basis for an accepting and loving society. But Christianity doesn’t exist as an idealized abstraction. It is comprised of thousands of competing traditions, and Keller inhabits one particular strain among them which regularly distinguishes itself as an enemy of inclusiveness, of acceptance, of tolerance, and of social progress.

Club Reformed: Piper, Driscoll, and Keller

You don’t get to spend a great deal of your time asserting the superiority of your own tradition over all the others within your religion and then turn around to claim credit for the positive contributions of those same competing traditions. That’s disingenuous, and I’ll be pointing it out wherever I find it in this book. But I’ll have to save the bulk of that critique for the later chapters.

Stay tuned the rest of this week while I take on his treatment of relativism and of the problem of evil.

(Other Posts in this Series)

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