Christian History, Revised

Christian History, Revised May 9, 2021

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. His version reminds me of those friends on social media whom I’d never recognize on the street because they never post a picture of themselves that isn’t so highly filtered it makes them look like a totally different person.

In the first chapter of his book The Reason for God, Keller introduces two or three lines of argumentation which he won’t pick up again until later, so I’ll have to wait before addressing them directly. But I have to at least mention them here.

Only the Sith Deal in Absolutes  

I spent enough time in Christian education to recognize when Keller is critiquing postmodernism even though I don’t think he uses the word a single time throughout the book. That’s the philosophical and cultural ethos he is talking about 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 it misrepresents what postmodernism is about as well.

My evangelical professors never understood what contribution postmodern thought has made, 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 great idea. 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 assertion is an absolute statement which claims something absolutely, making it a self-defeating statement. But you don’t have to take this idea to that extreme. This philosophical line of reasoning simply asserts that we should doubt ourselves and question our own upbringings in order to weed through the biases we inherited from people and institutions before us. Simple idea, right?

As it turns out, the Christian church is one of those institutions—and their gospel is one of those metanarratives—so they don’t particularly appreciate what modern and postmodern thought have done with their story. Their story makes extraordinary claims and they feel that finding support for them in an ancient religious text should be enough for everyone. But it’s not. Most people today need to see more before they can buy what the church is selling, and it remains to be seen if they have it to offer.

Religious leaders keep blaming the decline in their membership on things like liberal media and the internet, but I think everyone is just so supersaturated with sales pitches, corny slogans, and dishonest marketing that we just don’t find it compelling. Outside of the evangelical bubble, people aren’t as conditioned to believe grandiose claims without question, and this poses a real problem for an ideology that celebrates faith as a virtue.

I have a lot more to say about Keller’s obsession with relativism, but I will save that for the review of chapter three.

Christianity the Key to Human Progress?  

Another key theme Keller introduces in this chapter is his belief that religion in general—and Christianity in particular—provides the only viable basis for human civilization to function. He seems to view the Christian narrative as an essential component of all social and 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 later gives, it was representatives of his tradition who stood in opposition to social progress. His treatment of history displays an egregious selection bias, demonstrating a significant blind spot toward his own tribe. Keller claims:

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

That’s a lovely idea, but the Christian religion hasn’t even been able to keep itself from division, much less its surrounding communities. Keller’s brand of Christianity (Calvinism) especially prides itself in picking out what’s wrong with people, and they were among the first to wage the culture wars that have made public discourse so caustic and tribalistic today. They practically invented cancel culture.

He goes on to claim that somehow his faith tradition does a better job than others at valuing and respecting differences of belief:

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

No, it doesn’t. What I hear is Christians calling for others to respect their faith, not the other way around. Remember the story of Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal? He shouted at them and taunted them, teasing that if they can’t make their god do things then he must be busy, or asleep, or maybe he’s taking a leak. 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 on 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 he will turn around and argue that “goodness” is a hindrance to human progress because it removes from us a sense that we need to be saved from ourselves. It makes little sense to give your faith credit for goodness in humanity only to denigrate the entire species later by saying that “no one is good,” as his tradition does.

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. Aside from its assertion that humans cannot be good anyway, at the heart of its narrative lies a warped sense of justice whereby one person can suffer the consequences of another person’s wrongdoings while the perpetrator walks away unpunished.

But vicarious suffering and substitutionary atonement are no bases for a rational or fair system of justice. If our legal system were truly based on Christianity, one person could be made to pay for someone else’s crimes and that would be considered justice.

Revealed religions aren’t historically good at providing a basis for fairly governing a large and diverse nation of people because they are ultimately conformist ideologies. Who’s going to know how to live better than God, right? Keller argues that whether they know it or not all people are ultimately religious (because all beliefs are faith) so it boils down to picking which ones produce the best fruit, so to speak.

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, I can think of few ideologies more guilty of failing at inclusion than Keller’s Reformed Christianity. Throughout the book, he will make a case that the Christian faith provides the only viable basis for an accepting and loving society.

Club Reformed: Piper, Driscoll, and Keller

But remember that Christianity doesn’t exist as an idealized abstraction. It is comprised of hundreds of competing traditions, and Keller’s regularly distinguishes itself as an enemy of inclusiveness, of acceptance, of tolerance, and of social progress.

It’s disingenuous to keep asserting the superiority of your own tradition over others and then turn around to claim credit for the positive contributions of those same competing traditions. I’ll have to save the bulk of that critique for the later chapters when he gets deeper into his argument, but the short version is that Keller wants his faith to get credit for things it fought viciously to oppose for decades, even centuries. I’m going to have a lot to say about that when the time comes.

Tomorrow we will dive into the problem of evil and suffering. That shouldn’t take too long, right?

[Featured Image: Flickr]

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.

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