Echoes of a Voice (RJS)

Echoes of a Voice (RJS) March 12, 2013

Part two of The Reason for God begins with a discussion of the reasons for faith. Chapters 8 and 9 deal with clues for the existence of God. These clues are found within nature and within ourselves. There is no logically incontrovertible evidence for the existence of God – but the preponderance of the evidence can be persuasive.  N. T. Wright in Simply Christian touches on some of the same ground – the title of this post Echoes of a Voice comes from Wright’s book. This expression provides the right kind of image.

|inlineThe clues. What are these clues for the existence of God?

Wright sees four voices providing evidence for something beyond the merely material, human, present: (1) Justice and fairness, (2) the urge for spirituality, (3) the power and pain of human relationships, and (4) beauty.

Keller considers echoes in aspects of nature and natural theology in addition to the echoes described by Wright. The various major points he raises can be summarized as follows:

1. The origin of the Universe – did the Universe simply flash into being? All of the scientific evidence points to an origin for the universe in a flash of energy from an infinitesimally small point. Before that – we know nothing.

2. The fine-tuning of the universe for life. Life is rare in our universe – and dependent upon an exquisite balance of conditions. The “odds” for us to exist are small, some claim infinitesimally small.

3. The regularity of nature.

4. Beauty. Art, music, nature … Are beauty, love, and longing simply biochemical responses inherited to increase survival probability? We may,therefore, be secular materialists… But in the presence of art or even great natural beauty, our hearts tell us another story. (p. 134)

5. The desire for God, for meaning. This can be rationalized – but an evolutionary explanation is a tacit acknowledgment that there is ultimately no meaning or purpose.

6. Moral law, moral obligation. We are told that all moral values are relative – live and let live. But do any of us actually believe this? The presence of moral law, moral obligation, and altruism are capable of evolutionary explanation – and such an instinct may well provide a survival advantage to the species. Of course – now that we have evolved and learned enough to know that morality is nothing but instinct why should we care? If there is no God there is ultimately no rationally demonstrable distinction between moral and immoral or amoral behavior.

Premise: We all know God exists. Keller frames the ultimate question like this:

If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise ( “There is no God”) leads to a conclusion you know isn’t true ( “Napalming babies is culturally relative”) then why not change the premise? (p. 156)

Keller takes this a bit further than I would. He doesn’t claim to prove the existence of God. Rather he tries to show that we all on some level believe in a God of some sort – because we all believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong.  Given this there are two options – We can refuse to consider the full implications of an empty bench, a world with no judge. After all if this universe is purely material in a few million (or billion) years there will be no life around to remember the pain or the beauty. All we have a individuals, as species, as life at all, is a brief flicker. The other option is to accept the fact that you know that there is meaning in life and look for the God that gives meaning to the world.

Merely recognizing this, if you feel Keller has made his point, doesn’t get us to the God of Christian faith. Secular materialism is bankrupt according to Keller — but…where do we go from here? Well that starts in the next chapter and the next post of course.

How about you? What do you find to be convincing evidence for the existence of God?

Do you find Keller’s argument that we all know there is a God of some sort convincing?

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  • Though once persuaded by the very same apologetic arguments, I no longer think any of them are convincing. Yes, they can still be talking points and some are at least thought-provoking enough to make one consider the existence of God. Some are certainly useful for helping justify a faith that already exists.

    To me, these arguments can be broken into two categories. One group, which might be called “objective,” tries to show that the universe could not be the way it is without God. Fine-tuning, for example, is in this group.

    Arguments in the other group, which we could call “subjective,” appeal to our instincts or desires. Basically, they say that God is necessary for the kind of universe we like. Without God, there is no purpose, or no morality, and no eternal life (implied).

    None of the objective arguments is *persuasive* in the context of current scientific thinking, though that does not mean that science disproves them. The points are simply debatable, matters of opinion, or speculative. To say otherwise, to claim that they are persuasive, must imply that all who consider them but are not persuaded are willfully closed to the truth. While this belief (“unbelievers are willfully ignorant”) is held by many Christians, I do not see the evidence for it; in fact, it seems to be quite undermined by what we know of people.

    The subjective arguments all fail with the reply, “The world is as it is, not as we would like it to be.” One can say with C. S. Lewis that the very fact that we *desire* the world to be a certain way implies that there is an objective reality to fulfill that desire, but I don’t think that holds up in light of the many other reasons we might have instincts, desires, and perceptions of the way the world *ought* to be.

    Though I have tried for most of my Christian life to bolster my faith with these and other apologetic arguments, I’ve reached the point where I don’t think they can stand when examined in conjunction with the counter arguments. As I said above, they can help justify our faith, perhaps, but they don’t stand up well against the atheist responses.

    In the end, perhaps the most devastating problem is what you pointed out, that even an ultimate proof of a creator God does not take us very far toward the specifics of the Christian gospel. It seems to me we’re still left with a leap of faith.

    I do look forward very much to hearing from others in these comments about which arguments they find most helpful to support their faith. I’m still hoping to find something that will make me realize that I’m looking at everything from the wrong point of view, that despite the problems, Christianity is still the clear choice. (I’m not talking about proof, just good plausibility).

    (@RJS — I hope I’m not coming across as too feisty again!)

  • DMH

    Mike #1 It seems to me that an atheist who is trying to “build” a system (as opposed to just tearing down others arguments) faces the same difficulties you mention. The way forward for me was a kind of paradigm shift from a rationalistic approach (which you seem to be taking ?), to an approach where the “magnifying glass” through which I saw the clues was one of beauty/love/meaning. Wish I could say more, have to go to work.

  • RJS

    Mike (#1),

    No this one doesn’t come across as feisty.

  • Ron

    I am grateful that more evangelicals are open to what I call the Aesthetic argument these days. I think this would ring truer with out post-modern world.

  • phil_style

    @Mike #1.

    A very helpful summary of the broader picture. I agree. None of these arguments are persuasive, for me. They do, however, allow the believer to justify belief in some cases, in addition they provide room for theological speculation, but not much more I would suggest.

    In then end, one still has to rely on positively having faith* in any supernatural existence. Of course, the reply to that is; What would be the benefit in this kind of “faith”.

    * by this I mean considering something to exist, for which there is no persuasive argument. This is different (despite protests to the contrary) from an atheistic “faith” that simply refuses to take that step in the absence of such persuasion.

  • Nein!

  • I hear Feuerbach (and strangely (!) Luther) laughing at this article. Each with their different reasons. “Man writ large” for the former, “Theology of Glory” for the latter.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Ok, I’m finding these more and more underwhelming:

    1. This could be construed either as a variant of a “God-of-the-gaps” idea, or, depending on your view of physics, a misunderstanding of time: Time had its origin with space. There can’t be a before.

    2. Fine-tuning: A bit anthropomorphic. When you are the result of a process, it would seem as if that process is fine-tuned for you.

    3. See #2.

    4. An interesting one, but it doesn’t follow that since we perceive beauty, the transcendent must exist. A lot of what we perceive as beauty might bear a subconscious (this is me speculating, btw) relation to our desire for order, which maximizes survival. I haven’t read the book, but it seems that a lot of pre-axial religion is based/refers on the war upon the chaos monsters. Chaos implies death and destruction. Beauty is the opposite of chaos. Sometimes, a musical piece (for instance) will reflect the battle, and that also attracts. Furthermore, in an evolutionary sense, the fittest (ie the most harmonious, the most fitting) survive. Is it a big stretch to go from there to the appreciation of beauty?

    5. As RJS says, this can be rationalized. But I take issue with the conclusion – teleology depends on perspective, does it not? What if one would say, the meaning is being? How does that play?

    6. This one is easy: Moral law is an acknowledgement that a certain order results in a better outcome, with respect to well-being, for the community, and thus for the individual, who is intrinsically part of the community. We define it as morals since we have become self-aware, and thus instinct is not the only factor determining our behaviour, but also rationality.

    It is interesting how these things play out in the evolutionary record: One can see the evolution of community, with accompanying breakthroughs wrt technology, society, organization and expression. I’m currently listening to “Before the dawn” (Nicholas Wade, see Thinking about this, as well as the evolution of religion, seems to indicate that there are, or that we are close to, more concise answers to these points. These remain interesting questions….

  • Steve Sherwood

    I am not that familiar with Keller’s discussion of this, but I did find Wright’s helpful and have shared his 4 “echoes” with others. As noted above, they don’t prove anything, but what could? They help, at least they help me. Was it Chesterton that said, “While theism may have a hard time explaining the existence of a good God and evil in the world, atheism has a hard time explaining the existence of beauty and goodness?” I think Newbign was right, the best we’re left with is well-founded hunches. That’s enough for me.

  • phil_style

    @ Steve, I’m unclear how “atheism has a hard time explaining the existence of beauty and goodness”

    It seems to me that pleasant stimuli can be quite easily explained without reference to the supernatural.

    One example that is so often raised is music, as though it lends some kind of hand tot he supernatural. However our enjoyment of music has been widely studied. The embrace of tonal “dissonance” is learned. Whether or not someone likes a piece of music is related to whether or not they perceive dissonance or not. It’s not too much of a lap from there to connect dissonance with natural disorder and threats to survival. The evolutionary behaviouralist does not have to work too hard….

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Phil_style @ 10 – exactly. To me, these arguments / clues look a bit too much like an idea/desire in search of justification. It is rather informative to ask the question, whence the idea/desire?

  • phil_style

    @Klasie, the work by Keller is partly what leaves Evangelicalism empty for me.

    Whilst not necessarily “saving” the faith, I’m much more interested in the likes of Nancy Murphy, Philip Clayton, Rene Girard.. et. al. who never seem to engage in the apologetics look-a-like material used by Keller….. They just seem much more keenly aware of the thinness of these kinds of arguments.

  • Steve @ 9: “the best we’re left with is well-founded hunches. That’s enough for me.”

    Then do you see any hope of a meaningful dialog with someone who has different hunches? If my hunch is that naturalism is true, yours favors orthodox Christianity, and our friend favors radical Islam, is there a meaningful reason to choose one?

    (BTW, I somehow missed the message about how to format these comments. No answer when I asked Patheos, and I hate to experiment on live posts. Can someone point me in the right direction? Thanks.)

  • Luke

    It cracks me up how easily these arguments are dismissed by us the commmenters. It is like we have never noticed the enormous disagreements within philosophy, in this case in regards to the anthropic argument, the moral argument, etc. We know that the arguments for God, especially those based on natural theology, do not get us to the God of the Bible, and we also know they are debated. But in light of skepticism, nominalism and the like, which argument isn’t?

    These arguments are not meant to stand on their own to lead to Christianity. Rather, they stand as valid arguments for the existence of a god like the one in Christianity. Of course they are not bullet proof. But the best arguments in philosophy are the ones that show that other arguments don’t work. Think Hume’s critique of natural theology.

    I think it comes down the individual. We will argue our preference. I think natural theology helps argue the Christian preference in the clamoring of voices, but of course people will disagree that a God doesn’t better explain things. That would require too much of them.

  • Steve Sherwood

    @Mike 13. Well, Newbign was building off of the scientific philosophy of Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge and other works) who argued that “certainty” begins with hunches, which can later be largely verified, but which always retain an element of subjectivity. I would say, Mike, that it would be a fruitful conversation to sit down with a naturalist and a Muslim and discuss, “How do your assumptions (and mine) about the nature of things play out? To what extent to they answer or line up with the way the world truly seems to be? And to what extent do they not?” That seems better to me than my dogmatism talking past theirs, and vice versa.

    If all is random stimuli and natural selection, why beauty? Why good? Why would I act sacrificially for the good of anyone? Why would I feel moral outrage at anything? Is beauty just a stimuli that happens to produce a pleasant mix of chemicals in my brain? Maybe, I guess, but that seems to be a wholly unsatisfactory way to describe why my heart is warmed. At least to me.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Luke, you said: “These arguments are not meant to stand on their own to lead to Christianity. Rather, they stand as valid arguments for the existence of a god like the one in Christianity. Of course they are not bullet proof. But the best arguments in philosophy are the ones that show that other arguments don’t work. ”

    I, for one, am not treating these as arguments for Christianity. I treat these as arguments, in the very least for the “Transcendent”. And I still find them severely lacking. What is more, I treat these arguments as a normal, human phenomenon, i.e., the tell us something, not about God, but about us. Then I correlate them to what we already know about human behaviour, human history, human evolution, animal behaviour etc etc. This goes a long way to explain “Why the argument”. We are not there yet in terms of a single finalized answer. But, as Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game is afoot”, and we are on the scent. It would help a lot if (some) philosophers (or rather, philosophizers) would occasionally descend from their towers and examine evidence, and new discoveries, from math to paleontology to anthropology to neurology etc etc. I’m not anti-philosophy. But I’m anti-agrandizing, hand waving pronouncements that are clearly ignorant of the evidence and discoveries.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    And before someone accuses me of trivializing philosophy, I think philosophy is important. My view of the world is Bayesian. And to use the original analogy, philosophy is often that first guess on where the ball actually lies. (

  • phil_style

    @Klasie, on Bayes (and please excuse me if I’m mis-interpreting here), do you think the formulation has a place in theology?

    Theology seems to me to be the subject criticism on one hand for not being responsive to new discoveries, and then when it does move, it is criticised for having little value seeing as it “changes”. Within a Bayesian framework is there not scope to see the history of theological development (Christian theologies, or even the theologies of the biblical texts) as a kind of bayesian experiment in progress?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Note that we (that includes me 🙂 ) are using Bayes rather loosely.

    That said, I don’t really think so, with some exception. There is a great amount of recycling of arguments in theology, maybe precisely because the premises are largely unsuitable for testing, both from an experimental point of view (obviously), as well as evidence, since the archaeological evidence is ambivalent (supports in very general way some of the history, but none of the divine history, if you get my drift), and the source documents are either complex, or reflective of other mythologies (Genesis, for instance, could be seen as either a response to Egyptian or Babylonian origin myths – see my comment regarding Chaos Monsters). Thus you cannot really update, because you can’t change the evidence, and you cannot change the original Script. You could change the interpretation of the script, but that often leads to the justified charge of picking and choosing, or, making it say whatever you’d like to say.

    On the other hand, should you go the (imho the only justified) route of historical-critical analysis, you end up more and more with a result that is “all too human”. In a sense, thus, it is Bayes proving the negative outcome. That is where I’m heading, I think, whether I like it or not.

    So – yes and no. Especially yes when the outcome is no 🙂

    Clear as mud?

  • phil_style

    “On the other hand, should you go the (imho the only justified) route of historical-critical analysis, you end up more and more with a result that is “all too human”. “

    Thanks for the interaction Klasie. This above is where I might also apply the “method” – if we can call it that; and perhaps come to a different conclusion i.e. that it does not necessarily lead us to the no-god-at-all solution. One can look at how other knowledge has impacted on theology, such as how physics has influenced notions regarding divine action, or how regional geopolitics influenced Jewish theology in biblical writings, or perhaps how literary criticism influences atonement, or how platonic ideas about the immortal soul (once forced into theology) are now being revised out of it in light of neuroscience, or how evolution impacts on “original sin”….

    Changing the interpretation of the script might be a good example of this. The fact that theologians might be looking to take new meanings from the older texts suggests that theologies have moved on, that the old description of where the ball lies is not longer accurate. Is this not what we see Jesus and Paul doing? The writer of Matthew in particular seems rather content to do this also.

    In that respect each drop of a new ball on the table can be used as a marker to find out where theology can exist – in this respects many of the descriptions of God have to be left behind as increasingly improbable (Zeus, spaghetti monster etc) . The descriptions of where God is (or might be), become more refined over time.

    I don’t think the above is an anti-Christian path. In fact I consider it to be the well worn path of many parts of the church, and the Judaisms both now and before the advent of Christianity. Were not the councils of the 3rd to 5th centuries part of this process, much of this after the authority of the biblical material had been determined?

    It also seems to me that when various faiths start to take account of each drop of the ball, we see the theologies in those faiths begin to converge over time on some common descriptors….