Congratulations to the winners of Wacky Wednesday, Jen M. and Mindy M! It WAS Will Arnette skating around the rink by himself at the end of SNL this past Saturday night!!! Great job, Jen and Mindy. Starbucks card coming your way!
Okay so its Theological Thursday. I hope you have got your nerd glasses on. Cause I do. Understand that when I say nerd I mean it in the most endearing way. I love to learn and I hope you do too so that makes us nerds and that’s a wonderful thing! And that’s that.
Today we’re dealing with Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and we are in Chapter Three: Christianity is a Straightjacket. To read my summaries (aren’t summaries supposed to be short?), scroll to the bottom of the page or click here for TRFG One: There Can’t Be Just One True Religion and here for TRFG Two: How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?
So here we go!
Here is the first question to ponder:
“Is a belief in absolute truth the enemy of freedom?” (Keller, 35)
The concerns about absolute truth, and therefore a religion like Christianity that claims to believe in absolutes are vast. Here are two quotes that Keller included in the beginning of this chapter from people that visited his church in New York City. “‘Christians believe that they have the absolute truth that everyone else has to believe—or else,’ said Keith, a young artist living in Brooklyn. ‘That attitude endangers everyone’s freedom.’ ‘Yes,’ agreed Chloe, another young artist. ‘A “one-Truth-fits-all” approach is just too confining. The Christians I know don’t seem to have the freedom to think for themselves. I believe each individual must determine truth for him- or herself.’” (Keller, 35)
To Keith and Chloe’s concerns we can add the beliefs that absolute truth endangers of civic freedom, divides rather than unifies, is culturally narrow, fails to recognize various cultures and their differing perspectives on reality, and it enslaves and infantilizes its members. (Keller, 35)
Early twentieth century social activist Emma Goldman called Christianity “the leveler of the human race, the breaker of man’s will to dare and to do…an iron net, a straight jacket which does not let him expand or grow.” (Keller, 36)
Strong words. Many of you might agree wholeheartedly.
Keller points out that in this view absolute truth takes away freedom. In this sense, then, freedom “means that there is no overarching purpose for which we were created. If there were, we would be obligated to conform to it and to fulfill it, and that is limiting. True freedom is freedom to create your own meaning and purpose.” (Keller, 36) Keller goes on to say that The Supreme Court has actually turned this view into law saying that “the heart of liberty” is to “define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe.” (Keller, 36)
Historian and scientist Stephen Jay Gould puts it this way: “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available…We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer—but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers for ourselves…” (Keller 36-37)
Upon initial inspection, it is easy to see how Christianity (and absolute truth) appear to be the “enemy of social cohesian, cultural adaptability, and even authentic personhood.” But Keller argues that this is because there are some common mistakes and misconceptions about “the nature of truth, community, Christianity, and of liberty itself.” (Keller, 37)
So let’s start with misconceptions about truth.
Truth is unavoidable.
This is really fascinating to me. The French philosopher Foucault said that truth is created by people and is used as a power play. Many people believe that all truth-claims are power plays to exercise power and control over other people. But there’s a problem. In saying all truth claims are power plays, you are making a truth claim yourself. Your statement is, therefore, also a power play. If you say that all truth-claims about God are the weak man’s way of dealing with his guilt and insecurity, then so is that statement.
“Some kind of truth-claim, then, seems unavoidable.” (Keller, 38)
When you refuse to admit that there is absolute truth (postmodern theory and deconstruction), you literally have to try and stop thought all together.
G. K. Chesterton put it this way: “The new rebel is a skeptic, and will not trust anything…[but] therefore he can never be really a revolutionary. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind…Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything…There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”
Absolute Truth seems to constrain, so the idea is that no truth-claims should be made. But we’ve seen that even that is a truth claim and that truth, literally, is unavoidable. Whether it’s my truth or your truth, truth claims are being made. The popular idea that each one of us should determine our own truth also complicates things.
Keller shares, “One of the most frequent statements I heard was that ‘Every person has to define right and wrong for him- or herself.’ I always responded to the speakers by asking, ‘Is there anyone in the world right now doing things you believe they should stop doing no matter what they personally believe about the correctness of their behavior?’ They would invariably say, ‘Yes, of course.’ Then I would ask, ‘Doesn’t that mean that you do believe there is some kind of moral reality that is “there” that is not defined by us, that must be abided by regardless of what a person feels or thinks?’ Almost always, the response to that question was silence, either a thoughtful or a grumpy one.” (Keller, 48)
Community Can’t Be Completely Inclusive
Another complaint about Christianity is that claims to have absolute truth exclude and divide. The unity that we all (I would argue intrinsically from our Creator) crave seems to not fit in this model. If I am right, then you have to be wrong and we are divided. Unity is the great hope of so many.
Here’s a true statement. To be a member of Christian community particular beliefs are (or at least should be) required. Therefore, it is not open to all. This outrages people. “Common moral believes are not necessary, it is said, in a liberal democracy.” (Keller, 39)
But, as Keller points out, this is a huge oversimplification. The concept of liberal democracy is based on “an extensive list of assumptions–a preference of individual to community rights, a division between private and public morality, and the sanctity of personal choice. All of these beliefs are foreign to many cultures. A liberal democracy is based then (as is every community) on a shared set of very particular beliefs.” (Keller, 39)
“The idea of a totally inclusive community is, therefore, an illusion.”
Did you get that?
I have to share this section of text because it helps illustrate that point. “Imagine that one of the board members of the local Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Community Center announces, ‘I’ve had a religious experience and now I believe homosexuality is a sin.’ As the weeks go by, he persists in making that assertion. Imagine that a board member of the Alliance Against Same-Sex Marriage announces, ‘I discovered that my son is gay and I think he has the right to marry his partner.’ No matter how personally gracious and flexible the members of each group are, the day will come when each group will have to say, ‘You must step off the board because you don’t share a common commitment with us.’ The first of these communities has the reputation for being inclusive and the second for being exclusive, but, in practice, both of them operate in almost the very same way. Each is based on common beliefs that act as boundaries, including some and excluding others. Neither community is being ‘narrow’–they are just being communities.” (Keller, 39-40)
The point Keller is trying to make is that “we cannot consider a group exclusive simply because it has standards for its members.” He goes on to argue that there actually is a better way to judge whether a community is open and caring rather than narrow and oppressive. He challenges us to ask the following questions:
“Which community has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect–to serve them and meet their needs?
Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness?”
The reality is, Christians fall short here. Christians SHOULD be criticized when “they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers. But churches should not be criticized when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same.” (Keller, 40)
Community, by nature excludes some.
Guys, I’m not done with the Chapter but this is long enough already. So we will pause here and finish Chapter 3 next Thursday!!!