Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Reason for God by Timothy Keller may be one of my new favorite books. He lays out in a very clear fashion arguments for believing in God. I think everyone, regardless of whether he is believer or not should read this book. It will challenge unbelievers and give intellectual ammunition to believers. In fact, Keller is calling everyone to reexamine doubt. Christians need to come to terms with their own doubt and confront it, and non-believers need to look at their assumptions and subject them to some doubt. Without asking the hard questions about what we believe and why we believe it, we leave ourselves open to being tossed and turned by well-sounding pablum.

As a pastor of nearly two decades in a large church in New York City, Keller has been able to talk to and confront many people from many backgrounds. In the first half of the book, he responds to the most common reasons for disbelief. In the second half, he simply and brilliantly gives reasons to believe.

The first reason for disbelief concerns the idea of “exclusivity,” or the belief that there is only one true religion. He cleverly points that those who would say there cannot be just one religion or that they are all equally valid are simply making a faith statement of their own. It is no more valid to say all religions are true than it is to say one religion is true. Therefore, we are all exclusive to one degree or another. Ironically, it is the exclusive Christians who are more open to others than any other religion. “Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making.”

The second question asks, “How could a good God allow suffering?” This age-old question sometimes leads one to deny the existence of God altogether, or to at least the refusal to serve Him. Christians begin to answer this question by looking at the cross. It may not answer the question, but it tells us what the answer is not. It is not because God does not love us. In fact, “God takes our misery an suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on himself.” If nothing else, we cannot say He doesn’t understand suffering. In addition, He promises to eventually end it once and for all. He proved He can overcome death on the cross and that serves as a down-payment on His eventual overthrow of all of suffering. 

Some believe that becoming a Christian will subject them a straightjacket of rules and regulations. Actually Christianity has within it the ability to unleash freedom. Even starting with the cultural way Christianity is lived out. The new Gentile believers weren’t required to live according to strict rules and regulations as their Jewish counterparts. Christianity easily moves in and adapts to any culture. Keller believes we need to evaluate what freedom actually means. It is not simply the ability to do whatever you want. That actually leads to enslavement. Rather it is fitting the limitations and constraints we will all experience to our nature. Christianity is a love relationship that calls for mutual loss of independence in order to love and be loved by another. If God truly loves us, then His constraints will only free us to be who we were meant to be. 

A fourth complaint points to how much injustice the Church has perpetuated. While acknowledging the truth of that statement, Keller shows that those injustices were done by individuals acting counter to the true precepts of Christianity. If Jesus taught salvation through God’s grace alone, the believer should be humbled. And many are. Many Christians are at the forefront of injustices being righted. These are the Christians Christianity should be judged by. Interestingly those who criticize the Church use the standards set up by Christianity herself to judge her. Therefore Christianity has within the seeds of its own redemption. Without the Bible’s standard for right and wrong, no one can judge the Church “wrong.”

Still others are bothered by the thought of a loving God sending people to hell. We recoil at a God who judges. “The belief in a God of pure love -- who accepts everyone and judges no one -- is a powerful act of faith.” Yet we ourselves demand judgment. If someone wrongs us, we want that person judged and forced to pay some kind of price. Should God ignore our pleas for justice? Or are we simply guilty of special pleading? Judge that guy for hurting me, but don’t judge me for hurting others? In fact, our passion for justice required Christ to go to the cross. Someone has to pay, and He did. So while He may reserve the right to judge us on the Judgment Day, we can be assured that our wrongdoings have already been paid for... by God Himself. He has given us an out if we will but take it. 

Some are bothered by the “unscientific” nature of Christianity. Yet interestingly, science has kicked God out, not the other way around. Imagine it’s true that God actually created the universe. Science can NEVER posit that as an answer to where did all this come from. It has created a realm in which it would be impossible to actually state the truth. Some scientists have boxed themselves into a corner where they can only state that which is false. Therefore, if it is true that God is the creator, it is science that has rejected truth. Nothing in Christianity conflicts with science, in fact major scientists are believers. It is science that has put itself in conflict with God by a priori rejecting Him.

Many will liken the Bible to a game of “telephone” and contest its historical accuracy and our ability to take it literally. In fact, when subjected to the same tests as other ancient literature, the Bible comes out miles ahead of any other work. Others will scoff at the “backwardness” of the Bible and mock its cultural prescriptions. This arrogance assumes we have achieved the height of progress. One day our generation will be mocked. Who are we to say we own the standard? God claims that for Himself. It is only through struggle with the text that we can know we “have gotten hold of the real God and not a figment of [our] imagination.” Picking and choosing makes me God. And how can I have a real relationship with something I made up?

So many of the above critiques can be simply restated as just another faith system, masked in rationality.

In the second half, Keller invites, not to “look into the sun, as it were, demanding irrefutable proofs for God. Instead we should look at what the sun shows us. Which account of the world has the most explanatory power to make sense of what we see in the world and in ourselves?” Those that demand “absolute proof” are engaging in “strong rationalism” which is its own kind of faith. Rather we look at the clues God gave us. 

Science gives us any number of clues from the Big Bang to the laws of nature to the existence of beauty. Many will argue that evolution and rationality brought us to this point. But Darwin himself wonders, can we really trust a mind that evolved to pass on genes and not necessarily to distinguish truth? What if "rationality" is just a trick our evolutionarily-derived minds play on us? Without a belief in a rational God who makes a rational universe, it is a statement of faith to believe that rationality exists apart from Him or that it will continue.

Then he skips to the chase and says basically, “We all already know there is a God.” “What?!?,” some will say. He points to our inherent moral feelings. Where did those come from. We simply KNOW there is right and wrong. We try to be relativistic, but at the end of the day, we all KNOW things like harming an innocent is wrong. Why? Evolution gives us no clue. Rather, Keller states that this moral knowledge is a gift from a moral creator. Otherwise we are left with “the grand ‘sez who?’” Only God can say, “Sez me.” We would like to live with the benefits of a moral universe without acknowledging the existence of a moral law giver. “But there is no integrity in that.” We must admit what we know to be true. 

Additionally, we all know the world is fundamentally flawed. But by whose standard? Ours? Christ tells us the reason is sin. Keller defines sin as “the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him.” That’s good! Sin is not “breaking the rules.” Sin is being who you were never supposed to be. He created us for better, to be better. Instead we follow our own path and muck it up royally. “Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence.”

We KNOW this. 

Only Jesus and Christianity offer us a way out of this sin trap. Only God offers us our perfect identity. All other religions say clean yourself up. God says, “I will wash you whiter than snow.” Self-righteousness is disallowed in a relationship with God. We cannot be self-righteous, as it is simply the other side of the sin "coin." He is the source of any righteousness and it negates His grace to think otherwise.

He ends with, “The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.” That means we are free. We cannot despise those who do not yet believe. They are similarly flawed. And we cannot feel superior. Jesus died for everyone. His justice and love demanded it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

How the West Won by Rodney Stark

After hearing the author interviewed by Dennis Prager, I decided to put his book, How the West Won, on my list. Rodney Stark does an excellent job describing the rise of modernity, which is directly tied to the rise of Western Civilization. He unapologetically declares, “To the extent that other cultures have failed to adopt at least major aspects of Western ways, they remain backward and impoverished.” Wow. Can you even say something like that today?

It begins with the miracle in Ancient Greece. This was not an empire, but a collection of autonomous city-states. In the surrounding empires, property was insecure. It made no sense to innovate when your product could be usurped by the state. The Greeks were free to innovate and consequently were able to defeat their enemies with better arms, tactics, and organization. This pattern continues today in Western countries. The Greeks could invest in science and pioneer technology because they believed in a rational universe. They engaged in formal logic, “as opposed to mysticism and meditation, [and it] became the defining hallmark of Christianity.”

While other empires ignored the advances of the Greeks, the Jews recognized a kindred spirit. Their “image of God as not only eternal and immutable but also as conscious, concerned, and rational” was quite compatible with the thinking of the Greeks. But that the Jews’ God was a “loving Creator who is intensely conscious of humankind” who “sees and hears; [who] communicates; [who] intervenes” and was not “remote and inert [like the] God of the Greeks” underlay the further rise of West. Because God was progressively revealing Himself to the Jews, they believed strongly in progress. History was not fixed, random, or chaotic, or doomed to always repeat. We could push our knowledge both of God and of our world. The Christians inherited this idea as well. In fact, Christians believed that “God as the rational creator of a comprehensible universe, ... therefore expect[ed] that humans will become increasingly sophisticated and informed, continually prodd[ing] the West along the road to modernity.”

He believes that Rome, with its immense size and lack of innovation, was a pause in the furtherance of Western values. In what he calls, “the not-so-dark ages,” with the “stultifying effects of Roman repression now ended, the glorious journey toward modernity resumed.” The fall of Rome “unleashed so many substantial and progressive changes.” In fact, Stark shows how repeatedly, the more “barbaric” the culture, that is to say not under a repressive imperial rule, the more innovative the people became. Empires tended to crush all in their striving for unity. Disunity was the necessary condition for forward progress. 

“One of the most important ideas facilitating the rise of West is the belief in free will.” The belief that we are responsible for our own fate led to the rise of capitalism in medieval Italian city-states. The doctrine of free will also led to the eventual banishment of slavery, since everyone was an individual before God. Not only was slavery a human rights disaster, it was an economic disaster. Freedom led to capitalism which led to prosperity. And the church promoted a virtue in work. This meant the priests were to engage in vocational work with promoted science, learning, and economic pursuits. This idea put the powerful church at the forefront of progress. Christian's commitment to theology, meant they had a commitment to knowledge. They sought to know God and His world better. This had wonderful repercussions for the world.

This study of natural philosophy with accompanied their theological pursuits, led to great scientific advances. The story of the great Scientific Revolution ignores the years of scientific groundwork laid by serious scholars within the church. 

In addition, throughout “medieval Europe was the rise of banking, elaborate manufacturing networks, rapid innovation in technology and finance, and a busy network of trading cities.” Eventually this would lead to the Industrial Revolution. The fact was that the Magna Carta gave English merchants secure property rights and free markets allowed the English industries to develop or exploit technology in a far superior way than their surrounding counterparts. You see the benefit of a more relaxed regime when you compare England to Spain. “Nearly everyday [Charles V and Philip II] rose early and worked diligently at administering this sprawling entity... In contrast, the ‘Pirate Queen’ ran a relaxed regime, treating her Sea Dogs more like business partners than subjects, and they responded with brilliant initiative. In the end, it was this English free-enterprise approach that was the final undoing of the Spanish Empire.”

Some will point to the exalted “Golden Age” of the Muslims. Stark does a good job revealing this to be a myth. To the extent that the Muslim (or Arabic) society succeeded was based on the extent to which the conquered people were succeeding. The Arabs usually usurped the ideas and technology of newly conquered areas. Yet once they started cracking down on the heretical ideas of the dhimmis, Muslim backwardness was revealed. In fact, unlike the British “nation of shopkeepers” the Ottoman sultans claimed ownership of everything within their empire. This led to rich sultans and poor people. No one had an incentive to strive or achieve or produce. Without liberty and property rights, there would be no real progress in the Muslim world. 

The United States took the liberty and property rights bequeathed them by their mother nation and added “high wages, cheap energy, and a highly educated population – plus a plenitude of resources and raw materials and a  huge, rapidly growing domestic market.” This enabled the New World to surpass the old one. Religion played a huge role in producing an educated populace. As a Protestant people, they were expected to be literate enough to read the Bible and interpret it. The Americans were able to bring together all the best ideas of Western Civilization in one place and succeed more than anyone had ever imagined. 

In summary, “the rise of Western modernity was function of freedom – freedom to innovate and freedom from confiscation of the fruits of one’s labors. When the Greeks were free they created a civilization advanced beyond anything else in the world. When Rome imposed its imperial rule all across the West, progress ceased for a millennium. The fall of Rome once again unleashed creativity and, for good and for ill, the fragmented and competing Europeans soon outdistanced the rest of the world, possessed not only of invincible military and naval might but also of superior economies and standards of living. All these factors combined to produce the Industrial Revolution, which subsequently changed life everywhere on earth.”