Tim Keller was at a Veritas Forum at Georgetown U. in Washington DC last week and a group of us went down to hear him. He was erudite, gracious and wisdom and represented the gospel as well as I have ever seen it. What follows are my notes and let me emphasize they are my translations of what he said - some of what follows use my vocabulary not his, but I think this is a pretty good summary.
Three Elements of Belief
- Socially conditioned - it must fit with a group to which you belong.
- Intellectually conditioned - it must make sense to you.
- Personally conditioned - it must have an impact, an effect, on your life.
However, you cannot reduce belief to only one of those three. Where there is belief or unbelief all three elements have come together.
A secularist may say that belief is socially constructed and may say that "if you were born in Madagascar you wouldn't be a Christian." To which we reply "if you were born in Madagascar you wouldn't be a secularist." If the secularist contends that our Christian beliefs are purely socially constructed, then he should admit that his secular beliefs are too.
Keller mentioned that he didn't have time to address all three so he would spend the bulk of the time on the intellectual. But it is important to reiterate that when you talk to someone who has walked away from unbelief you will almost always find that it wasn't purely intellectual. Usually there was some kind of bad experience (i.e. the social or personal element) associated with it.
Three conclusions that move a person toward belief in God (intellectual)
1. Disbelief is a leap of faith.
There is no way to prove there is no God so there is an element of faith in unbelief.
The argument from evil and suffering is as follows:
Premise A - There is pointless evil and suffering in the world.
Premise B - If there is a God who is all powerful and all good that wouldn’t be there.
Conclusion - Therefore, since there is pointless evil and suffering in the world there can't be a God.
Hidden inside premise B is an assumption that because we can’t see a purpose for evil and suffering, there can’t be a good reason for evil and suffering. What makes you think that if there was a good reason for evil and suffering you would recognize it? He referenced Alvin Plantinga's "no-see-ums" argument. "No-see-ums" are tiny little gnats that are basically invisible, but they sting and drive you crazy - I can attest to that having grown up in Florida. Pretend there is a pup tent in the woods and you ask your friend to go and check to see if there is a St. Bernard in there. He would check and he could give you a reliable answer to that question. But then suppose you asked him to check to see if there are any "no-see-ums" in there. Even if there were he wouldn't be able to see them, he is not able to see them. Similarly, the fac that we can't see a good reason for evil and suffering does not mean there isn't a good reason. Tony Stiff has a little more on this here.
Another argument is to look at all of the horrible things that are inspired by religion. This is a problem, however there is something about the human heart that is so prone to evil and violence that it can germinate in any worldview. Every form of belief in God has produced horrible things, so it is a wash – it doesn’t prove or disprove God.
Another argument is that it is always unwarranted to say you have the truth. That is a truth statement. What makes you tolerant is not what you say, it is how you treat people on the other side. It is a leap of faith to put the burden of proof on the believer because it assumes that, if there is a creator God He would exist within the universe in such a way that you could prove empirically because He would fit all the way inside. If there is a creator God you will not relate to him as the first floor relates to the second. If there is a God you would relate to Him as Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. Shakespeare would have to reveal Himself in the play.
At some point in this discussion Keller brought up the famous analogy of the blind men and the elephant. This is the story where a group of blind men run into an elephant and seek to describe it. One grabs the trunk and says that an elephant is long and slender like a snake. Another grabs a leg and says he is firm and round and stout and cylindrical like a tree. The other grabs the tail and says the elephant is thin and whispy. This story is used to show that all religions are like the blind man - each has a part of the truth, but none has the whole truth. Keller quotes Leslie Newbigin on this - Newbigin says that the problem here is that the story is told from the perspective of one sees the whole elephant and knows the whole truth. In other words, the narrator of the story claims to be able to see all truth, and he claims for himself what he denies to religion.
It is also a big leap of faith to assume that God, if He exists, would not hold you accountable for failing to believe in Him due to a lack of faith.
We can’t prove much of anything – so why would God be different than everything else in life. If you can’t prove there is no God then to live as if there is no God is a leap of faith.
2. It takes more faith to disbelieve in God than to believe in Him.
The existence of God makes more sense of things than the idea that God does not exist. Consider the problem of human rights – the idea that humans have inherent rights is warranted (to say “I believe in human rights” is an assertion not an argument) is to say they are discovered, not created (Alan Dershowitz). If there is a God then the experiences of love and beauty make more sense.
I was falling behind by this time so I don't have more extensive notes on this section. I should also point out that Keller relied on Dershowitz somewhat for this argument but that Dershowitz doesn't come to the same conclusion on the matter that Christians do. But Keller thinks the Christian answer to Dershowitz (human rights are created by God) makes better sense than Dershowitz does.
3. If you believe you are not created by God and are the product of evolution you don’t have any real reason to trust your cognitive faculties.
Evolution can explain moral feeling, it cannot explain moral obligation.
Sorry that I ran out of gas on the notes but you can get more very easily.
The website for the book is here and it has several downloadable messages on themes that go along with the book.
For all of you in Chicago Keller will be at Northwestern and the University of Chicago later this week. Justin Taylor has the details here.