Friday, December 23, 2016

Answering Nicholas Kristof's Questions on Faith

I've always liked Nicholas Kristof, though not reading the New York Times, I seldom see his essays.  I find something sincere and earnest about his work.  Traveling around the world on assignments, he seems to view people with real compassion.  I probably disagree with his politics, but he is one liberal whom I really respect -- what one would hope for from someone who calls himself a "liberal."  (Though I don't know if Kristof uses that word.)  

This morning someone posted a series of questions which Kristof posed to the New York City pastor Tim Keller.  (I won't give the poster's name, since this was on a closed forum.)  He asked us to try to answer Kristof's questions without looking at Keller's replies.   While I wasn't planning to write a blog piece this morning, the questions proved interesting, and on important issues that I've pondered a lot.  Here's what I came up with.  

KRISTOF Tim, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?

Essential for what?  If you're asking whether you can go to heaven even while disbelieving in a traditional Christian doctrine, that would be above my pay-grade -- I don't make housing arrangements for the afterlife, or even own a complete blueprint.  Essential for other Christians to admit you belong to our religious club?  Some will, some won't. 

I think it's better to ask what is true.  And in that case, better not start with the virgin birth, better start with core questions.  Is there a God?  Does He act in this world sometimes?  How do we know if He truly done a miracle, and which rumors are false?  Is there a difference between magic (supernatural acts that seem unworthy of the Creator) and miracles (those that fit his character, and seem more credible a priori?)

Having studied world religions and the history of Christianity for much of my life, I believe that miracles do occur, that God is behind them, and that they are distinct from a category of supernatural acts or tricks which I call "magic."  And I believe miracles still happen today.  Eric Metaxis and Craig Keener have both written accounts of miracles which occur around the world in modern times, and I find them pretty credible people.  But for many of us who have worked on the mission field, what they reported was no great surprise.  I seem to have seen God work, in a small but significant way, in my own life, as have many trustworthy people I have known.  And the miracles of Jesus are the type that seem most godly, most rational, and most credible. 

Given those background facts, which I recommend Tim read about first, one may then consider the evidence for or against the virgin birth.  If you find the evidence inconclusive, leave it as an unresolved question, and go on to the much stronger evidence for Jesus' later miracles, including his Resurrection. 

But the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life, like the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, don’t even mention the virgin birth.  And the reference in Luke to the virgin birth was written in a different kind of Greek and was probably added later. So isn’t there room for skepticism?

There is always room for Skepticism, for like a Pro Bowl defensive lineman, Skepticism makes room for itself.  And I think he does belong in the game, as one player.  

It is true that Luke writes in a unique style, using a great deal of vocabulary that other NT authors do not use.  In the preface to his Gospel, Luke implies that he drew on other early material.  It is not surprising, then, to find that part of Luke 1 and 2 seem to do just that, make use of other sources.  But even in that passage, there are a few key words which are found, elsewhere in the New Testament, only in Luke's writings.  So I conclude that the best explanation for this passage is that Luke made use of an account, oral or written, of Jesus' birth, then glossed it when including it in his gospel, by adding his own explanatory comments, perhaps editing as he went.  Whether or not you find that a sufficient reason to trust the account, depends on what you think of Luke as an historian generally.  I think Luke was excellent: hundreds of facts he mentions in Acts, for instance, have been corroborated from other sources.  (Colin Hemer notes 84 in just the last 16 chapters of Acts.)  But as an historian myself, I would generally concede that portions of a biography for which there is only one account, and which "stretch the supply line" of testimony a few decades further, and may be less accessible to the biographer, are in general not as strong as later accounts that are attested by several immediate sources.  Luke could have asked surviving disciples about Jesus' ministry: he would have had a harder time tracking down people who had witnessed his birth, probably.  Still, Luke may well have had eyewitness sources even for his birth narrative -- it is even quite possible that Luke spoke directly to Mary, and wrote her account down.    

And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?

Again, what do you mean, "must?"  If God is real, and if He acts in the world -- and I think there is excellent reason to think He is and does -- why wouldn't He wish to give humanity a "new hope," as George Lucas put it?  And since our greatest fear is death, why wouldn't He give us that hope by offering us the promise of new life?  (As, indeed, He does every spring?  The "springing" to life of the natural world is the whole basis of the Chinese New Year's celebration, after all, and part of why Easter is so popular.  So if God is trying to get this theme into our heads, He has done a pretty good job through nature.)  And if God wanted to show that death is not the end, who better through whom to send that important message, than humanity's greatest moral teacher, one who was willing to give his life for all humanity, and whose life seems prophesied throughout the Old Testament?  (And, I argue, throughout the great traditions of humankind​?)  

If God really did raise Jesus from the dead, then all the world can find hope.  

But did God in fact raise Jesus from the dead?  Having considered the background questions and found reason to expect that God might do such a thing, we must ask if there is evidence that He really did this amazing miracle-- the much more than $64,000 question.  Then we find that the man whom the philosopher Raymond Martin called the "most sophisticated" of modern New Testament historians, the British scholar NT Wright, wrote an 800 page book called The Resurrection of the Son of God, arguing from many lines of evidence that indeed, Jesus did rise from the dead.  Worth reading, if you can find the time!  It is also interesting that the philosopher William Lane Craig has debated about a dozen leading skeptical New Testament scholars over this question, and seems on purely historical grounds to have won each of those debates, as even one thoughtful atheist seemed to admit.  One might also consider this article by the philosophers Timothy and Lydia McGrew, who sum up the positive evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in a forceful manner, indeed.  Add this solid historical evidence to the background facts I mention above, and the case for the "literal" resurrection of Christ becomes powerful, indeed.    

So why shouldn't one believe it?  It makes sense, and there's good evidence it really happened.  

But let me push back. As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?

They were shocked, which actually makes the accounts far more credible.   One doesn't get this in the Gnostic writings.  Jesus' appearances are all very glib and cool, as if the Gnostic disciples had cliche-spouting ghosts popping in every afternoon.  

The story about Jesus and Thomas is especially powerful.  Thomas can't believe the reports from his friends, with whom he has lived for three years, because he's so certain that the dead do not come back to life.  (A very natural assumption!  Kristof's own assumption!  Also the god Apollo's assumption when he serves as defense lawyer for a mortal on Mars Hill in a play by Aechylus, and points out that mortals do not rise again, but their blood seeps into the earth.)  Thomas has seen many miracles, but has been traumatized and demoralized by the vicious execution of the teacher whom he so loved.  "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter."  The realism of the scene is palpable.  

Jesus then insisted that his disciples engage three senses -- sight, sound, and touch -- to strengthen their conviction of God's power.   And having become thus convinced, the weak-kneed disciples proved willing to die for their conviction, which is why the Christian movement "all started off with a Big Bang -Bang!"  as the TV show puts it.  No one could shut those fellows up or quench their conviction.  

"We are witnesses!"  

The spread of Christianity around the ancient world, and its bursting out of the Jewish cocoon in which it first developed (unlike any other Jewish sect), is an amazing story.  Like the Big Bang, or the origin of life, those remarkable results demand a cause.  If Jesus did not rise, it is hard to see why Christianity would have caught on the way it did, with almost every sermon in Acts focusing on Jesus' death and resurrection.    

So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?

These are questions about words.  Let us talk, instead, about truth and the power of God.  It may be best that even if you cannot believe in God's reality, power, and willingness to act in this world, you will remain a follower of Jesus in some sense -- we all have much to learn from him.  But it would be better for you not to return to some childish version of the Christian faith, but to grapple as an informed adult with the wealth of evidence that Christ is, indeed, not only the hope of God for this world because he teaches well, but because his promises may come true.    

Tim, people sometimes say that the answer is faith. But, as a journalist, I’ve found skepticism useful. If I hear something that sounds superstitious, I want eyewitnesses and evidence. That’s the attitude we take toward Islam and Hinduism and Taoism, so why suspend skepticism in our own faith tradition?

The Christian tradition has always "found skepticism useful."  Indeed, this is why Jesus gave Thomas the evidence he sought.  And this is why the Gospels were written, to provide credible accounts of "the things that occurred among us."  Down through history, great Christian thinkers have methodologically tied "faith" to "reason:" "like two wings of a bird," as Pope John Paul II put it. That may be one reason why Medieval theologians reinvented science.  

One should ask not only for little bits of evidence here or there, though, but for a grand framework for understanding, into which to set those bits of evidence.  That is another thing that wise people seek this season.  There must be data.  The data must fit what else we know.  The data must shed new light on old and new phenomena.  And one must also find some interpretive framework from which to understand both particular "narrow" sets of data, and facts one learns from the experience of humanity on a global and historical basis.    

I believe the Christian faith provides all of that.  And the examples you give -- Islam, Hinduism, and Taoism -- help demonstrate this fact.   

Let me very briefly speak of the third, on which in part I wrote my doctoral dissertation. 

Taoism is not one but two things.  It is a philosophy founded by Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi - what Chinese call the "Lao-Zhuang School" -- and it is a religion that grew up later, in response to Buddhism, in part.  In many ways, those two things are starkly at odds.  The philosophy scorns to concern itself with death, while the religion seeks by wild means, sometimes by oppressing the weak, to overcome the facts of sickness, age, and death.   

Christianity sheds great light on both those things, including both Jesus' death and resurrection.  I argue that Jesus fulfills key passages in both the Dao De Jing and the Zhuang Zi, the founding scriptures of Taoist philosophy, in a way that no one else has.  (That's the link to my book: my dissertation, when published, will offer more focused details.)  Certainly, Jesus sheds a deeper light on those two great works of philosophy.  And at the same time, his resurrection answers the need that the Taoist religion has so long sought to meet -- the need for hope in the face of death.  Indeed, one ancient Chinese scripture even speaks of the hope of a resurrection after three days!  At a dinner party, I once explained the whole Gospel to the man sitting next to me by using the Chinese word "come:" afterwards he said, "My wife has been telling me about Christianity, but now I finally understand."  

But while there are images and the strong hope of the resurrection (which is what Chinese New Years celebrates with such pomp), there is no credible historical resurrection to believe in, in China.  Even many of the symbols of Chinese New Years, which express desire for resurrection, point in remarkable and often precise ways (many have noticed this strange phenomenon) to the hope that Jesus brings.  

So yes, ask for evidence.  The Christian tradition provides a great deal of concrete historical evidence.  And read, in a open-minded but fairly critical way, the great works of other traditions as well.  I believe you will find that the Gospel not only contains stronger evidence for its historical claims -- indeed, Hinduism never cared much about history -- and a far better savior than the cruel Mohammed with his wars and slave-trading and involuntary wives.  The Gospel also provides a framework which can explain the whole of human history, the good, bad, AND ugly, far better than any secularist creed.  

I’ll grudgingly concede your point: My belief in human rights and morality may be more about faith than logic. But is it really analogous to believe in things that seem consistent with science and modernity, like human rights, and those that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?

That's an odd question.   It was pious Christians, for the most part, who invented modern science, often for theological reasons.  Why should a Christian invention be inconsistent with Christian faith?  As Francis Bacon famously put it, a shallow initial understanding of science may lead one to atheism, but a richer and fuller understanding will lead one back to faith.  And science clearly has played that role for some moderns -- discovery that the universe had a beginning, that it appears carefully designed for life, that life itself is so fragile and difficult to produce, the sheer wonder of nature that even seems to tempt die-hard skeptics like Dawkins and EO Wilson to throw up their hands to the skies in praise, before they check themselves and put their hands down again.  

Christianity is inconsistent with materialism.  But if "modern thought" means "materialism," then I happily agree with that majority of modern people who paradoxically are somehow not "modern."  

Can I ask: Do you ever have doubts? Do most people of faith struggle at times over these kinds of questions?

Of course you can ask!  Thomas had doubts!  I often do!  Even the great apologist C. S. Lewis said one has moods in which it all seems quite incredible.  Some Christians doubt, some Christians don't.  

I am impressed with the sincerity of your questions.  I know that my answers may have seemed glib at times, and that some of my claims may seem incredible to you.  But they are conclusions I have reached after years of study, sometimes to my own surprise.  I hope that you will consider the wealth of evidence upon which they are based.  (Some book recommendations.)  

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?

Understandable.  I personally don't know what heaven and hell are, still less who goes to either place.  Jesus himself sometimes said some startling things about that latter question, but his answer to the former included images that suggest, rather than the concrete Wikipedia-style geography and demographics of the Kingdom of Heaven.  

No, I don't think every non-Christian is in hell.  I even hope to find Confucius and Lao Zi in Heaven: they believed in God, and were seeking a "sage" much like Jesus.  After all, Hebrews 11 describes a "great cloud" of witnesses who have gone before us, and who cheer us on from glory, none of whom yet knew the full Gospel message.  

So don't your decision hinge too much on those doubts.  If God is just, He will be just to all men and women.  And only He knows exactly what each of us really is, what we need, and where we may most truly belong.
If you wish to think more about that question, let me recommend to you C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce.   You may also like God Wins, by my friend Don Richardson.  


Doug said...

"Essential for what? If you're asking whether you can go to heaven even while disbelieving in a traditional Christian doctrine, that would be above my pay-grade -- I don't make housing arrangements for the afterlife, or even own a complete blueprint. Essential for other Christians to admit you belong to our religious club? Some will, some won't. " - this is brilliant, David. Thanks so much for your blog!

Reconquista Initiative said...

Merry Christmas David!

Just purchased your new book; I am looking forward to reading it. At the same time, and even though you and I would no doubt disagree on a number of things, I just want to thank you for your work. I know that sometimes Christian apologists/philosophers toil and do not see as much reward as they would like, but I can assure you that your books and blog posts have made a big difference for me, and so your work is indeed greatly appreciated!

Regards and Merry Christmas!

David B Marshall said...

Thank you both! Very encouraging. Have a Merry Christmas!