This is the ninth post in a 15-week study. More information and resources can be found here.
A quick note to those of y’all who are not participants:
– Please read along as we go through the study chapter by chapter, and contemplate the questions we’ll be tackling. This is good stuff!
– We will be utilizing the comment section as a forum for discussion for the participants only. I respectfully ask – if you are not participating – that you refrain from commenting on the Reason for God posts, simply to help keep things well… simple.
– We have an incredible group of women representing various ages, faith backgrounds and life experiences – I hope you’ll check out all they have to say.
It is my prayer that the participants, as well as those of y’all who will be reading along, will contemplate your own faith and understanding of God in a new, and more purposeful way. If you have any questions about the study, or about God in general, feel free to email me from the link in the right sidebar.
In his argument against the view many traditionalists and religious speakers have of “relativistic and amoral” youth, Keller says, “The secular, young adults I have known have a very finely honed sense of right and wrong.” (p. 149)
Keller goes on to note, “people still have strong moral convictions, but unlike people in other times and places, they don’t have any visible basis for why they find some things evil and other things good.” (p. 150)
He says there is a radical reason, “I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know.” (p. 151) No one, Keller says, can maintain a constant moral relativism because, “The answer is that we all have a pervasive, powerful, and unavoidable belief not only in moral values but also in moral obligation.” (p.151)
In defining morals, Keller quotes Sociologist Christian Smith, “‘Moral’…is an orientation toward understandings about what is right or wrong, just and unjust, that are not established by our own actual desires or preferences but instead are believed to exist apart from them, providing standards by which our desires and preferences can themselves be judged.” (p. 152). Keller continues to say that although we are taught moral relativism, “we can’t live like that. In actual practice we inevitably treat some principles as absolute standards by which we judge the behavior of those who don’t share our values.” (p. 152)
So, why do we believe moral standards exist despite our bent toward morals being relative to culture, individuals and communities? Keller says, “We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.” (pp. 152-153)
Keller presents the argument in which evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists believe altruism somehow benefitted previous societies and so the altruistic gene survived. However, Keller presents three reasons why this simply cannot be. First, if self-sacrificing toward your community group benefits your society, then hostility to all outside groups would be equally just morally; yet we do not see this. Second, altruism brings some sort of “indirect reciprocal benefit to the practitioner from others,” but what about when no one observes the behavior? Finally, some argue altruism somehow benefits entire societies which flies in the face of the same who agree natural selection does not occur across whole populations. (p. 154)
“Evolution, therefore, cannot account for the origin of our moral feelings, let alone for the fact that we all believe there are external moral standards by which moral feelings are evaluated,” Keller postulates. (p. 154)
Keller defines cultural relativism by using the words of Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, “a view that all moral beliefs are culturally created and there is no basis for objectively judging one culture’s morality to be better than another.” (p. 154) If this is the case, then the idea of universal human rights is also true; what right do we have to impose our values on a different culture? (p. 155)
Human rights, Michael J. Perry says, is “the twofold conviction that every human being has inherent dignity and that it is obligatory that we order our lives in accordance with this fact.” (p. 156) From where does this dignity derive itself? Some say from God and some from nature. If God created us in His image then we have inherent value. If from nature, then human nature would have benefitted from certain behaviors being right. Nature is inherently violent so the argument for natural dignity argues against from whence it supposedly derived. Others argue it comes about because of majority or plurality. “If there is no God, argues Nietzsche, Sartre, and others, there can be no good reason to be kind, to be loving, or to work for peace,” Keller quotes. (p. 158) On the opposite side, “If there is no God, then there is no way to say any one action is ‘moral’ and another ‘immoral’ but only ‘I like this.’ If that is the case, who gets the right to put their subjective, arbitrary, moral feelings into law?” Keller asks. (p. 159)
Yale law professor, Arthur Leff, according to Keller, says, “The fact is… if there is no God, then all moral valuations are subjective and internal, and there can be no external moral standard by which a person’s feelings and values are judged.” (p. 159) The Atheistic thinker Raimond Gaita admits, “Only someone who is religious can speak of the sacred… [and] Not one of [these statements about human beings] has the power of the religious way of speaking… that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.” (p. 160)
Keller finishes with an argument against the natural basis for moral obligation. He tells the story of Annie Dillard who lived a year next to a stream in Virginia and rediscovered that nature lives by one principle only — violence of the powerful over the weak. “We are moral creatures in an amoral world… Or consider the alternative… it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss… all right then — it is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave.. .lobotomized, go back tot he creek, and live on it’s banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.”
Therefore, Keller says, “There is no basis for moral obligation unless we argue that nature is in some part unnatural. We can’t know that nature is broken in some way [humans’ belief it is not ok for the strong to usurp rights and freedoms of weaker groups and individuals] unless there is some supernatural standard of normalcy apart from nature by which we judge right and wrong.” (p. 161)
That standard arises from God, per Keller, and he also argues that to not see it “and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, the 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.” (p. 162)
Finally Keller quotes Quentin from Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall, when he says, “I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day… and the [judge’s] bench was empty… And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench… Which, of course, is another way of saying — despair.” (p. 163) If the bench is indeed empty, then there is no point in human existence and “Whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference,” Keller says. (p. 163) Therefore there are two options: hold onto the belief of an empty bench and still act as though choices matter or “…accept the fact that you live as if beauty and love have meaning in life, as if human beings have inherent dignity — all because you know God exists. It is dishonest to live as if he is there and yet fail to acknowledge the one who has given you all these gifts.” (p. 164)
Question: What stood out to you most in this chapter? Did something Keller say (or reference) specifically resonate with you?
My response: The part of this chapter than resonated most with me was the Arthur Miller quote about the bench:
“When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful, or [whatever.] But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That one moved… on an upward path toward some elevation, where… God knows what… I would be justified, or even condemned. A verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day… and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench… Which, of course, is another way of saying — despair.”
Oh my. Despair, indeed. I have never imagined what it would feel like, what life would feel like, if I did not believe in God. Even when I denied His authority, even when I doubted His plans and worshiped my own desires above His, I still knew there was a Judge. And reading this account made me feel overwhelmed with gratitude that I’ve never felt that sort of despair – that life is worthless and any and all efforts on our parts to make it so are foolishly futile.
I am so grateful for the faith that He has granted me to believe in and trust Him, and the work the Holy Spirit is doing to reveal more of Him to me. All I have to do is look up – look to the bench – knowing that Jesus stands at my defense. And there is nothing I could say or do to justify myself. But I don’t need to. Jesus is my all-sufficient Savior.
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Here is the button for the participants who will be linking up to the study. Grab the code, paste it into your Reason for God post and link up below.