the reason for God: chapter nine

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This is the ninth post in a 15-week study. More information and resources can be found here.

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– Please read along as we go through the study chapter by chapter, and contemplate the questions we’ll be tackling. This is good stuff!

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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.

The Reason for God – Chapter Nine: The Knowledge of God

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.

Isaiah 40:25-26

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Comments

  1. Where do I start? I feel like the chapters are just starting to pack in so much that my brain hasn’t quite processed it all yet. I find it quite interesting though, that as I was reading this, I was having a discussion over the same topic with a friend of mine who is a non-believer. This friend and I both share the same outlook on the world in regard to service and doing good, only I see all good as coming from God (even to and through non-believers), whereas my friend simply believes in the power of humanity. The chapter was just so spot on, and probably not coincidentally so.

    I am really struck by how bold Keller is in saying that he is going to prove that everyone already believes in God. And then amazingly enough, he manages to lay out just what he said. I find it highly provocative how he claims that everyone knows God through their sense of morals and right and wrong, which is something I have always thought, but not in the fully-formed way that Keller lays out. I am continually amazed at his brilliant ability to so logically and thoroughly work through an argument, and that in itself has really struck me. I can only hope that someday I have even a fraction of his ability to so dissect an assertion down to its base.

    • oh, i so agree! he is able to state things so simply, yet so logically.

    • NiHaoYall says:

      Love it when God gives us those undeniable opportunities to speak truth into others around us :) And I find so much encouragement to allow God to use us “jars of clay” to share His Truth!
      2 Corinthians 4:7 — But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

  2. I was struck by 2 statements in this chapter. The first, on p. 151: “I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know.” The second is the last paragraph of the chapter: “The other option is to recognize that you do know there is a God. You could accept the fact that you live as if beauty and love have meaning, as if there is 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.”

    That last sentence, especially, struck a chord in me. I believe that in every person is a God-shaped hole. Everyone tries to fill it. Some of us choose to fill it with God. Others of us choose drugs, alcohol, or other destructive lifestyles. Still others choose morality or “moral obligation” to fill it. The problem is just as Keller states, though. Who created the morality? “Who sez” one action is more moral than another? Who sets the standard?

    I saw this moral obligation lived out in my grandfather’s life. He was a very moral person, but he wanted nothing to do with God. My mom witnessed to him over and over again, and he still would not acknowledge his need for a Savior. Yet, he did not like to see injustices in the world. He supported pro-life government. It just fascinates me how people can live this morally upright life and yet deny (subconsciously or consciously) that God exists and is the One who set the standards for morality. That way of life seems so EMPTY to me. It just makes me sad that rather than acknowledge a Creator Savior who set the standards for morality and who created EVERY beautiful thing and live their lives honoring and pursuing Him, so many people choose to live halfway–following the moral standards (and even this is done in degrees) but refusing to acknowledge any need for the One who created morality in the first place.
    Amy

    • yes, that last paragraph reminds me of this:

      For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:19-21

    • NiHaoYall says:

      I, too, have been bewildered by those who flatly refuse to believe and yet are determined to be “good”. I think pride is such a subtle (but so deadly!) sin – Tim Keller calls it the ‘carbon monoxide of sins’ because those who are filled with it have no idea…

  3. In this chapter I simply appreciated Keller giving words to the insensibility of secular thinking. Man’s wisdom is weak, and Keller reveals that in this chapter. I was also affected by this statement on pg 163:

    “If the bench is truly empty then the whole span of human civilization, even if it lasts a few million years, will just be an infinitesimally brief spark in relation to the oceans of dead time that preceded it and will follow it. There will be no one around to remember any of it. Whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference.”

    Despair.

    • oops, hit reply too early!

      Despair. To believe that way would seem so pointless. And yet I used to, which explains my former attraction to horoscopes and fortune tellers and feng shui and dream catchers and anything else I could find to try to give me purpose and peace.

      Hope. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Eph 2:10. Our lives are meaningful…our actions have purpose…we are dearly loved.

      • NiHaoYall says:

        And I love that we are dearly loved FIRST. Flawed, broken and sinful… and yet how He loves us!
        Our lives have meaning and our actions have purpose BECAUSE of that love. We are not loved because of ANY thing we do… it is all HIM!

  4. I was struck by many statements in this chapter, but the one that seems to play over and over is the Arthur Leff “Sez Who?” statement. In doing a study of Genesis earlier this year, the commentary discussed the implications of eating of the forbidden tree – it wasn’t just having the knowledge of good and evil – it was that we became our own JUDGE of what is good and what is evil – in effect, we became the “Sez Who”, and thus made ourselves as our own god. For some reason, I never really got that point until then, but now I think of it anytime there is a debate over a moral issue. Men can debate back and forth forever, but the Sez Who remains The Almighty God, and his Word is the only true determination of morality.

    • NiHaoYall says:

      I agree… that was such a powerful argument for God’s ultimate sovereignty and power over all. I think we, even as Christians, have somehow forgotten just how big of a God we serve!

  5. We all have a sense of right and wrong. If it doesn’t come from God, then where? It is not taught. It is just within you. I believe that the reason for many addictions in this world come from knowing right and wrong and choosing wrong. You try to hide your sense of guilt or uneasiness about doing wrong. Even if you won’t acknowledge it I do believe that we all have that sense deep within us and it is a knowledge of God’s existence. I too feel that each of us is looking for something that can’t be filled any way except by God. Life without God would never be satisfying, you would feel as if something was missing, because with him we are full.

    Despair. How horrible that would be?

    • NiHaoYall says:

      Had never thought about that, April. Interesting – I can see that guilt and feelings of worthlessness could absolutely lead to addictions. I know I used to smoke (a lot!) and when I quit all these emotions poured out of me. It was harder to deal with the emotions than i was to quit smoking ;)

  6. My response was going in a completely different direction…until my husband shared a conversation he had yesterday.
    He ran into a gentleman he hadn’t seen in more than ten years. It was not a chance encounter.
    I will call the gentleman ‘Sir’ in this conversation.
    Clayton was getting fuel and had several of our younger children with him, and this conversation happened as he was checking out – probably paying for Skittles and Bug Juice :)

    Sir: Hello, Clayton. Wow, I had no idea you had kids so young.
    Clayton: Actually, I’ve got one younger than this.
    Sir: Really? What do you do? Just keep poppin’ them out?
    Clayton: Now, Sir, does it look like I ‘pop them out’? I’ve got 11 kids, and 8 of them are from China.
    Sir: Why?
    Clayton: The Bible says to store up our treasures in heaven where moth and rust will not destroy.
    Sir: How do you do that? You must have a lot of money!
    Clayton: No.
    Sir: So you can do that without money?
    Clayton: Yes.
    Sir: How’s that?
    Clayton: The Bible also says that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. And I have access to it all!
    Sir: Really? (as he starts walking out the door)
    Clayton: Sir, did you know that?
    Sir: (Walking out the door) No, but I do now *insert sarcasm*.

    Clayton turned to pay for his purchases, and the girl behind the counter said, “That really touched me. I’ve never heard it put like that before.”
    Clayton said, “It’s in the Bible.”
    She said, “I know, but I’ve just never heard it said like that before.”
    To Him be glory!

    This chapter deals with the question of the foundation of morality. Keller states that while our culture does know ‘right from wrong,’ we in large part have no valid reason for why right is right and wrong is wrong.

    It resonates with me because I grew up in a ‘moral’ home where we were expected to show respect, especially to elders, and exercise manners, but it had nothing to do with spirituality. There was no biblical basis, no reference to God’s authority, and certainly no regeneration.

    If you would have asked me why I was, for example, ‘kind’, I would’ve said, “Because my dad teaches me so.”

    Today if you ask me why I’m ‘kind’, I would say, “Because I am a new creation in Christ, and it is only through Him that I can be kind…or do anything else ‘good.'”

    Please don’t hear me say I am now ‘perfect!’ Oh.my.heavens.no.! Far from it. But I now have the power and Spirit of God, which allows me to determine the ‘right thing to do’. I admit I’m not always a good example, and I pray daily that God would reveal more of Himself and less of the old me.

    Certainly, there are non-believers who are more ‘moral’ than some Christians; who are more benevolent; who are more pleasant to be around; who are more helpful; who are less critical; who are more optimistic…

    And maybe that should be the challenge to those of us professing our Christianity. As Keller says, “…to recognize that you do know there is a God. You could accept the fact that you live as if beauty and love have meaning, as if there is 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.”

    Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.
    2 Cor 5:17

    …Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
    1 Peter 3:15b

  7. Keller’s point that all people have a basic “sense” of God is one that I have believed for quite some time, and his argument about any sense of moral authority coming from God is one that I have used in many a discussion.

    However, it still takes work to get to real faith. For many of my friends who struggle to believe (and for myself when I have struggled), the intention of the Enemy, at least in Western society, is to convince us that we are desperately capable (independent, without need, etc). I don’t think he needs to convince unbelievers that there isn’t a God. I think he works to convince them they don’t need a God.

    So, many of my friends struggle with the next step. They might be willing to admit that there might be a God, but they aren’t crazily invested in what that truth might mean.

    • NiHaoYall says:

      So well said, Erin.. and so true: “… the intention of the Enemy, at least in Western society, is to convince us that we are desperately capable (independent, without need, etc). I don’t think he needs to convince unbelievers that there isn’t a God. I think he works to convince them they don’t need a God.”

  8. China Mom says:

    Wow. There were many parts of this chapter that made me think. One thought was that we all deep down know that God exists. I have had actually heard this a lot the last couple of week, in church, Bible Study etc. My daughter has prayed for God to give her His autograph before. I really did not know how to handle this because it felt a tad disrespectful. This week she prayed the prayer again and I decided I would not say anything at the time….I needed to chew on this one for awhile. Low and behold, there was the most amazing rainbow the very next day (Monday) I told her that God does not give autographs, He is too Holy. But He does give us His fingerprints….this was her fingerprint from God. So for the next few days we pointed out His fingerprints. Then she prayed again for an autograph on the way to church Wed. I reminded her that He does not give autographs. As we walked out of church I stood with my mouth open and literally unable to move or speak……there was a double rainbow!!!!!! I still have chills thinking about it. 2 rainbows in 2 days (one a double).

    I say all that to say this, I do believe we all have the same faith my daughter did. We have a basic understanding of a Creator, a Protector, a Center so to speak that gives us all a purpose and a moral compass.

  9. “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)

    I live in an Asian culture where to the vast majority of people view life without a “judge on the bench”. I see the utter hopelessness and despair that this brings to a society, and in turn how it affects individuals daily lives and decisions, and I struggle with it daily. I am so thankful that I have His compass to guide me.

    • NiHaoYall says:

      I imagine your experience with this is vastly different from ours here in the US – honestly, I can’t imagine living in a culture like that. It must be so draining. Thankfully our God is so big He crosses all borders and boundaries.
      So great to see you participating this week, Kirsten :)

  10. This chapter gave me lots to think about. Plus, it’s coordinating with my daily Bible readings in the beginning of Romans. Yay God! The thing that stood out to me the most was Keller’s reply to the statement that “No one should impose their moral views on others” That statement has always bothered me but I never really knew how to reply to it. I have a lot of outspoken friends and facebook friends with that opinion and I’ve always just stood there dumbfounded never knowing what to say or how to react. I feel like for the first time I have a reason to back up my opinions and stance besides just saying “it’s in the Bible”. I don’t have to tell you that doesn’t go very far with people who don’t believe the Bible. I don’t question a lot so I get stuck a lot on questions on defending my faith. I feel like for the first time in my life I have the confidence and knowledge to have a discussion with people about faith. I am very quiet with talking about my faith to non-Christians and I feel like God is giving me the tools I need to be ready to talk about Him with others. It’s a scary but comforting thing at the same time. Now to pray that I’ll keep the courage when I actually get in that situation and remember some of these points. :)

    • NiHaoYall says:

      Yay for this: “I feel like for the first time in my life I have the confidence and knowledge to have a discussion with people about faith.”
      Exciting to think how the Lord is going to use you, Rachel :)

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