In probably what is an annual Christmas spread, The New York Times published an interview by their Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Nicholas Kristof, with Pastor Timothy Keller, also of New York, and also a NYT best-selling author of several books on Christian apologetics.
The topic was whether one can be a Christian and yet not subscribe to all the miraculous things ascribed to Christ in the New Testament, things such as the virgin birth, the resurrection and ascension.
In reading you’ll quickly learn that the object of this colloquy was never to trip the other up. A thrust-and-parry with rubber-tipped epees, Kristof had no interest in drawing blood from Keller, while making his principal point of justifying his skepticism for his readers, and Pastor Keller finding no profit in applying a coup de grace to Kristof by giving him a glimpse of eternity with and without God, which he could have done inside two minutes.
Still, this discussion was instructive for other reasons, especially its civility and polite tone, which, if you pay attention, is as rare as hen’s teeth these day.
Apologist and Skeptic
I suspect Mssrs Kristof and Keller may know one another, even socially. Pastor Keller is a noted “apologist” for Christianity, which, if you don’t know what that term means, it doesn’t mean that he is apologizing, but rather, is defending the Faith by means other then Scripture to people who are either unfamiliar with the Bible, or are not inclined to believe it. Perhaps even antagonistic to it. It’s an ancient practice. The earliest Church fathers, from the 1st-2nd Century, were almost all apologists, for they defended Christianity before there was a New Testament as we now know it, and had to draw upon Reason (and eye-witness accounts) to defend their articles of Faith. They were also in the minority everywhere in those days, and very often illegal. You may recall that I have often cited the 13th Century Franciscan monk,Ramon Llull, a renowned mathematician, as one of my favorite apologists, for he was so good at this form of logical argument among Muslims that they stoned him to death (at age 82), which was a common risk factor for early apologists.
Unlike this discussion between Kristof and Keller, modern atheists have little interest in Jesus. In the 1960s the acid-dropping Left had already diluted the miracles of Christ’s life and meaning simply by acknowledging that He was a fine teacher, dismissing the miraculous mumbo-jumbo about His life, usually without comment. That Jesus was for “peace and love” (Christian concepts they’ve never really been able to reconcile…I’ll get to the “smallness” of modern atheism shortly), and that He never seemed to laugh, plus a couple of Broadway hits, helped create this alternative-Jesus that made them feel good.
In this way they never had to bring up that Awesome Author behind Christ’s purpose on earth in the first place.
Frederick Hayek wrote that he quit being a practicing Roman Catholic because the Church, and Man in general, depicted God in such small dimensions. Men made God small so their own tiny minds could comprehend Him. One of the strengths of apologetics vis a vis modern atheism is to be able to identify Christianity with just that immenseness that smaller minds can’t comprehend, for it turns upside down their idea of people they consider to be superstitious mental midgets. Moreover, it draws into doubt their definition of themselves as Nature’s greatest creation. The smallness of their powers of perception is an issue neither leftist nor modern atheist have had much experience in defending.
So, explaining the resurrection is easy if you can explain that Awesome Power that caused it…which is hard. But worth the effort.
But we should first deal with the term Kristof uses to describe himself, “skeptic”, which is largely absent from Modern Atheist thinking. They are skeptical about almost nothing. In fact, the degree of their knowing is staggering.
I give Kristof credit here, even if using “skeptic” as merely a polite device. Kristof could be a Jew, people who also are skeptical about the miracles of the New Testament, but are still on board with that Awesome Power called God. Many other religions also claim no affiliation with the God of Abraham yet pay obeisance to other god-heads. Generally, we’ve always seemed to get along. But it wasn’t always this way, as the Greeks and Romans of Christ’s day, when they were top dogs, believed in a whole battery of gods antagonistic to this new Christian religion, which explains the 2-3 hundred years of development of apologetics in the first place, as well as why so many of those early Christian church fathers and mothers were martyred.
But Kristof applies an even more genteel 19th-20th Century concept to the term “skeptic”, even as he gives away none of the “secret supplications of his own heart” (Mark Twain) about Christianity or God. Since I can’t know his heart to the contrary, he sounds much like the historic atheists of the last century who more often described themselves as skeptics because of the evidentiary rigors of the Scientific Method. Monty Wooley’s kindly character, Professor Wutheridge, in the 1947 film, “The Bishop’s Wife” always comes to my mind as the archetypal scholar-skeptic of that day. Unlike today, he does not say with fist-pounding certitude “there is no God” but rather “I can find no evidence of God”, allowing scientific humility to lay pregnant that he is still open to convincing. Modern atheist don’t do that anymore, and are even very in-yer-face about rejecting that kind of open-mindedness. (I suggest this is a kind of insecurity.)
This once was the hallmark of Science, when scientists and scholars who dealt in facts made skepticism part and parcel of the original foundations of their inquiries, based on a fundamental proposition that there are things they simply cannot know. Professional humility. And our entire world benefited greatly.
But when, in recent years, has anyone in the scientific community been allowed to be skeptical about the data behind climate science, e.g., or, before that, the Darwinian-theory as just that, theory?
When did science become vain and arrogant? And thus, smaller-minded? When did Science begin t0 worship itself? When did Man declare himself to be a god?
It wasn’t always this way. Ancient people, tribal people, before the rise of nations or empires, before the Bronze Age (app 3500 BC), while we look upon them as barbarians, as the front office today looks upon factory workers, were still a humble sort in that they gave credit to their gods for all their discoveries. No Fertile Crescent dirt-dauber named Og (which is Mesopotamian for “Jonathan Gruber”) ever took personal credit for the domestication of the grains that fed them, or the oxen that pulled their plows and carts, or showed them how to identify copper and tin in the ground, then how to extract it, then melt it and hammer it into a hard metal with dozens of uses, from killing animals to people. In all these great benefits to advancing civilization, as passed down from father to son for thousands of years, “the people” (as they almost all called themselves), with dirt-rimmed mouths all humbly gave credit to “the gods”, beings immensely larger than they were. Conceptually they understood both”big” and humility.
While Science does not believe these folk legends, even though they are almost all universally the same, neither can Science disprove them. So Science hasn’t anything but theories to counter these myths to explain the process of how a bean that grew wild on a bush could be transformed into a cultivated seed.
Repeating myself, the world has done wonders while these two approaches to knowledge moved on parallel tracks guided by humility.
Modern Atheism, or neo-atheism, is a modern product, more political than philosophical, (which explains much of the small-mindedness). It spans not much more than a decade, but has psychological roots going back to the intellectual worldview of the 1840s. Even before Karl Marx co-authored “Communist Manifesto” with Friedrich Engels, he was penning pamphlets that all organized religion should be outlawed. More specifically, in keeping with his own psychopathy, Marx wanted to command the end of religion. He didn’t just want religion to die a natural death from lack of interest, or a better argument…he wanted it exterminated. And to be able to watch dirt shoveled over its grave. (A key to understanding the psychopathic fraud of Marxism is that Marx never once even sat down and spoke with “a worker”. His empathy for the plight of the working masses was zero. Like sucking on ice cubes Marx was satisfying an altogether different inner need.)
Being more political than scientific or philosophic, today they find themselves sitting on the cusp of a big break-up of their political alliance. The reality of the Trump election is that many of the left-wing alliance members are seeing their armada being dashed on the rocky coastline of an America renewed by the very people they hate the most…the American hoi polloi, many of them Christian. Historically left-wing groups go off on their own, some to lick their wounds, others to sulk, still others to build bombs in their basements. Modern atheists have to learn how to swim without water wings, in part because, as a shallow movement, it has no means of support now that its political underpinnings have been kicked out from under it.
The Christian apologist has to decide if these cast-adrift faux-atheists are worth the trouble. I argue that many are, simply because of the cultural process that drew them to the movement in the first place. Some are truly sad, sympathetic creatures. Lost, needing a fixed star to guide them.
But trust me, they won’t seek you out. Like Ramon Llull, you must go where they are. And in their haunts (Huffington Post, who for some curious reason feigns interest in Christians’ “lost souls” and CNSNews, a prominent site for religious commentary, are both known places for neo-atheist wildings…both good places to observe and engage.) they usually run in packs, and are never short on expletives and meanness.
But along with their principle insecurity of being exposed as intellectual frauds, requiring them to stay inside their comfort zone, so they will never have to actually connect more than two dots in making a cause of action…they are also very afraid. Their anti-God rants are more directed at a disapproval of God than a disbelief in Him….which is a dead giveaway of a fear of judgment and punishment. They want to believe they can make God go away simply by denying Him.
I’ve yet to meet the modern atheist who can make even a 10th grade argument against the existence of God, but they can give you volumes as to why they disapprove of him and why Christians are superstitious and stupid to believe otherwise.
But they are also low-hanging fruit, maybe worth your time and trouble.