I’m going to give Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times one cheer, because he didn’t hold back from publishing this interview. That’s a lot for me to give Kristof because in general I find him the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual – especially on matters of faith, where he is part of a sizeable group of journalist types who are constantly trying to turn Christianity into nothing more than an admirable set of ethics guidelines. When Paul wrote 2 Timothy 3:5, he was thinking about people like Kristof.
So I don’t know if Kristof thought he was going to get the better of Pastor Tim Keller when he endeavored to do this interview, but once it was over, he had to know he didn’t. And yet he published it anyway. That puts Kristof at a higher level of esteem in my eyes than, say, Katie Couric, who would have edited the interview to make it sound like she stumped him. Better than Katie Couric. Not a very high bar. But still pretty good for Nicholas Kristof.
I will very rarely recommend that you read something in the New York Times, but this is one of those rare moments, precisely because I’m convinced the interview came out very different from what the Timesman in question intended or expected. I’ll sum up. Kristof wants Keller to tell him you can still be a Christian while refusing to believe key elements of the faith’s doctrine, particularly the ones that require supernatural moves of God – specifically the virgin birth of Jesus and the resurrection.
Keller doesn’t buy it. Without coming right out and telling Kristof, “You’re not a Christian, bro,” he makes it very clear that Kristof can’t have it the way he wants it. I obviously can’t quote you the whole thing, nor can I quote every excellent answer Keller gives, but here’s the money quote of all money quotes in an overall excellent interview (Kristof’s questions are in italics):
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?
I agree. We should require evidence and good reasoning, and we should not write off other religions as ‘superstitious’ and then fail to question our more familiar Jewish or Christian faith tradition.
But I don’t want to contrast faith with skepticism so sharply that they are seen to be opposites. They aren’t. I think we all base our lives on both reason and faith. For example, my faith is to some degree based on reasoning that the existence of God makes the most sense of what we see in nature, history and experience. Thomas Nagel recently wrote that the thoroughly materialistic view of nature can’t account for human consciousness, cognition and moral values. That’s part of the reasoning behind my faith. So my faith is based on logic and argument.
In the end, however, no one can demonstrably prove the primary things human beings base their lives on, whether we are talking about the existence of God or the importance of human rights and equality. Nietzsche argued that the humanistic values of most secular people, such as the importance of the individual, human rights and responsibility for the poor, have no place in a completely materialistic universe. He even accused people holding humanistic values as being “covert Christians” because it required a leap of faith to hold to them. We must all live by faith.
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?
I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.
Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a non repeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.
Kristof wants to believe in a God who operates like a human, and is bound by the constraints of the physical world as understood through science. He wants to “believe in human rights” (whatever that means) because he can grasp it, but he doesn’t want to believe in the resurrection or the virgin birth because to do so would acknowledge that God has dominion over the natural world and can operate outside the constraints of science as humans understand them.
Keller points out that there is no daylight between faith and science. You can understand everything about the scientific workings of the natural world but still understand that God is sovereign over all of it, and can work it to His will in ways that humans cannot. Of course God can raise Jesus from the dead. Of course God can impregnate Mary independent of human male sperm. Science serves God, not the other way around. God designed science, and set in motion everything that makes it what it is. God can set other things in motion if He wants to.
I’m not sure what kind of god Kristof wants to believe in, if it’s not a god who can operate outside the constraints of the natural world. That sounds like a pretty weak and ineffectual god. In fact, it sounds like a man. Do liberals understand that God is greater than men, and that it’s good that He is?
Elsewhere Kristof takes the standard liberal line, that what he likes about Christianity is the emphasis on good works and helping people, but what he doesn’t like is the supposed exclusivity of it – the idea that Christians get to Heaven but those of all other faiths do not. It bothers Kristof that, by this logic, Ghandi isn’t in Heaven.
Keller rightly turns that disingenuous argument on its ear. Christianity is the most inclusive religion in the world, because everyone has the opportunity to accept the grace of Christ for as long as they’re alive – for free, without any works being required. That’s not what Kristof wants, of course. He wants those who reject the grace of Christ to receive the same eternal reward as those who do not, which Keller explains would not be desirable at all because it would mean God doesn’t care about sin, holiness or righteousness. God says our good works can never be good enough to cleanse our sin, but in His mercy he offers the free gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Kristof seems to think some people are so good (Ghandi for one, I guess) that it’s OK for them to be exempt from this standard – that it’s fine for them to reject the gift of grace but essentially receive it anyway. I’d like to think Ghandi would have accepted what God had to offer, but he made his choice. Everyone does.
Sometimes I think the problem with Kristof and other supposed intellectuals is that accepting the Gospel would require them to accept things that make them feel less intellectual, and that might bring them derision in the newsroom and at social gatherings on the Upper West Side. That seems to be what Kristof is angling for, isn’t it? Let me only believe the parts that don’t present any intellectual issues for me and my smart friends. A god who will accommodate that wish is no God at all.
It really is a worthwhile read, mostly because Keller’s answers are so good, but also because Kristof’s questions are so revealing. Kristof demonstrates just how predictable and boilerplate his thinking is – the standard lefty/secular/journalist pap that hopes against all hope to bring God down to man’s level, and confuses “skepticism” with intellectual obstinance. The left is always trying to make God nothing more than a creation of man via man’s good works (as favored by the left). The true God, as personified by Jesus Christ, is actually the source of all good works, just as He is the source of science, which is properly seen as part of God’s brilliant design rather than a thing to worship in its own right.
But if the left has nothing to offer to help us understand God – and clearly it doesn’t – at least Kristof went to the right place to find someone who does. That still only earns him one cheer, but I guess it’s better than nothing.