Saturday, December 24, 2016

Nicholas Kristof-Tim Keller interview; Can one be rational, needing evidence for belief, and still be a Christian in the 21st century?

Last updated on 25th Dec. 2016

I came across this very interesting article by a regular New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html, Dec. 23rd 2016.

It has a question and answer session between Kristof and Pastor, Timothy Keller, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Keller_(pastor).

[I guess I will have to read at least one book of Pastor Keller, about whom I think I had not heard earlier. The wiki mentions his book, The reason for God, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reason_for_God, published in 2008 as making it to #7 on the New York Times Nonfiction bestseller list. Amazon India lists new paperback copy of the book at Rs. 694/-, http://www.amazon.in/Reason-God-Timothy-Keller/dp/034097933X.]

Kristof starts off the Q&A by saying that he has deep admiration for the teachings (message) of Jesus but is skeptical of the miracles associated with Jesus including the key belief of his miraculous virgin birth and his miraculous resurrection. He asks Pastor Keller whether he can mix and match (i.e. love teachings of Jesus but not have belief in his miracles), and, in particular, asks him whether virgin birth of Jesus is an essential belief (required of a practising Christian).

Keller responds by indicating that virgin birth of Jesus is an integral part of the Christian faith and that if one removes that requirement it would destabilize the Christian faith/religion. He likens it to a hypothetical situation of him being a member of Greenpeace board but who publicly states that climate change is a hoax. He says that Greenpeace then would ask him to resign.

Kristof tells him that some parts of the New Testament that are the earliest accounts of Jesus' life, like Gospel of Mark and Paul's letter to the Galatians, do not mention the virgin birth. Given that, Kristof asks, "So isn’t there room for skepticism?".

Keller responds that Luc Ferry, French philosopher, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luc_Ferry, born 1951, based on the Gospel of John's account of birth of Jesus, "said this taught that the power behind the whole universe was not just an impersonal cosmic principle but a real person who could be known and loved." Keller states that Greek and Roman philosophers (of early Christianity time) were scandalised by the belief in virgin birth of Jesus, "but was revolutionary in the history of human thought". [Ravi: Well, the Hindu belief in Avatars is the descent or advent of the Divine in human (or animal) form, and has been around well before Jesus Christ. Krishna and Rama are such divine avatars who were devoutly believed in in Hindu India centuries (and, I believe, millenniums) before the advent of Jesus Christ. In particular, Rama and Krishna, are believed to be advents of the Divine to not only restore righteousness (Dharma) to Hindu society they were born in (some say, the world), but to give Hindus a way to easily relate to the Divine principle (Absolute Brahman/Formless God) that is the basis for creation and sustenance of the world, through a human form that is imbued with divine powers and attributes. Examples of such divine powers and attributes are love, peace, joy, compassion and benevolent protection to those who follow righteousness (Dharma) and worship (pray to) the Divine seeking His grace and/or protection.]

Keller goes on to say, "It led to a new emphasis on the importance of the individual person and on love as the supreme virtue, because Jesus was not just a great human being, but the pre-existing Creator God, miraculously come to earth as a human being." [Ravi: I view Jesus like I view Hindu Avatars like Rama and Krishna; God/divine taking human form with divine powers & attributes to reinforce faith in the divine and restore righteousness to human society.]

The conversation then turns to the resurrection of Jesus, with Kristof raising concerns of fuzziness about its description in the New Testament, and Keller responding to those concerns. Keller refers to the book, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, by Rev. N.T. Wright, "a leading British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop", born 1948, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N._T._Wright, where it is argued that it is hard to come up with a plausible alternate explanation for the Christian movement's birth other than the resurrection. "It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical." Keller (or N.T. Wright) argues that the best explanation for these thousands of Jews "virtually overnight" worshiping Jesus Christ as divine, was that many hundreds of them had seen the (risen/resurrected) Jesus (after crucifixion) with their own eyes.

Kristof directly asks Pastor Keller whether (according to Keller) he (Kristof) is a Christian. Pastor Keller gives a frank answer.

The Q&A continues with Kristof not letting go of his right to be skeptical of the Christian beliefs in miracles with the same skepticism he (a journalist) uses for belief in miracles in other faith traditions like Islam, Hinduism and Taoism. And Keller does his best to respond.

Then it moves to:

*) Human rights and morality being more related to faith than logic and science

*) The methodology of science having issues in dealing with non-repeatable supernatural causes (& events)

*) The struggle that those with faith including Keller have had with doubt

*) Whether Jesus is the only way for redemption, what about billions of people of other faiths (Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism), would Gandhi have gone to hell?

Ravi: Fascinating interview! I don't agree with certain aspects of Christian doctrine that Keller states in his responses to above questions. In particular, I don't accept Christian doctrine that salvation can come only through Jesus. But I like the frankness with which Keller responds to those questions based on his theological expertise and beliefs in the Christian faith. I mean, even if I disagree with Keller on some things, I at least know fairly clearly where he stands on the above matters and why he has taken those stands.

For me, more than particular belief in virgin birth or resurrection of Jesus in the exact way Christian doctrine (of various Christian denominations) prescribe, what is more important is the general belief that Jesus Christ did perform miracles (paranormal phenomena) like healing the sick and walking on water, and demonstrated superhuman divine attributes of love and compassion even towards those that hated him and persecuted him (including crucifying him). I mean, even if some recording/chronicling of the miraculous life of Jesus Christ like that of the virgin birth and resurrection, had some inaccuracies, but the general theme of these records/chronicles of the miraculous power of Jesus Christ is true (which is what I believe), that is enough for me to view Jesus Christ as an Avatar of God (divine come in human form), and so adore, love and worship Jesus Christ in that way.

The core spiritual texts of Hinduism like Vedanta (Upanishads which are typically philosophical and deal with highest understanding/views of the divine and such paths to realizing/merging with the divine), Bhagavad Gita (teachings of Krishna), Bhagavatam & Ramayana (accounts of Hindu Avatars), Samhita and Brahmana parts of the Vedas (dealing with beliefs & ritualistic part of Vedic Hinduism) and Agamas (I have very limited exposure to Agamas), do not have any exclusive path to salvation (which would be viewed as enlightenment or merger with the divine, from the Hindu perspective, I think). Various paths are given for salvation. Therefore, Hindus like me, view other religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism as additional paths to the same one (and only one) absolute and formless divine power that pervades (projects) and sustains creation and which various paths of Hinduism talk about and eventually lead to realization of/merger into that one (and only) one divine power. This is a key difference of belief between a Hindu believer like me and a Christian believer & teacher like Pastor Keller.
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My understanding based on the above mentioned NYT article, is that Pastor Keller is of the view that if a person does not believe in virgin birth of Jesus Christ or the resurrection after crucifixion of Jesus Christ, that person cannot be viewed as a Christian. I think this rigidity of Christian doctrine seems to be a major reason why many turn away from the church. Very sad to see this rigidity.

Hinduism has its share of people who try to stick rigidly to traditions. However, in my lifetime at least, Hinduism is far more open to question and even reform than what one sees in the rigidity of Christian doctrine.

Never was I forced to obey/believe in any Hindu doctrine like Pastor Keller mentioned here in the context of Christianity. In my youth (I was born in 1962 in Bombay and raised in Bombay), my agnosticism and skepticism were also quite politely tolerated within my community. Never did anybody significant in my community tell me that I cannot be considered a Hindu because at that time I considered Rama and Krishna as well as Vedic gods like Indra and Varuna to be mythological figures and did not believe in the supposed miracles or superhuman feats that they did. So long as I was willing to do the rituals, even if it was not with belief, I was accepted. If my community had forced me to utter some sentences of belief and swear on it, I may well have given up being a Hindu, in my agnostic youth!!! Really!

That space my religion gave me, in the second half of the 20th century in Bombay and outlying areas (Dombivli), allowed me to slowly move from agnosticism to belief in supernatural power of Avatars like Rama and Krishna, over time.

[I thank nytimes.com and have presumed that they will not have any objections to me sharing the above short extracts from their website on this post which is freely viewable by all, and does not have any financial profit motive whatsoever.]

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