Friday, March 28, 2008

belief in an age of apathy

i would be the first to admit that perhaps i am arrogant enough to try to add something to tim keller's literary project in defense of christian belief. but the thing is, i think his subtitle is wrong. the subtitle to his new book, the reason for god, is "belief in the age of skepticism." and i think it's wrong. now, hear me out before you call me a heretic. it is undoubtedly true that we live in a skeptical age, and much of that skepticism is aimed at religious belief, christianity in particular. but that skepticism is really just intellectualized cynicism, and that cynicism has produced apathy toward belief of all stripes. what i am saying is that the man or woman you meet on the street may be well inclined toward skepticism, but that skepticism comes from cynicism born out of malfunctioning institutions, one of which is the organized church. the end result of this cynicism is that belief in anything, much less god, is not really possible. therefore the battle is not over who has the best arguments, or really if you can defend the reasonableness of christianity - although i think that it is vital to do so - the real challenge is to so rattle this embedded cultural cynicism as to awaken people from their intellectual malaise.
during the q + a time that keller had after his speech at google a young man came and asked him a question. at the end of his question he said, quite directly, that none of keller's arguments really mattered because he simply didn't believe the existence of god had any direct impact on him. this is the ultimate example of the apathy that i am talking about. it says, to paraphrase, "frankly, my evangelizing friend, i don't give a damn." this is a far more difficult thing to combat because it's so nebulous and undefined. it would be one thing if the task of the evangelist was to give reasonable answers to difficult questions, but it seems that is no longer enough. the task now it seems is to shake our generation out of its apathetic stupor and declare itself one way or the other.
i can remember a conversation i had with a friend sitting at a bar. what if, he said, there were aliens on another planet. would god have died for those aliens. did god die for aliens, he asked. now, this series of hypotheticals came at the end of a long list of objections that my friend had tossed into my lap, and it became quite clear the whole thing was just so much bull shit. this was an exercise for him, but it had nothing to do with his inclinations, either toward or away from belief. finally i said to him: look, perhaps these are serious questions, perhaps you lie awake at night and wonder if jesus actually died for aliens or not, but it seems to me that this is your way of putting off having to make a judgment about your own commitments. so, maybe jesus did die for aliens, i don't know, maybe he didn't. he died for you, so what are you going to do about that. perhaps i was too direct. i don't know. the point was that the argument only really served to illustrate his own apathy toward belief. he had no desire to believe, or to make a judgment, and even though he was a few years older than me, i think his ambivalence is typical of many of my generation.
another observation is that apathy is also a response to extremism. on one end you have fundamentalists of all kinds - islamic, christian, you name it, and on the other end you have raging atheists like harris, hitchens and dawkins (although, i prefer dorkins, which my church history professor called him today). while the latter group may stir much emotion and excitement, i would wager that the kind of rabid anti-religiosity of these writers is not shared by many, even those who may repeat their arguments are unlikely to be as opposed to christianity as these men seem to be. in an effort to find a comfortable middle, most people seem to find a cozy niche in the vague and undefined world of religious apathy, where skepticism and cynicism can ward off all comers, but a commitment of any kind, even to non-belief, is held at arms length.


Stephen said...

whatever. how do you come back from that?

john-jack said...

are saying, if someone says,"whatever" there is no comeback for that?

Will K said...

Great post, John; well put and very discerning. I sincerely appreciate your attention to the meaning of words and reclaiming the semantics of each term and then applying that semantic import precisely--it sheds a lot of light on the situation, which, as you see it, seems to be exactly how you see it.

Stephen said...

Well, it is misguided to address intellectual apathy with more intellectual argumentation. So, like you point out, the task of the evangelist then goes into the realm of the social and emotional or whatever other factors are causing the cynicism.

However, I think there are a great deal of people holding onto intellectual reasons not to believe and I think exposure to this book breaks down many of those arguments. I think in many cases you must break through the intellectual defenses (which are often the outer shell of cynicism) in order to get into the deeper causes of doubt.

I think Keller does an excellent job of exposing doubt as an alternate belief system in the first half of his book and then getting into an explanation of how Christianity offers hope and purpose while also providing the most coherent explanation to make sense of the world we inhabit.

Apathy certainly seems tougher to deal with, but it is most definitely challenged in the second half of this book.

Anonymous said...

john, the original title was "doubting your doubts" with a keller chosen subtitle. i appreciate your comments and enjoyed reading them but keep in mind, what you see on the covers of books is sometimes more of the work than the publishers than the author. great post, though. know you are loved, brother.

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