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Timothy Keller's Making Sense of God - does God justify moral beliefs?

This book thinks of the believer and the unbeliever who has doubts about the claims Christianity makes for God.  It seeks to argue that faith in God is the best way to become moral and it satisfies the needs of the human heart.  It gives evidence for God but purports to give evidence why faith in God is a beneficial thing.

Keller thinks that God tells us he is there and leaves his mark on us his children and gives us reason to see that he is there. 

But some say that we just have reason and it validates itself so we don't need to think of connecting it to God.  We don't need to say God gave it to us so we can trust it.  That is fine as long as we remember that to say reason validates itself means that it is about working out reality and reality which in a sense validates it for us.  It is important not to make it look like a circular argument.

Anyway Keller sneers at that by saying it is like "defending the trustworthiness of a car salesman by having him swear that he always tells the truth".  But that is what his God is doing!  Keller has the problem of one who uses his premise as his conclusion.  He turns reason, part of his own human nature!, on its head to form a God construct from it.  Reason is not a person but persons use it.  It is not like the carman.  But if you bring God into it then it is.

"Reason stands up for itself" is good.  "Reason stands up for God and God stands up for it" is really saying reason does stand up for itself and that is enough but it fuses God and reason as being two sides of one faculty or power.  It is like, "Reason stands up for God and in doing so stands up for itself."  If reason stands for itself it does not need God.  God is not God then.

Reason is about your reach for truth so naturally the next subject is going to be morality which is about values of justice and love which are claimed to be true.

He tells us Nietzsche stated that the view that you must always treat human beings as ends not as means - that is you must never manipulate or exploit them - though posing as logical in fact is not.  It could be wrong.

Keller tells us that Nietzsche "predicts that in societies that reject God, morality itself will eventually become 'a problem'".  He explains that without God or a reason to consider morality to be fixed concerning what is right and wrong people will grow doubtful of its claims and will be hard to control and thus more force and persecution will be required to manage them.  Nietzsche argued that the ethic, utilitarianism, of seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest number is silly for it is expecting people to selfishly want this happiness for themselves and then sacrifice it if need be for others. Their selfish motives will grow and thus the morality will end up being nominal and useless.  Utilitarianism will backfire as Keller happily tells us.  This would be a practical moral concern not a moral concern.  Nobody ever said promoting morality was easy or pretty.

The logic is that without God you end up not with no morality but what is as bad, a faulty one.  If you think the two can't be that bad for nobody in either camp is all bad then that is you talking in general.  But think of situations.  You may momentarily decide to act as if there is no morality or just opt for a bad morality and either way the same damage happens.

You should be able to be freely just and freely loving but in the stark alternatives, between denying morality and mutilating it, make that impossible.  That is not morality.

Keller is hinting that religionists and God believers who are really devotees of the moral and not God and secularists who are as bad are leading us perhaps unwittingly down the road to violence and intolerance.

Keller suggests that people lose motivation to be moral when God is rejected.  But what about when God is ignored or considered immoral?  By no means could what most religions present as God be called moral!  It is sharing information that challenges moral mores that causes the lack of motivation.  Relativism tends to demotivate in the sense that it bullies those who have moral views it does not like.  It is way more complicated than Keller makes out.

Keller writes that "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."  He says that responsibility exists on the human level and on the religious level for religion is a human subset and people are involved in it and not just in mankind. 

So you are one of the mankind set and you are involved in other ways too.  This is a denial that you can say that what some evil people do has nothing at all to do with you. It has something to do with you though you are not to blame.  Saying you are not to blame should not be a means for refusing to face that it is not the point.  It is not about you.  The decent and humane thing is to say that dangerous person is you in another time and another place.  If they were not human like you the evil would not be done.

What would Keller say then to those who say, "We all belong to one another.  Muslims belong to each other which is why all must have some responsibility when one of their number becomes a religious suicide bomber.  And what about Christians - they burnt innocent women in the past as witches?"  We can speculate.

Keller objects to the "harm principle".  It roundly condemns intolerance and bigotry which mean anything that condemns an action that harms nobody else.  For example a liberal society would let you cut your finger off if it were certain it would deal with an obsession in your brain that makes you want to get rid of it. 

He observes that freedom as long as nobody else is harmed is made into a "moral absolute" by today's society.  Keller observes that you are involved in mankind so you can never say that that you belong to yourself and nobody else. 

He says another problem with the moral absolute of freedom is that nobody is certain what harm is.  I would add that it gets complicated when action a harms and action b harms as well. 

If that is an issue then religion says that people are harmed spiritually though they sense and feel nothing and that makes it worse.  If there is some helpfulness in the moral absolute this spiritual and God perspective weakens it.

Keller says that nobody is free for they are tied by their need for love and for meaning and happiness.  These things control everybody.  They may be controlled in different ways but they are controlled nonetheless.  Keller says "we are none of us free agents.  We are all worshipping and serving something."

Keller says hope and optimism are not the same thing.  He reminds us that we are beings that are focused on and concerned chiefly about the future and not the present or the past.  He describes us as "future-orientated."  That is why Keller agrees with Delbanco that attempts to live only in the present moment and experience the power of now is really about trying to fulfill desire by disconnecting from the future.  That would be irresponsible and unnatural and will only lead to more stress than what it fixes. 

The problem with optimism as Lasch, who Keller agrees with and whose wisdom he cites, is that it thinks things are going to get better anyway and thus people end up not doing enough to make sure progress happens.  And then they need to work to help it be the right kind of progress.  Hope is trust and hope is wonder and is the commitment to keep working to make things better without letting adversity threaten you.  It is facing challenges to fix things and taking responsibility instead of letting progress take care of itself. 

Keller says that hope is not about believing in progress at all.  It is about believing in justice and in how wrongs will be made right.

It is belief in how wrongs CAN be made right and that it is always good to try.  If all wrongs will not be made right that is the reason for hope and for trying.  Trying gives you hope of keeping up the trying so that is good.

Keller writes, "scientists will all agree that there is nothing more inevitable and natural than violence - evolution and natural selection are based on it.  Yet we believe it is bad." 

Now violence being inevitable has nothing to do with stopping us believing it is bad.  It in fact makes sure that we will use this bad thing in self-defence or perceived self-defence.  Will try to protect ourselves so that the worst of the inevitable hits others instead of us.  Even violence being natural would not stop us believing it is bad,  It may be natural and still seen by us as something we should never do.  It would however reinforce our fear. 

Keller repeats Catholic Peter Kreeft's declaration that we must not accept death and it is stupid to try and "suppress the natural human intuition that death is not natural at all."  Calling it a part of growth is as bad as telling a paralyzed person that their paralysis is a way of exercising.

These positions fit atheism better than belief in God.  Because nature is random we can battle its violence.  We know better than it.  And it is true that death is not to be seen as good.

Keller teaches us that atheists can have moral feelings but if they do not believe in God then they have no reason or obligation to be good even if they are good.  "God is not necessary to explain the fact of moral feelings." He points out that if morals are just feelings you cannot tell anybody not to do something merely because you feel it is wrong.  "Why should someone else have a duty to follow my moral feeling if he or she doesn't share it?" 

I would interject and say that two people having the same feeling does not mean they share it.  The feeling in each has seeming overlaps but no two people really feel the same way.  It is not similarity but rough approximation.

I would add that people go by moral feelings more than morality.  Even those who believe in objective morality try to bring their feelings in line with it so that the feelings can do the talking not the morality.  So they follow their feelings not the objective morality.  The objective morality is pushed to the background.  Those who seem to follow objective morality are in fact probably and usually following their feelings.

Keller says it is stupid to deny morality is in some way facts.  We are convinced that there are things that are wrong no matter what we think or feel about them.  He warns that we must not write that off as an illusion.  He points out that saying things like murder and rape are wrong because they get in the way of our selfishness - we want to be safe and not living in a world where they are too rife - is to say they are not truly wrong.  If we think that then the only problem with them is that people will hurt us if they are allowed. We are not worried that they are bad but just worried about how they might affect us.

Good.

Keller says that you have to know what the purpose of human existence is - what a human being is for - before you can argue that anything or anybody is good or bad.  There is no other way to work out right from wrong.

So what does he want God brought into all that for?  If morality comes from being a human need it is degrading to try and say you need a God to be moral.  If I need morality to be real that is no different from me needing there to be a God to make morality real.  Need is need and the kind of need is irrelevant. Trying to need God for morality is lying to yourself.

Keller denies that God is proven by the following argument:

1 God exists if there are moral obligations that are objectively binding

2 Such obligations do exist

3 Therefore God exists. 

The reason the argument points to God but does not prove him is that there is a chance 1 is wrong or 2 is wrong.  Some claim objectively binding morals can exist without God.  Others say there is no such thing as objectively binding moral obligations.

He settles for saying, "the reality of moral obligation may not prove the existence of God, yet it is very strong evidence for it."

Objective morality is what you are stuck with whether you like it or not.  If you reject, "This is just wrong", you end up with another "This is just wrong".  This time you are saying it is just wrong to say morality is true!  It is like something coming from outside of you and it imposes itself on you,  The majority of human beings hate this forceful aspect of morality and only like it when it suits them/ They prefer the illusions of relativism (the view that what is right to me is not right to you unless you want it to be) you can guess reasonably that the moral people are not really very moral inside.  Objective morality has few fans for though it is not oppressive it feels as if it is.

We wonder if Keller is among those who say the moral argument for God out of all the arguments for his existence is "the strongest of them all." 

He does not say.  But if God is so important to human peace and virtue and happiness then naturally the moral argument should ideally be the strongest.  In fact using other kinds of arguments are really about theology not love.  The moral argument aims to be about both!  If it is wrong or unconvincing then the reality is that love is being thwarted by the argument not respected.

Keller thinks that doing a list of a religion's evil and of its good deeds will not work for the "wrongdoings lodge more deeply in the memory and consciousness."

Excellent point.  The idea that a religion's good compensates for the bad is a common but insulting idea.

Making Sense of God has too many gaps.  It fails to do what it tries to do.  It fails to give us a morality in place of the human attempts at morality it tears down.

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