Well, here we go. Always a bit daunting starting a new project but I’m looking forward to reading this book with you. I read the preface a few days ago and fully intended on reading the first chapter as well before writing anything, but since I made a handful of notes, I figured this might make a nice appetizer discussion for us (and our readers). That said, a lot of my notes were questions (mainly to do with definitions of things) that pretty much got answered as I kept reading, so hopefully, this will be relatively concise.
First off, Keller mentions his ongoing discussion group in his church. I couldn’t agree more with his decision to urge everyone in that group to be “open to critique and willing to admit flaws and problems in their way of looking at things.” As humans, we’re so susceptible to a variety of cognitive biases due to our pattern-seeking brains that, if we’re not aware of the flawed ways in which we often draw our conclusions, we’re at constant risk of constructing a false reality for ourselves. It’s very natural, for instance, to instinctively shut down any argument that contradicts a long-held prior belief and then immediately rationalise why it must be wrong. As such, whenever I hear or read something that induces an emotional “what utter nonsense!” type of response in my brain, I make it a point of always stepping back and taking a moment to remember that those sorts of emotional reactions may be getting in the way of me discovering a new truth. I may not always be successful at that (I’m only human, after all), but I do try my best.
On a related note, Keller writes in a couple of places about what factors he thinks influence our thinking:
“Believers and non-believers in God alike arrive at their positions though a combination of experience, faith, reasoning, and intuition.” (page 2)
“The reality is that every person embraces his or her worldview for a variety of rational, emotional, cultural, and social factors.” (page 4)
I agree with that assessment entirely (and it pretty much jibes with what I mentioned above). People use all sorts of things to form their opinions, no question, and I think a lot of those factors should be kept out of the equation altogether, which is why I found it curious that Keller initially didn’t comment on whether he thought it was a good or a bad thing to base your thinking on each of those things. To me, emotional factors, and intuition in particular, are terrible things to rely on when drawing conclusions. Despite the fact that, culturally, trusting your gut is considered a virtue, everyone’s intuition is different, so I’ve always had a difficult time understanding why people hold it in such high regard and believe it’s a reliable source of information. Unless, of course, you want to argue that only my intuition is right and other people’s intuition is wrong, in which case, why argue that intuition is reliable in the first place. To be sure, it’s not an easy task to combat our natural propensity for embracing emotionally satisfying conclusions, but for the sake of understanding the world as it is, I’m of the opinion that we should at least try.
But then, at the end of page 4, Keller indeed explicitly states that “he will be arguing that Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense.” So, it seems likely that this is where the bulk of our discussion is going to lie: whether or not relying on emotional factors (i.e. accepting arguments that satisfy us emotionally) can successfully lead to an accurate view of reality.
On page 5, Keller lists some concepts that he asserts society impresses on us. I’m not sure I agree that society does that (at least, not for all of them), but since these points appear to be the basis for upcoming chapters, I’ll leave any discussion of them until the appropriate chapter.
The final story in the preface is about the old man who admits he never gave much thought to his atheist conclusions. I don’t disagree that there are many atheists like this, that come to their conclusions because emotionally they think religion is stupid or some other vacuous reason. So as I suggested near the beginning, I couldn’t agree more that honestly delving into these topics and challenging your own beliefs is very much a worthy exercise. I’d like to think that I’ve made an effort to do just that over the years. (You and I have been talking about this on and off for two decades already!) So, full disclosure, I’m sceptical that this book will bring up anything I haven’t thought about before, but that said, in the true spirit of open-mindedness (and to live up to what I said above), I’m more than willing to listen and I genuinely hope that I’m surprised.
Well, that wasn’t quite as concise as I thought it was going to be, but hopefully it provides a little something to whet our appetites as we begin this journey.
All the best,