It’s ironic that the two Christian holidays most widely appropriated by secular culture, Christmas and Easter, celebrate events secularism necessarily denies. Indeed, the miracles of the virgin birth and the resurrection are often the targets of skeptics. Those marks are well chosen; as many Christian apologists have argued, the truth of Christianity rises or falls on the historical validity of the resurrection.
But of course, there are those who question these doctrines yet still consider themselves, in some sense, Christian. There are people like Nikolas Kristof.
Kristof, a New York Times journalist, recently sat down with Tim Keller to ask a blunt question: “Am I a Christian?”
As someone who “deeply admire[s] Jesus and his message” while remaining skeptical of the historicity of the virgin birth and the resurrection, Kristof wasn’t entering into a mere academic discussion.
His conversation with Keller, which is worth reading in its entirety, is a fascinating glimpse at what a respectful, candid dialogue between an evangelical Christian and a skeptic can look like.
Kristof begins by asking Keller if those historic beliefs are essential to the Christian faith, or if he can “mix and match.”
“If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing,” Keller says. “A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be.”
The limits of skepticism
But, Kristof argues, there are relatively few mentions of the virgin birth in the New Testament, and the account in Luke 1 seems like a late addition. (For a solid rebuttal of this argument, check out T.M. Dorman’s “Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ” in ISBE.) Surely, Kristof says, there is “room for skepticism.”
Not so, says Keller. The virgin birth points to something far beyond the particulars of Jesus’ conception; echoing humanist philosopher Luc Ferry, Keller says this doctrine claims that “the power behind the whole universe was not just an impersonal cosmic principle but a real person who could be known and loved. That scandalized Greek and Roman philosophers but was revolutionary in the history of human thought.”
Later, Keller and Kristof take up the subject of faith and skepticism generally. Keller argues that these concepts are too often presented as opposites, when in fact they should be complementary. “I think we all base our lives on both reason and faith,” Keller explains.
“In the end . . . 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.”
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