For some reason that I don’t understand, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has published column after column in which he asks theologians and other religionists about what they really believe. Do they believe Jesus was resurrected? Did he really perform miracles? As I wrote about his last column in April:
For a long time, New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof has been interviewing religious people, struggling to somehow buttress his Christianity. He’s written a number of columns in which he asks religionists and church leaders if he, Kristof, is really a Christian (see here, here, and here), for, like any sensible person, he has doubts about the miracles that underlie Christianity, and about concepts like the efficacy of prayer, heaven, and hell. He wants to be a Christian but is having problems. I think he’d be better off as a secular humanist (he holds a number of appealing liberal views), and that would also save us from the spate of tedious columns about religion flowing from his pen.
And indeed, the people Kristof interviews, like former President Jimmy Carter, usually disavow any literal belief in the foundational tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection, but still consider themselves as Christians because somehow the whole fictional story resonates with them. But doesn’t there has to be some acceptance of Christian truths to call yourself a Christian rather than, say, a Muslim or Hindu?
Kristof is the soul of politeness in these interviews, but often, as in this week’s Q&A with Philip Yancey—a well known evangelical Christian writer who has sold 15 million books in 40 languages—Kristof is persistent in his questions. The upshot is that he shows these people for who they really are: glib but confused souls who can’t quite sign on to the literality of the Jesus story, but who somehow still think it’s true—and truer than other faiths that have equally assertive and dubious scriptures. Yancey’s simultaneous skepticism and certainty should, as Hitchens said, be met with mockery and contempt. I intend to proffer some.
But not, of course, from Kristof, who’s still finding his way through the thicket of theological mendacity. Click on the screenshot below to see an enormous waste of column space:
Look how Yancey evades Kristof’s questions about Jesus’s virgin birth. (After the first exchange, Kristof’s words are in italics, Yancey’s in regular type):
KRISTOF Merry Christmas! And let me start by asking about that first Christmas. Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Doesn’t that seem like one of those tall tales that people tell to exaggerate an event’s significance?
YANCEY I’m smiling at the question. A hundred years ago, the Virgin Birth was considered so important that it made the list of five “fundamentals of the Christian faith.” Nowadays, with in vitro fertilization, virgin births are old news. For me, the issue centers not on the mechanics of reproduction but rather the nature of Jesus. In the Incarnation, God’s own self came to earth as a human. I wouldn’t pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA, but that’s the mystery the Virgin Birth hints at.
Here Yancey is completely evading the issue. Mary’s virgin birth occurred when she was not only a real virgin (well, at least a young woman), but certainly when she HAD NOT BEEN INSEMINATED BY A HUMAN. That is not the case with in vitro fertilizations, where human sperm is required. In vitro fertilizations are not “virgin births” in the Biblical sense of the word.
Note how quickly Yancey moves from the question Kristof asks to asserting that the virgin birth is really about the nature of Jesus. And while the godly writer is not certain about whether the Virgin Birth was real as most evangelicals understand it, and doesn’t “pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA”, he’s dead certain that Jesus was the incarnation of God. How does he know this? Presumably because the Bible says so. But the Bible also says that Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Here we see some judicious cherry-picking by an evangelical.
Yet in the next exchange, Yancey implies that there really was a virgin birth, and it wasn’t due to in vitro fertilization. For one thing, there was no vitro back then.
KRISTOF So it’s no longer such a big deal? I can say that I doubt the Virgin Birth without whispering?
YANCEY It’s only a big deal if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, as most Christians do. Otherwise you have a different mystery: How did the child of two simple villagers end up changing history more than anyone before or since?
Here we have a Lewis-ian claim that if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, he couldn’t have changed history. Ergo he was the son of God, and if he was the son of God, and the literal son of God, there must have been somebody who impregnated Mary. After all, Jesus wasn’t haploid, and if he was the result of Mary’s fused eggs, he would have been a woman (XX chromosomes).
Yancey then evades the issue of theodicy, saying he “has no solutions” to Kristof’s questions about why God raised Lazarus but not dead children. Yancey’s solution is apparently that all will be made good in the hereafter: “Believe me, the hope of resurrection means something when you’ve just lost your child to a school shooter.” Well, yes, the hope means something if you believe in a hereafter, by why should we believe it? And Yancey, who seems to know so much about God, doesn’t know why He permits natural evils to occur at all.
Yancey goes on to verbally circumvent questions about miracles:
KRISTOF I also wonder: In embracing miracles, don’t we reject our own rationality? In my travels, I’ve met all kinds of faith healers who claimed to make the lame walk or the blind see. I don’t believe them — and I’d be even less likely to believe accounts that were written six decades after the fact by someone who had never met the healer (like the accounts in the Gospel of John). Why be skeptical of eyewitness accounts of U.F.O.s but not of Gospel accounts written decades later by people who weren’t even eyewitnesses?
YANCEY: Most scholars believe that eyewitnesses such as Matthew, Peter, John and Mary were major sources for the Gospels’ accounts. That said, I agree with your main point. Miracles are overrated as a basis for faith. Jesus’ disciples, who had seen miracles, all deserted him at his hour of greatest need. Jesus himself refused to perform miracles on demand, to impress the doubters. Most of them came about as a compassionate response to a needy person.
It seems strange to me that we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world. God is spirit, and all the great masters emphasize instead that we need to learn spiritual disciplines to commune with God.
Look at that first bit: Yancey claims that the miracles were real because the Bible says so, but then agrees as well that “miracles are overrated as a basis for faith.” Well, if you’re an empiricist and not a superstitionist, miracles are required for faith. But since Yancey’s a superstitionist, he simply says that you can see miracles but still have doubts—a position that doesn’t come close to answering Kristof’s question. And if we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world, well, maybe that’s because the Bible says he did—over and over again, and in both the Old and New Testaments. Why should we suddenly give up theism? God may be “spirit”, but to be a theist, as Yancey and his followers are, you have to think that God can intervene in the world.
Kristof then poses the devastating “Why does God hate amputees?” question, since God heals only those diseases that sometimes show spontaneous remission. He doesn’t replace missing eyes or limbs.
Again Yancey won’t answer the question, but moves to something else:
KRISTOF: . . . I note that people claim cases of miraculous cures where there is room for ambiguity, such as cancer going into remission. But prayer never seems to help an amputee grow back a limb.
YANCEY: George Bernard Shaw is said to have wryly observed that although he saw crutches and wheelchairs at shrines of healing, he saw no artificial limbs, glass eyes or toupees. Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems. In person, he affected only modest numbers of people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. But he set loose a movement with the mission of bringing the good news of God’s love across the globe.
I’m not sure whether the Shaw quote was apocryphal, but I did find Anatole France asking the same question (and answering it); I discuss this on p. 117 of Faith Versus Fact. At any rate, note how Yancey gets around Kristof’s question by saying that “Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems.” But the question remains: why does Jesus (or his saints) only cure those diseases known to remit spontaneously? Once again Yancey evades, and fails has to answer why Jesus solves only a subset of our problems. And he still doesn’t tell us why Jesus waited thousands of years after humanity existed before appearing to only a small subset of people in the Middle East.
You’ll be amused to see how Yancey gives credit to evangelical Christians for curing AIDS, but I’ll leave you to read that for yourselves. Finally, in his final end run, Yancey evades the question of Hell. Does God really want those who don’t accept Jesus to fry forever?
KRISTOF: Yet evangelical tradition suggests that non-Christians burn forever in hell.
YANCEY: Jesus didn’t mince words when he talked about judgment, yet in his parable of the sheep and the goats he declared that we’ll be judged on how we treated those who were hungry, imprisoned, sick and in need of clothes and hospitality. Interestingly, he spoke of actions, not doctrine.
The more I know Jesus, the more I trust him as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands. I like the depiction of hell in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy “The Great Divorce”as simply a place for those who choose against God, and it may well be an ongoing choice.
So Yancey now accepts what C. S. Lewis said instead of what Jesus said? For remember that Jesus says this, too (John 14:6): “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
This, and other verses, are the basis for the bedrock Christian doctrine that unless you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are simply not going to Heaven. If there’s any doctrine that defines Christianity, it is that one. But Yancey circumvents the whole issue by saying “I trust Jesus as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands.” That’s contemptible, for Jesus already said that those who don’t accept him will burn in hell. In what sense is Yancey “content”, then? Is he content to think that, according to Jesus’s wisdom, billions of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and non-Christian believers are going to suffer eternal torments?
Kristof, while asking good questions, doesn’t push Yancey very hard here, more or less accepting his answers. But Yancey’s answers are non-answers: just one evasion after another. It sickens me to see this kind of palaver (Yancey’s, not Kristof’s) portrayed in the New York Times as some kind of respectable belief. And Kristof still won’t give up and become a secular humanist, which is what he should be.