By the time the second installment in the Veritas Forum commenced at 8:00 PM last night, Miller Theatre was packed, as packed as it had been, maybe, since the first Frontiers lecture of the semester. The near-capacity crowd greeted emcee Jonathan Walton, CC ’08, with thunderous applause as he took the stage to explain, in a poetic jive, Veritas’ raison d’être—broadly, “to get better at this thing called life.” After exhorting the audience to give to indigent children in the manner of a telethon, Walton concluded his preamble and introduced the principal panelists of the evening: Martin Bashir, 20/20 and Nightline anchor and atheist; and Timothy Keller, impresario of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Megachurch and author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.
Seated upon plush chairs in the center of the stage, Bashir and Keller sustained a conversation for the next hour that was at once cordial and tense. Bashir, bedecked in a cosmopolitan combo of blue shirt, tie, and goatee, prodded Keller into an apologia for his faith and book by asking the sort of questions typical amongst skeptical fifth graders directed at their more credulous parents or peers: Why do you believe in God? Is everyone else going to hell? What proof is there of the Bible’s validity? What’s so special about Christianity? And so on. Keller, for his part, defended himself gamely and logically, knocking down Bashir’s straw men with a deft and gentle wit that prompted laughter from the sympathetic audience, and sticking to his premise that Christianity was no less a rational choice than atheism.
When Bashir asserted that Keller might not be a Christian had he been born in, say, Madagascar, Keller retorted that Bashir might not be an atheist, and argued compellingly that if all beliefs are culturally constructed, then that belief is also culturally constructed, bringing us back to square one.
The forum then moved into its second and more interesting segment, featuring Dr. David Eisenbach of History department and Friendly Fire-fame blitzing Keller with an assortment of questions from the more cynical attendees. Seizing the initiative at once, Eisenbach recalled his decade-plus of Catholic education before coming to Columbia and affirming his identity as an atheist. “For me,” he said, “the problem was the Holocaust. What sort of loving God would let six million innocent people die?”
From there the conversation moved on to more controversial matters. “As a historian and the author of a book on the gay liberation movement,” Eisenbach said, “I was continually appalled at how the church treated homosexuals. Is homosexuality a sin?” Keller admitted that he thought it was, gracefully extricating himself from a potentially awkward concession by making an adultery joke and continuing that the Bible mentioned “greed” as something more insidious and evil.
Broaching the third incendiary dinner-table topic of the evening, after religion and sex, Eisenbach asked Keller’s opinion on political matters. Keller demurred: “It’s real important for me not to tell my folks how I vote.”
“But these aren’t your folks,” pressed Eisenbach. “Do you mind telling these folks?”
“But your folks’ll tell my folks!” said Keller, to more laughter.
When asked about the absolute virtue of Christianity, Keller was less coy. “It doesn’t make me any more narrow-minded to say that I want everyone to believe what I believe, than it does for you to say that you want everyone to believe what they believe,” he said. Keller’s repudiation of pluralism might have earned him boos and hisses in any other milieu, but the audience was respectfully silent as he completed his argument.
A few more questions were posed and parried, then Walton took the stage again. “Obama won Wisconsin!” he declared triumphantly to cheers, leaving no doubt about his political beliefs, and in a flash of couplets, insights, and platitudes, the forum was over and the audience dispersed into the night.
– Christopher Morris-Lent