Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Book Review: The Reason for God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Book Review: "The Reason for God - Belief in an Age of Skepticism," Timothy Keller, New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2008. 310 pages.

Before we begin, here's a little bit of background on Timothy Keller. He is the founder and pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan since 1989. He has grown the church to six thousand regular attendees at five services as of the writing of this book. They have also planted many daughter churches. Timothy has an engaging style, making it a part of his strategy as a pastor to deal with people's objections to the faith. This book is a natural byproduct of that commitment.

The book deals with the major objections to Christianity and belief in God that Keller has been confronted with over the course of his ministry. The introduction begins with his personal spiritual journey. Having been raised in the church, but exposed to the conservative/liberal debate within it, Keller's faith eventually became a casualty of a socially radical liberal university. He speaks of three barriers to faith which were erected in his life: Intellectual - did Christianity make sense? Personal - was God knowable? and Social - Could you believe in God and the Bible and also have a social conscience? Timothy has obviously resolved those conflicts in his mind and entered the ministry to help others do the same.

This book is really about engagement; opening a discussion about faith with those who do not believe. Keller "urge(s) skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined 'blind faith' on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them." He also provides first-hand accounts of real people in their spiritual journey. But first he deals with objections to faith which he's encountered.

Objection 1: There Can't Be Just One True Religion
The claim to exclusivity for Christianity is one of the main reasons people gave Keller for rejecting it. This arises partly from the growing liberal value of tolerance - we don't like for anyone to tell anyone that they're wrong - and a negative view of religion in general as divisive and a root of many of the world's problems. Keller deals with this objection by first laying out the options some would propose: we can outlaw religion; condemn religion or keep religion completely private.

Keller explains the presuppositions behind each and then shows why each approach has and will fail. He then launches into an apologetic for Christianity, and a call for the church to follow the model of the early church in bringing its very best into society.

Objection 2: How Could A Good God Allow Suffering?
Here again we find one of the most common objections to belief in the God of the Bible. If God is loving and all-powerful, why doesn't He intervene to prevent suffering? The problem with this objection is that it begs the question: on what basis do we believe that suffering and evil are wrong? As C.S. Lewis concluded, in a purely naturalistic world, we should expect that pain and suffering would be the norm. Yet we have a sense that this ought not to be. Where did that come from? We all must ask, believers and non-believers alike, where does evil come from?

For the Christian, we find the answer in the Biblical record of the Fall of Man and the introduction of sin into the world. According to Keller, "Embracing the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and Cross brings profound consolation in the face of suffering. The doctrine of the resurrection can instill us with a powerful hope. It promises that we will get the life we most longed for, but it will be an infinitely more glorious world than if there had never been the need for bravery, endurance, sacrifice or salvation."

Objection 3: Christianity Is A Straitjacket
The argument here is that since Christianity adheres to a moral code and to a source of absolute truth, the resultant religion must be the enemy of freedom. The questions that must be dealt with here are multifaceted: the nature of truth, community, Christianity and freedom. The underlying assumption here is that "true freedom is freedom to create your own meaning and purpose." It also assumes that all truth is relative, but is it?

Keller answers each of these questions, first by pointing out that, despite our protestations, we all cling to some source of truth, either objective or arbitrary - it's unavoidable. He then demonstrates that within each community there must be an underlying set of agreed upon beliefs and practices which, of necessity, are somewhat restrictive. He also shows that Christianity, far from being culturally rigid, has from the beginning allowed for cultural diversity while maintaining an adherence to orthodox faith. Finally, of freedom itself, Keller tells us that "freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions." Within Christianity we are free to be the people God created us to be.       

Objection 4: The Church Is Responsible For So Much Injustice
Here Keller identifies three issues: First is the issue of the glaring character flaws of many Christians; second is the issue of war and violence and the church's complicity; third is the issue of fanaticism - what of Christians on the fringe? The first issue is based on a misconception that Christians believe that faith in God makes them better people. It doesn't. One can find Christians at all stages of character development because behavior change is a gradual process, and church should be full of people who are flawed because they are people in process. The second issue is more troublesome, for it is obvious that a great deal of harm has been done in the name of Christ over the centuries. It is wrong and goes against the very teachings of Christ. Finally, fanaticism, tending to express itself in legalism, has pushed many honest seekers out of the church.

It is important to remember that the Bible is also critical of people who act like this. Keller reminds us that "true faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and marginalized." It's not only the church that has been guilty either. In the twentieth century the greatest cause of injustice (human rights abuses, pogroms, death camps, genocide, etc...) were atheistic regimes. This in no way excuses the church when it has been wrong, but it demonstrates that injustice is a human problem, not a Christian one. On the other hand, it has been those motivated by Christian motives who worked to end slavery, campaigned for civil rights and lead the way in social reform, often at great personal cost.

Objection 5: How Can A Loving God Send People To Hell?
With this subject, Timothy shares that many secular minds believe that it is a contradiction to believe in the equality of all people and yet believe in the concept of hell. Keller found several connected beliefs lurking beneath the surface of this one: a God of judgment simply can't exist; a God of judgment can't be a God of love; a loving God would not allow hell. At their root these are preferences. We all would prefer that there would be no hell. The first belief in particular goes against our Western sensibilities and our doctrine of tolerance at all costs. Keller goes to C.S. Lewis to demonstrate that this belief is a cultural adaptation.

As to the second and third charges, relating to the love of God, the implication is that God cannot be both judging and loving. But is that true? The Bible clearly teaches that God is both. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf says it this way, "If God were not angry at injustice and did not make a final end to violence - that God would not be worthy of worship..."

Objection 6: Science Has Disproved Christianity
The famous atheist Richard Dawkins stated that one cannot be an intelligent scientific thinker and still hold religious beliefs. Is he right? In this chapter Keller shows how the supposed war between science and Christianity exists only in the minds of those who hold certain (unscientific) presuppositions. For example, the presupposition that "No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible" is not a scientific statement, but a philosophical one. He could have done more with this chapter, but this quote is telling: "A majority of scientists consider themselves deeply or moderately religious - and those numbers have increased in recent decades. There is no necessary disjunction between science and devout faith."

Objection 7: You Can't Take The Bible Literally
Keller draws on his own student experiences for this chapter, recalling how many of his college courses caused him to question the reliability of Scripture. It was when he began to do research on his own that he realized how little evidence there was for this revisionist school of thought. The influence of this skeptical view of Scripture has been waning in recent years. Anne Rice, who converted to Christianity after a successful career as a novelist, wrote that "I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I'd ever read." Keller goes on to deal with the typical challenges to the reliability of Scripture, providing solid reasons that the Bible can be trusted historically and culturally.

He quotes C.S. Lewis, who just happened to be a world-class literary critic, as saying: "I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like I know none of them are like this. Of this (gospel) text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage... or else, some unknown (ancient) writer... without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative..."

In the remaining chapters of the book Keller moves from a defensive posture to providing a positive case for believing, including chapters on:
  • The Clues of God
  • The Knowledge of God
  • The Problem of Sin
  • Religion and the Gospel
  • The (True) Story of the Gospel
  • The Reality of the Resurrection
  • The Dance of God
Even a synopsis of these would take up considerable space but, suffice to say, the book is worth reading, whether you are a skeptic, a seeker or a Christian wanting to deal with some questions. It's not an accident that this book hit the New York Times bestseller list. I'll end with a great quote from Keller: "Jesus's life, death and resurrection was an infinitely costly rescue operation to restore justice to the oppressed and marginalized, physical wholeness to the diseased and dying, community to the isolated and lonely, and spiritual joy and connection to those alienated from God. To be a Christian today is to become part of that same operation, with the expectation of suffering and hardship and the joyful assurance of eventual success."

Related Articles:  
Who Do You Read?
Divine Appointments
Book Review: Mere Apologetics
What is Truth?
"Truth" - by Ravi Zacharias


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