Monday, January 3, 2011

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God - book review

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008. 293 pp.

Timothy Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989. In the past twenty years, Redeemer has reached out to (and reached) tens of thousands of young, professional New Yorkers with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today it ranks as a major church-planting center, with daughter churches not just throughout New York City, but in major urban centers around the world. Keller’s expositional preaching continually has in mind the objections that may arise in the minds of skeptics and non-Christians in his congregation. Every Sunday, the worship service is followed by at least an hour of question and answer, where Keller remains in order to respond to the questions and doubts of those (usually unbelievers) in attendance.

In The Reason for God, Keller seeks to engage the broader skeptical American audience through print. In his introduction, he notes that the world is becoming increasingly polarized over religion, both more and less religious at the same time (x). Keller suggests that rather than rejecting one another in hostility (as seems to be the current trend), skeptics and believers should both “look at doubt in a radically new way”—Christians acknowledging and wrestling with their own and their neighbors’ doubts about the faith (xvii), and skeptics recognizing and examining “a type of faith hidden within their reasoning.” (xviii) His expectation, which serves as the primary thesis for The Reason for God, is that “if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians from theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.” (xviii) Thus, while exhorting Christians to critically examine their beliefs, Keller leaves no doubt that he expects that exercise will lead to a deeper renewed faith in Jesus Christ, while the skeptic’s searching ought to lead to a discovery of new-found faith.

Having laid out his thesis, Keller divides his work into two major sections: “The Leap of Doubt” and “The Reasons for Faith.” The first section (seven chapters) examines “the seven biggest objections and doubts about Christianity.” (xix) The second section (also seven chapters) reviews “the reasons underlying Christian beliefs.” (xix) Thus, Keller sets out on a dual project of negative and positive apologetics—giving reasons not to disbelieve, followed by reasons to believe. While the primary audience Keller has in mind is the unchurched skeptic, Keller also apparently desires to bolster wavering or wandering Christians in their faith. Thus, The Reason for God can serve as a training tool for Christians who seek to engage skeptical friends with reasons to believe. Keller has provided a concise, digestible (each chapter is approximately fifteen pages long, with readable font and spacing) apologetic guide.

The first objection against Christianity is its intolerant exclusivity in an age of religious tolerance and pluralism (Chapter One, “There Can’t Be Just One True Religion”). Keller uncovers four hidden (and false) axioms which are required to support the charge, and systematically deconstructs them. First, the assumption that “all major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing” betrays a fundamental ignorance of the irreconcilable differences between religions’ doctrinal stances (7). Furthermore, this pluralist presupposition itself “holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions,” (8) thus exposing professing tolerant pluralists as intolerant. Second, the presumption that “each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth (8) assumes that the speaker himself has complete objective perspective, and is free from the limitations that plague ‘ordinary’ religious people (9). Third, the presupposition that “religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be ‘truth’” (9) is itself a culturally and historically conditioned belief (10-11). Fourth, the assumption that “it is arrogant to insist your religion is right and to convert others to it” (11) is not followed by proponents of religious pluralism, who try valiantly to ‘convert’ others to their own perspective (12). Keller quotes Mark Lilla: “The curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers. In reading them, I’ve often wanted to ask: ‘Why do you care?’” (13) In the rest of the chapter, Keller acknowledges that Christianity (and religion generally) has been a major divisive (and even violent) force at times, but insists that it also has “within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart.” (18)

Keller then tackles the problem of evil and suffering (Chapter Two, “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?”). He summarizes J. L. Mackie’s argument about the incompatibility of a good and powerful God with unjustifiable and pointless evil in the world (23). Keller identifies the hidden assumption that “if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless,” (23) a claim which inflates one’s own perception and knowledge. He then discusses the redemptive and refining purpose of much suffering (24-25), before turning the argument around. Following C. S. Lewis (as he does often throughout The Reason for God, an intellectual debt he acknowledges in the Afterword), Keller argues persuasively that the argument from the existence of evil admits the existence of an objective standard of right and wrong (26), and serves as a confirming argument for the existence of God. Finally, Keller reminds the reader that God is not immune or distant from human suffering, but has taken suffering upon Himself on the Cross (29), and that the reality of redemption and the resurrection transforms our experience of suffering (30-32).

Skeptics often argue that the Christian faith is an enemy of freedom and stifles individual creativity (Chapter Three, “Christianity is a Straitjacket”). In response, Keller points out that a belief in objective truth is unavoidable (37-38), and using the example of pro-gay and anti-gay groups, insists that every community is by nature exclusive to some degree (38-39). Furthermore, Christianity is not a cultural straitjacket, but is rather marked internationally by incredible cultural diversity (40-43).

Keller then moves on to the personal liberation that Christianity brings. First, he argues that “freedom cannot be defined in strictly negative terms, as the absence of confinement and constraint.” (45) Using music and practicing as an example, he demonstrates that voluntary constraint is often the means to creative liberation (46). Then he discusses the constraining nature of love, which he calls “the ultimate freedom.” (47) What Keller does not talk about, unfortunately, is the nature of the ‘constraints’ that God puts in place for His children, and how God’s commands are there for our own good—our protection, our fulfillment, and our best interests. Nonetheless, Keller is right to conclude that when we love God, we are driven to obey Him out of a desire to please Him, not a desire to avoid His punishment (49-50).

The next objection against Christianity is the injustice perpetrated by individual Christians and the Church (Chapter Four, “The Church Is Responsible For So Much Injustice”). Keller notes that skepticism is often prompted initially by negative experiences with individual or corporate Christianity (52). First, Keller discusses character flaws in individual Christians, notes that common grace allows unbelievers to live morally upright lives (53), and acknowledges the very real flaws of ordinary Christians. However, Keller fails to mention the presence of ‘false believers’ within the Church—people who claim to be Christian, but are not, and are the source of much ‘Christian’-perpetrated evil in the world. Second, Keller rebuts Christopher Hitchens’ argument that religion is the source of most violence and oppression in the world. Finally, in the most fascinating section of this chapter, Keller addresses fanaticism, suggesting that the problem with most fanatics is not that they are “too Christian,” but rather “not Christian enough.” (57) Keller insists that while oppression of others is inexcusable (59), it is not true Christians who perpetrate such evils, but rather people who have an incomplete faith (60). He closes by asking the skeptic on what basis they can oppose oppression if they do not have the transcendent biblical basis from which to insist that oppression is wrong (60-61).

The doctrine of hell is particularly troublesome, not only to skeptics, but also to many Christians (Chapter Five, “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”). Keller uncovers the hidden presupposition that God cannot be both a God of love and a God of justice, and demonstrates that love requires wrath and anger at injustice and the ruination of lives (73). In response to the objection that eternal punishment in hell is excessive, Keller introduces the idea that “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” (78) Following Lewis, Keller claims that God does not send people to hell, but rather allows us to condemn ourselves to hell in respect for our ultimate freedom (79).

Keller then tackles the prickly problem of miracles and evolution (Chapter Six, “Science Has Disproved Christianity”). While he acknowledges that miracles are difficult to believe in, and cannot be empirically tested for, Keller also insists that science simply does not have the tools to ascertain whether miracles are possible or not. To insist that science disproves the miraculous is to move from science into philosophical presupposition (86). Keller makes concessions to evolutionary theory that will trouble some conservative evangelicals (86-87), and insists that evolution and the biblical picture of creation need not be interpreted as contradictory accounts (92). I admire the apologetic strategy and heart behind Keller’s stance. Keller states: “Since Christian believers occupy different positions on both the meaning of Genesis 1 and on the nature of evolution, those who are considering Christianity as a whole should not allow themselves to be distracted by this intramural debate. The skeptical inquirer does not need to accept any one of these positions in order to embrace the Christian faith. Rather, he or she should concentrate on and weigh the central claims of Christianity.” (94) Keller is saying that since Christianity is potentially compatible with evolution, this issue cannot be held up as a reason to not become a Christian.

The final objection to Christian faith is the unreliability of the Bible (Chapter Seven, “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally”). There are two predominant objections to the Bible which Keller treats in turn: its historical fallibility and its cultural obsolescence. In response to liberal scholars’ assertions that the Bible is embellished, imagined, and untrustworthy as a historical record, Keller suggests we can trust it because of its early date and eyewitness status (101-03), the historical nature of its content (104-05), and the internal evidence of its incidental details (106). Keller’s sound defense of New Testament reliability could be strengthened by appeal to the universal early church testimony and the supporting evidence of archaeology. Keller then responds to the charges of “outmoded and regressive teaching.” (109) He first notes that many troublesome texts (e.g. Ephesians 6:5 on slavery) can be cleared up “with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context.” (110) But Keller admits that there will still remain some texts, properly contextualized, which will offend and trouble the modern reader. However, he warns against cultural snobbery, “the unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others,” (111) and insists that if there is a God, He is more than likely going to have some ‘views’ which upset you (112).

Keller’s negative apologetic is necessarily cursory and brief, as he covers topics in fifteen pages which other authors have spent hundreds of pages discussing. Thus, there is a sense in which his presentation leaves one wanting more. However, Keller has provided endnotes which go into greater depth on some issues, and point the curious reader to further sources which give lengthier treatment of the issue at hand. Thus, the first half of the book is a worthy apologetic primer, getting at the heart of objections to the Christian faith, and giving the reader the tools to engage in further study.

In introducing the positive apologetic of the second half of the book (“Intermission”), Keller notes that he will be seeking to establish a ‘mere Christianity,’ a faith which affirms the major ecumenical creeds of the early centuries (117). The reasons he will lay out do not serve as epistemologically compelling proof, a goal which is impossible and cannot even live up to its own standards (118-20). Rather, he seeks to establish rational arguments that will persuade most rational people (120). Finally, he suggests that the Christian worldview “makes the most sense of the world,” and invites the reader to put on Christian lenses to see the world through (123).

Keller first seeks to establish the rationality of Christian theism by discussing “clues” (rather than conclusive proofs) for God’s existence (Chapter Eight, “The Clues of God”). He suggests that the five clues he presents are not individually compelling, but taken together have a formidable accumulated weight (128). Keller lays out, in exceedingly brief fashion, the cosmological argument (The Mysterious Bang, 128-29), the fine-tuning argument (The Cosmic Welcome Mat, 129-32), the argument from the regularity of nature (132), the “Clue of Beauty” (133-35), and the inescapability of trusting our cognitive faculties (135-41). This last ‘clue’ is the crowning achievement of this chapter. Whereas the first four clues are dealt with much too briefly (and I would argue, Keller places too little weight on each of them individually), Keller deals masterfully with the logical conclusion of naturalism. When skeptics debunk religion as a product of evolution, they undermine their ability to trust the rational faculties with which they arrive at their conclusions (136-37). Keller cites non-Christians who agree that “if reason is a product of natural selection” then we can have very little confidence “in a rational argument for natural selection . . . Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.” (139) Keller insists that everyone lives by trusting their rationality, but atheists have cut the branch off while they are standing on it (140-41). This demonstrates that they know internally what they deny externally—there is a God (141).

Keller then lays out his version of the moral argument for God (Chapter Nine, “The Knowledge of God”). He rejects the popular thesis that our society is becoming ethically relativistic, insisting that people are adopting a “free-floating morality” instead: “People still have strong moral convictions, but . . . they don’t have any visible basis for why they find some things to be evil and other things good.” (145) He reasserts his thesis that “people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know.” (146) Of course, to a fellow Christian that thesis sounds anything but revolutionary or radical—nonetheless, Keller knows it will hit a nerve with skeptics. He lays out the unavoidable human belief in “moral obligation,” (146) and insists that neither evolutionary morality (147-48) nor social construct theory (148-52) explains our belief in absolute moral standards. Again, his discussion is brief to the point of triviality—I’m sure Robert Trivers would shudder at Keller’s presentation of reciprocal altruism. Nonetheless, when Keller argues that the universal belief in human rights requires God to properly ground it, his presentation rings true—especially as he defends it by invoking the insights of atheist scholars (Arthur Leff, Alan Dershowitz, Ronald Dworkin). Keller concludes that if there is no God, there is no meaning or purpose in life, a conclusion that humanity simply cannot live with (156-58).

Keller then moves subtly from a presentation of reasons to believe in Christianity to a description of Christian theism. Chapter Ten examines the “Problem of Sin,” illustrating the universal recognition that there is a problem (160), addressing the personal, social, and cosmic consequences of sin (164-70), and outlining the Christian solution to sin through Jesus (170-71). Chapter Eleven discusses the difference between “Religion and the Gospel,” insisting that Christianity is fundamentally different than all other religions in that “only Jesus claimed to actually be the way to salvation himself.” (174) Keller is certainly right that other major world religions identify their founder as the pointer to salvation, rather than the way to salvation. However, he does not address the nature of many ‘cults’ and new religious movements in which the founder (e.g. Krishna, David Koresh) claims to be the way to salvation.

In dealing with the necessity of the crucifixion (Chapter Twelve, “The [True] Story of the Cross”), Keller returns to positive apologetics proper, answering the question, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ (187) On the one hand, forgiveness is costly suffering—the debt incurred by wrongdoing can be extracted from the wrongdoer, or it can be absorbed by the wronged party, but it simply cannot dissipate (188-90). On the cross, Jesus takes the pain, violence, and evil of sin upon Himself, thereby freeing men and women from bearing the cost themselves (192). On the other hand, Keller argues that “love is a personal exchange,” (193) and implies the requirement of substitutional sacrifice.

Keller’s treatment of the resurrection (Chapter Thirteen, “The Reality of the Resurrection”) follows the outline of N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (202). He lays out the traditional three-fold evidential apologetic: the reality of the empty tomb combined with the identity of the earliest witnesses (203-05); the absence of compatible first-century beliefs concerning resurrection and immortality (206-07); and the otherwise inexplicable explosion of a new worldview (208-10). Keller notes that several elements of early Christian belief had no correlative in either Greek or Jewish thought, and that efforts to explain the birth of the church “apart from Jesus’ resurrection” fail to account for “first-century history and culture.” (210) Keller concludes: “If you don’t short-circuit the process with the philosophical bias against the possibility of miracle, the resurrection of Jesus has the most evidence for it.” (210)

In his concluding chapter (Chapter Fourteen, “The Dance of God”), Keller appeals to the skeptical reader to enter into the grand scope of the Bible—the themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration (214). The Christian life is humanity entering into the “divine dance” or the Triune God, glorifying and enjoying God as “we worship him, serve the human community, and care for the created environment.” (224) He insists that the Gospel resonates with our sense of moral obligation, our irrepressibly religious spirit, our “profoundly religious character,” and “our delight in the presence of beauty.” (225)

Keller then guides the convinced (or nearly-convinced) reader to his or her next steps (Epilogue, “Where Do We Go From Here?”). He encourages them to examine their motives before taking a leap of faith (227-28), count the cost of discipleship (228-31), take inventory of their lives (231-32), make the move into faith (233-35) by repenting and believing in Christ, and commit to Christian community (235-37).

There is much to applaud in Keller’s two-fold apologetic work. I found his response to skeptical objections to be particularly poignant and strong—I suspect it is his negative apologetic which has the most value in winning skeptics over. There were, however, several places where I felt Keller could have strengthened his case considerably. First, in dealing with “clues” for the existence of God, I would have liked him to deal in more depth with the issue of origins, as this is one of the weakest links in any a-theistic worldview. Second, he could have evaluated two additional ‘clues’—the argument from religious desire (which he mentions in passing but never evaluates), and the argument from the idea of God (the ontological argument). Third, while his Bono quote (229) is sheer brilliance (a culturally-useful contemporary version of Lewis’s famous trilemma), I wish Keller had spent at least some time examining the self-understanding of Jesus—perhaps after discussing the reliability of the New Testament Gospels (a subject which itself could have been dealt with in more depth).

Fourth, in chapter four (the historic injustice of the church), Keller mentions the resources of Christianity in opposing oppression, but never elaborates positively on the incredible contributions that Christianity has made to human civilization—the birth of science, the establishment of public education, the founding of medical missions, etc. I have some other minor quibbles I have mentioned in the appropriate places of this book review. Nonetheless, no human is perfect, no author is perfect, no apologetic work is perfect, and so it is unrealistic to expect The Reason for God to be a perfect book. What it is, however, is a concise apologetic work of great value to the Church of Christ. Keller presents an insightful critique of anti-Christian objections, combined with a persuasive presentation of reasons to believe in Jesus Christ. A former seminary professor of mine claimed in an email that The Reason for God is “the best apologetics book I have read in the past five years”—despite my affinity for William Lane Craig (Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition), I am tempted to affirm his judgment.