Thursday, March 30, 2017

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God - Part I of III

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

I am, in many ways, an apologetics junkie.  I love the various aspects, topics, issues, styles, methods, approaches, insights, and personalities of Christian apologetics.  Like anyone, I have my favorite apologists.  The Apostle Paul is certainly one; St. Augustine another.  Thomas Aquinas is high up on my list, as is Thomas Sherlocke.  In the 20th century, James Warwick Montgomery, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, and William Lane Craig have been apologetic heroes.  But my absolute favorite 20th-century apologist is indubitably C. S. Lewis – not because I agree with him about everything, but because he is a masterful communicator, and because his basic approaches to apologetic questions is both sound and winsome.  Lewis was a genius at grasping complex theological truths and communicating them in terms that everyone could comprehend.  Lewis was a master wordsmith who took pride in the craft of creating beautiful prose, even in argumentative form.  Lewis also understood the mind and heart of the non-Christian, and engaged them in their terms on their turf – very effectively at that.
In all of those ways, I tend to hold up Timothy Keller as a 21st-century C. S. Lewis.  Like Lewis, Keller is a broad reader, with deep understanding of the theological truths of the faith as well as the mind of the non-Christian.  Like Lewis, Keller loves learning and language, and crafts lovely literature.  In this next series of blog posts, I intend to interact with two of Keller’s most prominent apologetic works: his 2008 The Reason for God, and his 2016 Making Sense of God.  I will have three blog posts on each book: this post covers the first half of the first half (yes, the repetition was deliberate) of The Reason for God.  

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). 

The first three chapters, basically half of the first half of The Reason for God, deals effectively (though admittedly not exhaustively) with three considerable contemporary objections to Christian faith.  In my next blog post, we will look at the other four objections and how Keller responds, before turning to the positive case for Christianity that he poses in the second half of the book.  Until next time!