Saturday, April 8, 2017

Keller, The Reason for God, Part III of III

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

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.