Sunday, August 03, 2008

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

It has been over ten years now since I first heard about an orthodox Christian pastor who has found growing success reaching young people in arguably the most liberal city in America, New York City. What was so amazing was that congregation was growing mainly as a result of new converts! You ask, “Who is this man?! And how did he do it?!”

Well, this man is Tim Keller, pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. And he gives details on how he did it in his new book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. In it, he not only evaluates the reliability of Christianity, but he offers what he considers to be the solution to the growing polarization that has been occurring in the Culture Wars in America where “denunciation has replaced disagreement” in public discourse on topics related to religion.

His thesis is this: The right question isn’t whether one has faith but whether the object of one’s faith is trustworthy; in light of this reality, it can be further demonstrated that sufficient reasons exist that should dissuade one from trusting in anything other than the Person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Keller has two main reasons for writing the book. The first, which I guess is the most important, is because his wife told him to. He considers her one of the three greatest influences in his life – along with Christian giants C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards.

The second reason he wrote his book is to try and allay the bitter, vitriolic, nasty atmosphere that exists between the left and the right in America, by imploring both sides – the conservatives and liberals; the religious and secularists – to act more civil towards each other. These two groups are his book’s intended audience. He refers to them as the skeptic and the believer. He hopes his book will help bridge the divide between these opposing sides: one that wants to write off liberals as “God-haters” and one that considers less progressive Christians close-minded to either the Truth, or the truths of others. He expresses a hopefulness as he writes in his introduction (xix) that his book will encourage collegial, yet respectful, dialogue between those he calls “entrenched traditional conservatives” and those he refers to as “secular liberal people” urging both sides towards increased communication and understanding despite the fact that each holds diametrically-opposed worldviews: that is, philosophical materialism and/or epistemological relativism, on the one hand; and theism and epistemological absolutism, on the other.

Despite his optimism, Keller remains realistic, understanding that simply calling people to civility will not reduce the polarization. Someone has got to show them how to get along better. Keller’s anecdote to this cancer of discord in our country he refers to as a “Spiritual Third Way”. His solution requires both sides to be willing to being honest – first with each other and them with themselves. All parties must understand and fairly represent the other side. I think of 1 Peter 3:15 where it exhorts us to give respect to the other side. I often am reminded when I am evangelizing that I have no right to choose what they do with their own soul. Moreover, while I am confident my faith is indeed well-placed, if I’m going to be intellectually honest, I must admit to skeptics that there is a possibility that I could be mistaken about how I see the world.

Honesty must furthermore extend to oneself. This is where he invites readers to reconsider the meaning of doubt. He urges both skeptics as well as believers to examine the reasons for their doubts. He points out that a skeptic’s doubt in something is actually rooted in his or her faith in an alternative belief. He emphasizes how everyone believes in something. The question they should be asking is whether there is good enough reason for them to be trusting in the things they are trusting in. Skeptics should hold the same high level of scrutiny to one’s own faith as they do with the faith of believers. Proper level of scrutiny of one’s own faith insures that the object of their personal faith is worthy of their trust.

Keller writes in the introduction (xix), that the majority of his book, “is a distillation of the many conversations [he has] had with doubters over the years.” They comprise objections which Keller takes on with a great amount of cultural-sensitivity and philosophical competence. In essence, what he does, as a good evangelist, apologist, and pastor, is metaphorically “come alongside” both the skeptic and the believer and practically guide them through that process of exploring their doubts chapter by chapter, page by page.

Similar in content to other popular apologetics books like Lewis’ Mere Christianity, or the more recent The Case for… series of books by Lee Strobel, Keller’s book is organized topically according to the reason for one’s doubt or belief. Keller devotes the first half of his book (chapters 1 – 7) addressing the major objections skeptics have for why they do not follow Christ. Keller pursues here the unfolding of what is commonly referred to as defensive apologetics. Keller calls it, “tackl[ing] intellectual barriers of theology” (xx). The second half of the book covers the top reasons why believers believe in God and trust in Christ – otherwise known as offensive apologetics. Here he focuses on allaying the doubts of believers by offering reasons why their trust in God is properly placed. Keller describes this section as “a more positive exposition of the faith they are living out in the world.” The methods he employs for developing each chapter are quite diverse. He integrates occasional narration and description, as well as a proportionally greater amount to exposition and argumentation. He provides not only personal stories of those in his church who have been transformed by God, but also carefully-thought-out analogies he has collected over the years, all in an effort to help doubters better understand what Christianity actually says regarding the issues of life.

Argumentation is the main method by which Keller develops his thesis. You may not recognize it though, namely because the way in which he craftily builds rapport with his reader. One way he disarms the unbeliever is by getting on their side of a debate when he can. He argues in Chapter Four, for instance, that injustice like the racism experienced in America often blamed on Christianity was not due to the influences of Christianity per se, but by the lack of application of the faith by those who claimed to be Christians. History demonstrates this, he notes. As Keller points out, “The greatest champion of justice in our era [Martin Luther King, Jr.] knew the antidote to racism was not less Christianity, but a deeper and truer Christianity.”

Along the lines of his argumentation in the book, I largely agree – particularly on a number of points. His overall critique of what is wrong is spot on. Civil discourse is rare and the sources for this contention, I believe, are as he indicates. After reading his book, I have particularly been hard hit by how much of this is true when a very well known conservative political pundit who I – to some degree – admire and respect, went ballistic one day on an animal rights activist over the radio. This conservative was constantly interrupting him and was never affirming what he said that was correct. It caused a very heated conversation. I think this pundit needs to read Keller’s book. Who is our real enemy? The Bible is clear: our enemy is the devil (who is full of pride), the world’s system’s (which are broken), and our own broken natures (which is antagonistic toward God). Keller reminds us that whether we are talking to a radical liberal, or staring at ourselves in the mirror, those three things remain the same!

Having looked at points of agreement with his arguments, I will now share three areas I recognized in his writing for which I may have disagreement: his apparent affirmation regarding pacifism (74-75); his possible perspectives on restoration theology as it relates to social justice and eschatology (224), and what seems to be a rather too optimistic a view regarding man’s ability to reason correctly (7). I am not entirely certain what his views here are exactly; he only quickly touches on these subjects. This makes sense though, considering these topics are not the main focus of his book; they are merely secondary, if not tertiary, points of doctrine. Similarly, these points of potential contention are rather minuscule when compared to the weight of importance given to those areas which Keller does focus largely on, and for which the Christian faith rests. For these reasons, I will leave my conjecture and criticism to only a passing mention.

With few exceptions, the clarity, simplicity and thoroughness by which he writes, is also worth mentioning. He unpacks deep theological concepts so that the lay person can understand them while avoiding being reductionistic. Moreover, he provides additionally helpful information in the end notes, where he often cites leading proponents or opponents of views expressed or events detailed in the book – along with corresponding published works.

I mentioned there are exceptions; here are two: The first weakness involves his occasional cursory analysis. For example, Keller says (18) he argues against the main efforts to address the current divide on religion in our world. While describing many of the causes for religious division (e.g. not acknowledging both sides are growing, both sides not looking at their own doubts honestly, denouncing rather than reasoning with), he does not move much beyond there. He does indeed support a call for more civil dialogue, as I discussed earlier. However, this is the only time when I found him describing any other efforts at bridging the religious divide (other than his own), let alone arguing against them.

Another instance of weakness involves his lack of clarity and thoroughness when warning people not to seek God as a means to an end. He cautions readers to explore their motives in their quest towards God. Keller asks: “Are you getting into Christianity to serve God, or to get God to serve you?” (228) He states that the correct answer is the former and not the later, yet provides no clear explanation as to why that is or why it can be nothing else. He simply states that if one’s motive is for God to serve them, then it would be illicit for they would be loving the creation rather than the Creator (1 John 2:15). If one’s desire is for God to serve them for the purposes of acquiring the things of this world, then that would indeed be an illicit motivation. Yet, the phrase “get God to serve you” is an equivocal phrase. It could also mean that God serves them by giving salvation to them. Hello? Should they not want God to do that? He is the only One who can serve us in this way. Matthew 20:28 states, “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (ESV; cf Mark 10:45) Again, Keller provides no sufficient distinction. Consequently, the gospel in this case is misconstrued. On one hand, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt regarding this ambiguous section. After all, none of us are perfect. (I certainly am not.) I am convinced that he fully understands the gospel, and communicates it clearly every other time I noticed. I would conclude that he simply falters here expositionally – not theologically (Gal. 3:1; 5:12). Moreover, I would assume he would be in whole-hearty agreement with my assessment above. In fact, it seems as though he attempts in the paragraph that follows on page 228 to make this point clear. Sadly, despite the attempt, in my view, the clarity never comes. My personal conviction is the gospel is just too important to get wrong at all – even if ambiguity occurs just on very rare occasions. In respect to those like him who are elder-teachers in the church, in some way I feel this is the one area for which no tolerance or grace of any kind should be extended.

In my final review, I think the book will do quite well among all of us doubters – both skeptics and believers. From my own personal experience in evangelism, I am confident this book will be used by the Father to draw people to Jesus (John 6:44). Particularly, this book should fare well among believers considering Keller’s growing reputation and credentials. After all, who should not be impressed with a man who has for many years, in the heart of one of the most liberal areas of our country, following each service, left time for a question-and-answer period (69)! I must say, that takes guts! Besides his reputation contributing to the sale of his book, Keller’s work itself should easily serve as a wonderful reference book on Christian apologetics. But more than that, let’s pray, for our sake, and for the sake of the lost, that we in the church become more honest as Keller hopes we will, and take the “Spiritual Third Way”.[i]

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[i] Speaking of which, the Holy Spirit has reminded me after reading his book of my need to lead my conversations with skeptics with an honest assessment of their criticisms. I need to be sure to give adequate time to affirming their criticisms when appropriate. Moreover, as Keller demonstrates, sufficient time needs to be devoted to reflecting back to them what they are saying so that they know I am listening to them and understand them. If they know that I know where they are coming from, rapport will be build, relationships can be manifested, which can establish the fertile grounds necessary to plant the seeds of a clear understanding of Christianity in their minds and hearts.

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