Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

In The Reason for God: Belief in Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller addresses the most common questions and doubts of skeptics that he has encountered, and offers a number of reasons to believe the truth of the Gospel. As the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, Keller is no stranger to the urban, post-modern, intellectual skeptic. It is clearly this sort of person Keller has in mind as he provides gracious answers to pressing doubts.

Before addressing these doubts, Keller presents a most interesting introduction in which he introduces his working premise: that every doubt is based on a set of alternate beliefs. He uses the example of someone who opposes Christianity because it seems exclusionary. This person argues that there can’t
be just one true religion, all the while never realizing that their statement is really an alternate belief that requires faith. It can’t be proven empirically. It is not universally accepted. This “reasoning” is just as much a position based on faith as the Christian’s is, if not more so. These sorts of embedded leaps of faith reappear throughout.

After the introduction, the rest of the book’s first half is devoted to addressing the questions and doubts of skeptics. Here, Keller is at his best. It is easy to imagine him deftly answering challenges at one of his post-sermon Q&A sessions at Redeemer. I especially appreciated his analogies, many of which I will hold onto and use in my own ministry for years to come. For instance, in his chapter entitled, “Christianity is a Straitjacket,” Keller addresses the widely-held fallacy that real human freedom is a maximal lack of constraint, that the truly free person is the one who decides for herself what is right and what is wrong without having morality imposed upon her by another. Keller uses two analogies that are simple, yet brilliant, to prove that freedom is not simply a lack of constraint. First, he presents a musician who has given up hours upon hours in order to practice and perfect his craft. He was most certainly constrained by such diligence, but because of it, he is now free to express himself musically in ways he would never have been able to had he been “free” from constraint. Then, Keller turns his attention to an even more universal analogy, that of love. He writes: “If you want the ‘freedom’ of love – the fulfillment, security, sense of worth that it brings – you must limit your freedom in many ways…To experience the joy and freedom of love, you must give up your personal autonomy.” Anyone who has experienced a love relationship will be able to relate to this “trade” of personal freedom for intimacy, and will likely agree that it is worth the constraint.

The second half of the book changes focus, from answering doubts to presenting “sufficient reasons for
believing.” Keller asks his reader to “put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.” This tour of the Christian worldview includes a review of various evidences that point to the existence of God, a discussion of moral obligation as a divine fingerprint, an explanation of the fallen world we see around as through the lens of sin, and a presentation of the Gospel.

This section did not seem as strong to me as the book’s first half did. Nevertheless, I thought the chapter delineating between religion and the Gospel was very well done. Keller writes: “The primary difference is that of motivation. In religion, we try to obey the divine standards out of fear… In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we have already received because of Christ.” Here, we hear an echo of an earlier chapter, denouncing fanaticism as modern-day Pharisaism. Moralist religion is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By making this distinction, Keller gives himself ground to criticize the abuses of Christian “religion” in the world even as he advocates forcefully for the Gospel.

On the whole, I was very impressed with Keller’s book. He speaks powerfully, yet gently, and he addresses questions that people are actually asking. The first half seems to me especially powerful for equipping believers to address these questions as well. I would be interested to hear the perspective of a seeker or skeptic who has read the book, but it seems to me the arguments would resonate. Based on clarity, utility, and provocation of thought, this is the best book I have read in any of my classes this semester.