Review: “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism”
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller
Dutton, 2008 (293pp, hbk)
There is much to commend about Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. It is, in many respects, an appealing and intelligent apologetic, as you would expect from a man whom God has used to establish a sizeable congregation – and many daughter congregations – in Manhattan, hardly the kind of place that would be considered humanly conducive to the spread of the gospel (then again, where is humanly conducive to the establishment of the kingdom of Christ?).
After the introduction, Part 1 addresses “The Leap of Doubt”, followed by an intermission, followed by Part 2 – “The Reasons for Faith” – and then the whole concludes with an epilogue. The best word I can think of for the book as a whole is urbane. It may be residual memories of Keller’s rich voice and mellow delivery, but there is something polished and even elegant about the writing. It is, in that sense, an easy read.
The Reason for God distils the essence of conversations with unbelievers, both in terms of their objections to God, and Keller’s responses to them. It is written for men and women adrift on a (post)modern sea of doubt. The seven chapters in Part 1 each address a common objection to Christianity (for example, its exclusivity, absolute demands, and certain particular teachings). In each chapter, Keller moves forward in a way that strikes me as owing debts both to Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis (acknowledged as a particularly significant influence), pushing the flawed atheistic perspective forward to its empty or devastating logical conclusions. Keller’s breadth of reference, theological and cultural, is impressive but not flaunted, although it will appeal to a certain kind of reader and thinker (Simone Weil, Thomas Nagel, J. R. R. Tolkien, Gandhi, Darth Vader, and Robert Louis Stephenson, anyone? Eclectic to say the least!). He ranges across time and various disciplines to bring to bear his solid and smooth arguments. Never on the back foot (that is easier in a book than on the streets!), he challenges the challenges made (often in the very words and concepts of the challengers themselves), never condescending but dealing intelligently and forthrightly with intelligent and forthright people. In fact, sometimes he gives them too much credit, being particularly weak and vague on evolution. Relativism is relentlessly subjected to its own emptiness, and shown to be empty.
The intermission takes Isaiah 1.18 as its starting point to posit what Keller calls “critical rationality” in addressing the existence of God, a seeking out that account of the world which has most explanatory power. He presents this as the image bearer seeking out the one whom he images in a way that demonstrates and validates that connection. That carries us into the more positive Part 2, in which – having shown that there are no good reasons for disbelieving in God – Keller sets out to bring the God of the Bible to bear, providing sufficient reasons to believe. He begins gently with “The Clues of God” drawn primarily from the book of general revelation, and then moves on to “The Knowledge of God” derived from our sense of right and wrong, of justice and meaning in life. Either we cling desperately to the intellectually arid notion of “the empty Bench” or turn to God. From here Keller takes us on through the problem of sin, draws careful distinctions between religion and the gospel, brings the true story of the cross to the fore, deals with the reality of the resurrection, and closes with “The Dance of God” (the dynamic and joyful interplay of the Triune Creator and that which he has created and redeemed). The epilogue asks “Where do we go from here?”
It is this second part which, for me, raises more questions. I think Mr Keller’s urbanity is not always his servant. It could be the flaw as well as the strength of this volume. That concern arises especially from Keller’s treatment of the issues of sin and forgiveness. At any time when a faithful man seeks so to speak that men might believe (Acts 14.1) there will always be that tension involved in becoming all things to all men (1Cor 9.22-23), neither offending them unnecessarily nor yet shaving off those edges of truth that necessarily offend sinners.
I would not suggest that Mr Keller teaches error with regard to sin and forgiveness, but neither am I persuaded that we have here a full-orbed gospel. According to Keller, “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God” (162). Taking a line through Kierkegaard, he contrasts the view that sin is breaking divine rules generally with a focus on the first commandment, so that “according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship to God” (162) – an allusion to the Rocky films demonstrates his point. The personal, social and cosmic consequences of this sin are then spelled out. Earlier in the book, and of a piece with this thinking, we are informed that Hell “is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity” (78) as men are “locked in a prison of their own self-centredness,” a people who “continue to go to pieces forever” (79).
Similarly, forgiveness is “refusing to make [an offender] pay for what they did.” This restraint is “a form of suffering. . . . You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out on the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death” (189). The reasoning leads us to God, who “did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. . . . this is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us” (192). At this point, Keller is dealing with the notions of justice, mercy and love in a way that almost abstracts them from God himself.
None of this necessarily or entirely untrue, but is it complete? It all seems a little too smooth. Could it be that – in seeking to minister faithfully to a generation all-too-often characterised by myopic navel-gazing, a city that (if I remember rightly) spends proportionately more of its collective time on the psychoanalyst’s couch than any other, a host of individuals trained to be obsessed with their own identity and self-worth – some of what should be said has been left out? Doubtless there is much in this approach that makes it engaging and attractive to those with whom we deal, but has that been accomplished at the expense of aspects of the truth that ought to be part of a gospel presentation? Is it too therapeutic, and not enough theopneustic?
There is a risk, I think, of playing into the hands of men and a tendency to anthropocentrism in the plea that “Christianity makes the most sense out of our individual life stories and out of what we see in the world’s history” (213). A man with a habit of self-idolatry could be forgiven for thinking that it is, in the final analysis, all about me. Perhaps this is the best way into the minds and hearts of the men and women of New York, but I believe it has its dangers. Mr Keller’s notions of sin and forgiveness could potentially bleed into some kind of martyr complex. It is all too possible (I have seen it too often) for the self-centred man to make this ‘absorption theory’ of forgiveness – with, it seems, little space for repentance, a side effect of the somewhat neutered teaching on sin – a self-referential and even self-congratulatory exercise: “I have absorbed the pain, I am the sufferer, I have been wronged, I will simply take all the hurt myself. Poor me! Alas for me!” Back to the psychoanalyst’s couch? God in his holiness, man in relation to God through Christ, needs to be more explicit, so that we are more emptied of self, and given no grounds to glory.
Can you use this book? I believe so. In both its method and substance it has much to commend it, being a fine model in many respects of a warm-hearted, culturally engaged, intelligent and wise pursuit of the hearts of men. There are many people of whom I can think to whom I would readily give this book as a means of opening doors to their hearts, and many lessons that I think I can learn in my presentation of the gospel to the kind of people with whom Keller is dealing. At the same time, we must not forget that what works well in the parlours of New York doesn’t necessarily go down so easily in the back alleys of the kind of town in which I live and where you might also – use the right bait and hook in your fishing. Furthermore, we must strive to let God be God in all his glorious fullness, and to have him dictate the whole gospel to us. Wisely, winsomely, intelligently, let the whole gospel and the God of the gospel in all their beauty and supremacy confront man: keep in the gospel edges and allow them to cut where they must; keep in the all-consuming and all-demanding glory of the Most High God. Let us not become too urbane.