Timothy Keller. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Riverhead Books, 2008. (310 pages)
I find your lack of faith — disturbing. – Darth Vader
The Enemies Are Both Right. In short, the world is polarizing over religion. (x)
The Two Camps. We have come to a cultural moment in which both skeptics and believers feel their existence is threatened because both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways. (xv)
A Divided Culture. We have an impasse between the strengthening forces of doubt and belief, and this won’t be solved simply by calling for more civility and dialogue. Arguments depend on having commonly held reference points that both sides can hold each other to. (xvi)
A Second Look at Doubt. A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. (xvii)
It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. (xvii) [VIA: It was never okay.]
My thesis 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 for theirs — you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared. (xix)
I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined “blind faith” on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them. I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture’s objections to the faith. (xix)
A Spiritual Third Way?
Jesus and Our Doubts.
PART 1: THE LEAP OF DOUBT
One | There Can’t Be Just One True Religion
“What troubles you the most about [Christianity’s] beliefs or how it is practiced?” One of the most frequent answers I have heard over the years can be summed up in one word: exclusivity. (3)
There are three approaches that civic and cultural leaders around the world are using to address the divisiveness of religion. There are calls to outlaw religion, condemn religion, or at least to radically privatize it. (5)
1. Outlaw religion. Religion is not just a temporary thing that helped us adapt to our environment. Rather it is a permanent and central aspect of the human condition. (6)
2. Condemn religion. The social conditionedness of belief is a fact, but it cannot e used to argue that all truth is completely relative or else the very argument refutes itself. (10)
3. Keep religion completely private. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing. (15)
Any picture of happy human life that “works” is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life. (16)
Christianity Can Save the World. Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart. (19)
Two | How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
Evil and Suffering Isn’t Evidence Against God. Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. (23)
Evil and Suffering May Be (If Anything) Evidence for God. In short, the problem of tragedy, suffering, and injustice is a problem for everyone. It is at least as big a problem for nonbelief in God as for belief. It is therefore a mistake, though an understandable one, to think that if you abandon belief in God it somehow makes the problem of evil easier to handle. (27)
…the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. (27)
…though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair. (28)
Comparing Jesus to Martyrs.
Redemption and Suffering. …God is truly Immanuel — God with us — even in our worst sufferings. (31)
Resurrection and Suffering. …our suffering is “not in vain.” (31)
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will com to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened. – Dostoevsky
Three | Christianity Is a Straitjacket
Truth is Unavoidable.
But you cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? … a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see. – C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man
Community Can’t Be Completely Inclusive. Any community that did not hold its members accountable for specific beliefs and practices would have no corporate identity and would not really be a community at all. We cannot consider a group exclusive simply because it has standards for its members. Is there then no way to judge whether a community is open and caring rather than narrow and oppressive? Yes, there is. Here is a far better set of tests: Which community has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect — to serve them and meet their needs? Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness? We should criticize Christians when they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers. But we should not criticize churches when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same. (40)
Christianity Isn’t Culturally Rigid. …every human culture has (from God) distinct goods and strengths for the enrichment of the human race. (45)
Freedom Isn’t Simple. In many areas of life, freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. (47)
Love, the Ultimate Freedom, Is More Constraining Than We Might Think. Human beings are most free and alive in relationships of love. (49)
Freedom, then, is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us. (49)
Four | The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice
Character Flaws. This assumption is based on a mistaken belief concerning what Christianity actually teaches about itself. Christian theology has taught what is known as common grace. (54)
Religion and Violence. …when the idea of God is gone, a society will “transcendentalize” something else, some other concept, in order to appear morally and spiritually superior. (57)
We can only conclude that there is some violent impulse so deeply rooted in the human heart that it expresses itself regardless of what the beliefs of a particular society might be — whether socialist or capitalist, whether religious or irreligious, whether individualistic or hierarchical. Ultimately, then, the fact of violence and warfare in a society is no necessary refutation of the prevailing beliefs of that society. (57)
Fanaticism. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is a [sic] basically a form of moral improvement. (58)
Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. (59)
The Biblical Critique of Religion. The God of Jesus and the prophets, however, saves completely by grace. He cannot be manipulated by religious and moral performance — he can only be reached through repentance, through the giving up of power. (61)
The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. (63)
What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating criticism of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. (64)
Justice in Jesus’s Name. The greatest champion of justice in our era [MLK] knew the antidote to racism was not less Christianity, but a deeper and truer Christianity. (66-67)
Five | How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
A God of Judgment Can’t Be a God of Love.
A Loving God Would Not Allow Hell. If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell — the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy. (79)
Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever. (79)
In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. (80)
Hell and the Equality of People. Christians, therefore, aren’t more narrow because they think wrong thinking and behavior have eternal effects. (84)
“I Believe in a God of Love”.
Six | Science Has Disproved Christianity
Aren’t Miracles Scientifically Impossible? [This] is therefore a philosophical presupposition and not a scientific finding. (89)
Isn’t Science in Conflict with Christianity? The absolute warfare model of science and reason was the product not so much of intellectual necessity but rather of a particular cultural strategy. Many scientists see no incompatibility between faith in God and their work. (92)
There is no necessary disjunction between science and devout faith. (95)
Doesn’t Evolution Disprove the Bible? …it is false logic to argue that if one part of Scripture can’t be taken literally then none of it can be. (97)
…those who are considering Christianity as a whole should not allow themselves to be distracted by this intramural debate. The skeptical inquirer does not need to accept any one of these positions in order to embrace the Christian faith. Rather, he or she should concentrate on and weight the central claims of Christianity. (97)
Healing the World. It is a warning not to think that only we modern, scientific people have to struggle with the idea of the miraculous, while ancient, more primitive people did not. (98-99)
…the purpose of Biblical miracles. They lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. (99) … We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. … His miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus’ miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming. (99)
Seven | You Can’t Take the Bible Literally
“We Can’t Trust the Bible Historically“ The timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends. (104) The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends. (107)
The canonical gospels not only give us a far more historically credible picture of what the original Jesus was really like, but they boldly challenge the worldview of their Greek and Roman readers. (109)
The literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend. (110) This genre of fiction,…only developed within the last three hundred years. … The gospel accounts are not fiction. (110)
“We can’t trust the Bible culturally.” We must not universalize our time any more than we should universalize our culture. Think of the implication of the very term “regressive.” To reject the Bible as regressive is to assume that you have now arrived at the ultimate historic moment, from which all that is regressive and progressive can be discerned. That belief is surely as narrow and exclusive as the views in the Bible you regard as offensive. (115)
To stay away from Christianity because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you. Does that belief make sense? (116)
In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. …an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. it is the precondition for it. (118)
…to be between journeys or missions. (119)
Which Christianity? The first great division was between the eastern Greek and western Roman church in the eleventh century. Today these are known as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The second great schism was within the Western church between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. (120)
Nevertheless, all Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians assent together to the great creeds of the first thousand years of church history, such as the Apostle’s, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. (120)
For our purposes, I’ll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds. They believe that the triune God created the world, that humanity has fallen into sin and evil, that God has returned to rescue us in Jesus Christ, that in his death and resurrection Jesus accomplished our salvation for us so we can be received by grace, that he established the church, his people, as the vehicle through which he continues his mission of rescue, reconciliation, and salvation, and that at the end of time Jesus will return to renew the heavens and the earth, removing all evil, injustice, sin, and death from the world. | All Christians believe this — but no Christians believe just this. (121)
Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief … Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilized non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain… – Terry Eagleton, “London Review of Books”
The approach I will take in the rest of this volume is called “critical rationality.” (125)
A theory is considered empirically verified if it organizes the evidence and explains phenomena better than any conceivable alternative theory. (125)
God the Playwright. Christians do not claim that their faith gives them omniscience or absolute knowledge of reality. …But they believe that the Christian account of things — creation, fall, redemption, and restoration — makes the most sense of the world. (127)
PART 2: THE REASONS FOR FAITH
Eight | The Clues of God
The Mysterious Bang. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (132)
The Cosmic Welcome Mat. [VIA: “Fine-tuning” or “anthropic principle.”]
The Regularity of Nature. …science cannot prove the continued regularity of nature, it can only take it on faith. (136)
The Clue of Beauty. …innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them… (139)
[Can we have any] continued confidence in reason as a source of knowledge about the nonapparent character of the world? In itself, I believe an evolutionary story [of the human race] tells against such confidence. – Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, pp.134-135
They are applying the scalpel of their skepticism to what our minds tell us about God but not to what our minds are telling us about evolutionary science itself. (143)
The Clue-Killer Is Really a Clue. The theory that there is a God who made the world accounts for the evidence we see better than the theory that there is no God. (146)
Beyond the Clues. We know God is there. That is why even when we believe with all our minds that life is meaningless, we simply can’t live that way. We know better. (147)
Nine | The Knowledge of God
Free-Floating Morality. I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, bu they are repressing what they know. (151)
The Concept of Moral Obligation.
“Moral”…is an orientation toward understandings about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, that are not established by our own actual desires or preferences but instead are believed to exist apart from them, providing standards by which our desires and preferences can themselves be judged. – Christian Smith
The Evolutionary Theory of Moral Obligation. [VIA: There isn’t one.]
The Problem of Moral Obligation.
The Difficult Issue of Human Rights. Rights cannot be created — they must be discovered, or they are of no value. (157)
The Grand “Sez Who?”
The Argument for God from the Violence of Nature.
The Endless, Pointless Litigation of Existence.
Ten | The Problem of Sin
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. (165)
Sin and Human Hope.
The Meaning of Sin. …according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. (168)
The Personal Consequences of Sin. Identity apart from God is inherently unstable. (170)
An identity not based on God also leads inevitably to deep forms of addiction. (171-172)
One has only the choice between God and idolatry. …If one denies God … one is worshipping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them. – Simone Weil
The Social Consequences of Sin.
…there is a deep interior dislocation in the very center of human personality. – Dorothy Sayers
The Cosmic Consequences of Sin.
What Can Put It All Right? Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in place of God. [VIA: The “corruption” of good things.]
Eleven | Religion and the Gospel
All other major faiths have founders whoa re teachers that show the way to salvation. Only Jesus claimed to actually be the way of salvation himself. (180)
…we will use the term “religion” in this chapter refer to “salvation through moral effort” and “gospel” to refer to “salvation through grace.”
Two Forms of Self-Centeredness. Edward Hyde is so named not just because he is hideous but because he is hidden. (181)
Self-aggrandizement is at the foundation of so much of the misery of the world. (182)
The Damage of Pharisaism. …Pharisaic religion doesn’t just damage the inner soul, it also creates social strife. (185)
The Difference of Grace.
The Threat of Grace. “If that is Christianity, all I have to do is get a personal relationship to God and then do anything I want!” Those words, however, can only be spoken on the outside of an experience of radical grace. (189)
The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record. So Christianity is not religion or irreligion. It is something else altogether. (192)
Twelve | The (True) Story of the Cross
The First Reason: Real Forgivenss Is Costly Suffering. It hurts terribly. Many people would say it feels like a kind of death. | Yes, but it s a death that leads to resurrection instead of the lifelong living death of bitterness and cynicism. (196)
The desire for vengeance, however, is motivated not by goodwill but by ill will. (197)
His forgiveness was not what he called (in The Cost of Discipleship) “cheap grace.” He did not ignore or excuse sin. He resisted it head on, even though it cost him everything. His forgiveness was also costly because he refused to hate. (198)
The Forgiveness of God. …we should not be surprised that if we sense that the only way to triumph over evil is to go through the suffering of forgiveness, that this would be far more true of God, whose just passion to defeat evil and loving desire to forgive others are both infinitely greater than ours. (200)
Jesus’s death was only a good example if it was more than an example, if it was something absolutely necessary to rescue us. And it was. Why did Jesus have to die in order to forgive us? There was a debt to be paid — God himself paid it. There was a penalty to be born — God himself bore it. Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering. (200)
The Second Reason: Real Love Is a Personal Exchange. All life-changing love toward people with serious needs is a substitutional sacrifice. If you become personally involved with them, in some way, their weaknesses flow toward you as your strengths flow toward them. (202)
The Great Reversal. When Jesus suffered for us, he was honoring justice. But when Jesus suffered with us he was identifying with the oppressed of the world, not with their oppressors. (203)
The Story of the Cross.
Thirteen | The Reality of the Resurrection
The Empty Tomb and the Witnesses.
Resurrection and Immortality. …resurrection was not only impossible, but totally undesirable. (215)
The Explosion of a New Worldview. Why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power?
The Challenge of the Resurrection. Nothing in history can be proven the way we can prove something in a laboratory. However, the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact much more fully attested to than most other events of ancient history we take for granted. … 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. (219)
…even if they [skeptical, secular friends] can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. (220)
The message of the resurrection is that this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won…If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense — [then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world — news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things — and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all. Take away Easter and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring problems of the material world. Take it away and Freud was probably right to say Christianity is wish-fulfillment. Take it away and Nietzsche probably was right to say it was for wimps. – N.T. Wright
Fourteen | The Dance of God
I believe that Christianity makes the most sense out of our individual life stories and out of what we see in the world’s history. (222)
It is time to draw together the various threads of the narrative we have been examining and view the story line of Christianity as a whole. (223)
The Divine Dance. Notice our word “choreography”…means literally to “dance or flow around.” (224)
The Dance of Love. If there is no God, then everything in and about us is the product of blind impersonal forces. (225)
The Dance of Creation. Jonathan Edwards…concluded that God is infinitely happy. (227)
We were designed, then, not just for belief in God in some general way, nor for a vague kind of inspiration or spirituality. We were made to center our lives upon him, to make the purpose and passion of our lives knowing, serving, delighting, and resembling him. (228)
Losing the Dance. Nothing makes us more miserable than self-absorption, the endless, unsmiling concentration on our needs, wants, treatment, ego, and record. (229)
Why did Jesus die for us? What was Jesus getting out of it? …Not a thing. …he was circling and serving us. …he centers upon us, loving us without benefit to himself. (230)
Returning to the Dance.
The Future of the Dance.
The Christian Life. Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus’s coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. (233)
The world and our hearts are broken. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection was an infinitely costly rescue operation to restore justice to the oppressed and marginalized, physical wholeness to the diseased and dying, community, to the isolated and lonely, and spiritual joy and connection to those alienated from God. To be a Christian today is to become part of that same operation, with the expectation of suffering and hardship and the joyful assurance of eventual success. (235)’
In short, the Christian life means not only building up the Christian community through encouraging people to faith in Christ, but building up the human community through deeds of justice and service. | Christians, then, are the true “revolutionaries” who work for justice and truth… (235)
Epilogue: Where Do We Go from Here?
Examining Your Motives. We have to recognize that virtually all of us begin our journey toward God because we want something from him. (238)
Counting the Cost. A Christian is, literally, “Christ’s one,” someone who is not just vaguely influenced by Christian teaching, but who has switched his or her most fundamental allegiance to Jesus. (239)
Christians are people who let the reality of Jesus change everything about who they are, how they see, and how they live. (241)
Taking Inventory. Ultimately faith and certainty grows as we get to know more about Jesus, who he is, and what he did. (243)
Am I returning to my faith or finding it for the first time? (243)
Making the Move. The first thing you have to do is repent. (243) The second thing you have to do is believe in Christ. (244) [that is, to trust].
Faith, then, begins as you recognize and reject your alternative trusts and gods and turn instead to the Father, asking for a relationship to him on the basis of what Jesus has done, not on the basis of your moral effort or achievements. (245)
Committing to Community. Becoming a Christian always has both an individual and corporate aspect. (246)
I realize that so many people’s main problem with Christianity has far more to do with the church than with Jesus. (247)
I realize how risky it is to tell my readers that they should seek out a church. I don’t do it lightly, and I urge them to do so with the utmost care. But there is no alternative. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place. (247)
The Trauma of Grace.
— VIA —
There’s much to commend in this thorough book. Keller does a good job presenting a broad sweep of the arguments, summarizing tomes of literature on each particular subject. For that, this work is to be commended.
However, woven throughout the writing are a few contradictions, a curious statements that need critical engagement. And, in full due respect to Keller and his work, I offer the following questions, critiques, dissensions, and responses:
On page 13, Keller quotes someone as saying,
Doubt, like faith, has to be learned. It is a skill.
However, he suggests elsewhere in the book that faith is part of the human condition. Considering what we understand about the uncertainty of faith (a point of discussion he glosses over), should not doubt also be considered innate in the human condition? This point is important because it could reduce the validity of doubt and its role in the entire enterprise of a faith journey.
On page 15, Keller writes,
What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing.
There will be a couple other places where this is a point of disagreement between Keller and I. Faith, religion, or even God as an “explanation” is an unsustainable philosophical assertion. I’ll explain more with a later quote (see below), but for now, I would suggest that religion is best understood as providing meaning, and purpose through stories and, yes, even some “explanations.” But to relegate religion to an “explanation” is actually some augmented form of the “god of the gaps” stance, which is philosophically (and theologically) untenable. It is possible that this terminology is simply a slippery slope of misunderstood vocabulary — or semantics — but I do think this is important enough to clarify.
On page 19, Keller writes,
Christianity not only leads its members to believe people of other faiths have goodness and wisdom to offer, it also leads them to expect that many will live lives morally superior to their own.
While I concur with the gist, the force of the statement left me unsettled. Christians should expect that many will live morally superior? By what standards? And how is this argument helpful? Does this stem from a utilitarian view of Christianity? Does this leave Christianity out of the “moral progress” category, in which, perhaps, other religions, philosophies, or worldviews are better? There seems to be lots of potential problems with this.
On page 21,
We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?
This is a follow up to the quote from page 19, that this is a bit utilitarian, and not a strong argument. Who can deny the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs? Well, pretty much anyone who looks closely at how Christians act, behave, and the basis of beliefs upon which they act. This feels very weak to me, which needs further support and even perhaps a completely different approach to the argument.
On page 23, 25, and 26, Keller moves into theodicy, which is, in my estimation, one of the weakest points of his book. Page 23,
Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.
Of the three corners of the theodicy triangle, Keller is cutting off one of them, which does not answer the question of theodicy, but merely assumes one possible explanation.
On page 25,
If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways.
In addition to the previous explanation, this statement is simply disconcerting, and non-explanatory. It’s a bit pointed. And, it adds the complexity (and dismisses the reality) of the observation that some evil and suffering is completely counter to the doctrines of God and “biblical theology.” In other words, you can’t have a God that allows evil and suffering in the world for good reasons, if the very evil and suffering are contrary to the goodness of God. You can’t have this both ways either. In addition, this perspective can make God out to be an arrogant brute, slightly masochistic, explaining nothing about the nature of God, only discouraging our pursuit of God in the midst of evil and suffering.
On page 26, Keller delves deep in to the other argument which is that evil and suffering may be evidence of God. The problem is that this completely contradicts the previous argument. If — according to the previous argument — there are good reasons for evil and suffering and we simply cannot know them, then that explanation dismisses the categories of evil and suffering and therefore cannot be used as explanations or evidences for God. Again, you can’t have it both ways. Either there are good reasons, or there aren’t good reasons. It seems that the stronger of the two arguments is the later — what I would argue — is that the very definition of evil and suffering is that there are NO GOOD REASONS, which would be an argument for God’s existence, a standard by which we judge what is right and wrong, evil and good. Keller seems to want to try his hand at both, and I simply don’t think this is philosophically tenable.
On page 59, Keller does not provide a full explanation of what “full commitment to Christ and his gospel” means. While this comes a bit in the second half of the book, the reason why it is noted here is because he is arguing directly that the Christian commitment is being misunderstood, misapplied, and misrepresented, yet he offers no cogent corrective. Why is this important? How are we to understand his explanation of Christianity in contradistinction with the “lesser” Christianity that he is critiquing?
On page 60,
We should not be surprised to discover it was the Bible-believing religious establishment who put Jesus to death.
Several problems with this. A, it was not the Bible-believing religious establishment who put Jesus to death, it was the Romans, a distinctly non-Bible-believing establishment. B, Keller’s argument in this book is that the reason for the misrepresentation of Christianity in the world is that people are not “Christian enough.” He does not, however, extend this same explanation to the first-century people in this statement. To do so, in kind, would be to graciously say that these people were not “Bible-believing enough.” C, a careful reading of this statement is completely contradictory. Is not Jesus himself “Bible-believing” and “religious?”
In Chapter 5, page 75,
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Christianity is not the product of any one culture but is actually the transcultural truth of God. If that were the case we would expect that it would contradict and offend every human culture at some point, because human cultures are ever-changing and imperfect. If Christianity were the truth it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place. Maybe this is the place, the Christian doctrine of divine judgment.
This makes no sense to me on several levels. First, why must the truth of God be contradictory? Offensive? If that is the case, then what about the Christian faith resonates with the human soul? I recognize this may be a bit unfair, but the statement is quite sweeping, and I’m addressing the wholistic nature of it being all-encompassing. Second, Christianity comes through human culture. The complexity of the expression of the truth of Christianity cannot be divorced from its human vessel, and that goes for Keller’s Christianity. His statements about the truth of Christianity are culturally conditioned, just like Christianity has been throughout history.
The rest of chapter 5 on hell is disappointing, equating hell to a “trajectory.”
In Chapter 7 on page 101,
If this view of the New Testament’s origins and development is true, it would radically change our understanding of the content and meaning of Christianity itself. It would mean that no one could really know what Jesus said and did, and that the Bible could not be the authoritative norm over our life and beliefs. It would mean that most of the classic Christian teachings — Jesus’s deity, atonement, and resurrection — are mistaken and based on legends.
In referring to the transmission of the New Testament, Keller simply states an epistemological either/or. But is this premise and conclusion accurate? History is much more complex than simply equating a transmission of a text and the truth and validity of a historical person. AND, equating a historical person with the theology about the person is also much more complex and gray than this simple statement suggests.
On page 111, when referring to various details in the New Testament,
None of these details are relevant to the plot or character development at all.
I completely disagree. Given the scarcity of writing, the import of the written word, and the space allocations and cost of putting pen to paper, every jot and tittle has significance. In the example he refers to, Jesus writing in the dust with his finger, is wrought with allusions to Jeremiah 17, and the prophetic voice. This is deeply relevant to the plot, and character development of the story. I suggest that every detail we find in the New (and Old) Testaments are important. Keller’s dismissiveness of these details betrays his own perspective, that there is a hierarchical message found in the pages of the New Testament. How does he determine what the most important message is? Well, through his own culturally shaped theology.
As he states on page 116-117,
We should make sure we distinguish between the major themes and message of the Bible and its less primary teachings. The Bible talks about the person and work of Christ and also about how widows should be regarded in the church. The first of these subjects is much more foundational. Without it the secondary teachings don’t make sense. We should therefore consider the Bible’s teachings in their proper order.
I simply do not understand, nor does Keller explain, how he formulates this hierarchy. Again, it can be deduced that this comes from his culturally shaped theology.
Further down on page 117,
It is therefore important to consider the Bible’s core claims about who Jesus is and whether he rose from the dead before you reject it for its less central and more controversial teachings.
And I would say that for readers of the Bible, and especially conditioned by reformed theology (sola scriptura, infallibility, etc.) that option has not been left up to us. If you concede there are “core claims” about the Bible juxtaposed with “less central and more controversial teachings,” you create a “canon within a canon” that is not compatible with “infallibility,” “inerrancy,” or even some tenets of “inspiration.” Or on the flip side, recognize that the whole Bible is important to the central running message and themes, every jot and tittle and we should consider them in light of their importance; at the very least, in how the authors of the Bible suggest their importance.
On page 139,
This unfulfillable longing, then, qualifies as a deep, innate human desire, and that makes it a major clue that God is there.
The problem with the “desire” argument is that there are some people without the desire. Does that make God absent? This is a contingent and fragile argument.
In Chapter 8, Keller expounds upon what I have deduced as “God as an explanation,” some reasoned or rational conclusion. This is philosophically problematic. First, if we accept God as an explanation, this is an augmented “god of the gaps” argument which is untenable and fallacious. Second, it presupposes that God can be, or is some explanation, which implies a certain epistemological tangibility. But if we conceive of God as bigger and outside of rationality, as mysterious, elusive, and beyond our understanding, then by God’s very nature, our explanations are deeply flawed, sorely miscalculated, and at best ephemeral throughout the course of human history. I might put it this way: God gets lost in the explanations of God. I suppose this is a bit of an augmented “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” that as soon as we try to explain God, we have miscalculated God’s presence, location, direction, and speed. Turning God into an explanation, as Keller does, reduces God to an explanation, and this seems contrary to the Biblical and Christian theology.
In Chapter 9, page 152,
Though we have been taught that all moral values are relative to individuals and cultures, we can’t live like that.
But, we do. Morals are subjective. He doesn’t talk once about the philosophical understanding of absolute morality, which is more substantive. He simply discusses moral sense, perception, and application, which is problematic for his argument.
This is echoed on page 173,
A life not centered on God leads to emptiness.
This statement is anecdotal, subjective, and contingent upon contrasting with a life centered on God. In other words, a life not centered on God not knowing God would not necessarily lead to emptiness. One would have to know about the alternative in order to make that judgment.
Last, on page 247,
I will grant that, on the whole, churchgoers may be weaker psychologically and morally than non-churchgoers. That should be no more surprising than the fact that people sitting in a doctor’s office are on the whole sicker than those who are not there. Churches rightly draw a higher proportion of needy people. They also have a great number of people whose lives have been completely turned around and filled by the joy of Christ.
I’m so sorry to say that I found this statement misrepresentative, quite demeaning, and I could imagine in some circles, offensive. I’m a bit at a loss for words, for how can this even have any merit considering the vast and wide spread ubiquity of psychologically and morally corrupt people regardless of their church affiliation or attendance. Granted, churches should be attracting hurting, broken, and desperate people. But that — a mission and value statement — is far different from an analysis of real people who actually attend or do not attend. To evaluate attendees as somehow “weaker” psychologically or morally is simply astoundingly ignorant, and a bit repulsive. Would he say the same about the people attending his church?
NOW, with that said, I must come full circle and say that in spite of my critiques (which is often a sign of respect for the author), I still commend the work, and the introduction that this can have for anyone wrestling with these issues. There are fantastic quotes, good research, and much to launch someone into further discovery. However, it is far from the substantive work on each subject, and for each category, if time and interest permits, one would do well to simply turn to the bibliography and begin working through those books in lieu of reading the chapters.
However, I am a firm believer in “whatever gets you through the door.” Bless God for the work and contribution this book makes to the Christian and global community, and may it continue to push us further, deeper and deeper in to the truths that lay so close and yet so far away from our hearts.