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

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller This book was chosen by our book group at church, and I went to it kicking and screaming. Keller is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, which broke off from our denomination over the ordination of women. I don't pay them much attention most of the time, and I certainly don't seek them out on matters of theology. Whether that's close-mindedness or good discernment on my part, I'll leave that to others to judge. Bottom line, though, is I'm glad I read this book, but I'm also glad I could get it from the library rather than buy it...

The first half of the book addresses the questions and charges people make against Christianity (the evil done in its name, how can a good God allow suffering), and the second half makes a more positive case for the Christian faith. I actually liked the first part of the book better. For one thing, it's somewhat less systematic, less interested in building a logical argument so much as addressing (and in some cases dismantling) the traditional arguments against God and faith.

I would have been happy for him to stop there. That's a temperament thing---I was reminded of spiritual types recently and I am more on the apophatic side. Apophatic spirituality is centered on the mystery of God that goes way beyond whatever we think we know. Apophatic spirituality approaches God by saying what God is not, and tends to be suspicious of attempts to nail things down too handily. Christianity is largely "kataphatic," centered on the idea that God is revealed and known in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sense, apophatics provide a necessary corrective and a reminder that we don't know everything, never will, and that's probably a good thing.  (More on this topic)

It could also be that apophatic Christians are Buddhists who just can't quit Jesus.

Back to the book.

I appreciated the places where Keller was able to bring some nuance. He deftly weaves literary and historical material into his discussion and quotes heavily from C.S. Lewis. (These were some of my favorite bits in the book; clearly I need to read more Lewis.) I agree with his assessment of the church's role in systems of injustice. To the extent that it participates and colludes with them, it is an affront to the gospel. But the answer, Keller, is not to throw the whole thing away but to go deeper into a life with Christ. In fact, Christianity has within it rather robust tools for critiquing and correcting religiously-based injustice and oppression, including its own. (I'm not claiming that Christianity is unique in that regard, though Keller might be.)

His chapter on biblical interpretation was strong, and I liked how he handled the facile argument that if you can't take the Bible literally everywhere, you can't take it literally anywhere. You have to consider the genre and intent of a passage. Genesis 1, for example, is not a scientific text: "Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a 'song' about the wonder and meaning of God's creation... it is false logic to argue that if one part of the Scripture can't be taken literally then none of it can be. That isn't true of any human communication."

I take this to mean that one might say "I love you" to one's spouse upon leaving for work, and five minutes later say, "Ugh! I'm gonna kill that guy!" to the bozo who cut her off on the freeway, and the latter should not be taken literally, nor does it preclude the former from being taken literally. But did you catch that? He just called the Bible "human communication"! Not even this prominent PCA pastor is willing to say that the Bible is God's dictated word, jot and tittle, and for that I am thankful. In fact, some of his principles for interpretation seemed to come right out of Jack Rogers's books for the Presbyterian Church (USA) on biblical interpretation. Maybe these guys are mellowing out.

Ultimately, however, I wish Keller had stuck more to  theology than apologetics, which unfortunately is his emphasis. Can we "logic" our way to God? Maybe, but I hope not. Yes, the bodily resurrection of Jesus would have been a complete scandal to people at the time, an offense even to pre-modern sensibilities, and totally outside the realm of what they would have consider possible at the time. He's right; to make up such a thing would not have lent credibility to those following the way of Jesus. That does not mean that it happened... though that's essentially Keller's argument.

He also employs a number of circular arguments and dualistic, all-or-nothing thinking. For example, quoting Plantinga, "a [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort... and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness." On the contrary, I think there can be broad moral consensus of good and evil in secular societies. (He would say that this consensus originates within religion, specifically Christianity. That's Christianity as Godfather: "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in!")

He also tries to defend God on the matter of suffering:

Though none of these people are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything. With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn't it be possible that, from God's vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?

I guess it could be possible, but... no. Just no. Here's the apophatic talking: there is no benefit to trying to nail that stuff down and systematize it. It is a mystery. Maybe it will all make sense in the sweet by and by, but if you're trying to build a bridge for the non-religious, it does not benefit your case by even going there.

I would be interested in hearing a non-religious person's take on this book. My sense is that it provides lots of food for thought for Christians, and maybe even folks who lean Christian. (I expect very vigorous discussion of this book in our group.) But is not going to do much to sway folks who are resolutely non-Christian.