The Reason for God: A Critical Interactive Review
Publisher: Dutton (2008)
Author: Tim Keller
Pages: 277 including footnotes and index.
I love the good news of Jesus Christ. I love apologetics. I love good writing. And I love Tim Keller. Therefore it is very difficult for me to be objective about The Reason for God. Given my past experience I expected this book to be a feast and it is; well written, cogent, interesting and full of fascinating information. It also raises lot of questions for me - which to my mind is what a good book should do. I raise some of these in the review below.
I am calling this review "critical" because I want to "critique" the book in the old fashioned sense - interacting with it, looking and strengths and weaknesses and most of all engaging with a few of the major questions and issues raised by it. I hope this will be seen as "constructive criticism" rather than an attempt to put down or be negative about a book which I am frankly grateful for. We give praise to the Lord that at last we have a major popular work which really does scratch where it itches! Besides which in apologetic terms I have the utmost respect for Tim Keller. I doubt there is a better apologist in the Western world today. I do not "critique" as an equal but as a learner.
I have already indicated the strengths of the book, and as we look through it, we will continue to analyse these. However there are a couple of minor criticisms to make before we actually get into the detail of the book itself.
Firstly I have a problem with the title. I am not sure what it means. I don't wish to be pedantic, but I still don't know what the reason for God is. I'm not even sure that there is a reason. Maybe it's my Europeanness but I tend to think that God does not need a reason. It almost implies as though we have to invent one - along the lines of why does God exist? Obviously the book is about giving reasonable answers to those who believe that belief in God is unreasonable. But the title does not really convey that for me. The subtitle "Belief in an age of Skepticism" also causes a question in my mind - is this really an age of scepticism? I accept that there are many sceptics - perhaps especially in New York - but as a Christian I really wish that people would be a whole lot more sceptical. I would be more inclined to say that this is an age of gullibility - although as Keller points out in his introduction it is also a cynical age.
Of smaller concern is the cover - just as a matter of personal taste I found it dull and unimaginative. It does not grab you. But then you cannot judge a book by its cover!
The Beginning: The book begins well with a quote from Darth Vader "I find your lack of faith - disturbing!" Keller then goes on to set the context of a world where both faith and secularism are growing. The account of his personal journey and his awareness of the divided culture is enlightening. And, as he does throughout the book, he roots and grounds the teaching in the real experiences, questions and doubts of real people. This approach is very helpful.
Speaking of doubts I have a slight question about the use of the term doubt. There is surely a difference between a question and a doubt. If a students says to her teacher "I have a question about what you are saying" this is different from saying "I doubt what you are telling me." There is a subtle but important distinction between doubting and questioning - although the two are often linked. Doubt seems to me to be a more emotive and relational term as well as intellectual. It also strikes me as being more judgemental. I am uncomfortable with my "doubting God" - I have no problem with my asking questions of God. Os Guinness's Doubt - Faith in two Minds - is a helpful discussion of this issue. But I am inclined to think that we are in danger of swinging from the pendulum of fundamentalist unthinking certainty as an emotion, to almost seeing double mindedness as being the "new cool." At a time when the default position for the vast majority of people in the West is a form of agnosticism or practical atheism (living as though God did not exist) we need to make sure that we do not deify doubt. I find books such as John Humphrey's In God We Doubt as disturbing and blasphemous as The God Delusion. There is a balance here and it is a tightrope we walk - between on the one hand not taking into account the real questions, doubts and fears that people have; and on the other, not challenging the human propensity to think that we are the ultimate judge, that God has to answer to us and that, until he does so we have the luxury of ignoring him and getting on with our own lives without him.
The book is then divided into two parts. The first is entitled The Leap of Doubt and deals with seven of the "defeater beliefs" that Keller has been handling in New York for many years.
Ch.1 - There can't just be one true religion - In my experience this is a major objection to Christianity and one that Keller rightly begins with. He also comprehensively demolishes it. Ironically the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most other religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid in others. (p.8). Keller demonstrates the illogicality and emotional nature of the argument that all religions must be the same. Of course there is a great difficulty caused in the minds of many when we discover people from other faiths and other cultures who are "good" or "kind." But this does not mean that the "exclusive" beliefs of the relativists are any truer than the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. And, as Keller goes on to demonstrate, the Bible would expect us to find "moral goodness" in people all over the world, and moral badness in professing Christians. He does not excuse the injustices that have been done by some in the Church and in the name of Christ, and he does not dodge the issue by implying that real Christians would never do bad things anyway. Instead he rightly affirms that the doctrines of Christianity have had a far more beneficial effect in a world that is already distorted by sin and evil. Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart. (p18).
I found the section on the secular call for the privatisation of religion especially helpful. Far too many Christians have either accepted this or gone to the other extreme of culture wars, theonomy or some kind of Christendom. Keller negotiates this minefield skilfully and with great clarity. His fellow Americans would do well to listen to him. Sometimes I fear that American evangelicals are presented with only two alternatives - pietistic other worldliness or the culture wars. There are two forms of the latter - the predominant right wing version which equates America and aspects of American political/social and economic life with Christianity and the more 'liberal' left wing version which, using a kind of evangelical liberation theology also equates the Gospel with a particular political culture. Seeing societal change as a "fruit" of the Gospel, rather than the root of the Gospel, is essential. Real Christianity can no more withdraw from society than it can withdraw from the church. Christians have the right (and the duty) to be involved in society. As Keller puts it - Although many continue to call for the exclusion of religious views from the public square, increasing numbers of thinkers, both religious and secular, are admitting that such a call is itself religious. (p.18). Asking Christians to privatise their faith in the King of Kings and not to let their beliefs out in the public square is like asking a light to stop shining, or salt to be tasteless.
Summary: The introduction and the first chapter are a stimulating and captivating beginning which set the tone for the rest of the book. The use of quotes comes across as evidence of a wide reading and thinking engagement with the material (as opposed to 'quote mining'); the personal details and the examples from real life help earth the discussion whilst not going over the top; and the direct and clear expose of faulty logic gives the material a force that is powerful and devastating to the opposition. Next week we go on to look at some of the other chapters in the first part of the book.
Author of The Dawkins Letters
Editor The Monthly Record
Minister of St Peters Free Church, Dundee, Scotland.