Wednesday, March 05, 2008
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
This is my review of Keller's book:
"Tim Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (TRG, hereafter) is the result of the many questions about God and Christianity pastor Keller has received over the years during his time at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. Keller writes in a smooth, conversational tone. He addresses in clear language, 'real' questions from those who have crossed his path over the years, using every day examples to illustrate his points, and he does so with a pastoral heart (which is nevertheless well-reasoned rather that overly subjective or emotional in its appeal to the reader). Pastor Keller is clearly well read, and marshals a number of useful quotes from all sides (e.g., from atheists, agnostics, capitalists, communists, Arminian theologians, Calvinist theologians, authors of the classics, and, of course, lots and lots of C.S. Lewis). The quotes alone may well be worth the price of the book for those pastors who like to use a "As some of your own poets have said..." (Acts 17:28) approach to apologetic preaching (cf. "How does the Gospel Preach in a Culture of Paganism?" by Ted Hamilton, CWIPP lecture, Feb 21, 2007, www.cwipp.org). TRG can be read in a couple of sittings.
TRG comes in two parts. Part one is called: The Leap of Doubt. Keller asks both believers and unbelievers to doubt. Believers should not be afraid to wrestle with their doubts. To find answers rather than ignore them. Struggling with your doubts will make your faith "your own," rather than something you inherit. Believers should look for reasons behind their faith. To the unbeliever, Keller asks them to look into, and then treat with "doubt," the (what he calls) "faith assumptions" which under gird their objections, or doubts, to Christianity. "You cannot doubt belief A except from a position of faith in belief B." Keller doesn't really define what he means by "faith," and I think he's a bit simplistic here. Of course, it is true that beliefs are like potato chips, no one can have just one. So, all beliefs are connected to other beliefs. We should examine all those other beliefs. If this is all he means, fine. One major problem, though, is that he calls these underwriting beliefs "leaps of faith" because you cannot "prove them empirically, nor are they truths of reason" (xvii). But, later he claims that the "clues for God" are not "proofs" for Christianity, they have not been proven empirically, and they are not truths of reason, yet he doesn't want to call them "leaps of faith" (cf. 117-121; 127-28). On the one hand, he calls these unrpovable (in the above sense) "leaps of faith," on the other, he calls them "reasons for God." He seems to hold the unbeliever to a higher standard than he later holds himself to.
Part one proceeds by examining the various doubts people have brought to Keller over the years. The strategy here is to point out that all the doubts rested upon claims that the unbeliever had not thought out thoroughly, or were dubious assumptions, or were self-refuting, or they required an argument otherwise lest deck of cards collapse. This is a fine strategy to be sure. Nothing inherently wrong with it in the least. And, Keller does make some insightful observations, helpfully shinning the light on unexamined presuppositions and unargued biases. This is helpful. The draw back, as I see it, is that he often leaves the debate after pointing out one of these assumptions. He gives the impression of a shallow unbeliever who is stopped dead in his tracks after his assumptions are exposed. Many unbelievers, not just university professors, have thought through their implications more deeply than Keller seems to let on. Therefore, readers will need to do their homework in preparation for dealing with unbelievers. Not all of them will not stop dead in their tracks once you've pointed out their assumptions in the manner Keller does. Thus, Keller provides a good model for dealing with doubts, but you will need some more material to fill in the form.
Keller also takes some positions that will not sit well with many Christians, especially those in his own denomination! For example, he seems to lean socialist in many areas, and he holds to theistic evolution. He also seems to be too hard on Christian throughout history. No doubt we have had our embarrassing moments, but in many cases we can offer sufficient justification for some of the charges. It seems to me that Keller gives to much to the critic in this area, but this isn't to say that his responses are bad, in general. They are useful for generalities, but some specific cases may not warrant his apologetic (not as in a defense, but as in saying sorry) attitude. Keller has also made claims elsewhere about church planting to the effect that he, "doesn't believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics." Now, I do actually agree with some of this. But, do we really want to say that Rome teaches the Gospel? I guess that depends on how you define the "Gospel." They certainly don't teach that we are saved by grace alone, thtough faith alone, in the person and meritorious work of Christ alone imputed to the believer.
Part two presents positive reasons for belief (I said reasons (plural), perhaps the book should have been called "The ReasonS for God."?!), and is called: Reasons For Faith. Keller presents some good arguments here... well, he actually doesn't do much arguing so much as to point you to others who have made the arguments. Nevertheless, he appeals to some good arguuments and some pretty good contemporary philosophers, ones I wish more Reformed Christians would read. Besides C.S. Lewis (who is not contemporary but is seen on almost every page, and was nevertheless a asset to our faith), he cites Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, Robin Collins' design arguments, makes reference to Victor Reppert (author of C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea, and excellent book in its own rite), Darryl Bock, Ben Witherington, Richard Bauckham (for purposes of Gospel reliability), and N.T. Wright (for purposes of the resurrection). He also appeals to Francis Collins in many areas as well, especially his anthropic arguments.
His approach here he calls "critical rationalism." This basically means that though there is no knock down, silver bullet argument for Christianity, we shouldn't be skeptics about the possibility of knowing that Christianity is true, or rationally believing its claims. He admits that rational people can avoid all the arguments. Nothing rationally compels a rational person to be forced to assent to the argument's conclusions. They can be resisted. All this is fine and good. My major problem with this section is that he gives off the wrong impression. I don't think he's too fair with the opposing side. He will frequently say that an argument can be rejected, and then gives some of the weakest reasons unbelievers have marshaled in support of their denial of that particular argument. This gives the impression that unbelievers only have weak responses. That they hang by a shoe string in order to deny the arguments. For example, he has his unbeliever denying his argument (again, nothing like a robust argument was presented here, but that's not his purpose) from the uniformity of nature by saying, "We don't know why things are the way they are." But, non-Christians have given much more cogent reasons for their belief in the Uniformity of Nature than that! So, the impression is: on the one hand you have these excellent reasons the Christian can give, on the other, puerile, sophomoric responses by the unbeliever. Now, I personally believe the unbeliever is in a bad situation here, and I try to show that given their best responses to the various problems.
I have other problems with this section, but only have time for one more. His treatment on morality is entirely too basic. He seems to have no familiarity with the best of atheistic moral realists arguments, relativists, or non-cognitivists. Or, if he does, he's misleading about the state of the debate. He also makes some blunders which lead me to believer he has not read many non-Christian approaches to ethics. Some mistakes he makes are, he says: (i) no relativist can believe in moral absolutes. Wrong. Subjectivists can. They simply say, since their beliefs on the matter make the moral truths: "I say it is absolutely wrong for me to rape." As long as this belief expresses their beliefs, then it is true. (The downside for the subjectivist is that they reduce ethics to psychology, and can't account for moral disagreement either. They actually imply that we are infallible about our ethical beliefs. A highly counter-intuitive position indeed!) Or, (ii) no relativists can believe in an ethic outside themselves. Wrong again. Maybe the subjectivist can't, but the cultural relativist can---the culture exists outside himself and is the objective standard for his moral beliefs. Now, it is true that no relativist can account for universal, absolute, objective ethics (not all ethical principles are absolute, though). He also claims that no atheists can believe in a moral law that exists. Well tell that to sophisticated moral realists (Russ Shafer-Landau, for example). They believe, for example, that moral obligations are necessary truths that come in the form of hypotheticals and thus can have a true truth condition regardless if people exist to instantiate them or not. They believe these are immaterial and eternally existent, just like, say, laws of logic are. And, they don't think they need a "law giver" just like, say, laws of gravity don't need a "law giver" (I happen to think they do, cf. John Foster's The Divine Law Maker, Oxford, 2004)
Despite these problems, which should set constraints on who you give the book to, or who you use its arguments on, it is still a good book. Keller definitely has a heart for the lost, and I think he succeeds in showing people that Christianity has the best answers to some of life's most practical problems and questions. I would recommend his book with the above qualifications taken into consideration.