The Reason for God

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008. 281 pgs.

We do indeed live in an age of skepticism. Questions about religion, God, Christianity, and pretty much everything else (except science, TV, and youtube I guess) abound. I've been a student for a long time, and a pastor for a short time, but in both positions I have run into a lot of questions. So, books like this are always interesting to me. Especially when they are well written and highly recommended, as this one was.

He opens his book with an awesome quote:

"I find your lack of faith - disturbing."
- Darth Vader

And from there he takes a very interesting approach to what might be traditionally called apologetics. He lays this approach out in his introduction. He asks people to doubt, but not in the way we are used to. To those who believe, Keller encourages them acknowledge and wrestle with their own doubts, as well as with the doubts of skeptics, friends, neighbors, and so on. However, he also points out, especially to non-believers, that all doubts are, embody, or have beneath them an alternate system or set of beliefs. In his words: "You cannot doubt belief A except from the position of belief B." (xvii) His hope is that by helping believers to appreciate and deal with doubts (as well as helping them try to understand outsider skeptics) and by asking skeptics and non-believers to doubt their own doubts, that he might create some ground for respectful dialogue. His book, thus, follows this very pattern. First he lays out seven common questions of objections to Christianity, and explains how each of these is, in itself, based on a further, often hidden, set of beliefs that is equally (or more) vulnerable to critique than the Christian belief under question. Then, in his second section, he lays out seven reasons for faith. He then concludes with a final word about starting the journey of faith.

In terms of style and writing, Keller is excellent. His words flow; they are easy to read, they make sense, and they draw the reader along. In terms of argumentation, he wavers a lot in my opinion. For the first seven chapters, his approach is good and important, but it doesn't often take one all the way. So, we now see that everyone has a belief system, and that they are all open to questions... but what about answering those questions? For the believer, it is all to easy to read this chapters and feel as if one is suddenly armed with a sure-fire way of taking down opposing arguments. Keller would, no doubt, point out that this is not the point. And it isn't; but it may easily be the result. The fact is, however, that pointing out the weakness of another's beliefs (whether those beliefs are explicit or implicit) does nothing to shore up one's own. That said, some of his first seven chapters do an excellent job of following through to the point where the objection is answered, or at least so riddled with holes that it ought to be quickly dropped. Unfortunately, these tend to be the weakest arguments to begin with. So, the objection that there cannot be just one true religion is answered well (its a ridiculous objection anyway; something has to be right, even if its not something we have found yet. Law of non-contradiction and all that). Meanwhile, issues of science are necessarily given short-shrift (not enough space) and thus Keller's points only carry us halfway.

I should add that, despite my above criticism, no one book can do everything, and the careful ready will realize which arguments go how far. After all, Keller does not claim to completely answer all the questions, but only to go so far as to show how they themselves are based on weak foundations and then move towards an answer.

On the other hand, his reasons for faith were very good. Probably because I have read most of his sources, I did not find much new in this section. Nonetheless, he sums everything up well, and has a very good way of saying it all. He also does an excellent job of contrasting the common assumptions about Christianity with what Christianity actually teaches (especially true in chapters 11 and 12, "Religion and the Gospel" and "The (true) story of the cross").

Now, all that said, the conclusion. I find that I too am easily misunderstood, and so someone reading this review might think me harsh, or that the book wasn't very good. Not at all; I list my concerns to try to help people be careful readers. My conclusion is that this was a very good book which I enjoyed. It is well written and an excellent resource. In fact, as a place to start for those who want to explore these questions (as either a believer, or skeptic, or anywhere in between or more extreme) I highly recommend this book (I will be trying to get our church library to get a copy, or else just getting one myself for our youth library). For those more well versed in the literature, it will be a quick read, but still good as a reminder and perhaps new perspective or approach or way of looking at things.


Thomas said...

Thanks for the review! I'll give you Shirley's email address and you can request it. Are you familiar with Van Til's presuppositionalist apologetics?

Andrew said...

I would appreciate that email :)

As for Van Til, I know what you are talking about, but I have never read much of his stuff. From what I understand, the major difference between Til and Keller is that while Til argues that Christians must at all times presuppose the bible is true, Keller merely points out that all beliefs and doubts lie on foundations which cannot be defended from a hard rationalist position.

Does that sound about right?