Monday, May 21, 2012

"The Reason for God" (Tim Keller)

This review was first published at YAPDATES on Feb 16th, 2009.

Tim Keller is pastor of the fast growing Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. One reason for his rising fame and popularity is his ability to speak to the concerns of a culture that is not only becoming more secular but skeptical of tradition and religion. CS Lewis gave a radio talk in the 1940s entitled: "Case for Christianity." Lee Strobel had his "Case for Faith" sometime in the 1980s. Tim Keller's contribution is a 293-paged "Reason for God," published by Dutton, member of the Penguin group, 2008. The book's website is here.

Briefly, the first part of the book deals with 7 major doubts skeptics have regarding the truth of Christianity. Calling the seven statements as the Leap of Doubt, he turns the skeptical view on its head by forcing them to apply their own statements using their own measurements.
  1. There can't be just one true religion
  2. How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
  3. Christianity is a Straitjacket
  4. The Church is Responsible for so much Injustice
  5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
  6. Science Has Disproved Christianity
  7. You Can't Take the Bible Literally
The Two Camps & Three Barriers
Keller describes his early Christian experience in terms of struggling with two seemingly opposing viewpoints and three barriers to faith. On the one camp, people who fight for social justice are themselves 'moral relativists' (xii). The other camp comprises people who were morally upright and yet socially nonchalant. Compounding this problem are three barriers: Intellectual, Personal and Social barriers. A religion that is believable for him must overcome all these barriers, to be intellectually reasonable, personally accountable and socially responsible. He argues that faith needs to be lived with some level of doubt as well, just like a human body needing antibodies. Otherwise, the faith is not solid but plastic. They do not last. In his recommendation, he suggests that both believers and non-believers at the worst scenario, ought to take the stance of 'disagreement' rather than 'denouncement' (xviii). The main point of Keller's book is to challenge the skeptic to dare to measure their own criticisms with their own standards, and at the same time, to extend their understanding of future hope, learning 'reasonably' toward the viewpoints of Christianity. It is an invitation for the skeptic to taste and see that the Lord is good.

The author then goes on to address the seven skeptical statements before promoting the seven positive statements of the gospel of Christ which are:
  1. The Clues of God
  2. The Knowledge of God
  3. The Problem of Sin
  4. Religion and the Gospel
  5. The (True) Story of the Cross
  6. The Reality of the Resurrection
  7. The Dance of God
The Seven Leaps of Doubt
1) "There Can't Just Be One True Religion" is a major statement of faith. It already assumes that there is no one true way. Skeptics generally force themselves to take either or a mixture of 3 alternatives toward religion; 'outlaw' it, condemm or to privatize it. All three have shown themselves to be equally inadequate.

2) "How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?" was first suggested by David Hume, a British philosopher. Keller asserts that evil and suffering does not satisfactorily prove against the existence of God. It might even be arguments for God! In other words, suffering and pain makes us long for something better. Moreover, evil, suffering and pain is not just for the God-aware, it is for EVERYONE, no exceptions! Whether one is an atheist, a theist or an agnostic, all face suffering in one way of another. If theism is non-reasonable, atheism is far worse in terms of understanding the problem of evil and suffering. God himself did not spare his own son to undergo suffering. In Christ, there is ultimate redemption from suffering. Can we say the same for atheism?

3) "Christianity is a Straitjacket" reflects very much the modern times of relativity and the desire for people to determine their own truths, according to their own standards and within their own fancies. The culture resists the authoritative manner which religion tries to shove down their doctrines down people's unwilling throats. Keller points out that one's belief against absolute truth is in itself an absolute statement. In other words, one can argue that anyone criticizing Christianity for straitjacketing people can also be equally criticized for 'straitjacketing' others into their relative way of believing. The author then argues that communities cannot be completely inclusive. How can falsehood and truth exists side by side? Christianity is not culturally rigid. After all, Christianity was first encountered by Jews, moved to Greek Hellenists environment in the Mediterranean, received by the Barbarians in Northern Europe, then Western Europe and subsequently finding their way to Latin America, Africa and large parts of Asia. Regarding the issue of straitjacket, the counter argument is that 'freedom' itself does have its limits. A freedom seen in terms of self-indulgence and insensitive to the community one lives in is never true freedom. It is licentiousness leading initially from an amoral point of view toward a self-justifiable immoral way of life.

4) "The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice" is a common accusation. Yes, there has been flaws in history of the church, violence through crusades, and fanatical bigots. Even the Christian West was once beset with slavery. However, with each name mentioned that one used to attack the church, remember that there are true martyrs who died for the faith, and did lots of good to advance the human dignity in the world. So when one argues against the injustices, do not forget that fair judgment requires the skeptic to consider the good that has been done.

5) "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" One reason why increasingly people believe this is due to the tendency of people to arrive at their own religious conclusions based on their root secular beliefs. In fact, one can argue that secularism is a religion in itself. CS Lewis brilliantly identified magic and science being twins that came from the same set of parents. There were 'born of the same impulse' (70). While in the past, people believe that there is a Divine Superior outside and we are all seeking the Higher divinity, (Magic), modernity reverses it and sees everything gravitating toward themselves (Science).
"Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires. The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques." (71)
CS Lewis said that there are two kinds of people. The first kind says "Thy Will be done" to God. In the second kind, God says to them: "Thy will be done." Other religions do not claim their divinity as a God of love. Only Christ claims that.

6) "Science Has Disproved Christianity" is a sweeping statement propagated by people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C Dennett. Keller argues that not only modern scientists have to grapple with the issue of miracles. Ancients do too. The power of the gospel is that when people see the miracles, it does not remain within the realm of intellectual beliefs. It leads them to worship, to do great things for God and to become people yearning to bring God's goodness to the world. Ian Barbour lays out 4 ways in which to deal with science and religion: "conflict, dialogue, integration and independence" (88). One end is very public while the other is completely private. The conflict part is losing credibility. Many scientists can reasonably believe in Christ.

7) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally" means that one rather pick and choose Scripture. If that is the case, one can become like the Stepford wives where one lives like a robot, choosing and keeping only those things that one finds reasonable in the Bible. The problem with why people struggle with the Bible is their failure to take into account how deeply they have become entrenched in their own sense of history, that they ignored the contexts of the biblical passage. In other words, trying to force modern history and interpret the Bible from there is a problem right from the start. It is like trying to question a 1st century man walking many miles to work, saying why he did not drive!

Seven Reasons for Faith
(1) Clues of God
Several clues are evident.
  • The very existence of the world
  • Finetuning of the universe
  • Regularity of nature
  • Beauty and meaning in the world
  • Our cognitive faculties work!
2) The Knowledge of God
One already knows God is there, for if life is one big intellectual problem, where is the meaning? The reason why people are searching for meaning in life is because all their struggles are in essence a search for God. Why do we tell one another to be truthful? Why do we want to do good? Where are the origins of human rights? Without a knowledge of God, will all these make sense? In fact it could even be more 'dishonest' to deny God.

3) The Problem of Sin
Sin is essentially an inadequate attempt to fill our emptiness and void, thinking that we can fill it without God. According to Kierkegaard, everyone must find some way to 'justify their existence.' There are personal, social and cosmic consequences of sin.
"Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God." (71)
Everyone needs to live for something. A life without God does not cut it.

4) Religion and the Gospel
Beginning with the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Keller argues that either way, one becomes bad and mad. The very desire to do good deeds in order to 'redeem' the evil ways of Mr Hyde ultimately destroys both. Dr Jekyll uses religion as a form of good deeds. Sin and evil have two faces. One face is to do evil to destroy. The other is to pile up good and become self-arrogant and prideful leading to self-destruction. Pharasaism is dangerous as it can create social strife. We need the grace of God, to be accepted. Religion pushes fear to get us to conform. Grace in God invites us through love. Grace can also be a threat. Using the example of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean when he eventually spared his persistent pursuer, police officer Javert, the latter could not comprehend why a 'bad' guy like Valjean can ever do such good to him, by releasing his arch-enemy? The gospel offers us this radical grace. Yet this alone is not the whole story. We need to see the cross.

5) The (True) Story of the Cross
The cross represents real forgiveness through the suffering of Christ. Secondly, it represents that real love is a personal exchange.
The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear. (200)
The Bible is for us.

6) The Reality of the Resurrection
Many people struggle with this. This is why the four gospels and the New Testament repeatedly echo the evidence.
  • The Empty Tomb and the women as witnesses seem incredulous. After all, women witnesses are not very respected in the society then. Yet, physical eyewitnesses were recorded. Are they all wrong? Despite such incredible evidence, yet the early Christians were prepared to suffer for the sake of standing up for these proofs, even in spite of persecutions and humiliation. If the evidence is false, these people are truly insane. If the evidence is true, they cannot help it but to proclaim and bear witness. In fact, believing that the evidence is false is more absurd than believing that the evidence is true. It is more reasonable that they are correct rather than to attribute them to hallucinations. Christians at that time do not have the luxury of comfortable pews in nice church buildings. They proclaim Christ at a personal cost. Why will any reasonable person put himself or herself through social, religious, political or economic inconveniences? Unless they are proclaiming what they saw. Remember that doubts about the resurrection is not restricted in the modern times we live in. The ancients also struggle with this.

7) The Dance of God
God is Trinity. We are invited into the divine dance, not because God needs it, but because God desires to share it with us in love. We need to return to the dance. In a nutshell, the gospel comprises of 4 great acts: CREATION, FALL, REDEMPTION And RESTORATION.

Great book. I like to end the way the book ended. A story.
During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, 'God, help me to find you,' but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, 'God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.' She concluded when she was recounting this to me, 'The only reason I can tell you this story is - he did.'"


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