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Book Review: The Reason for God

August 17, 2009

Hey Everyone,

Here is the first post from Matt Waitkus, a Thomas Society Fellow. He is reviewing Tim Keller’s book, “Reason for God”.

 

 

Consider the following quote from the first chapter of Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God:

“… some think that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to choose to do what makes you happy and not let others impose their beliefs on you… it is a set of faith-assumptions about the nature of things. It is an implicit religion. Broadly understood, faith in some view of the world and human nature informs everyone’s life.” [Keller, The Reason for God p. 15]

With that statement, Keller seems so close to grasping the real difference between his position and mine that I imagine he could almost taste the flying spaghetti monster. Keller is correct when he writes that our assumptions and the conclusions we draw from them ultimately serve as the foundation for our worldview. He makes an important mistake, though. When he labels the naturalistic worldview as a “religion” he seems to imply that all faith-based positions are equal. All faith-based positions are not equal: varying degrees of parsimony and evidence make the difference.

It is true that empiricism sacrifices certainty, and, as a result, truth is unattainable. But does this really make it a faith-based position? Or, to put it another way, does sacrificing certainty make naturalism the same type of faith-based position as religion? While we can never claim to have found the truth, we can at least arrange our certainty to be appropriate for the evidence we have based upon as few underlying assumptions as possible. To call this a faith-based position in the sense that it is a religion is to completely obliterate the traditional definition of religious faith.

The Reason for God is an excellent summary of Christian theology. The book is split into two parts. Keller spends the first half attempting to deconstruct a naturalistic world-view. He tries to demonstrate that naturalism, like Christianity, is a faith-based position. In other words, Keller invites the reader to consider that the manner in which we view the world is intimately connected to our presuppositions. His view, then, is not that our methods of inquiry are altogether dissimilar, but that we simply make different assumptions and therefore arrive at different conclusions. His position is that naturalistic assumptions are insufficient to make sense of the world in which we live – Keller thinks god is necessary to explain things like morality, for example.

Keller does well in attempting an honest answer to all of the most important differences between skeptics and Christians. Chapters are devoted to the relationship between science and religions, the problem of evil, evidence for god, the gospels, and the resurrection. Overall, each part offers a lucid, honest view of the Christian position followed by an anticipated, but still annoying, sermon on why the Christian view is right and everyone else is wrong.

Just to give you a little taste of what to expect:

“In the Christian understanding, Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a savior [p. 19].”

If you’re anything like me, even just a sip of the previous statement is enough to make you feel uneasy and declare Christianity to be as undesirable as it is untrue. The necessity of a personal savior might seem like a good idea to some, but to a non-Christian, the idea of being able to offend one person and be forgiven by another is an idea that is potentially dangerous, as well as nonsensical.

Keller spends the second part of the book defending the truth of Christianity and the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. According to Keller, the details included in the gospels, as well as the descriptions of the apostles’ human imperfections, show that they are histories rather than fictional accounts. The second half of the book also covers the inadequacy of secular morality and evolutionary explanations for our ethical intuitions. Keller writes:

“We can hold to our intellectual belief in an empty Bench and yet live as if our choices are meaningful and as if there is a difference between love and cruelty…

… The other option is to recognize that you do know there is a God. You could accept the fact that you live as if beauty and love have meaning, as if there is meaning in life, as if human beings have inherent dignity – all because you know God exists [p. 157-158].”

Keller argues that evolutionary explanations for apparently moral behavior is inadequate, and god is therefore a better explanation. So, the very existence of ethical intuitions is a subtle form of evidence in support of god’s existence, regardless of whether or not a person is willing to acknowledge god’s existence as a cause of moral behavior.

Again, the book is an honest portrayal of Christian theology. As a result, most people who have already taken a genuine interest in the discussion, on either side of the debate, will walk away relatively unshaken. Those who approach the issue as a Christian will close the book with perhaps a clearer understanding of why they are a Christian. Atheists reading the book will leave it with a clearer understanding of why they reject Christianity. For those people who are undecided or unfamiliar with the discussion, there will certainly be thought-provoking parts of the book. These parts should, at the very least, provide an opportunity to reconsider one’s own position.

It is important to note that Keller’s book is not only an argument for the truth of Christianity, it is an argument for the inadequacy of naturalism. So, while I can acknowledge Keller’s defense of the resurrection and historicity of Jesus as something with which I disagree, I am much more concerned with what I see as a potentially dangerous attempt to couple rational inquiry with religious presuppositions. The poorly defined idea of god is almost certainly not an idea that should be incorporated into sets of assumptions for any useful method of reasoning. Keller’s main failure, then, is trying to couple religion’s horrible combination of unnecessary assumptions and semantic ambiguity to rational inquiry.

I definitely recommend taking time to read this book. As I said before, Keller takes the time to address all of the most important issues. It is a short and readable summary of the newest Christian responses to non-theist criticisms.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2009 11:46 pm

    Good review. Former Christian, present atheist/agnostic. Liking the blog diversity.

  2. Johann permalink
    August 18, 2009 1:39 am

    “Keller seems so close to grasping the real difference between his position and mine that I imagine he could almost taste the flying spaghetti monster.”

    *grins* Love the image, and the overall attitude – even-handed with a skeptical point of view. =) Welcome, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from you.

    Also, a suggestion – if there is no mechanism to distinguish between the different authors within the post itself, perhaps it would be a good idea to add their name as a category? That way, it’ll be easier to look up other articles by a specific author once you’re all rich and famous and people come to you looking for wisdom. 😉

  3. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 18, 2009 2:26 am

    Done, Johann. Well, at least for Matt. I’ll put up special sections for each blogger. Everything else you can assume it’s from me unless otherwise noted.

  4. Eric Worringer permalink
    August 18, 2009 1:55 pm

    “The necessity of a personal savior might seem like a good idea to some, but to a non-Christian, the idea of being able to offend one person and be forgiven by another is an idea that is potentially dangerous, as well as nonsensical.”

    I guess I find this a little confusing and troubling at the same time, the idea of Agape, or an unconditional love and forgiveness is not nonsensical nor dangerous, which is what Christianity espouses God to have. Forgiveness is not equal, nor has it ever been. For instance, I think this happens all of the time, like say the blasphemy project, which I, as a Christian, find deeply offensive, and find nearly unforgivable, while a non-Christian would probably forgive for just using your 1st amendment rights. The idea that everything is one way or another I think is just as dangerous.

  5. AdamK permalink
    August 18, 2009 2:16 pm

    Eric – What an interesting comment. Thanks.

    It’s interesting that you found the post “a little confusing and troubling,” because that’s just the reaction I had to your reaction.

    I think you’ve hit on a point where clearer communication is definitely needed.

    For example, as a non-christian I found the “blasphemy project” funny and silly. I didn’t see anything whatsoever to “forgive” about it. The entire concept of “blasphemy” doesn’t have any meaning for me. To me, it ranks with things like sodomy and witchcraft as an archaic crime-that-isn’t-a-crime-at-all.

    So I was confused by your comment. I think my confusion stems from not understanding the language and though-processes of christians. I don’t know where you got the idea that the poster thought that forgiveness was dangerous. His point, as I understood it, was that asking god for forgiveness when you had harmed another person was dangerous, if you think that by doing so you’ve made up for the injury. And I don’t have a clue how to read your sentence, “Forgiveness is not equal, nor has it ever been.”

  6. Ray S. permalink
    August 18, 2009 2:52 pm

    Eric, perhaps you can rationalize the ‘God is love’ concept with damnation to Hell for not believing. That is an infinite punishment for a finite crime. For extra credit, explain how Jesus’ atonement is substantially different from animal sacrifice as practiced by the ancient Israelites and others, or human sacrifice as practiced in Meso America. Please pay particular attention to who established the rules under which sacrifice is considered atonement.

  7. Eric Worringer permalink
    August 18, 2009 3:15 pm

    Ray S.:

    I actually am quite unsure about the damnation to hell thing, in fact Scripture is pretty unclear about it, despite what some people say, the actual use of the Greek or Hebrew words for small is very small, like 2 out of about 64 references to Sheol or Maggido, which in the case of Maggido, was a reference to an actual place in Israel, a valley of burning shit to be exact. Who knows what God’s judgment is or is not, as Christian, I find that very dangerous territory to tread on. For extra credit, I don’t all together disagree with you, but I assume you are talking about Atonement as in the Anselm of Canterbury sense, which is Substitutionary Atonement, which may or may not be scriptural. The atonement is a theological interpretation of what we Christians find pretty hard to put in any box, that being the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. You are right, especially considering Anselm wrote from a greco-roman philosophical standpoint, where as Christianity, including Paul’s writings on the Atonement, emerged out of 1st century Judaism, which had many more metaphors and images for the idea of atonement, including a whole festival for atoning. Yes the idea of the sacrificial lamb is a very familiar concept to the 1st century Jews that it was written about, but in the 1950 years since then, many more images and ideas have emerged, with the general consensus in the Christian community that none of our images, metaphors or descriptions quite give justice to the Atoning actions of Jesus on the cross.

  8. Eric Worringer permalink
    August 18, 2009 3:23 pm

    Adam K.:

    Well let me clarify some things I said. First, as a Christian, I believe the blaspheming of the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable offense, and as such, I find it quite close to that, but I am willing to forgive as I believe God is, but I prefer to leave judgment in the arena of God. I don’t see it as a crime, just something that deeply hurts me and makes me feel greatly disrepected as a fellow human being.

    Second, I don’t think the forgiveness of God for Christians in any way is intended to replace the forgiveness of your brothers and sisters, including non-Christians. This was intended to work both ways, as Christians were not supposed to be working offensively against their fellow man. For us, it goes both ways, if we don’t forgive, we are not forgiven, see below:

    f you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

  9. AdamK permalink
    August 18, 2009 3:39 pm

    Eric –

    Thanks for your reply.

    “[I]f you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

    To me, this makes a triangle out of what should be a one-on-one human relationship. It complicates what should be simple.

    Complicating what should be simple strikes me as dangerous. I think we need an Occam’s Razor for ethics.

    You cite scripture to claim the blasphemy against the holy spirit is unforgivable, then say you find it “close to that,” then state you are “willing to forgive” it. Then you leave it up to god. (If I wanted to be uncharitable I would call this an example of christians passing the buck – washing their hands of it, in the useful gospel image.)

    This kind of redefining and goalpost-shifting makes it difficult to understand what christianity actually is. But I’m sure that lack of understanding is up to me to work on.

    Thanks again for your helpful comment.

  10. Eric Worringer permalink
    August 18, 2009 3:48 pm

    The main reason I worry about proclaiming it as a crime is not because scripture proclaims it as so, but because I worry about being judgmental, especially when people may or may not understand the gravity of the situation for me.

    I dont think it is a triangle so much as two separate one on one relationships. The relationship between God and I, and the relationship between my brothers and sisters and I. They operate independently, but inform and enrich them.

  11. Eric Worringer permalink
    August 18, 2009 3:49 pm

    and I don’t think Christians are trying to pass the buck so much as, I find that humans are inherently bound to evil and sin, and therefore are pretty damn incompetent in performing normal ethical actions, while it of course does happen sometimes, I think human history points the other way.

  12. Brad permalink
    August 18, 2009 4:47 pm

    Interesting review – your comments on the book seem to line up with “self-identity” issues in chapter 10

  13. Ray S. permalink
    August 18, 2009 7:01 pm

    Eric, thanks for your reply. My apologies, I should have checked first to see if your particular flavor of Christianity called for eternal damnation or not. It’s difficult for those of us outside the faith to keep track.

    Where you slip into the plus column in my book is when you say “who knows . . .” There are a surfeit of wannabe mouthpieces for God who claim to know the plan or what God wants. Even if I believed in a god, I couldn’t take then seriously. Such a claim is a good sign that they are not content with managing their own life, but also want to manage everyone else’s too.

    One thing I’m not clear on, how does someone else’s blasphemy hurt you?

  14. Chuck W. permalink
    August 18, 2009 11:03 pm

    Okay so I fail to see the merit behind the claim that naturalism is a religion.

    Naturalism is a world view. Not all worldviews are religious.
    Furthermore, some worldviews have more evidence for their claims than others.

    Lets not pretend that unsubstantiated religious claims are at the same level as evidence based scientific claims about the nature of reality.

    Saying that we all hold assumptions about the world does not show that all assumptions are equally valid or plausible.

    That’s my thought based on the quotations.

  15. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 19, 2009 1:18 am

    Chuck,
    Great clarification, but I don’t think you go far enough. I think naturalism IS on par with religious worldviews. THe reason is because you begged about a million different questions with your above statements.

    Asserting they are not is not enough. But, I agree that the word religion has become useless.

  16. MWB permalink
    August 19, 2009 7:30 am

    Hi peeps !

    I tuned in late to ” The Colbert Report ” last night and just caught the tail end of his interview segment .
    His guest was a writer promoting his book entitled ” The Evolution Of God ” , it sounds very interesting , I hope one of the society will review sometime soon .

    Cheers , MWB

  17. October 22, 2009 9:08 am

    Each place or city is a node in the Blue Mars network. ,

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