Book Review: The Reason for God
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.