Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Reason for God by Tim Keller (Book Review #86 of 2015)

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
I consider myself to have read "a lot" of Christian apologetics, and I must say this is probably the first book I would give any skeptic. First, it is brief and concise. Tim Keller is pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City; he has dealt with a diverse crowd of people in a very multiethnic location. He converses with non-Christians constantly and begins by asking "What are your hang-ups with Christianity?" Each chapter of the book deals with answering the skepticism he encounters.

The book expresses clearly the appeal of the Christian worldview in the spirit of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Keller's books are always well-researched, his bibliographies often contain several hundred books, essays, and articles. I recommend reading one particularly good chapter that's freely available as a PDF:  Keller is not out to "prove" Christianity right with a bunch of archaeological evidence or something. He is ultimately using logic as the apologetic, similar to William Lane Craig.

Many Americans/westerners reading the Bible reject God as an unfair monster whose actions are distasteful. But "why should modern western preferences be the judge of Christianities validity or tastefulness?" Those who make such criticisms don't realize that they're doing something ethnocentrically, even though they often criticize evangelicals for being ethnocentric. If you think your way of thinking is right and others is wrong, then you must give a reason. Saying "Christians are too closed-minded" is a criticism suggesting your way is right-- which is itself a narrow, closed-minded response.

The most-frequently given reason for rejecting Christianity, Keller finds, is its "exclusivity." But he points out that all of us build walls of exclusion-- we think our way is better, our political party holds the correct course of action, etc. and we reject the others.

“It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways.”

"Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true. But this objection is itself a religious belief. It assumes God is unknowable, or that God is loving but not wrathful, or that God is an impersonal force rather than a person who speaks in Scripture. All of these are unprovable faith assumptions."

People worldwide often have an objection that our religious beliefs are a reflection of our culture or how we were raised. Religion arised out of evolutionary necessity to create order and explain the yet-unscientifically explained world around us.

He cites Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga: "People often say to Plantinga, 'If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn’t even be a Christian, but rather a Muslim.' He responds: 'Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist. . . . If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that . . . his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief- producing process?'"

People object that Christianity and the Bible are simply a hodgepodge of beliefs found in other cultures-- all roads lead to the same place, so to speak. "I know what I believe... what's true is true for me, but not you and vice-versa" are common comments we here. But these are illogical:
"Plantinga and Berger make the same point. You can’t say, 'All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.' If you insist that no one can determine which beliefs are right and wrong, why should we believe what you are saying? The reality is that we all make truth- claims of some sort and it is very hard to weigh them responsibly, but we have no alternative but to try to do so...Most people in the world don’t hold to John Hick’s view that all religions are equally valid, and many of them are equally as good and intelli-gent as he is, and unlikely to change their views. That would make the statement 'all religious claims to have a better view of things are arrogant and wrong' to be, on its own terms, arrogant and wrong. Many say that it is ethnocentric to claim that our religion is superior to others. Yet isn’t that very statement ethnocentric?"

Skeptics like Christopher Hitchens point out that there are non-Christians who lead more moral lives by Christian standards than many Christians. What good, then, is Christianity? Keller responds that if everything in the Bible is true, then we should expect some aspects of all religions and worldviews and beliefs to have some truth in them, to overlap in some way. All things are not diametrically opposed. We should likewise expect some people to behave more morally than Christians. CHristians are not saved due to their moral behavior, only on the basis of Christ's redemption. Salvation is a free gift given by God, it has nothing to do with what we do. To think of Christianity as "moral behavior" is to fundamentally misunderstand Christianity and the Gospel.

Keller agrees that religions cause conflict; he acknowledges the untold millions who have been killed in the name of religion. But he points out the logical fallacies of those who say religion should be separated from the public sphere or is merely a "private matter."

"Once we recognize how religion erodes peace on earth, what can we do about it? There are three approaches that civic and cultural leaders around the world are using to address the divisiveness of religion. There are calls to outlaw religion, condemn religion, or at least to radically privatize it. Many people are in-vesting great hope in them. Unfortunately, I don’t believe any of them will be effective. Indeed, I’m afraid they will only aggravate the situation."

Many people point to the Christian on the street corner preaching that gays are going to hell or something, it's a message of condemnation and hatred. Keller reminds the reader of the above fact that Christianity says people are not saved by what they believe or do, but by what Christ did and defends "robust, orthodox Christianity" from the straw man caricature:

“Think of people you consider fanatical. They're overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It's not because they are too Christian, it's because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, emphatic, forgiving, or understanding- as Christ was... What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.”

"However, within Christianity—robust, orthodox Christianity—there are rich resources that can make its followers agents for peace on earth. Christianity has within itself remark-able power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart.Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths. Jesus assumes that nonbelievers in the culture around them will gladly recognize much Christian behavior as 'good' (Matthew 5:16; cf. 1 Peter 2:12)."

"Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are. Why? Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ’s work on their behalf. Most religions and philosophies of life assume that one’s spiritual status depends on your religious attainments. This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don’t believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect."

The Gospel, then, humbles us. Not only do we respect others as immortals created in God's image but because we know that all of our good works earn us no favor, we can do things without ambition or envy and consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We can love others because God first loved us; we know what it's like to be unforgiven so we forgive others.

“The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”

Keller proposes a challenge to the moral relativists: "Why is it impossible for anyone to be a consistent moral relativist?"
We all hold up some measure of truth. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example, say they stand up for life and human rights. But they also tell us that life is simply a biological process and that we're all simply a random collection of atoms that will be scattered about the universe again later-- nothing more, nothing less, ultimately. Why, then, is it wrong to kill someone? They're going to die anyway. Perhaps you save them from future pain of losing a child or cancer.

What is the basis for our laws and property rights if there is no God in whose image we're made? Keller writes that most people say "Majority rule determines what's right." Okay, but if it's majority rule, what if they exploit or marginalize the minority? Is that right? If you say "no," as neo-atheists insist, the you're back to square one: How can you say it's wrong if the majority says it's right? Aren't you making yourself superior to the majority?

Those who decry the "intolerance" of Christians might point to historical cultures that thrived in tolerance. Keller writes that while "the Greco-Roman world’s religious views were open and seemingly tolerant—everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however. The Greco-Roman world was highly stratified economically, with a huge distance between the rich and poor. By contrast, Christians (living there) insisted that there was only one true God, the dying Savior Jesus Christ. Their lives and practices were, however, remarkably welcoming to those that the culture marginalized."

It was Christians who fed the hungry and clothed the poor, per the commands of Jesus. They were suspected by Roman authorities for their "love feasts" which were Sundays spent eating together across ethnic lines. This wasn't easy for them, as the New Testament records. Keller writes that Christians were influential in raising the status of women in the Roman empire and Asia:    
"(Women) had very low status, being subjected to high levels of female infanticide, forced marriages, and lack of economic equality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality than had previously existed in the ancient classical world. During the terrible urban plagues of the first two centuries, Christians cared for all the sick and dying in the city, often at the cost of their lives.Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behavior that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peacemaking. At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness."

Keller reminds us of the disillusion of utopian ideas of modern progress in Europe after WWI after seeing the destruction that mankind could inflict. "The real culture war is in our hearts."

Keller does touch a couple of times on science and historical evidence. He takes Genesis 1 as poetry with Genesis 2 describing the actual activity of creation. (This is similar to other portions of Scripture which Keller cites.) Evolution can be believed without resorting to philosophical naturalism and pure randomness. He shows many ways in which Darwinian ideas are an incoherent and illogical worldview, similar to what I wrote above about people just being a random collection of atoms. The author critiques Dawkins' "false dichotomy" and holds up biologist Francis Collins among others as those who reconcile a belief in evolution with a God in charge of it all. If evolution driven by pure randomness remains a theory instead of the incontrovertible fact that Dawkins et al make it out to be, then there ought to be a range of views of how it happens and how life began.

The author also provides a defense of the historical accuracy of the Bible, particularly the Gospels. The Gospel accounts include details that only eyewitness would account for. As many have researched extensively, the types of details included in the Gospels were not characteristic of literature or mythology in the first three centuries. C.S. Lewis spent a lifetime studying Greek and Latin works and immediately recognized the Gospels as being quite different. So, if they are fiction, then the authors have written fiction like no other type of fiction that is known to have occurred in that era.

Towards the end, Keller discusses the importance of forgiveness in place of revenge, answers the question of why Jesus had to die, and gives a brief defense of the authenticity of the resurrection accounts. He cites N.T. Wright's extensive research of first century texts to show that bodily resurrection was not thought possible.

“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”

This is a great point. I give this book five stars out of five. Read it yourself and give it to someone.

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