This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2012 vol. 169 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of SkepticismRiverhead Trade, New York August 4, 2009
Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. In this book, which is intensely autobiographical, he begins with a simple yet profound observation: “In short, the world is polarizing over religion. It is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time” (p. x). Skepticism and faith are both growing. He describes the cultural milieu this way: “We have come to a cultural moment in which both skeptics and believers feel their existence is threatened because both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways. We have neither the Western Christendom of the past nor the secular, religionless society that was predicted for the future. We have something else entirely” (p. xv).
This book is written for both Christians and skeptics. To Christians, Keller encourages wrestling with doubts and questions, “not only their own but their friends’ and neighbors.’ . . . Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt” (p. xvii). Skeptics, too, are encouraged to doubt, “to learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs” (p. xvii). In short, he calls on skeptics to “doubt your doubts.” He adds, “My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared” (p. xix).
The book is divided into two major sections with a brief “intermission” between them. In the first part, “The Leap of Doubt,” Keller interacts with challenges to Christianity. These are seven of the major issues, those that he has heard regularly in his ministry and that every Christian leader has faced. He discusses the claim that Christianity is not the only true religion, that evil is evidence that God is not loving, that Christianity limits freedom, that the church is the cause of injustice and oppression, that a loving God is inconsistent with an eternal hell, that science makes it impossible to believe the Bible, and that the Bible cannot be taken literally, since, among other things, it supports slavery and genocide. Keller weaves together stories of real conversations and responds lovingly, carefully, and biblically to these objections. He interacts with historical Christian voices like C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards and contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins and Thomas Nagel. He does not ignore or deny the truth in the objections. But he shows that the objectors have to deal with the same questions and that Christianity’s answers are at least plausible. In short, although the objections are real, they do not “make the truth of Christianity impossible or even improbable” (p. 119).
Readers who expect Keller to provide evidence that proves Christianity to the skeptic will be disappointed. In the “Intermission” he explains that although he believes that there are sufficient reasons to believe Christianity, he does not intend to provide proof in the sense of “an argument so strong that no person whose logical faculties are operating properly would have any reason for disbelieving it” (p. 122). In fact “virtually all philosophers agree today that is impossible” (p. 123), and “scientists are reluctant to ever say that a theory has been ‘proved’ ” (p. 125). Instead in the second part of the book Keller argues for “critical rationality” which “assumes that there are some arguments that many or even most rational people will find convincing, even though there is no argument that will be persuasive to everyone regardless of viewpoint. It assumes that some systems of belief are more reasonable than others, but that all arguments are avoidable in the end” (p. 125).
In the final section, “The Reasons for Faith,” Keller adapts Alvin Plantinga’s arguments for God’s existence into an approach he calls “clues of God,” which provide “provocative and potent” reasons to believe in God (p. 146). Keller argues then that a universal sense of morality provides evidence that “belief in God is an unavoidable, ‘basic’ belief that we cannot prove but can’t not know” (p. 147). He writes, “Conservative writers and speakers are constantly complaining that the young people of our culture are relativists and amoral. As a pastor in Manhattan, I have been neck-deep in sophisticated twentysomethings for almost two decades, and I have not found this to be the case. The secular, young adults I have known have a very finely honed sense of right and wrong. There are many things happening in the world that evoke their moral outrage” (p. 149). This sense of moral obligation and outrage when people see injustice and oppression is evidence in Keller’s view that people are repressing the truth they know about God. His argument sounds similar to the one Paul made in Romans 1. Other chapters in this section deal with the universal recognition that something is wrong with this world, the gospel as solution to that problem, the substitutionary atonement of the God-man on the cross, the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and the story of redemption told within the pages of Scripture. Keller summarizes, “The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world” (p. 233).
This book is compelling. From the opening pages, the narrative approach draws the reader into the conversation. The way Keller weaves together the Scriptures, voices from the Christian tradition, and his conversations with believers and skeptics is an excellent model of apologetic ministry. Pastors would do well to learn from this approach but so would teachers, missionaries, evangelists, and students. The respect Keller has for those with whom he disagrees comes through clearly. His goal appears not to be merely to win a debate or an argument but to communicate the faith once for all delivered to the saints in an engaging and loving manner. He speaks the truth clearly and he does it in love. His love for the triune God, for the good news of the Resurrection, for the church, and for people is tangible on every page. This book should be in the library of everyone involved in Christian ministry. It as an excellent resource for both content and method and is worthy of multiple readings.
—Glenn R. Kreider