I wish I could remember who first recommended Tim Keller’s The Reason for God to me. If I could, they would likely be receiving a profound thank you note. (Who am I kidding? I never write thank you notes.) I’m not sure that any other book has prepared me to process and engage our cultural situation quite like this one. Keller takes the major questions that skeptics proffer against Christianity and graciously deflates them, demonstrating why Christianity actually makes a fair amount of sense.
Although I have reread this one in the past year, the following reflections are just that. I didn’t pick it back up; these are simply the thoughts that have stuck with me.
Debunking the Secularization Thesis
Especially from Christianity’s cultural despisers, we often hear that religion is fading in the advance of secularization. Science and reason, it is said, have exposed the frailty inherent in religion. Maybe religion was necessary to cope with an unknown world, but now the world is more fully known. Thus, religion can go.
Many Christians accept this analysis of things and, like fearful prey cornered by a predator, lash out against the secular world in one dire attempt to hold on to power and influence. In this polarizing context, Keller points out the essential data. Yes, secular atheists and agnostics are on the rise, but so are adherents to religion. This information, I think, fosters a healthier space for conversation. It helps the secularist to realize that religion is not some passing fancy; it ought to be taken seriously. And it allows the religionist to recognize that she can engage the secularist without feeling like the world is against her. All in all, knowing the facts here works to defuse the tension. Both camps are growing. Both have their reasons. Let’s honestly listen.
Who Has Faith?
Often pitted against each other, faith and reason (or religion and science in another iteration of the dichotomy) do not truly exist at odds. Many seem to hold that scientific beliefs are the only real beliefs as they are based on facts. In reality, all of our most deeply seated beliefs require faith. You cannot prove, for example, that true beliefs are based only or primarily on empirical data. That is an article of faith.
In our public discourse, you are likely at some point to hear something like, “We have a moral obligation to do X.” Both political parties utilize this language to support supposedly self-evident, altruistic ends — something like upholding the rule of law or demonstrating compassion to the least in society. But why? Why not flow with the movement of Nature’s survival of the fittest?
Our faith commitments direct us to the standard by which we judge things. Keller helpfully points this out, allowing us to engage in more honest dialogue. Let’s not stand on ceremony as though our moral or political stances were defined purely by reason. Faith, implicit religion, always undergirds our beliefs. The question then becomes “What is the basis of our faith?”
Because the skeptic of religion often fails to see that last point, their skepticism rarely takes aim at their own skepticism. The criticisms waylaid against religion in general or Christianity in particular rarely belittle the skeptic’s own faith commitments. So, for example, the one who discounts religion because he thinks these beliefs are simply conditioned by society, often fails to recognize that his own thoughts about socially conditioned beliefs must also be socially conditioned. And if socially conditioned beliefs are to be discounted, his own beliefs have no foundation.
I don’t recall Keller using this term, but you could label many of the skeptic’s arguments as self-referentially defeating. That is, when the criticism is applied to itself, it discounts itself. I hate calling this an apologetic tactic, as if the goal of apologetics is to win some kind of battle or game. But this strategy does help to expose the weakness of many skeptical critiques.
Making Sense of the World
Finally, I think Keller begins to demonstrate how Christian beliefs actually help us to make better sense of things. For example, the Christian doctrines of humanity (being made in the image of God) and sin (all are subject to it) account for the dignity we wish to ascribe to all humans and the goodness that anyone can show but also the deep depravity that pervades every society and every person. I think even Christians often forget to consider how the biblical doctrines illuminate our understanding of things whereas many secular ideologies suffer from severe inconsistencies. Christian beliefs are not as far-fetched as many make them out to be.
While I have read much that has expanded many of these ideas, this launching point encouraged me to listen to and confront the myriad challenging beliefs that float around a college campus. Where many falter in their foundational commitments, this book strengthened mine.