Book: Reason for God

Belief in an Age of Scepticism

Josh Nurcombe-Pike | April 2020 - Highfields Book Review

By Tim Keller - (September 2009) John Murray Press

Reason for GodTim Keller comes across as a reasonable guy. He is not bombastic, dramatic or arrogant. He has carefully listened to both philosophers and ordinary people, and he dialogues with these views with clarity and coherence — honestly pointing out their inconsistencies but not over-stretching his own arguments.

The key to understanding this book is found in the 'Intermission' (p115-126), in which Keller reveals the methodology behind his reasoning and approach. He explains that many popular critics of Christianity have held a philosophical position called "strong rationalism" (p118). This position holds that people should only 'believe' things that can be outright proven through logic and sense experience. Keller outlines why he objects to this view and instead advocates for "critical rationality" (p120). 'Critical rationality' holds that no one philosophical argument will be persuasive to everyone, but "that there are some arguments that many or even most rational people will find convincing" (p120).

This means that although some systems of belief are more convincing than others, we cannot expect to find absolutely conclusive proofs in them. Instead, a belief should be considered 'viable' if it "organises the evidence and explains phenomena better than any conceivable alternative theory" (p121). This view helpfully invites the reader to make decisions about the viability of their presuppositions and the legitimacy of the Christian worldview — they are then left to decide which is most reasonable.

In the first half of the book ... he handles a whole range of typical objections to Christianity

In the first half of the book, prior to the intermission, he handles a whole range of typical objections to Christianity — suffering, Hell, 'religion causes war', science vs. religion, and more. He deals with these topics by spelling them out, highlighting their inconsistencies and then making a case for the Christian view. In these chapters, Keller's arguments are so effective and compelling because of his concessions.

For example, in the first chapter, instead of outright rejecting the "social conditionedness of all belief", he admits this idea is, to an extent, true. He then builds on this to make the case that every world view "contains faith assumptions about the nature of things". He doesn't make an airtight case for Christianity vs. all other worldview, but instead brings these views into dialogue and invites the reader to ask "Which fundamentals [unavoidable, absolute core beliefs] will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ?". The key, he suggests, is found within Christian belief, or more specifically with Christ, "the man who died for his enemies".

Keller ... consistently delivers unexpected answers

Keller doesn't deliver the anticipated diatribe against all other views, instead he consistently delivers unexpected answers. This is exhibited in his argument that "Evil and suffering isn't evidence against God, but rather it's evidence for Him." He deftly handles this big question. Firstly, he levels the playing field, arguing that evil is "at least as big a problem for non-belief in God as for belief" (p27). Then he suggests that while God's transcendence leads us to be angry towards him, his transcendence must also lead us to admit that the 'answer' for our suffering could also elude us.

Christianity ... a lasting healing remedy to pain and suffering

He isn't claiming Christianity has all the blanket answers for each individual's experience of pain, rather he seeks to show how, "it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair" (p27-28). Here, he offers Christianity to the reader, not as a quick fix band-aid, but as a lasting healing remedy to pain and suffering. In his words, "Looking at the cross, we still might not know what the answer is. But we can know what the answer isn't. It can't be that he isn't detached, unloving, indifferent. He takes misery and suffering so seriously that he is willing to take it on himself" (p31).

This chapter showcases how Keller can disarm contrary views, while embracing the emotion and experience which often sits behind these objections. He does well to balance philosophical rigour with the lives and everyday experiences of the readers — a pastoral sensitivity which continues through the whole book.

In the second half of the book, Keller asks the reader step into his shoes and spend some time making sense of the world through the lens of Christianity.

Without God "all moral statements are arbitrary"

He uses chapter 8-9, in particular, to emphasis the exclusivity and reasonability of Christian belief. In chapter 8, he argues that there are "strong clues for [God's] reality – divine fingerprints – in many places". He uses these 'clues' as evidence that 'Christian belief' is both legitimate and reasonable, but also deeply personal and real.

In chapter 9, "Knowledge of God", Keller grabs our attention by claiming that the reader "already knows God exists" (p142). Hence why we all live as if life is meaningful, even though we might believe that it isn't. He uses morality as a case study. For Keller, morality can only legitimately have its basis in God, there is no other way to determine whether an action is moral or immoral. Without God "all moral statements are arbitrary, all moral valuations are subjective and internal..." (p154). We are left with only our preferences. For Keller, it is far more reasonable to accept that God exists and morality is created by him, than to live with morals as if there is a deep meaning to life, but without belief in God.

Keller then uses the remaining chapters to outline the "ultimate evidence for the existence of God" which centres around Jesus Christ (p123). These chapters alone make it worth buying the book.

Christianity ... is a redefinition of life altogether

He begins by discussing sin (Chapter 10), which he defines as "not simply doing bad things, [but] putting good things in the place of God" (p170). The solution then is not a change of behaviour, but a reorientation of ourselves in which we centre our whole lives and hearts around God. This radical call will for many, match their desire for life to be full of meaning and purpose. He presses this point further in 'Religion and the Gospel', where he argues that Christianity is not all about rules and regulations nor is it an excuse for reckless living, rather it is a redefinition of life altogether. The Gospel, centred on the person of Jesus, empowers and gifts us with a new identity which forms a "new basis for harmonious and just social arrangements".

Keller does an excellent job in describing the wider reaching social implications of faith in Christ, and how these actions only make sense in light of the Gospel. This is a welcome observation, and adds to the appeal and draw of his arguments, particularly for a socially conscious generation.

Keller helps us understand that the Gospel is full of meaning and life

In the final chapter, 'The dance of God', Keller summarises what he has argued in the last four chapters, and spells out most explicitly the Christian Trinitarian vision of life. Here Keller helps us understand that the Gospel is full of meaning and life, which restores us to fulfil our original purpose of fellowship and communion with God. This isn't ritualistic, boring worship, but rather is a joyful response to who God is and what he has done. The implications are massive, both personally and socially — justice, shalom, restoration, renewal, cultivation, salvation. Implications which perhaps come as a surprise to sceptical readers.

Keller ... asks the reader to examine their motives

Keller ends the book with an Epilogue. This section reveals the pastoral intent of Keller, who asks the reader to examine their motives, count the cost, honestly assess reservations about Christianity, repent and believe, and finally commit to a community. I think this model will serve many who are honestly searching for God well — though as Keller reminds us, we will in retrospect realise that it was the Good Shepherd who was calling us first (p240). Helpfully, Keller presses the idea of 'trust' by using the analogy of someone slipping from a cliff. There is no point if the person intellectually believes that the branch next to them will hold their weight if they don't take it. Indeed, it is only by taking the branch that someone is saved, regardless of whether or not they are filled with doubts or certainty about its ability to hold weight. As Keller concludes, "It's not the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith that saves you" (p234).

It's this section and final chapter, which for me, showcases the value of whole book — not only is Keller intellectually rigorous, but he is intellectually realistic. Not only is he challenging and probing, he is also holistic and pastorally astute. Definitely worth the read.



Part 1: The Leap of Doubt
1. There can't be just one true religion
2. How could a good God allow suffering?
3. Christianity is a strait-jacket
4. The Church is responsible for so much injustice
5. How can a loving God send people to hell?
6. Science has disproved Christianity
7. You can't take the Bible literally


Part 2: The Reasons for Faith
8. The clues of God
9. The knowledge of God
10. The problem of sin
11. Religion and the gospel
12. The (true) story of the cross
13. The reality of the resurrection
14. The dance of God

Epilogue: Where do we go from here?

[ISBN13: 9780340979334]

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