The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is a rich work that reflects author Timothy Keller’s erudite teaching style as a pastor; tackling some heady issues, the book is full of references to contemporary historians, sociologists, philosophers, literature, theologians, etc. Yet, like his teaching, the book is surprisingly accessible to a general audience (considering the issues being addressed), rewarding those put in the effort to grapple with it.
Those familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards will find the influence of their ideas throughout the book; Keller openly admits his indebtedness to them, along with this wife Kathy, who introduced him to both Lewis and Edwards (241).
Like Lewis, Keller sets forth to defend and put forth a case for “mere Christianity.” Although Keller himself is a Presbyterian, he argues that certain shared beliefs “make Christians far more like than unlike one another” (116). He understands Christianity as the body of believers who assents to the great ecumenical creeds — the Apostle’s, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds (116). These creeds affirm basic beliefs like a Triune, creator God, the Fall and sin, the incarnation, Jesus’ death and resurrection, the church, and the second coming. Keller references and defends these beliefs, in one way or the other, in his book. (Needless to say, there’s a lot of ground Keller attempts to cover in 240 pages!)
The book is divided into two main sections. In the first section, Keller responds to the seven most common objections he’s encountered through his years of ministry in Manhattan. There are chapters devoted to responding to questions about Christian exclusivity, suffering in the world, moral restrictiveness, the church and its record of injustices, hell, science, and biblical literalism. In the second half of the book of the book, Keller presents his positive argument for Christian theism.
Many of the responses and arguments that Keller uses will be familiar to those that are aware of the standard arguments used in Christian apologetics. The arguments have been brushed up, of course, and put in dialogue with contemporary figures, but the substance of most of them is the same. Those that have never delved into this body of literature should find Keller’s book to be a solid introduction and survey.
Since space and time are limited, instead of attempting to actually engage some of these arguments individually, I will focus the remainder of my comments to a couple features that distinguish Keller’s approach and make it stand out from similar books, before moving on to make some minor critical points.
The first distinguishing factor is its overall modesty. Although the book is full of reasoning and argumentation, Keller doesn’t think he can prove that God exists or that the claims of Christianity are true. Unlike some Christian apologists, he rejects what he terms “strong rationalism,” or the view that definitive proofs must or can be offered to justify one’s beliefs. Such a standard, Keller rightfully points out, makes it impossible for anyone, including the secularist, to defend their beliefs.
However, rejecting strong rationalism doesn’t make one a relativist, either.
Keller advocates a position he terms “critical rationality” (120). This view of reason “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.” Keller writes, “No view of God can be proven, but that does not mean that we cannot sift and weigh the grounds for various religious beliefs and find that some or even one is the most reasonable” (121).
The heart of Keller’s claim is this: “Christians do not claim that their faith gives them omniscience or absolute knowledge of reality. Only God has that. But they believe that the Christian account of things — creation, fall, redemption, and restoration — makes the most sense of the world” (123).
This seems, to me, to be a balanced perspective, avoiding both the pitfalls of a naive Enlightenment dogmatism or a cynical post-modern relativism.
A second distinguishing feature of this book is its emphasis on social justice. One might find this surprising in a book that so heavily focuses on beliefs. Theologically, one way people have tried to distinguish between liberals and conservatives is the seeming difference in emphasis of the two groups when it comes to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Conservatives are characterized as caring first and foremost about proper doctrine. Christianity mainly about having assenting to correct beliefs, i.e. that God exists, who Jesus was. Conversely, liberals stereotypically emphasize action, i.e. living a life in obedience to Jesus’ teachings.
Related to this is a difference in understanding about salvation. For conservatives, salvation is from this world; God saves me from this life for heaven which is understood as lying in alternate realm or in the future. Liberals emphasize a “this wordly” salvation and the role of the church to transform society.
Keller embraces both sides of these artificial dichotomies. For Keller, properly understood, orthodox Christian beliefs should fuel Christian social action. “[W]ithin Christianity — robust, orthodox Christianity — there are resources that can make its followers agents for peace on earth. Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart,” Keller claims (18). Furthermore, “[t]he purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore creation, not to escape it…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” (223).
On a more critical note, some readers will undoubtedly quibble with some of Keller’s individual arguments, finding them unconvincing. For example, in Chapter 5, entitled “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell,” Keller presents a series of effective responses to objections to the belief that God’s judges people, but his defense of the doctrine of hell itself is glaringly inadequate. (Keller argues: “Both the Christian and the secular person belief that self-centeredness and cruelty have very harmful consequences. Because Christians believe that souls don’t die, [emphasis mine] they also believe that moral and spiritual errors affect the soul forever” (81).)
Furthermore, although Keller addresses a host of relevant issues (Keller touches on the creation/evolution debate, sticking his neck out by stating, “For the record I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as All-encompassing Theory” (94)), one issue that is noticeably absent from the book is a direct discussion of sexuality, and more specifically homosexuality, and the objections people have toward the Church’s traditional stance on both these issues. (There are some references in Chapter 3 dealing with the restrictiveness of Christian morality, but the chapter has a whole defends the idea that rules, in general, are necessary, but does not engage the rules themselves.)
Lastly, an important theological doctrine that is absent from the book is any discussion of the Holy Spirit. To be fair, there’s only so much you can cover in one book; I only mention it because Keller seems to mention every major belief of the Christian faith other than this one.
On a personal note, I’ve used this book as the main resource for both a Sabbath School reading group, as well as with a campus ministry group, and found it to generate plenty of discussion, debate, and thoughtful reflection. I would highly recommend it as a valuable personal, as well as a corporate, resource.
Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University.
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