Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book Review -- The Reason for God

The last book I finished was The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on it here in the blog, since many of the book's themes relate to some of my recent writings. And many of you have shared with me either through the comments, through email or through conversation that these deep questions of faith are fun to wrestle with.

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So here are two things I liked about the book, and two things I didn't like.

Things I Liked

#1 -- Keller admits throughout the book that while he is focusing on the rationale for God, there is no proof that the divine even exists, let alone that the Christian view of God is correct. At some point, no matter how much evidence appears to pile up, we all make a leap of faith in our theology, if we're not agnostics. To say definitively that yes, there is a God, or no, there is no God, is a non-provable statement in scientific terms.

I like this. It's a good, humbling reminder for Christians who think their view of God and the world is so obviously correct, and it's a good starting concession to readers who have no belief in god whatsoever.

#2 -- He makes a great point that atheism, when taken to its natural conclusion, is a depressing way to view the universe. This is by no means a new thing -- Nietzsche was writing about it more than 150 years ago and the phrase "nihilism" is known mostly because of him. Or just read the first two chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes to see what life looks like if dust-to-dust tells the whole story of humanity.

Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett and others have tried to explain how this universe is still beautiful and amazing without God, and at the big-picture level I can agree. But then they say that we can encourage beautiful things like love, peace and respect for mankind with an atheistic worldview, and that always falls flat for me.

If I am simply molecules in motion, then love is merely a chemical reaction. Respect is an illusionary concept between strangely-organized pieces of moving flesh. And with such a massive universe (approximately 13 billion light years across) why would it possibly matter what I, a 200-lb. organism with DNA more than 99% equal to a chimpanzee, do with my day? Is there any "should" in the life of a tree or a fish? No. So what makes me different?

The fact remains that we have moral obligations and nearly-universal themes of conscience across cultures that make no sense on an evolutionary level. Perhaps there's more going on than just molecules in motion?

Things I Didn't Like

#1 -- He could've used some more original thought. The book is almost 300 pages long, but much of it seems to be quotes from prior apologists. The first half of the book is full of excerpts from C.S. Lewis, and the second half is peppered with NT Wright. Seriously. I've already read their stuff... I bought this book for something new.

When I was reading in bed one night, I looked at Jamie and mentioned this point. Then I closed the book, opened it to a random page and showed her. Boom. C.S. Lewis quote.

#2 -- His view of grace/law/salvation made no sense to me. I tried and I tried but I couldn't reconcile his chapters to develop of mental picture of where he stands on some doctrinal issues. This bothers me, because I love getting in peoples' heads! And when I read 300 pages of your work, I feel like that should be enough to get in your head and understand you, even if I don't agree with you.

Here's an example -- maybe you can help me.

On page 4 in his first chapter, he describes a cross-religion panel he sat on with a Jew and Muslim. During that conversation, he clearly stated that their religions are an either/or proposition, both in terms of correct doctrine and salvation. So if Christianity is "right", then the other guys are doomed. And vice versa. They didn't think these different religions could be reconciled by the same God. Fair enough -- I understand him so far.

Then he wrote a section about hell and why he thinks it's real. His sole support was the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Based on my previous writings on the subject, some of you already know that I think it's a huge stretch to use that story as evidence for the current view of hell. But whatever... I still understand where he's coming from, even if I don't agree.

Near the end of the book, he writes about the beauty of God's grace, and how it impacts our view of other people. Here's what he says (emphasis mine):

This gospel identity gives us a new basis for harmonious and just social arrangements. A Christian's worth and value are not created by excluding anyone, but through the Lord who was excluded for me. His grace both humbles me more deeply than religion can (since I am too flawed to ever save myself through my own effort), yet it also affirms me more powerfully than religion can (since I can be absolutely certain of God's unconditional acceptance).

That means that I cannot despise those who do not believe as I do. Since I am not saved by my correct doctrine or practice, then this person before me, even with his or her wrong beliefs, might be morally superior to me in many ways.

So he cannot do anything to save himself. Like Paul wrote in the New Testament, redemption is either all grace or all law. You can't have some of both. Keller seems to agree and say that it's all grace, and all from God. Nothing to do with doctine, practice or morality.

Yet earlier in the book he made it clear that many people were going to hell, and that seemed to be due to their incorrect doctrines, practices and/or morality!

And if they turn that around somehow, haven't they done something themselves to be saved?

If it's not to Mr. Keller's credit that he's going to heaven, then why is it his neighbor's fault that they're going to hell?

So there ya go -- two things I liked and two things I didn't like. If you have anything to add or if you can help me get in the author's head a little better, let me know!


Bob said...

I have had this on my "to read" list for a while but have not gotten there yet.

He's not the first to take up a lot of space quoting C.S. Lewis. I am a huge Lewis fan, though, so if I wrote a book I might do the same thing.

Don said...

Hence the conundrum, that people who believe there can be both "grace" and "law", find themselves in. I think they want to "best of both worlds" although I personally find very little "Best" in the world of law. It is very difficult for a person who attempts to do what Mr. Keller apparently is trying to do. From personal experience, it is most difficult to rid oneself of the tendency to "hang-on" to a lifetime of teaching about law & grace. That seems to be his problem here, although I have not read his book, so am assuming a great deal.

rodolfo said...

You wrote: The fact remains that we have moral obligations and nearly-universal themes of conscience across cultures that make no sense on an evolutionary level. Perhaps there's more going on than just molecules in motion?

My gut tells me there has to be more going on but what that *is* I'm not so sure. It doesn't follow, however, that I should trust that religious denominations might know the answer.

If you can distill the essence of our lives from the moment we are born to our death what is evident is our struggle to exist: Survival

Universal truths exist because they work. In order for human beings to thrive and exist peacefully we must apply moral feelings towards each other. For me there's really nothing to it. Love and tolerance go much further in maximizing the human condition than hate and fear and most of us have learned that.

The biggest impediment to world peace is religious dogma. When you can find people in the 21st century justifying their bigoted morality to ancient literature then peaceful religious reflections *must* continue.

The need to worship is a drug like no other. If it's not a deity it's a girl. If it's not some girl it's your kids. Whot or what a person decides to worship is the important question.

The more I think about it I find no good reason to worship a text-based character.