Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Reason for God by Timothy Keller may be one of my new favorite books. He lays out in a very clear fashion arguments for believing in God. I think everyone, regardless of whether he is believer or not should read this book. It will challenge unbelievers and give intellectual ammunition to believers. In fact, Keller is calling everyone to reexamine doubt. Christians need to come to terms with their own doubt and confront it, and non-believers need to look at their assumptions and subject them to some doubt. Without asking the hard questions about what we believe and why we believe it, we leave ourselves open to being tossed and turned by well-sounding pablum.

As a pastor of nearly two decades in a large church in New York City, Keller has been able to talk to and confront many people from many backgrounds. In the first half of the book, he responds to the most common reasons for disbelief. In the second half, he simply and brilliantly gives reasons to believe.

The first reason for disbelief concerns the idea of “exclusivity,” or the belief that there is only one true religion. He cleverly points that those who would say there cannot be just one religion or that they are all equally valid are simply making a faith statement of their own. It is no more valid to say all religions are true than it is to say one religion is true. Therefore, we are all exclusive to one degree or another. Ironically, it is the exclusive Christians who are more open to others than any other religion. “Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial service, generosity, and peace-making.”

The second question asks, “How could a good God allow suffering?” This age-old question sometimes leads one to deny the existence of God altogether, or to at least the refusal to serve Him. Christians begin to answer this question by looking at the cross. It may not answer the question, but it tells us what the answer is not. It is not because God does not love us. In fact, “God takes our misery an suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on himself.” If nothing else, we cannot say He doesn’t understand suffering. In addition, He promises to eventually end it once and for all. He proved He can overcome death on the cross and that serves as a down-payment on His eventual overthrow of all of suffering. 

Some believe that becoming a Christian will subject them a straightjacket of rules and regulations. Actually Christianity has within it the ability to unleash freedom. Even starting with the cultural way Christianity is lived out. The new Gentile believers weren’t required to live according to strict rules and regulations as their Jewish counterparts. Christianity easily moves in and adapts to any culture. Keller believes we need to evaluate what freedom actually means. It is not simply the ability to do whatever you want. That actually leads to enslavement. Rather it is fitting the limitations and constraints we will all experience to our nature. Christianity is a love relationship that calls for mutual loss of independence in order to love and be loved by another. If God truly loves us, then His constraints will only free us to be who we were meant to be. 

A fourth complaint points to how much injustice the Church has perpetuated. While acknowledging the truth of that statement, Keller shows that those injustices were done by individuals acting counter to the true precepts of Christianity. If Jesus taught salvation through God’s grace alone, the believer should be humbled. And many are. Many Christians are at the forefront of injustices being righted. These are the Christians Christianity should be judged by. Interestingly those who criticize the Church use the standards set up by Christianity herself to judge her. Therefore Christianity has within the seeds of its own redemption. Without the Bible’s standard for right and wrong, no one can judge the Church “wrong.”

Still others are bothered by the thought of a loving God sending people to hell. We recoil at a God who judges. “The belief in a God of pure love -- who accepts everyone and judges no one -- is a powerful act of faith.” Yet we ourselves demand judgment. If someone wrongs us, we want that person judged and forced to pay some kind of price. Should God ignore our pleas for justice? Or are we simply guilty of special pleading? Judge that guy for hurting me, but don’t judge me for hurting others? In fact, our passion for justice required Christ to go to the cross. Someone has to pay, and He did. So while He may reserve the right to judge us on the Judgment Day, we can be assured that our wrongdoings have already been paid for... by God Himself. He has given us an out if we will but take it. 

Some are bothered by the “unscientific” nature of Christianity. Yet interestingly, science has kicked God out, not the other way around. Imagine it’s true that God actually created the universe. Science can NEVER posit that as an answer to where did all this come from. It has created a realm in which it would be impossible to actually state the truth. Some scientists have boxed themselves into a corner where they can only state that which is false. Therefore, if it is true that God is the creator, it is science that has rejected truth. Nothing in Christianity conflicts with science, in fact major scientists are believers. It is science that has put itself in conflict with God by a priori rejecting Him.

Many will liken the Bible to a game of “telephone” and contest its historical accuracy and our ability to take it literally. In fact, when subjected to the same tests as other ancient literature, the Bible comes out miles ahead of any other work. Others will scoff at the “backwardness” of the Bible and mock its cultural prescriptions. This arrogance assumes we have achieved the height of progress. One day our generation will be mocked. Who are we to say we own the standard? God claims that for Himself. It is only through struggle with the text that we can know we “have gotten hold of the real God and not a figment of [our] imagination.” Picking and choosing makes me God. And how can I have a real relationship with something I made up?

So many of the above critiques can be simply restated as just another faith system, masked in rationality.

In the second half, Keller invites, not to “look into the sun, as it were, demanding irrefutable proofs for God. Instead we should look at what the sun shows us. Which account of the world has the most explanatory power to make sense of what we see in the world and in ourselves?” Those that demand “absolute proof” are engaging in “strong rationalism” which is its own kind of faith. Rather we look at the clues God gave us. 

Science gives us any number of clues from the Big Bang to the laws of nature to the existence of beauty. Many will argue that evolution and rationality brought us to this point. But Darwin himself wonders, can we really trust a mind that evolved to pass on genes and not necessarily to distinguish truth? What if "rationality" is just a trick our evolutionarily-derived minds play on us? Without a belief in a rational God who makes a rational universe, it is a statement of faith to believe that rationality exists apart from Him or that it will continue.

Then he skips to the chase and says basically, “We all already know there is a God.” “What?!?,” some will say. He points to our inherent moral feelings. Where did those come from. We simply KNOW there is right and wrong. We try to be relativistic, but at the end of the day, we all KNOW things like harming an innocent is wrong. Why? Evolution gives us no clue. Rather, Keller states that this moral knowledge is a gift from a moral creator. Otherwise we are left with “the grand ‘sez who?’” Only God can say, “Sez me.” We would like to live with the benefits of a moral universe without acknowledging the existence of a moral law giver. “But there is no integrity in that.” We must admit what we know to be true. 

Additionally, we all know the world is fundamentally flawed. But by whose standard? Ours? Christ tells us the reason is sin. Keller defines sin as “the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him.” That’s good! Sin is not “breaking the rules.” Sin is being who you were never supposed to be. He created us for better, to be better. Instead we follow our own path and muck it up royally. “Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence.”

We KNOW this. 

Only Jesus and Christianity offer us a way out of this sin trap. Only God offers us our perfect identity. All other religions say clean yourself up. God says, “I will wash you whiter than snow.” Self-righteousness is disallowed in a relationship with God. We cannot be self-righteous, as it is simply the other side of the sin "coin." He is the source of any righteousness and it negates His grace to think otherwise.

He ends with, “The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.” That means we are free. We cannot despise those who do not yet believe. They are similarly flawed. And we cannot feel superior. Jesus died for everyone. His justice and love demanded it.