In his book The Reason For God: Belief In An Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller has his thumb on a dilemma that is plaguing a lot of modern believers: the polarization (both political and cultural) that exists in the U.S., and where Christians find themselves at – or want to find themselves at – in that divide. He notes that younger generations of believers feel trapped between secular progressivism (which champions social justice and many nobles causes but often dismisses faith/religion as old-fashioned, foolish, unnecessary, or detrimental) and an increasing Christian fundamentalism (which seems largely indifferent to social justice issues and the struggles of the wider culture, but places great emphasis on the value of faith/religion and the morality that follows from it). As a result, many believers – and former believers, and perhaps would-be believers – struggle with disillusionment about Christianity in general and struggle to find both their purpose and place in it.
This book is Keller’s answer to that dilemma: a clarifying and necessary one that defines the unique place and purpose that Christianity serves and that the Gospel gives in our modern era. By tackling misconceptions about the faith, particularly those that are prevalent in our day and age, he hopes to outline precisely what Christianity offers that is an antidote to, and a refuge from, these troubled times. Keller implores his readers to “doubt their doubts”: to keep an open mind as he is keeping an open mind so that we can engage in a discussion about faith and about the world.
To this end, Keller has two distinct goals. His first is to address modern progressive and secular myths about Christianity. You might recognize some of these myths for yourself: the truism that there is no “one way” to God, that a loving God would never permit there to be a hell, that religion/Christianity has done great harm to the world, that religion/Christianity promotes bigotry and hatred, that religion/Christianity is backwards and primitive, a hindrance to advancement. If you aren’t aware that these are key and popular points in modern discourse about Christianity, by the way, I cringe to tell you that they are indeed.
Keller analyzes these misrepresentations in a way that is, indeed, very reminiscent of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: his command of Scripture, of academic thinkers and philosophers and writers is profound. He examines the philosophical underpinnings of these ideas, uncovers their flaws, forces the reader to question them, and, while doing so, demonstrates the ways in which Christianity is indeed unique and well-suited to doing some serious good and grace in the world. He does a fantastic job of showing that “open-minded” and “progressive” ideas can, in their own way, be as ethnocentric and narrow and unforgiving as anything that the faithful are accused of believing.
His second goal is to have believing Christians think very seriously about their own faith, and about what the secular world has to say about it. He points out that, at times, the Christian church is in danger of trying to save itself and that it has at times muddied the distinction between “I obey, therefore I am accepted by God” and “I am accepted by God, therefore I obey” (this phrase actually comes from another of his books, but serves well here). The muddying of that distinction, he posits, has produced some of the hateful behavior and detrimental actions that the church is sometimes unfortunately known for: when we believe that what we do or believe makes us morally superior to others (rather than acknowledging that God has saved us and we are not one whit superior to others), we lord our behavior and our beliefs and our lives over others, we develop superiority and arrogance, and we lose the ability to reach out in love and grace.
Yes, this book acknowledges, Christianity has been misrepresented by the progressive secular thought of modern era as an outdated mode of thinking, as a social harm, as a cancer. And just as importantly, Christianity is often misrepresented by Christians as an avenue to moral superiority, to bigotry and hatred, to arrogance and self-salvation by good works. The answer, of course, is that Christianity is neither of these, and Keller illustrates throughout the text the marvel of what Christianity actually is: God’s deep desire to love and to save extended freely to humanity through the profound sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In many ways, this book feels like Mere Christianity written and updated for the modern age – but it is by no means a book solely for non-Christians or those who have drifted away from the faith. Certainly people unfamiliar with the faith – or people who have absorbed a secular view of the faith – will benefit from Keller’s analysis and discussion here, and from the tone of a pastor who believes with his whole heart – and yet is willing to sit down and address the concerns of those who don’t believe or don’t agree.
But long-time Christians can benefit from this text, too. We “elder brothers” with a tendency to attribute God’s grace and good will to our own moral decency and behavior need to sit down and remember that salvation has absolutely nothing to do with any righteousness on our end. And it’s worth acknowledging that when we fall into that trap of superiority and arrogance, we can do great damage to the Name of the one who called us. Concerns about justice and poverty and quality of life – those aren’t issues to whom only the secular are called. Christianity has a place in addressing and healing and mending the deep hurts and pains and injustices of our culture. We turn inward at our peril.
The Reason For God provides a place for both believers and non-believers to sit down and accept Keller’s invitation to “doubt our doubts”: to discover for ourselves what Christianity really is, what it looks like when it’s at work in the world, and what it truly means to be the last and the lowest and the most humble. In a world where, as Keller points out, the Enlightenment project has failed, Christianity offers a fascinating, renewing, and wondrous answer. But it’s up to us to see that answer for what it really is, free of the clouds of misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and our own willful blindness.