Monday, December 22, 2008

#28 - "The Reason for God" by Timothy Keller

I'm the kind of person who wants the structure, ideals, safety, and purpose of a world with a personal God. I like the idea of having something clear, substantial, and worthwhile to live and strive for besides yourself. But if I pretended that I believed in God, it would be no more than me imagining that the Grimm fairytales had come to life. I can't escape the thought that throughout history, people have consistently made up supernatural stories to explain what they don't understand. How can I possibly believe that I just happened to be born in the time and place where people finally got it right? And then I look at some of the newer religions (where their origins are not shrouded from our eyes by 2,000 years of history), and they are so preposterous I can't be a part of it. And it's not that I haven't given it a shot. I grew up going to church and was a part of youth groups through my adolescent years. Ironically enough, it was the strong concentration of judgmental hypocrites in these groups that turned me off religion entirely.

I recently read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I found utterly fascinating and refreshing. Being somewhat averse to religion but never really thinking it through, I really enjoyed Dawkins' banter and scientific perspective (although his banter might be more offensive to those who don't agree with him). But I also like to be fair, and I don't think I get the whole picture until I get both sides of the story, so I started looking for a pro-Jesus book. I started with, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Antony Flew. I abandoned this one quickly, however, because I was immediately bored out of my mind by the wordy philosophical discussions. I could have chosen some b.s. by Pat Robertson or someone similar, but I was interested in challenging my viewpoint, not confirming it and getting pissed off in the process. So, a quick library catalog search later and I had found The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (2008) by Timothy Keller.

Timothy Keller was pastor of a small blue-collar town in Hopewell, Virginia before moving to Manhattan and founding the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 1989. Apparently he has been very successful in relating to all those young, urban skeptics, and much of this book comes from experiences he's had in "pastoring" and counseling in New York City. Although he is Presbyterian, Keller's goal in this book is to generally defend all Christianity as long as they believe in the trinity of God, that Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus was resurrected.

Keller uses the first half of the book to address some of the major problems people have with Christianity, including: how God can allow suffering; how a loving God can send people to hell for eternity; science and Christianity; the fact that religion is divisive; and the fact that religion is responsible for so much injustice. On the whole, I thought this part of the book was a little weaker than the rest. I almost always had counterarguments for his points, and I couldn't escape the feeling that there was just too much rationalization. Keller's response to many different critiques is: You're saying that it's impossible for me to know my religion is the right one and I'm arrogant for believing it? Well, isn't your belief that my religion or any religion is false just as arrogant an assumption? I get Keller's point here, even though I think my saying: "I don't know exactly where life came from" is much less far-fetched than: "And God made Adam and Eve and put them in a garden and then Eve ate an apple when a snake told her to and that's why women are wicked and why we live in hell." But I agreed with Keller's opinion that someone can easily believe in God and the theory of evolution at the same time; it's only the crazies that have to believe it's completely literal in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. I also applaud Keller's attempt to discuss the very real weaknesses that face religion, and I admire his honesty (Keller flat-out agrees that religion is divisive).

In the second half of the book, Keller focuses on reasons for believing in God as well as describing the importance of the gospel, the story of the cross, and the resurrection. I found this second section a little more convincing than the first half of the book. I really like Keller's interpretation of the Bible and Christianity, and his perspective on the familiar stories from the Bible and how they relate to humanity was interesting and sometimes eye-opening.

So, did Keller convince me to repent and become a real Christian? No, that would be too much to ask. But I was impressed by a number of things in Keller's book. Most importantly, Keller managed to clearly advocate his beliefs without being dismissive, divisive, arrogant, or rude. He was able to start a dialogue without being alienating, which was a refreshing relief. I could disagree with him or be unconvinced and still not feel defensive or angry. Perhaps this was partly because Keller stays away from some of the social issues (that I feel really strongly about) where churches are often so preachy and judgmental, such as abortion and gay marriage, and instead focuses on Jesus and how we can improve our lives and become better people, but I was glad I could make it through a religious book without yelling at it or feeling disgusted. In fact, if more people could follow Keller's view of God and the bible, Christians might have a better reputation.

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