Nearly done with Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God, having started it several times over the last several years and finally plowed through. The thing I find really helpful about the book is its street level, conversational style. It is clear that God has blessed Keller with the ability to listen to people, to understand what their concerns are, and give thoughtful, respectful, and faithful answers in defense of the Christian faith. And on the whole I find Keller’s answers to be both helpful in their accessibility and true/faithful to Scripture.
Keller’s approach really is, dare I say it, wonderfully presuppositional, but it’s presuppositional with lots of incarnational/relational skin and bones. Some presuppositional apologetics at least *seem* to be all about brain juices in full ferment (ideas), but Keller is really good at showing people how presuppositions function in everyday life in the wild. Related, sometimes presuppositional approaches can come off like sucker punches, and even if they are technically true, they don’t typically win people over. Most folks don’t burst into tears and ask how to get saved when they hear that their ethical relativism makes them the moral equivalent of the Nazis. Might be true and is important to point out at times, but it isn’t always the most persuasive. In one place Keller does his winsome thing by turning the table the other way around. He points out that the fact that people frequently care about justice and defending the poor, or at least know that those things are virtuous demonstrates that they actually believe in God, despite their claims. This is presuppositionalism driving the other way. It’s true that without an ultimate standard, relativism does reduce to raw power, majorities, etc., and no amount of optimism separates that from another Hitler or Stalin or Roe v. Wade, but the opposite is also true: the fact that the human race does not just descend into absolute evil at every minute, the fact that humans of various religions and faiths (and “no faith” at all) carry on helping one another, telling the truth, and so on demonstrates that there is a God in Heaven. For why else do any of those things matter? While it may still be a sucker punch to the Dawkins of the world, most folks will hardly be that offended at being told they secretly believe in God. And that may be more helpful (at times) than telling them they are secretly a sadistic Hitler (though Jesus does this too at times).
The overarching takeaway for me is Keller’s ability to demonstrate that things most people take for granted may not be quite as reasonable as they may seem, and things that people often value significantly cannot be accounted for apart from some sort of belief in God. He deftly questions presuppositions, carefully erodes confidence in common secular assumptions through historical examples and experiential anecdotes, and then offers the theistic or Christian alternative, explaining how it accounts for what we experience in everyday life more consistently. He particularly appeals to modern concerns about respect for other cultures to his advantage, pointing out that if we really take other cultures seriously, we must hold our own views with a certain humility. In other words, Keller very helpfully relativizes the relativists.
In fact, my biggest beef with the book is in his chapter on science and evolution/creationism in particular. Keller notes very briefly that his personal conviction is that God used some form of evolution to create the world, and even with that stated (and I disagree with him), my primary complaint is that this is the one (massive in my view) lapse in his otherwise helpful way of disarming the mainstream narratives, subtly suggesting that there may be other ways of looking at the facts, questioning assumptions, offering alternatives. Instead, Keller presents various ways of understanding science and Scripture on a spectrum running from complete antagonism (on either end of the spectrum: atheistic evolution vs. literal six day fundy-creationism) with several variations of compromise in the middle where the scientists and Christians respect one another, learn from one another, and seek to account for all the data faithfully. And Keller argues for one of those middle ways, while noting that one’s precise understanding of Genesis 1 ought not be misconstrued as essential to the gospel.
Again, my beef isn’t in the first instance with Keller’s own personal view on the matter. I think he could hold his view and still have written a much better chapter. And my point is that instead of pointing out all the ways in which modern science has conditioned western culture to trust them, instead of pointing out all the ways in which modern science has nevertheless needed to radically revise their findings every few years — in other words, instead of doing what he does so well in every other chapter, graciously urging humility in the face of atheistic claims and suggesting reasons why the biblical account may be more trustworthy than it might initially seem to the unbeliever, he merely assumes that science is trustworthy, truthful, and that we are largely unaffected by any other cultural forces in this realm. For someone of Keller’s stature and intelligence, I find that oversight quite unfortunate.
It’s unfortunate for several reasons: First, he doesn’t acknowledge any of the scientific or theological challenges that underpin any of the views. While in many other areas, Keller’s main gift is to ask questions and point things out that get people to think, in this one area, he doesn’t really do that. His primary aim seems to be just to get people to think their assumptions might be compatible with the Bible. Again, the striking thing is that he does that almost nowhere else in the book. But what about death before the Fall? Is Keller suggesting that God used “survival of the fittest” in speciation? Does that mean that God used self-centeredness to bring about life for billions of years and then at some point decided to make selflessness the way of life? Is it important that Adam was a true, historical man? Why or why not? Second, why not raise the most prominent criticisms of evolution? Michael Denton said there were many unanswered questions about Darwin’s theory back in the mid 1980s. Likewise, Michael Behe has done ground breaking work on what he calls irreducible complexity. These guys are not fundamentalist creationists. Or what about all the other work being done in the Intelligent Design movement? Those folks represent a very broad spectrum of convictions which can hardly be considered “anti-science.” And what about all the really messed up Darwinian fundamentalism out there? You know, the professors getting denied tenure for asking questions about some evidence or claim that might, sort of, kind of, if you squint and stand on one foot, sound like it *might* give creationism the time of day? Can you smell the cultural elitism, the cultural snobbery, the modern secular culturalism at play out there? The whole climate-change circus would be another example of this kind of thing where honesty about the actual data and about the cultural, political, and fiscal factors at work — is very illuminating. Finally, there are good, hard questions that current scientific evidence does pose to the six day, young earth position. These questions can and should be posed for thoughtful interaction. Has the Church ever wrestled with difficult scientific matters and slowly come to a better understanding of the Scriptural text and/or the scientific data (or both?). Yes, it has.
But the record is pretty stunning. The record demonstrates that we are ants marching around on a six foot patch of Mt. Everest holding forth on what we hardly know what. What? We used to think the solar system spun around the earth? We used to bleed people to heal their sickness? What else? A bit more humility please. Just cause you got billions of dollars doesn’t mean you’re right. Of course, we should not pass this moment up without pointing out that this scientific industrial complex is one of the great pantheons of our day. And so it does take gutsy people to walk up to that Dagon in the middle of the shrines and blow raspberries in his face. But it must be done, my friends, it must be done.
There’s a famous quotation, often (apparently erroneously) attributed to Luther:
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.
The point is a true one, and at least reminiscent of the sorts of things Luther said, and regardless, it applies here. Given the way secular science has been one of the most central battering rams (however misapplied) against the faith of Christians in the last century, this is “that little point” where the battle rages and where we need full throated, winsome, and deft dismantling of all the false assumptions that go into appeals to “science.” And thus, despite all the ways The Reason for God really is helpful for defending the faith, this particular swing and a miss, should register as significant and concerning. To rephrase the quotation, if we fight humanism at every point but allow it through the door where it has done the greatest harm, all the rest of the apologetic jujitsu appears to be shadowboxing and that breeds some of the worst varieties of pharisaism.