REASON-largeThe Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. Dutton Adult, 2008.

“Doubt and belief are each on the rise,” claims Dr. Timothy Keller, author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.[1] As the title suggests, Keller’s new book is an open invitation for rational dialogue on Christianity-both to the faithful and to the skeptical. As the chasm between doubters and believers continues to widen substantially, Keller recognizes the need to communicate clearly, coherently, and calmly. Believers and nonbelievers alike, Keller suggests, have an equal burden of proof and a fundamental obligation to examine their beliefs and doubts critically and rigorously.

Nevertheless, Keller does not endorse a strict rationalist approach to understanding God. Just as a belief in the existence of God requires a leap of faith, so too does a doubt of the existence of God. According to Keller, faith is inevitable, whether one chooses to believe or disbelieve. Belief and disbelief in the existence of God both require a suspension of strong rationalism. Neither God’s presence nor absence in this universe can be conclusively proven through the culturally hegemonic scientific method. Responding to contemporary atheist scholars like Richard Dawkins, Keller aptly notes, “If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analyzed with empirical methods.”[2]

The Reason for God is organized very much like a rebuttal speech in a debate round. For the first half of the book, Keller systematically addresses seven of the most salient contemporary arguments against Christianity. Founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, Keller sprinkles his prose with pithy anecdotes and quotations raising fundamental questions about the truth of Christian faith, the goodness of God, and the tension between Christianity and science. For the second half of the book, he embarks on a critically rationalist enterprise to “examine the reasons underlying Christian beliefs.”[3] That is, he offers concrete arguments for the existence of God and the profound implications of such an existence.

Never polemical but always firm, Keller offers an honest examination of Christianity and its tenets. From the very outset of his book, Keller concedes that religion-Christianity included-possesses tremendous positive and negative potential in our world. In fact, he admits that religion “can certainly be one of the major threats to world peace.”[4] In a world ever polarized by passionate doubts and beliefs, Keller recognizes the need for intellectually honest civil discourse. Seeking intellectual integrity in both our beliefs and doubts is indispensable for individual, social, intellectual, and spiritual progress.

Keller never claims to offer “conclusive proof” of God’s existence.[5] As he explains, such conclusive proof is just as impossible to attain in religion as it is in science. In fact, The Reason for God continually challenges us to be skeptical of our own beliefs as well as our doubts. Only when we apply a fair and equal standard of skepticism to both our beliefs and doubts, Keller argues, can we honestly seek the truth of God’s (as well as our own) existence. According to Keller, reasonability should be our ultimate standard: “No view of God can be proven, but that does not mean that we cannot sift and weigh the grounds for various religious beliefs and find that some or even one is the most reasonable.”[6]

Of the seven chapters systematically addressing the most salient contemporary arguments against Christianity, the chapter on human freedom quintessentially represents the intellectual curiosity and rigor of The Reason for God. In this chapter, Keller tackles the argument that Christianity-and its fundamental claim on absolute truth-is the “enemy of freedom.”[7] Canvassing a wide spectrum of modern intellects, including Michel Foucault and C.S. Lewis, Keller contends that truth-claims are unavoidable: “If you say all truth-claims are power plays, then so is your statement. If you say (like Freud) that all truth-claims about religion and God are just psychological projections to deal with your guilt and insecurity, then so is your statement. To see through everything is not to see.”[8]

Not only does Keller challenge the moral relativism of the status quo, but he also challenges the simplistic Western conception of freedom as “the absence of confinement and constraint.”[9] Essentially, he argues that negative liberty is a chimera of true freedom found in God. As he paradoxically explains, “freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions.”[10] Such a restricting and liberating framework of freedom can only be found in the presence of love. Why is love “the most liberating freedom-loss of all”?[11] Keller explains that the operating principle of love is that we must “lose independence to attain greater intimacy.”[12] In a relationship of love, we constantly limit our freedoms in order to experience a more transcendent freedom in love.

Whereas nonbelievers may view Christianity as a straitjacket imposed by a legalistic God, Keller views Christianity as a self-imposed straitjacket. Why would Christians straitjacket themselves? Because they love-they love God. Once we realize that God himself straitjacketed himself with human flesh (through his one and only son Jesus) and sacrificed his divine freedom because he loves us, our only natural response is to respond to his love in complete surrender of our own freedom. Keller poignantly explains: “Once you realize how Jesus changed for you and gave himself for you, you aren’t afraid of giving up your freedom and therefore finding your freedom in him.”[13]

For many Christians, the second half of Keller’s book may seem like a critical study and rigorous interpretation of the gospel message. Tackling fundamental doctrines of sin, death, and resurrection, Keller presents the case for belief in God. Although his book is titled The Reason for God, Keller seems to be advancing a thesis for the knowledge of God in the status quo. In the second half of his book, he boldly claims that “people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know.”[14] Our inherent sense of moral values and moral obligation, Keller contends, is meaningless without the existence of God. Our powerful sense of morality essentially intimates the existence of a higher law-an external and absolute standard of justice.

Keller’s fundamental understanding of Christianity is certainly challenging but also refreshing in a society that relativizes truth and morality and caricatures the fundamental tenets of Christianity. His emphasis on reason holds appeal to both believers and nonbelievers, but he certainly recognizes the limits of reason. Reason alone cannot conclusively prove God’s existence, but it can help us to refine and purify our doubts and beliefs. Ultimately, Keller contends that by honestly examining our doubts and beliefs in the context of God’s grace and love, “we will be enabled to move out toward others as Jesus has moved toward us.”[15]

[1] Keller xv.
[2] Ibid. 122.
[3] Ibid. xix.
[4] Ibid. 18.
[5] Ibid. 120.
[6] Ibid. 121.
[7] Ibid. 35.
[8] Ibid. 38.
[9] Ibid. 45.
[10] Ibid. 46.
[11] Ibid. 47.
[12] Ibid. 47-48.
[13] Ibid. 50.
[14] Ibid. 146.
[15] Ibid. 221.

Daniel Chung ’11 is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House. He is Assistant Managing Editor of The Harvard Ichthus.