By Michael Gerson
Friday, March 21, 2008
In a flood of bestsellers by skeptics and atheists charging a nonexistent God with crimes against humanity, Timothy Keller stands out as an effective counterpoint and a defender of the faith. His new book, "The Reason for God," makes a tight, accessible case for reasoned religious belief. And his national tour of college campuses has drawn overflowing crowds. "This isn't because I'm well known," Keller told me, "but because of the topic."
But Keller is likely to be better known in short order. His 5,000-strong Manhattan congregation is a model of outreach to 20- and 30-something artists and professionals. Keller's church symbolizes an emerging urban evangelicalism -- at a recent service, he recalls, a Republican speechwriter sat near a songwriter for Madonna. Many of Keller's parishioners are deeply skeptical of the religious right, untroubled by evolution and begin their complex spiritual journeys with serious doubts.
Keller explains that members of this rising generation are not so much relativists as they are philosophically rootless. "They have a deep morality, but they have no idea why." And they generally share some objections to religious belief: that traditional faith is exclusive and intolerant and that the existence of suffering is inconsistent with the existence of a loving God.
A centerpiece argument of Keller's response might be called the myth of secular neutrality. "Skeptics argue that they have the intellectual high ground," he says, "but they are really making assumptions as well." An absolute doubt -- claiming that all truth is culturally conditioned -- can work only if it exempts itself from doubt and assumes the cultural superiority of rationalism. Raging against evil and suffering in the world assumes a moral standard of good and evil that naturalism cannot provide. Keller argues that the main criticisms of religion require "blind faith" of their own, and he urges people to begin by doubting their doubts.
But while Keller argues that all worldviews contain assumptions of faith, reason is not futile. It may not provide proof, but it does provide clues. The fundamental regularities of the universe that improbably favor life; the artistic beauty that reaches beyond materialism; the sense of love and duty that seems so much more than evolutionary instinct -- Keller argues that only theism explains our lived experience and deepest desires. "God is the only thing that makes sense of what we love."
At the center of his book is an interesting case study: human rights. Some skeptics argue that the universe is an empty, impersonal void -- that life has no meaning or value beyond its material makeup -- and yet they try to maintain the importance of human dignity as if still living in a world of meaning and justice. "If morality is relative," Keller asks, "why isn't social justice as well?" Why isn't the rule of the strong -- the clear teaching of nature -- just as valid as a belief in the rights of the weak? A materialist, Keller argues, can only respond with sentiment.
The final part of Keller's book will be the most difficult for many readers to accept. He contends that the God of space and time is somehow uniquely found in Jesus of Nazareth. The earliest Christians knew this was a "scandal" often interpreted by others as blasphemy. Sophisticated, first-century Greeks and Romans were no more likely to believe in risen corpses than we are today.
Yet Keller argues for the reliability of the New Testament accounts. And he makes the case that the Christian message has an advantage: It is more than an intellectual theory. In his book, Keller quotes Simone Weil, the French mystic and social activist, who made a practice of repeating Christian poetry during her migraines: "It was during one of these recitations that . . . Christ himself came down and took possession of me. In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God."
Good Friday calls attention to a final argument as to why the God of the philosophers, however useful, may not be enough. In the end, the problem of human suffering cannot be minimized or explained away -- but in the Christian story, that suffering has been shared. Perhaps, in our own darkness, we need the imprisoned God, the scarred God, the shamed God, the despairing God.
The poet Jane Kenyon grasped at this mystery of Good Friday:
The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood spattered
the hem of his mother's robe.