In the culture war dominated much of the 1980’s and 1990’s the church has often taken an argumentative and aggressive political posture, mainly over homosexuality and abortion. That posture led to a perception of moral and religious superiority of Christians. The posture bullied through certain initiatives, but also alienated countless people from the faith.
Recently bookstores have been bombarded by the New Atheists. No fewer than five books have appeared on bestseller lists in the past two years–Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and now Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. These books all take a militant stance against religion, claiming that not only is faith irrational, it is harmful to society.
While the impact of these books upon society at large is yet to be seen, I believe the Church must begin to re-evaluate the way in which we engage culture. We have to begin to flip the perception of our own superiority and hypocrisy; take a posture of grace over judgment; and be honest and straightforward about our faults and our hope for transformation in Jesus. We must figure out how speak the Truth in love.
In The Reason for God Tim Keller addresses the seven biggest objections and doubts about Christianity that he has encountered as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. While in light of our current cultural moment, Keller’s head-on approach might be perceived as a bit abrasive, his arguments were solid and the questions he addressed were indeed the major objections to the faith of our time.
Personally, I preferred N.T. Wright’s approach in Simply Christian. Rather than responding to the culture’s objections, Wright points to four “echoes of a voice” - the universal cry for justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty within the human heart. He then shows how Christianity addresses each of these in a unique and powerful way and how the Church can and should reflect this in the world today.
To be honest, I have never been terribly impressed with all of the arguments for Christianity, butthe story captivates me. While there are tremendous arguments for the faith, and Keller provides some of the best, we learn who God really is only in the story of what God has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rather than argue for the faith, Wright taps into humanity’s deepest longings for justice, our hunger for spirituality and relationship, and our delight in beauty, and convinces us that we are hearing “echoes of a voice” – and it is in the story of Jesus that we “recognize the voice whose echoes we have heard.”
To be fair, in the second half of the book Keller lays out his reasons for faith and takes a very similar approach to Wright. In fact, I really enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first. I wonder if he or the publisher ever thought of reversing the order. It would seem to me that after centuries of debate the world is not primarily looking for reasons why their views are wrong, but for reasons to believe.
On the other hand, I really did enjoy the way in which Keller handled each objection. His responses were creative and yet rooted in orthodoxy. For example, the notion of God as the judge is, in our culture, one of the most difficult declarations for people to accept. Our culture likes tolerance better than judgment, or at least that’s what we like to think. Keller did well to point out that other cultures around the world, though, find the mercy of God more offensive than the justice of God, feeling that His mercy is a sign of weakness.
Keller set God’s judgment within the context of the biblical narrative. He explained that judgment is about moving the story of God’s redemptive plan forward by curbing, containing, or destroying evil. The goal is seen in Ephesians 1:10-11 where we learn that history is moving to Christ’s life filling all things. This will require the subduing of all that refuses to be filled, and this subduing is judgment. We say we don’t like judgment, but we really do, when understood in this light. We like it when ‘cancer’ is subdued so that it doesn’t spread. Most people were happy when the holocaust ended. We like it when pedophiles are contained so that they can no longer inflict their damage on young lives. So, before we get too bothered by the notion of God as a judge, we must consider the reality that most of us really do look forward to the containment of death, evil, and suffering. Such containment is judgment, and perhaps the best being in the universe to orchestrate that containment is God.
Today it is politically correct to avoid any discussion about judgment, to believe that all roads lead to the pot of spiritual gold at the end of rainbow. Keller and Wright both point out that this is not only a contradiction to the Bible, it’s a contradiction to the real world, where evil things happen at the hands of people. God’s judgment is therefore motivated by both love and justice. Containment of evil is an act of love and justice for the whole of creation, eventuating in blessing and fullness of life for all who are willing to receive it. Of course, even this argument is rooted in God’s story.