Why We Need Religion - A Review

Some atheists move beyond their objections to religion to a form of frothy mouthed rage that anyone dare believe in something beyond what can be measured, analyzed, and peer reviewed. Famously, Richard Dawkins has asserted that parents teaching their children Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse. And, of course, there are meanspirited gadflies like those in the Freedom From Religion organization who like to attack people engaged in public service for having faith that is not hidden from view. Such antipathy is not universal. Some atheists are more benign. However, there is enough anti-religious emotion among the supposed rationalists that the militant fundamentalist accusations about an “atheist agenda,” etc., etc., are not entirely unfounded (just overblown).

In contrast to such overt hostility, Stephen T. Asma, professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and confirmed atheist, has written a book to argue that maybe religion isn’t quite so bad and doesn’t deserve violent eradication just yet. Accordingly, he offers an intriguing purpose in his recent volume, Why We Need Religion. He writes, “I will endeavor a charitable interpretation of the believer and religion, one that couches such conviction in the universal emotional life that connects us all.” (14)

Summary

The general point of Asma’s book is that scientism is best, but religion helps people feel good, so it should be tolerated by those who know better. While ensuring the reader never doubts his atheistic bona fides, Asma sorts through sociological data that he argues point to the necessity of some form of religion as a “cultural analgesic.”

Asma finds multiple benefits of religion, which he argues are reasons that society should not seek to destroy religion and ridicule believers. In chapter length treatments, Asma argues that religion in general, especially those with a belief in an afterlife, help people navigate sorrow due to death and even personal fear of death. Such myths keep some people from despair, so there is no reason not to allow that beneficial belief.

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For some, religion enables the ability to forgive. The belief that there will be justice meted out gives people resources not to seek immediate, personal vengeance. Similarly, a belief in a higher power can help people have mental strength leading to internal peace, resilience, and the ability to sacrifice for others.

Religion also enables people to find communal joy, to channel sexual energy, and engage in forms of imaginative play. These aspects of religion, according to Asma, have evolved in ways that differentiate us from some of the lower animals and help us get by as a society. At other points, religion proves useful in helping people control their fear and anger.

Analysis

Given his assumptions, the argument is reasonable throughout, but the general point is that religion—at least some level of religion—is acceptable because it has socially and evolutionarily beneficial fruit. Thus, even if it is not actively encouraged, certain types of religion should be deemed acceptable, as long as it sufficiently agrees with the moral consensus of society and encourages behaviors approved by enough people. For example, religion that fosters contemporary forms of functional egalitarianism, pursuit of approved economic and social outcomes, and controls unsocial emotional outbursts should be accepted.

At a most basic level, it is nice to have an atheist write something that does not curse every believer for their foolishness and vehemently denigrate their existence for not aligning their faith commitments to those of radical empiricism. Asma’s book shows that the conversation between religion and radical empiricism need not be an out and out street fight at all times, especially if one accepts a version of religion that is palatable for skeptics.

Ironically, though he is an atheist, Asma makes many of the same arguments for religion in general that some versions of Christianity (the religion with which I am most familiar) make. Religion can help you live your best life now. Believing can make you a better citizen. Your kids won’t misbehave as much if you keep them in church. You can have inner peace if you will just believe. There’s no need to fear death if you’ll just pray this prayer. The list can go on and on. This observation shows the paucity of much teaching among Christians of varying stripes. I have heard similar pitches presented as “evangelism” before, and sometimes they succeed in getting people to participate in activities with Christians for a while. There is a pointed lesson here, for those whose faith would be acceptable to an atheist.

The acceptable religion Asma hopes for is the one that nods toward doing good deeds from time to time, talks about miracles as fiction that points to a higher moral, and moves aside traditional doctrines that interfere with the current popular polls. In Christian circles, Asma’s preferred forms of religion align very well with the stated doctrines of many mainline Protestant denominations and lived faith of many Evangelical and Roman Catholic adherents. Lukewarm is the hottest the faucet should go, lest it lead to a failure to go with the flow. Coexist bumper stickers are the main sign of approved faith, rather than rosaries, crucifixes, or fish stickers. Bland is the religion that is properly admissible by the Zeitgeist.

Asma’s arguments also reveal there is no point at which the attempt of liberal Christianity to create a truly minimalist faith will ever really be acceptable in society. As the moral winds shift and the polling changes, there will always be a new doctrine considered anti-social and require abandonment. Whatever vestiges of truth and odor of gospel efficacy is left in an acceptable version of Christianity won’t have much power to save, if any at all in a few years. In other words, Asma reveals that seeking praise from atheists isn’t a worthy endeavor because nothing but utter capitulation will ever be applauded, so those who claim to be orthodox and faithful should focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we believe and proclaim a rigorous, full-throated, gospel-saturated doctrine.

For faithful, orthodox Christian readers, the best use of this book is to see in it an affirmation of some of the things that we know to be true, though Asma denies the basis. Faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can help make us better citizens, to the degree that society maintains a true sense of the common good. Basically, Asma is arguing that we aren’t (always) the moral equivalent of child abusers and sometimes actually do good things, which is better than the alternative.

In the end, this is a book that was not written to people who really believe what they claim to believe, whether they are Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or whatever. This is a book that, despite claiming to offer an olive branch, oozes condescension on nearly every page. It’s a patronizing pat on the head from the person who pretended to listen while you speak to them and then lets you know he was ignoring everything you said by his smug smile and dismissive comment. Most probably, though, the target audience for this book is not people who actually believe and practice their faith, it is the mushy middle and the militant atheist.

One possible positive outcome is that some from the mushy middle may encounter the gospel if they wander into a faithful Christian church on some Sunday morning to find the inner peace Asma highlights; may Asma’s work bear such fruit.

On the other hand, this is a book that may be helpful if it has the socially beneficial result of tempering the fundamentalist zealotry of a few atheists. On that basis, I think that it makes a valuable contribution to the conversation of the relationship between religion and society.

Why We Need Religion
By Stephen T. Asma

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Morals of the Story - A Review

The focus of apologetics as it is presented in evangelical contexts tends to be on evidential arguments like the historicity of the Bible and the credibility of the resurrection of Christ. These sorts of arguments are helpful when someone finds themselves somewhat attracted to Christianity but incredulous to its supernatural claims. Such apologetic arguments are important, but a different approach is warranted in a culture that no longer views Christianity as plausible.

The recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God, presents a traditional but less common apologetic approach designed to demonstrate the plausibility of Christianity. The argument of this volume is abductive—that is, the Baggetts make the case that the Christian God is the best explanation for the moral consistency of the world and the latent human awareness of moral demands. This approach, known as moral apologetics, essentially points to our shared sense of morality and expectation of justice and argues Christianity offers the best hope of making sense of it.

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The book is intriguing, not least because it was written by a husband and wife team. David Baggett is professor of philosophy at Liberty University. Marybeth Baggett is a professor of English at Liberty University. Their combined expertise helps make this a philosophically sound volume rich with literary illustrations that augment the basic argument that humans have a latent sense of the moral that needs explaining.

In a literary twist, the Baggetts constructed the book in three acts. The first act introduces the basic outline of moral apologetic arguments and the history of moral apologetics as a valid approach. Between the first and second act, there is an excursus, which the Baggetts call an intermission, that deals with the Euthyphro dilemma in technical detail. In some sense, the handling of resolution of that famous philosophic dilemma (or trilemma) is the ground on which all moral apologetics—indeed, a robust Christian ethics—is founded.

Act two engages arguments for and against a moral apologetic on the topics of goodness, obligations, knowledge, transformation, and providence. These are common points of friction between moral apologists and their critics. Act three functions as a thrilling conclusion, wherein the Baggetts tie their arguments together to present one brief, cogent case. The book closes with two brief recaps, which the Baggetts call an encore and curtain call.

The Morals of the Story is an important volume in our time because of the shift of the main points of contention against Christianity. No longer is it sufficient to establish basic facts—the resurrection, the possibility of miracles, the historicity of the narrative accounts—we are in an era where the plausibility of a source of moral authority outside of ourselves is not a shared assumption. It is exactly this barrier that moral apologetics seeks to break down. The Baggetts have presented a clear case, which does not prove conclusively (by their own admission) the reality of the Triune God, but it makes a strong case that the common experience of a moral conscience among all humans points to a central reality and source of moral authority beyond humans, which they hold to be the God of Christianity.

There are various points at which many readers will disagree with the Baggetts, but the book is constructed in a manner that disagreement at points does not undermine the integrity of the overall arguments. With few and minor exceptions, the Baggetts have argued cautiously, which makes their case worth engaging even if it the reader does not fully agree by the end of the volume. The Baggetts acknowledge the room for disagreement with their argument, which makes the whole of the case more convincing and the reader-author debate much more congenial throughout.

This book is written at a level that anticipates some familiarity with basic philosophical arguments. The Morals of the Story would be useful in an upper level undergraduate course or in graduate studies, or for individuals with some background in philosophy. For that audience, it is an entertaining read with a mix of humor, anecdote, and illustration. The text is seamlessly edited so it is not evident if there were different authors for different chapters, though the richness of the literary references would seem to reveal the handiwork of Marybeth Baggett, with her background in English literature. This is a solid and enjoyable team effort.

The Morals of the Story represents a significant and winsome entry in the field of apologetic literature. This book should prove useful for years to come in equipping the Church to engage a sometimes apathetic world with the truth of the gospel and the reality of a morally consistent, holy God.

The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God
By David Baggett, Marybeth Baggett

Note: I received a gratis copy of this book from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Evidence that Demands A Verdict - A Review

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a title well known to many Christians. The book was originally published in the early 1970’s by Josh McDowell as a source book for Christian apologetics. It both presents arguments and points readers toward more in-depth arguments for the truthfulness of Christianity.

Given the four decades since the book’s original publication, many of the sources in the first edition are outdated. Over time, arguments change, new evidence for or against positions is considered, and scholars on all sides of the debate reframe their thoughts.

It was high time for this book to be updated. This year, Josh McDowell and his son, Sean, have released an expanded and updated version of this classic work on apologetics. This volume adds the credentials of the younger McDowell to the senior's extensive apologetic experience. The younger McDowell is an apologist, serving on the faculty of Biola University.

About the Book

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is the sort of book that defies concise summary. At over 700 pages, it makes a satisfying thunk when set on the table. That alone may be enough to add gravity to the claims of a budding apologist. It has a helpful table of contents with chapter abstracts, as well as subject and author indices, which keep this tome from being unwieldy.

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The arguments are laid out in logical chunks in outline format. This makes the book suitable for research, though it might make cover-to-cover reading more difficult.

The McDowells have covered the major questions of Christian apologetics. They invest five chapters discussing the historical reliability of Scripture. Eight chapters help demonstrate the historicity of Christ and his resurrection. There are thirteen chapters dedicated to the reliability of the Old Testament. The last major section includes six chapters arguing that truth is possible, with an attempt to counter certain claims of postmodernism.

The beauty of this book is that it has been well seasoned over decades and targeted to engage ongoing discussions charitably and at the point of contention. This enables the arguments in this volume to cover a great deal of territory in relatively brief space, which may seem amazing, given the length of the book.

That the authors have covered such broad ranging topics in such a short space is a gift to Christians seeking to understand the major points of the plurality of debates about the truthfulness of Christianity and, hopefully, engage their skeptical friends with the truth of Scripture, especially the gospel. This really is a good, first stop for a number of excellent arguments.

At the same time, the target audience (regular Christians) and the brevity of some of the discussions sets the volume up for its likely criticisms. There is no doubt the war drums of some Christian philosophers will be beaten as they line up to critique some of the interpretations of the volume. For example, the section on postmodernism is an easy target since the subject matter has more publicized versions than the number of scholars that have argued for it. This makes every generalization about the subject a target for critique, and, since many postmodernisms conflict with one another, there is no safe ground to argue against the general drift of thought. (Part of the joy of being postmodern seems to be the ability to say your critics don’t get it as you smile smugly.)  If readers accept that the chapters in this volume are introductory and not exhaustive, this book stands up to reasonable scrutiny.

Uses for the Book

It is unlikely that most people will read this volume cover to cover. It is constructed like a reference book and will serve that purpose well.

At the same time, the length of the chapters would make it useful for study with a group of young Christians. It is unlikely any group would make their way through the entirety of the volume. However, it would be a helpful resource to introduce someone to some of the credible arguments for Christianity.

The book might serve well as a secondary volume in an apologetics course at the college or seminary level, with some assigned readings chosen to introduce particular topics. Again, it would be difficult to get through the whole volume in a semester or year.

The most important use of this volume is as a way to self-equip for the ministry of evangelism in a skeptical age. The chapters are useful for buttressing the faith once delivered to all the saints. They are also helpful in showing how to frame an argument against the common objections to Christianity. This is a handy resource for a Christian engaged in the Great Commission.

Conclusion

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a classic work. The updated edition has done exactly what it should do: added new arguments, updated sources, and retained the positive qualities of the original.

This is a book that should be in church libraries, on the shelves of pastors, in the homes of Christian parents, and among the recommended resources for new believers.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Between One Faith and Another - A Review

It is difficult, at times, to understand different perspectives on the compatibility of religions. Or, perhaps to be clearer, I might say that it is hard to understand without caricature other people’s ideas about religions.

For example, for those raised on conservative Christian teaching, there is no question that Christianity is incompatible with dozens of others world religions. We have heard this asserted from pulpit, lectern, and printed page so often that it is clear to us that Buddhism conflicts with orthodox Christianity in ways that are irreconcilable. Truths are black and white. We can be absolutely certain of most things. The law of non-contradiction reigns supreme. This is the perspective on religion known as exclusivism.

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And yet, many hold to the notion that all religions are somehow leading people to climb the same mountain, though via different paths. Though Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, some suggest that his illumination shines through the teachings of other world religions such that all provide a functional path to God. In its most benign forms, this perspective on religion teaches that there is some truth in all religions, and therefore no conflict between them in the absolute core. One might make progress toward salvation (whatever that means) as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. This view is often called inclusivism.

There is a third perspective on religion, which is called pluralism, that argues we just don’t know which of the religions has the truth (if there is one), but that all may have a piece of the truth. Those that propound this view typically trot out the illustration of blind men feeling different parts of the mountain, an image which Lesslie Newbigin and others have helpfully identified as arrogant presumption of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This perspective often entails a sort of agnosticism, which asks the believer to wait and see before making final commitments.

In didactic texts, whether of the form used for indoctrinating children through Fundamentalist Christian worldview courses or those used to influence college sophomores in a world religions course, these perspectives are often presented triumphalistically. The pastor shows how the god of Mohammed is really vastly different than the God of Paul; the political science professor dons a head scarf and asserts that the two deities are really the same without understanding the basic theological issues; the tired, uninterested arm-chair philosopher argues for pluralism because he really wants people to stop arguing and killing one another over religion. These approaches and their related variants often tend to dismiss alternative perspectives without increasing understanding.

For those interested in understanding better the relationship between inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism, Peter Kreeft has written a new book, Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.

Summary

I was initially skeptical of this volume, because it is written in the form of a dialogue (or really a trialogue), which is not my favorite form of philosophy. I am also aware that Kreeft is a committed Roman Catholic who converted from evangelical Christianity, so he has a distinct perspective on the issue; I wondered how well he could represent the perspectives in this format.

My doubt, however, was ill-founded. Kreeft has produced a volume that will help people from all three perspectives to understand the others better. This is because, as Kreeft admits in his introduction, he has sympathies with each of the three characters and their perspective. Kreeft dealt the cards fairly when assigning roles and allowed the dialogue to unfold relatively naturally, without cheating arguments by exposing only flaws or highlighting only strengths.

The volume is a conversation between two students over the content of a world religions course. The atheist/agnostic rationalist is an exclusivist, seeing all the conflicts between different religions. He argues that not only do they conflict with one another irreconcilably, but that they are therefore all wrong; this the is character that sees the fatal flaw in all religions. He is the extremely rational college student who likes to blow the whistle on logical fallacies; sort of like your average Christian homeschooler, but without the background knowledge of Adventures in Odyssey.

The second main character is also a fellow student with the exclusivist, she is the inclusivist who believes that we’re all climbing the same mountain. She rightly notes the moral similarity between most world religions and, sometimes through an act of will, argues that religions have a common center and only conflict (or appear to conflict) in their practice. The rigorous logic of the exclusivist seems over harsh for this theologically liberal Christian.

These two characters engage in a Socratic dialogue after class, since both of them come off with understandable disagreements with the Professor. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic aspect of the entire book: two people with different worldviews engaging in thoughtful dialogue over a long period of time. However, if the reader suspends disbelief, this is a helpful heuristic tool.

True to reality, Kreeft allows the debate between the inclusivist and exclusivist to wander afield and get mired into the predictable conflict over logic, non-contradiction, and compassion. However, here he inserts a third character, the pluralistic professor who tries not to present his view in class (and perhaps actually lacks a clear view) but simply presents the different religions with their strengths and weaknesses. This professor functions as a plot device to referee the debate when the students get off-track and caught in do loops of circular argument.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, the conversation is engaging and informative. There were several points along the way that Kreeft’s dialogue made me laugh out loud because he naturally inserted humor in an otherwise potentially dry discussion. The content of the conversation is relatively natural in its flow, though Kreeft thankfully cleaned up the rhetoric and expression of the speakers to make the debate more precise and linear than would be likely in a real, human conversation.

There are points throughout the volume that the reader is left a bit frustrated, since there is no clear hero, no matter the reader’s perspective. It's a good sort of frustration, though. The inclusivist, exclusivist, and pluralist all score points and all get scored on. At times, each is infuriatingly mired in his or her thought process. However, the characters do develop over the course of the volume, as they each accept the validity of the others’ viewpoints where appropriate. None of the characters “convert” to another perspective, though the rough edges are certainly worn off in several cases.

This is, in short, an example of the sort of conversation that should be happening in society, especially in higher education, but which too rarely occurs. Between One Faith and Another raises more questions than it answers, but that would make this a useful text for multiple audiences.

As a parent of a homeschooler, this is the sort of text that I might consider using in a high school world religions course. It covers many of the basic facts of various world religions, but gets to the more basic (and often ignored) question of how we should deal with the variety of religions.

This volume would be useful in a comparative religions course in a religious or non-religious higher education setting, because Kreeft does well at being even-handed throughout the conversation.

For the casual reader, like me, this volume is truly enjoyable. The conversation moves along, the content is clear and helpful, and the reader’s character is formed by sympathizing with people with whom one would otherwise naturally disagree. This is worth reading, even if simply for the enjoyment of it.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Our Deepest Desires - A Review

There are a variety of ways of doing apologetics. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is the process of offering a defense for something. In this case, I am using the term to refer to a defense of the Christian faith.

Some rely on evidential apologetics, which certainly have a place. This is the sort of approach that Francis Schaeffer and Lee Strobel are known for. Sometimes this form of apologetics comes in the form of historical analysis, like the process used by people such as Mike Licona. Sometimes it focuses on a forensic examination of biblical texts.

All of these are valid ways of explaining the validity of Christian belief.

In his recent book, Gregory Ganssle makes a case for the Christian faith in a different way, namely by explaining how the Christian helps make sense of the world, and does so better than any other faith system. His title, aptly chosen, summarizes the point of the volume: Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations.

At its heart, Christianity is not simply a mythology tacked on to typical human experience, it is the best explanation for everything that exists. In other words, people should be Christians because Christianity is the most satisfying account of the universe, including human nature and everything that entails.

Ganssle’s volume is brief, and is divided into four parts, with a separate introduction and epilogue. Each of the four parts consists of three chapters.

Summary

Part One deals with persons. The Christian faith entails the belief in persons who are eternally in relationship one with another. This helps to explain why we humans, who are created in the image of God, long for relationships and only flourish within relationships with other persons. It also supports our natural sense of the importance of human persons. We do amazing things for other people, especially people we love. This makes sense if the Christian depiction of the world is true.

Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

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Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

The third part discusses beauty. Much like goodness, beauty is commonly sought and found more frequently than we can admit. Christian teaching holds that beauty both honors God and points us toward God. Beauty is superfluous, it is unnecessary, but it is an amazing gift from God. When we yearn for beauty or find it unexpectedly, we should see the reflection of the Christian faith.

Part Four covers the relationship between the desire for freedom to Christianity. Humans, universally, long for freedom. Even advocates of oppressive economic systems like socialism typically claim their desire to force others to live according to certain social dictates is really an attempt to free others from want and desire. Freedom is a universal desire. Often, we find that freedom in knowledge of truth. We want to know what is. We long to understand. That’s the foundation of modern science, of poetry, and of so much that we do. Humans also hope for freedom in the future. That hope is explained by Christianity. Our innate human desire for freedom is best explained and fulfilled by the radical reality of the Christian faith.

Analysis and Conclusion

Certainly, the above four paragraphs fail to do Ganssle’s volume justice. His well-crafted essays build a cogent argument and make a compelling case for believing in Christianity. He shows why it is so satisfying to be a Christian.

This volume is encouraging to those in Christ, who struggle with faith and are sometimes looking for a deeper sense—beyond the evidential proofs—of why Christianity is compelling and true.

Our Deepest Desires may also be a useful volume to put in the hands of someone who does not find the point and counter point of apologetics arguments helpful, but needs to see the grandeur of Christianity.

Ganssle’s volume deserves a place in the library of the Christian. In fact, in some locations, this volume may be best bought in quantities for distributions for those exploring the Christian faith.

The portrait Ganssle paints of Christianity is beautiful and compelling. It is a delight to read and will bear re-reading in the future.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Making Sense of God - A Review

Tim Keller has done it again.

Not too long ago his book, The Reason for God, hit the presses and it was quickly described as being in the same league as Lewis’ Mere Christianity. That praise was justified, as Keller had studied the zeitgeist well and understood the questions people were asking. There was a large swath of young people who needed to read exactly what Keller wrote at that time.

However, time, tide, and formation wait for no one. As the polls are revealing, a larger number of people are identifying as “nones.” These are people who have no religious affiliation. As one “none” explains in her book, it often isn’t that the nones are opposed to religion, they just don’t see the point.

On the other hand, judging by the commenters on the internet, there are a large number of people who find religion repugnant. According to this view, religious people are ignorant, naïve, or perhaps even simply evil. They argue that religion is inherently irrational because it relies on faith; in contrast, non-religion (or whatever they try to label their faith commitment) is based on objective science. Therefore, rejecting religion is the only logical solution.

Keller’s recent book, Making Sense of God, will speak to either of these groups.

Much like any book, the antagonistic skeptic will be unlikely to dig into this volume and glean anything from it. However, Keller is irenic, so anyone who is actually looking for a credible case for Christ can find a good representation of it in Keller’s book.

Summary

The book begins with a preface, which introduces a reality many are unaware of: secularism is based on faith. Although the question of religion vs. non-religion is often pitched as faith vs. reason, Keller announced that isn’t the case. The reader must be patient as he carefully unfolds his argument over the following chapters.

Keller explains that, contrary to the popular myth of secularists, religion isn’t dying. It may be on the decline in the Unites States, but in the world at large, the number of faithful are growing. Thus, it isn’t that the secularists are paving the way into the future by resisting religion, rather, they are simply resisting the inevitable growth of faithfulness.

The next chapter explains that secularism relies on just as much faith as any religion does. No one is purely rational, and most professional philosophers recognize that. Everyone has certain basic assumptions that must be taken on faith. You can’t, for example, empirically prove that the scientific method is the best--never mind the only­­--way to understand more about the world. This doesn’t mean that religion is necessarily correct, but it means that religion should not be immediately dismissed as something intrinsically different that secularism.

Having established the possibility of rationally considering religion as another competing worldview to secularism, Keller shifts into a shift into a defense of religion itself. Throughout the beginning of the book, he argues for the possibility of religion generically, but the informed reader will see that Keller is moving toward Christianity as the best and only viable option for all problems.

Keller argues that religion provides meaning that suffering can’t take away, satisfaction that is not based on circumstances. He shows that “do no harm” is an insufficient ethical principle, because it fails to represent the true complexity of our interconnections. The modern concept of the autonomous self is an unworkable, unjust myth. Something must be added to secularism to answer these problems, and that something is the Christian faith.

Similarly, Keller shows that the modern idea of the self is incoherent and insufficient. Humans cannot find their identity from within, because that is self-defeating. In contrast, belief in the Christian faith offers an eternal, unchanging identity that does not crush the individual nor exclude all others. This leads to a hope that cannot be eliminated based on circumstances. There is an eschatological future of joy for the human that has faith in the one true God.

Traditionally atheists have resisted the concept that they can’t be moral. It is true that atheists are often nicer than Christians, but more and more secular thinkers are recognizing that despite their many flaws, Christians tend to be much more active in doing the good things that need to be done. This is because they have a morality rooted in God. This is something that religion adds to the secular conversation. At the same time, Keller critiques many churches that have morals for being legalistic. He offers his critique, but at the same time encourages the skeptic to recognize that this is a failing of particular congregations, not of Christianity. True Christianity has morality that enlivens and does not crush the soul. The cross shows how that can happen.

The last few chapters are a more traditional apologetic for faith in Christ. Keller presents the gospel winsomely and in a way that someone who has journeyed so far into the volume will recognize the sincerity of the invitation.

Analysis

It’s a sign of the times that Keller would have to lay the groundwork so carefully for faith in Christ. This is the shape of evangelism in the future. We need to begin farther and farther back in our conversations with many people. It becomes less safe to assume that someone knows the story already and we are just calling to repentance.

More and more, when people are told they need to repent, they are likely to ask from what. Our age is secular, religion has been maligned by its enemies and misrepresented by many of its adherents. Keller provides the necessary dialog to bridge the gap between a skeptical world and Christianity.

I commend this volume to the skeptic as a good argument for faith, especially faith in Christ. For the Christian, this book should be read, digested, and studied in preparation for answering the questions of unbelieving friends. This is more likely to answer the necessary questions than the memorized outline of Evangelism Explosion. For the parent, this is the sort of volume you should read with your children, so that even after they’ve prayed the prayer and walked the aisle they understand the reasonable basis for their faith.

Making Sense of God is a masterpiece. Having read it, I will read it again. It is well-written, well-researched, and on point. Keller has done a service to the Church in writing this volume. My hope is that many will read it, both those inside and outside of Christianity.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Raising Faithful Kids in a Skeptical World

It’s a lot easier to raise a skeptic than a child with a mature faith.

This is not a statement about behavior, but about true fidelity. That is, faithfulness that includes both a profession of faith and a solid foundation for that faith.

It is much easier to teach a child to poke holes in the ideas of others than to hold fast to cogent, explanatory truths.

As a result, there is a constant temptation to build buttresses of truth around our kids without exposing them to challenges to the faith. This is good when they are young, because it prevents confusion. It is a dangerous thing over time because it builds a false sense of confidence.

The Place for Honest Doubt

Comprehensive, absolute certainty is a dangerous thing. There is little doubt about that.

Being entirely certain about every detail of one’s own understanding of Scripture, the veracity of the traditions of one’s youth, and the methodology appropriate to determining truth can lead to pain and difficulty over time. Much of that is unnecessary.

There is a fundamental difference between holding a position with absolute certainty and holding it in faithful confidence.

This is because being faithful does not require abandoning the intellectual task of asking questions and considering alternatives. Issues such as the proper mode of baptism, the right style of worship, the way the salvation is explained are all points where legitimate questioning is warranted. After all, a lot of faithful people in the history of the Church have stood on each side of those questions.

Photo used by CC license: Hans Splinter, Parenting,  http://ow.ly/10gV84

Photo used by CC license: Hans Splinter, Parenting, http://ow.ly/10gV84

But there is a place for asking even more significant and sensitive questions. Is there a God? Certainly, a fool says in his heart there is no God (Ps 14:1). However, this doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t ask the big questions and honestly pursue truthful answers. Helping kids ask those in a space where they have the emotional and spiritual resources to struggle through the mire of doubt is important.

It’s also much easier to teach fideistic adherence to dogma than to teach kids to think through doctrine rightly.

In the end, fideism presents an anemic form of Christianity that skeptics can punch holes through with ease. Then, when faced with intelligent, cogent challenges to their faith, an untried faith system will fall apart.

Always Another Question

As I said, it is easier to raise a skeptic than a faithful child.

Much of contemporary culture trains children to expect a higher degree of certainty and a greater volume of proof for questions of religious significance than anything else. For example, people choose their presidential candidates without knowing everything about them and whether everything in the candidate’s worldview meshes. People take jobs without knowing in gross detail every possible work responsibility, the date of future promotions, and whether the company’s corporate office in Paris might have spent too much on cognac last year. Folks use electricity without understanding where exactly it came from or how it was generated.

In contrast, some critics of religion seem to expect an unassailable record in all of history from the religion itself and also each adherent of the religion. They demand that every possible question be asked and meshed with every other solution offered for all of time. Variety in such responses over history—even to secondary and tertiary questions—is considered evidence that the central truths cannot be true.

Many of these questions are fair to ask and Christians should be prepared to discuss them, even if in general terms. Christians need to be prepared to admit that the history of every religion is tarnished by error and insincerity. Christians need to be willing to communicate that there are some doctrines about which reasonable people can debate.

The reality is that every religion, even Christianity, has open questions about some aspects of it. This is a function of the human conduits of the religion and our finiteness. Every religion has a checkered history with abuses. This is because religions have humans involved and humans tend to be self-centered and imperfect.

This means that for someone looking for objections, there are always additional questions to be asked. If the standard of acceptance for religion is that every question is answered, that standard can never be met. There is always one more question to be asked.

The world is training children to be skeptical, if not agnostic. The Church—especially the parents of children—need to be prepared to help develop a curious, cautious, but not incredulous demeanor in their children.

We need to teach our children to seek the best answer, not the perfect one. We need to demonstrate the power of the gospel to transform and redeem. Once a child understands the reason for the hope within us, they will be better able to ask questions without losing their faith.

We need to teach and demonstrate to our children that the Christian faith has integrity and is founded on the absolute objectivity of God not the absolute certainty of our positions. We can have a high degree of certainty about what we believe without dismissing questions. We can demonstrate confidence in our faith by chasing down answers to difficult questions and admitting when we have more investigation to do.

Retooling Parenting

In some day gone by it may have been possible for kids to pick up enough of a basis for their faith by osmosis. Probably not, though, since the failure to present a credible, cogent faith for generations helps to explain the radical rejection of the trappings of a Christian ethic.

The present culture is one that will not accept Christianity without a great deal of explaining. It also will not allow Christians to live consistently with a robust Christian faith without challenging every inch. We do disservice to our children if we do not equip them and assist them to wrestle with the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

Parenting will look different in our present age than it has in the past if we are to give our children what they need to live as faithful pilgrims in the world. That isn’t to say that it will look different than what it always should have been. In fact, the external pressure on the Church may be a benefit to our sanctification as it forces us to return to our proper responsibilities.

History, Law and Christianity - A Review

One of the several ways to engage people with the good news of Jesus Christ is through evidential apologetics. In many cases now, the morality of the Bible is so offensive to people they have little initial concern over the historicity of Scripture. However, both within and without the church there are cases where cogent, rational demonstrations of the credibility of Christianity are necessary.

History, Law and Christianity, by John Warwick Montgomery has recently been republished by the 1517 Legacy project, which aims at presenting a Christian apologetic to the world. Montgomery’s book was originally published in 1964, having begun its existence as a series of lectures in response to attacks on the Christian faith. The first five chapters discuss the plausibility of historical evidences of the truthfulness of Christianity. The final chapter provides a “legal defense” of Christianity, as it might occur in a court of law. This edition also includes the original lecture to which Montgomery was responding, as well as an affirmation of the quality of the argument by a non-Christian historian.

Much like Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, and Josh McDowell’s classic, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Montgomery’s volume points out some of the common challenges to the truthfulness of the biblical accounts regarding Christ. Montgomery shows that, while we cannot have Cartesian certainty of Christ’s resurrection and his deity based on evidence alone, there is such a strong logical coherence to the accounts of Christ’s life that opponents of biblical Christianity are wrong to dismiss the accounts in Scripture as readily as they often do.

Apologetic volumes like these are helpful within the church, because they can shore up existing faith. With a constant barrage of accusations and denials thrown at Christianity from the world, reading a careful, logical defense of the reliability of Scripture can be nourishing to the soul.

In some cases, a book like this can be helpful for people who have not yet come to faith but are asking realistic, honest questions about the integrity of Christianity. Montgomery’s careful argumentation may be the help someone needs to come to grips with the transformative power of the gospel.

One of the benefits of this book is its size. The actual argumentation of the volume is a mere 76 pages. It took me a couple of hours to read it fairly carefully. Many apologetics books, in attempting to be perfectly thorough, become weighty tomes which are unlikely to be picked up by the casual inquirer.

Another strength of History, Law and Christianity is the precision with which Montgomery argues. His carefully argued points are shaped as only the lawyer can do (one of Montgomery’s earned degrees is a J.D.). The book, then, is up to the logical  scrutiny of a rational skeptic.

The weakness of the book is that it may be answering questions that most people aren’t asking in our day and age. This book will be a solid entry into a debate with someone with a modern epistemology, which is rigorously rational (often excessively so). It may not be as effective in convincing the post-modern skeptic, who is willing to accept truths but not Truth. As such, this is a tool that will be most effective when provided to the proper audience.

All in all, this is a well written book. It has withstood the last half-century well. It is a book I am glad to have on my shelf and will gladly recommend to others.

History, Law and Christianity
By John Warwick Montgomery