Reason for God: Objection #1 (There Can’t Be Just One True Religion)

First, a personal reflection . . .

When Timothy Keller passed away on the 19th May, 2023, tributes poured in from not only the Christian world, but from CNN, the New York Times, and former U.S. Presidents. The world lost someone special. My own church knows this well—they have heard me quote from Keller time and time again. He was a theologian, an apologist, an evangelist, and a pastor (even a church planter). This is a rare mix of gifts. Of course, I did not know him personally, but I feel a deep sense of loss at the death of someone who seemed to “know” me and the cultural worldview in which I swim. I still remember his talk in Sydney many years ago on this text: “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” – Luke 10:20. It was not just the content of what he said (and wrote), but the way in which he said it. He really did convey that the most important thing in the world—even (especially) to God—was that my name was written in heaven.

Keller’s best known published work is Reason for God. In the coming weeks and months, I intend to write a series of blogs on each chapter. There will not be much critical analysis. My aim is to summarise the main threads of his thought and reflect on their significance for my own spiritual formation.

An introduction by Darth Vader

Keller’s introduction begins by quoting Darth Vader: “I find your lack of faith—disturbing” (who does that?). He explains that the world is polarised over religion: “It is getting more religious and less religious at the same time.” “We have come to a cultural moment,” Keller writes, “in which both sceptics and believers feel their existence is threatened because both secular scepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways. We have neither the Western Christendom of the past nor the secular, religionless society that was predicted for the future. We have something else entirely.” In the midst of a divided, and sometimes hysterical cultural conversation (war), Keller makes a proposal: “I recommend that each side look at doubt in a radically new way.”

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubt—not only their own but their friends and neighbours. This will not only strengthen believing faith but also nurture respect and understanding towards those who doubt. Keller writes: “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.”

Skeptics also “must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning.” No worldview is neutral: “All doubts, however sceptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs.” If sceptics will seek as much proof for their “beliefs” as Christians seek for theirs, Keller suggests that “you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appear.”

Keller offers this model of understanding the respective strengths and weaknesses of each other’s arguments as the only fair basis of disagreement, and thus he suggests that it is essential for civility in a secular pluralistic society.

There is, in the Introduction, a brief description of Keller’s own journey of doubting his doubts and embracing a personal Christian faith: (1) intellectually he discovered that Christianity made sense; (2) existentially he discovered a personal and first-hand experience of God’s presence; and (3) he found a faith community who held together justice in the world with an orthodox doctrine of God. I am not sure if Keller intended these three points to describe an order or timeline of his journey, but as I reflected on my own experience it was the reverse order. I had a (reasonably) positive social experience of faith, and then an existential encounter, after which (many years later) I became increasingly intellectually curious. In many ways it has been Keller’s writings which have helped me to acknowledge and answer my doubts in this latter phase of my journey.

The book is divided into two halves. In the first, Keller engages with the seven biggest objections to Christianity he has encountered. The second half outlines the positive reasons which underly Christian beliefs. We commence with the first objection to faith.

There can’t be just one true religion

In this first chapter Keller answers the objection that Christianity, indeed most religions, claim exclusivity. Acknowledging the truth of this claim, he invites his objectors to consider various solutions to this.

One “answer” is to control religious claims with a heavy hand. The trouble with this approach, Keller notes, is that twentieth-century efforts to do just this resulted in the most oppressive and intolerant (non-religious) regimes of history (e.g., Stalin and Pol Pot).

A second “solution” seeks to manage and discourage exclusive claims by creating an environment wherein all belief systems are affirmed and tolerated. This, I think, is what we are quite unconsciously trying to do at the moment in Australia, and we are confused why it doesn’t seem to working. The trouble, according to Keller, is that such a position is logically inconsistent. Major (and minor) religions don’t share the same beliefs about God, human beings, the nature of reality, or the purpose of life. In fact, the claim that all religions are the same or each religion sees part of the truth is quite a dogmatic claim in and of itself—the proponent assumes they themselves have a truth that all the other religions do not. Keller also answers the objection that religious truth is culturally and historically conditioned. He happily admits that our social conditions do bear significantly on belief systems but also applies that razor to sceptics—the claim of cultural conditioning applies equally the other way. Finally, under this “toleration” solution Keller responds to the claim that it is arrogant to insist that your religion is right. But again, he points out that the razor cuts both ways here also—isn’t it arrogant to claim that religion is wrong? “We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways.”

The third way to respond to the exclusivism of religion is to keep beliefs private and to ensure proponents of religion are kept out of the public sphere and unable to “evangelise.” Keller responds by pointing out what religion is: “A set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing.” On this definition he then shows that philosophical materialism is a type of religion, or at least a worldview or narrative identity. All secular accounts of reality involve a set of faith-assumptions about the nature of reality. They are implicit religions. Keller argues that it is impossible to enter the public square and leave your convictions about ultimate values behind. Public life, or politics, is simply the place where we decide together how best to make life work, and everyone serves as an evangelist for their worldview. This penetrating description corresponds to what others have described as an open form (as opposed to a closed version which tends to deny the validity of religious reasoning) of pluralism.

Resources for peace and cooperation

Having critically analysed these three possible secular responses to the exclusivity of religion, Keller then admits that religion can certainly be a major problem, even a threat to world peace. But he argues that in Christianity—real Christianity, there are resources within it that inspire its followers to pursue peace: “Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart.” This is because of two foundational anthropological claims inherent in Christianity: (1) the image of God; and (2) universal sin. The former is the basis for respecting all people and recognising that everyone is capable of goodness and wisdom. The latter belief in universal sinfulness applies not only to “others”, but to the Christians themselves. These observations lead Keller to offer this winsome conclusion:

The biblical doctrine of the universal image of God, therefore, leads Christians to expect non-believers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them. The biblical doctrine of universal sinfulness also leads Christians to expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation.

Keller then makes an important point about how true Christianity leads not to judgementalism but compassion. While most religions and philosophies assume that one’s spiritual status depends upon certain moral attainments, which leads to a sense of moral superiority, Christianity teaches that you cannot merit salvation. Rather Jesus comes to forgive and save though his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to those who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failures and acknowledge their need for a saviour. Such a gospel leads not to a sense of superiority but to kindness. Such applied theology is a welcome balm not only for our increasingly divided culture but one’s own inner-person which is set free from its default performance mentality and tendency to look down upon others.

Conclusion: toleration vs belief

Keller, in my view, has achieved what he outlined in his Introduction. He has exposed the “hidden faith” claims within the objections to religious exclusivism. But he has also shown Christians that any sense of superiority is counter-intuitive to the faith they profess. He proposes that the origin of humanity as divine image-bearers and the universal “fall” gives Christians the motivation to respect others, and an obligation to examine themselves. Indeed, Keller concludes this chapter by pointing out that mere tolerance does not lead to genuine respect. He draws from the example of ancient Rome within which Greco-Roman religious views were open and seemingly tolerant. And yet the practices of the culture were quite brutal. Christianity’s exclusive claim of monotheism contrasted with the tolerant polytheism of the Roman world and yet it was Christianity that welcomed all cultures and classes, included the poor, and gave social status to women and slaves. It was the Christians who spoke up against infanticide and cared for the sick (you can read a summary of Rodney Stark’s work about this in a previous post of mine). So, it is not a matter of religious exclusivism or whether you are convinced that any such claims are wrong (which is, as we have seen, an exclusive claim itself). Rather it is the nature of the beliefs which you hold which determines your treatment of others. Secular ideologies which appear inclusive may be both exclusive and unkind. Arguably, it is Christianity which provides a secure basis for the intrinsic value of others, while still inviting such people to consider the claims of Christ (i.e. evangelising). In Keller’s own words:

“Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behaviour that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resources for practicing sacrificial service, generosity and peace-making. At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness.” [1]

[1] The feature image is used under Canva license.

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