Timothy Keller tackled a seemingly insurmountable problem and has had tremendous success. He wanted to start a Christian church in New York City. He was able to convince the sophisticated, educated young people of this great city that Christianity is viable, in spite of all the objections they had against it. In this book, Keller, who has an encyclopedic and broad grasp of philosophy and literature, as well as other disciplines, Keller breaks down a series of objections he has continually encountered in his ministry. I really enjoyed the depth and scholarship of this book, and Keller’s extremely thoughtful Christianity.
The book is structured in two parts: first, a part devoted to the defense of Christianity against a series of objections, then the second and final part of the book is devoted to reasons why one should be a Christian. In the first part of the book, Keller takes objections from people he has actually met in his ministry. These are sophisticated young professionals living in Manhattan who have been exposed to Christianity while growing up but who later ended up leaving the faith.
The first objection is, there can’t be just one true faith. It’s arrogant to say that one religion is true and all the rest are false. This is such a common objection. Many people have absorbed cultural relativism. This is the idea that there is no absolute truth. Truth is defined according to the standards of one’s culture. This idea is prevalent in anthropology, a discipline where people prefer to study another culture without the patronizing assumption that the worldview they had formed in their own culture is the correct view. This objection, though, is illogical because one cannot really have a religion without rejecting other religions. If one is to have a religious belief at all, one must reject other beliefs that conflict with it. To be a Christian, for instance, means taking a certain stance on who Jesus was. Taking such a stance would necessarily put one in conflict with Judaism and Islam. Furthermore, some people who are motivated by a wishy-washy sense of fairness like to claim that each religion has a part of the truth, but none has the entire truth. The famous image for this position is blind men touching different parts of the elephant. But, this position itself presupposes an absolute vantage point, i.e the vantage point from which one is able to see the whole truth and so can tell that each religion only has a partial grasp of the truth.
The next objection is the all-too familiar one that there cannot be a God, because there is too much evil in the world. There are many possible ways to address this alleged contradiction. One is to note the intellectual arrogance the claim presupposes. People who think the problem of evil holds water conclude from the fact that there seems to them to be no good reason for evil in the world that there is no good reason. But, the human intellect is obviously finite. The human intellect has no ground to stand on when it tries to make grandiose metaphysical judgments about whether or not there is a good reason for the presence of evil in the world.
The third objection is, Christianity is a straitjacket. This to me is a more interesting, because more compelling, objection than the previous two. If there is one truth, then there is no room to think for oneself. What if the ethical restrictions make some people uncomfortable? There really is no way out, because Christianity is presented as universally true. Keller cites instances of Christianity grafting onto different cultures in a way that creates a nice blend of the original culture and the incoming Christian doctrine. Keller writes, “When Africans began to read the Bible in their own languages many began to see in Christ the final solution to their historic longings and aspirations as Africans.” It is true that Christianity can fit into some pre-existing cultures, but the moral restrictions are presented as blanket statements in a way that is sometimes unhelpful. Is abortion an intrinsic evil, such that it is never alright to have one? This seems dogmatic and inflexible. What about situations in which the mother might die through pregnancy? Can people use contraception when there is risk of spreading serious congenital defects through something like the Zika virus?
Keller gets kind of annoying in his constant appeal to new literary and philosophical references. He brings in, it seems, five or so different quotes and references per page. This creates breadth, but also a lack of depth, since his reference to any of these thinkers is superficial. But, this book is a great start for anyone who seeks to be an erudite Christian or who wants to engage in philosophical speculation about issues related to Christianity.