The perennial issues of life never change. Every generation in every culture and people group wrestle with the four crucial issues that undergird human existence: Who & where are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? Where are we headed?
The perennial issues may not change, but different generations in different cultures may raise strikingly different questions in their quest to make sense of things. This is why listening is so important for Christians (and anyone else) who wants to be part of conversations about the things that matter most. Explaining why believing in something makes sense will make little or no sense if my explanation is not in categories my companion can understand and appreciate.
This touches on one of the reasons many of the postmodern generation find biblically orthodox Christianity to be irrelevant. Many Christians have read and thought about defending their faith, but have done so in terms of questions that were relevant in the decades between the end of World War II and the Sixties. So, they give answers to questions that aren’t being raised, and wonder why they are the only ones in the conversation that seem impressed.
This also sheds light on why many Christians feel defensive about their faith. Old arguments that seemed so certain now seem less so, and challenges are raised which the old answers don’t address adequately.
St. Paul tells us that God raises up teachers and leaders in his Church. Right after warning us not to be squeezed into the mold of the world (Romans 12:1-2), he assures us that different members of Christ’s Church have different gifts and callings (Romans 12:3-8). Thus we can grow together in being renewed in mind and discerning in life. When the apostle wrote to the Church in Ephesus, he pointed out that God provides leaders “to equip” Christians for faithful service in a fallen world (Ephesians 4:11-16). We must be grateful, then, when God raises up someone who is gifted at listening to the culture, at identifying the questions being raised, and at thinking through the issues with a passion for truth, love, and the gospel.
One such gifted leader for today is Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. His book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, is must-reading, whether you are a Christian or a non-Christian. It is good for three reasons. First, it identifies and answers the questions being raised today. Second, it gives reasons for Christian faith that are accessible, thoughtful and never overstated. And third, it approaches the topic with a quiet, confident winsomeness that is all too often missing in the ungodly rhetoric of culture warriors.
By the way, in case you are wondering about the set of questions—seven in all—that Keller correctly identifies as being important today, they include:
There can’t be just one true religion.
How could a good God allow suffering?
Christianity is a straitjacket.
The Church is responsible for so much injustice.
How can a loving God send people to hell?
Science has disproved Christianity.
You can’t take the Bible literally.
The Reason for God is worth reading, reflecting on, and discussing with friends—both Christians and non-Christians. In an effort to further that, Ransom Fellowship has prepared detailed reflection and discussion questions for each section and chapter of the book. The questions were formulated in weekly conversations I had on Keller’s book with two young friends: the Rev. David Richter, associate pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, and Dr. David Van Norstrand, medical student in the Mayo School of Medicine.)
We hope you find our discussion guide to The Reason for God helpful.
Please note: This posting includes questions for the first half of the book, chapters 1-7, which covers Part 1: The Leap of Doubt. The questions are designed to get the group discussing the substance of Keller’s book, and may cover more detail than any particular group will be interested in covering. Discussion leaders will be wise to pick which questions to raise, and which topics, once raised, should be pursued in more detail.
1. “Skepticism, fear, and anger toward traditional religion are growing in power and influence. But at the same time, robust, orthodox belief in the traditional faiths is growing as well” [p. ix]. Do you agree? What are the implications for your skepticism/faith?
2. “The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists,” Keller says, remembering his pilgrimage of faith as a young man, “while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world” [p. xii]. Have you noticed the same divide into two camps? If you haven’t noticed this dichotomy, why haven’t you? Where do you believe this divide stems from? Which one do you tend to identify with the most? Why is that? Does the gospel call us to believe in social justice, to care for God’s creation? How has a biblical passion for social justice come to be seen by Christians as either a liberal or relativist concern?
3. Keller identifies three “barriers” to faith: intellectual, personal, and social [p. xii-xiii]. What role has each played in your spiritual pilgrimage?
4. Since Keller “was always looking for that third camp,” he says he “became interested in shaping and initiating new Christian communities” [p. xiii]. This interest is one dear to the hearts and spiritual yearnings of many postmodern Christians. Do you share it? Why or why not? Could this explain why so many younger Christians feel alienated from disillusioned about a church seeking to conserve itself?
5. “Because doubt and belief are each on the rise, our political and public discourse on matters of faith and morality has become deadlocked and deeply divided. The culture wars are taking their toll. Emotions and rhetoric are intense, even hysterical” [p. xv]. Do you agree? Have the culture wars produced positive results? Give examples of rhetoric from the side of skepticism; from the side of Christian faith; from the side of faiths other than Christianity. Which do you find most problematic or troubling? Why?
6. “We don’t reason with the other side; we only denounce” [p. xv]. Give examples of Christians denouncing something, rather than engaging in careful reasoning. What’s the difference between denouncing and disagreeing?
7. Keller recommends that both skeptics and believers “look at doubt in a radically new way” [p. xvi]. Is his proposal truly new? What are the usual views of doubt? What objections might Christians raise to Keller’s proposal? What objections might skeptics raise? How would you respond to each?
8. Speaking to believers, Keller argues, “Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive” [p. xvii]. Do you agree or disagree? Why? How many Christians engage in such long and hard struggle? Some might argue that the alternatives Keller presents are too extreme—plausible v. ridiculous and offensive. Is this extreme or realistic? We all know of examples of how skeptics give ridiculous or offensive arguments against Christianity—ignoring for a moment the proper offense of the cross, give five examples of arguments against skepticism or for Christian faith where either the argument or the Christian are ridiculous or offensive to unbelievers.
9. How many churches provide safe places and the necessary resources for such long and hard struggle with doubts, with objections to faith? Why might this be? What would such a safe place look like? What plans do your small group need to make to create a safe place? What changes must our church make to be a safe place?
10. Keller says this process of engaging doubt should end when “each side has learned to represent the other’s argument in its strongest and most positive form. Only then is it safe and fair to disagree with it. That achieves civility in a pluralistic society, which is no small thing” [p. xviii-xix]. How often do Christians seek the very best arguments of their opponents? Do you ask perceptive questions of opponents to help them clarify their arguments against Christianity? What plans should you make?
Part One: The Leap of Doubt
Chapter 1: There Can’t Be Just One True Religion
1. Keller says he has often asked non-Christians, “What is your biggest problem with Christianity? What troubles you most about its beliefs or how it is practiced?” [p. 3] Do you make a habit of asking non-Christians questions similar to that? Why or why not? If yes, what questions do you ask? Sometimes such questions evoke strong emotions—where do these come from?
2. Keller agrees with the notion that religions claiming exclusivity of their beliefs are a barrier to world peace [p. 4] Do you agree with Keller? Do you find his agreement surprising? Can you understand why exclusivity can be a concern of many in our culture?
3. Define, as objectively and carefully as possible, the three approaches to try to deal with the divisiveness of religion: to outlaw it [p. 5-6], to condemn it [p. 7-13], and to restrict it the private sphere of life [p. 13-18]. Where have you noticed or encountered such approaches? What does Keller identify as the flaw in each approach? Do you agree they are flaws? How would you present each flaw to a skeptic who is making the argument?
4. “Ironically, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself” [p. 8]. What is a good, winsome way to present this truth to a skeptic without seeming arrogant or insensitive or offensive?
5. Given the refutation of the “story of the blind men and the elephant” [p. 8-9], how do we make this argument while maintaining the humility appropriate to knowing we see only in part, through a glass darkly (see 1 Corinthians 13)?
6. Keller says, “The reality is that we all make truth-claims of some sort and it is very hard to weigh them responsibly, but we have no alternative but to try to do so” [p. 11]; “We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways” [p. 13]. How do we lovingly move skeptics to see this truth? How do you weigh your truth-claims? How responsible have you been in this regard?
7. “The historian C. John Sommerville has pointed out that ‘a religion can be judged only on the basis of another religion.’ You can’t evaluate a religion except on the basis of some ethical criteria that in the end amounts to your own religious stance” [p. 12]. What religious stance or ethical criteria have you found your unbelieving friends using to evaluate Christian faith? Do your non-Christian friends see their evaluation as based on a religious/ethical stance?
8. Because “all of us have fundamental, unprovable faith-commitments that we think are superior to those of others,” Keller argues that we must ask, “which fundamentals will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ?” [p. 19-20]. What “fundamentals” would apply to Christians? Why do so many Christians tend to act as if such fundamentals do not apply to them, since they are neither loving nor receptive?
9. Does it shock you when Keller says that Christians should expect to find nonbelievers who are “much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are”? [p. 19].
10. Review the title of this chapter—does Keller fully answer this question, or does he primarily level the playing field for conversations with skeptics? What is the difference and why does this matter?
Chapter 2: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
1. To what extent have you struggled with this doubt yourself? How have you resolved it for yourself? How satisfied are you with your resolution? What answers have you heard that you find insufficient?
2. “If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order” [p. 23]… “Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all [occasions of suffering]?” [p. 25.] Do you find this argument convincing? Do you think a skeptic would find it convincing?
3. Have you experienced “pointless” suffering that later, in hindsight, you could see had a point for which you became grateful? Did you see it at the time?
4. “If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways” [p. 25]. This may be a strong argument when the issue is discussed over coffee, but may not be useful when someone is going through intense suffering. How does our setting require a change in the reasons we give for belief?
5. “On what basis,” Keller asks, “does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?” [p. 26] How is it possible to raise this issue to align oneself, or agree with, the skeptic rather than merely confront them? When is confrontation appropriate?
6. Sometimes arguments like this in defense of God are made in a tone that seems coldly logical—which offends doubters who are truly wounded by the horrible suffering they find in our broken world [p. 27]. What characteristics or virtues need to be displayed by the Christian making this argument? Can you think of a time when you used this argument inappropriately and hurt or angered someone? What should you have done differently?
7. Keller argues that the existence of evil and suffering is an even bigger problem for the one who disbelieves in God [pp. 25-27]. Do you agree? Have you found unbelievers agreeing?
8. Does it surprise you that “Christianity does not provide a reason for each experience of pain?” [p. 27].
9. “The gospel narratives,” Keller says, “all show that Jesus did not face his approaching death with anything like the aplomb and fearlessness that was widely expected in a spiritual hero” [p. 28] How does this change your view of Christ? Some Christians may find this troubling, wanting to see Jesus as (super)heroic in every way—how would you answer their concerns?
10. Biblical Christianity resolves the issue of evil in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—i.e., the suffering of Christ—that is different from the solution proposed by every other religion. How do this provide a better answer than every other worldview? How does secularism deal with suffering and evil?
11. “The death of Jesus,” Keller argues, “was qualitatively different from any other death” [p. 30]. What reasons does Keller give for this assertion? How does the cross transform the question of evil and suffering in the world?
12. “The Biblical view of things is resurrection,” Keller writes, “not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater” [p. 32]. Is this the view of the future that Christians tend to believe in and hear about in church? What view is more commonly held, and what difference does it make?
13. Keller quotes C. S. Lewis: “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” [p. 34]. What does it mean for “Heaven to work backwards”? (Hint: using not just reason but imagination is essential in working out an answer.)
Chapter 3: Christianity is a Straitjacket
1. Have you heard this objection to faith? How was it expressed? What reasons did the objector give for their conviction? Have you heard Christians raise this issue as a problem in their faith?
2. Define freedom (saying “being in Christ” is not allowed—though true, in this setting it is a platitude). How are notions of freedom (individual and otherwise) foundational to our society’s values?
3. Can you see why Christianity could appear to be a straitjacket or power play to some people?
4. C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see” [p. 37]… “If you say all truth-claims are power plays, then so is your statement… To see through everything is not to see. Foucault was pressing the truth of his analysis on others even as he denied the very category of truth. Some kind of truth-claim, then, seems unavoidable” [p. 38]. Do you find this argument compelling? Why or why not?
5. When Keller says that complete inclusiveness is an illusion, does that make you uncomfortable? [p. 38]. Why?
6. “Liberal democracy is based on an extensive list of assumptions—a preference of individual to community rights, a division between private and public morality, and the sanctity of personal choice. All of these beliefs are foreign to many other cultures” [p. 39]. Is civility in the public square possible if this is correct? Should Christians take the lead in demonstrating civility in the public square? Why or why not? In recent years some Western leaders particularly in the UK and US have argued that the basic values that undergird liberal democracy are shared by all people in every culture. Is this a political idea Christians can endorse?
7. Keller says, “Every human community holds in common some beliefs that necessarily create boundaries, including some people and excluding others from its circle” [p. 39]. He then goes on to give two illustrations. Review the illustrations. Do you find them compelling?
8. “Any community that did not hold its members accountable for specific beliefs and practices would have no corporate identity and would not really be a community at all. We cannot consider a group exclusive simply because it has standards for its members. Is there then no way to judge whether a community is open and caring rather than narrow and oppressive? Yes, there is. Here is a far better set of tests: Which community has beliefs that lead its members to treat persons in other communities with love and respect—to serve them and meet their needs? Which community’s beliefs lead it to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries rather than treating them with kindness, humility, and winsomeness?” [p. 40]. How does the church fare by this standard?
9. What is the difference between being lovingly exclusive and narrow-mindedly oppressive? [p. 40]. Do Christians ever fail to understand this distinction? “We should criticize Christians when they are condemning and ungracious to unbelievers. But we should not criticize churches when they maintain standards for membership in accord with their beliefs. Every community must do the same” [p. 40]. Do you agree?
10. Keller claims, “Christianity has been more adaptive (and maybe less destructive) of diverse cultures than secularism and many other worldviews” [p. 40]. What examples does Keller give to prove this? How compelling are they? On the other hand, Christian missions is full of examples where missionaries have brought not just the gospel but American culture to the world—did Keller apologize sufficiently for this sad heritage? What unholy alliances between Christian faith and cultural values or political ideologies are present in our own society?
11. Keller says, “Today most Christians in the world live in Africa, Latin America, and Asia” [p. 41]. Do you find this surprising? How does this impact your view of world missions?
12. African theologian Lamin Sanneh says that Africans have always held strong beliefs in a spiritual world of good and evil. When Christianity arrived via missionaries, it did not destroy the traditional African worldview but rather revealed how it was fulfilled in Christ. “Christianity answered this historical challenge by a reorientation of the worldview,” Sanneh says, “People sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred nor their clamor for an invincible Savior, and so they beat their sacred drums for him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. After that dance the stars weren’t little anymore. Christianity helped Africans to become renewed Africans, not re-made Europeans” [p. 41]. Is this your assumption of how Christian missions works? Have Christians always fared well in taking their faith into different cultures? If you are a Christian, is this how you view your own faith?
13. How does Keller describe the ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church? [p. 42-44]. One person is quoted as saying that “the difference between Redeemer and other churches was profound and lay in ‘irony, charity, and humility’” [p. 43]. Does this 3-fold list surprise you? To what extent is your church characterized by these three qualities? To what extent is your life as a believer characterized by these three qualities? When they are missing, what difference does it make? What plans should you make?
14. While reflecting on how Redeemer Presbyterian engages the culture of New York City, what are two ways in which your church does a good job of engaging the culture of your city? What are two ways in which it might improve?
15. On pages 44-45, Keller argues that there is “no Christian culture,” but rather that Christianity maintains core orthodoxy while adapting to the culture of its followers. Does this surprise you? “This means,” Keller says, “every human culture has (from God) distinct goods and strengths for the enrichment of the human race… while every culture has distortions and elements that will be critiqued and revised by the Christian message, each culture will also have good and unique elements to which Christianity connects and adapts” [p. 45]. Is this your understanding of the faith? If not, why? What are the implications of this for the church in a rapidly changing, pluralistic culture like the United States?
16. Keller says that, “freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions” [p. 46]. What restrictions have you found liberating? Which restrictions have you found dehumanizing and unhelpful?
17. “Human beings are most free and alive in relationships of love. We only become ourselves in love, yet healthy love relationships involve mutual, unselfish service, a mutual loss of independence” [p. 48]. Is this the commonly understood meaning of love? To what extent would a stranger who follows you around for several months say this sort of love is your primary characteristic?
18. “In the most profound way, God has said to us in Christ, ‘I will adjust to you. I will change for you. I’ll serve you though it means a sacrifice for me.’ If he has done this for us, we can and should say the same to God and others. St Paul writes, ‘the love of Christ constrains us’ (2 Corinthians 5:14)” [p. 49]. Does this seem to be the normal way Christians understand and speak about the incarnation and crucifixion? The normal way Christians act in the public square in America?
Chapter 4. The Church is Responsible for so Much Injustice.
1. “The church has a history of supporting injustice, of destroying culture… If Christianity is the true religion, how could this be?” [p. 51]. How does this challenge make you feel about the Christian faith?
2. “Many people who take an intellectual stand against Christianity,” Keller says, “ do so against a background of personal disappointment with Christians and churches. We all bring to issues intellectual predispositions based on our experiences” [p. 52]. What has been your personal experience with Christians and churches—have you been disappointed or wounded? When people bring up their disappointment, what is usually your first response? Why do you think that is? Do you understand why non-Christians might react the way they do?
3. Keller claims that the notion—“If Christianity is all it claims to be, shouldn’t Christians on the whole be much better people than everyone else?”—is actually based on a “mistaken belief” [p. 53]. What is this mistaken belief? Have you held it?
4. “Good character,” Keller says, “is largely attributable to a loving, safe, and stable family and social environment—conditions for which we were not responsible.” Because people with greater needs are often the ones attracted to Christianity, Keller concludes, “we should expect that many Christians’ lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious” [p. 54]. Do you find this argument surprising? Is this normally how Christians answer this objection to the faith? How might Christians take this argument to an incorrect conclusion?
5. Keller says, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” [p. 54]. Do you see yourself more as a patient in a hospital than a saint in a museum? Which are you most drawn to?
6. Keller quotes New Atheist Christopher Hitchens’ accusation that religion “has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred,” and concludes, “Hitchens’s point is fair” [p. 54-55]. Does Keller’s response surprise you? Is that how you would have responded if someone you knew raised that accusation?
7. “Alister McGrath points out that when the idea of God is gone, a society will ‘transcendentalize’ something else, some other concept, in order to appear morally and spiritually superior” [p. 55]. What are some of things transcendentalized by our pluralistic, busy, postmodern consumer culture?
8. “Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it” [p. 56]. Have you ever heard excuses given for it by Christians wanting to defend the honor of their faith? Have their excuses been compelling?
9. “Perhaps the biggest deterrent to Christianity for the average person today is not so much violence and warfare but the shadow of fanaticism. Many nonbelievers have friends or relatives who have become ‘born again’ and seem to have gone off the deep end” [p. 56]. Have you ever heard this objection to Christianity? How did they define “fanaticism” and “off the deep end”? To what extent would their definitions apply to you—or to your Christian friends?
10. “Think of people you consider fanatical,” Keller says. “They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough” [p. 57]. In some sections of the church, however, the opposite conclusion would be drawn. How would you help such fanatics see they “are not Christian enough”?
11. Do you believe that right doctrine and proper moral behavior will assure your relationship with God? Do you think Christianity should be understood to be a form of moral improvement? [p. 57].
12. “We should not be surprised to discover it was the Bible-believing religious establishment who put Jesus to death” [p. 59]. Is this common knowledge among Christians? Why not? What do think of Barth’s statement that it was the church, not the world that crucified Christ? [p. 59].
13. “The tendency of religious people,” Keller says, “is to use spiritual and ethical observance as a lever to gain power over others and over God, appeasing him through ritual and good works” [p. 59]. If that is true, should churches reward children for good attendance in Sunday school? Or honor members who serve in some way over many years? How have you seen the lever at work?
14. “In Jesus’ and the prophets’ critique, self-righteous religion is always marked by insensitivity to issues of social justice, while true faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and marginalized. The Swiss theologian John Calvin, in his commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, says that God so identifies with the poor that their cries express divine pain. The Bible teaches us that our treatment of them equals our treatment of God” [p. 60]. How do evangelicals fare today by this standard?
15. How should the biblical teaching that Jesus saves us by grace affect the way we view others, and treat them? [59-60]. How does Keller’s discussion of Sommerville’s example of the mugging highlight what our motivation for helping people should be? [p. 60-61]. To what extent should Christians help people because they might be get saved as a result?
16. Keller says, “The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself” [p. 61]. How can Christians talk about this with non-Christians without sounding self-righteous?
17. To what extent do evangelicals actively submit themselves and their churches to Christianity’s own resources for critiquing itself? To what extent is this taught and encouraged by church leaders?
18. In giving specific examples of how Christianity has used self-correction to stop injustice and oppression, Keller mentions: William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery; Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement; Desmond Tutu and the end of apartheid in South Africa; Catholic leadership in the Solidarity Movement in Poland; the martyrs Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany. Might this list surprise some evangelical Christians? Why? What does this suggest?
19. Keller quotes Bonhoeffer: “It is not a religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia [repentance]: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ… Pain is a holy angel… Through him men have become greater than through all the joys of the world… The pain of longing, which often can be felt physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away. But it needs to be overcome every time, and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, that is the one of joy in God” [p. 66-67]. What is your response? Why do you think you respond the way you do? To what extent do you know this experientially? To what extent would suffering people say you know this?
Chapter 5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
1. People who raise the objection that God couldn’t send anyone to hell, Keller says, often believe that “any Christian who thinks there are people bound for hell must perceive such people as unequal in dignity and worth” [p. 69]. How would you respond to this assertion? If you argue that Christians don’t look down on non-Christians, why then do Christian parents believe non-Christians are not good enough to marry their children?
2. Do you find the doctrine of divine judgment or God’s “wrath” offensive or troubling? [p. 69]. If not, can you see why some people might?
3. Sociologist Robert Bellah finds that 80% of Americans are convinced that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue… that the most fundamental belief in American culture is that moral truth is relative to individual consciousness” [p. 70]. Does this surprise you? Do you believe many Christians share this conviction? If you believe it is not shared, why does so much church shopping occur when evangelicals find themselves (or their children) unhappy with their church?
4. What role should sincerity play in our view of God? [p. 70]. For Christians: what saves us—our faith or Christ? What difference does it make? How do we know which of the two we are actually trusting?
5. Keller appeals to C. S. Lewis to show that magic and science grow from the same impulse, and that modernity, of which we are inescapably a part, was “born in ‘dreams of power’” [pp. 70-71]. What is the significance of these ideas? Is this usually how people tend to think of science and modernity?
6. Robert Bellah “concludes that the most fundamental belief in American culture is that moral truth is relative to individual consciousness” [p. 70]. Does this resonate with your sense of your neighbors and co-workers? Does this resonate with your sense of your fellow Christians? To what extent is it true of you?
7. “Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality,” Keller says, “we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires” [p. 71]. What evidence would you list to support this statement? Where do you fit? What difference does it make?
8. Keller contrasts the notion of a “loving God” with a “judging God” [p. 72]. Which do you have the most trouble accepting? What does this say about you? How do you reconcile the two? To what extent do non-Christians find your reconciliation of the two compelling?
9. The objection this chapter addresses, Keller shows, is linked to the unspoken assumptions of Western culture [p. 72]. Does this resonate with your experience of talking to people who raise this objection?
10. If Christianity is “not the product of any one culture but is actually the transcultural truth of God,” Keller says, “we would expect that it would contradict and offend every human culture at some point” [p. 72]. Are you convinced this is true? Why then do many American middle-class evangelical Christians seem both indistinguishable from their non-Christian conservative neighbors and so profoundly comfortable with both Christianity and their middle-class consumerist lifestyle?
11. In response to the objection that a God of love cannot be a God of anger, Keller says “all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love.” “Anger isn’t the opposite of love,” Keller quotes Becky Pippert saying, “Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference” [p. 73]. Do you agree? Why? Do you find this true in your personal experience? If you find that little or nothing in the world angers you, what does this say about you? Do you find it a good response to the objection we are considering? Why or why not?
12. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf says, “If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence—that God would not be worthy of worship… The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God… My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many… in the West… [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die… [with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind” [p. 74]. What is your response? Why?
13. “The human impulse to make perpetrators of violence pay for their crimes is almost an overwhelming one,” Keller says. “It cannot be overcome with platitudes like ‘Now don’t you see that violence won’t solve anything?’” [p. 74-75]. How do you think the platitude will sound to the thousands of victims in, say, Darfur? How did you respond viscerally to the illustration Keller goes on to describe?
14. “Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, wrote the remarkable essay ‘The Discreet Charms of Nihilism.’ In it he remembers how Marx had called religion ‘the opiate of the people’ because the promise of an afterlife (Marx said) led the poor and the working class to put up with unjust social conditions. But, Milosz continued: ‘And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders are not going to be judged… [but] all religions recognize that our deeds are imperishable” [p. 75]. What is your response? Why?
15. In response to the objection that a good God could not possibly allow hell, Keller responds: “Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says ‘Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!’ This caricature misunderstands the very nature of evil. The Biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God, which is the source of all joy and indeed of all love, wisdom, or good things of any sort. Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential. If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell—the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy. A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: ‘What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?’ Hell then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever” [p. 76-77]. If you are a non-Christian, how would you respond to this definition of hell? If you are a Christian, is this how you have understood the biblical concept of hell? Is this how you define hell to your non-Christian friends? If you haven’t heard this before, what does this suggest about the church’s ability to speak biblical truth into our post-Christian world?
16. How does Keller’s understanding of the biblical story of Lazarus and the rich man compare with how you’ve normally thought of it or heard it explained? [p. 77-78].
17. Keller says, “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity” [p. 78]. How does this cause you to see hell? How does this cause you to see other people?
18. Hell, Keller says, is “the greatest monument to human freedom” [p. 79]. Is this a compelling argument? What reasons would you give if a Christian challenged this statement as untrue? What reasons would you give if a non-Christian challenged it as untrue or implausible? If it is true, why don’t we hear hell explained this way?
19. “Today’s outspoken believer,” Keller says, “may be tomorrow’s apostate, and today’s outspoken unbeliever may be tomorrow’s convert. We must not make settled, final decisions about anyone’s spiritual state or fate” [p. 80]. Do you agree? Why or why not? Many Christians might find this statement to be unsettling. Should they? How would you respond to their concern?
20. Have you ever heard the charge that believing in hell makes you “narrow” [p. 80-81]? How did you respond? Were you happy with your response? Are you happy with Keller’s response? Why or why not?
21. Keller says that people should reflect more on the source of their idea that God is love [p. 82]. “I must conclude that the source of the idea,” he says, “is the Bible itself.” How is this significant?
Chapter 6. Science has Disproved Christianity.
1. How often have you heard this objection? How often have you heard it stated as a source of doubt by Christians? What specific issues did they have in mind?
2. Dawkins points to a survey that shows only 7% of scientists believe in God. “This is proof,” Dawkins believes, “that the more intelligent, rational, and scientifically minded you are, the less you will be able to believe in God” [p. 84]. Does this not seem to be an elitist argument? What elitist arguments do Christians sometimes put forward?
3. Are there miracles in the Bible that you have difficulty believing as true events? [p. 85] What makes them especially difficult? How do you resolve your difficulty? How satisfying is your resolution?
4. “It is one thing,” Keller says, “to say that science is only equipped to test for natural causes and cannot speak to any others. It is quite another to insist that science proves that no other causes could possibly exist” [p. 85]. Restate this in a way that someone who has thought little about the nature of science could understand.
5. “The existence of God can be neither demonstrably proven or disproven” [p. 86]. Does this statement by Keller surprise you? Does it make you uncomfortable about being a theist? Why or why not?
6. Keller quotes Macquarrie who argues that since science is based on the idea that all natural events are caused by other natural events, any sort of miracle “is irreconcilable with our modern understanding of both science and history.” Alvin Plantinga says, “Macquarrie perhaps means to suggest that the very practice of science requires that one reject the idea (e.g.) of God raising someone from the dead… [This] argument… is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light” [p. 85-86]. Is this argument compelling? Why or why not?
7. Keller distinguishes between evolution as the idea that “complex life-forms evolved from less complex forms through a process of natural selection,” and “Evolution as an All-encompassing Theory,” which he argues is not science but philosophy [p. 87]. Do you agree with this distinction? Why or why not?
8. Keller says that “Ian Barbour lays out four different ways that science and religion may be related to each other: conflict, dialogue, integration, and independence” [p. 88]. Define each. Which was the one you were taught as a child? If you are a visual person, and you imagine science and religion as two circles, how will they interact/intersect? Where do you find yourself now? Where are most of your friends and co-workers?
9. Remembering that this is an issue about which some people are very sensitive, did Keller’s understanding of Genesis 1 & 2 surprise you? [p. 93-94] Why? To what extent do you agree with him? More specifically, Keller sees Genesis 1 & 2 as similar to Judges 4 &5 and Exodus 14 &15. Read each of the three texts and note similarities and differences. “I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry,” Keller says, “and is therefore a ‘song’ about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation. Genesis 2 is an account of how it happened” [p. 94]. How does this change the meaning of the opening chapters of the creation account? How would you respond to Christians who disagree with his interpretation? How can we love one another while holding differing positions on this issue?
10. “For the record,” Keller states, “I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as All-encompassing Theory” [p. 94]. Do you agree? Why or why not? Some leaders in Keller’s denomination would perhaps believe that Keller should not be ordained as a minister because of holding this view. How would you respond?
11. Have you ever heard someone say that miracles were easily believed by the “more primitive” people of biblical times? How does Keller disprove that assertion? [p. 95] What other texts of Scripture reveal similar doubts about a miracle occurring?
12. Keller points out that Jesus’ miracles were never designed to impress but to bring healing, to restore shalom to a broken world. “You never see him [Jesus] say something like: ‘See that tree over there? Watch me make it burst into flames!’ Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger, and death in it. Jesus has come to redeem where it is wrong and heal the world where it is broken. His miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus’ miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts that the world we all want is coming” [p. 95-96]. Have you ever heard this understanding of the miraculous before? How do you respond to the idea? How does this correspond to the claims of miracles we sometimes hear about today?
Chapter 7. You Can’t Take the Bible Literally.
1. To what extent have you read about the opposing views of the historicity of the biblical documents? How comfortable are you in discussing this topic with a skeptic? [p. 97-98]
2. “If this [revisionist] view of the New Testament’s origins and development is true, it would radically change our understanding of the content and meaning of Christianity itself. It would mean that no one could really know what Jesus said and did, and that the Bible could not be the authoritative norm over our life and beliefs. It would mean that most of the classic Christian teachings—Jesus’ deity, atonement, and resurrection—are mistaken and based on legends” [p. 98]. Do you agree? Since so many highly knowledgeable scholars are convinced this is the only possible conclusion, given the historical evidence, does this make you nervous? How does this statement affect your faith?
3. Have you met people who question whether intelligent people can “take the Bible literally”? [p. 99] What did they specifically challenge or doubt in the biblical texts? What reasons did they give? Where did they learn this?
4. Keller lists three reasons why the four gospel records of Jesus life, death, and resurrection should be taken as historically reliable [p. 100-109]. Summarize each objectively and clearly in language that would be readily understood and appreciated by a non-Christian who does not have a churched background. Do you find the three reasons amounting to a compelling argument? Why or why not?
5. Given the dates of the writing of the New Testament documents, Keller says, “This means that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life were circulating within the lifetimes of hundreds who had been present at the events of his ministry” [p. 101]. How is this significant for the reliability of the biblical texts?
6. “Mark,” Keller says, “says that the men who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary ‘was the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (Mark 15:21). There is no reason for the author to include such names unless the readers know or could have access to them. Mark is saying, ‘Alexander and Rufus vouch for the truth of what I am telling, if you want to ask them’” [p. 101]. In the past, when you read such details in the gospel records did you see that the author meant this? What might this suggest for your next reading of the four gospels?
7. “All this decisively refutes the idea that the gospels were anonymous, collective, evolving oral traditions. Instead they were oral histories taken down from the mouths of living eyewitnesses who preserved the words and deeds of Jesus in great detail” [p. 102]. What does Keller include in “All this”? Do you agree it is a decisive refutation? Why or why not?
8. Have friends raised ideas they garnered from The Da Vinci Code, arguing that though the story is fictional, the ideas behind it are true? [p. 103]. How have you challenged those ideas? Did your friends find your arguments convincing? Why or why not?
9. List the specific “counterproductive content” Keller mentions to counter the argument that the early church fabricated the gospel accounts to make Jesus fit their agenda [p. 104-105]. Does this seem to make a compelling case? Why or why not?
10. Keller says that the Gnostic gospels, not the canonical gospels, “‘suck up’ to the ‘powers that be’” [p. 105]. This turns on its head what is often the common reaction to The Da Vinci Code, and to the recent media coverage of The Gospel of Judas. Do you find these ideas coming up often enough that some further reading on your part might prove helpful?
11. Noting his credentials as a literary scholar, Keller quotes C. S. Lewis, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage … or else, some unknown [ancient] writer … without known predecessors or successors, suddenly, anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic, narrative” [p. 106]. How is this significant for making the case that the gospel narratives are not merely legend—what is Lewis referring to? Take the time to read (at least sections of) Beowulf or The Iliad and compare them to sections of Mark’s gospel.
12. As Keller notes [p. 108], a great of deal of “Biblical revisionism” seems to be filtering into Western culture in the form of archeological discoveries, studies of Gnostic gospels, and works of fiction. How does this make you feel as a Christian? How does this make you feel as a non-Christian? What impact has the shift from what was, a century ago, generally “a culture of belief” to today’s “culture of skepticism” had on Christian belief? If you reject these scholars’ conclusion, on what basis do you reject them if you accept the scholarly conclusion of Lewis in question #11?
13. Keller goes through a step-wise series of suggestions for reading the Bible after finding biblical texts that are culturally offensive [p. 109-113]. As objectively as you can, restate in your own words those steps. Would you be comfortable suggesting them to a non-Christian friend? Why or why not?
14. “To stay away from Christianity,” Keller says, “because part of the Bible’s teaching is offensive to you assumes that if there is a God he wouldn’t have any views that upset you. Does that belief make sense?” [p. 112] Christians often say such things when non-Christians have objections to things like the Trinity or the necessity of Christ’s death for forgiveness. Is it surprising that Keller raises it in this context?
15. Keller claims, “an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it” [p. 114]. Do you find this compelling? Do you find it attractive? Why or why not?
16. Since there are so many other issues raised concerning the historicity and trustworthiness of the Bible, what plans should you make?