Making Sense of God: An invitation to the sceptical
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
The Great Spiritual Migration: How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian
Hodder & Stoughton £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.60
NEARLY a decade ago, Timothy Keller wrote The Reason for God. In it, the Manhattan pastor aimed to present a rational case for belief in the God of the Bible, addressing along the way classic objections such as the existence of suffering.
Over subsequent years, Keller realised that most people’s indifference to faith operates at a more visceral level. It is more about emotional plausibility and cultural relevance: why would anybody in their right mind cling to faith in today’s complex world? Consequently, his new book is effectively a prequel, starting further back and making fewer assumptions. With its focus on the plausibility of faith in today’s culture, it has the feel of an orderly and house-trained version of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic.
Keller writes engagingly for the thoughtful secularist, at a more stretching level than one might expect in a book for the popular market. An opening section challenges the assumption that faith is declining in today’s world, and that religion is based purely on faith while secularism is based on evidence. He draws on the literary critic Terry Eagleton and the philosophers Charles Taylor and Michael Polanyi to demonstrate that secular humanism is itself based on assumptions that cannot be proved. The central part of the book seeks to highlight the problems that secularism has in providing people with meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, and hope. A short final section invites the sceptical reader to revisit the claims of historic Christianity.
Keller’s tone throughout is characteristically gracious: he cites the harshest critics of faith besides outlining his case for the defence. He is refreshingly honest about the risk that religion itself becomes part of the problem, and admits that, for every person who turns from faith owing to lack of evidence, many more leave because they find churchpeople self-righteous and moralistic.
If Keller writes for the sceptical secularist, Brian McLaren writes for the jaded believer, that same person whom Keller sees running for the church exit. If Keller’s tone is measured, McLaren’s tone is restless and angry. He relates conversations with believers around the world who, like him, have become tired of a Christianity associated in the popular mind with legalism, anti-intellectualism, and bigotry. His prime target is clearly American Evangelicalism, a “discredited brand”, but he sees similar patterns around the world. His compelling image for the state of today’s Church is of a Jesus kidnapped and held hostage by extremists.
At the same time, he sees other Churches obsessed with petty formalities, endless committees, and dry tradition. Both options for McLaren are unappealing, a choice between “ignorance on fire or intelligence on ice”. Little surprise, he says, that so many are turning their backs on the Church and are increasingly hesitant to own the label of “Christian”. McLaren calls on world Christianity to keep moving, to migrate to a better way of being Christian. He invites other restless souls on the same journey as he is on.
Like Keller’s, McLaren’s book is in three parts. The first outlines the kind of spiritual migration which he sees as necessary for today’s Church: from faith as a system of beliefs to a way of life. The second is theological migration: from a violent God of domination to a non-violent God of liberation. Part three is missional migration, from organised religion to organising religion (organising to challenge and resist core values of our society). The author pictures this transition in the language of a child’s growing to maturity.
McLaren’s value lies in voicing a frustration felt by many in our churches, a sense that something has to change. How far his own broad-brush proposals will convince is another matter. He insists that religion should be not about beliefs, but about love, and prefers relational faith (“I trust my wife”) to dogma. He insists that the issue is not whether the objects of our belief exist, but how loyal and faithful we are to them. But doesn’t McLaren’s trust in his wife itself rest on a belief that she exists and is trustworthy? The questions what we believe and why are not so easily bracketed out.
Similarly, the “old” faith is presented as a procession of violent conquistadors, committing genocide and environmental havoc in the name of a violent God, while McLaren’s “new” faith is a peaceful, tolerant, interfaith utopia. But the caricature is so extreme as to be almost unrecognisable.
Ironically, of the two authors it was Keller the traditionalist who left me feeling that I’d had the more thoughtful, open-minded dialogue about the viability of faith in today’s world. McLaren, for all his hope and vision, left me with an uneasy feeling of being shouted at, hard questions left unanswered, and complex issues reduced to stereotypes.
The Revd Mike Starkey is a tutor for the Church Army and author of the Faith Pictures evangelism course.