It’s a book I avoided reading last year on the grounds that everyone else was reading it. Ten years ago I’d have lapped it up and loved its short chapters’ claims to neatly tie up complex issues of suffering, hell, and the exclusivity of Christianity. Now I’m not so sure. But it’s a book that someone recommended and I agreed to read. And there it was, just £1.99 in a charity shop.
My new purchase in hand, I bump into a friend and we go for coffee. One of my many friends who have ‘moved on’ from a traditional evangelical stance, he thumbs through the book and we enter into an inevitable conversation about life, faith, doubt, social action and so on. I love talking and thinking about this stuff but always seem to end up dissatisfied. He hands back the book and we leave it that I’ll text him the answers to life’s big questions once I’ve read it.
Back home, a few days later, I start off with the introduction in which Keller looks at the gulf between liberalism and conservatism, especially where religion is concerned, and acknowledges and that around the world both scepticism and faith are growing in equal measure. Blah blah blah. I kind of get that already but you’re not really grabbing me.
However, he begins to reel me in as he writes about his student days: ‘I seemed to see two camps before me, and there was something radically wrong with both of them. The people most passionate about social justice were moral relativists, while the morally upright didn’t seem to care about the oppression going on all over the world’. While acknowledging that he was drawn emotionally to the former path, the question remained: ‘If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?’
Similar thoughts often float around my head, so I start to warm to this guy, and I hear what he’s saying about the barriers that for some time kept him in a place of spiritual ‘unreality’. The intellectual barrier (all those questions about suffering, other religions, etc); the personal one (a frustrated desire to experience the reality of God); and, thirdly, the social one (the need for a ‘third camp’: a group of Christians who had a concern for justice in the world but who grounded it in something more than subjective feelings).
As I reflect on these barriers, I think of the many friends who have drifted, been distracted or intentionally walked away from Christianity, for a vast range of reasons… life experience… doubt… disappointment… unanswered questions… this sense of spiritual disconnectedness… a better offer from the here and now. Thoughtful, clever, passionate people, who at one time were so convinced, so ‘alive’ in their faith, ‘evangelistic’ even, yet who are now walking a different path.
And I think of me. Of the instability and pain I’ve experienced when I’ve tried to keep a foot in both camps. And frustrations at myself for giving up so easily and settling for mediocrity when the narrow third way – which must surely be the answer? – seems so hard to find, let alone to walk.
I’m still on the book’s introduction, but I think I’ll keep reading.