In his introduction to The Reason for God Tim Keller shares some of his own spiritual journey and describes three “barriers” to embracing an orthodox Christian faith. I found his categorization especially helpful because these barriers resonate with many of the same barriers I see others experiencing today.
Keller’s religious upbringing vacillated between conservative and liberal forms of Christianity. The conservative side of his upbringing emphasized traditional Christian doctrines and the liberal side expressed doubts about those doctrines and emphasized social activism. Keller thought he saw something wrong in both of these camps:
“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. I was emotionally drawn to the former path… But I kept asking the question, ‘If morality is relative, why isn’t social justice as well?’… [Yet] How could I turn back to the kind of orthodox Christianity that supported segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa? Christianity began to seem very unreal to me…”
This “unreality” stemmed from three barriers that lay across his path; an intellectual barrier, a personal barrier, and a social barrier.
The intellectual barrier came from tough questions posed against Christianity: What about other religions? What about evil and suffering? What about God’s judgement? This barrier was overcome in part through reading books and examining arguments.
The personal, interior barrier, came from the transition from an inherited faith that rested on the authority of others, to a personal faith. This barrier couldn’t be overcome intellectually, but through Keller coming to grips with his own needs, flaws, and problems, and by developing a personal relationship with God.
The social barrier stemmed from his search for a group of Christians who cared about both justice and objective truth about God. Finding this group was an essential turning point for Keller.
These three barriers were intertwined and dependent upon each other. He didn’t work through them one at a time, but together.
I can especially relate to the first two barriers – the intellectual and the personal. My intellectual doubts were bound up with my personal struggles. And, as I worked out my relationship with God, some of my intellectual doubts became less difficult as I learned to simply trust God without knowing all the answers. Yet, the intellectual answers gave me more confidence that I was trusting in an objective reality, and not my own wishful thinking.
I was blessed with never having a major struggle with the social barrier. I have always been able to be part of a community of faith that, while always far from perfect, encouraged me and aided my spiritual journey.
Yet I see that many others either separate from a faith community because of the intellectual or personal barriers, which only makes those barriers more formidable, or the separation from the faith community precedes intellectual and personal barriers. In other words, the social barrier for many is tied inextricably to the personal and intellectual side of faith.
As a pastor concerned with helping people overcome barriers it’s important for me to see and properly diagnose these three barriers. Not every barrier is intellectual, or internal, or social. Intellectual answers won’t help everybody, at least not in the same way they did for me. Nor should we dismiss all intellectual questions as ways of avoiding the commands of God. And, we should see the importance of community, which give the context in which those struggling can overcome their personal and intellectual barriers.