For twenty-eight years, Timothy Keller pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary, Keller planted the church in 1989. Odds are, you’ve heard of him now; odds are, you had no idea who he was until some point in the last decade.
Billy Graham once said of Keller, “Tim Keller’s ministry in New York City is leading a generation of seekers and skeptics toward belief in God. I thank God for him.” Christianity Today has said that if “Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbors” in fifty years, Keller will deserve much of the praise.
This is, in large part, due to Keller’s more than fifteen books, including bestsellers like The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Every Good Endeavor. But Keller waited until he had decades of pastoral ministry under his belt to give publishing a go. “If you wait to write until you are older, the writing will go much faster, because you will have reams of material and many layers of thought about a lot of subjects and texts,”[i] Keller has written to pastors. This is certainly true of Keller himself, and, thanks be to God, the global church is now feasting on his decades of Spirit-wrought “reams of material.”
Keller’s bestselling work is The Reason for God (2008), but shortly after publishing this book, he realized it was lacking some necessary ground-laying for those who have never seen the world through a Christian lens. To that end, he wrote a “prequel” for the book, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World.
Making Sense of God (2016) asks and seeks to answer the question, “Does belief in God have anything to offer us in a ‘secular age’?” A secular age is not one in which the vast majority of people are non-religious, but “one in which all the emphasis is . . . on the here-and-now, without any concept of the eternal. Meaning in life, guidance, and happiness are understood and sought in present-time economic prosperity, material comfort, and emotional fulfillment” (Keller, 3).
Of course, Keller answers his own question with a resounding “yes.” Belief in God does indeed have much to offer us in a secular age. He supports his answer in three parts: Why does anyone need religion?; Religion is more than you think it is; and Christianity makes sense. By reading these three sections, Christian readers will be encouraged in their efforts to converse helpfully and meaningfully with their secular friends and neighbors, and skeptics will be, Lord-willing, challenged to reassess their worldview and consider Keller’s compassionate-but-forceful arguments that Jesus is, as he has always been, the way, the truth, and the life.
Level the Playing Field
In a secular age, society operates on the assumption of naturalism; two hundred years ago the burden of proof was on secularism, but today, it is on religious belief. Religious belief is based solely on faith, whereas secularism is based on reason and science, so the argument goes. But is that really true?
Keller helps readers see the holes in this line of thinking, and so levels the playing field between religious belief and secularism. “The reality is,” he argues, “that every person embraces his or her worldview for a variety of rational, emotional, cultural, and social factors,” whether they are religious believers or secular believers (4). Secularism, then, is a religion itself; it requires faith.
Why, then, is religion dying? It’s well known that religious belief has been on the decline for years in our age of science, right? Wrong again. Keller cites numerous sociologists who show that globally, religious belief is on the rise, and even in the West, only nominal, cultural religious belief is on the decline; true, heart-level religious belief is growing globally. “In the world overall religion is growing steadily and strongly,” Keller says. “Christians and Muslims will make up an increasing percentage of the world’s population, while the proportion that is secular will shrink” (Keller, 9–10). Why? “One explanation is that many people find secular reason to have ‘things missing from it that are necessary to live life well. Another explanation is that great numbers of people intuitively sense a transcendent realm beyond the natural world” (Keller, 11). It is those two good answers that Keller spends the majority of the rest of his book explaining. He does so by zooming in on meaning, satisfaction, freedom, the self and identity, hope, morality, and justice. Each idea is compelling; the following review will consider only three in detail.
Christianity Offers a Better Justice
There is much talk in our Western society today about justice. But this longing for justice does not flow naturally out of a secular worldview. “To hold that human beings are the product of nothing but the evolutionary process of the strong eating the weak, but then to insist that nonetheless every person has a human dignity to be honored—is an enormous leap of faith against all evidence to the contrary” (Keller, 49). Where then can we look to find a legitimate ground for our desire for justice? Keller answers we must turn to religious faith.
Of course, much that is unjust has occurred in the name of religious faith. But “in the end,” Keller says, “the relationship of religion to justice cannot be answered simply by adding up religious abuses and injustices on one side of the sheet against a list of religious benevolences and goods on the other. . . . It would be better to look for other grounds on which to explore the relationship between religious faith and justice” (Keller, 195).
Exploring that relationship, Keller offers a case study: the secular approach to justice as typified by Harvard philosopher John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and the Christian approach to justice as typified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “image of God.”
Rawls argued that a just society could be achieved if people imagined the kind of world they would create behind a “veil of ignorance.” “They don’t know what race, age, level of intelligence or talent, gender, or education level they will be or occupy . . . So they should create the kind of society they would want to live in whatever place in society they would inhabit.” (198) This view is cherished by many, but it has massive problems. “It is not true,” Keller shows readers, “that you could complete this exercise and design a society using only some kind of neutral, objective reason. Each of us will also be deeply affected by our particular convictions about what a good human life is, what a good human being is, and what human life is for.” (Keller, 198). Even behind a veil of ignorance, humans would create different societies, because humans disagree about human nature, and about what it is all for.
Does King’s approach fair any better? Yes, argues Keller. King “sought a just society on a considerably stronger footing. He argued that segregation was not simply impractical for the overall good of a society, but that it was a sin. He knew that human rights have no power if they are simply created by a majority or imposed by judicial fiat. They have power only if they are really ‘there,’ existing on their own, dependent only on the fact that the wronged person before you making the claim against you is a human being. . . . (King) wrote that God’s image in us gives every person ‘a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him a dignity’” (Keller, 199)
“The secular approach of Rawls,” Keller concludes, “pales before the Christian foundation for justice used by Dr. King” (Keller, 199).
Keller goes on to show readers that the postmodern response to oppression and injustice actually creates new oppressors. It has created a new binary of good guys and bad guys—the good guys are those who are tolerant, who deny any claims to a “metanarrative,” who promote plurality in all things, while the bad guys contend for universal truths and one overarching metanarrative. Ironically, postmodernists want to silence the latter groups, making them “just as quick to demonize and marginalize opposing points of view, as the orthodoxies it opposes” (Keller, 201).
What we need, then, is a justice that does not create new oppressors. And Christianity offers us just that. How? Christianity offers us a justice that does not create new oppressors because it is not a religion that divides the strong and the weak, the powerful and the defenseless; it is a religion that assumes that we are all weak and defenseless, and that a strong and powerful God, who is also perfectly good and just, became weak for us in the person of Jesus Christ. In his assumed weakness, he went to the cross, died in the place of sinners, and invited us into the true metanarrative—a metanarrative of redemption and restoration that is not divided into strong and weak, but where the weak made strong in the presence of their strong Savior who was made weak.
“Jesus Christ’s salvation comes to us,” says Keller, “through his poverty, rejection, and weakness. And Christians are not saved by summoning up their strength and accomplishing great deeds but by admitting their weakness and need for a savior” (Keller, 208).
Christianity Offers a Better Identity
The sense of self in postmodernism is fragile. It has been described by some as “thin.” We place our meaning in our identities, and where do we look for our identities? We don’t look to God; we no longer look to community or family; now, we look inside ourselves. Modern identity is found “not by self-giving to something outside but through self-expression of something inside” (Keller, 121).
But this approach is incoherent. “If you look into your heart to find your deep desires, you will certainly discover many of them. And you will discover something else—that they contradict each other” (123). So, Keller tells a parable of a man with two strong internal desires: one to eat whatever he likes, and the other to spend time with his beloved grandchildren. But the man takes a visit to the doctor and is told if he continues to eat as he wishes, he will die very soon. What then is he to do? He must suppress one or the other internal desire. So, his identity, which is derived from his “heart,” is confused. It is incoherent.
Moreover, we are told in a secular age not to look to anyone or anything besides ourselves for our identity. “Do not look to anyone else to validate you. Use no standards from the outside. You bestow the verdict of significance on yourself. But this is an impossibility. . . . Even when modern people claim to be validating themselves, the reality is always that they are socializing themselves into a new community of peers, of ‘cheerleaders,’ of people whose approval they crave” (Kelller, 125).
So, Keller provides another set of parables: one of an Anglo-Saxon warrior in AD 800; the other of a modern young man in Manhattan. The two look into their hearts and both see “two strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. . . . The other impulse he sees in his heart is same-sex attraction” (126). Will not the first man find in his community a praise and affirmation of his desire for aggression and a suppression of his same-sex attraction, while the latter will find in his community a suppression of his violence and a praise and affirmation of his same-sex attraction? In both cases, then, though we may desire an identity formed wholly from within, we are shown that such an identity is impossible. Everyone creates their sense of self based on some inherent value system informed by a combination of religion, culture, personality, etc.
But Christianity offers a new and a better sense of identity—a thick, durable identity. “If I am a Christian,” Keller says, “I am who I am before God. Those things God affirms are the true me; those things he prohibits are the intrusions of the foreign matter of sin and not part of the person I was made to be and the Spirit is bringing about” (141). In all of us, there is a desire to be fully known and fully loved; but we are all afraid that if we are fully known we will be rejected. This leaves us ashamed and uncertain of our identities and frequently drives us to modify how we project ourselves. But for Christian believers, we can be confident in our God-given identities, knowing that in the cross, we are shown to be more sinful than we could ever imagine and more loved than we could ever dream.
Christianity Offers Better Suffering
Better suffering? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t all suffering bad?
By considering our sources of meaning, Keller insightfully shows that secularism does not offer humanity the tools we so desperately need to cope with suffering.
People have sought to find meaning in two ways, Keller argues—by creating it or by discovering it. In the secular view, the natural world is all there is; it came from nothing, and it will return to nothing. Therefore, there is no meaning inherent to it; meaning, to be enjoyed, must be created. For example, when a secular person is moved by artistic beauty, an act of sacrifice, or feelings of romantic love, he cannot assume meaning is objectively “there” in those experiences. He must tell himself “I’m only feeling this way because evolutionary-biological processes at play helped my ancestors survive by producing these feelings within them.” He must shield himself from his own feelings.
Moreover, “Secularism is the only worldview whose members must find their main meaning within this life. . . . To have a meaningful life, therefore, life must go well. But when suffering disrupts this, it has the power to destroy your very meaning” (72). But whose life has truly gone well? Even those with the best of lives have walked through deep disappointment and will walk through deep pain and suffering. All of us will either die young or live long enough to see all those we love most die before us; every source of created meaning will come to a tragic, gut-wrenching end.
Christianity, on the other hand, offers us hope in suffering. It tells us of a story that goes on after the natural world ends, and in doing so, it provides us with a meaning that exists whether we’re aware of it or not. This discovered meaning is far more durable than created meaning. “Christianity can give a deep peace and meaning that come from making yourself as aware and as mindful of your beliefs as possible” (Keller, 72). In other words, secular people can only hold on to a semblance of meaning by shielding themselves of their beliefs; Christians can discover meaning by diving deeper and deeper into their beliefs. This is the kind of hope our world needs.
Keller closes his book with an invitation. Having leveled the playing field and made the case that Christianity offers us what we desperately want and need, he provides summaries of the classic apologetics arguments for Christianity in chapter 12 (perceived design; moral realism; consciousness; reason and beauty) and asks skeptical readers, “Why not reconsider your premise?” Chapter 13 moves past the general arguments for the existence of God for the specific arguments for the God of Christianity, the God most fully revealed in the God-man Jesus Christ.
“Jesus,” Keller says, “comes to every individual and every culture and offers to fulfill their deepest desires and best aspirations. But in the same stroke he also fundamentally challenges their beliefs and practices; he tells them they have been going about seeking the fulfillment of those desires in profoundly wrong ways. He offers them all they want—meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope, and justice—but calls them to repent and seek their all in him. This is his basic message” (Keller, 245). It is not only the basic message of Jesus; it is the basic message of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God.
While Keller’s book is far from perfect (the conclusion, for example, is a story about Langdon Gilkey coming to faith in Christ while in an internment compound in China, which seems less compelling than Keller desired and is a bit of an odd way to finish the book), it may be just the book we need for twenty-first century evangelism. Most of our evangelistic tools presuppose some level of shared worldview about God, morality, and judgment, but our neighbors no longer share this worldview. What, then, have we been given with which to combat these opposing worldviews? Propositional apologetics. Books like Keller’s The Reason for God. And while these books are helpful insofar as they fortify the already-present beliefs of many struggling Christians, they rarely help the skeptic move from genuine unbelief to faith in Christ.
What we need, then, are tools that will help us converse intelligently and empathetically with our secular neighbors. We need tools that model for us a gracious invitation. An invitation to doubt your doubts. An invitation to reconsider the claims of Christianity. An invitation to life with Jesus—the way, the truth, and the life.