Timothy Keller is the founder and pastor of something as rare as a Manhattan Presbyterian church that draws more than five thousand people to its Sunday services. He specializes in ministering to skeptics like myself and has apparently been hugely successful in this endeavor. That piqued my curiosity, so I bought his new book, Making Sense of God, whose subtitle invited me to sit down and listen to his pitch.
Keller is a modern-day C.S. Lewis without the Brit’s literary gifts. He is a Christian rationalist who has spent years reading modern philosophers, something he is keen to show off in his extensive end notes. I was immediately disappointed because Christian rationalism was the bane of my own faith. I used to be a great admirer of Francis Shaeffer and the mainstream Christian apologists in the ten years I was a Christian in the 1970s. They read well and sound excitingly convincing but only when you are a believer or heading in the direction of faith. When you return to them as a questioning skeptic, they beg more questions than they answer. (My copy of Keller’s book is now tagged down with adverse commentary and argumentative push-backs.)
Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard lampooned the religious rationalism of his day:
To believe against reason is a martyrdom, the lethal danger of finding yourself on 70,000 fathoms of water and only there finding God. Behold how the wader probes with his foot so that he doesn’t advance beyond where he can feel the bottom, and that is the way the wise probes into probability with his wisdom and finds God where probability kicks in and thanks Him on the high holy days of probability when he has acquired a very good living [as a state church minister]. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 218, Danish edition).
Keller’s book resounds with the praise of the probability and rationality that Kierkegaard attacked. Time after time, Keller argues that faith is above all rational. “Instead, many religious philosophers have argued that God’s existence can be inferred logically” (p. 217). “In a similar way, the arguments for God contend that belief in God makes more rational sense of the world than nonbelief because it accounts for the data—what we see and know about the world” (Ibid.). “One way to argue for the existence of God is to infer his existence from existence” (Ibid.). “It is improbable that all the physical constants just happened to be perfectly tuned for life on their own. It would be more reasonable to conclude it was something intended and designed” (p. 219).
Keller spends half the book arguing that I am not entitled to the values I espouse nor the pitiful meaning that I find in life because neither is anchored in God’s Platonic absolutes. My values are contrived while his are “discovered,” i.e. revealed by God. As far as my humanist outlook on life is concerned, he asserts, “ It will not ultimately matter whether you are a genocidal maniac or an altruist” (p. 66). Were we to think like me, “everything we do is radically insignificant. Nothing [human] counts forever” (p. 67) since nothing, according to science, will survive the ultimate implosion of our solar system. (In the margins of the book, I asked him if he was seriously arguing that the cultural achievements of humans would retain their meaning in Heaven, that Shakespeare would feel validated by God himself, were he to make it into that blessed abode. I have not heard back from Keller, but I doubt the angels and saints in Heaven will be quoting Henry IV, in which case Keller’s argument falls apart.)
According to Keller, faith provides such a grand meaning to life that “if a Christian is feeling downcast and meaningless, it is because, in a sense, she is not being rational enough” (p. 68). He argues that all the depressed and despairing Christians of the world who “are not experiencing peace and meaning” have themselves to blame for “not thinking enough” (p. 69). “Only secular culture sees suffering as accidental and meaningless,” he says (p. 73). So much for theodicy and the existential despair of many people, whether religious or secular.
Keller’s approach to modern skeptics is reminiscent of Luther’s dialectic of law and mercy. First, he sets out to demolish my wrong-headed beliefs and values, then he brings me along to the plains of Shinar to build a tower of rational arguments that is going to be so high (even “yuge") that we can spy Heaven from its observation deck. I tell him that I have already been there and that it is full of people who do not understand one another and hence are unable to agree on anything, especially about the nature of the sights seen from its top, so Keller gives up on me and goes looking for somebody else.
I understand why believers in the age of science would like to avoid Kierkegaard’s martyrdom of being thought unscientific and unenlightened. This is far from a new thing. Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, deployed all his considerable intellect to making Judaism appealing to the sophisticated Hellenistic world, and before him, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote his world-weary lament in the vernacular of Stoicism. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics devoted much of their efforts to the intellectual rehabilitation, if not accreditation, of the Christian faith. That, of course, was not the approach of the man who turned a Jewish sect into a world religion, the self-appointed apostle to the gentiles, Paul of Tarsus:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:18-25 NIV).
Ironically, the more religion relies on rational argument, the more exposed it becomes to doubt. When the Christian faith spread throughout the Roman Empire, it was in the form of a narrative that caught the spirit of the age. I was hoping Keller might have worked out something similar, a faith narrative that might resonate in the 21st century, given the fact that he specifically invites people like myself to sit down with him and hear him out. But no, the story he wanted to share with me was his attack on my humanist philosophy of life and some optimistic happy-talk about well-seasoned syllogisms that genuflect before the throne of God.
What we skeptics are looking for are not 69 pages of end notes and a text marinated in sophisticated arguments advanced by theistic philosophers. Many of us know the arguments on either side of the faith divide, and we know that when the verbal fog dissipates, we are at best left with the universal intuition that there might be something beyond the human horizon and that reality is more complex than what we can see and observe. Instead of trying to make Christian sense of this reality, Keller tries to bury me in arguments.
We who identify as skeptics do not reject the idea that existence is a mystery. What we reject are simplistic partisan arguments and the ever-present tendency of ideological enclaves on either side of faith to appropriate that mystery for their own purposes and to nail it to their respective temple doors with ten-inch dogmatic nails. (I’m not referring to science, which is a process, not a creed, but attempts, religious and secular, at speaking in absolute terms about cognitive guesswork.)
The mystery of life—why something exists and the origin of life—belongs to all of us, whether we believe or not. When I read authors like Keller, I am tempted to conjure up the ghost of Ludwig Wittgenstein to deliver a sermon on the virtue of shutting up about things we cannot speak clearly about. But, of course, we cannot help ourselves; we are all of us rationalists at heart, and Keller is only louder than most of us.
So what then accounts for Keller’s success? After all, it is no mean thing to draw five thousand sophisticated New Yorkers to church on a Manhattan Sunday. I can only guess from his many anecdotes that much of it is due to his ability to listen to people and affirm them as they are and include them in his fellowship, despite their intellectual reservations. If so, he preaches better than he writes.
Aage Rendalen is a retired foreign language teacher who has served the Richmond public school system in Virginia.
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.