I Accepted Timothy Keller’s Invitation to the Skeptical

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’m 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 haven’t 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’ve already been there and that it is full of people who don’t 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 wall-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’m tempted to conjure up the ghost of Ludwig Wittgenstein to deliver a sermon on the virtue of shutting up about things we can’t speak clearly about. But of course, we can’t 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.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7931
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Stott is. Still tops, but I. Read Keller with appreciation. Trust is the Proper response to the Gospel. Adventism when confounded with the Gospel responds–"Yes, But!, " If Ellen White is God’s messenger to the find age, then they should abandon the White estate and turn the lock and barrel Over to the Library of Congress. If her words are final why hold back?

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Apologetics is a primitive and humdrum endeavor that is practiced by those who know nothing about the study of hermeneutics. The study of hermeneutics is to chess what apologetics is to tic-tac-toe. Whereas apologetics is what you teach children in Vacation Bible School, the study of hermeneutics is what you should teach students in an institution of higher learning.

If we presuppose reason, natural law, a fixed human nature, and other historically-conditioned Enlightenment notions of universality, transcendence, and absoluteness, then the rationalist argumentation of the apologist can be valid. But the Counter-Enlightenment teaches that people are different. The most fundamental hermeneutical error one can make is to fail to realize differences that might exist. The first class in a course on hermeneutics is a study of Hermes and how he overcomes differences, i.e., manifestations of distance that impede understanding. The marginality and liminality of Hermes, his “in-betweenness” as it were, are characteristics of an effective hermeneutic that bridges distance. My favorite hermeneutical observation is the one made by Robert Caro, who demonstrates that to know Lyndon Johnson one must know the soil of the Hill Country in Texas that the boy Lyndon walked on, the thin soil that frustrated generations of farmers, and in so doing, shaped Lyndon’s character.

Thank you Aage for another interesting essay.

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It is all about feelings…all about feelings…all about feelings.

Anyone who thinks that it is about rationale is only fooling themselves because they don’t understand human nature. People go where they feel best/understood- nothing more, nothing less. Keller must be giving them something that they need (feel) or they wouldn’t be going to hear him. Period.

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At times of doubt, when one is slipping down the rope of faith and only stops at the knot at the end of the rope, one is left with idea in the quote above, and finds a bit to hold on to. Maybe that is when faith is most pure, when there is no evidence. Isn’t that what Hebrews 11:1 says?

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Helpful insight indeed. One added thought: there is a difference between apologetics which begins with a specific outcome in mind; namely, to provide arguments for a specific view of the ultimate–such as theism or pantheism and so on. However, a careful philosophical analysis of the nature of Being and consciousness, as well as the peculiar uniqueness of beauty, leads one not to a specific view of the ultimate, but to the mystery of Being itself. One of the finest treatments I know is David Hart’s BEING, CONSCIOUSNESS AND BLISS which, while both demanding and accessible, strikes me as leaving open the question of whether the universe we inherit can be understood in a rationally consistent way as only “matter” in one form or another. It’s true that Hart is an erudite theologian whose “apologetic” writing can be painfully acerbic, as he sometimes gets in this volume when he dismisses individuals who write (in his opinion) quite superficially about these matters. Hart’s reflections here are his way of plumbing the depths of what human consciousness and analysis inevitably discovers about itself. It does not start with nature and says little about it. There are, as Yale’s John Smith pointed out years ago, only two starting points for philosophical reflection: the SELF and the WORLD. In either case, one must account as best one can for the other. In a sense, Hart is arguing that this analysis does not have an equally valid “difference” in some other perspective, but is as baseline as one can get for a conversation that could lead to some agreement, even if it does not enfold basic differences.

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I find Keller’s characterization of those who are depressed and despairing as not being rational enough, or thinking enough, disturbing and highly insensitive. He is reducing the complexity of human experience and faith to a left brain exercise, devoid of feeling, emotion, connection, and even love.

He is also ignoring swaths of the biblical narrative such as the Psalms, and Job. Where does Psalm 88, dubbed the suicide psalm, fit into his construct, or Job’s cursing the day of his birth? How does his assessment line up with Job saying in the end that he spoke of what he didn’t understand, and essentially sitting with no rational answers for his suffering? Where does Jesus’s own cry of despair from Calvary fit into his worldview? Did Jesus not think enough in that circumstance?

To me, Keller’s entire premise of Christian faith, and presenting evidence for it, is off. One can never argue people into belief on the basis of rational argument, or a superior framework for data and knowledge. Paul, to the Corinthians, said that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Jesus said to his disciples that people would know who they are by their love for one another. The most powerful argument for faith is a love that is continually and consistently lived, not apologetics.

And the most rational and humble stance we can take for faith itself, amidst the complexity and pain of life and human experience, is being able to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge, bowing before mystery that we don’t understand, and clinging to God, even when it seems to make no sense. This is just as Jesus did in his dying moments, or as the dying criminal did next to him. The cross is foolishness to human wisdom, but is the wisdom of God.

People like Keller need to get off the ground of trying to make the one fit into the parameters of the other. It’s not a winning strategy…or a wise one.

Thanks…

Frank

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A good advice from Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human):, against utopian versions of truth:

Idealist and liar. - We should not let ourselves be tyrannized over by our
fairest ability - that of elevating things into the ideal: otherwise one day
truth will depart from us with the angry words: 'you liar from the very
heart, what have I to do with you?”

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Aage,
Thank you for your recent interviews and articles.
I have benefitted from daily messages from an American author named Richard Rohr. He is the director of an organization called the Center for Action and Contemplation and is not afraid to explore Christianity beyond the traditional ways of thinking.
His group just finished a series on the Trinity. One of the insights was that the universe is based on the ternary and we believers are to move on from our traditional binary thinking.
I invite you to take a look at his meditation for today (March 26) as he previews a new series under the title of ‘The Cosmic Christ’ called ‘The Christ is Bigger Than Christianity’. I am looking forward to it. Perhaps it may be of help to you.

https://cac.org/category/daily-meditations/

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Aage, your essays always promote deeper thinking than the large majority of others published here.

“the virtue of shutting up about things we can’t speak clearly about.”

If only this were more fully practiced by all the apologetic writers who are filled with certitude about their personal assumptions that should be adopted by others. Each of us must find out own answers or be content that there are none.

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To think that Evolution might be the greatest witness to the existence of God . And that Atheism might just qualify as a Faith. For what can we say against the Truth , but for the Truth. If something can just come from nothing , isn’t that the point where God starts ? We might argue over how long it took to create the world, but that is understandable , because everything was created fully grown. God is so patient with us. Additionally , It takes faith to disbelieve in God . That in our proving that He does not exist, we find Him in our search of Him .God is just too wonderful. He hides in the shadows hoping that we like the skeptics , would seek Him out. He is there , and He will reveal Himself to us in due time , if He hasn’t already . The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament show forth His handy work. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge .Ps 19:1-2

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Phil, I think you meant, “The study of hermeneutics is to apologetics what chess is to tic-tac-toe.”

Of course, most of us have not had a class in hermeneutics. It is interesting that what seems so important to you is not widely studied. Maybe you should write a short course and present it to us on this forum? I, for one, would be interested to know more, in condensed form.

Your reference to Enlightenment notions and Christian rationalism was timely, since just a few hours ago I was reading Mark Noll’s critique of its 19th century manifestation in American Evangelicalism and the hole that left in the church when the weaknesses of rationalism were exposed (Mark Noll: “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, Eerdmans, 1994, pp. 83-107). I liked this comment of his (p. 98): “So influential had principles of Enlightenment rationality become that it was increasingly easy for evangelicals to treat the Scriptures as a ‘scientific’ text whose pieces were to be arranged by induction to yield the truth on any issue.” Sounds like Adventist proof-texting/evangelism to me!

This is a nice time of year to recommend people to visit the Texas hill country, btw! (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the hill country comes alive with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, winecups, phlox, evening primrose, and other wildflowers in Spring).

Aage, Hans Kung (“Does God Exist?”) argues that fundamental trust–a widespread characteristic–is consistent with faith. “Denial of God implies an ultimately unjustified fundamental trust in reality. Atheism cannot suggest any condition for the possibility of uncertain reality. If someone denies God, he does not know why he ultimately trusts in reality.” (p. 571). And, (p. 572), “Affirmation of God implies an ultimately justified fundamental trust in reality. As radical fundamental trust, belief in God can suggest the condition of the possibility of uncertain reality. If someone affirms God, he knows why he can trust reality.” I don’t know if you buy that anymore than Keller’s rationalism, but since I slogged through 570 pages of philosophy translated from the German to get to these assertions, I figured I might as well share! :slight_smile: Thanks for the essay! I’m greatly enjoying your writing here! Time for another interview?

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Hi Aage
I enjoyed reading this article but for me it is an esoteric exercise in philosophical thought that can neither prove or disprove the existence of God.
If you haven’t read any of Francis Collins ( Director of NIH and primary MD/scientist to map the “human genome”) books I would suggest you might enjoy them. He was raised as an atheist and through his scientific life journey through medicine and genetics has become convinced there is a God. He is now a Christian.
As a physician / surgeon I am convinced there is a God every day in the operating room not by a philosophical argument but seeing how the human body heals and adapts to the things we as surgeons do to it.
I haven’t forgotten your invitation to drop in and chat with you next time I am passing through your “neck of the woods” and I still hope to make it . I trust it would be “yugely entertaining”.
Here is to your continued good health!!
All the best,
Fred

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There are several disciplines through which the God question can be rationalized or debunked. Religion must be ruled out since most religions include God just by definition; so we have to move on to philosophy, science, morality, and even mathematics. Most disagreements occur across disciplines (apples and oranges). Of course, one often influences the other as in science and religion. One that isn’t mentioned often is literary continuity. I believe C.S.Lewis was “surprised” to find God through his favourite medium - literature. He’d had plenty of religion, as a child; and plenty of agnostic, if not atheistic influence, based on traditional 20th century religious views of God. Of course, one can argue that Lewis’ childhood experiences directed his later discoveries about God; but that’s true of all of us.

None of us are students of all of the avenues by one reaches conclusions about the likelihood for the existence of God - and maybe we’re not expert in any of them, working only from rudimentary knowledge of any of them. When it comes to science, physics is the best candidate to admit to the possibility of a GOD as the “first cause”; and biology as the least likely; so, when a knowledgable biologist can’t find GOD through his wanderings in biology, we can’t really use him as a definitive voice of science on the matter. He may be as biased as the preacher.

I like the quantum physicists and the mathematicians to enter the discussion because they deal with more fundamental building blocks of this universe that can’t be influenced by the emotionally charged viewpoints. I’m not particularly impressed by “good speakers” that “draw more than five thousand +”. I’d rather listen to a quantum physicist or a theoretical mathematician if he can talk down on my level.

After watching the video:

Krauss may be a scientist, but he’s not arguing science here. He’s arguing his personal philosophy as a scientist.

I’ll put this on my book list. From your analysis, Aage, I might conclude that Keller is reaching out to skeptics with a particular tool—rationalism. This has been a problem with faith in a secular age. Faith is more winsome to people if they see adherents living authentic, countercultural lives. That is the failure of the much “evangelism.” Information dispersion and debate is not the way to reach people now.

The truth of God is big and wonderful and can fit all sorts of folks. Accordingly, we believers must allow for others to come to “truth” from another side of the mountain and to see truth from a different angle and cherish different components than the ones that are usually “front and center.” The univocal, flat explanation of truth is inadequate because it is a partial truth. Humility on the part of believers is a better witness than a confident articulation and debate.

Boyd’s “Letters to a Skeptic” might be a book of a similar genre? Helpful book.

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Age likes to engage but shows zero potentiality in actually accepting. And tends to mock. So it is more like an exercise, a pastime, just something to do. Okay, but…

Jesus put a much higher value on the Gospel than that.

I probably would have a better chance at convincing him to spend this winter retracing the steps of the Donner Party with me than you have at convincing him that God is Good.

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Tim Keller preaches the Gospel. That is the reason for his success. He uses rationalism but not exclusively. He doesnt treat depression as one dimensional as mentioned above. Because of his own experience he is well aware of the fact that depression can have very different reasons. His way to interpret the Bible has been very very refreashing to me and many others. Of course for an unbeliever, using reason is wrong, not using reason is just as wrong. And Tim Keller is very balanced: he does use reason, but he does also see the importance of faith, even mystery is there. His listeners are way more than 5000. Many of them were convinced by reason. (Actually of course by the Holy Spirit, but reason played an important role). There is nothing wrong with reason. Prove his reasonable arguments wrong. Of course life has no meaning for an unbeliever. That Hamlet and Mozart might not be heard in heaven doesnt change that fact. The meaning of life is not our achievment on earth. Has never been.

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Doc, I still have the textbooks from your class in the early Christian fathers and would love to talk about them with you, so if you are willing to be the next one, send me an email at aage.rendalen@gmail.com. I have Küng’s book in German staring accusingly down at me from the top shelf of my office bookshelf. I suppose I shall have to pull him down and look him over, especially if you are willing to do an interview.

Marianne, there is a difference between meaning OF life and meaning IN life. I have stated before that while it may be pleasant to have your ideological house wallpapered with cosmic meaning, existentially it is more important to find meaning IN life, and in that regard I’m doing very well. That being said, my walls are also wallpapered–with cosmic mystery. As for Keller, I suggested in my concluding line that he might be a better preacher than what his scholastic exercises would indicate.

BB Yeaton
This is about dialog, not proselytizing. You may not find what I write particularly relevant, but if you are incapable of learning from people who don’t see any light in fundamentalism, you will lose out on a lot. The same goes for me: if I am unwilling to learn from believers who show no inclination to give up their faith, I would betray my own values. (I plead guilty to treating some ideas somewhat lightly but given the fact that the authors of the Bible call me a fool and wicked and even worse thing, I feel entitled to a little push-back.)

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I fail to see the difference. What you call meaning IN life will end pretty soon. And the fact that it will soon end acutally diminishes that what you call meaning quite a bit. There might be some things IN life which are pleasant and nice but one should not confuse real meaning with short pleasures in life. Even the pleasure of helping others cannot provide real meaning in the face of the end.

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