Tim Keller Makes Sense of God for Skeptics, Argues Secularism Is Declining (Interview)

Pastor Tim Keller is on a mission to make sense of God, and if you ask him, Christianity not only makes sense, it offers so much more than what many realize.

(Photo: Godwell Andrew Chan)Timothy Keller, author of Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC.

Human beings crave meaning, satisfaction, identity, justice, and hope, Keller argues, and the Christian faith provides abundantly for those yearnings.

Rarely, however, do people examine how they arrive at their beliefs, said the pastor of Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church in a recent interview with The Christian Post.

In Keller's latest book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, the 65-year-old author of the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God continues to engage objections to the Christian faith. But this time he takes a slightly different approach. Instead of pure apologetics, Keller makes an invitation. He recounts in the preface that at a "skeptics welcome" discussion at his church, a man who was raised Christian but lived for some years as an atheist told him, "I've never really looked this carefully at my foundations. I haven't thought things out for myself. Thanks for this opportunity."

Skeptics can consider this book an opportunity where they are welcomed to examine how and why they think like they do.

"Most people don't do argument anymore," Keller told CP when asked why so few seem to have done the hard work of studying why they believe what they believe. "Everybody thinks that their view is self-evident. And people who just don't see it are nuts."

Sociologist Christian Smith's book on the religion of young adults and teenagers is particularly illuminating on this point, Keller noted; Smith's book shows that "most young adults have very strong moral views and convictions, but they also believe that — if you ask them why is that right or why is that wrong—they say 'Well, everybody knows that.'"

Indeed, not everybody knows such things because if they were self-evident, most would agree. But if people are genuinely searching for evidence, the Christian faith will not disappoint.

Keller is routinely praised for his intelligent, extremely articulate preaching. USA Today columnist and Fox News commentator Kirsten Powers is one such person who through his ministry abandoned atheism and received Christ. Powers, who has since joined the Catholic Church, wrote in a December 2015 Christianity Today article that Keller "might be the most persuasive Christian apologist and evangelical pastor of his generation (if not the century)."

In a typical sermon, Keller masterfully weaves in relevant history, politics, and literature while expounding on the scriptures, and effectively exposes the weaknesses of secularist and atheistic worldviews. He does the same in this book.

Perhaps no issue is more bitterly contested today in the public square than what it fundamentally means to be human – how people define themselves. As cultural norms and institutions shift, especially about sexuality and relationships, American society is swimming in a sea of identity politics. Keller contends that such modern and postmodern notions of truth, identity, and freedom are failing us and only Christ can satisfy all three.

While some may chafe at Christianity's "exclusionary" claims, no one can circumvent truth claims altogether, the author argues. And the kinds of truth claims that you hold are inextricably linked to how you define your identity. For those who believe in Jesus's message, "you believe in a truth, but not a truth that leads to exclusion," Keller writes in the book.

"If I build my identity on what Jesus Christ did for me and the fact I have an everlasting name in him by grace, I can't on the one hand feel superior to anybody, nor do I have to fear anybody else. I don't have to compare myself with them at all. My identity is based on somebody who was excluded for me, who was cast out for me, who loved his enemies, and that is going to turn me into someone who embraces the Different," he continues.

Such an other-oriented, humble posture informs Keller's perspective on the times even as narratives about the "rise of the nones" and an increasingly "post-Christian America" appear in the headlines. The Manhattan pastor is genuinely optimistic about the future and contends that what is happening in the earth today reveals that God is on the move.

"In the past there was hardly anybody who was secular," Keller told CP. "In the future there will be significant numbers of people who are secular more than have ever been in history. But, the facts on the ground are that Christianity and Islam in particular are growing faster than the population. And that over the next 25-45 years the number of people who say that they are secular, the percentage of the world's population that is secular, is actually going down."

His words echo those of First Things editor R.R. Reno who said in an interview last month with CP that in America "the percentage of the population that goes to church has not declined. So it is not the case that Christianity is in decline. What has happened is very powerful elements of our society are shaking off this presumptive authority of Christianity to define their lives and for the wider public culture of America."

"[Reno's] right," Keller concurred, adding that "a lot of people are acting as if religion is over and will eventually go away and there's no indication of that," which is a topic he explores in the first chapter of Making Sense of God in great detail.

Making Sense of God is divided into three sections: "Why Does Anyone Need Religion?", "Religion is More Than You Think It Is" and "Christianity Makes Sense," with each containing several chapters related to the overarching theme.

In chapter five, titled "Why Can't I Be Free to Live As I See Fit, As Long As I Don't Harm Anyone?" Keller dismantles "freedom" as it is largely defined today, which is the absence of restrictions, what philosopher Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty."

Put simply, real life just does not work with this negative, absence-of-restrictions type of freedom, Keller told CP; real freedom is about the right restrictions.

"If you want to be totally free you cannot have a love relationship, you can't even have a friendship. You certainly can't have a marriage," Keller said. "The only way to be married is to start to get rid of your options. There are a lot of places I can't go because I'm married now. A lot of things I can't do because I'm married now."

"And most people would agree: 'Ok, well, I have to give up my freedom if I am to have love because love is what human life's about.' But see, technically, the modern idea freedom as the absence of restriction means you can't have love, and that is why it is inadequate," he continued.

(Photo: Screengrab from TimothyKeller.com)Making Sense of God, by Tim Keller

Skeptics with philosophical minds will appreciate Keller's thoughtful, tightly-argued prose. And the pastor is quick to point out that those who leave the faith never do for solely intellectual reasons.

"It's always a combination of emotional, cultural, and rational processes," Keller said. "They all work together. It's never, never simply rational. Most people I know who have lost their faith say 'I simply saw there was no evidence, there was no proof, and they paint is as rational-only process."

Keller simply does not buy into what he calls "popular de-conversion stories" where someone says their college experience and the power of their reason led them away from Christ.

"I try to show in the book that most people who I think are more thoughtful — even the ones who have lost their faith — admit that they actually didn't lose their faith, they just adopted a new faith. They adopted a new community, a new set of beliefs a new set of moral values, none of which can be proven but seem to make more sense to them than the old forms."

When The Christian Post asked Keller what he wanted most for readers to take away from Making Sense of God he replied: "This book is trying to get you to see that it would be great if Christianity were true. It doesn't really make the case that it is true... but most people don't even think it matters."

"I've had people say 'I don't care if Christianity is true, it's irrelevant to me'. And I'm trying to say I want you see what Christianity offers so that you would think, 'Wow, if it really offers that it would be great if it were true,'" he concluded.

For more on Pastor Keller and his latest book, click here.

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