Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Why does anyone care about theology, the study of God? In our thoroughly secular society, God would seem to be irrelevant, yet these are not happy times. Suicide rates have recently reached record levels and life expectancy went down last year in America for the first time driven by increases in death rates from preventable causes. If your faith is in the basic goodness of human beings, why is nuclear war an increasing worry? If your faith is in rational decision-making and technology, why Is life expectancy declining here in America due to preventable causes? As the presumptions of secular society have proven to be at best false and at worse idolatrous, turning to God and the study of his ways might seem a sensible response.
In his recent book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller sets forth these objectives:
“…I will compare and contrast how Christianity and secularism … seek to provide meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, a moral compass, and hope—all things so crucial that we cannot live life without them. I will be arguing that Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense…” (4-5)
A bit later he addresses his target audience: “If you think that Christianity doesn’t hold much promise of making sense to a thinking person, then this book is written for you.” (5) Keller writes in three parts: (1) Why does anyone need religion? (2) Religion is more than you think it is; and (3) Christianity makes sense. (vii-viii)
This review is written in three parts that correspond roughly to Keller’s own divisions. The first part will, in addition, provide an overview of the book.
Who is Timothy Keller?
Timothy Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York in 1989. While many pastors have founded churches in recent years, Keller stands out for having successfully witnessed to young, urban professionals with a faithful message, something thought inconceivable until he did it. He writes prolificly about Christian apologetics and his writing is passionately followed by young pastors and seminarians interested in urban ministry. He grew up in Pennsylvania, attended Bucknell University (BS), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Westminster Theological Seminary (PhD).
Keller distinguishes three uses of the word secular. In the first, a secular society is one that separates religion from the state, as is true in most Western countries. In the second, a secular person focuses on the material world and is skeptical that anything exists outside it. Finally, a secular culture focuses on the present, material reality and “meaning in life, guidance, and happiness are understood and sought in present-time economic prosperity, material comfort, and emotional fulfillment.” In a secular culture, even people professing faith may not act on it in making significant life decisions. (2-3)
In this sense, secularism is an atheistic religion, one of many, because God no longer occupies first priority in the lives of secular people, regardless of their professed religion.
Why Does Anyone Need Religion?
While the number of cultural Christians continues to decline in the U.S., the number of devote Christians continues to grow here and abroad. Why? Keller offers two reasons:
“…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.” (11).
Secular postmodernism asserts many rights, such as human rights, that are a legacy of Christian morality, but it has no justification for maintaining them outside the Christian tradition. For the Jew or the Christian, human rights make perfect sense because they believe that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), but for the Marxist, who does not believe God exists and believes that all rights are conferred by the state, such logic seems meaningless. Citing Habermas, Keller writes:
“The ideals of freedom…of conscience, human rights and democracy [are] the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love…To this day, there is no alternative to it.” (13)
For the radical individualist, the absence of any moral obligation beyond the individual leaves no philosophical justification for human rights yet most assert human rights should be respected without a justification. Passing a law to assert disembodied values can certainly be done, but what happens when an evil coalition passes contrary laws? Many people have sensed that something important is missing and have come to see faith in God as essential to maintaining a just society.
A Sense of Transcendence
The sense of transcendence becomes obvious when contemplating the limits of the material world. Keller writes:
“Steve Jobs, when contemplating his own death, confessed that he felt that ‘it’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience…and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” (16)
In my own experience, I came to understand that even nihilism, complete denial of the existence of God, points itself to God because the human heart refuses to live without hope.
Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age. In parts two and three of this review, I will turn to Keller’s other two concerns: why religion is more than you think it is and how Christianity makes sense.
Habermas, Jürgen. 2006. Time of Transitions. UK: Cambridge.
Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1
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