Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical
By Timothy Keller
This book review was originally published in the Fellow Workers Magazine, Spring 2017 edition.
The Christian evangelist in the West soon encounters a considerable obstacle: a deep-seated apathy to all questions of faith. Why should religion be considered at all? Who even listens to our carefully crafted arguments concerning the resurrection or nature’s witness to the Creator, when the framework of secularism seems so well-founded and self-evident?
It is this hard shell of unbelief that Timothy Keller, Manhattan’s best-known Presbyterian church-planter and apologist, is seeking to pierce with his latest book. In his previous work, The Reason for God, Keller provided a more traditional case for Christianity. In Making Sense of God, he is starting further back, targeting the assumptions that prevent our secular age from taking religion seriously.
Keller is basically mounting a (very polite!) critique of our culture’s core values, and he does it very well. He challenges the dichotomy between faith (religion) and rationalism (atheism or secular humanism), demonstrating that doubt itself is only possible because of adherence to competing faith-claims. He also dismisses as Eurocentric the comfortable secular narrative of religion’s inevitable decline.
However, Keller is at his best when he exposes the bankruptcy of secular attempts to explain the values that humanity holds most dear. Far from providing freedom, meaning and self-identity, the secular flight from God banishes satisfaction and meaning, renders freedom as incoherent, and destroys all true sense of self, since there can be no true scale of meaning without a transcendent reference point.
Above all, secularism fails to explain morality. Keller deftly counters the typical atheistic outrage at the suggestion that non-believers are immoral. Of course they may be good and noble people, but where is the logical basis for their conduct? Darwin’s natural selection, ‘red in tooth and claw’, cannot explain altruism or self-sacrifice; and the alternative – that moral values are socially constructed – may preserve our modern sense of ‘freedom’ but provided no basis for condemning, say, Nazi Germany, or for praising modern democracy. Keller is able to conclude that secular morality could be entitled ‘The Emperor has no clothes’.
As he engaged with secular culture, Keller is quite rightly prepared to admit the faults ad failures of Christians themselves. There is a potential weakness in this approach, however. Keller does not define his terms when he claims that Christian teaching has been used to support ‘oppression’. Is that oppression according to biblical ethics, or oppression as defined by modern identity politics? As we have seen, even the simple statement of the former can be condemned as ‘oppression’ in our politically-charged environments.
The temptation for modern Christian apologists can be to throw overboard all previous Christian generations as uncomfortable baggage in order to provide a fresh new ‘biblical’ approach to current concerns. This is simply impossible, even though we must constantly confess our sins and return to the scriptures as our touchtone.
Despite this one note of caution, I would heartily recommend Keller’s work. It will challenge you in your own Christian walk, since we all to some extent absorb the values of secular culture. But it will especially help you as you seek, lovingly and patiently, to dismantle the defences of your unbelieving friend and neighbours.
Reviewed by Ben Nelson, member of faculty
BA(Hons) | GradDipEd | MDiv | PhD candidate
Ben was a high school teacher for many years, and is an elder at South Yarra Presbyterian Church. Following on from his MDiv research work, Ben is undertaking a PhD which focuses on the translation and analysis of the works of Oecolampadius, an early Reformer. Ben is married to Jen, and they have four children.