MAKING SENSE OF GOD: AN INVITATION TO THE SKEPTICAL, by Timothy Keller

Published on April 24, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Viking, 2016 | 327 pages

Reviewed by Tawa Anderson

Dr. Timothy Keller (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is the lead pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Keller has built a church culture which actively engages sophisticated proponents and opponents of the Christian faith, including open exchange sessions every weekend. He has authored books across numerous genres, including devotional meditations (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, 2016), spiritual growth (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 2015), marriage enrichment (The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, 2013), biblical interpretation (The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, 2011; Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God, 2013), and apologetics (The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, 2009). Keller’s most recent contribution, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking, 2016) complements The Reason for God, seeking to engage skeptics and providing reasons to consider the reasonable claims of Christianity.

Keller’s primary purpose in Making Sense of God is to “compare the beliefs and claims of Christianity with the beliefs and claims of the secular view, asking which one makes more sense of a complex world and human experience.” (2) The range of knowledge and experience under consideration will include meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope, and justice. To no one’s surprise, Keller will argue that “in each case the secular narratives, while often partially right, are not self-evident and are attended by a host of difficulties,” (216) while Christianity offers a fully satisfactory account. (I should note, however, that the unsurprising nature of Keller’s conclusions does not detract from their rational and rhetorical strength.) The book is broken into three general sections: two opening chapters assessing the rise of secularism and the relationship of faith and reason; eight central chapters assessing how well the two worldviews explain the six areas of human experience; and two closing chapters with a positive rational account for the truthfulness of Christianity. As I will indicate, the two opening chapters could have used some elaboration, while I think the closing two chapters could have been eliminated in order to create a stronger and more cohesive whole. In what follows, I will provide an overarching summary of the sections and chapters of Making Sense of God before engaging in some constructive commentary and critique.

 

Section One: Why Does Anyone Need Religion?

Keller begins by helpfully defining a secular person (“one who does not know if there is a God or any supernatural realm beyond the natural world”) and a secular age (“one in which all the emphasis is on the saeculum, on the here-and-now, without any concept of the eternal”). (3) Secularism, the perspective Keller will engage, then, would be the perspective of individuals who believe there is no supernatural realm, and hence focus on the here-and-now to the exclusion of the eternal. His definitions seem fair and balanced, and set the stage for a productive conversation.

Keller also identifies five key “background beliefs” that contemporary Western culture presses upon us, beliefs which individually and collectively make Christianity seem implausible. The background beliefs, which will be addressed thoroughly in the central section of the book, are as follows:

  1. You don’t need to believe in God to have a full life of meaning, hope, and satisfaction (chs. 3, 4, 8).
  2. You should be free to live as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others (ch. 5).
  3. You become yourself when you are true to your deepest desires and dreams (chs. 6, 7).
  4. You don’t need to believe in God to have a basis for moral values and human rights (chs. 9, 10).
  5. There’s little or no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity (chs. 11, 12).

Before combatting those background beliefs and comparing the ability of secularism and Christian theism to account for the evident data of human experience, Keller counters two other crucial assumptions: the world is getting more secular and less religious (Chapter 1), and religion is based upon unevidenced faith while secularism is based upon unbiased reason (Chapter 2).

On the one hand, the story of modern secularism holds that, as educational levels and economic prosperity inexorably increase, religious commitment has and will continue to decrease proportionally (10). Keller interacts with the work of numerous scholars, including Mark Lilla, Barbara Ehrenreich, Grace Davie, and Peter Berger, demonstrating that, contrary to the secularists’ expectation (promise?), we find that religious faith continues to flourish, even grow, around the world, among all classes and races of people. For example, China is both modernizing and Christianizing (24), while Africa’s Christian population has exploded from 9% in 1910 to 49% in 2020 (26).

On the other hand, modern secularists insist that “religious persons are living by blind faith, while secular and nonbelievers in God are grounding their position in evidence and reason.” (30) Keller, however, points out that all people, religious or not, believe all sorts of things that are not (and cannot be) proven empirically (33-34). For example, we believe in the real past of the universe, the reliability of our cognitive faculties, the existence of other minds, even the usefulness of science as a method of gaining knowledge—all unproven assumptions that are nonetheless reasonable to embrace (34-35). Keller then raises an issue that will remain central throughout the rest of the book: the secular belief in objective morality despite the inability to undergird moral values and duties (41-48). In short, Keller effectively demonstrates that “Western secularity is not the absence of faith but a new set of beliefs about the universe.” (53) Hence, Christianity does not bear the sole burden of proof vis-à-vis secularism: rather, “We can and should argue about which beliefs account for what we see and experience in the world.” (53)

 

Section Two: Secularism vs. Christian Theism

In the largest section of the book, comprising eight chapters, Keller proceeds to do precisely that: compare secularism and Christian theism as competing explanations for the fundamental realities of life, the universe, and everything.

First, Keller notes that all humans have an unquenchable yearning for meaning, purpose, and significance in their lives (Chapter Three: A Meaning that Suffering Can’t Take from You, 57-76). Theistic worldviews, including Christianity, typically hold that the meaning of human life is derived from our Creator. Some secularists (e.g., Thomas Nagel) respond that we should not feel such a psychological need (60), while others suggest that the absence of divine purpose allows us to create whatever meaning and significance we desire (63-64). The attempt to assign our own meaning, however, is both inconsistent (smuggles individual freedom in as the ultimate purpose) and unlivable (our chosen meaning may be unattainable). Hence, Christianity’s discovered meaning (that which is inherent due to our creation by God) is superior to secularism’s created meaning (that which is assigned or chosen by the individual) on three counts: discovered meaning is more rational (66-69), more communal (69-72), and more durable (72-74) than created meanings. As a worldview, then, Christianity better explains the universal human desire for rational, communal, and durable meaning to life.

Second, Keller highlights the ubiquitous human pursuit of what the Greeks called ευδαιμονια (eudaimonia)—happiness, contentment, peace, or, as Keller renders it, satisfaction (Chapter 4 – A Satisfaction That Is Not Based on Circumstances, 77-96). It would seem that as life spans increase and general wealth follows lock-step, that rates of satisfaction ought to follow proportionally. Instead, the modern paradox is that healthier, wealthier societies nonetheless report lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide (77-81). The happiness which we pursue seems unavailable through modern pursuits. Keller traces seven contemporary means of seeking to ‘deal with’ our discontent—ranging from seeing happiness just around the next bend of effort and strife (84), to proclaiming that the pursuit of happiness is vain and unachievable (86-87)—and notes that all such modern endeavors fail to satisfy the empty pit in our soul. He proceeds, in terms consonant with Augustine’s Confessions and David Naugle’s Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives, to suggest that the primary cause of modern dissatisfaction is disordered love (87-91). We seek satisfaction by pursuing good created things rather than the Creator of good things, and thus fail to quench the thirst for fulfillment. Christianity, in contrast to secularism, points us to a satisfaction that endures whatever one’s physical circumstances and simultaneously heightens our appreciation for and enjoyment of the created goods we have in this world (92-94).

Third, Keller insists that Christian theism provides a better accounting for (and fulfillment of) the human yearning for freedom and liberty (Chapter 5: Why Can’t I Be Free to Live as I See Fit, as Long as I Don’t Harm Anyone? 97-117). While people have always desired liberty, Keller notes that modern notions of freedom have become corrosive and incoherent. Freedom has emerged as “the only publicly shared and acknowledged moral value of our culture.” (97) Other virtues and values are, if recognized at all, subsumed under the overweening domain of freedom. Furthermore, freedom has been twisted to mean “the absence of any limitations or constraints on us.” (101) Keller astutely (and, in my opinion, successfully) argues that such a view of freedom is unworkable (101-03), unjust (103-04), impossible (104-05), socially corrosive (106-09), incomplete (109-10), and ultimately enslaving (110-12). A Christian conception of freedom ties liberty to design and purpose, seeking the appropriate “liberating constraints that fit our nature and design.” (112) Christianity indeed imposes restrictions and constraints upon believers, but when embraced as part of our design, the restrictions become freeing: Christ’s yoke indeed is easy, His burden light (115).

Fourth, Keller spends two chapters demonstrating that Christian theism better accounts personal identity and worth. In characteristically comprehensive fashion, he traces the story of finding personal identity through historical cultures into the modern period (Chapter 6: The Problem of the Self, 118-32). Until modernity, our combined sense of self and worth came from both internal desires and external social roles and ties (118-19); now, secularism insists that we can bestow our own identity and significance (120-24). Unfortunately, modern secular self-bestowed identity is illusory (124-28), crushing (128-31), and fracturing (131-32). As such, we need the secure and embracing identity provided by a Christian worldview (Chapter 7: An Identity That Doesn’t Crush You or Exclude Others, 133-51). In Christianity, identity and worth are neither self-bestowed nor achieved, but rather received (133-36). A God-anointed identity provides us with a new purpose or serving God and the common good rather than self (137-39), a new and durable sense of worth and value (139-43), and a newfound ability to embrace difference without losing identity (143-47). Keller points out that the secure self-identity of Christians enables the faith to take root in literally every culture around the globe (148-51). Our need for a secure sense of identity and personal worth, then, finds greater satisfaction in Christian theism than in secularism.

Fifth, Keller argues that humans are unavoidably hope-based creatures (153). In perhaps his strongest chapter (Chapter 8: A Hope That Can Face Anything, 152-75), he insists that secularism is utterly incapable of maintaining realistic hope, while Christian theism gives a rationally grounded and unshakeable hope. Keller first traces the descent of historic Christian eschatological hope into modern secular optimism, which was oriented toward continuing economic and political progress (154-56). He then notes that the demise of objective moral consensus, along with environmental and economic crises, has effectively crushed the secular ‘hope’ in progress (156-59). Furthermore, while secularism tried to eradicate traditional fear of death by suggesting that death is “a perfectly natural phenomenon” (160), nearly-universal human experience attests to death as “an intrusion, an aberration, and a monstrosity.” (162) The Christian worldview, however, resolves both the collapse of modern optimism and the fear of death with the confident promise, through Jesus (164-67), of a future hope that is personal (167-70), concrete (170-72), unimaginably wonderful (173-74) and assured (174-75). Hence, the human cry for hope is answered by Christian theism, but utterly disappointed by modern secularism.

Sixth and finally, Keller closes the body of the book with an outstanding treatment of objective morality (Chapter 9: The Problem of Morals, 176-92) and justice (Chapter 10: A Justice That Does Not Create New Oppressors, 193-214). He notes that, while atheists can clearly live moral lives just as effectively as Christians, secularism is unable to ground moral obligation (177). Keller is at his rhetorical and rational best when demonstrating “the schizophrenia of modern morals,” (179) wherein we insist that all human lives are to be valued by all people, yet are unable to point to an outside ethical source of that (and other) binding moral value (179-80). Western secularists are convinced that morality is “person specific or socially constructed,” but are equally confident that values like “gender equality” are “universal moral norm[s].” Such a stance is, in short, “self-justifying [and] self-contradictory.” (180) The attempts of secular social scientists to ground morality without religion via evolution or social construction utterly fail (181-84), leaving moderns with a moral ‘castle in the sky,’ free-floating and unsupported. Many therefore argue for the abandonment of objective morality (184-88), but humans find themselves woefully incapable of living consistently as if moral values are mere illusions. The way forward, Keller argues, is to accept Christian theism as the source of humanity’s purpose (telos), and hence the orientation for moral judgments and standards (190-92). One of the objective ethical values cherished by all humans is justice, particularly in association with universal human rights (193-97). Secular attempts, like John Rawls, to explain and defend universal rights are logically inconsistent (197-99), and frequently come across to non-Westerners as another form of imperialistic oppression (200-02). What is needed is a new path—one provided by Christianity, which establishes “a nonoppressive absolute” through the Cross of Christ (204-06) by reversing oppression (206-09) and breaking the cycle of violence (209-11).

In each of these six areas of human experience—meaning, satisfaction, freedom, self-identity, hope, and morality—Christian theism possesses far greater explanatory scope and power than secularism. In short, Keller argues, “Christianity makes the most emotional and cultural sense” given universal human desires and yearnings (216).

 

Section Three: Christianity Makes Sense

In two concluding chapters, Keller provides a brief rational defense for the existence of God (Chapter 11: Is It Reasonable to Believe in God? 215-27) and the person and work of Jesus Christ (Chapter 12: Is It Reasonable to Believe in Christianity? 228-46). Keller provides concise but coherent theistic arguments based on existence/causation (217-19), design (219-20), objective morality (220-22), consciousness (222-24), reason (224-25) and beauty (225-27). He then outlines reasons to trust the Gospels as historical sources (229-32), admire the character of Jesus (232-36), acknowledge the divinity of Jesus (236-42), and accept the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection (242-44). Keller’s appeal, then, is for the secularist to recognize that, not only does Christianity make better sense of human experience, but its central historical and theological tenets are also supported by strong lines of reason and evidence. In this comparison of worldviews, then, Christianity makes sense, while secularism falls short.

 

Critical Analysis

Bart Ehrman is perhaps the most prominent skeptical biblical scholar in the United States today. In his best-selling God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (HarperOne, 2008), Ehrman notes several biblical perspectives on evil and suffering. All of them, in Ehrman’s estimation, fail to account for why we suffer, and fail to provide meaning and hope to people in the midst of their suffering-laden lives. In the end, Ehrman claims, all we can do is recognize that suffering is a mystery that can only be endured. Meanwhile, “We should do what we can to love life—it’s a gift and it will not be with us for long.” (277) Furthermore, “We should also work hard to make our world the most pleasing place it can be for others.” (278) Why? Because the Christian faith fails to give hope: thus, secularists like Ehrman must be “working to alleviate suffering and bringing hope to a world devoid of hope.” (276) The tremendous and tragic irony in Ehrman’s grand conclusion is that he has, over the previous 200+ pages, systematically deconstructed any possibility of finding meaning (there is no God, and hence no transcendent purpose), acknowledging the gift of life (after all, a gift requires a gift-giver), and eliminated any and all hope for unremediated suffering. Earlier, Ehrman insists that human life ceases (irreversibly) at physical death: hence, what hope can there possibly be for starving children in Africa, women bound in sexual slavery, children born to an abusive family, a young man trapped in a paraplegic body? What hope does Ehrman intend to bring to them? This life will not improve, and there is no future life to redress the evils they’ve experienced. The secular story, popular though it might be, ends up being vacuous and hopeless.

Keller’s Making Sense of God does a masterful job of exposing the inability of Ehrman’s secular worldview on two fronts: it cannot ground universal human values and beliefs (freedom, hope, morality), and it cannot provide what all humans yearn for and desire (meaning, satisfaction, identity). Keller successfully demonstrates why Ehrman’s closing claims in God’s Problems are unsustainable assertions of false comfort and hope.

I have already highlighted several valuable aspects of Keller’s writing: I want here to identify three more.

First, Keller reads broadly and deeply, and the reader benefits from Keller’s vast understanding and knowledge. He interacts with an incredible range of scholars, including Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jurgen Habermas, Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, Paul Kalanithi, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mark Lilla, Michael Polanyi, James Wood, Brian Tierney, Friedrich Nietzsche, Terry Eagleton, David Sessions, etc. (And that’s just in the first three chapters!) The endnotes cover nearly 70 pages (257-325), demonstrating the extent of Keller’s research and reading. It is a rare scholar who reads, comprehends, and engages with so many other thinkers from so many disciplines and perspectives. Keller serves as a tremendous model of a renaissance scholar-pastor.

Second, Keller, like his mentors Augustine, Pascal, and Lewis, has his finger squarely on the pulse of humanity. He understands human nature—our fears, hopes, dreams, desires, failings, yearnings, and beliefs. Both friend and foe will find themselves aptly described and discerned within these pages.

Third, Keller very effectively compares the two strongest contemporary worldviews, secularism and Christianity, when it comes to the central facets of human experience. There are times that Christians will cringe, as when Keller identifies our tendency to focus on individual salvation, or to use our redemption as a means to look down upon others. There are times that secularists will cringe, as when Keller rightly notes that they are utterly incapable of explaining the existence of human rights and objective moral values and duties. Throughout, Keller’s reasoning is sound, his perception accurate.

That said, there are some shortcomings to Making Sense of God.

First, it seems that Keller is trying to do too much. The book grows to an unwieldy length, particularly given the desire to engage lay Christians and skeptics alike. Perhaps Keller is seeking to squeeze too much research and insight into one volume, and it would have been better split into two. Indeed, given the overarching desire to compare the two worldviews, it seems to me that Keller could have left out the final two chapters altogether, and concluded the book with his comparison of how secularism and Christianity explain the universal aspects of human experience. That would have both reduced the overall length of the book, and maintained a tighter thesis and structure to the work.

Second, there was a fair bit of repetition and overlap between chapters. A discussion of objective morality is repeated (41-48, 176-92), while the surprisingly inverse relationship between societal wealth and mental health is also duplicated (77-81, 154-60). Discussions of rights and freedom are contained in chapters 5, 7, 9, and 10. I’m not sure whether the overlap was caused by chapters written independently and then patched together, or simply forgetting what has already been discussed—either way, the effect was to make an already-long book seem even more imposing.

Third, there was considerable thematic overlap between Making Sense of God and Keller’s earlier The Reason for God. In particular, his discussion of freedom and liberty in chapter 5 is similar to chapter 3 (“Christianity Is a Straitjacket”) in The Reason for God, chapter 11 reprises chapter 8 (“The Clues of God”) in his earlier work, and chapter 12 is a condensed version of material from chapters 12-14 of The Reason for God. It is certainly good material, and worthy of being read again—but those who have drunk deeply from Keller’s earlier apologetic work will find the repetition somewhat wearying. Indeed, the thematic overlap furthers my impression that Making Sense of God would have been stronger without the two closing chapters.

Finally, Keller’s discussion of faith and reason (chapter 2) would have benefited from a more robust conversation, including a clear definition of faith that interacted with various Christian and secular understandings of the term.

 

Recommendation

Despite those minor quibbles, Making Sense of God is an excellent contribution to the contemporary apologetic scene. I unreserverdly recommend it!

 

Tawa Anderson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University.

Buy the books

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

Viking, 2016 | 327 pages