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Anti-moralist Christianity

Book of the Year author and New York pastor Tim Keller takes skeptics in and outside the church from doubt to reason-filled faith

Anti-moralist Christianity
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WORLD has briefly reviewed about 200 books over the past year. Many stand out, but one in particular is likely to change many lives and ways of thinking. WORLD's Book of the Year is Tim Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008).

Keller is the gifted pastor of an ecclesiastical semi-miracle, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Few thought that young urban professionals would flock to a biblically orthodox church but Keller's flock now numbers over 5,000, and his church has birthed many others throughout the New York metropolitan area and around the world.

The Reason for God boldly takes aim at smug self-righteousness: "It is possible to avoid Jesus as Savior as much by keeping all the Biblical rules as by breaking them." As Keller explains, "Both religion (in which you build your identity on your moral achievements) and irreligion (in which you build your identity on some other secular pursuit or relationships) are, ultimately, spiritually identical courses to take. Both are 'sin.'"

Keller in New York and I in Texas have seen the result: "Churches that are filled with self-righteous, exclusive, insecure, angry, moralistic people are extremely unattractive. . . . Millions of people raised in or near these kinds of churches reject Christianity at an early age or in college largely because of their experience. For the rest of their lives, they are inoculated against Christianity."

Keller's anti-moralism allows him to respond creatively to the denigrators of Christianity. For example, we've often heard people say that the divorce rate (or some other rate) among Christians is no better than that among nonbelievers, so the gospel makes no difference. The usual defense: Search for stats that show Christianity does make a difference. Explain. Justify. Defend.

Those stats may be there, but Keller's approach is different. He writes, "Imagine that someone with a very broken past becomes a Christian and her character improves significantly over what it was. Nevertheless, she still may be less secure and self-disciplined than someone who is so well adjusted that she feels no particular need for religious affiliation at all."

Keller develops further the comparison between a non-Christian person from "a loving, safe, and stable family and social environment" and a Christian from the opposite: "Suppose you meet both of these women the same week. Unless you know the starting points and life journeys of each woman, you could easily conclude that Christianity isn't worth much, and that Christians are inconsistent with their own high standards."

Keller's summary: Often, "people whose lives have been harder and who are 'lower on the character scale' are more likely to recognize their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we should expect that many Christians' lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious." (He notes that the health of people in hospitals is comparatively worse than that of people visiting museums.)

Keller also goes beyond the typical in his defense against the charge that the Gospels are fiction. He could have repeated the good defenses of factual accuracy, but instead he emphasizes genre: "In modern novels, details are added to create the aura of realism, but that was never the case in ancient fiction. . . . The only explanation for why an ancient writer would mention the cushion, the 153 fish, and the doodling in the dust is because the details had been retained in the eyewitnesses' memory."

In other words, New Testament writers would have had to be brilliant enough to create not only an entirely different way of understanding resurrection but also to create a new literary genre, the modern novel, at least 1,700 years before it came into existence.

Keller explains clearly some atypical reasons for believing in God and abandons some unhelpful defenses. For example, he doesn't complain when a secularist objects that religious people tend "to use spiritual and ethical observance as a lever to gain power." Of course, he says: "Jesus conducts a major critique of religion." Christianity differs from its rivals, though, by what Jesus told his disciples: "Whoever wants to be first must be servant of all."

Keller objects when people say that Christianity threatens world peace: "Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and expunge the divisive tendencies within the human heart." Since all humans are made in God's image, Christians expect that "nonbelievers will be better than any of their mistaken beliefs could make them." Since believers are still sinners, Christians "expect believers will be worse in practice than their orthodox beliefs should make them. So there will be plenty of ground for respectful cooperation."

Keller also rightly objects to charges that Christians feel superior to others: Christians realize that many people of other faiths "will live lives morally superior to their own . . . Christian believers are not accepted by God because of their moral performance, wisdom, or virtue, but because of Christ's work on their behalf." He notes that most worldviews connect spiritual status to religious attainments: "This naturally leads adherents to feel superior to those who don't believe and behave as they do. The Christian gospel, in any case, should not have that effect."

And Keller objects to Christians who say that since God gets angry they can righteously get angrier. Faith in God's anger, he argues, allows us to temper our own: "If I don't believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there's a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain."

In an interview with WORLD, Keller said "not much" has surprised him about reaction to The Reason for God, which broke into the top 10 of The New York Times bestseller list within weeks of its February release and has stayed among its top 30 best-sellers ever since. Keller said reader reaction has come from "hostile people, skeptics that are helped, Christians who are helped, and Christians who feel like I'm playing too nice." As a recent Newsweek profile concluded: "Keller is a pastor for people who like their Christianity straight up."

WORLD: How should we employ "critical rationality" in the defense of Christianity?

KELLER: Although we are rational beings and though rationality can be used to compel belief if the arguments are made very well, there's probably always a rationally avoidable way to get out from under most arguments. You have to have a humility, then, when you make your argument, so that you don't treat people who don't accept it as idiots.

So critical rationalism is on the one hand an attitude of humility; on the other hand, it's also an acknowledgement of the noetic effects of the fall, so that even my rationality probably could be avoided by other rational people.

WORLD: What's the difference between proofs of God's existence and "clues of God"-and why is the difference important?

KELLER: I can give you enough rational reasons to believe in God that fall short of demonstrable proof but that cumulatively give me warrant to say that Christianity makes more sense than alternate views of reality.

There are enough clues of God's existence that when you add them all up it makes more sense to believe in God than to not. That's short of proof. And if somebody says, you haven't proven it to me so I don't have to believe it, they're using a naïve rationality. The fact is, they believe all kinds of stuff they can't prove.

WORLD: How do you react to claims that your assertion of Christianity's superiority to other faiths is arrogant?

KELLER: The whole first chapter is dedicated to that. When you say it's an arrogant assertion, you are using a set of criteria that you think is better than mine. You are doing the very thing you say I'm not allowed to do.

Of all the objections to Christianity I know, the weakest one is the one that hates the exclusivity of Christianity. I really do think that everybody is operating out of fairly exclusive views of things.

WORLD: When you're told that meaningless suffering and pointless evil show that God is nonexistent or confused, how do you respond?

KELLER: The problem with saying that suffering is meaningless is that it assumes that your vantage point is the ultimate vantage point. One of the problems is that from our vantage point most suffering looks meaningless. Sometimes when you get perspective and you look back, you realize that something was accomplished there.

You have to be very, very careful about this. It depends on what people mean by suffering. The world is broken by sin, so there are all kinds of things that God did not design the world to contain. The original world the way He created it did not have hunger or human death. Even from the perspective of eternity, we will look back and say, suffering did create meaninglessness in me because I am not meant to die.

In other words, we're built for a love that we never part from. Whenever you lose love because somebody dies or moves away or gets sick or something, God has explained that part of meaninglessness. He's explained it as part of the fall. So we know why it's happening if we accept the Christian narrative.

When you say God has allowed suffering to continue because He's evil, that's different. Just because you can't think of a good reason why God hasn't stopped it doesn't mean there cannot be any. First you have to acknowledge that the meaninglessness you feel in the face of suffering is part of the fact that we are not created for these things and now we are facing them. Then we have to acknowledge that our vantage point is not everything.

WORLD: Why do you say that an atheist is contradicting his own premises if he uses the suffering of the world to attack God?

KELLER: C.S. Lewis says that if I object to heaven on the basis of suffering and evil I'm actually appealing to a higher standard still. I have some standard by which I'm judging that nature is broken. Whatever that standard is would be supernatural.

WORLD: When logical arguments about the reason for suffering sound cold and irrelevant to real-life sufferers, what do you do?

KELLER: You shouldn't say a darn thing. If you're saying someone is right in the middle of it, then I think your job is to speak when spoken to. There is no decent thing to say other than your own presence, which mediates if you are a Christian.

The existential answer is that only Christianity believes that God has entered the suffering world. We don't know what the reason is that God allowed evil and suffering to continue, but we do know what the reason isn't: It's not that He doesn't love us, because if He didn't love us He wouldn't have gotten involved. Whatever the reason is it's mysterious but it's not indifference. The cross proves that.

WORLD: How do you bring secularists to view respectfully biblical passages that offend them?

KELLER: In the Middle East what the Bible says about homosexuality is not offensive, but what it says about forgiveness perhaps is. If the Bible really is divine revelation come down from heaven, then it will have to offend your cultural sensitivity somewhere. That's what you would expect if it were true. What we have to decide is the central thing: What do we think about Jesus Christ and who He is?

WORLD: What is the role of the church and why do some who claim to believe in Christ say it no longer works?

KELLER: To say that the church doesn't work is kind of an over-reach. Don't you think there are a lot of people who say, I was a hurting person and the church worked for me? It's a little presumptuous for one hurting person to speak for all hurting people. It depends on the church. The church is like a big pond, and there are hot spots and cold spots and if someone happens to get in a cold spot, then to say that the whole pond is cold is unfair.

WORLD: What has surprised you most about the wider reception of The Reason for God?

KELLER: Not much. The more people who read it, there is a certain percentage who are finding faith, a number of Christians who find it helpful because it helps them think about faith, and a number of people who thought it was absolutely horrible and ridiculous. They're bothered by it because it makes Christianity sound kind of credible, so it feels kind of dangerous to them.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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