When I first learned that Tim Keller would be writing a book on helping skeptics, doubters, and otherwise secular-minded people to begin “doubting their doubts” and give Christianity a second look, I determined to read it carefully. You see, as I’ve listened to Keller preach over the years, it has become increasingly more obvious that his approach to addressing the most frequent “defeater beliefs” is worth a hearing. While he has written and spoken before about these beliefs that function as stumbling blocks to faith in Christ, never have these resources been collected in a single volume or linked together into a sustained coherent case for Christianity. Published near the end of 2016, his book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (MSOG) is the best book I’ve seen for comparing the secular and Christian worldviews in order to make a rationally-, emotionally-, and culturally-sensitive case for the plausibility and attractiveness of the gospel.
Regarding the author’s purpose, he writes: “The material in this book is a way of offering to readers—especially the most skeptical who may think the “good news” lacks cultural relevance—the same food for thought [i.e., that “believers and nonbelievers in God alike arrive at their positions through a combination of experience, faith, reasoning, and intuition.”]. We will 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.” [p. 2]
The method of comparison is a close examination of our culture’s most prevalent defeater beliefs, surveying the best secular answers to these problems and then showing how Christianity offers alternative answers that are quite reasonable, emotionally satisfying, and culturally appropriate. Here are a few of those defeater beliefs as Keller phrases them. Perhaps you believe a few of these yourself! From page 5:
- “You don’t need to believe in God to have a full life or meaning, hope, and satisfaction.”
- “You should be free to live as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others.”
- “You become yourself when you are true to your deepest desires and dreams.”
- “You don’t need to believe in God to have a basis for moral values and human rights.”
- “There’s little or no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.”
No, these aren’t the typical issues tackled in traditional Christian apologetics, but that is the point. Keller understands these are first-order questions that require a satisfactory response before many people will even consider taking the message of Jesus seriously. In other words, in the late modern world where it now seems impossible to actually believe in God, we have to first help people make sense of God. Why? Because to more and more folks, the very idea of God in general and Christianity seem totally disconnected to reality—like Grimm’s fairy tales in a world without witches and dragons.
MSOG is divided into three parts. Part One addresses the question “why does anyone need religion?” Part Two is the main body of the book, making the case that “religion is more than you think it is.” Part Three seeks to show how “Christianity makes sense.” The Table of Contents (along with my annotations) gives a glimpse into the structure of the book.
Preface. The Faith of the Secular. The author’s credentials, purpose, justification for the book, its method of inquiry, and a warm invitation to skeptics to look carefully at the foundations of both secularism and Christianity.
1. Isn’t Religion Going Away? Points out that religious trends in the U.S. and around the world are complex. Inherited religion is dying, but chosen religion is rapidly growing.
2. Isn’t Religion Based on Faith and Secularism on Evidence? Argues that both religion and secularism are based on foundational beliefs that cannot be rationally or empirically proven. Everyone is exercising faith, so we should all just admit it.
3. A Meaning That Suffering Can’t Take from You. If there is no meaning with a capital “M” then suffering and the prospect of eternal nothingness destroys it. Discovered rather than created meaning is durable.
4. A Satisfaction That Is Not Based on Circumstances. Happiness that cannot be ruined by life circumstances is a rare gem. Secularism has trouble providing lasting happiness.
5. Why Can’t I Be Free to Live as I See Fit, as Long as I Don’t Harm Anyone? Traces the history, problems, and philosophical endpoint of atheistic libertarian and utilitarian freedom. Shows how service to the wrong master, including ourselves, is demeaning, unjust, and enslaving. And how service to the right master is liberating.
6. The Problem of the Self. The problems with the concept of the modern self are that it is incoherent, illusory, crushing, and fracturing.
7. An Identity That Doesn’t Crush You or Exclude Others. A sense of identity and self-worth rooted in secularism will crush you psychologically and serve to exclude “the other”. This is the problem with “identity politics.” Conversely, Christianity gives you an identity that builds you up in love to make you more confident, tolerant, and open to others.
8. A Hope That Can Face Anything. Whereas secularism tends toward pessimism over the course of both an individual’s lifetime and a culture’s arc of existence, the gospel gives reason to believe our greatest fears will be conquered in a future that will be unimaginably wonderful.
9. The Problem of Morals. Modern morals are schizophrenic and hypocritical at base, not just in their application. Social science cannot salvage morality from the wreckage of relativism and the postmodern will to power.
10. A Justice That Does Not Create New Oppressors. Justice and rights are historically rooted in the Western Christian tradition. The postmodern attempt to delegitimize the totalitarian power of metanarratives has proven impotent, because the revolting minority and powerless end up become the thing against which they revolted. Think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Christianity is a metanarrative that actually breaks the cycle of violence, revolution, and grabbing for power to subjugate others.
11. Is It Reasonable to Believe in God? Demonstrates that the traditional theistic proofs, while not “proving” God’s existence, still make belief in God compelling from all three perspectives on reality: rationality, emotions, and culture. (Note this is John Frame’s applied tri-perspectivalism.) Submits that the point of the traditional theistic arguments is to challenge the skeptic to reconsider his premise.
12. Is It Reasonable to Believe in Christianity? A very high-level survey of the case for Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God.
Epilogue. Only in God. An extended meditation on author Langdon Gilkey’s haunting book Shantung Compound. Gilkey, raised with American privilege as a morally- and liberally-minded atheist, concluded that human nature is fundamentally broken and needs an outside power to achieve true virtue—the kind that can withstand pressure and suffering. Keller gleans from Gilkey that “if we are going to live rationally and use our minds well, we need new hearts.” [p. 252]
As always, Keller writes with uncharacteristic clarity. He has a special gift for taking complex arguments gleaned from technical theological, biblical, and philosophical experts, and then explaining, illustrating, and applying them without simplification. This is always the preacher’s and apologist’s task. Keller is just the best at consistently doing it these days. All of his books since his best-selling The Reason for God (see my review) are this way. And MSOG is another must-read.
One of the characteristic features of Keller’s books is the valuable endnotes. Not merely a bibliography of his research—which is very helpful as the author always interacts with the latest scholarship—the endnotes are almost a book in themselves. Normally a reader may skip footnotes and endnotes without much of a loss at all. Don’t skip the endnotes in MSOG. Filling 70 pages, they often provide background, fuller explanation, suggested further reading, interesting rabbit trails, and technical material that bolsters the material of the book’s body. Usually I hate endnotes, preferring the footnote format because it gets irritating constantly flipping back to the end to see what else the author has to say. I guess what it comes down to is an editorial decision to give the reader everything the author said instead of leaving it on the cutting room floor. So I put up with Keller’s endnotes because, although inconvenient, they are worth the detour.
In a book as far ranging in topics as MSOG, there are bound to be scores of good books cited. Of these there are a few that seem of greater importance as they are frequently referenced, sometimes in multiple chapters. For the interested reader, here are several influential “source material” books.
- A Secular Age & The Malaise of Modernity. By Charles Taylor.
- The Meaning of Life & The Illusions of Postmodernism. By Terry Eagleton.
- Habits of the Heart. By Robert Bellah et all.
- Exclusion and Embrace. By Miroslav Volf.
- After Virtue. Alasdair MacIntyre.
- Why Christianity Still Makes Sense. By C. Stephen Evans.
There is also a list of “further reading” for the reader who desires to follow topics of interest:
- A Spectator’s Guide to Jesus. By John Dickson.
- The Reason for God. By Tim Keller.
- Gunning for God. By John Lennox.
- Mere Christianity. By C.S. Lewis.
- True Paradox. By David Skeel.
Although I would not consider them weaknesses of MSOG, there are a couple things that should be understood. First, chapter 1 is primarily written for the secular person, so much so that its content will probably seem foreign, unnecessary, and even weakly religious for the believer in God. So if you are a Christian diving in to read, keep this in mind and don’t become discouraged. I think it’s the author’s way of catching up secular folks so we can all be ready to interact together with the subsequent chapters. Second, this is a sophisticated book. It may lose your interest if you only have a mild inclination toward its subject matter. Again, it’s not difficult to comprehend, but it does require you to think. In that way it is challenging. So if you only like books and speakers that spoon-feed you the conclusion without explaining how to get there, this might not be your favorite book. Third, I can imagine lots of exciting book club discussions arising from MSOG with the right group. But if your unbelieving friends are not asking any of the defeater belief questions, but instead talking about Bible difficulties or controversial doctrines, then you probably don’t need a first-order apologetics book like MSOG since these are second-order apologetic topics. These being said, I must stress I don’t feel strongly about them. They are merely intuitions. What I do feel strongly about is MSOG is through and through an excellent book that deserves to be read, studied, and most of all discussed. Not just in the church, but in the world as Christians seek to bring the gospel to the front lines where Jesus rarely gets a fair hearing.
Read a sample of the book
Preview at Google Books
Author interview with The Christian Post
Mere Fidelity audio discussion about the book
Author audio interview with Hugh Hewitt
20 Quotes from the book
A 12-day devotional based on the book
How Timothy Keller Spreads the Gospel in New York City, and Beyond (interview with The Atlantic)