Four Ways Tim Keller’s Gospel Fails to Deliver

Tim_KellerIn the penultimate chapter of his Reason for God, Tim Keller attempts to pull together all the loose threads strewn about this apologetic work, weaving them together into a coherent vision for the world. He offers his belief system as a superior alternative to the one the rest of the world wants you to accept, as if the myriad belief systems around the globe could be boiled down to a single, though variously disguised, alternative.

An unsurprising assumption, I suppose, if you believe that a single sinister intelligence secretly operates underneath every nation and religion outside your own. I remember seeing the world in such black-and-white terms. Everything was so much simpler that way.

As my critique goes for pretty much every other chapter including this one, my chief complaint about Keller is that he conveniently misrepresents the alternatives to his own perspective, framing the discussion according to the issues which he believes his faith most adequately resolves, while simultaneously presenting his own tradition in an idealized light. Most of us know better than to fall for his bait-and-switch, though, because we’ve already been there and done that.

Misunderstanding What Humanism Is About

Keller has a really bad habit, evident throughout almost every single chapter of this book, of viewing the whole world in binary terms. Furthermore, he seems to characterize those two options (and only two) as a choice between self-interest and “other” interest, between selfish greed and self-giving love. In Keller’s mind, everything outside of Christianity orients you inward toward your self, hollowing you out through a vain preoccupation with navel-gazing, self-admiration, and self-service. This makes us all what Keller’s hero, C.S. Lewis, called “men without chests.”

In particular he seems unable to grasp the communal aspect of humanism, a perspective on the world in which the center of everything is not the individual, but the whole community, and ultimately the entire human race. I would argue, in fact, that a mature humanism will encompass the best interests of our entire ecosystem, perhaps eventually rendering the word human-ism obsolete. But first things first.

Keller doesn’t get that humanism isn’t about the self vs. the other—it’s about a balance between the needs of both. This compulsion to misrepresent an opposing viewpoint smacks of insecurity, as if his own view needs propping up by leaning it against a caricature of the competition. But like the field of apologetics itself, straw men are only good for “preaching to the choir,” as we say where I live. We mainly build them to make us feel better about what we ourselves believe. These appeals are rarely persuasive for the people who adhere to the real-life versions of what we’ve just misrepresented.

Does It Make Sense or Not? Please Choose One

The reality is that many of us in English speaking cultures already know what Keller’s faith tradition produces. We’ve seen the good and the bad, and it rings hollow for us when he gives us this idealized presentation of what it has to offer. The Christian faith makes such grandiose claims, but we’ve been around the block one too many times to fall for the sales pitch. We ourselves have been on the inside—we’ve even stood in his position, offering this faith to others with the same appeals to human vulnerabilities—and we know exactly where and how it fails to deliver.

Christianity makes the most sense out of our individual life stories and out of what we see in the world’s history. (p.222)

I remember feeling that way, too. I would have agreed with him ten years ago. But time and experience have taught me that Keller’s interpretation of each requires exaggerating the virtues of his own tradition (or at least being conveniently selective about it), while magnifying the vices of everyone else’s. His recounting in Chapter Four of progressive social movements in American history (e.g. abolition, civil rights) unforgivably downplays the very public and demonstrative way that his own conservative theological tradition resisted every forward step along the way.

[Related: “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“]

Keller also claims that his belief system uniquely resolves the philosophical dilemmas that plague other religions and philosophies, like the problem of “the one and the many.” Like many before him, he believes that the doctrine of the Trinity—the notion that God can be both singular and plural at the same time—enables God to be simultaneously alone and yet never alone. He can be driven by pure self-interest, demanding that everyone else in existence orient themselves around his desires as well, while still remaining above the charge of selfish conceit, since in adoring himself he is also adoring at least two other people, or “persons,” or whatever.

This just doesn’t make any sense, though. It never has, and they know it never has. Theologians and ministers positively revel in the contradiction of being three but one at the same time, sometimes even holding incoherent ideas like this as positive evidence that human beings cannot have made this up since it makes so little sense. Keller openly admits to the irrationality of it all:

The doctrine of the Trinity overloads our mental circuits. Despite its cognitive difficulty, however, this astonishing, dynamic conception of the triune God is bristling with profound, wonderful, life-shaping, world-changing implications. (p.225)

Notice how he begins this chapter by saying Christianity “makes the most sense” of our lives but then three pages later says it “overloads our mental circuits.” So which is it? Does it make sense or doesn’t it? Is his a reasonable faith or is it not?

And are we not allowed to demand that a “reasonable faith” at least not violate the law of non-contradiction? How futile would it even be to point out such logical inconsistencies among a people who insist that “his thoughts are higher than our thoughts,” and that the things of God cannot be understood by everyone because “they are discerned only through the Spirit?”

It seems to me they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the Christian faith to be intellectually respectable (thus a book entitled “Reason for God”) but then they ask that we put aside our need for logical consistency whenever a Christian doctrine violates the most basic principles of logic (e.g. a thing cannot be both A and not-A at the same time). They keep telling us that “all truth is God’s truth,” and that he created us with a brain he intends for us to use. But whenever our study of the world around us contradicts what this religion tells us is true, we are told we must trust God with all our heart and “lean not on our own understanding.”

This belief that things don’t have to make sense wears down the irony meters of millions of people week after week. And how could it not? Every Sunday morning Christians are told that God is both everywhere and nowhere, that he is one but also three, that he loves everyone but plans on torturing most of them after they die (or allowing them to torture themselves, if they believe in Hell 2.0), and that he will give you everything you truly need…but that for some reason you still have to ask him for it.

No wonder a presidential candidate can get up in front of them and make mutually exclusive promises without them ever noticing the contradictions. I contend that this belief in the supra-rationality of the Christian faith enables charlatans of every stripe to lead large numbers wherever they please. It’s also the reason so many otherwise intelligent people never leave the faith, even after they’ve thought through the many logical impossibilities inherent in their belief system.

If it doesn’t have to make sense, you can be made to believe anything at all. There is virtually no limit.

Four Promises That Fail to Materialize

Here at the end of the book, Keller keeps trying to sweeten the deal, piling claim upon claim that former believers like me know good and well aren’t really legit. By my count there are at least four promises in this chapter alone which from my point of view have failed to match up with real life.

  1. God is full of joy, and worshiping him will bring YOU joy and fulness, as well.

On page 225, Keller paints a picture of a “God [who] is infinitely happy,” overflowing with joy, compassion, creativity, and selflessness, but he does so by citing puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, of all people, who authored the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” thereby fueling the nightmares of children for hundreds of years since. Seriously, have you ever read any of the puritans? Dour bunch, those folks. They, too, are among Keller’s heroes.

He furthermore describes the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity, as well as between humanity and divinity, as a kind of joyful “dance.” I find it highly ironic that he does this even after his own evangelical tradition distinguished itself in this country as the enemies of dancing, partying, and drinking alcohol (someone forgot to tell Jesus about that one). Truth be told, they’re only cool with this dancing imagery so long as it’s purely a metaphor.

Ever seen the movie Footloose? It was the evangelical churches in Elmore City, Oklahoma, who made sure their little town didn’t have any dances from its incorporation in 1898 until 1980. In the real life story, it was a rancher, not a preacher, who finally broke the tie in the school board’s decision to lift the antiquated prohibition of dancing within the city limits. To this day, my family’s church tradition still frowns upon dancing as a vulgar and dangerous pastime to be avoided as much as possible.

Needless to say, it doesn’t stick for people like me when well-meaning people (like a good friend of mine does in this book, written with Richard Rohr) try to present the life of the Trinity, or our relationship with one or all of its members, as a kind of “dance.” It’s a beautiful image in theory, I suppose. But in practice the Christian faith is no such ecstatic or carefree romp, especially as championed by theological conservatives like Edwards, Keller, or anyone else in the Calvinistic tradition.

His is a restrictive, austere, self-denying tradition too often obsessed with “avoiding even the appearance of evil,” and too busy prohibiting the things that make us feel alive to notice they’ve forgotten to major on the things Jesus really majored on, like helping the poor and welcoming people who are different from them.

  1. Because God is selfless and self-giving, centering your life on him is in your best interests.

Another thing Keller’s Christianity promises is that the only way to live your life to the fullest is to give it up, in a way, willingly surrendering your own interests in order to pour your energies into whatever it is you think God wants from you instead (a question so subjective there are as many different answers as there are humans on the planet). According to Keller, God is the kind of being who can demand absolute and unrivaled worship without being selfish or egotistical at all:

“But wait,” you say. “On nearly every page of the Bible God calls us to glorify, praise, and serve him. How can you say he doesn’t seek his own glory?” Yes he does ask us to obey him unconditionally, to glorify, praise, and center our lives around him…He wants our joy! He has infinite happiness not through self-centeredness, but through self-giving, other-centered love. And the only way we, who have been created in his image, can have this same joy, is if we center our entire lives around him instead of ourselves. (p.227)

…If we will center our lives on him, serving him not out of self-interest, but just for the sake of who he is…we will enter the dance and share in the joy and love he lives in. (p.228)

In other words, becoming subservient to another is what’s good for us, and it will make us happy. According to Keller, God is so selfless that he can demand our utmost praise and adoration without opening himself up to the same charges of egotism that this belief system declares we ourselves deserve. And yes, that’s inconsistent, but remember that his ways are higher than your ways, his thoughts higher than your thoughts, so you don’t get to judge for yourself whether or not this makes any sense. Maybe it’s not “special pleading” if it’s not really a request at all, but a command.

In my experience, “losing your life” and surrendering your will to God doesn’t produce life or joy or happiness at all. Taking up your cross to “follow him” isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be. I tried it for myself many times over and found out first-hand that the things you sacrifice for the glory of God only stay dead—there is no resurrection on the other side. Human life is resilient, of course, and as they say life always finds a way. But there isn’t any divine deliverance or restoration on the other side of getting crucified, either literally or metaphorically.

  1. Orienting your life around Jesus will bring healthy relationships with other people.

In all fairness, sometimes this is true. I suspect there are many families who would be much worse off were it not for the Christian tradition teaching them another way to act and speak toward each other. I can think of a number of men who I think would be much less tolerable husbands and fathers if their churches didn’t impress upon them a sense of responsibility for treating their families well, providing for them and leading them with a servant’s heart.

He invites you to begin centering everything in your life on him, even as he has given himself for you. If you respond to him, all your relationships will begin to heal. (p.230-231)

But that’s not always how it goes, because the thing about religion being so exceedingly subjective is that it can also be used to condone dysfunctional relationships. The Bible, written as it was in another time and place, can be used to justify positively barbaric treatment of others, depersonalizing women and foreigners depending on where you look. It stresses submission to authority, and it was written during a time in which women were, to a certain degree, still being seen as property.

I cannot ultimately buy into this promise because I know too many friends who were hurt by their parents, by their pastors, or even by their “friends” who were just trying to straighten them out according to the way their church believes a person should live. Some day I may even tell a bit more of my own story than I’ve told thus far, enumerating the ways in which I believe the faith of friends and family drove a wedge between them and me after I admitted to them that I no longer believe. Some of that I’ll save for the book.

In the end, faith has to protect itself, and if that has to happen at the expense of even the most important relationships you have, then it will do whatever it has to do to preserve itself. And don’t even try to tell me that’s not what Jesus would have wanted because that’s exactly what he said following him requires.

  1. The Christian message uniquely instructs us to care for the environment, and to fight for social justice as well.

This one actually made me laugh out loud. It takes a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics to tease out a concern for the environment from the New Testament, and you just don’t ever hear many evangelical pastors impressing upon their congregations that caring for the ecosystem is on the God’s wish list for his people.

The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world. (p.233)

…Christians become stewards of the material world, from those who cultivate the natural creation through science and gardening to those who give themselves to artistic endeavors, all knowing why these things are necessary for human flourishing. (p.235)

If anything, evangelical churches view environmentalism as a distortion of priorities, as if being concerned for the limits of our planet’s natural resources represents a kind of idolatry. It’s planet worship, the way they see it. And furthermore, it signals a failure to trust that God is in control, and that he will never let anything truly awful happen to our ecosystem that he doesn’t want to have happen.

Besides, come on. Science and gardening? Artistic endeavors? Are these the things you see evangelicals focusing on at all? This is laughably absurd. But what would you expect? There is virtually nothing at all in the pages of the New Testament which would communicate to the church today that God wants them to focus on developing these things.

For the gardening one to make sense, you would have to reach back to a prooftext from one of the first three chapters of Genesis. You certainly won’t hear an awful lot about it in the New Testament, save for a handful of bucolic parables told by Jesus to a rural audience who would understand his theology better with agricultural metaphors.

And as for helping humans to flourish through science and art, I can only say that in real life, the harsh truth is that the evangelical church more often than not stands in the way of progress in both of those fields, viewing their own role as guardians of propriety rather than pioneers reaching to explore the outer boundaries of either endeavor. Historically speaking, the church’s relationship to science is antagonistic more often than not (try showing Cosmos in an evangelical church sometime). And let’s be honest, most artistic expression coming out of the church consists in taking things “the world” has come up with and changing a thing or two to make it “Christian.” It is many things, but it isn’t “art.”

And as for that other thing he mentioned:

The story of the gospel makes sense of moral obligation and our belief in the reality of justice, so Christians do restorative and redistributive justice wherever they can. (p.235)

I wish they would. And maybe they will again here someday soon. In my experience, this passion for social justice is woefully absent in the church, or at least in the evangelical wing of it. Keller’s tradition cares much more about what happens to us after we die than it does about what happens before, save for telling us to quit looking at porn or whatever. They see their role in the world as one of “Designated Adult,” as Captain Cassidy so perfectly calls it. If only that role included taking responsibility for things like an unequal distribution of justice, of education, and of economic opportunity.

Here at the end of another presidential election in my country, the evangelical church has finally encountered a crisis moment in which they are being forced to reevaluate what they are supposed to be about in the world. They tried very hard to convince themselves they should vote for the most morally reprehensible presidential candidate in US history, a man with the potential to rule the country as a fascist dictator (if only he even cared enough about the job to put that much energy into it, and I doubt he would have).

They could overlook his disdain for blacks, for Muslims, for hispanics, and for the disabled. But then he went and had to say nasty things about pretty white women, and that was going too far. Suddenly his moral shortcomings were hitting a little too close to home. Now many of them are scrambling to rethink what they’re supposed to care about, reevaluating their own contribution to American politics. If the Republican party isn’t going to truly represent them and their interests in the public square, then what are they to do?

Will they do an about-face and decide that caring for the poor is truly an obligation for them? Will they become advocates for social justice in our country, fighting for things like income inequality, a fairer distribution of educational resources, and for racial equality in our justice system? My guess is that Christian traditions other than Keller’s will fight nobly for these things. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for evangelicals to major on these things.

If the past is any indication of the future, they will expend most of their energies on themselves, protecting their own rights to treat others unequally. They will resist their “brothers and sisters in Christ” who try to major on these things, because the world is going to end soon, Jesus is coming back, and you don’t polish brass on sinking ships.

Keller’s sales pitch here is beautiful, but dishonest. I wish what he were selling were true, but it’s not. And I know this the same way so many others like me know it: We’ve been there, and we’ve done that. We’ve watched how this plays out in real life, not on paper, where you can make all the ideas seem like they mesh together into a coherent (or incoherent) whole. We’re just not buying it.

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As with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out. Here he covers Chapter 14 and the Epilogue:

[Image Source: Gospel Coalition]

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If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

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