Book Review: Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

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I think Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical is Keller’s best work yet. He has gone on record stating that Making Sense of God is a sort of prequel to his best selling The Reason for God. The reason he gives for such a prequel is that he felt the need to offer a well-reasoned position as to why people might (or could) be motivated to consider a reasoning for God in the first place. In other words, why should we care about bringing the question of God into the picture in the first place?

Peaceful and Methodical 
I found the book very methodical in its approach and his arguments well layed out. It feels quite the opposite to some of the older style apologetics, which at times tend towards a penchant for creating strawman arguments. Keller is not at war, nor is he wanting to create a war. His motivation is to open the door for peaceful and helpful dialogue, and so he is careful not to dismiss or belittle any of the arguments he confronts. He simply wants to shed light on the struggle that exists between belief and unbelief.

It is worth noting that he does speak, at least partially, from a laymans position. That is to say, his depth of experience with the questions he pursues in the book are centred on his experience with being a Pastor to many who have taken this journey either towards or away from faith, and faced these struggles themselves. I find him to be very good at navigating this middle ground, between his obviously well-researched position on religious and philosophical grounds (the depth he brings to the endnotes and references is worth the price of the book alone) and his understanding of the personal struggle that can (and does) exist for many of us in the everyday commonness of trying to do this thing called life. This is where he finds his sweet spot.

The Skeptical and the Nones: Making Sense of the Target Audience
It is a book that has been suggested as being marketed to the skeptical (as warranted by the title). I might take this a step further and suggest that his true market is the so-called “nones”, to which he references in the book as those who claim no affiliation with a denomination and/or religion, nor a strong affiliation with stringent forms of atheism. I would wager that strident atheists and believers (who have made up their mind on either side of the fence) might not appreciate the book or might otherwise abuse/misunderstand the ideas he represents. This would be unfortunate, but it would also be expected.  It wouldn’t surprise me that some might dismiss his arguments as already “tried and found wanting” without much need for further consideration. The truth is, Keller doesn’t fit perfectly into either mode. Being a (unapologetic) professing Christian who takes equal aim at abusive forms of conservatism and dishonest forms of atheism does limit the scope of his audience. But hopefully the audience that he does manage to captivate can be more adept at bringing both reason and experience, thought and faith into a more well-balanced discussion of the religious motivation (both for and against).

Classic Keller with a Twist
Keller’s interest in writing Making Sense of God should be nothing new (for those familiar with his previous work and his sermons), but the concise way that he brings together his thoughts allows this to feel fresh, and his commentary on the current state on the Church feels important and relevant. He meanders through much of the secular humanist/materialist/atheist reasoning in an attempt not to show them as moral denigrates or dangerous monsters (quite the opposite in-fact), but rather to show the limits of their reasoning in the realm of honest philosophical consideration. To admit the limits of secular humanist reasoning, for Keller, is a place that every good and honest thinker must start, whether one is religiously inclined or not, when making sense of God. For as much as religion must face its own limitations (and accept that it has its own set of problems), so does atheism, and a thorough examining of history can prove this continues to be the case. Perhaps admitting these limitations can help us understand that these two ideologies (or worldviews) should not be at war. Rather, they should want to be in constant dialogue.

Keller goes on in his early chapters to consider a shocking analysis of the religious front. Contrary to the view of popular culture, Keller insists that the data and the evidence shows religion is not waning or dying out, but simply reorienting itself within certain dying factions, while other factions are actually gaining in strength. The great fallacy of our time, or the great misunderstanding of religion, begins with the false idea that there are no intellectually honest, rationally concerned and yet still religiously committed forms of the Christian Church and practice available. That the entirety of Christianity (and atheism for that matter) has been placed under a single, unfortunate stereotype is a part of the problem on both sides of the fence. Keller doesn’t say as much, but certainly his work at Redeemer is an example of a decidedly different kind of Church, one that happens to be flourishing without the aid of popular technique or flashy stages, and one that is encouraging a new kind of urban witness and style of conversation for our modern landscape, one that is not afraid to embrace the Christian traditions or the questions at the same time.

The Problem of Created Meaning
My favorite chapters are the earlier ones that deal with meaning, satisfaction, and happiness. It is the journey that I have been on lately, and it is where I think Keller shines the brightest. His chapters on morality and hope are also very good, but they are decidedly more complex as well and depend on the foundation that is established in the earlier chapters.

Where I think the subject of happiness and satisfaction and meaning hit home (for me) is the way in which they force us to be completely honest with the “why” questions. Why do we need to consider God? Why should we care about altruism and human worth? Why should we embrace the idea of sacrificial living? Keller helps us to see that secular humanism makes a ton of assumptions when it comes to the many why questions, most of which surround morality and meaning, assumptions that, when laid bare, it ultimately cannot fully answer (something the most prominent humanist thinkers admit, as Keller shows). This is where the earlier chapters help give shape to the larger discussion of why God, showing how all of the “whys” flow out of the following notion:  how do we honestly live (and sell, since living is essentially a relating activity) a worldview that must learn to accept that it is living (for better or for worse) a lie. Not a lie in the misleading sense, but “lie” as in a contradiction of thought and practice.

For example (to flesh this out with a bit more clarity), secular humanism accepts what most people intuitively know, which is that emotions such as love and experiences such as admiring beauty are real emotions and real experiences that have inherent meaning outside of ourselves. They are recognized as universal truths. However, the worldview it imposes onto these universal truths must also accept that any meaning attributed to these emotions and experiences is created (a product of chemical reactions determined by the environment in which we live and governed by the process of history and evolution) not given. These emotions and experiences are essentially reactions that trick us into feeling one way or another. Thus, the only way for us to genuinely give ourselves to these emotions and experiences (in a way that matters) is for us to willingly (or naively) ignore the truth of created meaning (a truth that can be manipulated) while subsequently allowing ourselves to submit to the delusion that this truth carries given (universal) meaning.

Keller maintains that most of us would accept that, if love (in the moment of the emotion) is processed purely on the basis of what it actually is (in this worldview), the idea of love would necessarily be cheapened; nothing more than a pleasurable and (sometimes) helpful experience that we can either give ourselves to or become cynical towards. Rather, for something like love to become meaningful, we must be able to accept it as meaningful, long before the meaning is actually created. Thus the contradiction of thought and practice.

The word “lie” here sounds rather forceful (and this might be the place where strident atheists check out of the conversation), but Keller’s careful methodology forces us to face it head on. After sifting through all of the complex (and rather good) philosophical considerations for secular-humanism, we consistently arrive back at the same place. The best we can do is suggest that “we should care simply because it is something we should care about”.

But why? Is it that we should care because our environment and evolutionary development has positioned our consciousness to care, and that should be enough? But how do we deal with the truth that history shows us enslaved to the evolutionary process, not the other way around, and thus we must consider an evolutionary process that is contradictory to the claims of our social consciousness? Sure, we can consider that our social consciousness is a unique part of our “human evolution”, and thus must be considered as a unique faction of the evolutionary chain, but even within the framework of human evolution the path is far from linear and purely “progressive”.

Once we consider that all of our conscious emotions (which form the basis of caring and meaning) are simply created forms of created meaning, it should follow that we would be forced to consider ideas (or experiences) such as love and compassion, for as intuitive as they are, as without meaning (or meaningless) outside of their practical context. We can choose to give it meaning, but then we are ignoring the greater truth (of science and reason within a secular humanist worldview), which is that this meaning must be manufactured from outside of the environment that actually created the feeling or the experience, an environment that is not concerned with altruism (selflessness) but rather survival and adaptation (selfishness).

The Common angst of the Spiritual Journey: Why created “meaning” can’t work for me.
The reason I appreciated this part of the book is because it reflects, rather accurately, my own journey through secular-humanism and atheism. At one point in my life I figured I had found the truth (of intellectual reasoning) and the truth had set me free. But what I lost in the process was the motivation to care. Everywhere I looked I found false expressions of the essential human experience that most of us intuitively embrace (love, self-giving, sacrificial), an experience, if I was truly honest, I was even able to manipulate and control if I wanted. This realization filtered all the way down to the most troublesome notion for me- experiencing and recognizing the fallacy of the way in which we process human loss by breathing meaning into our relationships where it otherwise wold not be a given. This is what the truth tends to do, though, is make us confront the futility of this world in which we are far from the centre of the universe. If I am not able to operate from the religious premise of endowed human worth (which is an exercise of faith), I was forced to face the truth that whoever speaks this worth into my context of my own funeral must do so by reconstructing the picture my life in a way that ignores the truth of what it was. Because God knows that if someone honestly portrayed my life for what it was (or has been… I’m still alive after all) rather than what an endowed sense of meaning allows me (and others) to say it is, it would cause most to leave the funeral disgusted, defeated and discouraged.

And yet, I suspect that the story of my own funeral will be the same as every funeral I have ever attended, which is a celebration of my worth and goodness as an individual and a vision of my life set in some form of a positive light. I’ll be honest, this was a small token of assurance during my experimentation with a secular-humanist approach, because God (irony intended) also knows that my name (along with most people) will fade into the nothingness of history less than a generation or so after I pass. But the greatest loss I faced at this time in my life was that, if I was not able to accept this meaning for myself, I could not, at least not honestly, give meaning to others either.

The Emotional Struggle
Keller gets the emotional core of this struggle spot-on, and really narrows in on the questions that tend to cause people in my position so much angst and turmoil. The idea that we are living a lie, and the idea that I must also lie to myself on a daily basis in order to live it with any sense of truth and conviction, is a very defeatist position to find yourself in. I know that there are many atheists who choose not to submit to this defeat, and their witness (as people who live a good life, who are happy, and who manage to make something out of this created worth) might be the strongest argument against the need for God. After all, if the idea of God is not true, this exercise simply becomes the reality of the life we are forced to live, and we might as well try to make it as happy an exercise as we can. But it doesn’t make this approach any more true or honest or rational than the faith positions of the religious. And further, it has little to say to those who don’t fall on the winning side of this lottery we call life, the ones who are not afforded the material comforts and joys of the so-called elite nor the social support that can help ease life’s emotional and physical burdens.

For myself, I couldn’t get past the fact that I must learn to live a delusion in order to find meaning in life beyond the material, and I didn’t have much that could satisfy my feeling of defeat that this reality led me towards.

Making sense of God in my own life was a way of reconciling this tension. It reoriented my tendency to see faith as the “delusion” and secularism as the truth.  It allowed me to consider that both God/religion and secular humanism demanded equal acts of “faith”, a cliche (I know, because I dismissed this cliche myself for many years), but nevertheless a truth, one that that helped free me from the prison of intellectual elitism.

Spreading Himself too thin
This might be a small criticism, but Keller might have been better off simply addressing the limitations of the secular-humanist approach rather than stretching some of the material to0 thin (which I believe he does) with the smaller portions that deal more with apologetics “for” the Christian faith rather than for the “consideration” of God in general. The format he carries through the book, before leaving room for a brief look at the Christian story in the final chapters, is to examine the different parts of the secular-humanist/materialist/atheist positions, outline what he perceives as their limitations, and then conclude with his (brief) consideration for the helpfulness of the Christian approach in dealing with some of these limitations.  In this sense, while the true interest of the book is in setting the groundwork for considering religious belief, he submits himself to the religion which he knows best- Christianity; thus furthering the books interest in the particulars of the Christian faith in response. This is actually the interest of The Reason For God, and I think he would have been better served to simply leave Making Sense of God as an argument for religious consideration in general while allowing his previous book to push this further.

Although all of what he says has relevance and importance, it does feel slightly premature to his end goal of engaging the heart and mind of the skeptic in a sort of middle-ground. For many skeptics (I can imagine), the Christian theology might arrive with the baggage of what turned them away from considering religion to begin with, which means it could become an obstacle to Keller’s greater hope and concern- which is to encourage readers to be “willing” to consider a religious direction and concern.

With that said, I would definitely still consider this one of Keller’s best books. It won’t be for everyone, but I think, for a certain crowd, he provides something incredibly reasoned and hopeful, especially for those who have ever felt lost in the middle ground between faith and the secular.

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