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Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller

Dale Van Dyke

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, by Timothy Keller. New York: Viking, 2016, 254 pages, $27.00.

I was skeptical. Although I had benefited greatly from The Reason for God (2008), I doubted Keller had another worthwhile apologetics book in him. I was wrong; Making Sense is significantly different, and better. The Reason for God was written to answer common objections to the Christian faith (the problem of evil, idea of hell, exclusivity, etc.). However, the times are changing. As secularism has advanced, the “nones” seem to have moved from questioning the Christian faith to a comfortable and convinced unbelief. Consequently, as Andrew Wilson neatly puts it: “Making Sense of God isn’t so much a series of answers for those who think they have questions (like The Reason for God) as it is a series of questions for those who think they have answers.”[1]

In Making Sense, Keller, in his classic literary style, doesn’t address questions no one is asking but rather raises the ones they should be asking. He calmly but masterfully challenges the unexamined faith claims of the new secular religion.

In the first two chapters Keller confronts two widely held assumptions: secularism is inevitable in a modernizing world (ch. 1) and, unlike faith, it is based on pure reason and scientific observation (ch. 2). He argues that the “secularization thesis”—modernization inevitably results in secularization—has “been empirically shown to be false” (24). While the church seems to be declining in Europe, it is growing dramatically in other parts of the modernizing world, e.g., China. In fact, not only is secularism not inevitable, but there is substantial evidence that it is declining! “University of London professor Eric Kaufmann, in his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?[2] speaks of ‘the crisis of secularism’ and argues that the shrinkage of secularism and liberal religion is inevitable” (24).

The primary problems facing secularism are 1) secularists tend not to reproduce and, 2) most significantly, secularism cannot account for actual human experience.

Strict secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that when loved ones die they simply cease to exist, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds determine and choose. Those positions are at the very least deeply counterintuitive for nearly all people, and large swaths of humanity will continue to simply reject them as impossible to believe. (23)

In chapter 2 Keller quotes contemporary philosophers to refute the claim that secularism, unlike religion, is based purely on science and reason. “Twentieth-century thinkers, such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, have argued that all reasoning is based on prior faith commitments to which one did not reason” (34).

Like Paul on Mars Hill, Keller repeatedly uses respected cultural authorities to reveal the inherent flaws of a secular worldview. For example, he references Michael Polanyi to show “there is no such thing as an objective, belief-free, pure openness to objective evidence. There is no view from ‘nowhere’ ” (36). Nietzsche is called upon to show that secularism has no coherent basis for morality. Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov exposes the irrational ethical reasoning of secularism by summarizing it this way: “Man descended from apes. Therefore we must love one another” (42). This is typical Keller—use “secular” sources to challenge secular assumptions—and he does it very well. The extensive references to Bellah, Lilla, Taylor, and so on, gives cultural weight and street credibility to Keller’s argument.

In Part Two, “Religion is More than You Think,” Keller contrasts secularism and religion, specifically the Christian faith, on the issues of meaning (ch. 3), satisfaction (ch. 4), freedom (ch. 5), identity (chs. 6–7), hope (ch. 8), morality (ch. 9), and justice (ch. 10). Those who’ve read Keller’s Preaching[3] will find this material familiar, but it is an insightful analysis of secularism and a useful aid to pastors striving to address both their secularized community and secularizing congregation. In each chapter Keller exposes the unmoored assumptions of secularism and concludes with a short defense of the Christian faith. Christ alone provides

a meaning that suffering can’t remove, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, a freedom that does not hurt but rather enhances love, an identity that does not crush you, a moral compass that does not turn you into an oppressor, and a hope that can face anything, even death. (215)

In Part Three, “Christianity Makes Sense,” Keller concludes by giving six brief arguments for God (ch. 11) and then a specific case for believing in Jesus (ch. 12). Some may consider this treatment to be far too brief, others might think it insufficiently pre-suppositional, but it supports the purpose of the book well and warmly invites a skeptic to consider the claims of Christ.

Making Sense of God is not an exhaustive discussion of the issues it addresses. While the decline of secularism is good news, it may be exaggerated. It would have been helpful to include a discussion of the devastating impact secularization is having among those who profess Christ, particularly here in America. As Steve Bruce has pointed out, apostasy isn’t the only indicator of secularization. “While the British secularized by abandoning their churches, Americans have secularized their churches. In Europe, the churches became less popular; in the United States, the churches became less religious.”[4]

Nonetheless, Making Sense is very good at what it does: challenging the false assumptions and illogical conclusions of the secularist's faith and inviting a skeptical culture to see the truth of Christ as the most coherent, rational, liberating, and satisfying truth.

I highly recommend Making Sense for every pastor, church planter, and evangelist in the OPC. It is an insightful road map to the secular faith of our day. It will help you avoid answering the questions no one is asking and help you to invite your neighbors to consider the questions for which secularism has no answers. This would be a terrific neighborhood book study.

Making Sense of God would also be excellent for a Sunday School class or small group study. It will encourage the saints by showing the coherence of the Christian faith and arm them for more helpful conversations with their unconverted family members and neighbors. Ultimately, Making Sense will remind you of the sheer joy and privilege of being a Christian in a lost world!

Endnotes

[1] Andrew Wilson, Tim Keller’s Invitation to the Skeptical, The Gospel Coalition, September 21, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-making-sense-of-god.

[2] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (London: Profile, 2011).

[3] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016).

[4] Steve Bruce, Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 156.

Dale Van Dyke is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Harvest Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wyoming, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2017.

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