One of the biggest challenges for Christian mission today continues to be what I would just call the question of “how to believe.”
Our church is running the Alpha Course right now, and one of the first few lessons was entitled “How can I have Faith?” Well, I’ve just read two new books that address this topic, and I was struck by how well they represent two very different approaches to the question of Christian belief. Though this is not a full-on book review of either, I will try discuss the merits of each one, and then comment about the implications for how we understand the task of gospel-proclamation in a secular, post-modern, and post-Christendom age.
Making Sense of God – Tim Keller
(This recent interview of Keller by The Deconstructionists does a great job introducing his new book.)
Tim Keller has grown on me in the last two years. This is largely because, in my current ministry context, I’ve needed someone to lean on who is good at speaking to a fairly conservative Christian base but with subversive and unexpected thoughtfulness that gospel proclamation demands. For a long time, I brushed Keller off as just another popular, Reformed Christian apologist with nothing special to say. I now know that was a mistake. (I will say, though, that one shortcoming of Keller’s ministry is the apparent absence of female and minority voices informing his perspective — his denomination does not ordain women to the ministry. And while I do not altogether disagree with his assessment of certain non-Christian religions, he tends to make caricatures of them.)
Making Sense of God has to be Keller’s biggest project to date, and I would even venture to say his most important. It is impressive. He interacts seamlessly with thinkers ranging from 20th Century existentialists like Heidegger and Camus to contemporary philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Terry Eagleton and Charles Taylor. Keller converses with and critiques secular and postmodern thought with much greater ease than should be expected of someone with so popular an audience.
Keller’s Argument for Christianity
Keller’s contention throughout the book is that the central message of Christianity is just as culturally and morally relevant and intelligible, if not more so, than that of any other common religious or non-religious worldview today — especially those that are usually considered more credible by humanists and skeptics. Some of his arguments are more persuasive than others, but overall, Keller makes a compelling case for why the Christian faith deserves serious consideration from anyone seeking meaning and satisfaction in their life. Keller contends Christianity is culturally & morally relevant & intelligible as other worldviews Click To Tweet
Keller consistently returns to what distinguishes Christianity most from other systems of belief and practice: “At the heart of Christian faith is a man dying for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness rather than retaliating” (p. 147). In his chapter entitled, “An Identity that Doesn’t Crush You or Exclude Others,” the idea is that a “cross-shaped identity” is “one that leads to self-affirmation and self-denial at once.” He follows Miroslav Volf and others in arguing that Jesus dying for us destroys both pride and self-hatred. At the heart of Christian faith is a man dying for his enemies. Tim Keller Click To Tweet
What Keller Doesn’t Do
The book is great. It promises to equip Christian leaders with competence for navigating a culture that no longer privileges the Christian perspective. What I’m left wondering after reading it, though, might sound a bit strange, but could it be that Keller’s understanding of Christianity makes a little bit too much sense?
I’ve always been taken by what Soren Kierkegaard emphasized in his writing about the “leap” that is required for faith—faith in the absolute paradox that is the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. This leap, Kierkegaard says, must be made subjectively, and without reservation, but with regard to its object, it is uncertain. Uncertainty is not the same thing as doubt or unbelief. By describing the object of faith as uncertain, what Kierkegaard really means is that it is non-rational and inexhaustibly mysterious. Keller’s arguments and tone do not leave you with the sense that there is much uncertainty to speak of in Christian truth claims.
Moreover, what Keller’s book doesn’t really do—and this is why the message in Mike McHargue’s book is so essential — is speak well to people who remain intrigued by Jesus but are unable to swallow the whole Christian pill. I can just hear someone saying: “I follow most of what you’re saying, Tim, about love, forgiveness, identity, etc., but I’m still just not sure that it’s as rational and accessible as you make it sound.”
No matter how reasonably it gets packaged, it’s still very hard for many people to believe that a man who lived two thousand years ago 1) was God and 2) vicariously suffered for our sins to save us from divine judgment.
Finding God in the Waves—”Science” Mike McHargue
Consider the following from Mike McHargue:
“There is an atheist in my brain who remain wholly incredulous about the idea of a divine being who once dwelt among us in the form of a man. There is a Christian in my brain who is indescribably and enduringly comforted by the idea and love of a supernatural Savior. I’ve stopped trying to deny, starve, or otherwise do away with either of them.” – p. 134, Finding God in the Waves
This book has been good for my soul. Mike McHargue (aka, “Science Mike”) is the host of a popular podcast that I also enjoy called The Liturgists, and his story has touched skeptics and evangelicals alike. It is a journey of genuine transformation, and one from which we can all learn a great deal. (Mike was recently interviewed about his book by Missio Alliance partner Shane Blackshear on the Seminary Dropout Podcast.)
Mike considers himself a follower of Jesus, and he still “hopes for a resurrection that will one day reach every corner of our universe” (p. 205), but his faith today doesn’t look very much like the one that he inherited from his Southern Baptist upbringing. At the same time, there’s not even a hint of contempt from Mike toward the church and community of his past. In fact, he makes a point to stress how much good he received from it, and how many of his friends and family members in particularly loved him so well during that season of life.
Mike has a gift for making complex scientific topics accessible and interesting for the layperson. Whether he’s explaining cosmology or neuroscience, Science Mike brings to life the connections between spirituality, God, faith, human brains and the universe. This book is an honest and inspirational spiritual memoir that I would recommend to anyone. There's not a hint of contempt from @MikeMcHargue toward the church of his past. Click To Tweet
He paints with broad brushstrokes at times, for brevity’s sake, but there are many days and moments when I find myself basically agreeing with much of what Mike says about the Bible, Jesus, God and church. Of course, I don’t have Mike’s scientific knowledge, but I have had to go on my own kind of deconstructive and reconstructive spiritual path for similar philosophical and existential reasons. So it’s very encouraging to read a well-written reflection on someone else’s experience with doubt and the journey back to a more mature, post-critical faith. It's encouraging to read a reflection on doubt and the journey back to a more mature, post-critical faith. Click To Tweet
How Keller and Science Mike Believe
Keller wants to say that Christianity is sensible and even unshakeable when compared to other worldviews, particularly in difficult circumstances and times of suffering. Mike wants to say that science led him back to a place where he could have faith again, but this faith is mystical, experiential and pragmatic rather than dogmatic. It’s also based on what Mike calls “the Loving God” rather than “the Angry God.” Keller, however, would respond that these two Gods are not incommensurable, and that God’s justice resolves the tension between the two on the cross.
Now, if Keller leaves me with the impression that he hasn’t really dealt with the uncertainty that many face in having Christian faith, Science Mike makes up for this, and then some. But if Keller leaps too easily, I will admit that at points it feels like Mike doesn’t leap very far. His subjective posture toward faith is based so significantly on evidence and experience, that it may predetermine what can be said of its object. Thus, at moments it would seem McHargue is stalled by Kierkegaard’s objective uncertainty, even as Keller is unfettered by it.
Mike basically admits this, though, and I do not fault him for it. We are all in process in our faith, but I just don’t want to conflate faith with knowledge, or replace it with mere hope. Even mystical knowledge is not faith. And hope without faith, or hope without trust, risks becoming little more than therapeutic, positive thinking. As for Keller, he’s right about what faith in Christ can be when we really do make the leap: it’s “death camp proof” (p. 76). But as Mike’s testimony demonstrates, Sometimes faith has to be rooted more in existential courage than in intellectual confidence. Sometimes faith has to be rooted more in existential courage than in intellectual confidence. Click To Tweet
Implications of Christian Belief for Christian Mission after Christendom
With respect to the mission of the church and its on-going work of preaching and incarnating the good news, I would make these final observations about these two helpful works:
Keller’s sustained example continues to be one of faithfulness on two fronts: proclaiming the gospel to the religious and skeptical alike, and doing so with an effort to contextualize the message for a culture that does not necessarily have any interest in Christianity anymore.
His work provides a reliable resource and a model for doing this. I believe Keller is right to point to Christianity’s coherence in in the midst of postmodernity’s obsession with difference and plurality. But don’t we need a more critical reasoning than this as well? I’m talking about one that acknowledges more deeply the church’s on-going theological complicity with colonialism, for example, and that recognizes the importance of the Christian mystical tradition, in an age that is drawn to mystery and awe more so than systems of belief.
Science Mike talks about how little the disciples must have known and what doubts they probably had, even though they still “left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18). This is crucial to appreciate when it comes to welcoming people into Christian fellowship who don’t necessarily assent to, or aren’t completely settled on, everything that Christians have traditionally confessed. One common tendency of progressive Christianity (of which Science Mike is one representative), though, is to more or less equate faith with some combination of contemplative spirituality and social justice.
Having been down this road myself, I’ve discovered that though contemplation and action are indispensable to the Christian life, they are not constitutive of it. In other words, you could do these things well without being a Christian. The Church and its mission consists of something more. It begins and ends with the authority of Jesus and his on-going presence with us through the Holy Spirit for the advancement of and preparation for God’s cosmic banquet. If this were not so, we could dispense with our grand narrative and simply retain the practices.
Reason (Keller) and experience/evidence (Science Mike)—the two foundations of Enlightenment knowledge—must guide our thinking, and where there is contradiction with faith or the tradition, further examination is required. Reason and experience inform Christian belief, but they do not determine the contours of faith.
As both of these authors know, discipleship entails believing in something that not only exceeds the reach of reason and experience, but that may even seem foolish to it. Reason and experience inform Christian belief, but they do not determine the contours of faith. Click To Tweet