Tim Keller’s Argument from Rational Meaning

Previously, I’ve written on a strategy for evangelism called Subversive Fulfillment. Essentially this method, following the lines of thought presented in I Corinthians 1 and Acts 17, seeks to both confront and connect with unbelievers. In a real way, it respects their humanity, and seeks to “become all things to all men that [we] may by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:22). Unbelievers, though dead in sin, still are human beings made in the image of God and when we can show them how Christianity answers their current longings and desires we help to destroy their reasons for unbelief. Ultimately the Spirit must give a new heart, but that does no mean that He doesn’t use the means of a softened mind to make converts. 

Perhaps no evangelical has mastered the strategy of subversive fulfillment as much as Tim Keller. Commenting on Keller’s book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical author Sam Chan describes this strategy in action, ““I love how Making Sense of God enters their worldview and speaks what [nonbelievers] want, quoting their authors, getting them nodding, then bit by bit saying, ‘Huh, it’s not going to work this way,”1 and then of course Keller offers the solution found only in Christ.

One such place he does this is in his chapter “A Meaning That Suffering Can’t Take from You.” He covers a lot of ground in just this chapter, but two places of connection that he finds with unbelievers is the desire to be rational and the desire to have meaningful lives. Often both of these ideas are pitted against Christianity: “Of course I don’t want to be a Christian, I don’t want to have to throw my brain in the garbage!” or “Why would anyone even need Christianity to make their life meaningful, life is what you make it! Make your own meaning.” 

Keller masterfully takes both these ideas and shows how the secular viewpoint ultimately does not satisfy and demonstrates how Jesus really is the answer. His first move is to recognize that despite some “loud religious voices insisting that life without God is inevitably pointless, bleak, and unworkable,” there is a way in which “secular people can certainly know meaning in life.”2 It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Often Christians try to take too much ground, for fear that granting even the slightest affirmation will affirm a secular person’s unbelief, but ironically, and tragically, argumentative overreach is far more likely to affirm unbelief. The objection is easily understood: “I have meaning, you Christians keep telling me I don’t, but I do, so you’re obviously wrong.” Keller is too careful, too wise, to make that mistake. 

Instead he makes the connection, but then he confronts. His next move is to establish that there is an important distinction to make when contrasting the idea of Christian meaning compared to the secular concept of meaning. He states:

Secular people are often unwilling to recognize the significant difference between what I have been called “inherent” and “assigned” meanings. Traditional belief in God was the basis for discovered, objective meaning—meaning that is there, apart from your inner feelings or interpretations. If we were made by God for certain purposes, then there are inherent meanings that we must accept. The meanings that secular people have are not discovered but rather created. They are not objectively “there.”

If nothing else, Christians are able to appeal to a deeper meaning, one grounded in transcendence. This is something that the secular view cannot rationally appeal to. But it’s more than that, and here Keller, like the Apostle Paul before him, brings in a secular ally to challenge even the depth of rationally grounding this secular “created” meaning. This time he brings atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel to the stand. The following quote from Keller’s book Preaching summarizes the move made in Making Sense of God:

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, however, says that created meanings are less rational in principle than discovered meanings. Most of us would agree, Nagel argues, that we only have meaning if we feel we are making a difference, that what we do matters. But, he argues, if there is no God and you write a “great work of literature that continues to be read thousands of years from now, nevertheless eventually the solar system will cool or the universe wind down and collapse and all trace of your effort will vanish…. If you think about the whole thing… it wouldn’t matter if you had never existed”…. That means you can live a meaningful life only if you are careful not to think out the implications of your view of the universe.

These secular created meanings may provide some genuine source of existential meaning, but they do so only in so much as those people fail to actively think about the implications of their worldview. The heart must ignore what the mind knows. The common critique of Christianity is flipped upon the secular worldview. As Keller again states:

When secular people seek to lead a meaningful life, they must have discipline to not think so much about the big picture. They must disconnect what their reason tells them about the world from what they are experiencing emotionally. That is getting a feeling of meaningfulness through a lack of rationality, by the suppression of thinking and reflection.

Sure, some form of meaning can be achieved without God. Sure, you can still have a good time. After all, the Apostle Paul said, “if the dead are not raised let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” Live it up, but just don’t think it through. The empty void of frigid eternal darkness that awaits this universe is a thought best suppressed for those who want to grasp onto any nugget of meaning. And here Keller presents the ultimate flip. Not only does the secular belief leave one wanting, but the Christian view fulfills these very holes left by this terrible tangle of rationality and meaning. The Christian worldview, not only with its inherent meaning, but with its entire story of a new heavens, a new earth, a life to come, and of life lived before the face of God, offers a radical harmony that fulfills the longings of both rationality and meaning. As Keller once more puts it:

There is a kind of shallow, temporary peace that modern people can get from not thinking too much about their situation, but Christianity can give a deep peace and meaning that come from making yourself as aware and as mindful of your beliefs as possible.6

This world needs more evangelistic responses that are “deeply relational and demonstrably reasonable.”7 But to do this requires us to listen to unbelievers. While not forgetting the systematic effects of sin, we must not neglect the goodness of their humanity, a humanity that rightly desires rationality, that rightly longs for meaning. We must find common ground where we can, affirm what is good, beautiful, and true, and then show them that all that is fully good, lastingly beautiful, and ultimately true is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Notes:

  1. Sarah Eekhoff Zylastra, “Ask and You Shall Evangelize,” The Gospel Coalition, November 14, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/ask-shall-evangelize/ 
  2. Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), 64-65
  3. Ibid. 65
  4. Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in Age of Skepticism (New York, New York: Viking, 2015), 142; see also: Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), 66
  5. Keller, Making Sense of God, 67
  6. Ibid. 69
  7. Elliot Clark, “Francis Schaeffer Warned Us About 2020,” The Gospel Coalition, December 9, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/church-end-20th-century-francis-shaeffer/

One thought on “Tim Keller’s Argument from Rational Meaning

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  1. Great post! “We must find common ground where we can, affirm what is good, beautiful, and true, and then show them that all that is fully good, lastingly beautiful, and ultimately truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ.”

    Liked by 1 person

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