Hedgehog Keller knew two big things
[T]wo fundamental ideas propelled [Tim Keller]: Biblical Christianity is not a political position, and secular liberalism deserves theological critique—because it is not simply how the world really works, but is itself a kind of faith.
One might have expected Keller to imitate the apologists who were at the height of their powers while he was starting out as a young pastor: men like Francis Schaeffer and Josh McDowell, who blended their mission to defend the truth of Christianity with their callings as culture warriors.
Instead, he modeled his writing and preaching on irenic British Christians: the Anglican minister John Stott and, especially, C. S. Lewis (although Keller’s books feature a wide range of cultural and literary references, including Pascal, Tolstoy, the movie Fargo, various atheist thinkers—even, at least once, the Disney cartoon Frozen). Over the years, Keller became not just a Christian apologist but a sophisticated critic of secular liberalism, especially its worship of personal autonomy as the highest good. He pushed his audiences to consider whether total sexual freedom was truly the pinnacle of human liberation, or whether the boundaries of marriage might actually enrich their lives. He took on the false idol of professional achievement: “As long as you think there is a pretty good chance that you will achieve some of your dreams, as long as you think you have a shot at success, you experience your inner emptiness as ‘drive’ and your anxiety as ‘hope,’” he wrote in 2013’s Encounters With Jesus. “And so you can remain almost completely oblivious to how deep your thirst actually is.”
… We all seek what [Charles] Taylor calls “fullness”: an idea that, Keller wrote, “is neither strictly a belief nor a mere experience. It is the perception that life is greater than can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations … It is the widespread, actual lived condition of most human beings regardless of worldview.”
Worthen’s remembrance, better than any other I’ve read yet, shows here why I found Keller a kindred spirit. I have omitted a few of his traits that I should emulate, but frankly have not and may be temperamentally incapable of emulating.
(More on Worthen personally below.)
Keller on the social marks of evangelicalism
Keller was no fundamentalist. He saw the return of fundamentalism in the form of the Moral Majority as part of the problem. In 2022, he began speaking of the six social marks of evangelicalism, which he essentially equated with fundamentalism. These were moralism over gracious engagement, individualism over social reform, dualism over a comprehensive vision of life, anti-intellectualism over scholarship, anti-institutionalism over accountability, and enculturation over cultural reflection.
From Dale Coulter’s reminescence/obituary for Tim Keller.
If more will listen and repent, this could become Keller’s posthumous great contribution to Evangelicalism.
I am not holding my breath.
I’ve read half a dozen obituaries or remembrances of Tim Keller now, and I’ve reached a conclusion: If I had been a member of his Church when I encountered Orthodox Christianity as I did, I still would have become Orthodox, but with more mixed feelings and more nostalgia for my “former delusion” at its best.
Biblical goals, biblical ethics
Over time, some in the Christian world came to criticize Tim [Keller]’s commitment to … engagement as a weakness, or at least, as an approach poorly suited to this moment. “I would argue quite the opposite,” Bill Fullilove, the executive pastor at McLean Presbyterian, told me. “His model of gracious and thoughtful engagement, even when disagreeing vehemently, is exactly what we need more of today. It is simply impermissible to pursue biblical goals while ignoring biblical ethics.
Peter Wehner (italics added)
My first registered sour note from Tim Keller
When I asked him to define for me an “Evangelical,” he borrowed Church of England bishop and theologian N. T. Wright’s answer: an Evangelical was the one who would immediately and exuberantly respond yes to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus really, truly, bodily rose from the dead?”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan on Tim Keller.
I appreciate Keller’s ecumenical gesture, but that definition makes “evangelical” useless for anything more than ruling out professed Christians who don’t or can’t affirm the real, true, bodily Resurrection.
(In his defense, “evangelical” is notoriously difficult to define.)
Pica outbreak among the rationalists
According to Tara Isabella Burton (Rational Magic — The New Atlantis), a lot of Silicon Valley rationalist types are stepping back from rationalism and dabbling in — well, quite a palette of things:
Vogel’s enthusiasm [Vogel is a pseudonym] for beauty, for poetry, for mythic references, for an esoteric strain of quasi-occult religious thought called Traditionalism: all of this, his onetime compatriots in the rationality community might once upon a time have dismissed as New Age claptrap. But Vogel’s personal journey from rationalism to postrationalism is part of a wider intellectual shift — in hyper-STEM-focused Silicon Valley circles and beyond — toward a new openness to the religious, the numinous, and the perilously “woo.”
… More and more rationalists and fellow-travelers were yearning to address personal existential crises alongside global existential risks. The realm of the “woo” started to look less like a wrong turn and more like territory to be mined for new insights.
This wasn’t totally out of left field, even for rationalists. They even had a word for such impulses, according to a former employee of the Center for Applied Rationality, Leah Libresco Sargeant, who writes regularly on how rationalism led her to her Catholic faith. They called it “pica,” after a compulsion that causes people to eat dirt or other non-food objects, and that is often a sign of nutritional imbalance.
I love that “pica” metaphor.
Eyes wide open
Evangelicals claim sola scriptura as their guide, but it is no secret that the challenge of determining what the Bible actually means finds its ultimate caricature in their schisming and squabbling. They are the children of estranged parents, pietism and the enlightenment, but behave like orphans. This confusion over authority is both their greatest affliction and their most potent source of vitality.
I think that locating one’s primary authority as a Christian in the Bible, has a lot of implications. One thing it can do is provide a license to to break away from wider communities — from a church, from a pastor, another source of authority — who is telling you things you you don’t want to hear — a message that is in some way at odds with how you experience Christianity. And it can be a license to start your own community.
I see that impulse towards schism or toward entrepreneurship, too, would be an another way of putting it, as something that has really enlivened evangelicalism that in the context of American culture, and the at least relatively speaking, free market that we have in our in our religious marketplace …
But over the long term, I think it is not always a good thing to be able to break away from people you disagree with, from ideas and information that make you uncomfortable. And so I see that relationship to authority, and perhaps … its power, but also its brittle quality, as something that has both really served evangelicals but has also been a source of consistent struggle.
Molly Worthen, interviewed by Colin Hansen. The inset quote is from her Apostles of Reason which she wrote before she was a committed Christian. She converted to active Christian faith in 2022.
In fairness, I should note that she converted through, and now attends, a Southern Baptist megachurch, but does not appear to back down from her earlier characterization of Evangelicalism. She had her eyes wide open before her heart was.
It must be uncomfortable for her in many ways. But pastor J.D. Greer, to his credit, spent a lot of time with her, answering her many questions, even looping in Tim Keller a time or two. So I understand why she would attend his megachurch.
But she is aware of Orthodoxy, and friendly toward it, albeit while anachronistically viewing it as too ethnic. I’m praying that she’ll discover the truth about that.
The Gospel According to St. John
When I was a young Evangelical, several lifetimes ago, it was common practice to give a new convert a copy of the Gospel According to St. John — never Saints Matthew, Mark or Luke.
Sometime after I became an Orthodox Christian, I was surprised to learn that the Gospel According to St. John was traditionally the only version of the Gospel withheld from pre-converts, known as catechumens.
Only then, in the earlier days of Christianity, were they admitted to the second half of the Liturgy, and then, immediately after Pascha (the traditional time for baptizing catechumens), was the Gospel According to St. John preached, for it was considered too theological for them until baptism.
So familiar were the Gospels to me that I had trouble seeing why it was considered too theological, but that coin has finally dropped, thanks to Fr. Stephen De Young’s Bible studies. It’s not all that difficult to grasp, really.
You see, the Gospel According to St. John was written many decades after the other three “synoptic” Gospels, and it was written to a Church well familiar with the basic narrative of Christ’s incarnation, life, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. So John did not repeat all that basic narrative, but filled in the gaps, giving prolonged attention to some of Jesus’ teachings and to passion week, defying any strict chronology as he did.
It’s in that sense, I think, that John wrote a “theological” gospel as a complement to the three relatively more historical or narrative versions.
And that’s why I think Evangelicalism erred in passing out his version to new converts who might not yet know that outline of Christ’s earthly ministry — just who was this guy to whom they’d committed themselves?
If you can tolerate his mannerisms, as I have learned to do, you can learn a lot from Fr. Stephen, which I suppose is why Ancient Faith Ministries has given him a platform.
[Iconographer Jonathan] Pageau focused, in part, on waves of online conspiracy theories that have shaken many flocks and the shepherds who lead them. Wild rumors and questions, he said, often reveal what people are thinking and feeling and, especially, whether they trust authority figures.
“Even the craziest conspiracy nuts, what they are saying is not arbitrary,” he said …
“It’s like an alarm bell. It’s like an alarm bell that you can hear, and you can understand that the person that’s ringing the alarm maybe doesn’t understand what is going on. … They may think that they have an inside track based on what they’ve heard and think that they know what is going on. But the alarm is not a false alarm, necessarily.”
The chaos is real, stressed Pageau. There is chaos in politics, science, schools, technology, economic systems, family structures and many issues linked to sex and gender. It’s a time when conspiracy theories about vaccines containing tracking devices echo decades of science-fiction stories, while millions of people navigate daily life with smartphones in their pockets that allow Big Tech leaders to research their every move.
This chaos will lead to change, one way or another, he said. The goal for church leaders is to listen and respond with biblical images, themes and stories – as opposed to more acidic chatter about politics.
Terry Mattingly (emphasis added). Pageau was addressing Orthodox clergy.
Christianity as “religion”
In the pre-modern West, as in much of the world today, there was no such thing as “religion”. The Christian story was the basis of peoples’ understanding of reality itself. There was no “religion”, because there was no notion that this truth was somehow optional or partial, any more than we today might assume that gravity or the roundness of the Earth are facts we could choose to engage with only on Sunday mornings.
Paul Kingsnorth, Is there anything left to conserve
My pessimistic views about the physical world made me instinctively suspicious of Christian traditions that incorporated tangible gestures of piety into their worship—gestures like raising hands, making the sign of the cross, kneeling during confession, and so forth. I preferred to attend churches that did not sully the worship experience with earthly things like ornate communion tables, pictures of saints, or even beautiful church buildings. Material things were in competition to spiritual things. I was surrounded by others who thought similarly, including some who went so far as to burn down their church building. “What a powerful testimony to the fact that God’s kingdom is not of this world,” they reflected while watching their former sanctuary go up in flames.
Robin Phillips, Confessions of a Recovering Gnostic.
I haven’t mentioned it lately, but I agree with Robin Phillips, who wrote a lot about it, that gnosticism is pandemic in American Protestantism.
… A mirror’s temperature
is always at zero. It is ice
in the veins. Its camera
is an X-ray. It is a chalice
held out to you in
silent communion, where gaspingly
you partake of a shifting
identity never your own.
(R.S. Thomas, Collected Later Works)
Wordplay for keeps
The problems with the King James Version of the Bible come from the translators’ imperfect mastery of Hebrew, and the problems with other versions come from the translators’ imperfect mastery of English.
Robert Alter via John Brady on micro.blog
They go on to assume or claim, without philosophical justification, that the remarkable success of this methodological reductionism entails that we should accept the kind of ontological reductionism in which reality is seen ultimately as consisting only of the interactions of the universe’s basic building blocks.
Christopher C. Knight, Science and the Christian Faith
For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion
We are in the grip of a grim, despairing rebellion against reality that imagines itself to be the engine of moral progress.
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