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Addressing Skeptics, Sharing Christ (Part 1 of 2)

Air Date 07/31/2017

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In a discussion centered on his book Making Sense of God, Dr. Timothy Keller explains why people walk away from God, why secularists want scientific rationale, and why this fails, as our search for meaning, happiness and identity goes unsatisfied without seeking God in the process. Dr. Keller also discusses how, as followers of Christ, we need to understand what we believe, why we believe it and why it's critical that we communicate that to nonbelievers in a winsome way. (Part 1 of 2)

Episode Transcript



Dr. Timothy Keller:The reasons we believe and disbelieve are not strictly rational. A lot of them have to do with hurt in certain communities. So, when I find a skeptic who can hardly talk to me about the Christian faith, I realize they’ve been hurt or they have something going on there. And I just need to back away and not treat them as if they are little computers.

Jim Daly: Right, here’s the input.

Tim: Here’s the input; here’s the output, right. I gotta just stop that.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Dr. Timothy Keller reminding us to listen to those who believe differently than we do. And he’s with us today on “Focus on the Family.” Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.

Jim: John, today we’re gonna have a great conversation about our faith, philosophies and our worldviews. It’s so important for us to understand what we believe and why we believe it and then how to knowledgeably and winsomely convey that to non-believers, maybe even your teenagers. I mean, I’m havin’ those conversations now about why we believe what we believe.

Dr. Keller, I gotta say, is one of the greatest theologians of our day and today he’s gonna challenge all of us to grow in our faith and what it means to be a Christ follower, how to find our identity in Christ and how we can better grapple with suffering when we’re faced with that moment.

And you know what? If you haven’t gotten there yet, that valley will hit you at some point. Today’s program highlights one of our big goals here at Focus on the Family and that is to equip you in your faith and we have so many great resources for you to help in that area. So, don’t hold back. Contact us.

John: And you can do so with a phone call or stop by where we have Dr. Keller’s book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptic and other helps. Dr. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. He’s a prolific author and a dedicated husband and father and grandfather.

And Jim, our listeners might note that we recorded this at a hotel room in New York City. There are some, we might call them “ambient noises.”

Jim: It’s always the New York sirens. I don’t know. The police are very busy in New York City.

John: Well, and this time we added an elevator that was (Laughter) right adjacent to the room, so you might hear some up and down elevator noises, as well. Regardless, this is a great conversation with Dr. Keller. Let’s go ahead and listen.


Jim: And with that, let me welcome our guest who lives in New York City, Dr. Tim Keller. Tim, welcome.

Dr. Tim Keller: Welcome to New York City.

Jim: Yeah. (Laughter) There’s a lot happening here, isn’t there?

Tim: Yes.

Jim: The city that never sleeps.

Tim: Yes, that’s because there’s so many people here.

Jim: How long have you lived here?

Tim: We moved here 28 years ago.

Jim: It’s almost 30 years.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: You raised your kids here, right?

Tim: Yeah, I did.

Jim: A lot of people go, wow! Really? In New York City.

Tim: Uh-huh and I[‘ve] got, you know, three grandchildren, also being raised here.

Jim: And so, they’re here, too.

Tim: Yeah, oh, yeah. I mean, if they stay--I’m assuming they will—they’ll feel more even more like New Yorkers than my kids do. My kids do remember living elsewhere, but they won’t.

Jim: Well, and your church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has been such an influence here in Manhattan. So many young people are coming, lots of singles. Why do you think that is? What is the message that attracts the urbanite, the one that’s moving and you know, tryin’ to climb the ladder and everything that’s going on here in New York City? How come your church has been so successful in touching them?

Tim: Well, I don’t know, but I think probably if we get into what we’re going to talk about anyway, you’ll (Laughter) understand the answer. To me, a church is, you could say, fruitful, effective, reaches people not so much by the “superficials” like, you know, the smoke machine or the skinny jeans or things like that, which you can tell just by looking at me (Laughter) I couldn’t get into anyway.

Jim: No worries. I’m appreciative of that actually.

Tim: Yeah, I know. (Laughter) But if you use the gospel to answer questions people are asking, a certain percentage of people will say, “That’s interesting. That’s exactly what I needed to hear more about.” And a certain percentage of them will be changed and converted—not most. I mean, that’s just the way it is.

But if there’s no conversion, that there’s no one really coming, is because you’re taking the truth, but you’re actually using it to answer questions people aren’t asking.

Jim:Making Sense of God, would you say is really borne out of that experience, engaging people that are not so enthusiastic about God?

Tim: Sure, absolutely. (Laughter) Basically, it’s the conversation with people who are very skeptical.

Jim: Well, one of the things you’ve done at your church, which I thought was really interesting, you created a weekly discussion for people who are skeptical about God.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: In fact, is there a God? That sounds contrary to what you’d want to be doing in a church, but on the other side, it’s very refreshing and that’s how you bring people in. Let’s sit down and talk. What are the ground rules for that meeting?

Tim: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, you’re talking about something we’ve called Questioning Christianity. Now it’s not the only way we do it, ‘cause there [are] a lot of other ways to do it, but that particular program, which is very interesting, it was not my brainchild. But anyway, what it is, is it’s a series of talks on subjects that you let people know. Then a Q&A for a fairly long time. And the questions are texted in and then chosen, put up. So, in other words, there’s a talk, a Q&A. Then you break and you go upstairs and eat nice free hors d’oeuvres and talk for probably another hour or so. And since most of the people present are not believers, then you really are talking personally.

Jim: Let me ask you about that, because one of the things I’m concerned about is the lost art of discipleship. I mean, that starts when someone in your area of influence is not a believer and you walk with them and you answer questions and you’re part of their life.

Tim: Right.

Jim: And you invite them over for dinner.

Tim: Right.

Jim: It sounds like to me it’s very much like that.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: How do you engage people? And God it seems, orchestrated us for relationship.

Tim: Sure.

Jim: He invented that.

Tim: Well, one good thing is, these events are never massive, massive.

Jim: Right.

Tim: So, you might have anywhere from 50 to a 100, maybe non-believers and Christians, non-believing people who come to those things. So, when you go upstairs and you’re talking, you’re really talking to a lot of them.

The goal, by the way, of the Questioning Christianity, the goal is always to get people into other more ongoing groups where they can have relationships.

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: So, frankly, it’s not only always been about relationships, but even more important, ‘cause people are so fragile right now. A lot of people can hardly stand to be in a public place and hear somebody say something they don’t agree with. They can hardly stand there.

Jim: What’s happening? What’s happening in our culture that is causing that kind of angst?

Tim: So, my point on that is, you almost have to just have a lot of time relating to people. I mean, in other words, getting people into big events and calling them to come forward—no offense to Billy Graham -is just not probably the way things go now.

Jim: Right, yeah, it won’t be as effective.

Tim: Because people need relationships; they need to be processed over a period of time. Now your questions, what’s happening? (Laughing) You know, you’re talking to a pastor, not a social theorist or something like that. Here’s the best thing I’ve read, which is actually something that is in the book, the Making Sense book.

A philosopher named Charles Taylor some years ago--he’s a French Canadian--wrote a book, a massive book called Sources of Self, which is considered like the philosophy book on where the modern understanding of identity came from.

His basic thesis among others is that in the old days, you got your identity from outside. So, like your parents said, “Here’s who I want you to be. Here’s a job I want you to have. Here’s the kind of person.” And basically, you got your identity from pleasing your parents or pleasing your community or from your faith and you did what [was expected].

So, what other people’s said, here’s what you should be, in a sense, you did what they said. And if you lived up to their standards, then you felt like a good person.

Jim: Right.

Tim: Now of course, that is not very liberating. In other words, you have to do what other people say.

Jim: Right, there’s issues attached to that. (Laughing)

Tim: Yeah, issues attached to that, but it’s stable.

Jim: Right.

Tim: Which means, if you know, if my parents think I’m great, then I feel pretty good. But the modern identity is, you’re not supposed to look to anybody else to tell you who you are. You go into yourself and you figure out who that is, who you are. And you decide who you want to be.

But Charles Taylor says, then when you come out and you say, “Here’s what I want to be,” then you’re in a fragile state, because you have to get recognition from everybody.

Jim: Huh.

Tim: And anybody who just disagrees with you, you feel like it’s basically violating your identity. So, in the past, you could take disagreement. Today you can’t, because you’re sort of desperate for validation and you don’t have one voice who says, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased” that can silence all the other accusations. Everybody else is out there, you know, criticizing you, but if you have this one voice that says, “No, no, you’re okay,” then it’s fine. Well, modern people don’t have that one voice. It’s not their parents. It’s not their society. It’s not their God.

Jim: Not their institutions.

Tim: Not any institution and so, they take disagreement as kind of undermining their very self, their very being.

John: Personal affront.

Tim: Yeah and by the way, college professors and presidents and all that do not know what to do right now about [it]. Even the most and secular ones have never seen the kind of fragility that they see in their students.

Jim: Isn’t that interesting and you know, I think it’s a good place. We’ll probably punctuate our discussion over the next day or two with this statement, but for the Christian, where do we find our identity?

Tim: Well, put it this way. We are supposed to find our identity in Christ--

Jim: Right.

Tim: --which is not just another authoritarian kind of identity. It’s not just like, you know, traditional societies. This is what my tribe told me. This is what my parents told me. Okay, so we’re a Christian. Now this is what your religion tells you. It’s not like that, because Christianity says, your identity is received, not achieved.

Jim: Huh.

Tim: In other words, you’re not achieving the love of God. You receive it as a gift, which means, your identity, your understanding of yourself as a good person doesn’t go up or down every week depending on your performance, whether it’s religious or pleasing your parents. It doesn’t go up and down. There’s a stability to it. So it’s a “receive,” not “achieve” and therefore, is really unique. It’s not like either a traditional identity where you do what your parents told you or what your culture tells you or modern identity.

You might say, traditional identity was stable, but not very liberating. Modern identity is liberating, but not very stable. And I could make the case that Christian identity is both liberating and profoundly stable.

Jim: Exactly right. What keeps people, the skeptic, from having a true discussion about faith? Why do they get so upset? They don’t believe and when you bring it up with somebody, why do they get so offended by having a discussion about God?

Tim: Well, by the way, I also see Christians who get real upset, harsh, defensive when they (Chuckling) are engaged on this, too. I think one of the reasons is because we’re not completely rational people. We’re not, as somebody once said, brains in vats, you know, just having, you know, thoughts.

We both believe and disbelieve, partly for rational reasons, but also for personal and social reasons, which is to say, for example, you’ve got this whole are called sociology of knowledge. Peter Berger and other people kinda pioneered it and it’s impossible to read. (Laughter) It’s impossible to read.

So, I have to talk to people who are smart, who’ve read it, who tell me this is basically what it’s about. Sociology of knowledge is about the idea that generally the people who you respect the most, their views tend to be most plausible to you, that you’re much more persuaded than you’d want to admit by the people that you like and respect and want to like you.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: And so, your community, in other words. does to a great degree, create your beliefs. I mean, we’re not relativists here when I say that. I just think it’s fair to say. And so, what’ll often happen is, if you were hurt by a community, then their beliefs are not plausible to you. And then you come to another community and they embrace you and those beliefs are plausible to you.

And I’m not saying that people leave religion and get skeptical only for social reasons. Or that I hope people don’t become Christians just because this is a loving group of people. I mean, I want them to think, too.

Jim: Right.

Tim: Nevertheless, the reasons we believe and disbelieve are not strictly rational. A lot of them have to do with hurt in certain communities. So, we’ve got our personal reasons, too. So, when I find a skeptic who can hardly talk to me about the Christian faith, I realize they’ve been hurt or they have something going on there. And I just need to back away and not treat them as if they are little computers.

Jim: Right, here’s the input.

Tim: Here’s the input; here’s the output, right. I gotta just stop that. And I’m not a Christian just simply because I sat and reasoned myself into it. But then you gotta be careful not to say that faith or lack of faith has not got a rational base to it. Of course, it does.

John: Dr. Timothy Keller is our guest today on “Focus on the Family” with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and you can find his book, Dr. Keller’s book, Making Sense of God at our website, call. Now we also have a CD or a download available of our conversation. You can call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

Jim: Let me take us back to the discussion in the culture at large. There’s so much around the validity of science and that science is the religion of the day and that if it can’t be proven, it doesn’t exist.

Tim: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Jim: What is this contrast between faith and science and how do we in the Christian community—people of faith—how do we not run from scientific data, but how do we find how God is found in it?

Tim: Right, well, I think you’re absolutely right. In fact, James Hunter at UVA, James Davison Hunter. James says that actually scientific language is the only public language allowed now.

Jim: Right.

Tim: In other words, in public you cannot make any case unless you’ve got empirical scientific findings. It’s the only language we have. But James, by the way, is writing a book which will come out I think sometime soon—it’s an academic book—on why science can’t be the basis for morality, basically.

I mean, I’ll just tell you, too. Let me give you two examples. What you want to do is, not to say there’s anything wrong with science. Just don’t make it carry water it can’t carry. That’s all you have to say. Two examples, one is, there’s a philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, who’s not a Christian [and is] in fact, a very secular, very respected German philosopher, very old, too right now, almost 90, I think.

And in the last 10, 20 years he’s been talking about the limits of science. Science is really not very helpful to help society decide social policy. And here’s what he would say and as soon as you say it, people right away say, “Okay, you’re right.”

‘Cause science can tell you whether you can do something and science can tell you how to do it well. But science cannot tell you whether you should do it or not.

Jim: Hm, that’s the morality of it.

Tim: Just because it tells you it can be done and it tells you how to do it, it can never tell you whether you should do it or not. And I remember Habermas was saying, as soon as you say, well, how do we decide whether we should do it or not? You don’t look to science; you have to look to kind of like religion. I mean, you have to start talking about morality, which is something based on your faith and science can’t possibly tell you.

For example, sometimes science will say, well, but we know what makes people happy because we asked them. And 80 percent of the people say, when this happens, that makes them happy. But that’s just self-reporting.

You know, what if 80 percent of the people say, “What makes me happy is to kill the 20 percent of people in mycountry that are minorities and I’m happier when I don’t see them.” Would we say that’s okay? We’d probably say no.

Jim: That’s immoral, but that’s the key.

Tim: Yeah, but you see, science can’t tell you.

Jim: Right.

Tim: So, if science tells me that 80 percent of the people in this country would be happier if we got rid of the other 20 percent, well, science can’t tell you whether you should do that or not, only that, that’s what will make people happy.

Here’s another thing I could say, I have said to people to try to show them that science is of no real help on social policy and morality, one is the fact that a guy named Michael Sandel, who at Harvard has teaches a course on justice there, an undergraduate course, very popular.

And he wrote a book some years ago called Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? And he explains that one of the reasons we have a lot of debate and well, polarization in our country is that there are several theories of justice, of what is just. And we can’t come to consensus.

So, one is called utilitarianism, which is, the just thing is the greatest good for the greatest number. Then there’s another approach to justice which is just based on Immanuel Kant and individual rights that say, you know, justice is whatever frees the individual to live any way he or she wants to live.

And then there’s also Aristotelian justice, which is, justice is giving people what they deserve. And he makes the case that the reason why you have the battles we have is, that people are operating on these different theories of justice and there’s no empirical way to decide which is the right one, because they’re based on intuitions and convictions about human nature and about human good that are basically matters of faith.

And so, what I would just, you know, what I just gave you is a three-minute way of saying, science is not gonna help us live our lives. Unless we can allow religious voices in the public square, there is almost no way we can ever make decisions about what’s right or wrong.

In fact, people are using the science as a ruse to push their moral agenda, which is not based on science. And we might as well be honest that science is not the basis for it. It’s a matter of faith and let’s take the gloves off and be honest about what’s happening in the public square.

Jim: Well, and when that person has that faith that is science, at least the veneer of it, how do you go about unmasking that for them?

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: Have you had that encounter with that person?

Tim: Well, kinda like what I just said. What I’m really trying to say is, the science can tell you, you know, what happens and what people say and all that, but it really can’t tell you whether you should do this or not. There’s no scientific basis for saying that. Usually when they say, but people say they’re happier, you know, that kind of thing.

Jim: Right.

Tim: But ultimately, that’s your definition of what a good human life is. For example, if somebody says, people should be free to have sex outside of marriage. There shouldn’t be any, you know, limitations on that. That’s because you don’t think that, that’s bad for human beings to have sex outside of marriage. And why not?

I mean, and Michael Sandel says, all justice is judgmental. Now this is a secular man talking about this. He says, as soon as you there’s nothing wrong with abortion—he actually says this in his book and he’s pro-choice and personally—but he says, as soon as you say abortion’s okay, you are making a decision about whether that’s a human life or not and there’s no scientific way to define human life, none at all. If you say, well, human life is when you can make a choice. Find, you said that. That’s not scientific.

Jim: Right.

Tim: That’s your definition.

Jim: That’s a moral choice.

Tim: Yeah, it’s your definition.

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: And so, he says there is no scientific way to decide whether what’s in the mother, the unborn child is a child or not.

Jim: Yeah.

Tim: So, he says as soon as you say, “I’m pro-choice” or “I’m pro-life,” and he actually is chiding pro-choice people in this book. He says, “Pro-choice people say religious people are trying to impose the morality on the country.” You say, “Well, you’re doing it, too in a sense.

Jim: Correct.

John: It’s dishonest.

Tim: Because you’re making a moral judgment which is not scientifically based.

Jim: Right. It’s expedient.

Tim: Yeah, you’re basically saying, this is not a human being. And he says, that’s like a judgment call. But on the other hand, admit it. And so, that’s what you have to do, is you have to go there and say, science just can’t give you those judgment calls.

Jim: Dr. Keller, we’re ending today. We’re gonna come back next time and pick up the discussion. But I think with your title, Making Sense of God, the right place to end today is to say, so many people who don’t have--I don’t want to besmirch anyone--but that deeper sense of God in their life, that can weather trials and suffering, a lot of the non-believers I talk to and I would say “Christian light” people that aren’t integrating their faith into their daily life, will often fall away or not even come to the Lord’s Table because of the suffering issues.

Tim: Yes.

Jim: That if God was a good God, why would there be suffering? Why would a 2-year-old die? Why would a 10-year-old die of leukemia? It’s the age-old question that people do trip over.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: So, I’m gonna lay it out there. I mean, how do we reconcile that, that there is suffering in the world, sometimes terrible, brutal suffering that makes no sense if God is God?

Tim: Well, as a pastor of over 40 years, I have actually seen suffering draw people toward God or push people away from God.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Tim: And I have an idea about why it works differently on some. It does feel to me that there are some people who are willing to say, “I really don’t know enough to be mad at God.” Or in other words, I think ancient people were more like this. Ancient people suffered more than we do probably, but it’s hard to find ancient people saying, “There can’t ‘be a God because of suffering.”

Generally, ancient people said, “If there is a God, of course, I wouldn’t understand all this.” They were a little more humble before the mystery. Modern people are taught that we can figure everything out. And so, I do think the people who are most likely to be drawn to God by suffering are people who are willing to say, “I actually don’t know enough about this to be mad at God. I can’t see enough of the universe. Why should I? But I do know I need some help.” And they’re the ones that seem to come toward Him.

Other people, they are pushed away. I don’t want to say they’re proud necessarily, but I do think, ‘cause I do know that sometimes I’ve seen people die tragically. And I have sat there saying, “Why that person, of all the people?”

Jim: Right.

Tim: So, I get it, but in the end, you either decide, “I’m not God and if I can’t see the whole picture” or you decide, “I pretty much can and therefore, God is without excuse.” And I do think that, that’s probably the thing that draws you toward Him or pushes you away.

Jim: Tim, you have really got our wheels spinning about the Lord, your book, Making Sense of God. What a wonderful resource. If you, the listener, are suffering right now in some way, the way we just talked about, contact us here at Focus on the Family. We have counselors. We have people who the donor base has supported to put there so that you could call and hopefully, get an answer and hopefully, will provide you with the book by Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, which will help guide you through this journey. And John, I think it’s one of the best topics and the best resources we now have thanks to Tim.

John: Well, we do believe in the book and we trust you ‘ll stop by our website, get copy. Or call us and make a generous gift when you do and we’ll send that book to you as our way of saying thank you for joining the support team here at Focus on the Family. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. Again, or 800-232-6459.

Jim: Tim, as we close, I’m thinking of research that we have that shows about 15 to 20 percent of the listenership to “Focus,” they’re not Christian.

Tim: Uh-hm.

Jim: And someone, many people are probably listening right now. So, as we close today, speak to that person particularly, why should I be compelled to pursue Christ?

Tim: Well, I think before you look at the case why Christianity’s true, you should at least see why you might want it to be true. And that’s actually what the Making Sense of God book is about. It’s not so much, you know, here’s how you can prove it.

But what the book says is, Christianity offers a meaning in life that suffering can’t take away from you, a satisfaction that’s not based on circumstances, that’s therefore kind of abiding. It’s strong regardless of what happens to you, a freedom that doesn’t undermine love, an identity that’s absolutely stable and gracious and empowering, a hope that can face anything.

And I actually think at least right now, maybe other religious try to offer some of those things. Certainly the secular approach doesn’t offer any of them. It does not give you meaning that suffering can’t take away. It does not give you satisfaction that’s not based on circumstances and not give you an identity that’s stable.

And you oughta at least look at what Christianity offers first. And if you really see, “My, that’s something that would be great,” then go look at the case why Christianity might be true. And that’s whatthe Making Sense book, this is what it offers. And I don’t think most people who aren’t Christians really understand all it offers.


John: Well, food for thought from Dr. Timothy Keller. He’ll be back again with us next time. Hope you will, as well. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I’m John Fuller and inviting you back next time, as we once more hear from Dr. Tim Keller and help you and your family thrive.

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Timothy Keller

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Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he founded in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. He is also the chairman of Redeemer City to City, which plants new churches in New York and other cities around the world, and publishes resources for faith in an urban culture. Timothy is a New York Times best-selling author whose books include The Reason for God, The Prodigal God and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God. Learn more about Timothy by visiting his website,