Alan Hirsch has recently written: "[A]s church leaders continue to pile onto the missional bandwagon, the true meaning of the word may be getting buried under a pile of assumptions.... I am concerned about the confusion surrounding the meaning of the word missional. Maintaining the integrity of this word is critical, because recovering a missional understanding of God and the Church is essential not only for the advancement of our mission but, I believe, also for the survival of Christianity in the West." One person whose theology has been described as missional is Tim Keller (see: http://jrwoodward.net/2008/11/a-primer-on-todays-missional-church/). Is Keller's theology truly missional? Or is using this word to describe his project contributing to "the confusion surrounding [its] meaning"? The review following has these questions in mind.
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), pp. 294.
Pull up the web page for Timothy Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism at amazon.com, and you will find many customer reviews—almost all of them positive; and almost all of these positive reviews have been written by Christians who agree with most of what Keller, the pastor of New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has written. Despite its stated aim, Keller's book (like many works of apologetics before it) seems more likely to reinforce what some Christians already believe than to convert true skeptics to Christianity. Moreover, if my experience is at all indicative, then readers who occupy a missional theological house (or any theological house other than conservative evangelicalism) will be dissatisfied with Keller's work for a number of reasons.
These reasons begin with the book's title, whose promise goes unfulfilled. The book's first part does not give reasons for God (much less "The Reason"); instead, it gives defenses of garden-variety evangelicalism in the form of responses to assertions and questions that Keller has commonly heard during his time as the pastor of a growing megachurch in New York. Reasons for God and defenses of Christianity are not the same thing. The second part of the book begins with a chapter titled, "The Clues of God"—which is as close as Keller comes to giving reasons for God.
Keller opens his book with an intriguing diagnosis: "There is a gulf today between what is popularly known as liberalism and conservatism. Each side demands that you not only disagree with but disdain the other as (at best) crazy or (at worst) evil" (p. ix). He then suggests a third way—namely, that both skeptics (liberals?) and believers (conservatives?) reconsider doubt. "Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts," he writes, while skeptics "must doubt [their] doubts" (p. xvii). While Keller seems to be seeking moderation (he hopes for "civility in a pluralistic society" [p. xix]), skeptics—both non-Christians who are skeptical about Christianity in general and Christians who are skeptical about Keller's particular brand of Christianity—may be skeptical, as Keller expresses few if any doubts of his own about any traditional doctrines in the rest of his book.
Certainly, he does not doubt that Christianity is exclusively "right" (the subject of the book's first chapter). In response to concerns about exclusivity in an increasingly pluralist society (concerns which the missional conversation has engaged), Keller observes: "It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways" (p. 13). Keller does not seek to deny Christianity's exclusivity; rather, he points out the inconsistency—even hypocrisy—of persons who complain about this exclusivity. While this critique is fair, Keller seems to confuse the act of making a claim (which is exclusive) and the content of a claim (which may be more or less exclusive or inclusive).
More importantly, the problem of exclusivity—which Keller concedes often leads to violence—remains (though now it belongs to everyone). Keller argues that the solution to this problem is the "exclusive belief system" of Christianity, which promotes peacemaking because it has at its "very heart...a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness" (p. 20). In this section, Keller boldly lifts up the example of the early church—a church that took the teaching and example of Jesus so seriously that it practiced non-violence even in the face of persecution. Had Keller only ended his opening chapter on this note! Instead, on the next page he concludes, "[W]ho can deny that the force of Christians' most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?"
About which Christians does Keller write? Is a view of Jesus as peacemaker truly a "fundamental" conviction of most Christians today? It is held by Anabaptists (Mennonites and others), and by some Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants. Sadly, however, history has repeatedly shown that many (perhaps most) Christians are quite willing to bless their nation's war-making.
These questions point to another reason for dissatisfaction with Keller's book—his tendency to write as if there is only one understanding of the Christian faith (a notable exception to this tendency is found in the "Intermission" between the book's two parts). Keller's tendency to overlook the fact that pluralism is a reality not only in the world but also in the church surfaces especially in the next chapter, whose focus is on the problem of evil (an issue that begs for more than a chapter treatment). Keller points readers who are struggling to reconcile belief in a good and all-powerful God with the existence of great suffering to the cross. On the cross, explains Keller, God in Christ has shown solidarity with us by suffering with us. This pastoral move is perhaps the best response anyone can give to this perennial question. Still, it is in making this move that Keller again fails to recognize the diversity of Christian thought, writing, "Christian theology has always recognized that Jesus bore, as the substitute in our place, the endless exclusion from God that the human race has merited" (p. 29). Besides its sloppy logic (the suffering of Jesus on the cross was not "endless"), this claim is arguably wrong about what "has always [been] recognized." As Gustaf Aulén has shown in Christus Victor, early Christianity did not understand the cross primarily (much less solely) in substitutionary terms. The substitutionary theory of the atonement was developed by Anselm at the end of the eleventh century.
One other note about this second chapter: C.S. Lewis makes his first appearance here—the first of many appearances. Keller quotes Lewis repeatedly and sometimes at length. In fact, it would not be unfair to call Lewis Keller's primary source. For decades, Lewis has been the theologian of choice for many conservative evangelical Christians. Because of his heavy reliance on Lewis, Keller’s work is derivative; he serves readers little more than warmed-over evangelicalism. Fans of Lewis (of which there clearly remain many) will appreciate this fact; others will yearn for more, something new and different for engaging a cultural context that has changed and is changing—something missional.
Part II: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2008/12/is-tim-kellers-theology-truly-missional_22.html
Part III: http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2008/12/is-tim-kellers-theology-truly-missional_8076.html