Making Sense of God: an invitation to the sceptical traveller

There are a few Travel Golden Rules which go unchallenged and are seemingly accepted by all and none, when travelling.

  1. Travel is a great educator that shows you how little you know and how small you are in the universe
  2. Travel helps restore your faith in humanity (soo much good out there)
  3. Travel helps you see that all ways of life can be acceptable – we are all on the same path as humans – we just need to find who we are

And underpinning all of these:

No-one must presume to have exclusivity on how to live a life of satisfaction

Because (correlated to the above 3 points):

  1. We are small and know so little: so stop arrogantly assuming that your way is better than others, or that you know enough to tell others how to live
  2. & 3. There is good in every religion, belief and way of life – humans are in general good at heart, so don’t claim that your way of living is the only way. Just get on, be free, be true to yourself, and don’t harm others.

Tim Keller (A New York Times Bestselling author), writes engagingly to persuade us that although some elements of the above are true, that the general ethos of these statements, are far from enough, to help us make the most of our travels (although he writes in a more general context than travel).

(For those who have heard of or read Keller before: “Making Sense of God” is like the prequel to his bestseller, “The Reason for God”. Not many people these days in the west are motivated to read of the evidence for God – we don’t want there to be a god, and see that god is a dying breed, given whats going on in the west, the advance of education, and the creating of happiness elsewhere in life in far more fun places than religious rituals. So Keller wrote the prequel to try and persuade us that God is something we might like to explore more about and to see that it will be of great benefit to us to do so.)

You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.

Keller starts off by making two points (chapters one and two):

  • Religion is not going away. Although it is perceived to be a quickly disappearing thing in the west, that due to birth rates across the world and conversion rates, belief in God is forecast to keep growing bit by bit. So if we want to live in peace in a pluralistic society, we better pay attention, nevermind if we want to explore what satisfies.
  • There is no contrast between a secularism based on evidence and religions on faith. All worldviews rest on evidence and all need faith to accept some of the implications. Not much can be proved by repeatable, testable experiments in life. Even agnosticism (which sometimes tries to claim is a lack of belief, rather than a worldview), still has tenets on which it rests, which it accepts often by faith. You won’t find many people who doubt their doubts, but many who blindly accept a position of doubt.

Given that we can talk about evidence, and religion is not going away, Keller suggests we might like to explore it some more through the following lenses:

3. A Meaning that Suffering Can’t take away from you.
There’s nothing worse than religious people suggesting that you can’t have meaning unless you have god. It’s nonsense. But could religious meaning be more hopeful and real than other meaning? Keller argues that finding meaning in God, transcends events in life like suffering which rob us of many things we turn to for meaning. For those of us who are independent travellers who don’t have suffering in our lives, we might think this irrelevant – we have our meaning quite happily thanks! But suffering will strike us all without exception in life soon enough, if we choose to love or let anyone be close to us.

4. A Satisfaction that is not based on circumstances.
The richer we get as a society, and the more free we are to have sex, enjoy ourselves and do what we want the….happier we are? Statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. Even when we have it all, we seem to feel like there’s something illusive still to come. Keller looks at 2 categories of response: those who keep hunting after satisfaction, and those who resign themselves to seeing it not being possible. And in both of these, he tries to make the case that we cannot find satisfaction while we try and root it in the subjective self.

5. Why can’t I be free to live as I see fit, as long as I don’t harm anyone?
To Keller, unconstrained freedom is impossible, if we are ever going to have love. Love is the most liberating freedom loss ever, according to him. And so it is impossible to have satisfaction with no negative limits. As soon as we love anyone, they demand our time, attention, passions. And so it is with God – when we fall in love with Him, it will be a constraint, but one that flows from the heart of someone who made us and was willing to die for us, so that we could be free.

6. The Problem of the Self
Finding our identity in outer relationships was how it used to be done – who we are married to, what our family name is, what god we worshipped, what tribe we are from. But that limited who you could be, it dwarfed us under poor societal expectation, and led to harmful situations. But finding our identity within ourself hasn’t been easier either. What about a warrior of past centuries who had two desires deep within him – aggression to fight and thirst for blood, and a same-sex-attraction. He would reject the latter (or be scorned) and adopt the former as his identity – he was a warrior! But the 21st century man would do the opposite. Why? He would admit he needed therapy for such violent desires, but would fully embrace the “real him” sexually, because society told him that was acceptable. So really, his decision of the “real” him, was just back to coming from whatever society thought. What if we could be free-d from defining ourselves by any of these?

7. An Identity that doesn’t crush you or exclude others
As an alternative to looking to society to define us, or inwards to figure out which of our feelings should define us, Keller suggests we will find freedom looking upwards, in our identity being something outside of ourselves, but which isn’t performance related (the way our identity in society was/is). If we do badly or don’t live up to expectations, we still manage to keep this upwards identity. Here Christianity is very different to every other “performance based” religion, which demands that one does well in order to gain status, confidence or eternal life. When travelling, the two things people push back on, when I describe an identity outside of myself, is that (1) it means I don’t value anything in myself anymore and (2) it means I create a “them” vs “us” (Christians vs non-Christians) attitude which is bad for society. Keller shows that if Christians have done this, they have misunderstood the Christian message, which holds together self-denial and self-realisation, at the cross, and unites us all together in a shared humanity.

8. A hope that can face anything
Suicide rates across many western societies are rising. The optimism of where society is going is being perceived by many to be unfounded in reality. In this chapter, the author sets forward a case that a personal, concrete and unimaginably wonderful hope, is exactly what is needed. Arguing from intuition, but also from the lack of practical response from any other worldview, Keller sets forward perhaps the least convincing chapter, but perhaps the most heart-warming to those who want to dream of what is to come. Read after chapter twelve, this chapter comes alive.

9. The Problem of Morals
From the least convincing chapter, to perhaps the most logically convincing chapter of the book. How do we get our morals? Keller lays out all the ways that modern western philosophers (and humans!) claim to be able to act morally, and of course agrees that they do! But his main question, is whether there is any way of establishing that we “ought” to act morally. (Atheistic) Evolutionary views, alongside social constructionist views struggle to give us this moral ought. And intuitionism (Dworkin et al.) admit similar short-comings. What I loved about this chapter is that Keller is once again at his best, quoting atheists and top [atheist/agnostic] philosophers who come to these conclusions, rather than standing over things and declaring them himself.

10. A justice that does not create new oppressors
“The goods [of churches] may outnumber the abuses, even by far, but wrongdoings lodge more deeply in the memory and consciousness. In the end it would be better to look for other grounds on which to explore the relationship between religious faith and justice”. And so this chapter mainly focusses on how one can have “human rights” without oppressing those who disagree about the standard. Ultimately, Keller points to the fact that the Biblical metanarrative continually exalts the underdog, and has at its heart, a Saviour to follow, who comes to die for the people. His followers are called to be transformed into His image, not dying to re-create a Christian culture, but to love all people, even their enemies. Such radical transformation, if it works, would give a basis for justice, that does not oppress.

Finally, in the last two chapters Keller concludes with some evidence for all the above being found in a belief in God, and where we can turn to examine that. He finishes with a powerful story of a Japanese internment camp, and a secular humanist, who believed in the good of all humanity, and the lack of evidence for God, and how the material his chapters (long before they were written), led him to belief in our need of God.

You can hear Keller summarise his book himself in his talk to Google here.

For any thinking traveller, I would urge you to give this a read, with the caveat that Keller writes for New York professionals, and whilst it isn’t littered with complicated language (in fact, Keller simplifies and summarises many ideas very helpfully!), it will still reference all the top thinkers and their ideas, and deal with them, in a way which may seem daunting to those who haven’t been familiar with other ways of thinking.

The joy of travel is that it will inevitably cast questions into your mind and life, and this is a book which will help process those.

**My thanks to the blog “doesgodmakesense.com”, for the image which I have used for the header on this post. Their graphics simply borrowing from Keller’s original.

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