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Review: Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller

This book thinks of the believer and the unbeliever who has doubts about the claims Christianity makes for God.  It seeks to argue that faith in God is the best way to become moral and it satisfies the needs of the human heart.  It gives evidence for God but purports to give evidence why faith in God is a beneficial thing.

Keller reminds us that eugenics and race sciences are not the fake sciences we want them to be.  They are science.  They work.  He writes about the Nazis as follows, "The death camps aroused the moral intuition that eugenics, while perhaps scientifically efficient, is evil.  Yet if you believe that it is, you must find support for your conviction in some source beyond science and the strictly rational cost-benefit analysis of practical reason."

But if God made us need science and assists in science then if God makes eugenics make sense then he is endorsing it.  We can argue that science is just science and it is not created by a divine purpose or any purpose.  It just is.  That is why we can still condemn eugenics even if testing shows it is the best way to go.  Random inventions are not all good.

Admiring beautiful things such as art mean that "it will impoverish you to remind yourself that this feeling is simply a chemical reaction - and nothing more.  You will need to shield yourself, from your own secular view of things."  To impose an illusion on yourself means it will be a lot of effort to let yourself like and appreciate anything. 

But even if God made all these things they are still made up of components.  Even then if you keep analysing them too much you will not enjoy them.

He writes that faith "is not produced strictly by emotional need, nor should it be.  Many - have reluctantly moved toward religion not out of emotional need but because faith in God makes more sense of life than unbelief."

It is good he says faith is not about feelings.  Indeed if it were it would be changing all the time for feelings are never the same.  Faith that is that unstable is not faith at all.  It also belittles real strong faith.

Keller says that the view that that you can only believe something if it is proven to you suffers from fatal problems.  "For one thing, it cannot meet its own standard."  You cannot prove that you should only believe what you can prove. 

I answer that the problem does not weaken the rightness and desirability of believing only proven things but enhances them.  It means you must strive for proof and want it even if you can't seem to have it.  You get as close as you can to real proof.  You keep investigating.  Investigate even after you make up your mind in case you are wrong.  Faith is about believing what you keep trying to prove.  Faith is not satisfied with being faith.  That is why the faith promoters are tricking you.

Keller points out that "few of our convictions about truth can be proven scientifically."  Most truths and the most important ones cannot be shown to be true or likely to be true by science.

For Keller, the existence of a God of love is the most important truth of all. That is what he is driving at. But if we had to choose God or right and wrong we would choose the latter.  We have to decide that if morality is real that we want it to be real for it is no good otherwise.  Then if it is true that God and morality go together we have to work that out.  Some of the most important truths can be shown true without science but God cannot be that important. 

Keller shows we always think as if we have proof so to say "that you don't believe that P is proven accepts by faith some standard of 'proof' that not everyone accepts."  Reason he says has to argue from reason that it is true which is like saying that a car salesman tells the truth because he swears he does.  I would add that using reason and science and forms of investigation and drawing conclusions and creating beliefs for yourself is supremely self-confident and self-asserting.

Reason arguing for reason is not the same thing as the car salesman.  We cannot stop reasoning and even if we think reason is rubbish we are thinking it is rubbish which means reasoning.  Reason is a default activity.  Keller does not want us to think that for he wants us to feel that reason as reason is okay but we need God along with it.  But the fact is that the word of reason judges even the word of God.  God or nobody else can do anything about the fact that reason judges him.

Keller says that to say that there is a transcendental reality beyond this world such as God or whatever is a philosophical not a scientific proposition.  He says that the denial that this reality exists is also a philosophical and not a scientific proposition.  He says there is no way to test which one is true beyond all doubt and warns that "the declaration that science is the only arbiter of truth is not itself a scientific finding.  It is a belief."

But philosophy is not in a bubble.  It has to get data from science and other things and work out what deeper meaning if any is there.  Philosophers if they could not sense the world or test for it would get nowhere.

Keller suggests that knowing a religious organisation is corrupt or hypocritical "might be the most warranted basis for doubting the truth of a particular faith."

If that is a reason then error or bad doctrine is a bigger and better reason.  Truth and justice are inseparable.

Keller tells us that Nietzsche "predicts that in societies that reject God, morality itself will eventually become 'a problem'".  He explains that without God or a reason to consider morality to be fixed concerning what is right and wrong people will grow doubtful of its claims and will be hard to control and thus more force and persecution will be required to manage them.  Nietzsche argued that the ethic of seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest number is silly for it is expecting people to selfishly want this happiness for themselves and then sacrifice it if need be for others. Their selfish motives will grow and thus the morality will end up being nominal and useless.

Keller is hinting that religionists and God believers who are really devotees of the moral and not God and secularists who are as bad are leading us perhaps unwittingly down the road to violence and intolerance.

Keller writes, "To hold that human being are the product of nothing but the evolutionary process of the strong eating the weak, but then to insist that nonetheless every person has a human dignity to be honoured - is an enormous leap of faith against all evidence to the contrary."

But is the leap of faith really bad?  It sounds like if you are going to leap that is the leap you should take.  And evolution or not, the strong does devour the weaker and always has.  Both atheists and believers are still taking that leap.  They are leaping as far as each other.

Keller points out that if you believe in things you get a pile of tacit beliefs with them.  He calls them "barely perceived supportive beliefs."  He explains, "When people are presented with the Christian faith, the actual doctrines are often given against a backdrop of other implicit beliefs, attitudes, and expectations."  He gives one example, "ideas about what nonbelievers must be like."  And another, "If I am a Christian, and God loves me, there's a limit to how badly life can go for me."  The latter he clarifies is not formal Christian doctrine and is refuted by the cruel death of Christ.  The implication is that it is a sin to assume that doing the right thing should protect you from things going to an extreme.  Keller contradicts that later by writing, "The Meaning of life cannot be destroyed by adversity.  If, for example, your Meaning in life is to know, please, emulate, and be with God, then suffering can actually enhance your Meaning in life, because it can get you closer to him.  Anthropologists have observed that all nonsecular cultures give their members resources for actually being edified by suffering.  Though not welcoming it, they see it as meaningful and help toward the ultimate goal."  He goes on to argue that secular people who see suffering as accidental and meaningless it implies that life is no good if suffering is terrible enough.  It denies the goodness of all life both when it is happy or unhappy.

If suffering really is a help then you have to welcome it in some way.  The solution is to grow in spite of suffering.  That makes you bigger than it.  Not all secularists think life should be ended if suffering is bad enough.  Would religious people if they could live forever in tremendous torment?  I am not talking about hell or punishment for sin.

Keller tells us how Nagel argued that life becomes meaningless only if you insist that it must have meaning.  Keller writes, "If the universe is truly indifferent and meaningless, why think it ought not to be that way?"

But if you experience meaning it is not true that the universe is all meaningless.  You are part of it and that part is meaningful.  There may be more meaninglessness in the universe than meaningfulness but that makes the meaning more valuable not less.  It is stronger in a sense than a universe of complete meaning.

Keller then observes that the more successful society is with material things and benefits that the less happier it gets.  He sums it up as "the disappointment of success."  The problem is that "We are unhappy even in success because we seek happiness from success."  He says the good things of this world please you for a while but the happiness fades "leaving you more empty than if you had never tasted the joy."  He quotes the Stoic Epictetus as giving the solution, "Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and  your life will go well."  However he says that "some external circumstances do correlate with increased satisfaction."  So it seems you have to find the happy medium between seeking happiness from success and by changing your attitude.  That way you can change yourself and also try to change the world a little bit.  It is better than being resigned completely to whatever happens.  If all our craving or money or beauty or whatever is mistaking a crave for love as a crave for these things we will end up frustrated and angry and unhappy. 

There is no mention of how people who see their success as a gift from God still end up unhappy!  Not all who are greedy and crave success are really unhappy.

Keller writes, "You harm yourself when you love anything more than God."  He goes on to say that if you put your children before God that means you are seeking your own significance and feeling of security in them.  That means you want them to love you back and live up to your expectations of what makes their lives good and happy. 

This is a really odd argument.  If you have God you are seeking your significance and security in him - it is still about you and you will hate him if you think he does not love you back and dealing with all your expectations.

Social injustice arises when people love anything or any person more than God.  "If you love anything more than God, you harm the object of your love, you harm yourself, you harm the world around you, and you end up dissatisfied and discontent."  Keller claims there is "powerful evidence that the cavern in our soul is indeed infinitely deep."  So we not only need God but need him infinitely. We don't need him a lot or a great deal.  We need him 100%.  To try and deal with this by loving the wrong thing or the right thing too much (that is by not loving God enough and failing to love him completely) is to develop attachments.  Keller agrees with ancient wisdom which says that love as in attachment is bad for it is getting attached to someone or something that will pass away while feeling we cannot live without that person or thing.  Notice that loving the thing would naturally be worse than loving the person.   Keller warns that loving in a detached way or finding happiness by being aloof makes you hard and selfish and will backfire and block your "need not only to receive love but also to give it." The only answer is to avoid love as in attachment and love as in detachment and the only way that can be done is by giving your love to God who cannot be lost or die or fade away. To love your baby or your family or whoever more than God is not loving them too much.  It is loving God too little and that is what makes it bad.

But we are told that attached love and detached love are both bad.  That is to say that love has a bad side.

Keller admits, "not even the strongest believers love God perfectly, nor does anybody get close to doing so."

He says that the love that is needed "cannot be generated simply by an act of the will."  He says it is a process and there will be many setbacks.

What an interesting admission.  When confronted with the terrible suffering of the innocent believers say that God has to allow evil sot hat we may have free will.  Free will is not free if it cannot just love.  It is not worth all the trouble and pain. Suppose you are a Nazi dictator.  You cannot say you have free will when  you remove the free will of others.  The argument hat you cannot force yourself or your heart to love

Keller says, "A kind of vague god, a god of love, an abstract god will never change your heart."  Keller writes, "Love is only possible between persons."

Taking the two statements together shows that you need a warm human like God.  But such a God cannot exist.  Philosophers say that to call God good is wrong for the best and most accurate way to describe him is to say he is not evil.  God is described in negative language - the term they use is univocal.

Keller objects to the "harm principle".  It roundly condemns intolerance and bigotry which mean anything that condemns an action that harms nobody else.  For example a liberal society would let you cut your finger off if it was certain it would deal with an obsession in your brain that makes you want to get rid of it.  He observes that freedom as long as nobody else is harmed is made into a "moral absolute" by todays society.  Keller observes that you are involved in mankind so you can never say that that you belong to yourself and nobody else.  He says another problem with the moral absolute of freedom is that nobody is certain what harm is.  I would add that it gets complicated when action a harms and action b harms as well.  Keller says that nobody is free for they are tied by their need for love and for meaning and happiness.  These things control everybody.  They may be controlled in different ways but they are controlled nonetheless.  Keller says "we are none of us free agents.  We are all worshipping and serving something."

Keller notes that "love relationships require the loss of independence but that both parties must give it up together."  Both people have to say, "You first.   I will adjust for you, I will give up my freedom for you."  He notes that it is exploitation if one person is saying that and the other is not and will not.  He says you must give up the modern narrative of being a self-asserter but be a self-sacrificer instead.

There is hardly any real sacrifice if the other person is going to be another you and look after you.  All you are doing is shifting how you deal with caring for yourself on to somebody else.  The reality is that you should know best so there is an element of degradation in it as morally lofty as it sounds.

Keller say that trying to look for nobody to validate and accept you but yourself will not work for we are made to get it from others too.  He says the person is mentally disturbed who thinks, "I don't care that literally everyone else in the world thinks I'm a monster.  I love myself and that is all that matters."

Keller deals with those who think their "identity is simply an expression of inward desires and feelings."  He says, "No one identifies with all strong inward desires.  Rather, we use some kind of filter - a set of beliefs and values - to sift through our hearts and determine which emotions and sensibilities we will value and incorporate into our core identity and which we will not.  It is this value-laden filter that forms our identity, rather than our feelings themselves."  He says the filter comes from the people around us who we trust. The reward for letting them do this is to avoid the pitfalls of having a self-made identity.  It is depending on me too much which makes it too fragile and fickle. 

If it is that dependent on other people what if they are people of your particular religion?  That shows how immoral manmade religion is.  It will interfere with your identity by osmosis or force.

Keller says that to fixate on anything good means "it will become you - the basis of your identity."  He says that if you do that you will fail to exercise your talents.  Because you are too afraid of doing something badly or not getting praise you will not carry them out well and will lack confidence in them.  It is like how if you make your relationship with another human being your very identity you won't be able to challenge their bad behavior in case they turn against you or criticise you or twist things.  The pain of their rejection or anger at you will be too much.

Is that the real reason why believers in God are not turned against religion and the idea of God by how much suffering happens?  There is no other way to make sense of how people who claim to hate evil do not struggle enough with this god who is responsible for it for he makes all things.  Christians fear not only the pain of feeling that God is against them but also fear how they will feel if they turn against God.  It does not make sense to turn against a creator even if he should be despised.  He is the strong one.

Keller explores how Augustine found that calling somebody a good person is not about what they believe or hope for but about what they love.  Augustine stated that all evil in humankind comes from a lack of love and also loving important things less than less important things.  That is a disorder.

But God is not an important thing and neither is loving him.

Keller suggests that the only identity that you can have that does not damage you or lead to others being crushed is making your love for God your identity.  You let God give you this identity so you make it all about him.  All that matters is is how God sees you.  Your identity is living solely to please him.

Keller declares that any other understanding of identity means it will be thought to change which is why people say the you of five years ago is not the you there is now.

But nobody seriously argues that you as your are today is a different person as in person from what you were twenty years ago.  They think at core you are the same.  Keller is trying to make you think you can fix your personhood by identifying as God's friend for God does not change.

Keller points out that selfish people may use a form of excluding others and creating an us versus them sort of outlook called dominance.  This is when you are allowed to live among them and have your ethnic identity or whatever but you are in an inferior place. 

There are certain benefits you do not get.  Catholicism does that by being nice to Protestants but not letting them enjoy its sacraments unless they agree with the Catholic faith. The dominant are giving themselves a sense of self at the expense of others.

Today, he writes, we are called on to get our own identity and not be taking it from "God, or family, or nation or some cultural configuration of all three". 

The cultural configuration could mean religion.

Keller says that you see yourself as a person with a religious or moral identity you will hate anybody who differs from you.  The more different they are the more you will wish evil on them.  Keller says that we want an identity in order that we might feel significant.

I would add that we want it to feel understood and to let others think they know where we stand and how they stand with us.

Now he says that there is a danger with a religious or moral identity.  That danger is real and the identity corrupts.  To ask a person to have a strong religious/moral and I would add political identity is to cause them to hate.  The other problem is that the person who asks gets away with it. 

A religious or moral or political identity is a bit thin for it is clearly a human construct.  But if you think your identity comes from God that will enhance the evils that come with it.  God calls things what they are.  And you will blame God for the evil that you are led into by your sense of identity or you will say the evil is just collateral damage.

Keller says hope and optimism are not the same thing.  He reminds us that we are beings that are focused on and concerned chiefly about the future and not the present or the past.  He describes us as "future-orientated."  That is why Keller agrees with Delbanco that attempts to liv only in the present moment and experience the power of now is really about trying to fulfill desire by disconnecting from the future.  That would be irresponsible and unnatural and will only lead to more stress than what it fixes.  The problem with optimism as Lasch, who Keller agrees with and whose wisdom he cites, is that it thinks things are going to get better anyway and thus people end up not doing enough to make sure progress happens and that you get the right kind of progress.  Hope is trust and hope is wonder and is the commitment to keep working to make things better without letting adversity threaten you.  It is facing challenges to fix things and taking responsibility instead of letting progress take care of itself. 

Keller says that hope is not about believing in progress at all.  It is about believing in justice and in how wrongs will be made right.

It is belief in how wrongs CAN be made right and that it is always good to try.  If all wrongs will not be made right that is the reason for hope and for trying.

Keller writes, "scientists will all agree that there is nothing more inevitable and natural than violence - evolution and natural selection are based on it.  Yet we believe it is bad."  Keller repeats Catholic Peter Kreeft declaring that we must not accept death and it is stupid to try and "suppress the natural human intuition that death is not natural at all."  Calling it a part of growth is as bad as telling a paralyzed person that their paralysis is a way of exercising.

These positions fit atheism better than belief in God.  Because nature is random we can battle its violence.  We know better than it.  And it is true that death is not to be seen as good.

Keller quotes Edwards as saying that we are drawn to people who make us happy and we tend to love those who affirm us.  But if they do not do this or stop doing it we become infuriated and jealous.  This is because we love them for our sake.  Interestingly the Christian doctrine is that we do not give 99% of love to God and 1% to others but give the 100% to God which is what is required by our duty to love God for his own sake, and each other for God's sake.  One good thing about doing that is instead of having our happiness in us we have it in them which means that whatever joy they feel we will feel it for their sake.

God is the one that creates diseases and disasters that surpass anything other people can do to you.  Yet he demands total love from us more than what a wife would demand of her husband.  Christians not going around angry and furious is a sign that they only imagine they think there is a God.  If they were great believers, they would act the same way as one would if let down by a fellow human being.  They would still hate and be mad at a person who makes them happy for their own good.  Why are they not mad at God and easily turned into haters of religion?  Maybe they think the terrible things God does to others compensates for what he does to them!

Keller teaches us that atheists can have moral feelings but if they do not believe in God then they have no reason or obligation to be good even if they are good.  "God is not necessary to explain the fact of moral feelings." He points out that if morals are just feelings you cannot tell anybody not to do something merely because you feel it is wrong.  "Why should someone else have a duty to follow my moral feeling if he or she doesn't share it?" 

I would interject and say that two people having the same feeling does not mean they share it.  I would add that people go by moral feelings more than morality.  Even those who believe in objective morality try to bring their feelings in line with it so that the feelings can do the talking not the morality.  So they follow their feelings not the objective morality.  The objective morality is pushed to the background.  Those who seem to follow objective morality are in fact probably and usually following their feelings.

Keller says it is stupid to think that how we think there are things that are wrong no matter what we think or feel about them is an illusion.  He points out that saying things like murder and rape are wrong because they get in the way of our selfishness - we want to be safe - is to say they are not truly wrong.  The only problem is that people will hurt us if they are allowed.


Keller says that you have to know what the purpose of human existence is - what a human being is for - before you can argue that anything or anybody is good or bad.  There is no other way to work out right from wrong.

So what does he want God brought into all that for?  If morality comes from being a human need it is degrading to try and say you need a God to be moral.

Nietzsche stated that the view that you must always treat human beings as ends not as means - that is you must never manipulate or exploit them - though posing as logical in fact is not.  It could be wrong.  He said that utilitarianism, the idea that morality is all about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is telling people to strive for their own happiness but while they revel in it they will do so at the expense of others,  So it is really a recipe for selfishness.  It will backfire.

Most people are utilitarians even if they do not realise it.

Keller points out how Ronald Dworkin dealt with how morality is about having the responsibility to live right. The question is who are you responsible to?  Yourself?  Others?  God?  Or all three?  He says you are not responsible to yourself.  If you were you would be able to free yourself from the obligation to do good.  You cannot. To answer that it is God is to say morality in its true form is all about relationship. 

Having nobody to relate to does not mean you cannot clean out your heart.  An honest man on a desert island remains honest.

Dworkin is wrong.  It cannot be possible to free yourself from the duty to be good for that is saying you have a duty to free yourself if you want to.  But morality is not about what you want.  It is not true that being responsible to yourself implies a right to drop morality.

Keller denies that God is proven by the following argument:

1 God exists if there are moral obligations that are objectively binding

2 Such obligations do exist

3 Therefore God exists. 

The reason the argument points to God but does not prove him is that there is a chance 1 is wrong or 2 is wrong.  Some claim objectively binding morals can exist without God.  Others say there is no such thing as objectively binding moral obligations.

He settles for saying, "the reality of moral obligation may not prove the existence of God, yet it is very strong evidence for it."

Objective morality is what you are stuck with whether you like it or not and it is like something coming from outside of you and impose themselves on you, and as the majority of human beings hate it and only like it when it suits them and prefer the illusions of relativism (the view that what is right to me is not right to you unless you want it to be) you can guess reasonably that the moral people are not really very moral inside.  Objective morality has few fans for though it is not oppressive it feels as if it is.

We wonder if Keller is among those who say the moral argument for God out of all the arguments for his existence is "the strongest of them all." 

He does not say.  But if God is so important to human peace and virtue and happiness then naturally the moral argument should ideally be the strongest.  In fact using other kinds of arguments are really about theology not love.  The moral argument aims to be about both!  If it is wrong or unconvincing then the reality is that love is being thwarted by the argument not respected.

Keller thinks that doing a list of a religion's evil and of its good deeds will not work for the "wrongdoings lodge more deeply in the memory and consciousness."

Excellent point.  The idea that a religion's good compensates for the bad is a common but insulting idea.

He refers to Nicholas Wolter who says that a human right comes into being when somebody engages with you.  You can do harmful things to them but they have the right for none of them to be done to them.  They have the right not to be hit or stolen from or raped or murdered.  There are many other rights too.  The person "has these rights simply by being a human being".  People who believe that might say that they don't lie or murder or rape for they think it is wrong and the sense that it is wrong cannot be explained but  is just a part of them.

Then what do we need to connect morality to God for?  It is about what makes us flourish as human beings so what more do we need?

Keller says the Christian deals with oppressive people not by hating them or oppressing them but by being firmly and courageously confronting them.

That is a lie.  Oppressors have to be oppressed.

Keller says that to say there is no God is to say that whatever exists exists on its own without support.  He says that God is the reason anything exists or does anything.

It could be that the support is just an energy and knows nothing and is not like a person in any sense.

Keller says you cannot conclusively prove God but you can only show that he probably exists.  That is a God then who probably exists. Keller says that everybody has God just not always the right God.  The atheist has God too - it is whatever he has chosen to love as God in God's place. 

To say the likelihood of God existing is to make that your God not him.  You need God to make sense to you or he is not your God.  You need him to probably exist.  No wonder Keller can write, "nonbelief in God is an act of faith."

In the notes Keller mentions Karen Armstrong saying that the rational religion of France which honoured reason as if it were a god still cut the heads off seventeen thousand people. 

If religion is harmful, then it shows that even supreme reverence for reason cannot clip its wings.  But if the religion of France was one of faith the problem would be worse.  Faith usually hates reason but the problem is we cannot stop using reason so faith is at best passive aggressive.

In the notes Keller mentions Nietzsche saying that, "When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.  Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things.  If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces."

Christianity claims to be a good religion. That cannot be taken seriously when there is too much wrongdoing and sin for comfort.  There are more ways of losing any right to the "benefits" of Christianity than just unbelief or heresy.

In the notes Pascal is quoted with approval as saying that God came with enough light so that those who want to find him find him and those who don't have enough darkness to avoid finding him.

If God exists that goes without saying.  Thus the God idea is inherently degrading to atheists.

Keller explains in the notes that "in the Bible the heart is the seat of the mind, will, and emotions, together.  The Hebrew leb ("heart") is the centre of the entire personality.  So the Bible command to love God with all one's heart is to be paraphrased as "loving God means loving him for himself.  In Augustine's theology, to love God supremely is to love him for himself alone, and not just for what you can get from him".

It is good to have that clarified.  But it is such hard work that it is clear that most people when you deploy the god standard have to be adjudged as grossly sinful.  Even the human tendency to hate wrongdoing that clearly hurts a person is sinful for it does not take attacks on God's honour very seriously.

I would add that if you love God so that you a see all the things of this world as gifts that is a form of arrogant self indulgence.

Altruists would argue that altruism is hard and it is a waste of altruism to give  your selfless love to God for he does not need it and we could be directing it to people instead.  To direct it to God through people is not directing it to the people.

The notes mention Elizabeth Anscombe saying that it is crazy to argue that only consequences of an action make it right or wrong for there is no way to work that out unless you find that actions are bad/good in the first place and have bad or good consequences because of what they are.  She denies that consequentialist or utilitarian morality really is morality. 

I would add that another problem with utilitarianism is that it says whatever causes happiness to thrive the best is the right course.  But that does not respect a person's right not to be happy.  It bullies.  How can real happiness happen in a culture where you are told to be happy and which judges you if you won't be?

In fact believers in God promote that belief as a means of making the biggest number happiest.  That is the selling point.  So though she makes good points she can talk!

Conclusion: To refute this book with its intensely strong arguments for faith and for God is to say all that needs to be said in favour of atheism.  Atheism just cannot be wrong.