As soon as Tim Keller published his best-selling apologetics book, he knew it was already obsolete.
In answering the most common objections to Christianity in the West, The Reason for God doesn’t devote a single chapter to sexuality. For years after the book was released in 2008, sexuality was just about the only objection to Christianity that skeptics wanted to discuss. But that wasn’t the book’s biggest shortcoming. Even the objections he covered assumed a level of awareness and interest in Christianity that’s quickly eroding across the West.
Keller didn’t discover the shortcomings in The Reason for God by talking with readers, who made the book a New York Times bestseller. He realized the problems in his own research and reading, which had begun to chart a different course in 2004. That’s the year Keller joined the Dogwood Fellowship, organized by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. Between 2004 and 2008, Keller met about four times a year with Hunter, pastor Skip Ryan, and two business leaders, Don Flow and Jim Seneff. Their conversations resulted in Hunter’s groundbreaking book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, published in 2010.
The epochal experience for Keller was borrowing Hunter’s reading list. He was introduced to the “big four” critics of secular modernity. From this time forward, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Philip Rieff, and Robert Bellah became staples in Keller’s thinking, writing, and teaching. They provoked Keller to deeper analysis of the problems besetting the post-Christendom West.
Much of Christian apologetics, including The Reason for God, still operates within the confines of the Enlightenment. Christians offer rational explanations and provide empirical evidence for biblical events and claims. But what if the Enlightenment has failed? What if it’s a dead end for Western culture? What if the Enlightenment can’t deliver the meaning, identity, purpose, and justice Westerners continue to demand?
If Western secularism derived its values of tolerance and fairness from Christianity, then supposedly objective and empirical science and reason can’t sustain moral idealism. The West wants to be relativistic and moralistic at the same time. And it’s not working, as these four critics have argued for decades.
So if the Enlightenment can’t deliver on its promises, how can the West return to the gospel? That’s the question Keller has set out to answer in the last 15 years.
If the Enlightenment can’t deliver on its promises, how can the West return to the gospel?
Every three years, the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) hosts a six-day mission to evangelize more than 20,000 students in this iconic English university town. The missions began in 1940, months before the Battle of Britain. Martyn Lloyd-Jones led the missions in 1943 and 1951. Keller’s heroes John Stott and Michael Green also led Oxford missions.
During his first Oxford mission in early February 2012, Tim and his wife, Kathy—along with their son Michael and his wife, Sara—stayed in the Old Parsonage Hotel, just a couple blocks north of the Oxford University campus. As the family returned one night through falling snow, they caught a glimpse of a traditional lamp post. The magic of Narnia still lingered around Oxford.
In the evenings, around a 17th-century fireplace, the Keller family debriefed the good and bad from Tim’s evangelistic talks and the students’ questions. The talks from 2012 became Keller’s book Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. Many of the book’s themes can be found in earlier books such as Counterfeit Gods and The Prodigal God.
When Keller returned in 2015, he insisted on a topical approach as opposed to the expositional talks he was asked to deliver in 2012. He wanted to test what he’d been learning from Taylor, Rieff, MacIntyre, and Bellah. Os Guinness delivered the lunchtime talks while Keller spoke in the evenings on meaning, identity, and justice. After each day, these good friends with a shared love for Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri retreated to the fireside at the Randolph Hotel and talked into the early hours.
Compared to 2012, Keller saw more encouraging responses from skeptical students in 2015. On the spot during Q&A in this second mission, Keller conceived what became one of his most memorable illustrations—about the Anglo-Saxon warrior of Britain in AD 800. Keller realized he couldn’t answer questions about sexuality without turning the tables and critiquing the concept of identity in the modern West. His response to students ended up that summer in his book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.
Bellah termed this Western pursuit “expressive individualism.” First published in 1985, Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life says, “Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” Individuality may be the goal, but as Keller observes with the Anglo-Saxon warrior, identity forms in community. And communities shape what values can contribute to our identity.
This tension between expression and community is the dynamite beneath the Enlightenment implosion. Bellah and his colleagues saw it coming long before same-sex marriage became law across the West:
What we fear above all, and what keeps the new world powerless to be born, is that if we give up our dream of private success for a more genuinely integrated community, we will be abandoning our separation and individuation, collapsing into dependence and tyranny. What we find hard to see is that it is the extreme fragmentation of the modern world that really threatens our individuation; that what is best in our separation and individuation, our sense of dignity and autonomy as persons, requires a new integration if it is to be sustained.
Informed by Bellah, Keller’s 2015 Oxford talks contributed to his book released that fall, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. Compared to The Reason for God, this book hasn’t found a broad audience. But it’s the apologetics book he would have written in 2008 if he’d known then what he knows now. Making Sense of God aims to expose the assumptions behind objections to Christianity.
Keller realized he couldn’t answer questions about sexuality without turning the tables and critiquing the concept of identity in the modern West.
Keller returned one more time to Oxford in 2019. This time, the OICCU adjusted the typical plan. They preceded Keller’s talks with weeks of small-group discussion. The result was even more encouraging than in 2015, and this led Keller to begin planning ways to adapt such a model for evangelism in the United States.
Today, The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics helps Christians share the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings. Through the example and teaching of our 26 inaugural fellows, we want to train Christians—everyone from pastors to parents to professors—to boldly share the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that clearly communicates to this secular age. The challenges of our post-Christendom era may be great. But the gospel is greater, in every time and place.
This article is adapted from Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation by Collin Hansen (Zondervan Reflective, February 2023).