“If you really do say truth is subjective, that you find truth inside, then you’ve got absolutely no ability to ground your calls to justice. You’ve got nothing to build on. . . . You’ve actually just destroyed your ability to talk about any moral obligation at all.” — Tim Keller
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video of the discussion.
- Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age
- Hope in Our Secular Age
- How Stories Unsettle Our Secular Age
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: My name is Collin Hansen. I’m the editorial director for The Gospel Coalition and have been privileged to serve in this position for the last almost 10 years since 2010.
Secularism is so pervasive today that we lack context for even understanding what’s changed, what’s changed in our culture, what’s changed in our world. But in his 2007 book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor gives a particularly powerful illustration that I found consistently helps to communicate what has changed in this world as it pertains to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In this book, he explains why you could take for granted 500 years ago that everyone believed in God and why today it’s an exception to believe in God, that the fight for faith is fraught in our secular age. He argues that this secular age which exalts the self sees the heart of the Christian gospel as a perverse sickness. Indeed, a perverse sickness, and he explains it this way.
This is how our culture views Jesus and the gospel. And hence, what was for a long time and remains for many the heart of Christian piety and devotion, love and gratitude at the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, seems incomprehensible or even repellent and frightening to many. To celebrate such a terrible act of violence as a crucifixion, to make this the center of your religion, you have to be sick. You have to be perversely attached to self-mutilation because it assuages your self-hatred calms your fears of healthy self-affirmation. You are elevating self-punishment which liberating humanism wants to banish as a pathology to the rank of the numinous.
That’s what we’re talking about here with our secular age and how it views Jesus. We’re going to talk about why we still celebrate the crucifixion, why we still celebrate that, why we love Jesus in our secular age and supposedly liberating humanism.
Let’s talk then introduce our different panelists starting on the end here. Brett McCracken, one of my colleagues as senior editor of The Gospel Coalition and author of Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. Also Gray Matters: Navigating the Space between Legalism and Liberty. And finally Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Brett lives in Santa Ana, California. He’s an elder at Southlands Church.
And we’ll also introduce Jen here, contributed to the book, A Secular Age: 10 Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, which I’d encourage you to pick up in our bookstore here today. Next we turn to Jen Pollock Michel. Lives in Toronto with her family. She’s the author of Surprised by Paradox. Your brand-new book, right? Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of ‘And’in an Either-Or World. Also Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, she published in 2017 and Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, which came out with University Press in 2014.
Of course, we should also introduce Tim. Tim Keller is founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, chairman of Redeemer City To City and vice president of The Gospel Coalition, a position that he’s held for our entire history at TGC. Authored numerous books. I think the most relevant one and one that I probably recommend more than any other is Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.
That’s the one that’s most explicitly relevant to what we’re going to be talking about today. So Tim, let’s start there. Let’s start with Making Sense of God. You write this. “In the whole history of the world, there is only one person who not only claimed to be God Himself, but also got enormous numbers of people to believe it. Only Jesus combines claims of divinity with the most beautiful life of humanity.”
What then makes Jesus so particularly compelling even in our secular age?
Tim Keller: Well, maybe Philippians 2 because Philippians 2 says, being in very nature God, Jesus did not hold on to his equality with God but emptied Himself and became a servant and died for us.
What a lot of commentators will say, including, by the way, Don Carson, our esteemed friend, is when it says being in very nature God, right, now, he says, “That’s actually a causative.” So if you say, “Being a nice guy, he helped a little lady across the street,” is another way of saying, “Because he was a nice guy, he helped a little lady across the street.”
Do you realize how crazy it is to say, “Because He was God, he gave up his privilege?” Which is another way of saying there’s something in the very nature of God that does not seek power in a linear wa,y like, “Okay, I see power, and the way to get power is just to go get power.” Rather, you empty yourself of your privilege and power and you become a servant and you really do set aside your power in order to serve.
And on the other side of that is a new kind of power, but it’s completely… it’s cruciform power. And there is no other religion that’s got a God like that. And what I’ve done is I’ve picked up… You know, the way you reach any culture is you pick up one of their narratives that something that they really are after and that is, how do we overcome oppression and how do we serve other people and how do we make…?
And basically, what you’re saying with Philippians 2 is what you’re looking for is a kind of power that actually the world doesn’t have that Christ shows. I think there’s all sorts of ways in which Christ then becomes the thing that…Christ is the thing any culture wants. The Greeks want wisdom, the Jews want power. I don’t know, modern people want some kind of…they want to see people with privilege.
Keller: Well, they want to see people with privilege give up their privilege. In every situation, you are saying…the way you reach the culture is saying, “What you want is great but you’re looking in the wrong place.it’s in Christ.”
So Christ has got plenty to offer a secular culture.
Hansen: Won’t you say, though, in some ways, the appeal of Christ, even in the supposedly secular age, is in part because of the influence of Jesus in the last 2000 years? I don’t think we can necessarily take for granted that that vision of power that you articulated there would actually be compelling to people because it’s certainly not a universal view of power throughout time.
Keller: No, this is not going to be something you go to China, which is a pre-Christian country. Hopefully, it will become a Christian country, but it’s a pre-Christian country. No, this is not the sort of thing people would immediately say, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful.” You’re right. What you’re actually taking is you’re taking the emphasis on human rights, the emphasis on serving the poor is a Christian idea.
It did not arise elsewhere. There are scholars, by the way, right now, that are making that case and it’s a leftover from the Christian past. And so weirdly enough, it’s a way to evangelize secular people. You’re reconnecting with something that they…an idea they got from Christianity but which now seems like common sense but that’s okay because that’s basically what you do in every culture.
Hansen: Common sense in this case being common grace.
Keller: Well, yeah, it is really common grace, yes. Actually, I think you have to connect with common grace in every culture but that’s the form we have here.
Hansen: Okay. Jen, tell us a little bit about your context, what secularism looks like in your context and what is appealing about Jesus where you are.
Jen Pollock Michel: I live in Toronto and just to give you an example, sorry if I’m repeating this if you were at an earlier session, but one of our pastors, who’s actually planting a new church, has had a really difficult time locating in the city because people are actually very hostile to a church being in their neighborhood.
It’s not just that Christianity is something that they don’t understand, it’s something that they don’t want. They’re hostile to the message of traditional orthodox Christianity because of its impingement on people’s freedoms. And I think that we really have to talk about how the burden, that there are burdens of individualism and autonomy that we think that that’s sort of going to be the way that we sort of reach Nirvana or we self-actualize.
But you know what? If I’m in charge of my happiness, if my life is completely in my control, that’s only good insofar as I can control it. So something that’s, I think, really compelling about Christianity is joy and hope in the midst of suffering, and I think our pastor just recently shared that the Christian testimony in an exilic condition is hope in suffering.
It’s not that we achieve our greatest happiness insofar as we have total freedom because you know what? We’re not free to ward off suffering, we’re not free to guarantee the outcomes of our life. We’re free to surrender to a God who is good and does good.
Hansen: I want all of you to answer this next question. I’m just going to continue to build on this theme. Brett, you talk about this in your book, Uncomfortable. Tim, this is actually one of your more viral comments that in a secular age, people are still looking for community but they cannot possibly find true community under the conditions in which they’re seeking it with unfettered freedom, no accountability.
Talk about that, Brett, in the context of the local church and we’ll build our way backward here.
Brett McCracken: Yeah. I think it’s a self-defeating kind of contradiction because on one hand, people do want community and especially in a digital disembodied age where we do increasingly live isolated from each other and there’s a rising loneliness epidemic that’s a real thing in this culture.
So I think the longing for community is real but that comes with this simultaneous elevation of total autonomy and freedom and consumerism where the expectation is everything should be on my terms and I should be able to have community but only insofar as it meets me where I’m at, affirms me where I’m at, kind of just affirms me with whatever I want from it and it isn’t holding me accountable to something that might be uncomfortable.
Hence why I wrote the book Uncomfortable, calling people to lean into the challenge of actually giving yourself to community in a way that puts that consumer expectation aside and says, “I do want to be challenged. I don’t just want to be affirmed.” The blessing of community, the actual benefit of being around people is that you have mirrors that can sharpen you and point out things about yourself, the areas you need to grow in that you might not be able to see and God gives us this gift of community.
The church is a gift for our sanctification if we’re willing to give ourselves to it without the kind of string attached of being able to opt out when it stops working for us or when it gets difficult or uncomfortable. So I think challenging that autonomy and that idea that it’s all just about what makes you happy and what enhances your life.
Like, church is going to stop enhancing your life at various points. Like there’s going to be times where it maybe does and times where it doesn’t and we can’t just have this expectation of leaving the minute it stops working for us.
Hansen: I don’t see how you can have community without accountability. I want to talk more about that. Jen, what does that look like in your church context in your neighborhood with people interacting with your kids?
What does that look like?
Pollock Michel: Well, I was thinking about Wendell Berry and his essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community” where he talks about the constraints of community that we want to throw those off but those are for our flourishing. The constraints of a covenant relationship in marriage, the constraints that are imposed as you’re a parent and you give up your freedom to drive your children to soccer and many other things, get up in the middle of the night and you know.
And I think that it’s amazing as Christians to be able to tap into that modern longing for community and remind people of the paradox, if I can, of embodied community. That embodied community is a constraint but a constraint for human flourishing, and we have to sort of flesh that out for people.
A really interesting article… yeah, sorry for the pun. Interesting article is the “Sex Recession” in the Atlantic, December 2018 and really talking about how people just have the inability right now to form community, and I think the church has a really important invitation in that.
Hansen: More of ways that we can show the work of Christ in compelling ways that are going to appeal to our culture. I think that’s one of the mindset shifts that we have to effect is that we’re under siege all the time and we’re just trying on the defensive constantly, as opposed to that we have this incredible gospel. We have this Savior who is the exact answer, maybe not for the questions that they’re asking but what they truly want deep down beneath.
How do people respond, though, Tim, when you talk about community and when you make that challenge? I know you’ve often pointed that specifically at some of our younger generations that I hear all this talk about community but not seemingly a willingness to do what’s necessary to achieve it.
Keller: Well, I don’t think it’s all that compelling to talk to non-Christians about community and accountability. I’d rather talk about freedom and love. So one thing that always gets people going is… years ago, in a John Stott book, I forget which one it was, Contemporary Christian, by John Stott. He brings out an interview that he read in Le Monde. Obviously, he can read French and I can’t, and it was an interview with Françoise Sagan, who was a woman who was a pretty prominent French novelist, secular intellectual.
And one of the things they asked her, “What was your great goal in life?” And she said, “My greatest goal in life was freedom.I want to live a free life, I want to be a free woman.” And then the question was, have you achieved that? Have you lived a free life? And she says, “You can’t be free when you’re in love but fortunately, you’re not always in love.”
Now, what she was admitting and John Stott brought that right out, what she was admitting was that the secular definition of freedom is absolutely antithetical to a love relationship because even if you’re in love, it means, for example, you can’t just go out of town in the weekend without telling the other person. The other person is like, “That’s not helpful for me, oh, oh.”
And she admitted that a love relationship is antithetical to freedom, so she had a definition but it’s actually the secular definition of freedom, which is an absence of restraints on my life unless I’m harming you. Well, yeah. Okay, fine, not harming you, but how about a freedom that is actually…how about redefining freedom in a way that actually enhances love relationships instead of undermines them?
And when I talk about that and I say, “So what’s your definition of freedom?” and the secular people will give me some answer that actually fits in with Francois Saigon, I say, “Well, good luck on relationships.” And then I say, “Let’s work on a different definition,” and they’re with me on that. If you hit community, accountability, I think that your eyes start to glaze over.
They feel like, how do I go to these…? I have friends who we just accept each other and even there, you can say, define friendship. But the point is it’s very clear that even a romantic relationship does not work on the basis of secular freedom. And so that’s where I usually find a kind of pinch point with non-Christians.
Hansen: What do you do though, Tim, when we have a situation like what Jen is laying out here where I’m not sure romantic love is a priority for as many people anymore?
Keller: Okay, fine. Listen, until you’re so lonely that you’re open to changing your understanding of freedom, she wasn’t. Francois Saigon got to the end of her life because she was also…I don’t know. She never got there and until people get there, there isn’t anything you can say. I mean, ultimately, God’s got to work on the heart, set things up providentially so that they realize it’s not working. But there’s plenty of people that have these secular definitions that will…they’re already undermining their happiness but if they don’t want to admit that they’re unhappy or if they just harden themselves and say, “Hey, it’s better to be alone than to be stuck in all these love relationships.”
If that’s how they work it out, it’s a little bit like…it’s a bit like…I don’t know. It’s like the disillusioned sensible man in C.S. Lewis’s chapter on hope where you kill the part of the heart that really wanted to be happy and really wanted to love and then you say, “I’m a sophisticated person that stopped crying after the moon.”
Sometimes I’ll even talk about that and say…you know, Martin Heidegger said the difference between an animal and a human being is the animal just wants to survive and the human being wants love and meaning. And I said, if in order to be a sophisticated person you’re killing the part of your heart that makes you a human being and not an animal, well, that’s your lookout.
Pollock Michel: I’m almost wondering if part of the task now, a new task in the secular age is actually kind of awakening those longings in people, not assuming that they even have a longing for connection and love but they do because, of course, they’re made in the image of God, a triune God. And so just somehow sort of tapping into that or giving them vision for that, that would awaken a longing in them, a longing that then could not be consoled or satisfied in anything else.
Keller: It might sleep deep. I don’t know, is Alan Noble here? And Alan’s book, Disruptive Witness, says that stories and suffering, in other words, sometimes people get pulled into a story, it could be a book or a movie that arouses a desire for the thing and they realize they don’t have the worldview for it yet they want it.
And the other thing is sometimes suffering, something comes into your life and the…I mean, my niece just died and a lot of her family are not sure where their faith is. But she was an ardent Christian and it was good to show up and do a funeral and talk about how happy she was just by the fact she had a terribly deteriorating physical condition.
And my guess is that that they were in grief but a lot of them probably were wondering whether, “Do I have the worldview to be able to handle death the way she did?” So I think trouble and stories are two ways that the deep sleeping things that Jen was talking about there could be awakened.
Hansen: Couldn’t our communities and our marriages also do that of how we love one another, awaken that desire of love? What do you think, Brett?
McCracken: Yeah. I mean, I think people, like I said earlier, like people are living in these more isolated bubbles of just reinforced confirmation bias and whatnot. And so I think when they encounter a community like a church of people who are very different from one another, like I love churches where it’s just this crazy melting pot, motley crew of people from all walks of life who have no business being together.
Like by the rules of our contemporary society, there’s nothing that would bring them together as we’re increasingly kind of fragment. So I think there is a powerful witness that kind of shakes people up a little bit and causes them to take notice and just ask questions, what is it that unifies that community? Now, sadly, a lot of Christians today aren’t leaning into that challenge of kind of diversity and being this melting pot across all the boundaries and we’re just kind of following secularism in just fragmenting and being divisive.
So we’re losing, I think, an opportunity to kind of be a disruptive witness, to use Alan Noble’s term, in a secular age.
Hansen: So help me to understand whether or not this aspect of Jesus’s teaching which we’ve seen come up several times in already the plenary talks, is this a bridge or is this just straight-up confrontation?
So we know that in whether we call it expressive individualism, in our age of authenticity, various different ways to describe, that we’re told to be able to find ourselves, to find our identity, to find meaning and purpose in life, we need to inside ourselves. But Jesus’s teaching could not be more different there. He tells us “Unless you lose your life for the sake of me and for the sake of the gospel, you’ll never find it.”
We did the new book, Lost and Found, to try to give examples of stories with a lot of suffering so that people are going to be able to connect that. Do we just have to confront a secular age with that teaching or is there a bridge that can be kind of built between those two things?
What do you think, Brett?
McCracken: I just saw the movie “Us.” I don’t know if anyone has seen “Us.” It’s by the director of “Get Out” And it’s a horror film. But horror films often are the best at capturing the anxieties of any given zeitgeist moment, and there’s a great tradition of horror movies for doing that.
And “Us,” there’s a scene where a character…the whole movie is about like doubles, doppelgangers, and the idea like you’re your own worst enemy and there’s a family that kind of has this identical family that’s like stalking them. But at the beginning of the movie, a character, kind of, the plot is set in motion when this little girl wanders into a hall of mirrors at a fun house and there’s this neon sign on top of it that says, “Find yourself,” and I just thought, “Like this film is capturing the horror of the find yourself mentality as if…
You know, its pitch does kind of a glorious thing. Like just look within, find yourself, follow your heart, but it’s a horror show. Like when push comes to shove, you are not the answer to your anxieties and the deep longings of your heart. You can’t just look within for that. And I think that film captures what maybe people ultimately Are feeling with that philosophy.
It’s a dead end to look within.
Pollock Michel: I was going to mention that I was at a New York Times Book Review event in Toronto and they sent us home with tote bags that says, “The truth has a voice.” I was like, “What?”The New York Times …
Keller: John 1:1?
Pollock Michel: Right, exactly, you know. But I think that there is sort of an anxiety right now culturally where we’re sort of saying, “Wow, we’ve located truth in the interior and in the subjective, but gosh, that sort of fails us when we need stories that tell the truth about what’s happening in the political landscape, for example.”
Now, I’m not suggesting, I’m not saying The New York Times has…that they tell the truth better than other media organizations, but I think it’s interesting to hear them kind of wanting to sort of reclaim something objective about truth.
Hansen: What do you think, Tim, with that specific question? Are we just straight-up confronting with those words of Jesus?
Is there a bridge to be built there? How do we bring that truth to bear on a secular age where it seems like that would be so antithetical to how people see the world?
Keller: Well, there’s a lot of ways. I think there’s a lot of different ways to go. I mean, Jen’s already just referred to one.
It’s if you really do say truth is subjective, you’d find truth inside, then you’ve got absolutely no ability then to ground your calls to justice. You’ve got nothing to build on because if truth is something I find in my heart and therefore, you shouldn’t build the wall to keep out the suffering immigrants, then what if somebody says, “Well, I didn’t find that truth in my heart. I think what I find in my heart is build the wall.”
So why should your heart take precedence over my heart. And then we go, “Oh, well.” You’ve actually just destroyed your ability to talk about any moral obligation at all. That’s a nastier way to go at it, I think. It’s a way of just hitting them over the head and saying, “You’ve got no basis for making moral judgments and you’ve got no basis for doing justice even though you’re yelling about justice all the time.”
I think another way to go would be to say if people are honest about going inside, that our insides are incoherent, that it’s saying different things, that our desires do not line up and they change terribly, and that you actually have to connect and you are, in fact, everybody is connecting to something outside in order to give yourself some sense of self and worth, and go at it that way.
Also, by the way, Augustine does…Augustine, at one, point says that in some ways, God is more remote than anything outside. And yet on the other hand, he actually says, “You are more inward than my inmost self.” He’s further in the center of you than even your own feelings.
And so there is some sense in which by going outside to find Him through His word in revelation, you are going to eventually discover who you are, and you have to make that case that Christianity is not self-renunciation where you just beat yourself down, but it’s not self-aggrandizement or self-actualization in which you are, in a sense, closed to the other, you’re closed to anything outside, you’re creating yourself.
Instead, it’s self- transformation. It’s by going outside to find yourself on the inside. It’s just that the Christian approach to identity I think is more nuanced, it’s more exciting, it actually includes most of what the secular world wants but enhances it. So it’s not just…I guess your question is, is it just saying, lose yourself to find yourself, follow Christ, and everything about going inside is wrong?
Not if you read The Confessions. I mean, look at Augustine’s Confessions. He has to go inside. And also there’s this guy named John Calvin who says in the very, very beginning of his Institutes that your knowledge of yourself and your knowledge of God increase or decrease together. That you can’t know God unless you start to see who you really are, otherwise, you’re not going to see your center.
On the other hand, you can’t know yourself without it driving you more toward God and that means this knowledge of God, the knowledge of yourself go up and down together. Again, that’s very modern. It’s a way of saying, self-knowledge, knowing who you really are, happens as you get to know God. The deeper you know God, the deeper you’ll know yourself.
So there’s all sorts of ways of saying, “We can include your concerns without at the same time undermining the idolatry of the self that you’ve set up.”
Hansen: I would emphasize also what we tried to do on this very question with the book, Lost and Found, is to do the stories and the suffering. That seems a way to be able to illustrate that from various different perspectives.
One of the more helpful books, more thought-provoking books that I’ve read recently is Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City. Any of you seen that one yet?
Keller: It’s a book that I have that I know I’m supposed to read and now you’re making me feel even more guilty.
Hansen: Okay, that was the goal.
Keller: It’s right there. I know right where it is on the shelf, on the stack, I just haven’t gotten to it.
Hansen: I’ll direct the question to Jen then.
Pollock Michel: Tim hasn’t read it, I haven’t read it.
Hansen: But one thing I really appreciate about, you read A Secular Age after I talked to you about that.
Keller: How many years did that take?
Pollock Michel: I’m happy to say it only took me like four months.
Keller: That’s really pretty good.
Pollock Michel: That was on a pretty rigorous schedule.
Keller: Except, what did it do to your marriage?
Pollock Michel: I have my husband to blame for reading A Secular Age. He read Grit. Challenged me to do a hard thing, and Charles Taylor was my hard thing.
Hansen: Brilliant. May a thousand other people.
Keller: But he is Canadian. So you’re a Canadian.
Pollock Michel: He’s American but a pretty smart guy.
Keller: No, I mean Charles Taylor.
Pollock Michel: Oh, that’s right, yes.
Keller: Charles Taylor is Canadian.
Pollock Michel: Another reason to read Taylor.
Hansen: All right. So Steven Smith argues that today’s secular west marks a return to its pagan roots. That’s the basic thesis there. He defines paganism this way.
Paganism is this worldly religion, religion that is focused on these circumstances in this world. He explains then that Christianity threatened the early Roman Empire with its appeals to eternal life. That was what made Christianity a threat in the early Roman era, or in that Roman Empire in the early church. Then as now, I think it’s appealing for Christians in that atmosphere to then present Jesus as the key to to experiencing our best life now.
That then becomes the temptation in secularism that harkens back to this kind of paganism. It says, a way of sort of benefiting this culture. But Jen then, how do we talk about human flourishing? That’s something that’s a buzzword. It’s been that way for a long time. How do we talk about human flourishing, that Jesus is the ultimate means to our true human flourishing with our neighbors, here and now when Jesus is calling us to experience this fullness of life but only in the context of eternal life?
Pollock Michel: It’s going to be a hard sell. People are going to think that you believe in unicorns which is generally now how I think about it in Toronto when I say that I believe in the resurrected Christ and in a life to come. You know, Charles Taylor essentially says we can’t reduce the burden of the gospel. That at the end of the day, there is this irreducible tension between “My will be done,” and “Thy will be done.”
But I think that to recover from the biblical narrative the idea that when we say “Thy will be done,” it’s not, “Oh, and it’s really going to be awful.” But when we say, “Thy will be done,” when Moses said, “Here are the commands of the Lord and they are means for you to live,” and when Jesus said, “I’ve come to give you life and life abundantly,” now, we have to define that.
We have to expand a vision for that that is beyond the here and the now. But I think one of the things, one of the challenges for the church is that in reaction to my best life now, we say sometimes, well, you kind of get your worst life now but best life later. And that’s not a super compelling message and I don’t think it’s even faithful to the biblical witness.
So this idea that “Thy will be done,” is my best life, now and later. It doesn’t mean that I’m guaranteeing certain outcomes for my life but no one can, whether you believe in Christ or not. I’m as vulnerable to suffering as anyone else.
Boy, I’d rather be walking with Jesus in a cancer diagnosis than without Him.
Hansen: Amen. Yeah, that’s one thing. I think as we continue to try to emphasize a shift in posture, one that’s a little bit more just like understanding the hope that we have in a secular age, it’s significant to me to recognize that something like suffering is not a coincidence.
We keep coming back to that theme. There are ways to suffer particularly as a Christian. And Jesus talks about those things specifically for Him, that we will suffer for Him. That’s that emphasis that He gives us a number of different places. But I think it’s significant that you will not suffer. You’re not going to suffer less by abandoning Christianity. You’ll only abandon any reason or hope within that suffering.
I talked with a friend recently in his church where they were dealing…somebody had abandoned the faith after suffering many different things and there was some sort of thought in his head that “Somehow, I can get out of this,” or that “My faith is the problem.” But again, by turning away from Jesus, it didn’t make him suffer less.
It just meant there was no then redemptive hope and purpose in that suffering. Let me refocus though, Tim, on the specific issue of paganism as this worldly religion. How do we, sort of, in a secular age, talk about that dynamic interplay between our best life now, this worldly religion, and ultimately, eternal life that Jesus continually calls us toward?
Keller: I’ve two responses to that. One is I don’t think it’s…it can’t be a simple return. I mean, it’s partly right, I think, for him to say we’ve gone back to paganism, but let me just give you…But we’re a post-Christian, not a pre-Christian society. So let me just give you one quick reason why I’m only partly there.
Why it’s actually more complicated, it’s not quite right to simply say, “We just have to reproduce what the early church did with the Roman Empire,” but again, that was pre-Christian. So let me give you an example, is Kyle Harper’s book, From Shame to Sin. It’s about sex ethics and how the Roman world was changed by the Christian revolutionary sex ethic.
The pagan sex ethic was that when you were married, the husband was expected to have sex with anybody he wanted to. He could have sex with domestics, with prostitutes, no problem. The wife could not have sex with anybody else because in a sense, she had to be faithful to him. He had to know who the children were from and basically, it was a sex ethic that was tied to the social order and in the social order, the men had all the power.
Along comes Paul, 1st Corinthians 7 says the most astounding thing at that point in history about sexuality. He says “The wife’s body is not hers but the husband’s.” But then it says, “The husband’s body is not his but the wife’s.” And if you’re going to have sex or not have sex, it has to be by mutual consent. What?
And also, away goes the double standard completely. In every way, the double standard goes away completely and so it’s sex only between a man and woman in marriage. And we still have that. The idea of consent is a Christian idea. The first Christian Emperor, Theodosius or whatever, 428 or something like that, was the first emperor to come along and make a law that said no woman could be forced to have sex against her will which was a Christian idea.
So what happens is we’ve got a lot of Christian ideas that are leavening paganism but they’re taken without attribution. That is to say nobody wants to say we got them from Christianity. And so in some ways, Christianity is not quite as attractive as it was back then. The whole idea of universal benevolence, helping all the poor, it’s a Christian idea.
The whole idea of that kind of charity. And so it’s a paganism with all these kind of Christian ideas which creates a very weird relationship to secular culture that was really a little different than pagan culture. I just got to say that. What was the other part of the…
Hansen: It was really helpful for me to understand the nature of persecution within paganism. So I think one thing that that stokes a lot of the opposition to us in a secular age is that we’re telling people that we live by…we’re calling them to and saying that we live for a higher order, for something that they can’t see.
Keller: Yeah, I was going to say the second…I remember I had two things to say, and I took too long on the first one. Now, the second thing was Lewis’s hope…Basically, St.Augustine just found nothing was making him happy. He said, “If I can just get to Carthage, then I’ll be happy, and I get in the inner circle now. Now I need to get to Rome.Then I need to get to Milan.” And every point, he’s just not happy.
Then he reads Cicero’s “Hortensius” which is basically saying you’re never going to be happy in this life. It’s just not going to happen and that the pagan idea that if you just have enough sex, drugs, and rock and roll or whatever they had back then, you’ll be happy. And then through Augustine, first into philosophy and finally into Christianity which said, “Oh, we’re made for something besides this world and our hearts are restless till we find a rest in the…,” I do think you can do what Lewis says and to everybody and say, “You will find eventually that the things that you think will make you happy will not.And you will know eventually that you are not having your best life now and you either are going to kill that part of the heart that wants more or you’re going to turn to God.”
So I think that worked back for Augustine in the pagan world. I think it works for us now. I mean, you still can say that now.
McCracken: I would just add with the whole conversation of the this-worldly orientation, I also think we’re in a moment where it’s a this moment orientation. We’re in a very presentist paradigm.
There’s a book that came out a few years ago called Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff talking about this. Everything has collapsed to the now, and like social media perpetuates it. It’s all about like…Twitter’s like what’s happening now, what’s trending now. If you’re not in the conversation now, you’re irrelevant. And so there’s a burden that comes with that and this pressure to like, you know, be relevant now.
We have to be understanding what’s happening and there’s a disconnection from past, from future, from this higher order. And so I think that’s a way that we can be a refreshing witness in this world that is feeling burdened by the presentist this now orientation. It’s actually freeing to kind of see your little life as part of a bigger ancient eternal story.
So connectedness to the past, to the future, seeing ourselves as members of a kingdom that will outlive this universe, let alone this five-minute period of scrolling social media, I think that’s a way that we can be different in a noticeable, refreshing way. –
Hansen: A part of what we deal with in a secular age is not only what the Bible teaches, not only who Jesus is and how he reveals Himself to us in his word, but also how Christians portray Him, how we portray him certainly, but how the church is then perceived. Tim, let me take you to a place in Center Church where you write, “If the Christian faith is to have any impact on culture, the time must come when it is widely known that secularism tends to make people selfish while general religion and traditional morality make people tribal, concerned mainly for their own.But the Christian gospel turns people away from both their selfishness and their self-righteousness to serve others in the way that Jesus gave himself for his enemies.”
To that I’d say Amen and make sure you pick up a copy of Center Church and read all about that. How though, I don’t think that’s how Christianity is perceived in this context. So how do we break Jesus away from His popular conception as a convenient political prop for Christians?
Is there any way to seize attention for the watching world in our secular age for this compelling and loving character of Jesus who transcends and obliterates these secular age’s divides? That’s for you, Tim. You want me to give you more time?
Keller: No, I’ll be really short. We’re going to have to do our job if we are going to have to be better than we…we just have to do what the Bible calls us to do to love our neighbor. But then if you’re really going to have the culture actually notice it, probably God will just have to do something in His providence. Like the early Christians were despised but Rodney Stark tells you in his book, The Rise of Christianity, that when the plagues came along, the urban plagues basically, because of a fear of contagion, people just left sick and dying family members and just got out of town and the Christians stayed and they habitually stayed, they became famous for staying, taking care of people, in many cases dying.
And Rodney Stark just says that after that, there was a…The reputation began to say, wait, these Christians, they care about the poor. They’re not afraid of death. Now, I don’t know whether we have a problem like that shows up and we would have the same moral character, I don’t know. But generally speaking, I feel like in pockets, we can be well known for our good deeds and our love.
But probably if the culture is going to see it, we just have to do our…be who we are and do our job and let God decide whether he’s going to show the culture through some kind of intervention. In the past, that’s what’s happened. I don’t think you can engineer that.
Hansen: What do you think, Jen?
Pollock Michel: Brett?
McCracken: So I was at my barber last week and so the barber shop I go to in LA is like a stereotypical LA, like just this big muscled, tattooed, Hispanic barber and he was giving me my haircut. And I was talking to him and he was…It came up that I was an editor for something called The Gospel Coalition and he was like, “Oh, are you a Christian? Are you religious?”
And I got to talking and he’s agnostic, he grew up up Seventh-Day Adventist Church, but now he’s agnostic. He says, “I don’t know what I think about God but I will say this,” and this is what was interesting to me. He says, “I wouldn’t want God and Christianity removed from politics or government.” He said, “It would just be chaos. Like our world would be worse for that.”
And so just the fact that he observed that as an agnostic and I think that that gets to the idea that Christians at their best are this leavening kind of salt and light presence in every sphere: politics, medicine, hospitals and we always have been. So to the extent that we keep doing that, I think people will keep noticing it and have at least an interest in that.
Hansen: Maybe you could speak to it…well, you can say whatever you want, Jen, but you could also speak to this issue, cross-border as an American in Canada where all these things, they look very different on the other side of the border yet everything bleeds north as well.
Pollock Michel: I mean, a huge difference in Canada is that people don’t assume that the kingdom is coming by in the next political election and…sorry, or the past one.
Hansen: We’ve had such a great track record so far. Next time, cross your fingers, right?
Pollock Michel: So I just wonder if we can return to teaching the kingdom and not just spend the truth of the kingdom but the way of the kingdom.
And I really appreciated Eugene Pearson’s book, Jesus is the Way. He says often, you know, evangelicals seize on the idea that Jesus is the truth. We love to talk about Jesus being the truth. But Jesus is the way that it’s not just what Jesus says but it’s how he gets his work done that we are to emulate as well.
And so I think to look at the narrative of the gospel is to realize that the kingdom came through suffering and through death and that doesn’t really make sense when we think about seizing political power and having cultural gravitas. As long as we have to be the majority and we think of that being the way the kingdom is coming, I think we sort of miss the beauty of the gospel and really the mystery and the miracle of it.
The fact that it could look as vulnerable as a seed and yet this is exactly the metaphor for the kingdom that it comes in surprising ways.
Hansen: Here’s a question though, which side is more messianic now in their politics? Years ago for Books & Culture, I reviewed a book on the American presidency by a presidential scholar and he talked about how through the 20th century, our expectations of the presidency have expanded beyond comprehension that essentially that office will crush any human being who aspires to it and earns it.
The expectations are simply impossible. And as we’ve seen these messianic expectations from Christians for politics, it might even be surpassed by people outside of faith who ascribe to a secular worldview. Is that a bubble that might burst for those expectations that could be an avenue to be able to show the love of Christ and the kingdom of God in that atmosphere?
I’m going to start turning to audience members if somebody doesn’t jump in here. I mean, you can say no. You can say no.
Pollock Michel: I mean, I wonder if it returns to our conversation about longings, the longings of the human heart for a righteous king, for a Messiah, for a kingdom, for the government to be on the shoulders of the only shoulders broad enough to carry it.
And if those longings are on both sides of the political conversation and we have an opportunity to say you’re not going to find that in your next presidential candidate but I get to tell you a better story.
Hansen: Yeah. Amen to that though I probably should have answered my own question by saying I don’t imagine we’ll have a more messianic election than 2008 and we appeared not to have learned any of those lessons in our culture in a secular age.
So I don’t know, we’ll have to see. Perhaps the Lord will reveal it. Anyone else want to jump in on that one?
McCracken: I think the reason why politics have been elevated to this messianic kind of…because we’re in a post-Christian context and it’s filling the void of religion for a lot of people and even a lot of ostensibly religious people, Christians, who would call themselves a Christian, if they were honest with themselves, politics has kind of become the new driving passion where their longings for justice and things like that are given voice.
And so yeah, I think that everyone does long for justice and people want, they feel that in politics on whatever side you’re at, gives you kind of a community, gives you a purpose, gives you meaning in that direction. So even my barber, to go back to the barber, he was going off about the Jussie Smollett situation and he was just like, “It’s so unjust. We just have to have justice in this situation.”
And it just struck me, like yeah, people intuitively feel when there’s injustice and that is a thing that you have to have an outlet for. Like it can’t go unresolved and so that’s why people get so riled up on Twitter. That’s why everyone is so angry about everything. There has to be an outlet for justice. Currently, politics is that for a lot of people.
Hansen: I think if we’d been having this conversation in 2012 and you said that kind of the central issue of our day might be the pursuit of truth, you would have thought, “Whoa, there went a thousand think pieces of evangelicalism on post-modernism,”from today of just, “No, no. no. We’re a post-truth era.” Also, and 2016 comes along and everybody cares about truth now.
It’s fascinating how quickly these things can change. Are you sure I can’t bait you into something here too? I know you want to jump in on this. All right, that’s not fair. All right, I’ll get you some other way. Okay. Let’s bring this home a little bit, talk about personal, spiritual disciplines and also how you see people coming to faith.
So first, let’s start with the disciplines. I’ll start with you down there, Brett. What is the most helpful spiritual discipline that stokes your love for Jesus when the pressures of our secular age press in on you? We’re not immune to these trends and that’s one of the most important things to say in a Christ and Culture class I was teaching in our church, I said, “Fundamentally, we must understand as Christians these are not trends that are out there for those people.They don’t affect us in many ways just as much.”
So this challenge of loving Jesus in a secular age is one that we face. How does Jesus help align your heart with his in this?
McCracken: For me, I think just the local church and showing up embodied physically in the local church is a huge important discipline for me. I mean, I live a lot of my week in the online space and kind of the digital world.
I’m a digital journalist. So for me, coming to church, week after week, is a refreshing escape from the excarnation. Taylor talks about the excarnation and how we’re living in this kind of neo-gnostic disembodied world, and the church offers incarnation and in fleshed realities. So coming to church week after week, standing physically shoulder to shoulder with people who are very different from me, who wouldn’t know what Twitter debate I was interested in the day before and wouldn’t care but are there to worship Jesus, to take communion, to take the physical communion.
The fact that it’s a physical act is so amazing and refreshing in an age of excarnation. So I would say that for me, just the local church and the habits of that.
Hansen: Amen. Jen.
Pollock Michel: I’m going to say Church as well but I’m actually going to cite a different reason. I think church restories us. I think the gospel essentially restories us. And so Monday through Saturday, we kind of live the stories of our neighborhoods and our city. Like we’re just embattled because the story is your best life now and run fast so you can get all the toys and it’s certainly that in Toronto.
And so I show up to church on Sunday kind of forgetting. Of course, I’m reading Scripture throughout the week and being restoried by that as well but there’s something incredibly powerful to hear other people rehearsing it and especially on the weeks when I find it hard to believe. Sometimes, there are weeks I show up to church and I forget my story, I forget the true story of the world, and I don’t even have faith to rehearse it myself, but I hear Brett next to me saying it and his faith kind of gives me faith and I can’t do it without the people of God.
And I think it’s a reminder too as parents that even in seasons of life when it’s super busy and children have activities, like getting them to church on Sunday is the way that they continue to be restoried.
Hansen: All right, Tim?
Keller: I like immersion in the Psalms. Read Eugene Peterson’s introduction to the Psalms called Answering God and his basic point is that we have a tendency in a self-expressive, individualistic world, to look at prayer as just a way of expressing ourselves toward God.
And he says, for example, children, if you just let children alone to express themselves, if you just say, “Hey, we just want them to learn how to talk by themselves,”they’ll never learn. You learn how to talk because somebody’s speaking to you and then you learn to imitate them and he said, “Immersing yourself in the Psalms teaches you how to talk about God.”
The other thing that’s about the Psalms especially if you do some Benedictine form like every three months or every month or you don’t want to do like the Benedictines which is every week: you get through all of 150 Psalms, you either read them, chant them, recite them or sing them. It’s such a big God you’ve got there, so many…there’s a just a danger of making God into the God you want.
We have a tendency to say…we’ve been taught to determine what kind of self we want to be and then you only choose and believe in things that fit in with the kind of self you want to think of yourself as being and therefore, even our beliefs in God tend to be a kind of an accessory.
It’s like accessorizing your self-image. But the Psalms do not let that happen. The Psalms show you who God is. You let God speak into you. And then when you pray, if you’re always praying back the Psalms or letting your prayer be conditioned by the Psalms, guided by the Psalms, in many cases, you’re just praying the Psalms back to God, it just changes you.
And it’s impossible to be an expressive individualist if you immerse yourself in the Psalms like that, week after week, month after month, year after year. So I only was able to not say that the Christian community and church because that was already said but I would say that’s another spiritual discipline crucial in our time.
Hansen: I don’t know if I learned it from you or from somebody else. But my reading tends to be Psalm 1, 30, 60, 90, 120 recycled through on that monthly basis along with one of the Proverbs, a chapter of Proverbs, exactly because I find there’s nothing like the Psalms that just get me back there. Did you have something else you wanted to say there? Okay.
You had the mic already. So wow, just got about three minutes left before we wrap up here. Tim, I’m going to start this question with you. What are some hopeful signs of people coming to faith in Christ in our secular age? Have you seen any of those trends change over the course of your ministry? Quickly, I’ll say that in our context, we’ve seen a number of people come to faith. It is almost always community for them, a felt need of community and they come in and they say, “Oh, you’re not like those other people. You love me in ways that I haven’t been loved before,”and they want to know more about Jesus and they see that connection to the gospel. It’s pretty simple but that’s been the most powerful tool in our context. What have you seen over the years, Tim?
Keller: Something similar. Yes, very secular people can come to faith in Christ.
But it takes a great deal of patience and it takes relationship. So Jen has already referred to this that we are used to doing…most of our evangelism assumes that people will think that Christianity is a good thing, like your barber. In the past, there have been people who said, “I’m not a Christian, but I do see that religion and Christianity is a good thing. Churches do good work.”
That’s a very different culture than the culture that says it’s really bad for you and going to church, having a church isn’t a good idea at all, it’s bad for people. In that situation, the only way you draw people in is through long relationships. So yeah, and that’s how I see it happening, but not bringing people to big events where you hear the expert evangelist.
Pollock Michel: I was just going to say creating context where curiosity is welcomed and where like doubt, maybe even there’s hospitality for that. And that doesn’t mean that we valorized out but we have to just be hospitable to where people are. So in our church context, there’s Q&A after the sermon and that’s always one of the most kind of spirit-filled moments as people just…and it’s not even what is said so much as an environment that’s created where we say you get to be where you are, you get to interact with this, you get to engage your mind and your heart, and your curiosity is welcome here.
And so we’re seeing a lot of people come to faith through that and also just that I think through the invitation to be on a journey that may take some time to process intellectual doubts.
McCracken: Yeah, I think I’ll just reiterate some things that have already been said about community. I’ve seen that to be just the countercultural nature of Christian community increasingly in a disembodied, fragmented age.
But yeah, also to Tim’s point about just the long burn of relationship. So with the barber, like I’m going to continue to go to him and keep the conversation going now that I know he’s sort of got this interest. You just have to kind of lean into that and trust that the spirit will work in his heart over time if it’s his will and all I can do is just keep the conversation going and keep living my life and living my witness as a Christian in relationship with him.
Hansen: Well, great. That’s the end of our workshop here, our panel, why we love Jesus in a secular age. We hope that…maybe we’ve even given you some book recommendations or some tips on how you can navigate this in our culture, even some ones you want to pick up there in the bookstore. But more importantly, we hope that we’ve stirred your faith and your hope in Christ and seeing the promise of what he’s doing in our era.
Please join me in thanking our panelists. [Applause]
For more reading on the topic of living in a secular age, see the book Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, edited by Collin Hansen.