Tim Keller’s Critique of Liberal Secularism

Keller, the most influential Christian apologist and evangelical leader of his generation, died Friday at age 72.

Pastor Tim Keller sits partially in shadow.
José A. Alvarado Jr. / Redux

One spring day in 1970, a tall, slightly awkward undergraduate named Timothy Keller was standing with friends on the main quadrangle of Bucknell University’s campus in central Pennsylvania. Students were protesting in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings; they crowded onto the quad, half-listening to speakers who vied for the open mic. Keller, a new convert to Christianity and a religion major, ordinarily would have been busy with courses in existential philosophy, Buddhism, and biblical criticism. But at the moment, he and his friends in the campus chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship were trying to decide how to participate in this tense moment, when their peers were angry and probably not interested in talking about God.

They did not commandeer the microphone to rail at classmates about their sins; even single-minded evangelicals can read a room now and then. Instead, they set up a table nearby with a stack of Christian books and made a sign with bold lettering: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ Is Credible and Existentially Satisfying. “They didn’t get much of a response—mostly mocking and eye rolls,” Collin Hansen writes in his recent biography of Keller.

But some bystanders did bite: How could Jesus possibly be relevant when the world was on fire? Keller, manning the books table, was in his element, quietly suggesting that they set aside political categories for the moment. Don’t look away from economic or racial injustice; don’t stop hating war, or stifle your anger at corrupt and lying leaders. Just try looking at all of that through Christian lenses, and you’ll see idolatry, the worship of self: the real things that wreck our world.

Keller, who died May 19 at age 72 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was the most influential Christian apologist and evangelical leader of his generation, even if his name is unfamiliar to many secular people. The flood of articles noting his death have remarked on the flourishing megachurch he built in supposedly godless Manhattan; the hundreds of new congregations he helped plant around the world; the best-selling books he wrote that made the case for Christianity to a popular audience. And that’s all true. But in all of this, two fundamental ideas propelled him: Biblical Christianity is not a political position, and secular liberalism deserves theological critique—because it is not simply how the world really works, but is itself a kind of faith.

When Tim and his wife, Kathy, founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 1989, the prospects seemed dismal. Walking the city streets, Keller was struck by how many grand historical church buildings had been repurposed as clubs, coffee shops, and condos—visible signs that New Yorkers seemed to have moved on from church. Yet over the decades that followed, Redeemer grew into a booming congregation of several thousand people, including many young doctors, lawyers, bankers, and artists who never considered themselves the churchgoing type.

Journalists were confused by why so many “yuppie Manhattanites” would attend this “conservative evangelical” church. Keller had the quiet charisma of a professor at a small liberal-arts college rather than the persona of a megachurch warlord; he poured energy into co-founding institutions, such as the church network and media organization The Gospel Coalition, rather than nurturing a cult of personality.

Moreover, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America, and was not shy about his denomination’s conservative teachings on sexual identity and gender roles. The PCA does not bless same-sex marriages and discourages the use of the phrase gay Christian, because it elevates homosexuality as an “identity marker alongside our identity as new creations in Christ.” The denomination teaches the “complementarity” of men and women, “displayed when a Christian husband expresses his responsibility of headship in sacrificial love to his wife,” and does not ordain women as pastors, though women can serve in some leadership roles. But Keller never led with those issues, and steered every conversation back to how broken and miserable we all are without the free gift of God’s grace. “The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, that fail to satisfy us even when we get them,” he wrote in 2008 in his breakout best-seller, The Reason for God.

The year the Kellers founded Redeemer, the mainstream media were preoccupied with a very different group of evangelical leaders. Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and their colleagues had recently founded the Christian Coalition of America, the latest in a series of organizations carrying the banner for conservative Christian activists who lashed the Gospel to Republican policy goals. While they sacralized nostalgia for a bygone Christian America in which white middle-class men had the largest share of cultural prestige and economic privilege, Keller was busy ministering to post-Christian, pluralist, urban Americans, convincing them to decouple Christianity from any political platform.

In later years, on one of the very few occasions when Keller made a public statement about politics—halfway through the Trump administration—he published an op-ed in The New York Times insisting that Christians should reject tidy alignment with either the Republicans or Democrats. “Following the Bible and the early church,” he wrote,  “Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.”

Keller’s approach—to spurn tribalism, avoid picking unnecessary fights, and preach to our shared existential angst—was not normal, not even in New York City. A century earlier, the fundamentalist movement was born primarily in the urban north, where Keller’s Reformed Protestant forebears founded breakaway churches and Bible institutes to rebel against a tide of non-Protestant immigrants, first-wave feminism, new trends in biblical criticism, and other changes they saw as threats to both the authority of scripture and their own cultural status. America replayed that same basic culture war in the 1960s and ’70s, when Keller was an undergraduate. We are in the throes of another rerun now.

Over that time, the great evangelical tradition of apologetics—making reasoned arguments for Christian truth claims based on historical evidence, scientific discoveries, and moral philosophy—largely fell captive to these culture wars. One might have expected Keller to imitate the apologists who were at the height of their powers while he was starting out as a young pastor: men like Francis Schaeffer and Josh McDowell, who blended their mission to defend the truth of Christianity with their callings as culture warriors.

Instead, he modeled his writing and preaching on irenic British Christians: the Anglican minister John Stott and, especially, C. S. Lewis (although Keller’s books feature a wide range of cultural and literary references, including Pascal, Tolstoy, the movie Fargo, various atheist thinkers—even, at least once, the Disney cartoon Frozen). Over the years, Keller became not just a Christian apologist but a sophisticated critic of secular liberalism, especially its worship of personal autonomy as the highest good. He pushed his audiences to consider whether total sexual freedom was truly the pinnacle of human liberation, or whether the boundaries of marriage might actually enrich their lives. He took on the false idol of professional achievement: “As long as you think there is a pretty good chance that you will achieve some of your dreams, as long as you think you have a shot at success, you experience your inner emptiness as ‘drive’ and your anxiety as ‘hope,’” he wrote in 2013’s Encounters With Jesus. “And so you can remain almost completely oblivious to how deep your thirst actually is.”

Secular Americans in the 21st century might think that they are free individuals, living true to themselves—but in fact they have unconsciously absorbed the preferences and prejudices of their particular cultural setting, he wrote in what may be his most important book, 2016’s Making Sense of God. All humans, in all historical contexts, “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.”

In these later years, he drew more and more on the philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre, Jürgen Habermas, and Charles Taylor, each, in his own way, a forceful critic of secular modernity, but all cited more often in scholarly journals than in sermons or popular books. Keller’s unique evangelistic gift lay in simplifying and popularizing their dense academic arguments to help a wide range of Christians and nonbelievers see that the secularization of Western culture was not so much a story about traditional faiths declining—what Taylor calls the “subtraction story”—but a story of new, equally metaphysical assumptions taking hold. Keller insisted that these assumptions cannot adequately explain human experience. We all seek what Taylor calls “fullness”: an idea that, Keller wrote, “is neither strictly a belief nor a mere experience. It is the perception that life is greater than can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations … It is the widespread, actual lived condition of most human beings regardless of worldview.”

His insights hit a nerve at a time when evangelicals were realizing that “postmodern” and “urban” challenges—religious diversity, isolation, transience—were becoming common in rural and suburban contexts as well. Keller was ahead of the curve in confronting these changes. Younger pastors and lay Christians found in him a mentor who might help them make traditional Christianity seem plausible to indifferent, even hostile, hearers—and, possibly, help them survive American evangelicalism’s current doom spiral of anger and political idolatry.

In his hugely influential 2012 book on starting new churches, Center Church, he used the analogy of the four seasons to describe the Church’s changing relationship to culture. Keller believed the American Church was well into its autumn season, with Christian influence in decline; people are opting for other master narratives to explain their lives; evangelists who trained in the “summertime” of Christendom are flailing.

In all of his apologetic work, Keller politely deconstructed secular narratives of meaning and happiness before making any attempt to convince his audience that Jesus’s tomb really was empty—and always in the tone of a humble conversation partner rather than a browbeating crusader. He was careful to present his arguments as “clues” rather than airtight proof: a set of hints in the fine-tuning of the universe, in human moral instincts, in the intriguing historical evidence from Jesus’s life and death—which, taken together, do not wholly eliminate doubts but have an awfully good chance of making you doubt your doubts.

Yet by the end of Keller’s long career, he had accumulated plenty of critics on both the left and the right who complained that his claim to sidestep politics in favor of the big existential questions was a red herring, an attempt to evade the issues that cause the most pain and anger in ordinary people’s lives. In 2017, Princeton Theological Seminary rescinded a prestigious lecture invitation it had extended to Keller after many in the seminary community objected to his views on gender and sexuality. Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister in the more liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination, called him “one of the loudest, most read, and most adhered-to proponents of male headship in the home … I have spent years with women who have tried to de-program themselves after growing up in this baptized abuse.”

American Christians—not to mention U.S. courts—are also in a long-running battle over whether the religious objection to same-sex relationships is akin to anti-Black racism, and is therefore an intolerable and anachronistic doctrine, or whether it is acceptable within the bounds of religious freedom. Keller’s long-term legacy in mainstream culture depends on how these legal and cultural debates evolve.

Meanwhile, conservatives criticize Keller’s “third way” philosophy as “instinctively accommodating” to secular contexts, as James R. Wood, then an associate editor at the conservative Christian magazine First Things, wrote last spring. He used to admire Keller but has changed his mind as American culture has grown more hostile to traditional Christianity. “A lot of former fanboys like me are coming to similar conclusions,” he wrote. “The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the Gospel can obscure what our political moment requires.” Better, perhaps, to sharpen the contradictions.

It’s possible that Keller’s strategy was the luxury of a less polarized time. Now that Christians on the right and the left both feel remorselessly persecuted, many believe they have no choice but to purify their own ranks and defeat the forces of evil at the ballot box. There are more urgent tasks than patiently engaging a skeptic.

Keller’s aim was never to make the Gospel any less outrageous but to make our own private idols moreso. He wanted to help sincere and restless people (and that’s most of us) finally see the false gods we are worshipping—whether we realize it or not.