Frankly, I was gobsmacked when I saw this new piece in The Atlantic, because, in the interest of convincing a secularizing America that we need more religion (and by “religion” the author means “Christianity”), Thomas Keller proffers what turns out to be a long sermon, touting theological points like “salvation through faith”. He also insists on a factual basis of Christianity, which presumably includes the existence of stuff like Resurrection and Heaven and the half man/half Go nature of Jesus as important parts of what Americans must accept.
It’s not surprising that Keller would write something like this, as he’s identified as “the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, chair of Redeemer City to City, and author of the forthcoming book Forgive: Why Should I? How Can I?” What’s surprising is that a liberal and mainstream magazine like The Atlantic would want to publish such a religious screed—and one loaded with dubious claims presented as if they were real. Well, if you want to see why America needs Christianity, amounting to a call for a Christian nation, click below:
To pastor Keller, the secularization trend is insupportable and harmful, for, he claims, religion is a vital glue that holds America together:
Many secular social theorists—including Émile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt, to name two—show how religion makes contributions to society that cannot be readily supplied by other sources. Cultural unity, Durkheim argued in the 1890s, requires a “conscience collective,” a set of shared moral norms that bind us together in a sustained way. These norms are understood to be grounded in something sacred and transcendent, not created by culture. Durkheim recognized the difficulties secular cultures have in cultivating moral beliefs that are strong and unquestionable enough to unite people.
Note that acceptance of the “sacred and transcendent” is crucial here; more about that later. But I disagree with this claim, and again I cite Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Are those countries hellholes of anomie? Does the lack of feelings about the numinous cause the inhabitants tp wander about aimlessly, mourning the absence of meaning and morality? Nope: these are some of the most moral and caring countries in the world. If you think a country absolutely needs religion to function well, have a look at Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.
Keller then gives two reasons why having Christian churches is important for America, then five ways to keep them going—or even increase their number—and finally three reasons ways Christianity needs to change to preserve its hegemony. (Keller apparently loves lists.) I’m not going into detail into this, but one point is worth examining: the second reason why, says Keller, we need churches. I’ll separate the three groups of arguments and omit the third. Keller’s quotes are indented:
A. Why we need churches.
1.) At a local level, churches provide community and support to people in their congregations who lack strong family ties or other kinds of emotional and social support. They also serve neighbors who do not attend church, particularly in poorer neighborhoods.
Yes, they do that, but so can government, which, in Scandinavia, provides succor and sustenance without pushing religion. Lunch is rarely free when the church hands it out, and of course the whole enterprise serves to buttress faith. And don’t forget about those pubs, coffee houses, and gyms that occupy the abandoned churches.
But here’s the kicker, and the one reason we don’t want more churches. Bolding is mine:
2.) While a revival of the Church would benefit society, that will never happen if the Church thinks of itself as just another social-service agency. Christians seek spiritual renewal of the Church not because they see religion as having social utility, nor because they want to shore up their own institutions. First and foremost, Christianity helps society because its metaphysical claims are true; they are not true because Christianity helps society. When Christians lose sight of this, the Church’s power and durability are lost.
Note the flat assertion that Christianity’s “metaphysical claims are true.” Well, of course that raises several questions. First of all, which metaphysical claims are true? That Jesus was the divine son of God as well as God himself, and came to Earth to save us? That Jesus got crucified and then resurrected? That Jesus really did do all those miracles? Do you really achieve salvation not through works but through faith, as Keller thinks? If not all the claims are true, which ones are true? And how does Keller know that any of the metaphysical claims are true? Because the Bible tells us?
And of course, there are plenty of Christians who claim to be helped by Christianity without buying into all its “truth claims”. In fact, given the evidence that Christianity’s metaphysical claims are false, it seems unlikely to help society in the way Keller thinks.
But the worst part is that Keller scuppers his own argument for reviving Christianity by making it depend on accepting his interpretation of parts of Scripture as literally true.
B. How to make the Church sustain itself and grow.
1.) First, as I see it, growth can happen if the Church learns how to speak compellingly to non-Christian people. For a millennium, Western institutions instilled in most citizens Christian beliefs about morality and sex, God and sin, and an afterlife. If non-Christian people entered a church, what they heard was likely not strange or offensive to them. That has changed, but the Church has not yet learned how to communicate to outsiders. As a result, most evangelical churches can reach only the shrinking and aging enclaves of socially conservative people.
Good luck getting Christians to “speak compellingly” to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, and those of other faiths. There’s no need to discuss this point further.
2.) Second, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it learns how to unite justice and righteousness. I have heard African American pastors use this terminology to describe the historic ministry of the Black Church. By righteousness they meant that the Church has maintained its traditional beliefs in the authority of the Bible, morality, and sexuality. It calls individuals to be born again through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. By justice, they meant that the Church has an activist stance against all forms of oppression.
White Protestant churches in America tend to pick one or the other. if the Church at large could combine these two ideas the way the Black Church has, it can begin to rebuild both credibility and relevance, rebutting the charge that it is merely another political power broker. A church that unites justice and righteousness does not fit with the left on abortion and sexual ethics or with the right on race and justice. Instead it is a community that addresses the timeless longings of all people for meaning, hope, love, and salvation.
What is the sweating pastor trying to say here? That his new church will be anti-abortion and puritanical? Most Americans actually go along with the left on abortion, at least insofar as a majority agrees with Roe v. Wade. This so-called unification doesn’t seem to be very palatable. But look at it this way: if nobody has sex, there will be no need for abortions.
3.) Third, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it embraces the global and multiethnic character of Christianity.
Keller wants more immigrants from China, Korea, and Latin America, for, he avers, they’re more religious than Americans (is he serious about China?). This is a very strange reason to favor immigration.
4.) Fourth, the Church in the U.S. can grow again if it strikes a dynamic balance between innovation and conservation. A church must conserve historic Christian teaching. If a church simply adopts the beliefs of the culture, it will die, because it has nothing unique to offer.
He mentions past “innovations” like monasticism and the “east African Revival” that made Africa more religious, but Keller really has no suggestions for America.
Finally, another bad suggestion:
5.) Fifth, the Church has in its favor what the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor called “the unquiet frontiers of modernity.” He makes the case that Western culture is deeply conflicted about faith and God. Modern secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no meaning other than what we construct, and that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds choose. Yet most people feel that life is greater than what can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations.
. . . The breakdown of neighborhoods and communities means that, more and more, our lives are run by faceless, massive bureaucracies and inhumane technologies and inhumane technologies aimed solely at economic efficiency.
This mistakes what people want to believe with what is true. Yes, people may want there to be more to life than “neurological-chemical events” and more to morality than a human construct (do they want a morality derived from the Bible?). And indeed, you don’t have to live your life rejecting love because it’s neurochemical and evolved as a bonding mechanism. That may all be true, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the sensation of love. But to simply make up divine explanations, or confect diving moralities, because you’re not happy with what science tells us, well, you’re spurning truth in favor of faith.
In contrast to the claimed emptiness of a life based on “scientism”, Keller offers theological exegesis, and a kind that’s contested:
In stark contrast, Christianity offers grace and covenant. Protestant Christianity teaches its members that salvation is by sheer grace, not by one’s moral efforts or performance. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God, so the cosmic ruler becomes our unconditionally loving heavenly father. And all who unite with God as father are brought into a family of faith, which is based not on contractual relationships, sustained only as long as they benefit both parties’ interests, but covenant relationships, in which all parties pledge to serve one another in sacrificial love.
He’s professing here sola fide, the notion of salvation by faith that’s held not by all Christians, but by Lutherans and a few other Protestant denominations. In this kind of faith, it doesn’t matter how much good you do before you die: unless you have true faith in Jesus, you’re not going to Heaven. (Oh, I forgot: does Keller believe in Heaven and Hell as true metaphysical claims?) If you’re a mass murderer, but at the end of your life embrace God and Jesus, you’ll get your harp and wings. This is in contrast with Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the Eastern Orthodox church, which require not only faith for salvation, but good works. Indeed, what kind of god would welcome Hitler as warmly as would Louis Pasteur, so long as both had the true faith?
Keller’s offering the easy way out here: just accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior and you’re golden. Perhaps that’s why he touts this as the way to grow religion in America as it’s a lot easier to have faith alone than to have both faith and a c.v. full of good works. If I were a Christian—and thank Ceiling Cat I’m not—I’d find the “salvation through faith alone” gambit to be a form of religion that’s too easy; in principle, if Ted Bundy confessed at the end, he’d go right past Saint Peter into Paradise.
In the end, I doubt that many of us want religion to grow; most of us seem to be applauding the waning in America of the kind of faith that was, as Hitchens said, a sign of the “infancy of our species.” For to keep religion going in America means to keep faith going, and to keep faith going means, as Mark Twain said, to keep “believing what you know ain’t so.” In the end, Keller wants us to keep America going by relying on lies, delusions, and superstitions.
30 thoughts on “A pastor touts religion in The Atlantic: Religion helps America because “its metaphysical claims are true””
If we’re made in the image and likeness of god, then how come we’re not invisible too?
(I don’t think the question is actually any sillier than everything Keller had to say.)
I’m starting a new religion to represent
“Salvation through faith in Dark Chocolate and Bacon”
Testify! Praise the lard!
There are probably others, but I noticed “the half man/half Go nature of Jesus” because I was playing Go yesterday. Some players think that Go is a matter of life and death, but most think it’s more important than that.
There are probably other tyops, but “American newspaper touts Xtianity” is hardly either novel enough or important enough to read further.
Another typo is Thomas instead of Timothy.
I sure wish Subscribe worked.
“Protestant Christianity teaches its members that salvation is by sheer grace, not by one’s moral efforts or performance.”
I wonder if Pastor Keller notices the contradiction in his philosophy: we (society) need Christianity to make us moral! Also, my church teaches that you can be as immoral as you want, as long as you believe the right things in your heart, because salvation is by God’s grace, not your effort. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.
Your response was beautiful and articulate and also, passionate. Hitchens would be proud of your logic and writing acumen.
It’s got the classic religious feeling that  something wonderful is going to happen Real Soon Now, and  obscurantism [thanks for that recent post] in “metaphysical”. Ooo, the metaphysics – what, precisely, is “metaphysucsl” now? I’ll have to check again.
From those elements, such a piece of messy writing is made, and it’s PCC(E)’s job (I thank him, Paws Be Upon Him) to show the mess. Otherwise, the spell of obscurantism and fantasy covers it up.
But the metaphysical jist of the article is true.
“Metaphysics is a subject much more curious than useful, the knowledge of which, like that of a sunken reef, serves chiefly to enable us to keep clear of it.”
Charles Saunders Peirce
How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878)
Perhaps seeing the astounding success of the persistent DEI and woke initiatives of late, christianity is doubling down using similar unabashed strategies of writing this rubbish in any venue it can find. I have heard scuttlebutt that there is a big christianity tv commercial planned for the u.s. superbowl game this weekend.
The Forward has an article about the Super Bowl ad: https://forward.com/culture/535444/he-gets-us-ads-christian-jesus-super-bowl/
Two commercials, $20M. According to the article “the goal seems to be giving Christianity a liberal makeover.”
There may be a paywall.
Thanks for the link Norman.
There is nothing wrong with using churches for spiritual purposes. Even though I am not religious, I like this sort of thing. Priests, at least the good ones, are relevant and indispensable to modern ways of living.
Link farm aside, I have a very modern way of living, and yet find priests dispensable and irrelevant. Yes, even the good ones. Strange.
Something about innocent blood being required for the remission of sin just rankles. If Jehovah were moral, Jebus would be superfluous.
That’s the part I absolutely love! 🙂
You’re a ghoul, and your god is a monster.
Of course! That’s the whole point. If I were no ghoul I would not be. If my god were no monster, he would not be my god. My ghoulishness is what wins me friends and lovers 🙂
Note: Timothy Keller does (or did at one time) accept evolution, including that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svt8i4Vh-gI&t=927s (See from 13 – 15 minute mark).
So that baffles me.
Basically God is hanging around for millions of years just watching bacteria. Then millions more as creatures evolve into sentient and finally conscious beings. God’s first step when recording “his” own words to humanity is to tell a fairy tale about how “he” personally created the world in six days. Then God calls and make Israel his own beloved children and warns them to worship only God as the one true God. FOREVER! Insert eternal covenant.
Psyche! New Testament. There are three gods, not one. Oh no, God forgot to mention that detail before. All God had to do was tell his children (that he loves so much) that one day he would split into three and that they would switch from worshipping one to three and everything would be fine. But hell no. His beloved children did not understand the secret, cryptic message about a messiah that turns into a deity. God’s beloved children end up committing deicide because God didn’t explain things clearly enough? And God is cool with all that? I call bullshit. Side note: it was Jesus who created the universe (John 1), not God. God forgot to tell his kids that part when he was explaining everything in Genesis.
Rant over. The Bible is man-made. Take encouragement or advice from the good parts, but the rest is just historical narrative.
Screw Pastor Keller. Lord only knows what kind of bluenose nonsense he has in mind, but, you ask me, the most ethical sex advice around today comes from Dan Savage’s very secular syndicated column Savage Love. Savage takes next to nothing off the table for consenting adults, but scrupulously advocates openness and honesty (and safety) among sexual partners. That’s a helluva lot more ethical than anything you’ll find in Leviticus.
Warning, satire ahead. The problem with atheism is that it is irredeemably homophobic. See “Homosexuality Proves the Existence of God” https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2021/06/25/homosexuality-proves-the-existence-of-god/
I can’t see comments in the article, but assuming there are comments a-plenty (likely many negative comments), then there is the answer to why The Atlantic published this silly thing. It got people riled up!
“Modern secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no meaning other than what we construct, and that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds choose. Yet most people feel that life is greater than what can be accounted for by naturalistic explanations.”
This is a huge problem is so many areas of life: enormous numbers of people actually believe that that something can’t be true because because they dislike the consequences of it being true, and because they don’t want it to be true. But, of course, whether you want a fact to be true or dislike its consequences is completely irrelevant. It’s like saying gravity can’t be true because if it were, people would fall off cliffs and plane would crash. Disease can’t be true otherwise people would get sick, suffer and die.
Is there really any hope that people will ever become more rational in the coming centuries (if there are any coming centuries), or will the existence of the panoply of cognitive biases perpetually condemn large swaths of humanity to the same state of ignorance and superstition in which they have wallowed since we first climbed down from the trees?
“This mistakes what people want to believe with what is true.”
Exactly–I’ve always said that I’ll consider believing in religion on the day when someone shows me a way to credibly distinguish it from wishful thinking.
And yet look at how much ink is wasted here explaining the many practical benefits of religion.
I’ll believe he thinks the real power and significance of Christianity is its metaphysics when he comes out with an article titled “Yes, Christianity Will Weaken Society and Do Us No Good But It’s True So Suck It Up and Convert Anyway.”
Jeezus, the ability to form insular, tight-knit mobs united by strong, unquestionable beliefs doesn’t really sound like a positive quality.
the ability to form insular, tight-knit mobs united by strong, unquestionable beliefs doesn’t really sound like a positive quality.
Until the Russians invade. Then it’s called collective courage. If the Ukrainians were atheists all they’d have would be nationalism, which we are queasy about because it often gets exported, and fear for their women being raped, which is understandable but is also much the same as nationalism. For us it’s geopolitics: they are sticking it to Russia and standing up for the post-1945 order and it’s not costing us any lives. But what’s in it for them that they are dying in such (unknown) numbers?
It will be interesting to hear if the Ukrainian soldiers who survive this war agree that there are no atheists in foxholes or if the experience put them off the idea of God altogether.
I love to see people defending and promoting the need for religion, and deploring the increase in agnosticism and atheism. This indicates that they are scared stiff! It shows hat they recognize the continued unstoppable secularization going on in much the world and the USA in particular, where over 25% of the populace no longer attends religious services, three times what it is was a couple of decades ago. This scares believers out of their boots so they write whistling in dark articles about how religion really is holding on and how it is needed and all that jazz. Keep quaking, believers! And don’t look over your shoulder……something is catching up with you. Someday your beliefs will be found only in the fairy tales you read your kids, where they belong.
Oh yes, invaders with religiosity out of sync with the American natives, that’s definitely something that’ll bring xenophobia rates down… In any case they’re more likely to be Muslims than Christians and that’s gone over *so* well in Europe. /s
This is just craziness. Fortunately, religion is on its way out and the trend will continue. It’s true that immigration patterns may cause the secularization of the U.S. to slow temporarily, but the long-term trend is inexorable. Year by year, both science and cultural change are narrowing religion’s field of operation. As science erases what’s left of religion’s empirical claims and as society itself provides “meaning,” religion will ebb, and all the weirdness of the “sacred” and “transcendent” will go away. The direction is clear. Keller’s Christian revival is a chimera.
When one declines to accept the unevidenced claim that god exists, the whole of Kellet’s essay becomes no more meaningful than spanking a cow’s bum with a banjo.
As a simple footnote, I wanted to add that Keller’s summary of Durkheim is wrong. Keller writes:
“Cultural unity, Durkheim argued in the 1890s, requires a “conscience collective,” a set of shared moral norms that bind us together in a sustained way. These norms are understood to be grounded in something sacred and transcendent, not created by culture.”
Durkheim’s point was precisely that “these norms” are in fact created by “culture” — Durkheim argued that societies then mistake the social origins of such norms as supernatural. Keller’s error is his unstated assumption that, if lots of cultures do something, it must be good, as if every society needs witches since, after all, every culture has some version of the witch in its cultural repertoire, and therefore witches must exist.