Tim Keller – Leading the secular to Christ

by Tim Keller Pastor Redeemer Church.

Redeemer Church, Manhattan New York

Deconstructing defeater beliefs

Tim Keller on leading the secular to Christ – part 1

A. THE IMPLAUSIBILITY STRUCTURE OF A CULTURE
1. Defeater beliefs

Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call ‘defeater beliefs’. A defeater belief is Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true.

Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another. So, for example, in the West (as we will explore below) it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that there can’t be just one ‘true’ religion. But, in the Middle East, people have absolutely no problem with the idea that there is just one true religion. That doesn’t seem implausible at all. Rather, there it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt. (Skeptics ought to realise, then, that the objections they have to the Christian faith are culturally relative!) So, each culture has its own set of culturally-based doubt-generators which people call ‘objections’ or ‘problems’ with Christianity.

When a culture develops a combination of many, widely held defeater beliefs it becomes a cultural ‘implausibility structure’. In these societies, most people don’t feel they have to give Christianity a good hearing — they don’t feel that kind of energy is warranted. They know it just can’t be true. That is what makes evangelism in hostile cultures so much more difficult and complex than it was under ‘Christendom’. In our Western culture (and in places like Japan, India, and Muslim countries), the reigning implausibility structure against Christianity is very strong. Christianity simply looks ludicrous. In places like Africa, Latin America, and China, however, the implausibility structures are eroding fast. The widely held assumptions in the culture make Christianity look credible there.

2. Dealing with the implausibility structure today

Many books on reaching postmoderns today give the impression that people now need virtually no arguments at all. The ‘apologetic’ is a loving community, or the embodiment of social concern. I couldn’t agree more that postmodern people come to Christ through process, through relationships, though mini-decisions, through ‘trying Christianity on’. They are pragmatic rather than abstract in their reasoning, etc. But the books that are against any arguments at all seem to miss the fact that the extreme pragmatism of non-Christians today is part of a non-Christian world-view. Our post-enlightenment culture believes what has been called expressive individualism. That is — ‘it is true if it works for me’. This obviously is based on the view that truth and right-or-wrong is something I discover within my own self and consciousness.

What then of the claim that ‘postmodern people don’t want arguments — they just want to see if it works for them’? All right — as with any form of contextualisation, let us as evangelists enter — adapt partially — to the culture of expressive individualism. Let us show them the reality of changed lives. Let us use narratives rather than long strings of logic. But at some point you must also challenge the sovereignty of individual consciousness. Jesus is Lord, not my personal consciousness. At some point, the idea that ‘it is true if, and only if, it works for me’ must be challenged. We have to say: ‘Ultimately that is correct — in the very, very long run, obeying the truth will “work” and bring you to glory and disobeying the truth will “not work” and bring you to ruin. But in the short run (like — even throughout all the rest of your life!) obeying the truth might lead to ostracism, persecution, or other suffering.’

There have been many times in New York City that I have seen people make professions of faith that seemed quite heart-felt, but when faced with serious consequences if they maintained their identification with Christ (e.g. missing the opportunity for a new sexual partner or some major professional setback) they bailed on their Christian commitment. The probable reason was that they had not undergone deeper ‘world-view change’. They had fitted Christ to their individualistic world-view rather than fitting their world-view to Christ. They professed faith simply because Christianity worked for them, and not because they grasped it as true whether it is ‘working’ for them this year or not! They had not experienced a ‘power-encounter’ between the gospel and their individualistic world-view. I think apologetics does need to be ‘postmodern’. It does need to adapt to postmodern sensibilities. But it must challenge those sensibilities too. There do need to be ‘arguments’. Christianity must be perceived to be true, even though less rationalistic cultures will not demand watertight proofs like the older high-modern Western society did.

Tim Keller Portrait by Nathan Troeste

B. A ‘SANDWICH’ APPROACH TO SHARING THE GOSPEL

1. Two parts to sharing the gospel

What this means now is that there are two parts to sharing the gospel in a particular culture — a more ‘negative’ and a more positive aspect.

a) The more negative aspect has to do with ‘apologetics’ — it consists in deconstructing the culture’s implausibility structure. In short, this means you have to show on the culture’s own terms (that is, by its own definitions of justice, rationality, meaning) that its objections to Christianity don’t hold up.

b) The more positive aspect of sharing the gospel is to connect the story of Jesus to the base-line cultural narratives. In short, you have to show, in line with the culture’s own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions, that its own cultural story won’t be resolved or have ‘a happy ending’ outside of Christ.

2. A sandwich of three layers

But I think the overall best way to ‘present the gospel’ is a kind of ‘sandwich’ approach to these two parts. The following assumes there is a process and a series of conversations between you and the person who doesn’t believe.

a) Brief gospel summary

First, the gospel must be presented briefly but so vividly and attractively (and so hooked into the culture’s base-line cultural narratives) that the listener is virtually compelled to say, ‘It would be wonderful if that were true, but it can’t be!’ Until he or she comes to that position, you can’t work on the implausibility structure! The listener must have motivation to hear you out. That is what defeaters do — they make people super-impatient with any case for Christianity. Unless they find a presentation of Christ surprisingly attractive and compelling (and stereotype breaking) their eyes will simply glaze over when you try to talk to them.

b) Dismantle plausibility structure

Alvin Plantinga wisely asserts that people avoid Christianity not because they have really examined its teachings and found them wanting, but because their culture gives huge plausibility (by the media, through art, through the expertise and impressive credentials of its spokespersons) to a series of defeater beliefs that they know are true, and since they are true, Christianity can’t be. The leading defeaters must be dealt with clearly and quickly but convincingly. Defeaters are dealt with when the person feels you have presented the objection to Christianity in a clearer and stronger way than they could have done it.

c) Longer explanation of the person and work of Christ

Now, if people find you have at least undermined the defeaters in a listener’s mind, you can now return to talking at greater length about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. If you try to do apologetics before you pull off a quick, attractive presentation of Christ, people’s eyes will glaze over and they will become bored. But if you try to do a very lengthy explanation of the meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection before you convincingly deal with the defeaters, they won’t listen to you either.

Summary of the approach
1. The attractive gospel — brief gospel connected to baseline narratives
2. Why Christianity can be true — dismantling doubts and defeaters
3. The biblical story of the gospel — a more thorough telling
C. THE PROCESS
1. The gospel connected to baseline cultural narratives

The doctrines of creation, sin, grace, and faith must be presented in connection with ‘baseline cultural narratives’ — Jesus must be the answer to the questions the culture is asking. Don’t forget — every gospel presentation presents Jesus as the answer to some set of human-cultural questions, like ‘how can I be forgiven?’ (Western moral individualism) or ‘how can I be free?’ (postmodern expressive individualism) or ‘how can we overcome evil forces in the world?’ (contemporary Africans), etc. Every gospel presentation has to be culturally incarnated, it must assume some over-riding cultural concern, so we may as well be engaged with the ones that we face! Christianity must be presented as answers to the main questions and aspirations of our culture. Two of the over-riding concerns are:

a) Cultural concerns

First, a concern for personal freedom and identity. Contemporary people ask: Who am I? I’m not completely sure — but I do know I have to be free to create my own identity and sense of self. Whatever spirituality I have, it must leave me free to experiment and seek and not be a ‘one size fits all’.

Second, a concern for unity in diversity. Contemporary people ask: How can we get past exclusion and exclusivism? How can we live at peace in a pluralistic world? How can we share power rather than using power to dominate one another? How can we embrace the ‘Other’ — the person of a sharply different viewpoint and culture?

b) Gospel resources

Gospel resources for personal freedom. Kierkegaard depicts sin in The Sickness unto Death as ‘building your identity on anything but God’ which leads to internal slavery and narrowness of spirit. This is a gospel presentation that connects well today. (Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche and other great thinkers, was a good century ‘ahead of his time’.) Kierkegaard also deconstructed mere religion and moralism and contrasted them with the gospel. (See his Three ways of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.) Building your identity on any finite created thing besides God leads to the idolisation of that factor and the demonisation of anyone who lacks it.

Gospel resources for living at peace. If you build your identity mainly on your class, or race, or culture, or performance you will necessarily vilify and disdain anyone who lacks what you consider the cornerstone of your own significance. Therefore, building your identity on God leads to hatred of the other, to social conflict and oppression. Jonathan Edwards (again, a man ahead of his time) recognised that if your highest love and greatest is your nation, your family, your career, even your religious performance, then you will disdain other nations, families, classes of people, and other religions. If anything but God is our ‘highest good’ (i.e. if we make anything an idol) then we have to demonise or at least exclude some part of creation. But if God is our ultimate good, then we are free to develop deep love for what Edwards calls, ‘Being in general’. If we truly made the Lord our ultimate beauty and Saviour and good — we would have an equal love and joy equally in all creation, all individuals, all people groups, even in all nature and created things.

In any case, there is no religion with a more powerful ground-motif for accepting enemies and the ‘Other’ than Christianity. We are the only faith that has at its heart a man dying for his enemies, forgiving them rather than destroying them. This must be presented to our culture as an unparalleled resource for living in peace in a pluralistic society.

Summary

As we said above, people’s eyes will ‘glaze over’ if you start your presentation with ‘reasons Christianity is true’. Christianity must be attractive to people before they will sit still for a presentation of intellectual credibility. A person must come to the point where he or she says, ‘that would be great if it were true — but is it?’ Then, and only then, will they sit still for a discussion on why Christianity is true. So Christianity has to first be presented attractively and compellingly. We must show postmodern Western culture — with its aspirations for personal freedom and unity in diversity — that its ‘Story’ can only have a ‘happy ending’ in Jesus Christ. Then we can deal with the main objections (the ‘defeaters’) in our culture that make it hard to believe that Christianity is true.

Example of a brief gospel presentation

Why we are here. The one God is a community — a Trinity of three persons who each perfectly know and defer to one another and love one another and therefore have infinite joy and glory and peace. God made a good, beautiful world filled with beings who share in this life of joy and peace by knowing, serving, and loving God and one another.

What went wrong. Instead, we chose to centre our lives on ourselves and on the pursuit of things rather than on God and others. This has led to the disintegration of creation and the loss of peace — within ourselves, between ourselves, and in nature itself. War, hunger, poverty, injustice, racism, bitterness, meaninglessness, despair, sickness, and death all are symptoms.

What puts the world right. But though God lost us, he determined to win us back. He entered history in the person of Jesus in order to deal with all the causes and results of our broken relationship with him. By his sacrificial life and death he both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived. By his resurrection he proved who he was and showed us the future — new bodies and a completely renewed and restored new heavens and new earth in which the world is restored to full joy, justice, peace, and glory.

How we can be part of putting the world right. Between his first coming to win us and his last coming to restore us we live by faith in him. When we believe and rely on Jesus’s work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, his healing kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. Christ gives us a radically new identity, freeing us from both self-righteousness and self-condemnation. This liberates us to accept people we once excluded, and to break the bondage of things (even good things) that once drove us. He puts us into a new community of people which gives a partial, but real, foretaste of the healing of the world that God will accomplish when Jesus returns.

This article is copyright to Tim Keller.

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