Posted by: dswerling | April 22, 2008

Dissapointed by Tim Keller

I just listened to Timothy Keller talk about exclusivity (the belief that one religion is correct and all others are incorrect) on his homepage. It was some interesting stuff and I wanted to comment on it.

The first thing I’ll say is that he portrays the parable of the blind men and the elephant incorrectly. He fails to mention the part at the end of the parable where the seventh blind man says that it is something big that none of them understand, “all of these things [their descriptions] and more.” The seventh blind man does not presume to understand what the elephant is, only that it is a continuing mystery, so his perspective on the matter is different from Keller’s accusation, which states that we are just creating another divisive perspective if we accept all religious attitudes as truth.

I understand what Keller means by saying this though, and by saying that since religious views in some sense or another will always exist, it’s best to figure out which one helps everyone the most. I also know that for me personally, I do believe that Jesus provides the best way for salvation, a “best results if Jesus is believed in” theology. I think this salvation we note is not even as much about heaven vs. hell but the best way to have a new, better world that can live with God. I also know that I personally chose Christianity because of my objections to other faiths. I do not believe any particular group of people to ever have been “chosen” by the same God who is supposed to be the benevolent Father of us all, so that counts out Judaism (though ethnically I am part Jewish.) Muslims seem to have a lot of issues going on today, so it didn’t seem like the best time to hop on the bandwagon for Islam either. Hinduism appears to accept many different viewpoints which did attract me, but I find the caste system to be a perfect example of Marx’s accusation of religion taking advantage of people. I found Christianity to be unique and I guess I do believe that it’s the “best” religion, and if that makes me biased or close-minded I guess that’s just the way it goes.

However, the problem I had with Keller was his last statement where he said “and if you don’t believe in the message of Jesus Christ, you might consider believing it.” As I’ve said before, I don’t think true religious faith is something you can just decide to believe, so I find this suggestion rather pretentious. Also, I believe that Christianity leads to salvation (in the physical and metaphysical sense) the easiest and best way. I think that Christianity provides unique, unnatural, and preferable moral values to many other systems and has a unique history, and is different from anything that came before or after it. Nevertheless, I am unconvinced that a truly all-benevolent God would care as much about dogma as He would about the pragmatic side of things. While I believe Christianity to be the best and “truest” religion, I can certainly see that it’s entirely possible to have an Atheist or Agnostic person or member of another faith who acts exactly as Keller describes, who dedicates his or herself fully to helping others, who forgives and loves and works for the good of society, and who behaves exactly as Jesus told us to behave, but does not believe in, has not heard of, or does not care about the metaphysical or dogmatic side of Christianity. As I’ve said before, I believe our results are best when we study for the test, but I do not believe our eternal teacher (God) will fail us if we manage to pass without studying.

This is, again, my objection to “salvation through faith alone,” and to Keller’s view of our own salvation. He seems to create a good reason for why we should act as Jesus did, and why we should let ourselves suffer and forgive for the good of everyone, but he gives no good reason why a person cannot do these things and still be an Atheist or member of some other religion. Again, I believe that Christianity is the best way, the easiest way, and the only true way. However, as Saint Augustine said,

“There are many whom the Church does not have who are in the kingdom of God, and also many whom the church does have that are not in the kingdom of God.”

In conclusion, Keller was interesting and insightful, and makes a clear case for why Christianity is different (and he would say superior) to other religious traditions. However, he provides no case for why dogmatic beliefs and traditions or belief in ancient scriptures or other texts can outweigh the actions of a real, God-created living breathing human.



  1. In light of what you’ve said, may I ask how you would then interpret Jesus’ words, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me.” (John 14.6, Message Bible)? As I’m sure you’re aware, this is one of the base verses of Scripture most Christians point to in order to show that Jesus is not just one of many ways, or even the best way, but the only way.

  2. Hello,

    I think your quarrel is with Jesus on this topic. You might want to take a look at John 3:3, 36, 14:6, just to name a few.

    I think this video illustrates what I’m talking about:
    The woman in the video admits to some disgusting things, yet still thinks she’s a good person. None of us are good, and we all deserve hell. There is one God, and He provided one way for us to get to heaven.


  3. My disagreement with Keller was not over the statements in the Bible (and for the record I do find the woman’s attitude repulsive, though I am duty-bound not to cast judgment on her.) I simply do not see how he makes the jump from philosophy to theology.
    His speech seems to follow this pattern:

    1.) Religion will always exist because it is naturally an important part of our human condition. It cannot be eliminated.
    2.) The perspective that all religions are equal is actually a pretentious statement (though as I stated, he does not provide the full parable of the blind men and the elephant, so that’s a bad example of his point, but ignoring this fact)
    3.) We need to believe Christian dogma to be saved.

    The third statement is my chief disagreement. I can (obviously) accept that we must repent for our sins and try to make a difference to be saved, maybe even that if you really look at it Jesus is the only real way this can happen, but I disagree with Keller’s rigid definition of dogma. For example, I do happen to believe in the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection, but what if I didn’t? Is it not more important that God has shown us His incredible love, and that He will not give up on us, even when we are willing to nail His beloved Son to a tree and let Him die? Is it not more important that by accepting Jesus’ message and living our faith, not just holding it, that we can be saved?

    Forgive me, it isn’t that Keller doesn’t make a good case for Christianity. It’s only that I guess I’d hoped I would see more of a coherent connection between the dogma and the reasoning.

  4. Tim Keller got the elephant illustration from Leslie Newbigin, so perhaps you may want to tackle that one at the source.

    What he was using the illustration to say is this: everyone has an exclusive claim on the truth. The relativist who claims ‘No one knows’ had to be certain that his view is true. Even the seventh blind man who says, it IS a continuing mystery seems to describe the elephant IS something too.

    Therefore, since everyone has their own exclusive truth, there’s nothing outrageous with accepting Jesus’ exclusive truth claim.

    On Keller’s dogma, I don’t think he’s as rigid (probably because because I am more conservative than he is and you are more liberal than he is), but then that’s fine – the people of God is always wider and narrower than what we think.

    What matter is our understand of what does it mean “to be saved”? If “to be saved” is the elephant, and you and me debating about how it feels, we would certainly repeating the parable here.

    May be what we should attempt is to accepting the assumption for exclusive truth claim of Jesus and his followers as recorded in the Bible. But once we are willing to accept that, then it would create some narrow dogma such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12, etc.

    And so debates ensued and theologians voiced their opinions for the last two thousands years, but at least the boundaries of the issues become more and more defined…

    …until the new kids on the block appear, tossed all the assumptions aside and started everything over 🙂

    The eighth blind man walked in, “What elephant?”

  5. By the way, you should listen to Keller’s sermon on Hagar at in the series “The Gospel According to Abraham”

    There, I think you really like what he has to say about salvation/grace happened outside of the covenant too. It’s only $2.50, but if money is an issue, email me and I will share mine to you…

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