Keller's Gentle Answer

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday Review published a conversation between journalist Nicholas Kristof and pastor Tim Keller. No less than six people sent or mentioned this article to me. They said they thought I would like it. They said it seemed like the kind of thing my book is about. I only had to read the fist two paragraphs to discover that they were right.  

Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller? 
What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? Can one be a Christian and yet doubt the virgin birth or the Resurrection? I put these questions to the Rev. Timothy Keller, an evangelical Christian pastor and best-selling author who is among the most prominent evangelical thinkers today... 
KRISTOF: Tim, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?

I think Kristof is asking what many in our culture are asking: can I take the parts of the Jesus movement that I like (helping the poor, justice for the oppressed) and leave behind the parts that disagree with my scientific sensibilities (virgin birth and resurrection)? In short, can I just believe the moral teachings and not the miraculous? Can I embrace the lessons without the loony?  

What I appreciate about this article is that both men show respect for the other’s views. Kristof is asking, not arguing. Keller is open-handed in his apologetic. He acknowledges that these are hard truths to believe.  

KRISTOF: Tim, people sometimes say that the answer is faith. But, as a journalist, I’ve found skepticism useful. If I hear something that sounds superstitious, I want eyewitnesses and evidence. That’s the attitude we take toward Islam and Hinduism and Taoism, so why suspend skepticism in our own faith tradition? 
KELLER: I agree. We should require evidence and good reasoning, and we should not write off other religions as ‘superstitious’ and then fail to question our more familiar Jewish or Christian faith tradition. 
But I don’t want to contrast faith with skepticism so sharply that they are seen to be opposites. They aren’t.

Keller is doing something very wise here. When we are offered the privilege of talking about faith with people who believe differently than us, it is important that we begin from a place of shared understanding before we move toward things that are likely to be misunderstood. Rather than facing off with the controversial subject in between them, Keller and Kristof seem to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and examine the ideas in front of them. This is a posture Christ-followers can learn from. As Keller affirms in the interview, doubt is not the enemy of faith. Neither, truly, is skepticism.  

Something about Christianity appeals to Kristof (namely, its humanitarian outcomes) and for all his questions and quibbles, he displays a desire to believe. He wants to live in a story this grand and world-changing. He just isn’t comfortable giving up his hard-earned journalistic skepticism to do it. And in that way, isn’t he like all of us? Jesus always asks us to relinquish our identities and our self-centered kingdoms to follow him. And we always balk at the prospect.  

In the end, the answer to Kristof’s question is “no.” The miraculous supra-scientific parts of Christianity are part-and-parcel with the wise sayings and moral teachings. You can’t pick and choose which parts of Jesus’ life and message to follow, not if you intend to follow him the way he asked. But when we are given the sacred, intimate opportunity to deliver that “no,” we should aspire to do so as carefully as Tim Keller did.