If Tim Keller is A Great Apologist, Why Does He Sound Like A Sociologist?

Tim Keller explained to people who write about charities and philanthropy the contribution that churches make to “human flourishing”:

Philanthropy: How does a healthy church benefit the community at large beyond its own members? On the flip side, when a neighborhood doesn’t have a flourishing church, what is it missing out on?

Keller: Churches promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Family ties and religious ties are the two biggest sources of social capital. And religion can be fed and bolstered as a source of valuable shared experience. I, as an older white American man, can connect quite sincerely to a single poor African woman in Soweto because we are both evangelical Christians. There’s a powerful bond because we’ve had the same experience of spiritual rebirth. There’s a trust I have that would not exist if I was a non-Christian white man.

Anywhere you’ve got a church, social capital is being created. Especially when the church is attended by people from the surrounding neighborhood. And it’s a big benefit to the community.

Also, church buildings in big cities are a kind of public utility. We bought a parking garage in upper Manhattan and converted it into a church and all the homeowners on the block who were not believers said, “Thank you, you’re improving the whole block.” The city council asked if various local groups could use the building, saying, “We’re starved for space.” Our building became a community center. Organizations can meet there, people can have weddings and other celebrations there. On a Sunday, urban churches create the foot traffic all the restaurant owners and shop owners want. So in all kinds of ways an urban church has huge benefits, as long as it doesn’t have a fortress mentality.

For a fellow with the reputation of presenting the gospel to secular Americans in ways that make it accessible and also clear, Keller comes up short and resorts to language that would actually wind up supporting Roman Catholic parishes, synagogues, and mosques as religious places that increase social capital.

Fishermen Need Not Apply

Does the path to sanctification (or virtue) really lie in a liberal education?

Liberal education, according to Blessed Cardinal Newman, is primarily formation of the mind enabling it to seek, know, and contemplate truth, which is the good of the intellect and which prepares us to know fully and love fully the One who is the truth. But I do not think education of the mind is sufficient. Just as a specialist education in one field or skill should not come before a generalist and integrative education in the principles and mindset of all fields, education of the mind alone or as foremost is imbalanced, and can lead to extreme deformations in the soul, such as hyper intellectualism, an inability to act decisively, and a lack of emotional intelligence and integration. In addition to the mind, there must also be an education of the body in endurance and long-suffering, the imagination in beauty, and the will in the good. All this is to say that a proper education is an education of the whole person, but the person is neither his intellect, his will, his imagination, his memory, nor his body. He is, rather, his heart. And the heart is what WCC educates best.

Why is the heart so important? In a word, God. God makes His presence known in our hearts, and we see God with our heart, not our eyes, and not even our intellects. But the synthesis of all our powers at the very core of our being. The heart is supernaturally educated by grace, the sacraments, the life of Christian charity, and the teachings of the Catholic Church, but the heart needs a robust natural education in order for the supernatural formation to take root and bear fruit. How can the heart be educated? Only by a “curriculum of the heart,” one that forms and perfects all our powers in different disciplines: humanities, the moral imagination; the fine arts, the aesthetic sense; the outdoors, the will, the senses, and our character; math and science, our powers of observation and interpretation; philosophy, our critical and questioning powers, our dialectical mind; and theology, our contemplative essence.

Imagine if Peter and Paul had had to go to college before attending seminary with their Lord. Jesus would be dead and they’d be rising seniors.

Or maybe, just maybe, word, sacrament, and prayer work independently of philosophy and literature. Nothing wrong with education and in Protestant circles, literacy was pretty important for participating in the worship service — hymn singing and all. But education will not save us. If we know that in politics, why not (Christian) religion?

The Berny Option

Human flourishing Bernard of Cluny style:

Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,
Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.

They stand, those halls of Zion, all jubilant with song,
And bright with many an angel, and all the martyr throng;
The Prince is ever in them, the daylight is serene.
The pastures of the blessèd are decked in glorious sheen.

There is the throne of David, and there, from care released,
The shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast;
And they, who with their Leader, have conquered in the fight,
Forever and forever are clad in robes of white.

O sweet and blessèd country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessèd country, that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father, and Spirit, ever blessed.

Brief life is here our portion, brief sorrow, short lived care;
The life that knows no ending, the tearless life, is there.
O happy retribution! Short toil, eternal rest;
For mortals and for sinners, a mansion with the blest.

That we should look, poor wanderers, to have our home on high!
That worms should seek for dwellings beyond the starry sky!
And now we fight the battle, but then shall wear the crown
Of full and everlasting, and passionless renown.

And how we watch and struggle, and now we live in hope,
And Zion in her anguish with Babylon must cope;
But he whom now we trust in shall then be seen and known,
And they that know and see Him shall have Him for their own.

For thee, O dear, dear country, mine eyes their vigils keep;
For very love, beholding, thy happy name, they weep:
The mention of thy glory is unction to the breast,
And medicine in sickness, and love, and life, and rest.

O one, O only mansion! O paradise of joy!
Where tears are ever banished, and smiles have no alloy;
The cross is all thy splendor, the Crucified thy praise,
His laud and benediction thy ransomed people raise.

Jerusalem the glorious! Glory of the elect!
O dear and future vision that eager hearts expect!
Even now by faith I see thee, even here thy walls discern;
To thee my thoughts are kindled, and strive, and pant, and yearn.
(Jerusalem the Golden, 1146)

Did Humans Flourish Before Modernity?

I hear more doom and gloom assessments that trace our cultural degradation to either to the overreach of the federal government or the egotistical bombast of Donald Trump. Many of these critiques seem to assume modernity (a term that includes everything from pluralism and democracy to capitalism and technology) has produced a set an unprecedented state of affairs that provide no check on human wickedness and offer no protection for the virtuous from the vicious. Today’s roundup:

Too much gubmint:

We must not mistake the sincere agony and lonely battles of the individuals we pastor as they seek to pursue godliness with the political culture that now reigns supreme. The latter seeks nothing less than total and thoroughgoing conformity to its amorality as a price for membership of civil society, no exceptions allowed. We cannot be sentimental about the ideology even as we must have compassion with those who fight their temptations every day. We must also be aware of how fast the law could be changing. In a week when a CNN poll indicated a majority of Americans opposed to the North Carolina ‘bathroom bill,’ we cannot assume that the plausibility framework for legal decisions will be remotely sympathetic to what – to quote Tony Esolen on the same point for the second time this week – ‘everybody believed the day before yesterday.’

Too much Trump:

But previous election cycles gave Catholic voters a prudential choice between candidates who embodied at least some of the major themes of the social doctrine. What is the thoughtful Catholic voter to do when neither of the presidential candidates is even minimally committed to human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity, as the social doctrine understands those concepts? When one party has elevated lifestyle libertinism to the first of constitutional principles (and is prepared to kill unborn children, jettison free speech, and traduce religious freedom in service to hedonism), while the other is prepared to nominate a fantasist who spun grotesque fairy tales about an alleged connection between an opponent’s family and Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he closed the deal?

That will be a question to ponder carefully in the next six months. The immediate take-away that the American democratic experiment is in deep trouble—and that trouble has something to do with moral judgment.

The perfect storm of Trump and Target:

We are living in a new country. There’s a completely implausible op-ed piece on Ethika Politika today, blaming the Benedict Option for giving us Trump. The idea is that when orthodox Christians vacate the public square, people like Trump triumph. But there’s no evidence that American Christians have by and large vacated the public square. Most churchgoing Christians who are Republican voted for other candidates in the primaries; Trump’s victory showed how little power religious and social conservatives have now. No, most Christians have not left the public square; the public square has left them, so to speak.

That is, Trump is part of what it means to be in a post-Christian nation (and so, by the way, is Hillary, with the platform she’s running on). It is simply an illusion that traditional Christians are a silent majority in this country, and that if we only wake up, we can put matters aright.

So why is it that God was so upset with either humanity or his own people that well before the rise of telephones and open primaries he sent down massive punishments against sin and disobedience? Think of the generation that did not survive the flood:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7 ESV)

Or what about Jeremiah’s prophecy against Judah?

Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’ (Jeremiah 19:4-9 ESV)


Shouldn’t Christians who are supposed to be Bible readers act like they’ve seen a wicked world before? Such a recognition doesn’t mean doing nothing. But it should mean not being more outraged than God that humans are fallen.

Human Flourishing is Flabby

Here’s another reason for thinking that the language of human flourishing (HF) is a cliche on the order of w-w:

“If you care about the flourishing of persons, especially the vulnerable in community, you will care about freedom of religion,” claimed Crouch. He continued to explain why this is so, because religion and the practice thereof, is “one of the deepest forms of human flourishing.” Religion is distinctive to humans, no animals nor all of nature practice religion or seek to find answers about life and God. All humans across history past and present seek to understand life and their situation in it. Further, all humans search for meaning and attempt to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves, constantly searching for significance and fulfillment. Inevitably, we all seek religion and devote worship, even the Atheist, though denying God’s existence, forms a set of beliefs to understand reality and worships something or someone (quite possibly themselves).

Therefore, Crouch explains “being denied religious freedom, being prevented from acting out your deepest commitments in public, is one of the deepest denials of human flourishing.” The test then to know if religious freedom and therefore the common good is being protected, “Is how it protects religious minorities,” claims Crouch.

What does this view of HF say to someone who thinks that blasphemy and idolatry are part of destructive living (DL)? But if you give people freedom to practice any religion, you also permit blasphemy and idolatry. Maybe the resolution is to say that in the interest of genuine devotion to God we also need to allow DL so that government doesn’t become tyrannical. But let’s not kid ourselves that freedom leads to HF. It has costs and benefits that require not chanting “winning” like Charlie Sheen but sobriety and moderation.

Crouch’s view of HF also seems to follow the pack in regarding as impossible or disloyal any effort to leave behind one’s “deepest” commitments when entering public life. But again, it’s a pretty, pretty, pretty good view of public life to think that everyone bringing their deepest commitments to the table will result in HF for everyone. Wasn’t the reason for leaving behind one’s deepest commitments when serving in public life that one’s deepest commitments might be at odds with the common good? After all, if a Calvinist brought his deepest commitments to a policy proposal for building a Roman Catholic parochial school next to First Presbyterian Church, wouldn’t his deepest commitments prompt him to vote no? Where’s your HF now?

After fifty years of culture wars shouting matches, people are still so naive to think that uplifting thoughts will prevail over contested points of view?

Does the L in TULIP Stand for Living in Denial?

A while back Bill Smith, Presbyterian in exile, made this observation about the ongoing debates in Reformed circles over antinomianism and sanctification:

I think I understand the problem the “obedience boys” have with the “grace boys.” It is that the “grace boys” can seem to teach grace in such a way as to make people indifferent to sin: “Sin is not such a big deal. It happens. No need to get all worked up about it. Just accept that you are a sinner and that God loves you no matter what. Bask in the knowledge you are a child of God.” I get the problem the “obedience boys” have with the “grace boys.” As far as taking exception with that portrayal of the life of grace goes, I agree.

What I don’t think the “obedience boys” get is how normal sin is. Perhaps they really do not know this reality in terms of their own experience. It could be that for them there is a regeneration-created night and day before and after story. Or, it may mean that there has been a steady upward trajectory to their sanctification without harrowing nosedives into sin or wearying discouragements of slow or no progress. Or, it may be that they do not know themselves very well. Or, it may be that their theological understanding of regeneration and conversion does not allow them to acknowledge that believers can have messy lives – chronic struggles and frequent defeats. That believers can by their messy lives inflict great damage and hurt on other believers and can be badly damaged and hurt by the messy lives of other believers. That the church is a messy place where messy lives are intertwined with and sometimes disillusioned by other messy lives.

Smith recommends that SNAFU makes more sense of how Christians should understand the presence of sin in this world (which would also apply to the neo-Calvinists and Roman Catholics prone to talk about “human flourishing“):

SNAFU – situation normal, all messed up. A National Guard radioman may have invented the term just before World War II, but it became standard, if unofficial, military jargon during the War. It was an apt description of reality as soldiers and marines experienced it. Supplies and equipment did not get where they were needed when they were needed. Battle plans went awry. Stupid orders were issued. Men found themselves in desperate situations. Usually the “human element” was in part or whole responsible. Military men came to expect mess-ups as normal.

A further indication of how few “conservative” Christians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) are willing to apply the category of SNAFU not only to persons but also to the United States, is to consider the degree to American exceptionalism resonates with self-professing believers. Defining American exceptionalism is tricky, but it generally involves a belief that the United States is singularly blessed by God, has accomplished untold good in the history of the world, and even if it has declined the nation was truly great because of its divine sanctions and virtuous performance.

It would be one thing, say through the extra-confessional idea of definitive sanctification, to argue that the individual Christian has broken definitively with sin and so now lives a life that should not be characterized by SNAFU. But to view a nation as on balance wholesome or even as an exceptional force for goodness, truth, and beauty is downright inconceivable given what we know about human depravity (think Woodrow Wilson) or about human politics (think The Wire or Homeland).

To avoid the dark thoughts that follow from Total Depravity is truly gullible. Non-believers tend to think that Christians are remarkably prone to believe all sorts of nonsense. A pronounced understanding of human wickedness should function as a hedge on such gullibility. If it does not, it explains the appeal of the “obedience boys” and the Salem Radio Network.