Problems with Timothy Keller on the sickness unto death

I just listened to a Public Faith sermon by Timothy Keller – founder of the Redeemer Church in New York – on the “sickness unto death,” that is, the sense of meaninglessness and existential angst we all sometimes feel. He lectures beautifully on the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, and makes the case that it’s about how meaningless life is under the sun – i.e. assuming this life is all there is. When, however, we live to please God, Keller says – when His happiness becomes ours – and obey Him for that reason, and not just out of duty – all the work, pleasure, and wisdom that seems otherwise burdensome and meaningless suddenly becomes a gift. And even meaninglessness itself is a gift that turns you towards God, it seems.

Keller has a soft, conversational style which asks most of the right questions just as the attentive listener might think of them, and a warm, intimate tone of voice. I felt and admired its understated richness. Yet I also felt like the whole lecture was a kind of flat sheet of brass with intricate symbols carved on it, a long sheet along a wall, which however at certain points suddenly dipped asymptotically into the wall, fell into a valley, and recontinued a moment later.

These pauses and dips were little logical elisions. In a 95% logical presentation, there seemed to be slight skims and glides over certain points which might not have been favorable to him.

For example, Keller brings up the idea of Dawkins and the new atheists claiming that one can live a meaningful life here in the moment. He says that’s not true, and maintains that Sartre was right: if life was meaningless before us and meaningless after us (where us might mean the individual, or might mean humanity as a whole), then the part in the middle is also meaningless. We should have the “courage” or “guts” to admit this. But Keller cannot exactly give a reason why this must be so.

He brings up the famous psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, but interprets him in an odd way. Frankl, he says, wrote that some people became immoral in the death camps, and some became apathetic, but that some remained strong. And what distinguished these latter? Keller says they believed in something the death camps couldn’t take away, and calls that God.

But that’s not what Frankl writes. Frankl writes that people who survived the death camp had discovered that there was something in themselves – a power of how to hold themselves, that the death camp could not take away. In other words, Frankl says that these people realized they could choose to keep their dignity and that nothing could break that. He also mentions the importance of a rich fantasy life, and talked about how it was a successful survival strategy to imagine the gorgeous and delicious feasts that were to come upon liberation. So survivors kept heart by imagining hope in the future, whatever it was.

The power to choose dignity no matter the circumstances on the one hand and a rich imaginative life on the other: That’s what I took from Frankl. Neither of these are incompatible with God, but they certainly are not the same as Him, and Keller misrepresented or elided Frankl’s points.

At the very end, too, Keller talks about how to figure out how to please God. And he says Jesus experienced meaninglessness on the cross when he asked why God had forsaken him. And he said that Jesus experienced this for us – he entered our misery. And that when we see this, we realize it was an act of love. True love, Keller says, is putting our happiness into someone else’s happiness, so that their joy is our joy. It’s not doing for others out of expectation or for our own pleasure or benefit, or even out of duty. It’s an identity of your joy with another’s joy. So when we see how Jesus voluntarily put himself in our miserable situations, we realize that was an act of love, because he was willing to endure pain for our happiness. Recognizing Jesus’ act of love, says Keller, will attract us to love Jesus and want to please Him.

To me this story of Jesus does not make a lot of sense. Keller says that a belief in God is a meaning that cannot be taken away by the death camps – that it is “bomb proof.” And yet of course it happened to Jesus. Meaning that it could happen to any of us: so it isn’t bomb proof. And Keller says meaninglessness is also a gift. A gift that could turn us to God. And we should turn to God because… it’s proof against meaninglessness. This makes no sense. Why would God give us a gift the only purpose of which is to remove the gift?

Is meaninglessness meaningful or not? Depends what you do with it, says Keller – but it seems like the love of God that meaninglessness might inspire by looking at Jesus’ example is a real long stretch. Not to mention Job – which could also be mentioned in this connection.

It’s all a little ridiculous. As I say, this last little Jesus bit has, it seems to me, little or no organic connection to the rest of what Keller says. It’s added on clumsily in the last few moments, much like overeager evolutionary psychologists will mention some human phenomenon and then append some evolutionary explanation to it, even though it makes little sense and doesn’t seem to add any real explanatory power.

A Nexus for Existential Seekers

For a long time now, I’ve been toying with the concept of creating an institution dedicated to allowing people to openly explore the great questions of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality: who are we, where do we come from, where are we going, and what’s the point of all this? Let’s call these, for simplicity’s sake, existential questions. The institution would help  people learn and think about existential questions both on their own and in collaboration with others.

This is vague, because the realm of ideas and practice it is meant to delineate is itself vague. Some activities I could envision, however: a physical space for people to meet and talk; a virtual discussion forum or mailing list for people to do the same; a library with books on relevant topics; a website with links to relevant topics; conferences that invite together innovative thinkers on these topics from a wide array of viewpoints, and brings them into conversation with each other; a deliberate attempt to form research groups (perhaps an “existential research institute”) that might actively collaborate on particular questions, and result in papers for publication; a journal to allow the publication of articles and stories on these topics; a podcast to interview relevant thinkers; and maybe a way to facilitate people finding teachers, classes, and other relevant activities. I’ve envisioned it as a kind of hub for a spiritual search.

No institution currently exists to support this kind of unbounded and open-ended inquiry without also requiring a subscription to one dogma or another, if not one religion then atheism, or some sort of mystical or spiritual or New Age doctrine, or even a psychoanalytic or psychological one. Places like Patheos and Beliefnet do host blogs on various religious and spiritual traditions, and provide tools for the comparison of various traditions, but this seems yet a far cry from a truly open space for seekers.

Lately, I’ve been having my doubts about the viability of any such space.


Is it a calm library, an exciting commotion, an intelligent discussion group, a madcap research institute, or something else?

There is a core of inarticulacy to the idea. It’s a space where people can talk about these issues and expect to find others equally interested – even if there are barriers to real communication; those barriers exist everywhere anyhow.

So it’s a place where people can come out of the soundless vacuum and into an airy space where they can finally give voice to what they’ve been trying to say, and find comrades, and engage with the deepest questions.

But how would this space look and function? How can someone from a Christian tradition talk with someone from a Hindu tradition or an atheist tradition about random “great questions” – what is really the common ground?

I’m having a crisis of faith, the first might say, or I don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Can the others help him? Wouldn’t he be better off turning to members of his own denomination?

And if random people come in with a random smattering of purposes, wouldn’t any discussion be haphazard and low quality? People want to speak, but speaking may not be as simple a task as getting together and vocalizing. Unprepared speaking about such subtle topics might lead to seriously disappointing results.

Take a young seeker who wonders: does God exist? What is the purpose of life? Why was something created rather than nothing? Do we have free will?

Let’s say he’s disappointed or confused by the answers he’s gotten to those questions from his family, and now he’s wandering in search of answers.

He might go into the bookstore and look at self-help and New Age books. He might find  flyers at a local YMCA and attend sessions of some random discussion group focused on the texts of Gurdjieff or another mystic. He might search out meetups for various spiritual groups, and find largely tarot and New Age stuff or spiritualism and channeling, or philosophy reading groups tackling the work of Wittgenstein or Zizek.

Perhaps he looks at academic philosophy, with linguistic dissections like a bottomless stack of crossed swords. All this to him seems a jumbled heap from which it is nearly impossible to extract a  satisfying education.

And from this heap he gathers various impressions, thinks, perhaps joins a group or two, gets more confused, and probably finds no one and nothing to help him sort out what is useful from what is not useful, and no one trustworthy to speak about these things with — unless he is entranced by a charismatic leader or two, a typically even less desirable situation.

What would he wish for, or whether he wished for it or not, what would benefit him most? A true teacher? A space where he could express himself freely?

He would not be well-served by talking to other people just as ignorant as himself – would he? Perhaps in part he would, if only to feel that in his questions he is not alone. He would not be well-served by falling into a logical well with the analytic philosophers, or the doctrinal disputes of particular religions – would he? Or perhaps being acquainted with them all would be useful, so he could better choose between them, or reject them all, or take certain elements he found true.

I could imagine a series of discussion forums, each one populated by advocates of its particular approach to the existential problems. A seeker could wander between them, a buyer at a kind of spiritual bazaar.

There would be an online library, full of key links to seminal books and articles. There could be a subject-specific set of resource pages. Things could be split up not only by tradition and sub-tradition, or philosophy or philosopher, but also by issue.

Yet any such library would have to be so oceanic in size and so necessarily superficial that it would be barely better than Google or Wikipedia.

Maybe some pattern has to be stamped on the chaos. Maybe various strong standpoints have to be introduced as in the classroom experience. Imagine a convocation of teachers, each one with their own point of view. Maybe in a class, or maybe in something like a Ted conference. Each one presents their ideas, and so the seeker gets a welter of opinions from ideological entrepreneurs, each one attempting to make their point of view as beautiful and relevant as possible. This would filter some potential speakers out, because they would need to be willing to say their piece in a setting which featured active competition.

Yet can this kind of short-form philosophy marketplace do justice to the traditions it represents? There is also the point that the answers to great questions are more than intellectual, verbal ideas. What about community, aesthetics, and culture? These things matter too.

There are too many opinions and systems, and one seems to be left with the unpalatable choice of simply adding one more opinion to the set, or to attempt to synthesize all the other opinions – itself a specialized form of adding an opinion, or to try to catalog and somehow index all the opinions, which is what I’ve been talking about so far.

The question is how best to help that young seeker?


No indexing, no easy access to lists of resources will much help. It merely foments the confusion.

Would links to people – other students, would-be teachers – help?

What could our young man possibly say to them, or possibly hear in return, and what would it mean for him to be helped?

I don’t know how much merely exchanging low level conversations filled with confused and scattered speculation would help, and that’s the kind of discussion students generate.

Teachers might bring more answers, but these would mostly be answers within various traditions. Is that what the aspirant is really looking for? That might be what he is given – but is that what will really help him? And the question recurs: help him do what?

Choose a set of beliefs? Satisfy his curiosity? The truth is so ambiguous and shifting that there is no simple way to do either of those things, nor could there be a “Consumer Reports” for competing answers to the great questions.

The key and the crux of the existential quest is a lifelong continual search for the correct phrasing of the Question. And the question is how to facilitate that. There are enough books, articles, and other resources out there; another index of them does not really help. However, finding other people who are equally interested in the search might be useful. They could act as sounding boards, discussion partners, and brainstorming comrades who could help the seeker think past problems. For any particular major tradition, however, forums already exist to facilitate these conversations.

And one great teacher with whom one has the good fortune to spend deep, extended time is worth a thousand ignorant fellow seekers as far as learning goes. I had a fabulous teacher, and these are very rare. But I also had time with him, and I had the temperament and the desire to keep asking him question after question — and he had the patience to listen — for a long, long time.

The seeker is confused, but there is no cookie-cutter way to help him find his path. He longs to talk to someone useful. Yet other seekers are just as confused. He can go to  religion- or atheist-specific discussion forums, where he will find other more or less confused seekers. Or he can look for a teacher. While great teachers are helpful, they are too diverse to be easily collected under one umbrella. Perhaps one could set up a directory of teachers, allow people to include reviews, create a directory of their articles. Individual rating sites of spiritual teachers already exist, though they are radically incomplete.

There’s no useful way of comparing teachers without a very strong viewpoint of your own as to what the “Search” is all about and where it leads. Otherwise, what are you going to say about a teacher; how can any review be just? “This guy is charismatic. He’s also a crock.” What does that mean, and what is it based on? Some belief of his that doesn’t check out? How can you evaluate a belief in isolation from the system of which it’s a part?

The biggest contribution any particular teacher could make would be to write his own opinions down in plain English, adding to the compilation of opinions already in existence.

The dream of some great gathering space to help seekers may be stillborn.


What about establishing a way for more “advanced” seekers and theorists to discuss things with each other and to push the boundaries of the investigation of the mind and soul forward? Would it not be productive for religious leaders, atheist thinkers, psychoanalysts, theologians, philosophers, writers, priests, monks, artists, and others to be able to talk to each other about the cutting edge of inquiry into the depths of the psyche and the horizons of life’s meanings?

The question here is whether there’s sufficient common ground such that there could be such a thing as existential collaboration. Between even, for example, psychoanalysts of different schools such common ground is elusive; and most psychoanalytic texts, so far as I can tell, largely talk past each other. The relationships in psychoanalytic institutes are essentially linear, from analyst to analysand – they are a kind of intimate teacher-disciple relationship.

I have yet to have a truly productive discussion about my ideas with even those people whose intellectual prowess and spiritual depth I respect the most. Real communication proves incredibly elusive; speech always seems to end up, especially on these topics, two ships passing in the night. Perhaps, at best, thought-seeds may be planted that blossom into concepts at a later date.

In order to discuss subtle spiritual ideas properly, they have to be thoughtfully written out. Then a discussant would have to peruse that piece with arduous care, reflect on it long and well, and then write an equally thoughtful response. This is exquisitely rare. Everyone is too stuck in their own world to pay true attention to others’ ideas.

But wait: doesn’t this happen in academia? Doesn’t this happen with philosophy papers or theology papers, that sort of thing?

Sometimes. Of course, the people writing the papers usually work in the same subfield of the subject, and therefore share a lot of assumptions. You don’t usually have an anthropologist contributing to a discussion among trade economists, though it may happen occasionally. The fields are too different. But where there is a cogent bounded discussion entity, yes, communication may just barely be possible.

Even in academia, scholars rarely respond directly to each other; they might at best cite one another, often for propositions which the cited author doesn’t really care about and might even disagree with. Each author is going off in her own vein – with the exception, again, that student and teacher might alone have a superlative link.

So an index of spiritual resources: not useful because it’s too broad.

An index of spiritual teachers: not useful because no rating system could actually compare them without a strong a priori view of what’s important in the spiritual quest.

A way to connect seekers with other seekers: that’s the blind leading the blind; an appealing thought, but not useful in practice.

A way to allow “advanced” philosophers, psychologists, writers, and artists to connect with each other on spiritual topics: their work speaks for themselves, and direct communication may be nearly impossible due to an absence of shared assumptions and vocabulary.

Perhaps the idea of an existential nexus is hopeless, which may be exactly why it does not exist.

To become a teacher of sorts, to put opinions out there in plain English – that alone may be truly useful, and that may be exactly why it so often happens.

What we want and what we should

Desire is the fundamental force behind all human actions. We want all sorts of things: companionship, respect, achievement, connection, money, power, pleasure, and so on. And yet, strangely enough, we also very strongly desire — but is desire the right word? — to do what we should do. We’re looking for some kind of moral indicator, some barometric reading that shows we’re reaching towards something more than just our temporary, moment-to-moment impulses. What exactly are we reaching towards? What’s the relationship of the “want” to the “should”? Are they even the same species of mental phenomenon?

Since the ancient Greeks people have known about knowing they “should” do something but not wanting to do it in the moment, and so not doing it. The Greeks called it “akrasia,” meaning weakness of the will. Perhaps people wanted to do something before, or wanted to have done it, but they don’t actually want to do it in the moment when they are required to do it, and so they don’t. Classic example: wanting to run in the morning before you go to bed at night. In the morning, not wanting to run — and not running. And yet knowing all the benefits of running.

But maybe whatever benefits you’d get are easily trumped by the harms of ignoring your desires and fighting yourself. And the benefits of paying keen attention to and following your desires might be a should whose benefits easily exceed the benefits of forcing yourself to run. Perhaps the idea of getting yourself to run itself comes from some kind of outside idea, and your desire not to run actually represents your more natural self, the self that, if given expression, would lead you to an even better path to fitness. Desire may be the expression of an inner intelligence trying to communicate.

And all of this applies just as much to things you shouldn’t do as to those you should.

So perhaps the should that seems beneficial isn’t. Perhaps the desire that seems indulgent points to the real should. Perhaps the real should points to being in touch with our true desires. But what are they? Confusion remains. Appearances can be deceptive, and these intertwined concepts are but separated segments of the same snake’s body.

Cogitation and Indecision

Reverie. Wisdom. The former’s the future, the latter’s the past, or so it seems – in style, rather than substance.

In the future maybe I will let myself dream a lot more, and write down what I dream.

But my past work has been more didactically concerned with wisdom, and that’s important, and I’d like to honor it somehow, and share whatever little I’ve learned with others.

I don’t know where to go exactly, and I also don’t know how to determine where I should go next. I feel blank, jaw hanging, sort of staring into space.

I feel the weight of my body and my mind seems tethered to that potato, that lump, unable and unclear on where it should aim, like a dog tied to a post, running, coming back, running again, never going very far, getting tangled up nevertheless, traveling in strange ellipses or semi-circles.

My cup overfloweth: and the excess I must share in joy. Must this be the attitude for successful art?

I would like to share what I’ve learned and I would like to start a conversation. I simply have no idea how to do those things. I also don’t quite know what I’ve learned, as what I’ve learned could itself be perceived from different angles.

What should be driving this decision? My desire. I’m trying to figure out exactly what, if anything, I desire to write on wisdom or whatever.

And so I present to myself different scenarios, in words perhaps accompanied by an image or two or some tones (both of these either generated by the words or perhaps coming concurrently with them to my mind), and sense my own reaction of approval, indifference, withdrawal, etc.

Part of me, I think, wants to post a blog a lot more, because it doesn’t have all the baggage of a book attached to it, and it’s so damn immediate. I could help start a conversation with a blog, perhaps, if only I knew how to get others – the right others – to read it.

Perhaps I ought to simply start sharing what I know in chunks on there. Start sharing my indecision – my agony of indecision.

But putting what I’ve just written up there? Seems embarrassing. And yet perhaps the very embarrassment is interesting.