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.