“The Problem of Morals” – Making Sense of God Study Ch. 9


Over the next two chapters, Tim Keller tackles the issue of morality, that general sense we have for what is “right and wrong.” In this week’s chapter, Keller discusses the problems posed for secular thinkers who think that there is no such thing as absolute morality, that our ethics are mere social constructs, or that we can have a sense of morality apart from God. In the next chapter, Keller will talk about the problems morals pose for religious people, who tend to use their morals to abuse or exclude others. You can click HERE for a an index of all my posts to date in this Making Sense of God study.


  • Keller comes to the issue of morals – is there a universal standard for what is “right and wrong” and where might that come from? As in previous chapters, he lays out the secular reasoning concerning morality and then provides counterarguments.
  • Morality is relative, until it isn’t – Many people will say there is no such thing as a universal standard of morality or ethics. Yet in the same breath, those same people will vehemently insist that, for instance, racial equality or gender equality are universal standards that should be upheld for everyone regardless of place or culture. Keller isn’t arguing against racial and gender equality, his point is simply that the structure of such an argument is incoherent and contradictory. “If all morality is person specific or socially constructed, how can any statement of right and wrong be true for all?” (180)
  • Where did morals come from? Secular thinkers often have two answers for this:
    • Evolutionary roots: Acting morally toward others created higher survival rates for our ancestors so that’s why we do that today. But Keller and other sociologists point out that it’s hard to imagine that noble and moral acts like self-sacrifice or service for someone “outside your family, tribe, or race could have been a trait that led to greater rates of survival.” (182) This theory also does not explain why we would have any moral feelings in the first place. (182)
    • Morality is archaic: We used to have universal morals, but now we’re culturally enlightened and realize that morals are arbitrary and meaningless. But few people truly believe this, especially in the face of unquestionable evil such as the Holocaust. (182-183)
  • Keller explains that our current secular understanding of morals stems from 18th Century Enlightenment ideas. Previously, the point of ethics was to describe humanity’s “telos” – answering the questions “What are we for?” and “What is our purpose?” But Enlightenment thinkers sought to create a worldview based completely in reason and science, not ancient tradition or divine revelation, and thus jettisoned such unquantifiable questions about purpose. (185)
  • This modern rejection of telos matters because “all judgments that something or someone is good or bad do so based on an awareness of purpose.” (186) For instance, if a watch tells time correctly but when thrown can’t hit a dart board accurately, you would still know it’s a “good” watch because it’s purpose is to tell time and not hit a dart board. “How, then, can we tell if a human being is good or bad? Only if we know our purpose, what human life is for…If, as in the secular view, we have not been made for a purpose, then it is futile to even try to talk about moral good and evil.” (186-187)
  • There are two ways secular thinkers try to move past these difficulties:
    • Maybe there really is no such thing as good and evil, and who cares? But if everyone truly believed this, how could society function with any sort of order or justice? Complete anarchy all the time hardly makes for human flourishment.
    • Morality just is. I see a tree and I know it’s there. I see good and evil and it doesn’t prove there’s a God, it’s just there. Many who hold this view (among them legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin) then conclude that since good and evil are just “brute facts,” we have a general responsibility to live well and morally. But Keller asks, responsibility to whom? “If there is no one with the right and authority to demand we live in a certain way, then how can there be moral obligation?” (189) Keller argues that with a tree we are sensing an object, but with the “obligation to do good and not evil, [we are] sensing a relationship.” (190) In the Christian view then, moral intuition points us to a relationship and responsibility to our Maker.
  • Keller will continue his discussion of morality in the next chapter by presenting the other side of the coin, the problem of how morality is often wielded to abuse and exclude others.


Keller concludes this chapter by saying he has basically outlined the “moral argument for the existence of God,” – how our sense of morality points us to a divine standard of right or wrong, not socially constructed or subjective from person to person.

But he is careful to say in the next sentence, “Is this an inescapable, watertight proof of God’s existence? No, it is not.” (190)

In a book such as this that spends a lot of time refuting secular arguments and arguing for the Christian view, I think it’s important for Keller (and I) to make this point. Nothing in this book gives us completely airtight reasoning that God exists, and it won’t convince anyone who wants to reject Christianity or the existence of God no matter what.

I think it’s important for Christians (including myself) to remember this anytime we are engaging in philosophical debate or Christian apologetics. We can become overly-zealous and self righteous as we wield this type of material, scoffing at and belittling those with opposing viewpoints because we see it as an open-and-shut case.

But Christianity teaches that God doesn’t reside in a little box. We don’t truly have the power to change anyone’s mind, and God is not someone who can be perfectly explained. He has simply said, I have left you enough evidences in this world of myself that if you search for me, you will find me.

So Keller’s point (and mine as well) is not to say, “Here’s a 10-point argument for the existence of God and it’s airtight, so don’t question it.” Instead, it’s to present questions around morality and moral obligation and then make a reasoned case that these issues, while not conclusive proof, simply “make much more sense in a world with God and a transcendent realm than in one without them.” (191)

Keller illustrates this process of sifting through the evidence with the example of a scientist. When confronted with evidence that contradicts his or her theory, a good scientist would not utterly reject that evidence saying, “‘I don’t care about the fact – I’m going to hold tight to my theory.’ No, you at least open your mind to the possibility that your theory is wrong and another theory is more true to reality.” (191)

Isn’t that a great picture of how we all should approach the search for truth, be it in the questions of morality, the comparing of religions, or the learning of theology? Not seeking an airtight argument that fears or rejects questioning, but a careful weighing of each idea to say, how does my worldview stack up to this? How do I strive to know the truth, even if it means admitting that I might be wrong or that I don’t understand this as well as I think I do?


  1. If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you? Any questions, comments, or rebuttal on what’s been covered in this post?
  2. Where do you believe morality comes from? Do you believe a universal standard of morality exists?
  3. What do you think of Keller’s assertion that moral obligation points us to a relationship? Is it strange to think that morality may be more than behavioral dos and don’ts and is instead tied to much grander issues of human purpose and relationship with their Creator?

2 thoughts on ““The Problem of Morals” – Making Sense of God Study Ch. 9

  1. Pingback: Making Sense of God Book Study – Post Index | Homeward

  2. Pingback: “Is It Reasonable to Believe in God?” – Making Sense of God Study Ch. 11 | Homeward

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s