I really wanted to close out this book study before I went on vacation last week, but alas, I couldn’t get it together in time. So after a little delay, here’s the last post in my book study of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God! Click HERE to see all the other posts in this study.
Chapter Summary – Epilogue
Keller uses the epilogue to recount a few anecdotes from a book called Shantung Compound about the experiences of Langdon Gilkey, an upper class, highly educated man who was imprisoned at a Japanese internment camp from 1943-1945 after the Japanese overtook the region in China where Gilkey had been teaching English at a local university.
Gilkey enters the camp a confidently secular humanist. He believed that humanity was basically good and rational at its core, and that religion was just a matter of personal taste, irrelevant to maintaining virtues such as justice, peace, and equality.
At first, his worldview confirmed. The prisoners organize themselves into committees, give each other jobs, and find creative and ingenious ways to make life more bearable and efficient despite the scarcities of food, sanitation, and personal space. This supports Gilkey’s view that humans have in them an unlimited capacity to progress and create positive community in the midst of harsh circumstances, and they don’t need any sort of religious belief to do it.
But it isn’t long before things start to break down. People begin stealing food, breaking rules that were supposed to maintain order just so they can have a slight edge over everyone else, and they become less and less willing to share or sacrifice for others. Gilkey recounts an incident where it was discovered that there were two identical sized rooms, but nine men were in one and eleven in the other. The perfectly logical and equitable solution would be to move one of the men in the room of eleven to the room of nine so that ten men could be in each room, sharing equal space. But Gilkey’s attempts to convince the room of nine to accept an additional person fail completely and they refuse to even out the rooms.
Gilkey realizes through this and other situations that when pressed to its limits, humanity is not revealed to be basically good and rational, but selfish and supremely self-interested. This self interest “‘seemed almost omnipotent next to the weak claims of logic and fair play.’” (251)
In the face of these realities, Gilkey comes to believe that only belief in the Christian God can free humanity from this continual bent of human nature to put ourselves first at the expense of others. He says, “‘if men’s ultimate loyalty is centered in themselves, then the effect of their lives on others around them will be destructive of that community on which we all depend. Only in God is there an ultimate loyalty that does not breed injustice and cruelty, and a meaning from which nothing on heaven and earth can separate us.’” (253)
Gilkey sees the power of God-empowered and Jesus-exemplifying self sacrifice in the person of Eric Liddell, who was imprisoned at the same camp and later died there as well. Part of Liddell’s story has been made famous by the movie about his Olympic running career, Chariots of Fire. Here was a man who was in the same circumstances as everyone else, yet he was “overflowing with humor, love of life, sacrificial kindness for others, and inward peace.” (253)
Gilkey observed that Liddell’s example was different even from the way other “religious” people in the camp lived, for they were just as selfish as anyone else, proving that religion by itself just gives people different terms to justify the same selfishness. So Keller closes the epilogue with this quote from Gilkey, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr:
“‘Religion is not the place where the problem of man’s egotism is automatically solved. Rather, it is there that the ultimate battle between human pride and God’s grace takes place. Insofar as human pride may win the battle, religion can and does become one of the instruments of human sin. But insofar as there the self does meet God and so can surrender to something beyond its own self-interest, religion may provide the one possibility for a much needed and very rare release from our common self-concern.’” (254)
End of the book, I made it! This study ended up being a more challenging exercise than I was anticipating, but it’s been such a great journey. I truly enjoyed the book and I found blogging through each chapter to be really helpful, both in slowing down to read and process everything thoroughly, and in stretching my writing and thinking muscles. Composing my little scattershot weekly posts will seem like a breeze now!
So if nothing else, this was a very beneficial exercise for me, but hopefully in some small way it was beneficial to some of you reading as well. Thank you for following along! I’d imagine it wasn’t the easiest or most interesting series of posts to follow, especially if you haven’t read the book to fill in the gaps I left. But I figure if God used these posts to plant even one seed, to give even one person a slightly more accurate picture of Him or of biblical Christianity, or to provide even one line of thought that will be useful to a believer conversing with someone in the future, then it was all worth the effort!
As to the epilogue itself, I thought it was a fitting close to the book. Keller said at the beginning of Making Sense of God that we all come to our beliefs through a combination of factors, both rational and emotional, intellectual and experiential. So while he spent the majority of this work focusing on the intellectual and rational case for religious belief and Christianity, I appreciated that he rounded things out with real world examples of what these concepts look like lived out, sprinkling these moments throughout the book and closing with the Gilkey and Liddell anecdotes. Because it’s one thing thing to talk about the resources that Christianity gives a person to lead a life of love and grace and sacrifice, it’s another to see that lived out.
And while the intellectual questions are deeply important and influential in a person’s journey toward or away from faith, perhaps the witness of a life lived consistently and under extreme circumstances that is so different, so grace-filled, so other-worldly, (like that of Eric Liddell) is what will always be the most intriguing and attractive to people.
As for the book as a whole, I thought it was great! I think it fulfills the dual purposes of being “an invitation to the skeptical” as well as a tool for Christians to help them think through and articulate what Christianity is to a Western culture that is increasingly hostile to religion in general. It’s far from comprehensive in that it doesn’t include much of a comparison between Christianity and other religions, and it narrows in on challenging the secular, humanistic worldview, but I liked that focused approach.
I wouldn’t hesitate to pass Making Sense of God on to someone interested in these issues, but I think it would be best consumed with a side of ongoing conversation, dialoguing about what both of you believe, addressing questions, and processing it together to get the most beneficial reading of the book. And again, as Keller reiterated throughout, none of the arguments he outlined can 100% prove the existence of God or the validity of Christianity, but the point is this is an excellent conversation starter with some great food for thought.
Again, thanks for journeying with me in this study!
- Any general comments or questions about anything in this book study? I’d love to hear any thoughts you had/have about the whole thing! Leave a comment or contact me!