Catechesis for a Secular Age
Catechesis for a Secular Age

Catechesis for a Secular Age

What if the common good just might depend on conversions?

Appears in Fall 2017

As we commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, perhaps it's fitting that our conversation with twenty-first-century pastor and author Tim Keller returned to themes that were central for the Reformers: the priesthood of all believers and the importance of catechesis. In this conversation with James Smith (read the first part of their conversation online here), Keller highlights the need to contextualize faith formation, attentive to the rival stories that vie for our mind and imagination—and that seep into us often unawares. But this emphasis on catechesis and formation isn't protectionist, a merely defensive strategy for "keeping our own." To the contrary, Keller goes on to emphasize the importance of evangelism, and even revival, for the church's mission today.
-The Editors

JAMES K.A. SMITH: We were talking about what you see as some of the biggest needs of the church today— aspects that deserve intentional reform and hope for renewal. We talked about the importance of pastoral care. But there was a second area of concern you wanted to discuss. What is it?

All those narratives have just come right in through songs and through sitcoms, and our training didn’t even make them notice that there was anything wrong with those.

TIM KELLER: I've been getting convicted that if you read the various catechisms ... and here I have to admit that the Heidelberg—

JS: —warms your heart? [laughter]

TK: Oh, it does. But you know Presbyterians are sick and tired of the Heidelberg people saying how much more warm and personal their catechism is than ours [laughter]. But with the Westminster Catechism, there is a different personality there.

JS: Yeah. On the other hand, we have the Canons of Dort, so . . .

TK: And they are cannons. You should really rename them the artillery of Dort [laughter].

Now catechisms are never just simply "what the bible teaches"; they have always been produced over against errors the catechists were trying to counter. For our catechisms, "the world" was a medieval Catholic one. So they were reading the Bible, but they weren't just saying in the abstract, here's the stuff the Bible says. They were asking questions to counter what their people might hear out there in the world. Now today, it is not medieval Catholicism we are countering. It's the narrative of secularism.

So my best way of doing this—I got some of this from reading Charles Taylor—is to intentionally catechize for our secular age. One feature to counter would be the buffered self, which comes down to this: You have to be true to yourself, and nobody can tell you who you are, and you have to look inside yourself and not base your understanding or identity on anything outside but on only what's true to you. And the buffered self is tied up with exclusive humanism—which basically means, in the end, you've got to be happy, and that happiness is defined as material happiness. So ultimately, you can't put yourself in a position where you're not doing what makes you most happy. It would be wrong to sacrifice your happiest life just to serve somebody.

Another facet of secularism that catechesis has to counter is an idolatry of reason and rationality that basically promises science and technology will solve our problems. Just yesterday the New York Times magazine called and asked me: Why can't we solve online harassment? The writer said we're so technologically advanced, you know, we've got underwater drones and all that, why can't we solve this? In other words, she seemed to think that the problem of online harassment was a technological problem and not a problem of the human heart.

In the face of this, we need to think about rewriting the catechism for a secular age. By the way, if it's a Protestant catechism, of course it's going to be counterpoint to a lot of Roman Catholic teaching in a lot of places. But I feel like our catechisms are intended to guarantee that the learners will not be Catholic. Great, fine, because I'm a Protestant. But the problem today isn't Roman Catholicism; it's these other rival narratives.

JS: Secularism is the water we swim in.

TK: Right. So the catechism doesn't actually inoculate people. You get kids who are growing up in our churches, and maybe they're catechized, and maybe they go to youth group, and then they'll suddenly say, "Well you know, if two people love each other, I don't know what's wrong with that. Why can't they just have sex?" You say, "Oh the Bible says. . . ." Okay, here my question is, what happened? Here's what happened: The narratives that you've got to be true to yourself and that nobody has the right to tell anybody else what to do and that you've got to find out what makes you happy—all those narratives have just come right in through songs and through sitcoms, and our training didn't even make them notice that there was anything wrong with those.

I've been coming to the conclusion that we have to redo catechesis. You've been great about the heart stuff; you're right about the liturgy. But there is a head side, and they have to meet the preaching in catechism.

JS: Absolutely, they have to; there's a reflective feedback loop between the two of them. Is this what the New City Catechism is about?

TK: Actually it wasn't; but Sam Seamus and I decided that catechesis wasn't happening in our circles. So we felt like we needed a lower step. Actually both the Heidelberg and even the Westminster Shorter Catechism are just set too high for church. It's long. So what we said was, let's have a lower step that might help them graduate. Actually, there's not a word in the New City Catechism that isn't ripped out of Calvin's Junior Catechism, Heidelberg, Westminster Short, and Westminster Large. It's nothing but a distillation. And at the time, the idea of actually reformulating a catechism to counter the secular narrative was beyond what we could do.

JS: That is an interesting endeavour, to come up with a more contextualized catechesis.

God doesn’ t send his fire down into the mud puddle. You can build the altar or not. So we did know enough to sort of build the altar.

TK: Yeah. It might not even look exactly the same. But it would still be catechesis.

JS: Sure. Then that would also go a long way toward priming people to know how and why the gospel is countercultural.

TK: Yes. I mean, obviously, I have such a love for those catechisms that I would never, ever want to put them in the dustbin.

JS: You could imagine this kind of contextual catechesis as almost the penumbra or the porch that leads you on to those historic catechisms, especially given how, like you said, they are almost so high up on the shelf from where people are in terms of biblical and theological literacy that you need some kind of stepladder up to them.

TK: If you go back, you'll see a lot of catechisms like Heidelberg and Westminster were multipurpose. They were confessions for the church as well as instructive tools. I met Harry Conn some years ago when I was at Westminster Seminary. He used to talk about the fact that there are actually a number of catechisms that he thought had an apologetic aspect. (That's why they were basically saying why you should be Protestant and not Catholic.) They also had an instructional aspect. And they had a confessional aspect, in the sense that we use them to test our ministers and that sort of thing. He says those catechisms that do all three are very hard to create.

If we were to create one like that now, it would take an awfully long time. He says the best thing to do is write one that's just instructional and maybe with that apologetic style, but we shouldn't try to create one that is for testing orthodoxy.

JS: The catechism you're describing would almost have an unmasking function about it. Like—see what you've "caught" through immersion in the time and place you inhabit. It would be a way to take your own temperature.

TK: It would be a little dangerous to do it because you've got to be careful not to be reading into the Bible what you want to see. You might want to start with the narratives: make a list of the postmodern, late modern narratives and then contrast them with the biblical narrative. For example, the other day, I made a list on the buffered self narrative, and I realized that the whole idea of adoption in the New Testament probably counters the identity narrative better than justification.

Another one, I came to realize, is boasting, which shows up all the time. Boasting clearly is a way of asserting confidence in something and therefore getting an identity out of something. So "let not the wise man glory in his wisdom"—which is to boast in his wisdom—"let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches." Those are alternative identities. I'm just saying there probably are five or six ways to counter the identity narrative with biblical truth. Then you can move on to the other ones. Will that eventually become a catechism? Maybe.

JS: Comment readers are sold on the call to invest in the common good. They're sold on public theology. And the church is important to them. That's why so many of them resonate with you. But one of the things that intrigues me is that you are also an unapologetic evangelist.

I think a lot of people who either care about the public common good, whether they talk about that in terms of social justice or cultural transformation— and I'm including a lot of people from my own tribe—are a bit squeamish and maybe even embarrassed by evangelism. There's something you said down at the University of Virginia one time, when we were with James Davison Hunter, that I have not been able to forget. I can't remember what exactly the context was, but you basically said, "Who's to say there won't be a revival?" It was like this would have public significance, as if you were saying, here's our hopes for what society will look like, what social institutions would look like; here's our hopes for repairing the world; so why would we not think that conversions to Christ are relevant to that? Can you talk a bit more about how you see the work of evangelism dovetailing with this interest in public theology?

TK: My own personal experience with revival was when I was in college. I was a pretty new Christian. I was part of a very tiny evangelical fellowship, about ten people, at Bucknell University around 1969 or 1970. I became a Christian I think probably in early 1970. We were part of this small group. But, you know, we felt very small in the battle. But when Nixon and America invaded Cambodia, there was a student strike. It was pretty unprecedented, all across the country. Students refused to go to class but wanted to discuss this. Almost every place I know, including my place, just set up a mic on the square, and people just sat there all day, and anybody who wanted to come up could talk.

JS: A Speaker's Corner.

TK: Well, our small group got radical at a certain point, and we put out a sign on the square. I still remember what it said: "The resurrection of Jesus Christ is intellectually credible and existentially satisfying." We sat at a booth because it was a free-for-;all. This was back when you didn't need permission to put up a booth and pay rent or something like that. We had dozens and dozens of people right there at the quad just come by and talk to us about why Christianity is relevant to you and so on. The following September, 120 or 130 people showed up at our first anniversary meeting. Before that the average attendance had been 15.

But there was no "program" beyond that. So there were all these non-Christians who said, "We want to hear your speakers," so we were very careful with who we had. But then over the next year and then two years—that would have been my junior year and my senior year—probably 80 or 90 kids became Christians. So the following year, we didn't have quite as many people; we had about 100 people coming in. I don't know what happened after that, but I remember it wasn't programmed. It wasn't like, "Here's our ‘strategy.'" We just started the proclamation.

I went to Gordon-Conwell, and my very first semester I took a brand new course by Richard Lovelace called The Dynamics of Spiritual Life. He was an expert in the history of revivals. I was so interested in that course that I took a second course, which was called History of Awakenings. I realized as I was reading these accounts of the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening that I'd actually experienced in a very small situation on a small scale exactly the kind of things that they talked about.

Sleepy Christians kind of woke up and God became real. Non-Christians who thought they were Christians said, "You know, I've never really been a Christian," and said, "I've been converted." Non-Christians were drawn in by the kind of beauty of the community and the willingness of people to talk. Quite a few really hard non-Christians got converted. So it was a combination of those things that Lovelace says happen during a time of awakening. A lot of those happened with us: proclamation, a recovering of the difference between grace and works, knowing what to say to people, a lot of prayer, extraordinary prayer, all those sorts of things. Well, it happened.

Lovelace said he thought that awakenings actually pretty much only happen in Christian societies. Indeed, Charles Taylor marks the Wesleyan revivals as one of the tracks of counter-modernity. Romanticism was another one—another push back against the aridity of the Enlightenment. I get that, but something like that has happened in East Africa, and that is not a Christian culture. Something like that happened for at least a decade or two at the beginning of twentieth century in Korea. It never lasts, and that's kind of a weird thing. It never lasts; you can't bottle it. I know I'm sounding like a revivalist. Unfortunately, in the Reformed world, revivalism and the more ecclesial approaches and the more Schaefferian approaches just never seem to overlap— they don't kiss, they don't hold hands.

That was our experience here in New York at the beginning. Kathy and I would say that at least six months and maybe longer, we had it when we got here. Same thing happened. Partly we were setting things up for it. Doctor Martyn Lloyd-Jones likes to say that God doesn't send his fire down into the mud puddle. You can build the altar or not.

So we did know enough to sort of build the altar. We knew what sort of things he might bless. It's the reason why Redeemer's here. It's because there were at least a couple hundred people who became Christians over about a two-year period. When that was happening, New York was not a place where people moved. We had no church shoppers. This is '89–'91. It was not when evangelicals moved here.

I look back on that and say, "That was actually crucial to our ministry." Do we have a Center for Faith and Work? Have we done Kuyperian stuff? Have we cared about justice? All that stuff to me was invigorated by the revival. It's not an enemy. Weirdly enough, though, it often seems like these things don't go together.

JS: I think they're actually probably unsustainable without each other because what interests me is, even if you're thinking about culture change and transformation—

TK: [whispers] You're getting in touch with your Pentecostal side, Jamie. [laughter]

JS: Maybe. [laughter] I also think it's Jonathan Edwards. In my tradition, for all the right reasons, we emphasize systemic structural transformation. That's important. In the same way, the civil rights movement had to change laws. But on the other hand, I think we've seen all kinds of evidence that you also need to be transforming the agents who inhabit those structures and systems and laws. What disappoints me when people despair about the marginalization of the church is that they've decided that the present is an indicator of the future. But that doesn't seem like a book-of-Acts kind of expectation. It's not book-of-Acts logic.

TK: The reality is that there is some kind of tension. For example, if you push and push and push and push the message that you can serve God just as much in a boardroom or in an art gallery as you do inside the church—if you push that, then somebody inside is going to say, "Nobody is going to need the ministry." Because in the revivalist tradition you say, preaching the Word of God is the highest calling that any person can possibly aspire to. As a preacher of the Word, I actually feel like that. Martin Lloyd-Jones, who was a physician, said something like, "I would rather save people's soul for eternity than to patch them up for time." Generally most of us who get called into the ministry do feel like that, but I've muted that rhetoric. Maybe too much. I also have people in my church who are just evangelistic worker bees, but I've also got other people who are the Kuyperian, structural, engaging-culture people, and there's no real tension because I have really, really, really explained why we need both. I was about to say two wings of the airplane, but it's not as simple as that.

You have to let people specialize. You can't expect everybody to be this incredible balance, but if you're a leader of leaders or a top leader in your church, you've got to be willing to be careful about not privileging one. Always trying to show that they should work together.

JS: Tell us a bit about where you're investing now. Obviously you're reaching a transition in your life, you're stepping away from preaching ministry. What you want to invest in next is also probably a signal of where you find a lot of hope. What gives you hope?

TK: That's interesting. I thought you were going to ask where I'm more worried too. I've come to the conclusion that even though I'm sixty-six, I could probably preach as well as I have preached for a good while more. But I feel like I've formed the church and formed my people as well as I can that way. It's not the only way to form people. I think I need to be training ministers and people in ministry, and also helping them to catechize in the ways we've been talking about, in pastoral care. I know it looks a little bit trite. It looks like, "I've done this; now I'm training people to do what I have done." But although I've tried very hard to be a good preacher, I actually think that preaching can't carry all the water evangelicals want it to carry.

So I actually feel like I need to be training people, shaping people more deeply than I can through preaching, in spite of the fact that I will always be to the end of my life a better preacher than a trainer. But it's time for me to do the training sort of thing.

JS: In doing that you're also actually hoping to equip people to lead churches, plant churches, that have a holistic sense of what they're called to and not just to attend a sermon.

TK: That's right. In some ways by becoming a well-known preacher, I'm not being a real good example, believe it or not. People have a tendency to say, "Oh you could just preach like that then everything would come together. You have a big church." And I'm saying, "I'm in the middle of this thing and that's not all it takes, and I want to show you."

Timothy Keller
Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, chairman of Redeemer City to City, and author of the forthcoming book Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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