(RNS) — By the time I made friends with Tim Keller, he was a box on a screen. He was by then a cancer patient, and “patient” described him well: Although he endured every treatment medicine could offer before succumbing to pancreatic cancer on May 19, I never heard him express anger or complaint.
When asked, he would give a brief, dispassionate medical update, then move on to the big questions he loved to ponder. How could evil exist? How are churches planted? Is sinning with a guilty conscience worse than sinning naively?
There was something else he wondered about: me. I don’t think he encountered openly gay, outspokenly atheistic Jews every day. Parsecs separated our worldviews. Yet somehow, across the Zoom screen, we came to love each other, and in a way, he rescued my faith.
My road to our friendship was tortuous. By the time I reached adulthood, I realized I had won the intersectionality trifecta. In my hometown of Phoenix in the 1960s and 1970s, I experienced no antisemitism, but everything about the culture — from the Christmas songs at school to the country club that excluded Jews — reminded me that I was an outsider.
And despite my many afternoons at religious school, the idea of God made no sense to me. Worst of all, despite desperate efforts, I could not make my powerful sexual attraction to males go away.
With all that baggage, I soon learned where evangelical Christianity thought I belonged. My fate was to spend eternity in something like a cosmic Nazi concentration camp, only incomprehensibly worse. On any given Sunday, I couldn’t twist an AM radio dial without hearing a preacher rant that homosexuality is a stench in God’s nostrils, a mistake in his copybook. (And atheists were hardly better.)
If Christians believed in a loving god, I wondered, why did he hate me? Reading Jesus’ teachings, I wondered whether Christians were acquainted with them. By age 18, I had concluded that the words “Christianity” and “hypocrisy” were synonyms.
College cracked my cynicism. My freshman roommate (the late Mark McIntosh, who went on to be a distinguished Episcopal scholar and theologian) was a Christian who walked the walk. As he parried my skeptical provocations with kindness and confidence, it dawned on me that faith could be more than a pose or a pat answer.
In the fullness of time, I befriended other Christians whose faith seemed transcendent, not temporal. Even those who debated me about gay marriage seemed like good people. I took to defending them, telling my gay friends that conservative Christians based their views on a sincere reading of the Bible, not on bigotry. I insisted that Christianity, whatever its flaws, was on the level.
Then came Donald Trump, the most un-Christlike American political figure in my lifetime, if not ever. When his cruelty and turpitude won the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, I felt, in a word, suckered. When he bragged of grabbing women by the pussy (as a jury later found he had actually done), I was astonished that evangelicals redoubled their enthusiasm. When he held up a Bible in a square cleared by tear gas, I couldn’t believe they were taken in.
As time went on, I saw that his Christian supporters didn’t just tolerate his cruelty and turpitude, they reveled in them. I hoped that many Christians were appalled, but, with a handful of exceptions, where were their voices? In my disappointment and anger, I couldn’t help thinking: “I guess I had it right the first time.” I stopped defending Christians to my friends. I could feel the old cynicism washing over me.
Unexpectedly, hope showed up on Zoom. When the pandemic began, some religious friends and I started a weekly gathering, and Tim often came, flickering in from his book-lined study. The books were no mere decorations; there seemed to be nothing he had not read, no corner of religious history he did not know, no theological nicety or denominational quirk he was unacquainted with.
More than that, he was not one for pat answers. In fact, he detested them. One day, I said that God’s toleration of undeserved suffering is an insuperable contradiction. He surprised me by agreeing. If one thinks of theodicy as a bucket, he could pour into it all the strongest arguments he could think of; still, he admitted, he could not fill the bucket more than about three-fourths of the way.
He was appalled by some of what was being said and done in Christianity’s name and dismayed when his co-religionists made a religion of politics. He was well aware that Christian culture warriors scorned his “winsomeness.” But never did he scorn them back. Never did he utter a word in anger or despair.
In the past couple of decades, science has turned its attention to wisdom, an age-old character trait celebrated since ancient times yet almost entirely overlooked today. Wisdom, it turns out, can be defined, measured and cultivated. It is not the same as knowledge, intelligence or experience; in fact, it doesn’t particularly correlate with those. (We all know smart people who aren’t wise!) Rather, wisdom entails displaying emotional equanimity, viewing situations dispassionately, negotiating complex relationships, defusing conflict and giving good advice.
Tim had all of those qualities, and a sense of humor, too. One day he congratulated a young pastor who had just published his first book, and then added, “Wait another decade before you write the next one — otherwise, you’ll say too much that you’ll regret when you’re my age.”
In his wisdom and compassion, in his rigor and grace, in his rejection of faith that is smug and self-regarding and in his love for a benighted soul like me, Pastor Keller lived the gospel he preached. He did not give me faith, but he revived my faith in the power of faith, and he gave me hope for a better, braver Christianity, someday.
(Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)