I’m one of those folk who deeply appreciate Rob Bell – and very nearly anything he says or writes provokes me in one way or another. Of course, he didn’t employ me to be his fan or come to his defense on anything and I’m sure no one (including him) doesn’t really care whether I do or not, but honestly, in hopes of beating those various bloggers who enjoy bashing Rob while admitting to having never read the book in question; so I’ve decided to go ahead and lay down thoughts as Justine and I go through Rob’s latest, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (which of course comes highly anticipated after that real cracker of a book – Love Wins – some few years back, which for the record, was not only outstanding but above all, quite orthodox in a number of ways).
As we’ve only passed the first chapter, it is once again clear to me why his communicative brilliance is needed in the realm of public writing (specifically the Christian public) and why many people misunderstand him (not as if I really understand him, but from my humble observations ;)).
Within moments of the first lines, he suggests that ‘like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.”
This opening point will of course remind us of the first point of the first chapter of John Calvin’s famed Institutes of the Christian Religion, which emphatically rings a similar note in suggesting that the knowledge of god and knowledge of self are irreducibly tied together. And of course, Thomas Merton will tell us in New Seeds, that ‘our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than it does about Him’. For the human paths of thinking about god lead us only to the idol of our own hearts. It is not knowledge or spirituality or morality or religion that leads us to god – in fact, it turns out (and I think our experiences and hearts tell us the same thing) that there is no path to God that we humans can forge, though the illusion of the path is ever present.
I find this beginning point and his subsequent move very interesting especially in regards to how people usually classify/bash Rob – claiming him to be a hipster-progressive-postmodern-emergent-spirituality-driven pastor (all of those words usually with derogatory connotations).
He suggests that what is currently wrong is not only the way we construe of god in our minds and in language, and not only the problems that individuals have in conjuring up how that ‘God of the Old Testament’ can be relevant and ‘good’.
The problem is that many people think that God “feels like a step backward, to an earlier, less informed and enlightened time, one that we’ve thankfully left behind…an ever-increasing number of people across a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives are asking about God: Can God keep up with the modern world?”
But the question is also whether the non-Christian, spiritualistic type individuals can speak of God in any meaningful way without the historical ground of the Christian faith. Yes we speak of god as the ‘reverence humming within us’ or the inner-drive for peace and shalom – which is perhaps a good starting point, but is that enough?
After explaining his personal fight for faith and God’s reality and presence in this world, he continues, “First, I’m a Christian, and so Jesus is how I understand God. I realize that for some people, hearing talk about Jesus shrinks and narrows the discussion about God, but my experience has been the exact opposite. My experiences of Jesus have opened my mind and my heart to a bigger, wider, more expansive and mysterious and loving God who I believe is actually up to something in the world.”
And part of this bigger, wider and more expansive world of God that Jesus opens up says very loudly – that if there is a path to God it comes only as the way from God to human beings. This is what Jesus reveals to us about God. This is the essence of Christianity – the message that the sovereign God of the Old Testament, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the life-giver and deep abiding life in all things – has traversed the path to human beings in order to bring life where there is none and to give grace and peace where humans fail.
The correct understanding of God therefore – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us – is nothing more than the most severe intensification of Jesus’ own idea of God, the historically visible form as it were, embodied by that idea – the cross.
This allows me to say that what I feel to the extreme contrary of what is often said of Rob Bell’s seemingly hip-progressive mode of thinking, which is that – Rob is progressive because he is orthodox and he is always able to communicate and engage with the verbiage and thoughts of the so called ‘postmodern’ communities of our world today precisely because he is so historically and theologically grounded. Rob doesn’t sacrifice orthodoxy for popularity; nor solid historical-theological interpretation of texts for mere relevance. And in this book, his honesty and clarity (even in his doubts) show through in the opening chapter of this book.
He then construes the rest of his book in 5 words: Open, Both, With, For, Ahead…which I’ll discuss next time.
“This is a book about seeing, about becoming more and more alive and aware, orienting ourselves around the God who I believe is the ground of our being, the electricity that lights up the whole sensations of the depth and dimension and fullness of life, from joy to agony to everything else.”
The fact that God is not only always present, but is actively for us and with us, pulling us ever away from ourselves and the idols we create and towards Himself – which is towards love and beauty and joy; and this movement finds its point of departure and return in a very physical, historical person.