March 20, 2013
Skirting Heresy with Rob Bell
Embracing uncertainty, the good side of dogma, and the blessings of not leading a church.
What is Rob Bell talking about when he talks about God? A lot of people would like to know. Bell sparked a nationwide conversation with his last book, Love Wins, by challenging popular Christian assumptions about heaven and hell. He's ready to do it again with his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I was able to read an advanced copy of the book and ask Bell a few questions about it. Although he draws a lot of attention among evangelicals, and his roots are within that stream of the church, Bell's theology and cultural messages seem increasingly in sync with more liberal traditions of the church. That was affirmed this past weekend when, for the first time, Bell openly endorsed same-sex marriage. As he continues to move farther away from conservative theological and social positions, will evangelicals follow him?
Early in the book you write, "God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment." How have you seen this tendency to project your ideas onto God, and how do you guard against it?
We guard against such things by always coming back to what Jesus came back to: How does your understanding of God shape you? Is it making you more compassionate and courageous and honest and less judgmental and more likely to love your neighbor? For Jesus this wasn't an interesting intellectual exercise in which we get our mental furniture properly organized, this is about the kind of people we are becoming right here and now. Some ideas shape us some ways, some ideas shape us another. That's one of the central themes of the book: I began to realize in the depths of doubt that some beliefs made me a better person and some didn't...because we all believe something. The question is: What is that belief doing to you?
You reference Helmut Thielicke's statement that those who speak to the hour's needs will always skirt heresy, but they'll also gain the truth. How can you tell when you're "skirting" heresy and when you've crossed into it? And does that even matter.
This is why I find Eucharist so powerful-you gather with others to center and ground and remind yourselves of the body and blood given for the healing of the world. The Christian faith is ultimately an incarnated reality in which the mystery of God is born in flesh and blood--love your neighbor, as Jesus would say. Jesus comes to give us actual lived life in a whole new mode of being. So yes, it matters. Certain paths are destructive and others make the world a better place.
I loved the Jane Fonda quote (never thought I'd say those words): "I could feel reverence humming in me." Do you feel that humming in you more now that you're not leading an institutional church?
Yep, it's always good to quote Jane Fonda. And yes, I do. More than I could begin to fit in to this interview. It's fascinating how pastors often tell their people, "The church is way bigger than just us gathered here for an hour in this building," and everybody nods and agrees. But institutions are sly that way, even if they're focused on others and justice and mission and all that, it's very easy for them to exert an extraordinary amount of energy just below the surface on their own self preservation. And then you leave, and you keep seeing what you always knew was true, it's just that now you're able to see it in an astonishing number of new ways.
You spend a good portion of the book talking about quantum physics and the paradoxes, uncertainty, and downright weirdness of the subatomic world. Do you believe the logical contradictions evident at that tiny scale can apply equally to other altitudes of the cosmos? In other words, if we can't be certain about subatomic particles, can we be certain about anything?
One of the things I point out in the book is that quantum physics is ultimately responsible for a staggering number of things we take for granted in our lives, from computers to X-rays. So it has a startling degree of uncertainty at certain levels, but at other levels there are probabilities that can be harnessed and ordered to dazzling and incredibly helpful effect. It's a profoundly uncertain certainty.
I talk about this later in the book in regards to God and the known and unknownness (is that a word?) of God. We can know and trust and love and follow a...mystery? At the heart of the Christian faith is a resounding "Yes" to that question. We can. We can know and follow and trust and most of all experience the explosive, comforting, loving, healing, provocative, beautiful, messy being/phenomena we call...God.
You point out that, "Certainty is easier, faster, awesome for fundraising, and it often generates large amounts of energy because who doesn't want to be right?" (You've just described modern partisan politics.) But doesn't a leader need to be certain about some things--otherwise how can she or he lead? How do you strike that balance?
That quote comes from a section about our shadow sides-the secrets, sins, fears, and unacknowledged brokenness that lurk within us all-and the destructive realities that we create when we don't allow God into those places, both at a personal and at an institutional level. And when leaders haven't opened themselves up to the healing work of God in their interiors, the groups that follow them can easily begin to mirror that lack of health and wholeness. But does a leader need to be certain of things? Of course. Take Scott Harrison from charity:water, who is certain that hundreds of millions of people don't have access to clean water, so he's given his life to changing that. That kind of certainty is desperately needed in our world.
You say, "A word about God or a doctrine or a dogma about God isn't God; it only points to God." I agree. Nonetheless, do you believe there are some words/doctrines/dogma's that point us closer to God than others? And are there some that may point us away?
Yes, yes, yes. Some have described liturgy as a cathedral of words in which you walk in and you look around and you see beauty and then you leave and you come back, sometimes to that very same building, and yet you see things you didn't see before. Words are incredibly important, even though they're just words. I find it fascinating that the Bible begins with God creating using...words. Words unleash new realities, words created new worlds. How many people do you know who are who they are because at key moments in their lives somebody spoke a powerful, affirming, redeeming word to them about who they are, and they never forgot it and it shaped them, and inspired them, and spurred them on to be more and more their true self? There's another way I could answer this question as well: "Of course, that's why I write books!"
You beautifully write of the fact that God is FOR us. But what and who is God against? Being a relatively affluent, educated, 21st century American man, it's easy for me to say, "Yeah, God is for everyone." I'm trying to imagine what a poor, trafficked, Thai teenage girl would do with that idea. Does she want a God who isn't against anyone?
This is why when you hear talk of God's love, you'll often hear talk of justice not far behind. When we act in the world on behalf of the mistreated, oppressed, forgotten and marginalized, we're acting out the love of God in flesh of blood. This will often involve resistance, specifically resistance to the things that God is against, from injustice to violence to indifference to a number of other ways we turn from the path God has for us. So yes, she wants a God who's against, and she needs people who are also against to show us that that God is real.