Progressive Christian Channel
A New (Old) God, Quantum Physics, and Riding the Big Waves: Breakfast with Rob Bell
Photo courtesy of: Daley Hake
Rob Bell, the former megachurch pastor and author of the best-selling, controversial book Love Wins, is in Denver this week promoting his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. This is the pastor who, a year ago, left the church he founded to move to California to surf and work on a TV show with the producer of the hit series "Lost." Last night he spoke at St. Andrews United Methodist Church to a packed sanctuary of progressive Christians, seminary students, and Bell groupies. This morning, he meets me for breakfast and conversation about his book, the Church, quantum theory, inspiration, Resurrection, and of course, surfing.
Bell is taller and slimmer than I had expected, and he looks younger than his photos. There is a palpable sense of joy about him and laughter comes easily. His energy instantly lifts mine; maybe it's because of all the talk last night of how the human being—indeed everything in the Universe—is really energy in motion. Or maybe it's because of the way he talks of everything as being weighty (kavod, in Hebrew) with the possibility of God.
Deborah: It's so great to meet you!
Rob: It's great to meet you!
I heard you three years ago when you were here in Denver. A friend invited me and at that time, I had hardly even heard of you. I'm a liberal, mainline Protestant, and I grew up in the United Church of Christ. I'm not a theologian, just a regular person of faith that took a pretty deep dive into contemplative spirituality in my 30s. So what you talk about when you talk about God these days is like soul food to me.
But I'm getting ahead of myself ... For the person who didn't get to hear you last night and hasn't read your new book yet, tell me, why do we need new ways of talking about God?
Because we have this intuitive sense of reverence humming within us. In the book, I quote Jane Fonda, who was asked about her spiritual rebirth. She talked about the "reverence humming in me." I think it speaks to the sense we have that things are what they are and yet they're more. And these very popular voices that say "this is all there is—you're just a collection of neurons, synapses, and atoms" just doesn't work for many of us. No matter how smart and articulate it is, we are convinced that we are more than our biology, even if we don't have language for it.
So people go looking for explanations for this reverence and sense of something more, and generally that takes people into traditional understandings of God, and it feels like they're taking a giant step back. So I think the cliché of "spiritual but not religious" is true at some level. I think many of us are asking, "Is there some way to talk about God that doesn't just feel like a giant step backward?" That's where the book comes from.
So do you feel like you're talking primarily to people who have this sense of hum, but just don't get the church?
When I first started preaching, I realized this isn't merely Christian. If you're really true to Jesus' message, it's human. Who doesn't want help being less full of worry? Or who doesn't want to be more courageous? Who doesn't want to be more loving or forgiving so I don't have to be thinking of all the things people have done to me and carry them around everywhere I go? Who doesn't want to learn to forgive? So what happens is that the Jesus path transcends itself—that's what it means to be fully human.
When I started out, I was thinking "Okay, this is a Christian church," but the very nature of this message is that it leaps past its own walls really quickly. I have encountered—in traveling and speaking—that sometimes the people who want to talk about these things have been in churches forever. It's every religion under the sun, it's every condition; a couple of days ago it was a Sikh woman. It's people who say, "You know, I'm suicidal and every day I'm thinking about killing myself but I came to hear you speak." There's no rhyme or reason. It continues to astound me; I'll think I've seen everything and then someone will be like "Well, here's my background" and there we go, a new category for me.
Do you think the church still has a place? I mean, you're "churchless" currently, if that's the way you'd say it.
Depends on how you define church.
I think probably we're in the midst of a massive shift. Jesus calls it "where two or three are gathered," so that's far less a noun and far more a verb. Perhaps we're "churching" right now, as a friend of mine says. I think people are realizing "wait, we had this meal around a table and we were from all these different backgrounds but we were talking about the things that matter most and we actually ended up praying because it felt like the only right thing to do and... what is that?"
So I think people are facing the fact that we find God in lots of places, though there are unique distinctives of a local church that can be extraordinarily powerful—somebody being baptized is always awesome; Eucharist is incredible; a group of people singing together with great passion and life. . . The problem isn't church, the problem is bad church. When people do connect with a community, they realize it's so important, it's so huge. At the same time, we find church in all kinds of places.
Has being away from serving as a leader at a megachurch changed how you think about Christianity?
Absolutely! My entire life up until I moved to California, I worked in megachurches. When you're a pastor, you tell your people, "Hey, it's not about this gathering, it's about all of our lives every day." So you are saying with great clarity and conviction that this is not about this hour on Sunday, it's about all of life. But, large churches, well, all churches, have an inherent need for self-preservation, and so I think I was always sort of pushing the walls farther and farther out—like, this is a gathering where we remind you that all of life is holy. And then you leave and what you've always known, you know even more. You find life and vitality in God and even more places.
And there's a lot of nonsense that goes on in churches that I am much more aware of, when you just say, "Okay, that's just ridiculous." Seriously, it's absurd and someone needs to say it. When you are a part of it, and you're leading an actual local church and you want to be honoring and respecting and all that, you perhaps aren't as free to be like "Okay, listen..."
I once went to a meeting about meetings—literally. Because in large churches there are all these different staff levels, so there was this one group of staff people and they were like "should we make this group bigger, because if we do it bigger then everybody can participate" so there was a meeting about who should be coming to the main meetings. Later I was like "Oh my word, I went to a meeting about meetings." So then I went to the lead pastor of Mars Hill, the church I was at, who was organizing and leading all the staff people, and I said "Dude, was that seriously a meeting about meetings?" And all of a sudden it hit me like a bolt of lightning—I am now having a meeting about the meeting, about meetings. We have now stacked layers of insanity upon each other!
So you don't miss the church too much right now?
I am a big fan of the church and I will always be. When people are gathered together and they find each other and find God, and they gather around the bread and wine, and they try to talk people out of killing themselves and build micro-finance banks and help single moms pay their rent . . . it's just a beautiful thing. There's nothing like the church when it's humming on all cylinders. It's amazing.
In a few sentences—like the two-minute elevator speech, if you will—who's the God you're talking about in your new book?
I'm talking about the God who is with us, that is the singular life force of all vitality and dynamic life that we're surrounded by every day in a thousand different ways. So I'm talking about your sense in a piece of music and holding a newborn in a sunset and a great meal—that sense that life is somehow plugged into something, that it's humming, that there's depth to it. The Hebrews called this ruach. So I believe in a God who is with us, right here, right now, and we are waking up to this God and the holiness and the sacred nature of all of life. And I believe this God's for us, so this God is for human flourishing and that this God comes among us as Jesus so that we might thrive in our full humanity. And I believe this God's actually ahead of us, pulling us all, this divine pull into a greater future than we could ever imagine.
Beautiful. You said last night that these "new" ways of talking about God are actually quite old. What do you mean by that?
Yeah, that's the really compelling thing about the Christian tradition to me, which comes out of the Jewish tradition. So you have the mystics and you have the environmentalists and you have systematic theology—I mean, there is this great stream of thought and reflection and meditation and insight, and often times what we're doing is simply discovering something that got left behind along the way that needs to be re-captured. So there's a certain sort of humility with faith that, no matter how fresh it may appear, its roots will usually be somewhere back there, we just lost them somewhere along the way.
You take a seriously deep dive into quantum theory in your book, and thankfully, I must say, in a very accessible way that actually made it exciting for me! Why is Quantum Theory so important to your understanding of who God is?
Well, let me just say at the most superficial level it's fascinating. It's just fascinating. Many of us in the modern world were raised on this very clean line between the physical and the spiritual, between the material and the immaterial. We were taught that there is this real world we can actually count on, and then there may or may not be this sort of esoteric world of that which might or might not exist. Some people have faith and some people don't, but the rest of us are these hard-core materialists. Material reality at its core is pretty funky, if I may use a scientific term.
So, that line might not be a line after all, and that's just interesting. It was Jeffrey Krueger at Time magazine last year who just said that with the Higgs Boson we are dealing with something spiritual. This is a mainstream, credible magazine saying that these latest discoveries at the fresh edge of quantum physics have a spiritual component. I know lots of scientists would be like "oh come one, that's ridiculous," but, you start talking about packets of energy that are 99.9% empty space, that are animated by probabilities and unpredictability, that somehow we're able to harness into X-rays and iPods. What in the world? Actually, that's the right way to put it: What in the world is this? And I think what's happening, from my very basic layman's perspective. You have the best scientists in the world talking with wonder and awe, which puts us into the land of poetry and theology and mystics. They all may be on the same team after all. And that's just compelling.
Deborah Arca is the former Director of Content at Patheos. Prior to joining Patheos, Deborah managed the Programs in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, including the Program's renowned spiritual direction program and the nationally-renowned Lilly-funded Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music and theatre programs for children and teens, and a music minister. Deborah belongs to a progressive United Church of Christ church in Englewood, CO.