Progressive Christian Channel
A New (Old) God, Quantum Physics, and Riding the Big Waves: Breakfast with Rob Bell
So, one of my favorite contemplatives, John Philip Newell, recently posted on Facebook: " The great spiritual quest of the Western world today is not about belief in God. It is about the experience of God. It is about seeking to encounter Sacredness now—in the earth, in our relationships with one another, and in the simple disciplines of contemplative practice." You also seem to place experience as central to knowing God. Can you say a bit more about that? And more specifically, how do we do this? How do we engage experience? How do we move from belief to experience?
Well, for years I went to a spiritual director, a Sister of Notre Dame, and we met at the Dominican center where she worked; from the beginning, I would bring her a problem I wanted her to help me solve, and she would not give me answers. We would just sit in it, and she would ask me where God was found in this particular thing. And it's extraordinary how many problems sorted themselves out on their own. But it became a really powerful thing like, slow down, breathe deeply, look, watch, listen—where is God in this and what are you being taught and what is being asked of you? It will be both incredibly comforting and challenging and it will be provocative and it will be healing.
So I think there's a sort of leap that people make at some point where you just become interested in different things. The terror of being right and getting it right or being properly understood isn't interesting anymore. You know what I mean? It doesn't mean that beliefs and convictions, and your brain and doctrines aren't crucial and important; what you believe does matter, and how you think about things does matter. And, when you talk with 16-year-old girls who are cutting themselves, and you find out that they believe really horrible things about themselves, beliefs do matter. Part of the move to contemplation and to experience, for some people, is the reaction against beliefs that weren't life-giving. To say, "it's not about beliefs," well, that is a belief statement. So to me this isn't about a pendulum swing of "well, we used to be all about doctrine and now we're not." No, this is just about the proper integration of all of the ways that we are oriented in a healthy manner around our thriving in the world.
You're clearly a source of inspiration for many, many people, including myself. Where do you go for inspiration? Who and what inspires you right now?
Besides trying to surf every day?
Yeah, I'm going to ask you about that in a minute. What's particularly life-giving for you right now?
Boy, where do I start? To be honest, my family and my kids; my wife is very inspiring to me. I'm continually amazed by her. I love all the things that my kids are coming up with, because they're at very, very different stages and they never stop making me laugh. Now that I'm on the road, my kids are sending me texts and videos. I do try to get in the ocean every day and then I'm always hunting stuff down. So I'll get on to like onto architecture, and I'll start reading Louis Kahn and I'll discover whatever. So I'll get into something and I'll inhale a bunch of stuff on it, or I'll go on a Bob Dylan kick or I'll go onto things I know nothing about and I'll begin to identify patterns.
(Rob steals a piece of bacon off my plate as I move it off the table...)
Noted for the interview: do not let bacon leave the table! May I have your bacon, please?
Yes, you may. So, you're one of those web surfers who gets started on something and then follows the trail?
I actually don't do much online. Generally it's books. I'll be at a friend's house and see a book and ask if I can borrow it. I'll read about Van Gogh, or there's a psychologist in L.A. who's written a series of books on parenting from a Jewish perspective. I also find people extremely interesting. So when I meet people I find interesting, I ask them what they're up to, and what they do with their time, and if they give me answers of like they do whatever, and I have no idea what that means . . . to me that does not shut down things.
So tell me about surfing. A lot of surfers talk about their sport in very spiritual terms. What does surfing teach you about yourself, God, and life?
See, surfers all agree that you can only say so much and then you just have to stop.
If you get into big waves, then it's just fear. A friend and I the other day were out in ten-foot waves, and at this particular break if you get stuck and you fall and get stuck on the inside you get pounded, you just get held under, and you get spin-cycled and you lose all sense of up and down—it's just brutal... and awesome.
We were surfing the other night at sunset and the only light was from the sun, which was just dropping below the horizon, and I dropped in on one wave and the wave was essentially between me and the horizon so it just went dark. So it's big and loud and dark, and it's so peaceful. Where else do you travel across the surface of the earth on an orbital pattern of undulating water?
And you have to adjust to what the ocean is doing, so it's fundamentally humbling. It's bigger and stronger than you and the waves will come when they want, and you have dolphins swimming under you and a whale goes by and sometimes pelicans will buzz your head. In one place where I surf a lot, you're a couple hundred yards from shore and there's nothing really man-made around. There's a cliff that comes down where you paddle out. It connects you in some way. It's awesome, you're on top of the world.
So, we have to talk about this thing that everybody's talking about this week—your coming out publicly in support of gay marriage.
Ha . . . whoa, wait, wait . . .
That's what everybody's saying . . .
I was asked a question that I've been asked countless times and I answered it as I've always answered it, so if that's some grand announcement, that's fascinating.
Well, for whatever reason, you saying "yes, I support gay marriage" has been heard this week like never before. How did you arrive at your position on marriage equality?
It's not good for us to be alone. I have my friends who are gay. It's ultimately for me not an "issue" or an "idea" or a "position," it's just, they're my friends. It's honoring them, and who they are, and their desire for love and companionship and a partner to go through life with. So it's central to what it means to be human. So it is about equal rights, it is about justice, but it's also about what it means to be human.
We need to make this leap. God is ahead of us here, pulling us forward, and we need to make this leap because as a pastor, the amount of pain that I have seen caused by resistance to how people actually are—it's unbelievable. On an issue that Jesus never mentioned. How is it that followers of Jesus are known for their opposition to something Jesus never talked about? It is a giant case of missing the point. I actually think that in a short period of time here, everybody—like was it Senator Rob Portman this week?—when you have people like him telling their story, that's the beginning of the end. As a culture, it's a good thing, a necessary thing.
Some people criticized your recent statements at Grace Cathedral, where you basically said "listen, the ship has sailed, we've moved on," saying that the church shouldn't change positions because of where the Culture is, but I would say you would have a very different opinion about that.
You know, it's interesting, there's a body of literature that are novels written to support slavery, and the main characters quote Bible verses, and these novels were very popular in churches several hundred years ago. You cannot read these novels without being ruthlessly honest about how sometimes the church is behind, and sometimes the church is ahead, and sometimes the church is right there in the middle. But when the church is behind, one of the beautiful things is its capacity for self-critique.
If you were preaching on Easter Sunday, what would your central message be, given where you are right now, given where the world is right now?
I would talk about how, to have a Sunday, you need a Friday. And I would talk about how resurrection comes out of death, and how for many of us, the most significant moments of growth and evolution and change in our lives that really took us to new places happened because we went through great suffering. There is some mystery built into death and rebirth.
So wherever you are at, Sunday does come. And that we find God on Friday and we find God on Sunday, and that's the invitation. The invitation is to find God in all of it. We want Sunday and skip over Friday, but Friday is where the interesting stuff happens that makes Sunday possible.
So I would talk to everybody who has cancer and everybody who's lost a job and everybody who has kids who have wandered away and everybody whose marriages are falling apart and I would talk about what resurrection looks like and feels like. And I would invite them to trust and believe and hope, because I think it's real.
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team after more than ten years managing programs for the Program in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of Christian Education and music/theatre programs for young people and has served as a music director for worship and special retreats.