Progressive Christian Channel
Rob Bell: Rebranding God?
On the other hand, I think Bell is up to something even more ambitious than presenting his generous view of Christian orthodoxy. What We Talk About When We Talk About God is an attempt to suggest that the universe is much "weirder" than most of us think, and in that sense, much more indeterminate and open than our common sense might otherwise tell us. Our mistake is to believe that what we think about the world necessarily reflects the very nature of God. If our worldview is pinched by either rationalism that limits God (read, liberals), or by a self-righteousness that makes God a kind of bully (read, conservatives) than we mistake our own perceptions for the reality of God's very nature.
This deals precisely with the question that thinkers and theologians have struggled with for the last two centuries: "Is God really only a projection of whatever subjectivity that is being imagined?" And if so, is this a projection that alienates one from our best selves, as Marx averred and Feuerbach echoed? Or, is God merely a name for our social group feelings, as Durkheim proposed? Or an infantile fantasy, as Freud deduced? Many have wondered about these questions.
At this point, we are a long way from the evangelicalism of Bell's past or the kind of biblically centered God of present day evangelical Christians. Bell is suggesting, by summarizing modern discoveries in physics in pithy and popular ways, that the universe is much "weirder" than we are able to fathom, and that this "weirdness" must lead to a kind of distrust of certainty and more importantly to an openness to surprises.
But, does this lead us to posit, as Bell does, that there is a God who is "with," 'for," and "ahead" of us? It really doesn't. And this is one of the problems with this book. Modern science and philosophy may suggest that the universe is open, but they don't propose that it follows that there is a God who cares, who incarnates herself into the universe and is passionate about it.
And I say this as a Christian. Doubts about God's existence and God's loving nature are well founded. Nonetheless, the story of Jesus and the Christian narrative are piercingly beautiful. The creative act of a God who puts order and beauty into the universe creates a grand narrative. Going one step further, that this same God incarnates himself into Jesus is fascinating, but it is a story! I affirm and love this story, but Bell seems to suggest that the story and its truth are the direct result of the openness and weirdness of the universe—the same universe that modern science discovers and describes. One can imagine atheists and agnostics asking, "Why does that follow?" Well, that's a great question, and I'm not sure Bell answers it.
Thus, for me, the first half of Bell's book that describes a weird and open universe doesn't necessarily lead to the second half in which Bell paints God who is "with," "for," and "ahead" of us. I like both parts, the radical openness of the universe and the repainting of faith that so many find life-giving. The second is powered by Bell's Christian imagination and not a function of those earlier scientific musings. The Christian truth is a story, not a logical deduction. As C.S. Lewis said, "Christianity is a myth, one that is true." But this truth is a matter of faith. We are all projecting at some level; we are all people of faith. This may be a type of branding, but it is also true that some stories are more life enhancing than others. And I would argue that Bell's version of the Christian story is life giving. So perhaps, rebranding God is more true to what we do than what we would like to admit. In any event, Rob Bell does it very well.
James K. Wellman, Jr. is Professor and Chair of the Comparative Religion Program in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His most recently published book is Rob Bell and a New American Christianity, (Abingdon, 2012). His forthcoming book (Oxford, 2014) is High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America. Wellman can be followed on twitter at wellman4444, and reached on his author Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman.