Is God still relevant for the modern world? Rob Bell thinks so, and we do too. But the real question is: how?
Paul’s debate with the philosophers at the Areopagus remains a favorite story of mine. The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens was the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world, so when the apostle Paul was asked to speak there on this strange new teaching about “Jesus” and “the Resurrection,” he spoke with great erudition and made an appeal for the Gospel tailored to his ‘religious,’ but intellectually skeptical, audience.
What We Talk About When We Talk About God is Rob Bell’s Areopagus speech.
We in the West live in what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called A Secular Age—a time in which belief in God is no longer the default, but is rather one among many options; God must be actively chosen, not assumed. This puts us in an interesting position because we have what Bell calls a “God problem”—the first element of which is that most of us simply don’t know what we mean when we use the word “God.” Bell writes, “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.” Much as Feuerbach and Freud thought, our god-ideas are just projections of our own hopes, dreams, fears, and angers, and so, understandably, many people are turned off by ‘God.’
Still, much like the pagans at the Areopagus, we are “religious”; we know that there is a “hum” to the universe we can’t simply explain away. We want spirituality, but we are a bit foggy as to how the God of the Bible fits into the picture. As Bell puts it, we think of God kind of like an Oldsmobile—it’s a reality for those of the past, not the future. The tribal God we think we know of is disconnected from the 21st century and for far too many this god is associated with regressive science, outdated gender roles, harshness, and exclusivity.
The question we are forced to ask is, can God keep up with the modern world?
Answering this question is the burden of Bell’s book.
Slight Shift, No Surprises
In many ways this book should come as no surprise. One of Bell’s strengths from the earliest days of his career has been reaching out to the religiously disaffected and skeptical–he even named his church plant “Mars Hill.” Connecting with the disconnected is the pastoral, and yes, evangelistic heart that drives him to push boundaries, both stylistically, and by his own admission, theologically.
Bell says he isn’t interested in controversies over long-held conceptions, but in the possibility of regaining the meaning, mystery, love, and hope that go with God. And this recovery, invoking Helmut Thielicke, is even worth speaking in ways that risk being perceived as “heretical.” As always, Bell invokes the rhetoric of the brave risk-taker (cue soundtrack), searching for hope in the face of those orthodox heresy-hunters who might try to hold us back. Indeed, a reviewer who is critical of his book runs the risk of being identified as one such narrow-minded hunter.
That said, for those worried that this is another Love Wins—which really was a train-wreck when it came to charitable dialogue with conservative believers—there is a definite tone-change in this work. With less direct attack on what he considers to be false presentations of the Gospel in the church, his language and content is geared more to the skeptics and inquirers looking in from the outside.
What also comes as no surprise is Bell’s trademark style. Oddly spaced texts, a flair for the poetic, and a puckish sense of humor mark every page. Even more we find Bell’s masterful use of poignant narrative, illustrative vignette, and parable to draw the reader in at every step. While some might have qualms about the moral nature of his approach, most pastors could learn a few things from Bell at this point.
So how does Bell actually go about speaking to the disaffected spiritually-seeking people of his age? He selects 3 key words that describe God, and 2 set-up words on before those three in order to describe how we can speak of God, and what Bell wants to say about him. Finally, he ends with a sixth word “so” to pull it all together. In what follows I’d like to examine those 6 words, noting both strengths and weaknesses in his appeal.
“Open” (Or, How Do You Know?)
Bell begins with what is probably his strongest chapter –essentially a deconstruction of Enlightenment rationalism, evidentialism, and reductionism. He doesn’t do it by dint of philosophical argument or decrying reason outright. Instead, Bell takes us on a whirlwind tour of the weirdness of the universe, big-bang cosmology, singularities, quirks in physics, the time-space continuum, the wonderful complexity of the human person, consciousness, and the vast gap in our knowledge of…almost everything. His goal is to impress upon us the sheer smallness of our knowledge–the counter-intuitive nature of physical reality as recent science has discovered it—in such a way as to overturn what he considers the distortions that Enlightenment models of reality have wreaked on our understanding, all the while demonstrating his deep wonder and appreciation for scientific discovery.
In this way, Bell aims to show the truly closed-minded approach is the rejection of knowing purpose and meaning beyond what reductionist rationality can tell us. Instead, a mind open to faith and the divine can approach a world that stretches our imaginations to the breaking point. While it probably won’t convince the more sharp-edged philosophical types–(I’d refer you to A Shot of Faith to the Head by Mitch Stokes instead)– there’s a lot to be gleaned from this chapter.
“Both” (A Word About God-Language)
Bell then proceeds to tackle the issue of “how” we talk about God, both when it comes to language and certainty. Trevin Wax has already commented on some of the problems with Bell’s parsing of certainty and doubt, dogma and abstraction. When it comes to God-language, Bell rightly points out that we’re dealing with language for something beyond language. Words point to, but don’t land on God because God can’t be contained in words. Instead, what we see in the scripture is a series of pictures, where the Hebrews looked at a feature of the world, a character, a role, and said, “God is like that.” So far, so orthodox. The classic theologians of the church have always known that words cannot fully grasp God’s essence—he is, strictly speaking, incomprehensible. All human language can refer to him only analogically.
What gets lost in Bell’s presentation is the specific sense that when we approach the language of scripture, we are dealing with non-exhaustive, yet sufficient ways of understanding him–God-authorized, God-privileged pictures of him. Instead, the ghost of Feuerbach stalks these pages, leaving the reader with the sense that these are, not-quite random, yet easily-replaceable metaphors to be swapped out at will. We lose the sense that, while God is spirit and beyond gender, Jesus was communicating something particular or truly normative when he called God his Father. We lose trust that language can be a vehicle of revelation; that God is taking up those words to say something to us about himself; that we might at one and the same time be reading both human words as well as Divine ones in any special sense.
“With” (How Near is God?)
The next word, first in Bell’s key trio, is “with.” One of the main features of this secular age we inhabit is the loss of the sacred. Nature is no longer creation, but simply stuff. We live in what Bell calls a ‘lite’ universe, one that has been stripped of all sense of meaning—all ‘kavod‘, weight, or glory—or any reference beyond itself. The problem starts with a view of a distant God who is far away, but intervenes from time to time to prove himself through some magic tricks. In a rationalistic age, this God quickly becomes optional. Instead, challenging the semi-deism that most Westerners assume, through snippets of scripture and appeals to transcendent experience, Bell presents us with a God who is “with” us as creator ruach (spirit), the one who suffuses and sustains creation, charging every moment, permeating every inch with the thickness of divine glory, connecting and integrating all things. In a culture starved for the real, Bell’s chapter speaks deeply into the spiritual longing of our neighbors.
“For” (How Does He Really Feel?)
Next, we find that the God who is “with” us, is also “for” us. Instead of the God who is known for being “against” things, Bell reminds us that the central affirmation of Christianity according to the singular, historical incarnation of Jesus is that God is for us–so for us he takes on flesh and walks among us, bringing in the broken, the sinful, and the failed. Bell is very clear that Christianity is no naïve, self-help theology in which you’re not really that broken–that all you have to do is just be a really good person. The reality is that everybody needs grace–everybody needs divine strength to pull us out of our sin, failure, and shame.
Gospel is grace, and grace is a gift. You don’t earn a gift; you simply receive it. You don’t make it happen; you wake up to what has already happened.
Bell shines here at letting people feel safe to admit the reality of not really having it together; you get the sense that God really will hold you up at your lowest and that God knows the despair of human dejection on the Cross. At the same time, Resurrection comes along and gives us the hope that death is not the last word–nor is your sin.
Unsurprisingly absent is any sense of sin having a God-ward dimension–Bell never really breaks out of our culture’s dominant discourse of the therapeutic into the truly ethical. Gone is any hint of the Cross as God’s “No” to sin, only God absorbing the weight of human violence. One looks in vain for the complex “forness” of God that includes an “againstness” towards destructive, fallen, and rebellious human nature; the old sense of judgment as a corollary of goodness, or wrath as a backdrop of grace fall by the wayside (except, possibly on the power-brokers and oppressors). Of course, this does things to what we mean by grace–instead of costly pardon and regeneration, the real shock of the Gospel, we have the grace of the therapist–accepting us as we are and leading us into a greater awareness of our truest selves.
The last of Bell’s 5 words is “ahead,” by which he means God is not behind human culture dragging it back into the dark ages against reason, science, and equality. In fact, God is the one pulling human history forward. Bell demonstrates this by tracing the redemptive forward movement within the Bible itself, setting the Old Testament’s passages on violence and women in their cultural context, arguing that in comparison to the cultures around them, the books of the Bible are radically progressive. The God of the Bible is no narrow, tribal God, but one who meets a culture where it is, in order to pull it forward, and when it’s ready, he pulls them forward again in order to bless all tribes through Jesus. Despite the perennial sinfulness of the human heart, this God is at work in history, both in the church, and outside the church, pulling us towards greater peace, equality, and justice.
While there is much that is helpful in this chapter, Bell seems to make the classic liberal mistake of assuming that all “forward change” is progress. In a manner reminiscent of the German liberal culture Protestantism of the 1920s, we find a romantic deification of cultural progress over the Word of God that stands in judgment over all culture; there is little to no sense of the Divine “No” standing over against the culture in judgment, except in those ways which the progressive element within it already approves. (This is the context for Bell’s recent statements on gay marriage. The irony of course is that this really marks a return to older, Greek views of sexual ethics that Christianity moved us past centuries ago.) History will not end on “a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31), but with the final consummation of the inevitable process we see unfolding before our eyes.
“So…” (A God of Ciphers)
You are on holy ground wherever you are, and Jesus comes to let us know that the whole world is a temple because we’re temples, all of life is spiritual, all space sacred, all ground holy. He comes to heighten our senses and sharpen our eyes to that which we’ve been surrounded by the whole time; we’re just now beginning to see it…This isn’t about the same old message of making something happen; it’s about waking up to that which is already happening, all around you all the time, in and through and over you, trusting that god is with us and for us and ahead of us.
Bell here lyrically summarizes his work about a God who is “with, for, and ahead” of us, capturing both the appeal and, I think, the ultimate failure of the book as a whole. He offers us a God so near we can reach out and touch him, breathe him in–a God who speaks to the loss of thick reality that pervades our secular age. He gives us a Jesus who reveals the deepest truths that transcend the test-tube, a self beyond the fractures of sin, and the process by which all things are being renewed.
And yet, salvation never really moves beyond revelation for Bell–and by revelation I mean disclosing the truth of those processes already at work around us. Conversion is not brought about by regeneration and faith, but illumination. Eschatology is not that of the New Testament-the irruption of God’s power into history, the rebirth, the act accomplished that changes everything-but a romantic entry of a “new consciousness” of reality as it already is and the forward “pull” of God in history. Tellingly, the concrete elements of the Last Supper–the broken body and shed blood of Jesus–are less about the new covenant, a New Exodus, and the community of the redeemed, than symbols of the way God infuses the ordinary with meaning: “In doing this, he was treating common bread and wine as holy and sacred because for him all bread and wine are holy and sacred.” It’s connected to Jesus, his death and resurrection, but it speaks more to metaphysical generalities than to redemptive-historical accomplishments we are brought into by the Holy Spirit and faith.
Ironically enough, for all of his critiques of Enlightenment objectivity and modes of knowing, Bell still capitulates to that other thread within Enlightenment discourse–the need for universality. For all of his talk of the particular, the local truths which point beyond themselves, and the fact that he understands God through Jesus, he offers not the Jesus whose particular history redirects all history, but rather one who shines a light on a process, a history already on its way.
So does God keep up with the modern world? Bell thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree. The question remains how does God do so? Is it by trading in our rusty old concept of God, and wheeling out the new, shiny one, finely-tuned to fit postmodern sensibilities, that Bell presents us with?
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s by dusting off the broad tradition of reflection about God’s self-revelation we find in the Fathers, the Medieval Doctors, and Reformation scholars who gave us a God both “with” and “above,” both “for” and, yes, complexly “against,” both “ahead” and yet “before.” Just a thought.
Some might feel I haven’t given Bell the benefit of the doubt in critiquing what he didn’t say. You can’t say everything in every sermon, and I suppose the same holds true with books. We are given the impression that Paul’s original Areopagus address was cut short as well. Perhaps that’s what’s happened here. I’m not so sure, though; those pieces left out seem absent, not due to lack of space, but as an exercise in theological judgment that follows either explicitly from, or as a natural trajectory plotted by, Bell’s last offering. In any case, the absences are real.
Intentional or not, hopefully those who read the book and come away saying, “We will hear you again about this,” (Acts 17:32) manage to find churches who engage them just as well as Bell does, while pushing them towards even deeper, richer, more complex ways of talking about God.