Why do sharks and dolphins have similar body shapes, even though they aren’t closely related? What about snakes and worms? Why do bats and birds solve the problem of flight in similar ways? And why does Rob Bell sound so much like a progressive Christian?
One of the really interesting things about the process of evolution is the phenomenon known as convergent evolution. Convergent evolution describes what happens when two living things that are not closely related, like the pairs above, adapt to similar ecological niches with similar structures. Dolphins are not fish, yet they have evolved very fish-like structures—like flippers—to suit their environment. Bats are not birds, and yet they have wings. These animals are not in a lineage with one another (at least not until you get far, far up the tree of life), and yet they resemble one another. What gives?
I had the pleasure of hearing Rob Bell speak last night. He is making the rounds with his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I haven’t read the book yet, but his talk hewed closely to its argument, and I am familiar with Bell from his Nooma videos, and from the controversy over his last book, Love Wins. (“Everybody loved it,” he told us last night, tongue in cheek.).
As I listened to Bell speak—and it has to be noted that he is one of the most compelling speakers in all of Christianity—a question kept percolating to the surface of my thoughts. The question took many different forms throughout the evening, but the most basic form was this: Where does this guy get this stuff? I don’t mean that question in the way many conservative and evangelical Christians would ask it, as a rhetorical question, which for them has an answer something like, “the devil.” I mean it as a real question—a question of lineage. Who has he been reading? Put another way: Does Rob Bell stand in the lineages commonly claimed by progressive Christians, or does he represent a new evolution of similar structures?
I first started wondering about this when Love Wins was published. In it, Bell dispenses with the notion of hell. This caused an uproar in conservative and evangelical circles, which have long claimed Bell as one of their own, but it barely provoked yawns in progressive Christian circles. Yeah, many of us don’t really believe in hell either. Even those of us who do believe in hell are familiar with the arguments against it. It was amusing, really, that people found Bell’s claims so outrageous. And for me, Bell’s argument called to mind the thought of another pariah of a Christian, Origen of Alexandria, who 1800 years ago articulated the notion of apokatastasis—the idea that all that falls away from God would be rejoined with God in the end. Universal salvation. Love wins. Did Bell read Origen, I wondered? Or did he come up with this on his own?
And last night, during his talk (one could say “lecture,” and one could say “sermon,” so I’ll go with “talk”), Bell riffed on faith and doubt, and the idea that doubt is a necessary part of faith. For me, like so many other people trained in the progressive Christian tradition, Paul Tillich alarm bells started ringing. Bell lists Tillich in the back of his book, with respect to Tillich’s description of God as the “ground of being,” so perhaps here he’s reading Dynamics of Faith when he thinks about faith and doubt. It’s been said that all 20th and 21st century Protestant theology comes from either Tillich or Karl Barth; conservatives tend to follow Barth and liberals tend to follow Tillich. I can’t decide which is more interesting to me: the idea that Bell started with Barth but now finds a more natural home in Tillich, or the idea that Bell’s ideas are a new evolution, coming from Barth but converging on Tillichian structures.
And then there was the Process thought. Oh, the Process thought! If there is one really vital direction in progressive Christian theology, it’s Process thought, and if there was one strong theological tone undergirding Bell’s words, it was Process thought. Process theology takes as its starting point the thought of Alfred North Whitehead and has grown to encompass much of the science-religion conversation Bell wants to join. It’s a strong and vital movement, but even within progressive Christianity, some people look at it sideways, uncertain of how to think of it. Does Bell embrace it? Or better yet, does he know he embraces it? Or—and again, here’s the evolution question—did he arrive at Process theology all on his own?
Most of the “evolution” I describe here is welcome news to progressive Christians. Bell’s event last night was attended by an earnest mix of hipster Christians, seminary students, old radicals, and gawkers wanting to see if Bell would reaffirm his stance supporting marriage equality. (He did, and he does). This mostly-progressive crowd loved him, and gave him a standing ovation. Conservative and evangelicals, however are not so pleased. They see Bell as a turncoat, a heretic, and a false prophet. And I can see their point. As a member of the Christian left, I’ve been called all those things too. To use a slightly different biological metaphor, they’re saying that Bell looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck. He’s no longer one of them. He’s a progressive Christian. Or, worse yet, a liberal.
I tend to agree. And I think it’s great. But my biggest question is: how did he get there?
Or, to return to the metaphor of evolution: Rob Bell has long swum with the sharks. Everyone assumed he was a shark. But now the sharks are angry, and I can see why: Rob Bell sure looks like a dolphin these days. And my question is: where did he get these new flippers?
The Rev. Eric Smith is Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver, CO. He has a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School and is currently a PhD candidate in Biblical Interpretation in the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007.