An Open Letter To Rob Bell

Dear Rob Bell,

I love you, man.

I mean it. Not in a mellifluous way. Not in a sanctimonious way. Not in a Christian-default-setting perfunctory way, or “I love you you poor sinner” way. Not in a “Yes, but” way. Ok, kinda in a “Yes, but” way, but really, truly, lingering on the “yes.”

You are incredibly talented. Whenever I watch you or read you I learn something. You are very talented at both thinking and doing, which is very rare. As you know, this sort of talent is a spark, it has transcendent value, it is a sign, an icon.

But it’s not just that. It’s that you are clearly a passionate man. Moreso, you are not passionate about vaguely anything. You are passionate about the Bible. You are passionate, I believe, about Jesus Christ. You are passionate about the invisible world, the “invisible everything” that the Nicene Creed talks about. You are passionate about reaching out, and going on “Mars Hill” and talking about “strange notions.” You are passionate about breaking the Gospel out of the cages that Christians always build for it. You are passionate about intellectual and theological inquiry, and broad vistas of exploration.

This is all amazing. It is clear that there is a spark in you and it is clear where the spark comes from and it is holy and beautiful and good.

But you’re a seeker. This is good! We are all seekers. We can never understand the mystery of God–the Bible says that even the angels, who were created before the Universe and contemplate the mysterium fidei directly, still discover new things about it. Faith is a journey of new discovery. It is a relationship with the “Beauty ever ancient, ever new”.

But there’s seeking and seeking, you know? It’s like a marriage. Once you’re married, you are still a seeker. You are still on an adventure. You are still discovering new things, still finding things out, still groping your way forward, still slowly sinking into an incomprehensible mystery. But it’s different than before you were married. You are still a seeker, still on a journey, but you know what you’re seeking. You are with what you are seeking.

It’s like moving into the most extraordinary city. Imagine a great big imaginary city from a novel that’s New York and Florence and Miami and Lagos–and Jerusalem–all rolled up into one, and imagine the novel, this great big doorstop of a novel, is about a man who moves to this city and decides to spend his entire life there, and does. He’s always seeking, always discovering new things. He’s never going to be done. If you’re in a great city, if you’re a citizen of that great city, at least, even if you were born there and lived there all your life, you don’t know the city. You’re a seeker. But you’re a seeker who’s found home.

That second kind of seeker is the kind of seeker you want to be. And it’s actually hard to know which one you are. Because you might think you’ve found home, but actually there’s something deep within you that knows it’s not home.

For a very long time I thought I was the second kind of seeker. I always believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, and that through the merits of his death and resurrection I have access to salvation, and all that stuff. But only late did I start actually taking that idea seriously, and I realized that I hadn’t believed it at all. I didn’t believe it to the depth of my bones. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Now I know the thing I’m looking for. Am I the second kind of seeker? I don’t know, actually. But it’s healthier than thinking I’m the second and not being it.

I don’t know you, but I get do get a sense–for what it’s worth, which is nada, but this is my blog so nyah nyah–that you’re the first kind of seeker.

I think what you’re seeking is freedom–true freedom–and I think what you’re seeking is intellectual richness and wide theological and philosophical and practical vistas.

So I think what you’re seeking is…drumroll…orthodoxy.

From my perspective, what happened after Love Wins was quite striking. Half of the Evangelical world went basically…ARGHARGLARGBLBL.

But you were right to write that book. You were conscripted into an intellectual prison and you screamed and kicked and pushed and broke out. Asking the questions you asked in Love Wins is right. It was fascinating to watch how so many Evangelicals thought you were essentially spitting on the Temple, thought you were denying core tenets of the Gospel, even though, as you know better than me, highly orthodox Christians have been asking the same questions, from Gregory of Nyssa down to Hans Urs von Balthasar. Here you had this very narrow understanding of the Gospel, and you broke it. Good for you!

There is something freeing about orthodoxy, true orthodoxy, precisely because there is no defensiveness, none of the insecurity that leads to the thoughtless hurtling of anathemas. The first Western translations of many of the world’s great non-Christian religious texts were done by Christian missionaries, Catholic priests and monks mostly. They didn’t feel threatened by these other religions, because they were orthodox. But they didn’t just feel not-threatened. They felt enlivened. They felt hungry. They were ravenously curious. The great Catholic missionaries to China imbibed the Tao-te-Ching and the works of Confucious, because they understood that everything good comes from God and that in every great natural religion there is truth and there is at least some inkling of Truth. They didn’t learn about it just to “be fluent” in the culture they were evangelizing, they learned about it because they had that great thirst for knowledge of the truth that comes from true orthodoxy, because to know Jesus, who is Truth, is to want him more, is to want Truth more, and there are certainly reflections of His Truth everywhere.

If you don’t have true orthodoxy, you will build cages, you will build walls and borders and barriers and trenches and camps and you snipe people, because you will always have that nagging feeling, no matter how you’re repressing it, that you’re building idols. I think of all the freakouts that N.T. Wright occasions in the once-saved-always-saved camp.

But there’s another pitfall: if you don’t have true orthodoxy you will bounce around like a pinball from left to right, top to bottom, and never find the thing to seek you need to seek, and in the meantime, you will make a bunch of mistakes, and not just learning-experience mistakes, and not even it-was-hell-but-I-got-stronger mistakes, sometimes even Jesus-separating mistakes. And this is not about a threat or about consequences. Jesus says: love without consequence, so of course Christians are always obsessed with consequence. I’m talking about the thing that happens in some marriages where you do a thing and you weren’t thinking and it hurt your spouse to the core and you know that whatever you do next, no matter how sorry you feel, from that point on, there will always be a wall between you.

True orthodoxy is freeing not because it gives you the answers to all the questions–it doesn’t–but because it leads you to ask the right questions.

You know the arc of the Bible. Good creation, Fall, rescue party via the series of covenants, and then we get to the really interesting part. The Icon of God, the true God-Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the rabbi, the teacher, who, it turns out, says, I am the Truth. Which tells us two things: (1) there is a thing such as Truth; (2) we can never capture it through doctrinal statements, because a doctrinal statement is not Jesus Christ, and if it is not Jesus Christ it is not Truth.

Which is why all orthodoxy is about both/and, about mystery, it is “a set of contradictions held together by grace”.

Is Jesus a man, or is he God? “He is fully man, and fully God.” Gee, thanks!

It’s true. But once you’ve said that, you’ve only taken the first step on a journey into a mystery. You’ve begun to ask the right questions.

Here’s what I’m driving at: all of your instincts are healthy, all of your wants to break out of narrow theological prisons are good, all of your urges to reach out to the world at large are good, and your talents are certainly good, and God wants you to use them for his greater glory. But I do think they can drive you astray if they are not–I’m going to use a bad-sounding word here–bound by a Tradition. Not a tradition. A Tradition. “The life of the Spirit within the Church,” as Vladimir Lossky defined it. The Tradition that liberates us not by giving us all the answers but by putting us on the right path.

What I’m saying, Rob, is that you need to convert to Catholicism.

I know it may sound crazy. Catholicism sounds like the most rigid religion on Earth, with all these dogmatic formulae, this thousand-plus-page catechism that you must not deviate from. And yeah, to some people it’s only that. But the living Tradition of the Church, as Augustine said, is a beauty ever ancient and ever new. It’s the Tradition that leads you to ask new and right questions. It’s the Tradition that got Hans Urs von Balthasar and so many others to find new things to write even though it seemed that everything had been written, and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa to build outposts of the Kingdom on Earth. The Tradition is less like a straitjacket than an arsenal: it’s all these cool new things at your disposal to, like, blow stuff up. To light a fire.

But see, here’s the even more important thing: if God is who the Bible says he is, then he is nothing if not Emmanuel. He is the God-with-us. And I don’t understand how that works if it’s not God-always-with-us. I’m talking about the Eucharist here. If there’s anything crazier than the idea that God, the all-holy, all-transcendent, who would become and truly become a man and die on the Cross, then it’s the idea that He would become, and truly become bread and wine. Not symbolically become, not abstractly become, not kinda-become, but truly, fully become, which is what the Catholic Church says and what the early Christians believed (see Ignatius of Antioch). If God is Emmanuel, if Jesus is the alpha and the omega, which doesn’t just mean “everything” but “the biggest and the smallest“, then he is not just “spiritually present” the way he is spiritually present in a beautiful sunset or a symphony or this couch, although he is. He is also truly present in the Eucharist. Just like he was not just “spiritually present” on the Cross but he was an actual being of flesh and blood, naked, beaten up, deformed, “despised and rejected of men”, utterly abandoned and truly present.

And if Jesus is who he says he is, then all our lives must be about getting closer to him, right? And if the Eucharist is what Jesus says it is (Jn 6, phagein, trogein, etc.) then that’s about the most explosive thing we can imagine, and we need to do everything we can to get it, right?

Swim the Tiber, Rob. I know it sounds crazy. But the Bible also teaches us that right almost always sounds crazy.

If you’re reading this, and you probably never will, but if you are, I assume you’re pretty skeptical at this point, which is totally fine, but here’s what I would ask you to consider. Just to consider. Just to think about.

First, I think you might want to consider getting Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus” books. You’re gonna love them. No, seriously, trust me. You may not agree with him on everything, but here is this very smart, very erudite, very humble man who spent 70 years of his life thinking about Jesus and then distilled it into these three books. You’re going to get five hundred different amazing ideas from these books, for sure.

Second, I know that wherever you are, not far from you, there is a Catholic parish, and this Catholic parish offers Eucharistic adoration. And I would suggest that, maybe just a few times, maybe just out of curiosity, maybe just for a place to sit in peace and quiet, but just a few times, on the very off chance that this is actually Jesus truly present, you go at your local Catholic parish and sit at Eucharistic adoration, and maybe even pray, or just read the Bible. Just go there a few times, for a few minutes. Don’t be afraid of feeling stupid, that’s normal.

So, yeah, what I’m saying is that you should go to church, lol.

Think about it.

Happy seeking.

Shalom.

 

P.S. What’s up with the hair, man?

 

 

 

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