What #robbell Might Be Missing in #lovewins

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve watched the videos and I’ve read reviews, and I read a post this week by Greg Boyd which attempted to show the logical inconsistencies of moral determinism (pardon the lack of links – I’m posting this via the WordPress for iOS app).

Greg’s post is entirely theological in its reasoning. He does not seem to take into account sociological or anthropological rationale. And neither does Rob Bell when, in interviews, he repeatedly insists on human freedom. In fact, Rob’s commitment to total human freedom, even after death, seems thoroughgoing.

This is called “rational actor theory” by social theorists, and it posits that human beings are free and conscious actors who independently determine their behavior.  Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith, for example, subscribes to a version of this theory (see his books, Moral Believing Animals and What Is a Person?).

I am not. I subscribe to a type of post-Marxist theory called “post-structuralism.” We are, each of us, bound up in structures and super-structures of sociality that determine and even dictate a large percentage of our behavior. In fact, much of our lives are spent in the self-deluded state that we’re choosing what we do. We don’t actually have much freedom at all, and our choices in life are strikingly limited.

Rob has been talking a lot about freedom, stating that love requires freedom and using anecdotes that corroborate that. How could a God who gives us so much freedom, Rob asks, not give us unlimited choices for heaven over hell?

But how much freedom do you really have? You weren’t free to choose the family into which you were born, or the society in which you were reared. By the time you’d reached late adolescence and your moral and religious proclivities were set, you’d had virtually no freedom.

Further, Rob’s claims of near absolute human freedom betray his status as a human being of enormous privilege. I doubt that a woman living in rural Afghanistan or a man living in the slums of Juarez experience much freedom.

If our lives are, as I suspect, largely dictated by unseen social structures, it may not have much to do with our eternal destinies, but it does seem to undermine Rob’s primary thesis.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE: Scot cribbed some of this post and has a good conversation going there, too.

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  • Tony,

    This is a thoughtful critique. Thanks for posting it.

  • Isn’t this where grace comes in?

    Yes our freed0m–the exceptional sign of the divine image within us–is diminished by sin, including (perhaps even most especially) sinful social structures (racism, sexism, fascism, militarism, homophobia, classism, etc.). But it is by the gift of God’s grace that we are able to bring the relationship between God and human beings (and between each other) into full flower. Isn’t that what the Church has historically taught?

  • Tony, reading the book I also took issue with the overwhelming emphasis on human freedom. If I were to make the argument, I think I would do so on the basis of God’s commitment to reconcile all that God creates for which God has purposed an eschatological consummation. In other words, rather than begin my thesis with the human capacity to choose, I would begin with God’s commitment to reconcile all things and locate that in the context of creation and eschatological consummation. Of course, I think we ought to leave room for the possibility of our rejection of God’s eschatological blessing. However, that would not even be close to being the extent of my thesis as, I think you rightly observe, it is for Rob.

  • Tony,
    I had these same thoughts though not from a stated position as a “post-structuralist.” Maybe it is because in my undergrad I might have thought post-structuralism to be related to architecture since at one time that was my trajectory. In a course in college, Intellectual History of the United States , we discussed this very issue in the context of arguments for freedom important to our political theories and accompanying assertions.

    Thanks for offering a similar track via social theory. Good stuff.

  • Fascinating post, thanks! I’m a sociology student and am always happy to see theologians engaging social theory.

    My reading of Christian Smith’s “What is a Person?” leads me to believe he does not subscribe to rational actor theory (see p. 317-329). In both that book and “Moral, Believing Animals” Smith seems to me to have a healthy appreciation for the interplay between structure and agency. He also appreciates not only the capacities of individuals and groups to shape and construct the social world, but also the causal influences social structures have upon people.

    So I’m wondering, is there a specific place in Smith’s books that you’re drawing your statement from? Thanks.

  • I’d be interested to read your take on the book.

    Still, your take on human freedom – or the lack there0f – has a certain resonance with what I said in my Lutheran liturgy every Sunday of my childhood, teen, and college years: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and we cannot free ourselves …” We are in bondage to a system of sin, and we cannot free ourselves. I know that you’re not necessarily talking about a system of sin, but a system nonetheless that greatly limits our freedom.

    The one thing that really struck me about Bell’s book – which I did read – was his insistence that love requires freedom, and thus the nature of love puts a check on God’s nature, God’s power, and God’s interaction with people, with history, with the world. From the book:
    “For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is.” – Love Wins, pgs. 103, 104

    The freedom that Bell claims is inherent in love actually restricts God, “God has to play by the same rules we do.” I don’t have any clearly articulated theological or philosophical paradigm to contrast with Bell’s, but I know that this whole notion of love and freedom, particularly as some sort of broader rule of the universe that binds even the actions of God, doesn’t sit quite right with me. (He returns to love and freedom on pg. 113 and following.) I need a better, or different, explanation.

    Still, overall I enjoyed the book, and appreciate the contribution its making to Christian conversation on these matters.

  • JoeyS

    Eh, you might be overstating Rob’s take on Freedom. In the book it seems that freedom is simply a condition of love, rather than a social theory that pervades everything else. He discusses the consequence of choice, which is another assault on freedom if he meant it in a wider sense like you are suggesting.

  • I read the book and I don’t come away with the impression that you’re guessing at here. It is more along the lines of a process of developing a well balanced, majestic personality as we go through whatever circumstances we find ourselves in at any given moment. We are not on our own, we are not judged for things we don’t know or understand, we are always in God’s grace and love. This is freedom. There is great responsibility on our part to respond well…however long it might take.

  • Brian

    Seems like there’s some room in between a hard determinism and total freedom. I’m not sure, but it sounds like that’s what Tony’s articulating. (‘Proclivities’ may be set, but we also know that people do change religious beliefs after adolescence. ) We still make choices within those limitations, no?

    Either way, unless there is a hard determinism like a double-predestination (and I know our Calvinist friends would object to characterizing it as determinism, but those distinctions are lost on me) I don’t think this changes the overall thrust of Rob’s book.

  • Good perspective, Tony. You sound a lot like Hauerwas. I remember him once saying, “I’d take a benevolent dictator over a president any day…at least then people wouldn’t live under the delusion that they are free.”

  • Chris: “We are in bondage to a system of sin, and we cannot free ourselves. I know that you’re not necessarily talking about a system of sin, but a system nonetheless that greatly limits our freedom.”

    I think that any stem which greatly limits our freedom is by definition sinful. (Remember the difference betweeen license and authentic freedom; those systems which properly guide us in living out God’s plan for us foster rather than diminish our freedom.)

    “True freedom is not advanced in the permissive society, which confuses freedom with license to do anything whatever and which in the name of freedom proclaims a kind of general amorality. It is a caricature of freedom to claim that people are free to organize their lives with no reference to moral values, and to say that society does not have to ensure the protection and advancement of ethical values. Such an attitude is destructive of freedom and peace.” – Pope John Paul II

  • Scot Miller

    Tony– Excellent observations. I think you’re right, that Bell’s emphasis on “freedom” may actually be placing the issue of salvation in a thoroughly modern framework (which seems to be framework occupied by Bell’s conservative/Calvinist critics). Modernity certainly emphasizes the necessity of freedom for moral responsibility. Retributive justice would require that a morally responsible wrongdoer be punished for their freely committed acts of wrongdoing. It would therefore be unjust for a finite, created being to be given infinite punishment for a finite amount of evil. (Of course, human freedom would be meaningless if there are no consequences for one’s action, if everyone gets the same reward regardless of her behavior. Bell does not seem to be arguing for that, only that eventually God’s persuasive love will “win.”)

    I am not a social theorist, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read post-structuralism, but I think you’re onto something important here. I think your most effective criticism of Bell’s notion of freedom is your comment, “Rob’s claims of near absolute human freedom betray his status as a human being of enormous privilege. I doubt that a woman living in rural Afghanistan or a man living in the slums of Juarez experience much freedom.”

    My hunch is that human beings are more strongly determined by antecedent conditions in their lives (e.g., language, culture, biology, sociology, etc.) than they are free in a way that truly transcends their antecedent conditions. Perhaps human beings have the ability to be “free,” but that would be an exception, not the rule. Almost nobody is truly free. I’m not sure what this means for one’s eternal destiny.

  • I’m not a “social theorist,” although I majored in social theory in college; I’m a local church pastor. And I get what Tony’s saying about the often-unrecognized effect of structures – both organizations and patterns of behavior and thought – on our lives and beliefs.

    But I’m reminded of the line from Monty Python: “It’s a fair cop, but society is to blame.” Or the various excuses and rationalizations in Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story.

    I wonder if it’s more about moral agency, rather than absolute “freedom,” as Tony suggests. Does this betray Tony’s intellectual bias? Does my question hint at my own? Yes and yes.

    But – still waiting for my copy of Bell’s book to arrive – I suspect that, if asked, Bell would argue for our individual moral agency, our ability to choose even when our choices are limited by situation, and not some ideal and unlimited “freedom.” For if we are not moral agents, then we cannot be held responsible for anything.

  • Tony, I’m with JoeyS in that I think you may be overstating his emphasis on freedom. Little more of both/and in then one that either/or.

    The question is not, “Do we have total and absolute freedom in everything.” I don’t see Rob using that phrase. The question is, “Do we have freedom in this one thing, to accept or reject God/humanity?”

    The problem is then are we subject to conditions that influence our acceptance/rejection of God/humanity? Science is teaching us that we’re deeply affected and even controlled by our conditioning. Our bodies experience what’s called “confirmation bias” which searches for evidence to support what we have logically concluded and ignore that which we haven’t concluded.

  • Hi Tony,
    This is a thoughtful response to Rob’s position – I haven’t yet read the book, but have read numerous “reviews”, and watched his video. I agree that much, if not most of our behavior is driven by the circumstances of our birth and the social/cultural structures in which we live. Seems that if we stop to truly consider the implications of these factors on our personal choice and freedom, we’ll have to revisit much of our theology with these issues in mind.
    Best to you,
    Susie White

  • @Chris Duckworth above, I wonder if it helps at all to think of the act of creation as a kenotic act–that is, as self-emptying. In both creation and incarnation (which are intimately related in the Christian story, the same Word through whom we came into being became flesh to redeem us), there is an emptying. That entails some self-limitation. So it isn’t so much love itself as a rule of the universe that curtails God but rather God’s self-emptying love in creating the universe.

    Just a thought.

    As for overplaying freedom, I don’t know how compelling I find post-structuralism here, actually. I have nothing against post-structuralism. It’s frequently a helpful model to describe the micropolitics of power. I don’t see why it needs to translate to a hard determinism–that because our freedom is conditioned by the power relations in which we are embedded, there is therefore no freedom. I don’t take that to be the point at all but then, my appropriation is different.

    What I’d say theologically is that we are bound to a system of sin and death, subject to corruption and futility. These are all things that limit our freedom. I think reading power relations through this lens works, too. In grace, we’re freedom from bondage to the law of sin and death–we are not bound absolutely, then, even if we still feel the effects of sin. Our freedom is intact if conditioned.

    I think though, coming back to the kenotic point, that the real insight with respect to freedom, here, is that God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive as a result of God’s act of creation, then our freedom is intact, if conditioned. We may be limited by social structures but we aren’t compelled by God.

    So…where, exactly, does God fit into your post-structuralism?

  • Scott Painter

    Tony – Perhaps it is the post-death state (Bell and N.T. Wright both reference this opportunity to move away from choices of eternal separation from God) in which we experience true freedom from all of the structures in which our material lives were bound up. (Of course, I’m sounding like more of a dualist than I really am!) Perhaps that moment when we “see him as he is” is the moment we we are truly the most free to make the ultimate choice.

  • Ben Hammond

    As someone who is familiar with continental philosophy and post-structural theory (and ascribes to much of it) I read the book and feel like the freedom theory you are placing on Bell is too strong.

    Some of the arguments he uses tell of people who are not “free” to easily choose God because of life circumstances. Such as, “what about a girl who grew up with her father raping her while reciting the Lord’s Prayer? …and then she dies before she ever has a chance to ‘choose Jesus’?” I read that as him acknowledging, even arguing, that because of how much our circumstances shape us it doesn’t seem just that God would punish people eternally (to use the traditional phrase) when they were handed stuff in life that makes it tremendously difficult to make a choice that is really easy for others.

    Also, if he still ascribes to most of what he thought when he did the “everything is spiritual” tour then he would not think what you are suggesting either.

    My assumption is that he would not talk about anything at the level of post-structural theory (if he does ascribe to any of it) in a 100 page book (that would be a 40 page book if he wasn’t obsessed with the ‘return’ key) written for a very non-academic audience.

  • Greg Wack

    My guess is, as I read Love Wins, is that Rob Bell would disagree that he limits God. He might say, simply put, God has decided that love wins, no matter what.

  • Jim Krill

    Uh… read the book. It’s not that long. It will take you all but 2 hours.

    I’m just saying, when you start a critique with “I haven’t read the book but…” it sort of disqualifies you from saying anything.

  • I’m almost halfway through the book now, so I don’t have the ability to say I agree or disagree with your supposition, Tony, but this part of your comment makes me wonder how to scale your view of God as creator and giver of grace within the scale of Bell’s strongest Calvinist critics on the one extreme and your interpretation of Bell’s over-leveraging of freedom on the other:

    “You weren’t free to choose the family into which you were born, or the society in which you were reared. By the time you’d reached late adolescence and your moral and religious proclivities were set, you’d had virtually no freedom.”

    Is this interpretation at the median of my spectrum or lean more to a reality that neither those who are chosen/elected or unchosen/unelected really have no choice in their moral determination or merely limited choice or opportunity? Does that limit God’s grace or instead require a greater emphasis on God saving all based on our limited ability to determine our own moral path?

    I’m asking purely out of curiosity and understanding. I have no idea myself and am re-forming all that I once thought I knew or believed, hence while I’m reading “Love Wins” among others like it.

  • I totally agree that we are conditioned in large part by our societal and other contexts, and that these structures help determine many things about us. But couldn’t part of the beauty of the gospel be that in the midst of these “confinements” Jesus in facts reaffirms that over some things we do have a choice. In fact, over the most important things: what we do with God, how we treat others, how we choose to live in response to these structures, whether or not to embrace love and self-sacrifice as our modus operandi.

    Couldn’t part of the freedom of the gospel simply be from the slavery of the things that seem to determine us? That we are offered a liberty and creative rebellion from the determining forces that seem to completely determine us? Maybe Jesus’ life example and death serves to illustrate the very real freedom we have through the power of the Spirit. After all, his contextual conditioning should have led him down a very different life path.

    If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.

  • Agreed that Bell’s starting point is God’s love, which he says requires freedom. However, I don’t think he’s making the case for libertarian freedom vs. post-structuralist understandings. I hear him stating positively something that can also be stated negatively; coercion of any kind has no place in love. It’s on this basis that Rob says he’s not a universalist, because universalism, as it’s generally thought of as all people are in heaven, would involve coercion. So while Rob talks about the presence of choice in love, the other side of the coin is the absence of coercion in love.

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  • BrianMpei

    Theories are lovely but real life is often something all together different.

    “Rob’s claims of near absolute human freedom betray his status as a human being of enormous privilege. I doubt that a woman living in rural Afghanistan or a man living in the slums of Juarez experience much freedom.”

    I haven’t been to either but I’ve worked with Chinese nationals on both the low end and high end of their economic spectrum and in both cases found people who felt very free in many ways. I’ve also made relationships with people in 3rd world countries, some of whom had AIDS and still many of them felt a great deal of freedom but perhaps it was because their hopes, dreams and goals in life weren’t the North American dream.

    People are far more complex and far more resilient and adaptable than social structure theories might suggest.

    I also work with people in addictions. Addicts come from every walk of life, every social structure. Those who I know who have chosen recovery don’t get there by social structures and in fact often choose recovery despite the dominant social structure of which they are a part.

    Are we influenced by “powers and principalities” like education, economics, family systems, etc.? Without doubt. But freedom can still be found and observed despite their influence being true.

  • I see trying to make a post-structuralist argument, but I think that opens up the post-structuralist movement to critique. If you are, in no ostensible way, free–then there’s no way out. There isn’t a place for grace, as many have said here, but perhaps worse to me, there’s simply no purpose.

    It’s Kafka–we’re just trying to find another way to be a better cockroach but for not. Where is there any trace of a Christian tradition in that? I truly love and appreciate Derrida for the tool-box he gave us, but this is where I fail to see its merits for religion.

  • Dan Hauge

    I think you bring up some good points against your own pre-construction of Bell’s book (sounds like people who have actually read the book have a bit of a different take on Bell’s view). I particularly appreciate the next to last paragraph–how much of our assumptions of our total freedom actually stem from our privilege.

    However, your version of post-structuralism does seem overly radically deterministic to me. Do we really have no choice at all about what we believe, how we live? If so, it would seem that genuine religious or ideological conversion would be, by definition, impossible. Yet people do radically change their views, even in adulthood, quite frequently. You yourself have changed many of your views within the past decade. How was this possible, since your moral and religious proclivities were set by adolescence?

    I totally agree that social structures do, to an extent, bracket our possibilities for thought and behavior. But it can’t be as absolutely deterministic as you suggest. If structures preclude all choice or freedom, to the drastic extent that you appear to believe, how is any kind of social transformation possible? How is it possible at all that we can participate in God’s transforming work of creation, if we truly have no choice at all whether or not we change our minds on anything? What is the point of a prophetic call to think and act differently from the status quo of our consumeristic, imperialist culture, since it is by definition impossible for us to be otherwise?

    And if that’s not what we are called to (since you have suggested in the past that you no longer see the church as a community embodying counter-cultural values), what exactly is the point of the gospel? If the only message we can take with us is “go with the flow of the culture you were born into, you have no choice to do otherwise anyway,” frankly, that doesn’t seem like much of a gospel, or kingdom announcement.

    I have a suspicion that your views can’t be as deterministic as they sound in this post, hence the pushback :)–I’d like to hear more.

  • Korey

    Isn’t the notion of freedom itself a total conundrum? You also didn’t choose to exist. And by the time there is some independent emergent “you” acting with some top down causality, you didn’t get to influence the formation of this “you” because you weren’t formed yet. I still maintain that freedom makes no sense given my mental limitations, yet without it so much else makes no sense and renders life somewhat devoid of meaning.

    You also seem to contradict yourself a bit. First you claim that we have very little freedom. Then you distinguish between Rob’s greater freedom in comparison to the poor and oppressed. Perhaps you are operating with different meanings of the word freedom in this post?

    Another question. You say that “We don’t actually have much freedom at all, and our choices in life are strikingly limited.” Can you think of any examples where you think we are free to choose?

    Despite my criticisms, thanks for the thought provoking posts. Even if Rob Bell’s book may only be an excuse to ponder freedom.

  • Jeff Rensch

    Measuring freedom seems all wrong. It would have no size and would be something pinprick sized that expanded infinitely wise, or however else this might be expressed. Seems wrong to say we have a lot, seems wrong to say we only have a little or none. I am on Rob’s side mostly on this one.

  • Two things:

    1) You should probably read the book BEFORE attempting to start an in depth critique of it.

    2) Having read the book myself, I think that while Rob does emphasize freedom as a condition of love (i.e. God’s love for us requires God to not force us, but to give us the freedom to freely choose or reject God), I think he is also sensitive to your post-structuralist concerns. In fact, that is precisely why he thinks we may need more opportunities post-mortem to choose God. If our freedom and choices really are as limited as a post-structuralist theory would imply, then it makes sense that some would need more than just this lifetime to get to a point where they could freely chose God.

  • Andy

    As someone who ACTUALLY read the entire book and studied along side it the whole time…greek and all. I can say that although the theology is really messed up and wonky (if that’s a word) the message is powerful and important. I don’t care how he got to the message of his book but NO ONE can argue the message with in it…Does Bell have a messed up idea of eternity YES does he miss the mark on Hell…somewhat but the message of coming at life from the love of Christ…that is BANG on and a message that needs to be heard. I do not like his methods but the message in this book are good and thought provoking.

  • Tony, I think you’ll have to read the book. I’m a Wesleyan and I didn’t feel he emphasized freedom to the extent you’re describing. Most reviews have been from Neo-Calvinist reactionaries.
    He doesn’t actually take a position in the book. He rejects the inadequacies of the traditional view (in an effort to identify with nonbelievers who stumble over it.) Then he presents about 4 minority views through the ages and says you can still be a Christian and believe these.
    It’s an evangelism book written to eternal punishment skeptics. He invites them to believe anyway, saying he shares sone of their skepticism.
    This is only secondarily a book about hell/human freedom.
    What I call hyperCalvinists have seized on free will, but Bell never actually owns the most radically free view, nor does he even imply it’s air tight. He just says some have always believed it so it shouldn’t be a barrier to faith for the skeptic. It’s a heart-felt book mostly, as his publishing eve webcast demonstrated.

  • I’ve also been deeply influenced by post-structuralism and find libertarian individualism off putting, and I didn’t find any in his book. I think what Bell might say is that we’re given a choice between living out two stories in our lives: God’s story—which is fundamentally a generous, life-giving story—and a false, ungenerous story, which is told in two different ways by the two brothers in the prodigal son parable. The closed nature of the post-structuralist story the world gives us is precisely why we need the open story of the kingdom of God working in our lives.

    To agree with someone upthread, I don’t think Bell takes his position because of any libertarianism. His “love wins” position is ultimately founded on God’s sovereignty: love wins because that’s what God wants.

  • Greg Boyd and his open\relational friends have plenty of of non-theological accounts of this notion of freedom.

    Personally i’m interested in how you can be a post-structuralist and into Moltmann. For Moltmann it is precisely the presence of God as the world’s future that opens up the possibility of freedom, creativity, the new etc. I think its in the ‘coming of God’ that he points out such post-marxist accounts of reality tend to have such an explanatory hubris that it necessitates a God-World relationship in which the World is alien to God and divine action is necessarily an intervention undermining Creation’s integrity.

  • Matt

    It could just be me (a distinct possibility, btw), but there seems to be a lot of talk in this thread that comes from a place of cerebrally-processed academic theories. This sort of reasoning, in my opinion, can sometimes cause us to ‘outthink the room,’ so to speak. The book in question is called “Love Wins” and some of these responses seem more fitting as a critique of a book called “Logic Wins” or something. *please note that I actually think some of these thoughts bear merit and are very well constructed. And yes, Tony, you should read the book. Not a ton of ‘new’ thoughts in it as far as theology is concerned, but it’s very good. Chapter 7 was my favorite.

  • oh man this is taking me back to my college sociology classes (I was a soc major). I’d say regardless of whether its true freedom or merely a perception of freedom the point remains the same. We all live within a context and are operating within some sort of system, and it’s even more unbelievable that God would hold these circumstances against us.

  • As a family therapist, I’ve been using post-structural approaches to counseling/therapy for years. It is exciting to see these narratives and discussions making their way into the more dominant stories of our time. Every day I talk with people and together we confront the oppressive systems in their lives. I have witnessed the liberating steps toward freedom, even when these people appeared to have no hope of escape. I imagine this is possible only with the intervention of some resource outside the system. The gift of Rob Bell’s book is that this intervention for all of us is Love.

  • I tend to agree that we our behavior is largely, and in many (most?) cases exhaustively, determined by the social structures we find ourselves in.

    The free-will dilemma has taken up a lot of my mental real estate lately, and I’m very interested in what you think about free-will on a scientific level – do you believe that 1) free-will exists, but we’re so influenced by our surroundings as to render it almost impotent or 2) every word I’m typing right now was determined exhaustively at the big bang?

    As I said, I agree that our behavior is largely determined, but for several reasons, primarily my faith in God, I believe that genuine free-will does exist. I’ve come to think that God is what allows us to be free, that the Spirit of God within us (however that may occur) loosens the chains our societies have us bound in to make genuine choices about our lives.

    I realize that this line of thought could be a road to Calvinism, but that’s not where I’m going. But that is another discussion!

    by the way, enjoyed your thoughts on the Drew Marshall show!

  • OK, setting aside the fact that Bell doesn’t take a position officially and is simply trying to get people who can’t accept eternal punishment philosophically to consider having faith in Christ anyway…are we asking how Bell could reframe the issue in a way that’s nuanced by post-structuralist cosiderations? Since his goal is evangelism he’s implying that each person needs to make a choice to accept God’s version of our story. He’s also saying that in any satisfying view of salvation, God gets what he wants. Since God is not willing that any should perish, Love Wins. Free will is preserved in the most progressive model he presents by giving endless choices and the gate to “heaven” is always open (similar to the great divorce by Lewis).
    So maybe he’s already dealt with post-structuralism concerns indirectly? But keep in mind Bell is only quoting minority views from church history. He’s not putting forward a new view or even championing a particular view.
    So I think at most one might have issue with one or more of these views having gaps, but the argument wouldn’t be with Bell it would be with Origen, Lewis, etc…

  • I’ve read and the book and I don’t see bell discussing our human freedom in that broad of a spectrum. He merely says that love requires a choice. By saying this, he is mostly addressing the issues of universalism claiming that he assumes God will not FORCE anyone to be saved/restored/reconciled/or in heaven.

    Also, he doesn’t say that God WILL get what God wants… He starts with that question but ends with the idea that God will give us what we want.

  • But in giving us what we want he’s eventually getting what he wants. That’s clearly Bell’s dual implication. (God’s) Love Wins.

  • The most shocking part of the Love Wins, to me, was when he talked about how greed is not being happy with the life God gave you. It seemed so utterly unfair a statement, and ignorant of the extremely comfortable life he himself has.

    Lisa Delpit says the number one way to reinforce power is to deny its existence. What bothers me most about this book is that it promotes what is largely a Protestant, white, liberal view of heaven and freedom that is ignorant of cultural nuance or even the possibility that others can conceive of the afterlife differently. At times, it seemed like an attempt to colonize heaven!

    I’m a teacher, and one of my students is living in a hotel with her parents and three siblings. To say that her envy and want for another life is sinful because she “isn’t happy with the life God gave her” is an egregious statement theologically, culturally, and politically.

    Overall, the book seemed rushed, underdeveloped, and like he was trying too hard to be “all things to all people.” If he has the chance to say truly amazing things in his position and doesn’t say them, that disappoints me. What made me most upset is that he didn’t cite Doug Frank’s book A Gentler God, a book I know for a fact he drew from.

  • Matt

    I, too, am a teacher. Almost 80% of the students in my school receive a free and reduced-cost lunch. I live in a community of devastating poverty for many, so I suppose that’s why I find it interesting that you’ve taken such a firm stance against Bell’s “comfortable” lifestyle as a reaction to reading this book when I had no such response (and poverty being ignored by the Church is something I’m really sensitive to). It feels a bit like you’ve got a larger bone to pick with him by using language like “I know for a fact” that he used Frank’s book as a resource. That’s a bit of a reach, no? Where’s this anger coming from? (I’m legitimately asking, not poking the bear).
    Grace and Peace,

  • Dan Hauge

    In other news, Tony’s prediction for 2010 about Universalism becoming a ‘hot topic’ in the evangelical world turns out to be off only by a few months. Guess it took a #robbell to make it happen . . .

  • traci smith

    This is one of my favorite theology blogs because I find the author to be fair, thoughtful, intelligent, and wise. I also like the content of this blog, and its variety. This post troubles me for one simple reason. “I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve read reviews, watched videos and read other people’s posts about it…” I’m glad this was acknowledged in the first sentence, because I stopped reading after that. While I have no doubt that there is fair, thoughtful, intelligent, and wise commentary to be made about Rob Bell’s new book. Why not read the book first?

    I love to cook, and when I search out new recipes on some of my favorite food blogs, I always check the comments section to read anecdotes of other chefs who have prepared the dish. It’s extremely helpful for me to find out how the recipe worked for them, how they would tweak it to make it better, etc. On the other hand, it’s so frustrating to have to wade through a million comments that pretend to imagine what the dish will be like, even if the commenter has made similar dishes, knows a lot about cooking, etc.

    Maybe it’s a poor analogy, but I thought I’d throw it out there for future posts. What do you think? Is there a compelling reason not to read the book first?

  • John Mc

    Just working through my thoughts here.

    With human society comes human structures. We are in bondage to the structures we are born into. No one is immune, rich or poor. Who we are is determined by the structures we are born into – even our theologies are determined accordingly. Nevertheless, we retain a certain limited agency. Within the inescapable structures into which we are born, we are able, with enough intelligence and often with external human guidance, to discern alternatives beyond the structures we are bound to. And sometimes it is possible, by an act of personal will, to break free of our structural limitations on one front or another. Ultimate and inescapable death is at the core of most human structures, as is the need for personal and economic security until we die. And I think it important to note that most social structures incorporate notions of God in their support.

    But the clear message to me of the Incarnation, is that God does not support any human structure, but offers an alternative to the oppression of human structures. God and the in-breaking Kingdom which Jesus announced and brought with him offers hope of breaking free from all human structures, to a limited extent in this life, and in a more complete sense in the life to come.

    The Kingdom cannot be founded on coercion, or it will be jut another structure. So the Kingdom must be based on the opposite of coercion, and that is persuasion, and the most seductive form of persuasion is love.

    Interesting that not only is love the tool of persuasion used by God, but is the core of the Kingdom life offered by God – the medium of communication and the mode of life in the Kingdom.

    The problem of the evangelist, is to communicate the message of the Kingdom and the possibility of escape from bondage which it offers, and to do so in a persuasive way, which communicates the message effectively with those in bondage.

    The problem of the agent, is to discern the truth of his or her agency, and to seize the hope offer by God.

  • Hey, everyone, thanks so much for the great commentary. I was traveling yesterday, so I’m afraid I didn’t get to respond to singular comments (I think I’ll add on of those comment string plug-ins — does anyone have a recommendation on that?). However, here are some of my responses:

    Regarding the book: I admitted up front that I haven’t read it yet. That’s not what I’m basing this post on. I’m basing it on the many interviews I’ve watched of Rob in the past two weeks. I think that is entirely fair. We develop critiques of politicians all the time based on their speeches and interviews. I will read the book and I will post on it.

    In the interviews I’ve seen, Rob has repeatedly and consistently talked about human freedom. He’s also talked about God’s freedom, which many of you mention in your comments. But that’s not what I’ve been struck by in the interviews — I’ve been struck by Rob’s portrayal of human freedom, which I take to be overdetermined and somewhat naive.

    Those of you who’ve read the book seem to say that Rob does not overdetermine human freedom in the book. Well then, either he’s not communicating that well in the interviews, or I’m mishearing him.

    Regarding human freedom and post-structuralism: As some of you have noticed, I take a middle position, but I lean toward post-structuralism. That is, I think that human beings have a certain amount of freedom, but it is within limits that are defined by social structures, many of which we do not recognize.

    Regarding Tripp’s question about my affinity for Moltmann and post-structuralism: A) I don’t think Moltmann is right about everything, and B) I agree with him that Marxism itself overstates itself, which is why I favor Bourdieu’s middle ground.

    Regarding heaven: Will heaven be truly POST-structural? That is, are the structures that silently bind us among the shackles that will fall away upon death, thereby allowing one and all to see Jesus and make a truly free choice for eternal salvation? That’s an intriguing idea, and I’ll be keenly looking for that suggestion when I read Rob’s book. But I also wonder if that vision of heaven is too dualistic — I mean, the Disciples did see the scars in Jesus’ post-resurrection body.

    I really appreciate the many great comments so far. The bottom line for me is that practical theology — my field — is an enterprise ALWAYS grounded in social analysis, so I’m immediately skeptical when this layer seems to be missing in biblical studies and systematic theology.

  • Oh, and one more thing:

    Regarding Christian Smith: Yes, he definitely recognizes defining structures. He holds to a middle path, like me, but I think he leans toward rational actor theory whilst I lean toward post-structuralism.

  • Charles

    Annie said: “God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive as a result of God’s act of creation, then our freedom is intact, if conditioned. We may be limited by social structures but we aren’t compelled by God.”

    Aren’t we subject to untold amounts of conditioning? Aren’t we a direct result of an entire lifetime of experience? I have a difficult time believing that an omniscient and all loving God would not be aware of that. So the position of truly independent and volitionary choosing becomes much weaker – and the notion of election, to me, becomes preposterous. (Thanks Jon)

    Paul seems to understand this… “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

  • Steve Smallwood

    My question concerning Rob Bell’s thesis is the whole understanding of time in eternity. If there is no “time and space” in eternity–at least not time that is dictated by revolving around our sun–how long does eternity really last? While these issues are interesting for us to consider from a modernist perspective–I think they’ll find little traction with those from a postmodern philosophical orientation. Do we really think we can take an ancient document, written in the context of ancient worldviews and make conclusive statements about the nature of eternity and the afterlife. Perhaps laser point definition doesn’t exist in Scripture by intention. Perhaps if we can’t dangle the next generation’s feet over the fires of hell, we’ll have to demonstrate authentic biblical community to attract and keep a following?! We must proceed with humiility and confidence–“with faith.”

  • Jeff Straka

    I get what you are saying about contextual/societal/privileged freedom, but consider the crowd Jesus would have told the “Prodigal Son” parable to (which Bell skillfully unpacks in chapter 7). They would have been HEAVILY restricted in THEIR personal freedom.

  • Doesn’t this all depend on how we define individual freedom?

    “…the freedom to alter situations by reinterpreting them and, by so doing, seeing oneself as a person in a new perspective. Once this happens, there are new beginnings, new actions to undertake in the world.” –Maxine Greene, Dialectic of Freedom, pg 90

    Greene argues that individual freedom is to name a gap between who we are and who we desire to be and making an intentional effort to cross that gap (pg 95).

    I think this goes along with a post-structuralist way of looking at things because individual freedom is meant to be exercised for the purpose of shaping the future of communities and even nations. Otherwise freedom is just an absence of restraint.

    Paulo Freire would say that the ultimate goal of freedom is for the teacher and student to learn together and the teacher to love and show compassion for the student. The only true human nature is the one that challenges us to reenvision ourselves as something new and then strive toward that goal.

    I haven’t read the book, but I imagine that how you define freedom colors how you read what Bell has written.

  • I’m having so much fun reading these posts. My two favorite topics in one place, post-structuralism and theology. You can’t imagine how I’ve longed for this kind of dialogue. My faith tribe has no box for this. My vocation tribe has only a little more tolerance for half of it. This is part of the beauty of Bell’s book: the dialogue it is making possible. He has opened up new possibilities just by asking the questions. Thank God for Rob Bell’s free will.

  • Tim Stidham

    I would agree that some of the interviews have been almost full-on Palagian, even humanistic. I’m not sure why. He must think the people he wants to reach are questioning Christianity on philosophical terms from a humanistic perspective. The book and almost everything I’ve ever heard from Bell previously have been more biblical.
    But I think Lon is right above, that God’s love is the key element for Bell, the ground of our freedom.
    As for his point about longing for a different life…i think about the people of Haiti singing songs of praise after a devastating earthquake. But I do think Bell would want to qualify his statement (children, abuse, etc…) and his audience is North American adults who have enough money to buy his book. We’re pretty good at wanting more even when we’re blessed…

  • I love it when WASP’s throwing around three dollar words like post-structural critique privileged positions… isn’t it ironic, don’t ya think?

    Rather than posting the whole of my thoughts on the issue here, I’ll just link to it.


  • Matt,

    Here’s how I know: http://twitpic.com/1rjfhi

    It isn’t reaching to say he drew from it because I’ve read both books and I see multiple parallels between the works. I don’t really see my calling that out as anger.

  • Kyle Nolan

    Do defining structures hold even after death? I think this is the only case in which Tony’s position would undermine Rob’s argument.

  • Matt

    Thanks for your response. I’ll start by saying that quite a bit of tone/intended feeling can be lost in translation. If I’m misreading your intent, my fault.

    However, I’m not concerned anywhere near as much with what you said as I am how you said it. For example, your first response to the query of “How do Know?” was a link to the picture of the book you’re saying he borrows from. To me, and maybe I’m alone, that seems arrogant and a tad elitist. It feels like you’re saying you know “for a fact” (a statement indicative of a sense of authority on a matter in question) simply because you feel like it. That’s not objective. And drawing parallels, however close, does not solidify that one author borrowed from another. What you’re suggesting is that he has plagiarized to some degree, an illegal act. That is a character/moral critique (one, in this case, that sounded to me like an attack). My initial and only question was one of assumption that only someone who is bitter/angry or holier-than-thou would make. Again, assumpiond are dangerous, so I should have been clearer in my questioning. I didn’t mean to come across as a jerk. Sorry if I have, it’s not my intention. 🙂

  • It does seem an overstatement to say one knows for a fact. However, Rob could make it easier if he ever used a single footnote! He tends to draw from the general trough of interpretation, but since he’s exploring minority views and referencing the history of Christian thought, some references would be good.

  • Matt

    Great point, Tim.

    And, again, Alex…please don’t take what I’m saying as a personal attack. I know how the interwebs can make things sound sometimes.

  • I do think part of the problem is the content is being taken/interpreted as something which it’s maker might say is not the genre it was conceived in. Artists use different language games than systematic theologians.


  • It also just occurred to me that this morning Tony made it clear he was referring to Rob’s interviews. In these there was almost no systematic content. More like heart-felt free will evangelist pleadings. “God is good and you can choose him.” The possibilities of universalism offered as a reason to commit now.
    And I suppose this idea of a right now offer to accept God’s version of the story over live TV could have all sorts of issues. But I think he’s decided that a certain range of people can comprehend this and may have been considering this move for some time. So there would be more validity to the offer. Especially since most didn’t see.
    Come to think of it in a way thus reminds me of some of Paul Tillichs tactics. Sometimes with him a lecture was the old time existentialist gospel hour!

  • This post is totally useless in the sense that it doesn’t actually attempt in any meaningful way to understand Rob’s view. It comes off as a pretty blatant attempt to drive traffic to Tony’s blog with a little convo about freedom mixed in on the side.

    Like I said, Tony, read the book and then I’d love to hear your views on what Rob misses and doesn’t miss in “Love Wins.” As far as the comments here, those who’ve taken the time to read the book seem to be clear that you’ve overstated/misrepresented Rob’s view which tends to happen when you rely on television interviews while ignoring the book that, at this time, all this conversation revolves around.

    As far as Tony’s view of freedom, when it comes to our life now, I totally agree that our circumstances limit what we choose. It would be very convenient of me to believe that Christianity is the only way to God in light of the fact that I was born in America and was raised by Christian parents. What a coincidence!! As Tony brought up, what about the girl in Afghanistan or some decidedly non-Christian part of the world? Why would God allow the choice to be so easy for me and not for her?

    My hope would be that in the next life we experience God to a degree that whatever hindered us or obscured our view of God’s true face would dissipate and our choice would become a true choice, free from whatever social structures or life circumstances that guide or determine our choices today. I believe that God would be patient with us to make this kind of choice when it is truly a choice, regardless if we are living in this life or the next.

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  • I read about post-structuralism in the link you provided. It says it’s a lot like postmodernism. But it looks more to me like Naturalism. I’m reading a book by JP Moreland that talks about Naturalism, Postmodernism, and “Christianity” (which, from what I can tell, only includes the Conservative, Evangelical type since that is the only true version according to him – if I read him correctly… I’m still halfway through it). If Moreland is portraying his facts right, it would seem this post-structuralism is a lot like Naturalism, which Postmodernism is, in part, in response to.

    I guess I’m nitpicking, but what am I missing here? It’s really important to my husband right now that I understand these worldviews so I’m giving it what I can.

  • Luke

    “The bottom line for me is that practical theology — my field — is an enterprise ALWAYS grounded in social analysis,”

    It’s certainly good to bring social analysis into the discussion but remember that social analysis isn’t always practical. In order to study and make statements about society as a whole sociologists are forced to make massive generalizations and oversimplify human beings.

    “I doubt that a woman living in rural Afghanistan or a man living in the slums of Juarez experience much freedom.”

    Be careful. Do you know individuals who grew up in those situations or have you simply accepted a caricature of their lives based on outside media (regardless of how academic it is)? To draw a physics parallel, I feel that sociologists tend to assume a spherical human. Human beings and their choices are ridiculously complicated and I find that Rob Bell’s assumptions in the book (I have read it) are much more applicable to dealing with real people without needing to bring post-structuralism into the argument.

    You can argue away from human freedom theologically if you want, but don’t try to claim it’s more practical.

    On another note, I saw someone making accusations of pelagianism without offering an explanation. I don’t see pelagianism in the book and would like to hear your reasoning. Thanks.

  • I was the one who commented but I believe I was referring to the interviews and stating that the book was much more biblical.
    In the interviews Bell has sometimes sounded like salvation is up to us. That our freedom is the centerpiece of it. It’s our timetable and our will that effects the change. That God’s one goal is to give us what we want. I think God let’s us choose but that this is through Prevenient Grace, not human will. Even our choosing is enabled by Grace. His interviews haven’t made that clear at all.
    I think that goes too far. The book however is much more nuanced, biblically grounded, and theologically balanced. I don’t actually agree with Bell, but I can understand the argument. So I don’t see the pelagian problem in the book at all. But I can understand Tony’s question based on the interviews. I would love to be able to ask Rob why the book and interviews seem different.

  • “I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve watched the videos and I’ve read reviews, and I read a post this week by Greg Boyd…”

    But yet you have no problem bashing the book and Rob Bell – what a total cop out. Read the book, then give us your opinion.

    You have no right to agree or disagree – read the book or don’t, come on. Is that how you want people to treat your books, or you, or your family? Judging them for what others have said about them…

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  • Luke

    Gotcha. Thanks. I guess I was listening to the interview thinking that prevenient grace was assumed.
    Throughout all the interviews and reading the book I couldn’t help but feel like Bell could have said everything he did in a much less controversial way. I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when he said he didn’t intend to create controversy or shock people.

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