Rob Bell: What We Talk About When We Talk About God
God Is “Fundamentally
Beyond Words, Phrases And Forms”
In What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell intrigues us with a perspective that seems to flaunt both religious and scientific tradition. Not just religion and not just science but both. Not the basics of either system, not the validity of either and certainly not God.
Tradition he implies, is restrictive whether it be science or religion. Both run on well worn conversational tracks that leave huge gaps in the dialogue and Tradition’s natural tendency is to ignore the questions glaring out through those gaps.
For example, Rob mentions several scientific observations that contradict established theory and makes one wonder just how precisely nature can really be defined.
- Time is relative. It’s consistency is a persistent illusion.
- Every nine years our bodies are renewed – the material our bodies are made of literally becoming the substance of other bodies and things – but in spite of that you still remain you.
- He quotes Jeffrey Kluger who says scientists are now “grappling with something bigger than mere physics, something that defies the mathematical and brushes up – at least fleetingly – against the spiritual.”
Rob also points out a few religious ideas that don’t add up.
- The statements religious people make that imply God is somewhere else, rather than everywhere, and shows up on the odd occasion to do some particular person a favor.
- The modern religious idea that leads one to think that “spiritual” describes only non-material, non-tangible objects. It only applies to things not in this world.
- The tendency for religious people to oppose peace, causing trouble in the process.
Both sides say and do things that don’t make sense.
But to be clear, Rob isn’t vying with tradition, he’s just trying to fill the gaps.
And again, like his other books, particularly Love Wins, he makes us think.
Be warned though. Rob isn’t trying to prove anything absolutely or make you agree with him. In fact, his ideas, though clearly illustrated, point more to the inability of humans to box truth in. Truth, like God, may be immutable but our ability to know it all, understand it accurately and articulate it exactly is in question.
His approach, therefore, is not pedantic. He is no demagogue. He doesn’t state his beliefs pointedly while pounding a fist. No lather sprays from the pages.
He moves through personal and scientific realities, things we all experience or accept as true, and points out how even these experiences and fact bites conflict with traditional ideas.
- The universe is expanding.
- Electrons don’t orbit their nucleus but disappear in one spot and appear in another without traveling the distance. Ghostlike.
- Toasters should glow blue instead of red.
- Holism, what a human is as a whole, defies the sum of the parts.
And so on.
This book is personal for Rob. It grew out of the doubts and frustrations he experienced in his own spiritual journey.
His chapter titles seem a bit cryptic initially but they clarify toward the end of the book. Here is the breakdown:
Chapter 1 – HUM
In the very first chapter, HUM, Rob takes his cue from Jane Fonda, who when asked why she became a Christian said, “I was drawn to faith because I could feel the reverence humming within me.”
He points out that God is everywhere not so much because He is omnipresent – even though He is omnipresent and Rob never said anything to question that – but because everyone these days is giving God a shout-out. Everyone. Rob pointedly says:
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. (Kindle locaion 36)
The problem is, people are saying or implying very different things much of which doesn’t fit nicely in the round or square holes of religious dogma. In spite of that, Rob says:
There is a growing sense among a growing number of people that when it comes to God, we’re at the end of one era and the start of another. (Kindle location 52)
In other words, more people are beginning to recognize the presence of God. They may get the details wrong but they’re beginning to see He is real.
Rob used Jacob to illustrate his meaning who, when waking from a particular dream, exclaimed “God was in this place and I, I wasn’t aware of it.” God didn’t change, Jacob did. God is still the same today and like Jacob people are waking to this fact.
Toward the end of chapter 1 Rob mentions three words that are center pieces for his discussion but in preparation for expanding on those three words he introduces two more making a total of five. Those words become the headings for the next five chapters.
Chapter 2 – OPEN
The argument in this chapter is that “faith” and “science” communities must both be a bit more open to dialogue and discussion about God. Each side must reflect on rather than respond to what the other side is saying. Why? In Rob’s words:
When we talk about God we drag a massive amount of expectations and assumptions into the discussion . . .
And those assumptions are fixed ideas, no dialogue allowed. One side believes only in God and the other believes only in science. Rob says there is a lot about both we can’t explain or prove. In fact, Rob says the universe is “weirder than any of us first thought. And that weirdness will demand that we be open.”
He illustrates the diametric positioning of these viewpoints with two different responses to his message, one response from an atheist and the other from a believer.
The atheist wondered if he had lost his mind and the believer wondered if he had lost his faith. Both assuming a lot and insecure about it.
Chapter 3 – Both
This is one of the shorter chapters but Rob makes an important point about perspectives and the words we use to describe them.
In one place Rob says . . .
When we talk about God we’re using language, language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe a reality that is fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms. (kindle position 1050)
In another place he says . . .
Our conceptions of God and the images we use to picture and explain those conceptions are deeply shaped by the patterns, technologies, and customs of the world we live in. (Kindle position 1077)
And then he makes an obvious but brilliant observation:
An image of God doesn’t contain God, in the same way a word about God or a doctrine or a dogma about God isn’t God; it only points to God. (Kindle position 1093)
Rob made a similar point in chapter 5 of Love Wins about the different words used to describe what happened on the cross: sacrifice, reconcile, justify, victory and redemption. (which I thought was interesting then but wasn’t quite convinced.) What he says here completes that thought, makes it more convincing.
He ends the chapter with a searching question about “Both”:
Can conviction and humility coexist as the dance partners we need them to be?
Are we secure enough in our faith to be be open enough to allow that? Are we defending the faith – providing rationale – or protecting it – fighting rather than discussing.
Chapter 4 – With
In this chapter Rob draws from the Hebrew word “Ruach” (the explosive, expansive, surprising, creative power that comes from God and surges through everything and everyone. And he points out that that means, and the Hebrews understood, that God isn’t with us occasionally, when we have prayed fervently enough but always. God is constantly sustaining us and everything around us, the entire universe.
But not too worry. Rob isn’t going New Age here. He says . . .
It’s important to note that the Hebrews were careful not to say that God is the flower or sunset or pasta or lump in the throat – they didn’t say God is creation . . .
The point Rob makes is, God is with all of humanity and is working to move all of humanity forward. Not just some of us – those He particularly favors – but all of us.
Rob also makes the point that this life and everything in it matters.
Chapter 5 – For
By this point in the book you begin to understand where Rob is going with the chapter titles and you realize that “For” means that God is for us rather than against us and Rob makes the point emphatically. There is no hook in Rob’s understanding of “For.”
For a staggering number of people in our world the FOR of the Jesus message has been buried under a massive pile of AGAINST. Somewhere in all the years of religious againstness – from boycotts and wars and judgments and sermons about how “God loves you if you’ll just . . .” and “God is for you as long as you . . .” and inquisitions and placards and crusades and terrible PR – for many people the beautiful, life-changing message of God being for us has been lost.
The Gospel for Rob means God delivers us from the shame, guilt and judgment even when we are unable to purge the sin. That’s Gospel. It means God is “For” us and that is good news.
Chapter 6 – Ahead
This is a great chapter for all those desperately trying to implement Old Testament law on modern society. Those laws like everything other set of laws are movable. They mold to the ever changing of societal faults. That is how God intended them to be understood.
So instead of seeing these laws as a set of fixed rules we should see them as legal pressure points to push the Hebrews forward, away from their backward past. These laws aimed to correct the injustices of that day not ours and therefore can’t be projected into the present.
Rob sees God as in front of society pulling us forward and he makes a very valid point when he says very sincerely committed religious people are behind trying to hold everyone back, just the opposite.
It is possible for religious people who see themselves as God’s people to resist the forward-calling of God to such a degree that the larger culture around them is actually ahead of them in a particular area, such as the protection of human dignity or the integration of the mind and body or the treatment of women or inclusion of the forgotten and marginalized or compassion or intellectual honesty or care for the environment.
Religious history proves his point. If it were up to religion the earth would still be flat. We might see God better if we were more forwarding looking.
Chapter 7 – So
This last chapter is somewhat reminiscent of Rob’s “Everything Is Spiritual” tour.
Rob says that in the early stages of history God used religion as a way of introducing, isolating and highlighting the concept of spiritual (or sacred) never intending it to become the eternal opposite of secular. Once understood, spiritual can be applied to every activity in life.
I agree. You really can’t separate the two and I recently wrote a post on that very topic. I introduced the discussion by asking and answering a question: “Want to be more spiritual? Be temporal more deliberately!”
Chapter 8 – Epilogue
A very short chapter in which Rob makes one significant point. The creative work God began in Genesis is ongoing still through each one of us.
Readable And Thought Provoking
This review only scratches the surface. Get the book inexpensively at Amazon and enjoy the read. You’ll find it readable and thought provoking.