“Because sometimes you need a biologist,
and sometimes you need a poet.
Sometimes you need a scientist,
and sometimes you need a song.”
“You, me, love, quarks, sex, chocolate, the speed of light— it’s all miraculous, and it always has been.”
“It’s one thing to stand there in a lab coat with a clipboard, recording data about lips. It’s another thing to be kissed.”
Did any of that get your attention?
I've just spent the morning reading a short book I downloaded from the Amazon Kindle bookstore: “What we talk about when we talk about God” by Rob Bell. You can do that sort of thing when you're retired; one of the reasons I enjoy my life out of the workforce.
I'm not usually intererested in books on this subject as they are mostly a big yawn. Neither do I often find myself glued to a book, unwilling to put it down (well, actually I was using an ipad, but you know what I mean). Rob Bell has a special gift. He can articulate spiritual stuff like no one else I remember. I kept saying things to myself like: “yep” and “ah hah” as he painted a picture using common life experiences of a God we might be aware of deep inside ourselves, but whom is rarely spoken of.
This is not your standard apologetic book arguing for the existence of God. No way. Not even close. For a start it's not even the slightest bit dogmatic (ok, maybe it's there but I didn't see it).
Bell doesn't pretend that he has all the answers. He begins from a place of doubt and acknowledges the power of science, the paradox of human beings, and the incongruity of the miraculous, to present a God I can accept. More than that, he presents a God I recognise.
He doesn't avoid or undermine science. He celebrates it, along with the wonder and uncertainty of existence. To paraphrase him, science is a powerful tool, but is no arbiter of reality. He points out that we are all 'people of faith', whether we are religious believers, atheists, believers in the supremacy of science, or in the supernatural. He does not attack atheists. He reminds them, gently, of what they have in common with 'believers':
“Sometimes people who believe in God are referred to as “people of faith.” Which isn’t the whole truth, because everybody has faith. To believe in God requires faith. To experience this world and its endless surprise and mystery and depth and then emphatically declare that is has no common source, it is not headed somewhere, and it ultimately has no meaning— that takes faith as well.”
Bell is also no usual defender of the status quo, and I kind of like that. I feel a deep resonance between my faith and his ideas:
“you can be very religious and invoke the name of God and be able to quote lots of verses and be well versed in complicated theological systems and yet not be a person who sees . It’s one thing to sing about God and recite quotes about God and invoke God’s name; it’s another be aware of the presence in every taste, touch, sound, and embrace.”
How good is that?
I have long been a bit of a rebel, uncomfortable with the pietism of a few church people. It's nice to come across a writer who expresses that better than I can.
“So when we talk about God, we’re talking about our brushes with spirit, our awareness of the reverence humming within us, our sense of the nearness and the farness, that which we know and that which is unknown, that which we can talk about and that which eludes the grasp of our words, that which is crystal- clear and that which is more mysterious than ever. And sometimes language helps, and sometimes language fails.”
Absolutely! He's talking about the God I have faith in. How come I never thought to say that myself?
Bell goes on to explain the essence of the Christian Gospel as clearly as anyone, and more so than most:
“. . as advanced and intelligent and educated as we are, there are some things about the human condition that have not changed in thousands of years. It’s very important that we are honest about this glaring reality. We have progressed so incredibly far, invented so many things, found an endless array of new ways to process and share and communicate information, and yet the human heart has remained significantly unchanged, in that it still possesses the tremendous capacity to produce extraordinary ignorance, evil, and destruction. We need help.”
“. . the counterintuitive power of gospel: When you come to the end of yourself, you are at that exact moment in the kind of place where you can fully experience the God who is for you.”
So, take it or leave it I guess. Believe that you are in control or understand intuitively, as I do, that you are not. Bell would argue that as long as people believe they are in control, God is inaccessible to them. Pretty harsh stuff, no? Probably not what many want to hear. I must confess I have been a slow learner on this issue, having learned what little I have learned after bitter experience.
I loved this:
“We’re all, in one way or another, addicts, aren’t we? Some are addicted to the praise of others, some to working all the time, some to winning, others to worrying, some to perfection, some to being right, strong, beautiful, thin . . . perhaps you are enslaved to your own self- sufficiency, or drugs or alcohol or sex or money or food. “
Sort of puts an interesting spin on things, no? Do you think of yourself as an addict? Or do you (unlike me) have it all under control?
“And so we come to the table exactly as we are, some days on top of the world, other days barely getting by. Some days we feel like a number, like a machine, like a mere cog in a machine, severed and separated from the depth of things, this day feeling like all the others. Other days we come feeling tuned in to the song, fully alive, hyperaware of the God who is all in all. The point of the experience isn’t to create special space where God is, over and against the rest of life where God isn’t. The power is in the striking ability of this experience to open our eyes all over again (and again and again) to the holiness and sacred nature of all of life, from family to friends to neighbors to money and breath and sex and work and play and food and wine.”
This is my life! This is how my life seems to me. I think Bell is on to a sublime truth here (and in so many other places in this book). The good and the bad; the sacred and the mundane; the wrong choices; the repeated disappointments with myself and the insight that tells me that nonetheless I continue to matter and that my life is not futile. This is how God is real to me. Maybe my life is not the same as yours. So be it.
I recommend this book warmly to you, whether or not you are call yourself a 'believer'. I found his writing honest, generous, challenging, humble and insightful. I hope you too will find it full of 'ah hah' moments.
It would possibly not be a surprise to learn that not everyone is happy about his work.
A quick glance through the comments on the Kindle page shows that Rob Bell is not orthodox enough for some and far too 'loose' and liberal for others. For this particular conservative Christian though, who is also a bit of a rebel, and a bit of a mystic, I was reminded that I am not alone in the way I experience God.
I thank him for that.
“The peace we are offered is not a peace that is free from tragedy, illness, bankruptcy, divorce, depression, or heartache. It is peace rooted in the trust that the life Jesus gives us is deeper, wider, stronger, and more enduring than whatever our current circumstances are, because all we see is not all there is and the last word about us and our struggle has not yet been spoken. There is great mystery in these realities, the one in which we are strong when we are weak, the one in which we come to the end of ourselves, only to discover that God has been there the whole time, the God who is for us.”