Rob Bell's 'Ginormous' Mirror
What We Talk About When We Talk About God
March 12, 2013
240 pp., $18.77
As far as I can tell, any classic, middle-of-the-road Christian can offer a hearty "Amen" to a great deal of Rob Bell's theology.
The former pastor of Mars Hill Church believes God exists and can be experienced and yet cannot be contained by rational explanations. He affirms the divinity and humanity of Christ, as well as the Resurrection. He believes the Spirit is active in our lives and in the world. He believes the Bible is authoritative at some level—that is, he always tries to understand his life in light of his reading of the Bible. He is indignant about self-righteousness and injustice, and contrary to popular opinion, he actually believes in a judgment: He says people who abuse and exploit others and creation will not participate in the glorious restoration of heaven on earth. Yes, he holds out hope that perhaps everyone will someday be saved, but in one sense, so do many evangelicals. Even God is said to wish that no one should perish.
So unlike some of my other fellow believers, I cannot say, "Farewell, Rob Bell." Instead, I think of him as my brother in Christ.
This may surprise readers who believe I wrote God Wins to refute Bell's controversial theology. Only in part, though that part is not insignificant. I mostly stumble over his epistemology—his understanding of how we come to know what is true, and by what method we determine how to live authentic lives. As I argued in the book, this is precisely my concern about evangelical faith as a whole. The thesis in my book and in this essay is that in this respect, Rob Bell is not only an evangelical, but an evangelical's evangelical, the evangelical par excellence.
This is admittedly a sweeping and dramatic assertion, which cannot be worked out in the course of an essay. But let me sketch in broad terms what I mean. I'll use Bell's latest book as the primary example—not because it is unusual, but precisely because it so perfectly represents what's going on in large segments of Christianity today.
Where Theology Begins
So, where does Bell locate the source of faith and theology? His new book is titled What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne), and it's natural to expect epistemology—how we know what we know when we talk about God—to come into play. And it does, and it's embedded all through the book. Some examples (my italics for emphasis):
When I talk about God, I'm talking about a reality known, felt, and experienced . . . . (page 62) When God is described as father or mother or judge or potter or rock or fortress . . . those writers are talking about something they've seen, something they've experienced and they are essentially saying, "God is like that." (89) 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. (91)
In other words, Bell believes our knowledge of God is grounded not in doctrine, the Bible, the preached Word, the sacraments, our institutions, or even what Jesus revealed (all ways theologians ground our knowledge of God), but in our experiences and our intuitions—especially that sense many have that there is a deeper reality in, with, and under this life. This is an appeal to general revelation, how God makes himself known naturally to the world. Classically understood, these intuitions also include an awareness that we stand under divine judgment for our sin, but Bell does not go there. Nor does he hint that we might ever doubt our intuitions—he assumes we can trust them.