(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Raven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)
Tripp Hudgins always gets me thinking. He is right that Rob’s chapter “Open” in What We Talk About When We Talk About God is about science and religion but that it’s also not about science and religion. This is the longest chapter of the book, and it’s full of scientific information that points to the mystery of the material world. What’s the point? As Tripp states, Rob is “asking for a little humility. He’s asking for a little poetic imagination. He’s asking for curiosity.”
That’s the point of the next chapter, too. Titled “Both,” in this chapter Rob points out a major problem we have with “God-talk.” That problem is language. Tripp set me up for this at the end of his post by asking, “Are words actually enough? Ha! Write about that. Words. Words. Words.”
When I was in seminary I learned about apophatic theology, or negative theology. It tries to define God by what God is not. A 9th century apophatic theologian named John Scottus Eriugena asserted, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally, God is not because He transcends being.”
The problem is, how do we talk about God if “God is not because [God] transcends being”? Maybe the best take-away from apophatic theology is to shut up and listen. Indeed, words aren’t enough. And sometimes they get in they way. As St. Francis is often credited with saying, “Wherever you go, preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
In this chapter, Rob is calling us to the same kind of humility,
Whatever we say about God always rests within the
larger reality of what we can’t say;
meaning always resides within a larger mystery
knowing always takes place within unknowing
whatever has been revealed to us [is] surrounded by that
which hasn’t been revealed to us. (87)
What I love about this chapter is that Rob wrestles with the tension of knowing and unknowing, faith anddoubt. As Rob writes, “But faith and doubt aren’t opposites; they are, it turns out, excellent dance partners” (92).
“Faith and doubt are excellent dance partners.” That’s a beautiful image. As I delve deeper into the Christian faith, I discover some stories about God from within our tradition that I’ve come to doubt. For example, tomorrow is Good Friday. What’s so good about the day Jesus was killed? Well, one storyline that I’ve come to doubt is that Jesus took the wrath of God that we deserved upon himself. As Rob stated in his book Love Wins, this story teaches us that “Jesus rescues us from God” (182).
I doubt that story because I have faith in a different story. I agree with Rob in What We Talk About When We God when he says “Words and images point us to God; they help us understand the divine, but they are not God” (88), but I really want to push him here. He points to this later in the book, but I wanted him to be explicit in this chapter. I wanted him to say that because of Jesus we can faithfully make the bold statement that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
And so faith and doubt come together as dance partners for me on Good Friday. That story is about atonement, but it’s not about Jesus offering himself as an atoning sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. It’s about Jesus atoning for our human wrath and waking us up to the truth that there was an angry divinity at the cross needing appeasement and it was us. Jesus took human violence upon himself in order to show us another way of life — the way of God’s forgiveness.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we are the ones who divide the world into a tribalism of “us” against “them.” As Tripp says, this is natural for us, but part of the mystery of God is that God has nothing to do with our darkness, our tribalism.
Later in the book, Rob will remind us that God came to Abraham, and indeed, from him created a tribe. Butthis tribe was to be a blessing to all of the tribes of the world. God’s tribe is to be for the tribes of the world, not against them. Why? Because we can say with faithful certainty that God is for all people, without distinction, because God is love.
Good Friday is good because on that day Jesus revealed who God is at a fundamental level. God is the one who responds to our violence and destruction with the forgiveness and love that defined Jesus’ life. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”?! Seriously!?! Who does that?
Because of Jesus, we can be certain that God does that.
Words. Words. Words. May these words of Good Friday sink in – “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Okay, my friend. Have a blessed Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Let faith and doubt continue their glorious dance. Tripp, you’re up next. The chapter is titled “With.” So, what does it mean to use the words “God is with us”? I can’t wait to see where you take this.
Image: Faith and doubt,