(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Raven Board Member Tripp Hudgins and I will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)
Thank you, Tripp Hudgins, for your “Open Letter to Rob Bell.” As always, you are inspirational and thought provoking. The letter provides a great introduction to our blogalogue on Rob’s latest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I want to emphasize one point you make and relate it to the first chapter of the book, called “Hum.”
You claim that, “This book is not about a ‘new’ thing. It’s simply about God and how we come to know God in this world.” This is such a great point because Rob isn’t making up new ways to talk about God. Throughout the book, Rob explores what God has done in the past and how God continues to pull all humans into a global future that has “greater and greater peace, love, justice, connection, honesty, compassion, and joy” (19).
But Tripp, you and I both know that religion has a huge problem when it comes to God-talk. Usually when we talk about God we talk about a god who is on our side. A god who is on our side is a god who is for us and against them. Far from a benevolent global God, this is a dangerous tribal God. Rob articulates the problems of the tribal God in his poetic style,
And the tribal God,
The one that is the only one many have been exposed to—the one who’s always right (which means everyone else is wrong)—is increasingly perceived to be
and sometimes just not that intelligent. (8)
Rob provides religious examples of this tribal God – preachers who make combative claims of a literal interpretation of the Bible, Christians who insist all gay people are going to hell, and churches that exclude women from teaching role in the church. Of course, the problem of tribalism is not exclusively religious.When it comes to politics, neighborhoods, high school cliques, even sports, we humans have a tendency to define ourselves over and against a hated “other.” Democrats know they are good because they are not those Republicans. The Ericksen family (that’s my family!) knows we are good because we know we are not that dirty, filthy Jones family next door. Jocks and nerds. Yankees and Red Sox. We see this tribalism everywhere.
Rob’s solution to the tribalism that plagues humanity may seem odd to many, but I find it refreshing. He claims,
I’m a Christian, and so Jesus is how I understand God. I realize that for some people, hearing talk about Jesus shrinks and narrows the discussion about God, but my experience has been the exact opposite. My experiences of Jesus have opened my mind and my heart to a bigger, wider, more expansive and mysterious and loving God who I believe is actually up to something in the world. (19)
So, what is God up to in the world? In the Bible, and more specifically in Jesus, we rediscover the ancient theological principle that God is moving us away from all forms of tribalism that lead us againstthem. Throughout the book, Rob helps us explore this discovery in three ways. First, God is with all of us. God is not somewhere out there, distant and uncaring. Rather, God is radically present in our midst. Second, God is for all of us. God is “for every single one of us, regardless of our beliefs or perspectives or actions or failures or mistakes or sins or opinions about whether God exists or not.” Third, God is ahead of us, “drawing all of humanity forward — as God always has — into greater and greater peace, love, justice, connection, honesty, compassion, and joy” (19).
God hasn’t changed, but like “Jacob who wakes up to a whole new awareness of who — and where — God is” (3), Rob is helping us wake up to a new awareness of God, an awareness of God that Rob describes as a mysterious humming that reverberates throughout each of us, indeed, throughout all creation. Will we listen to the hum of God that acts on a cosmic scale with, for, and ahead of all humanity? Or will we continue to insist on our tribal gods that separate us from them?
Rob brilliantly explores the hum of God and the mystery of the natural world in chapter 2. What implications does that mystery hold for how we talk about God? I look forward to discussing that chapter with you next!