Rob Bell is on the move. In his “Everything is Spiritual” tour, which makes its way through the Washington, D.C., metro this evening, he is focusing on the connections between science and spirituality and how we can sit within the reality of our ever-expanding universe. Sojourners’ Catherine Woodiwiss spoke with the author and speaker to talk spirituality, the “nones,” Oprah, science, and surfing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CW: [In your “Everything is Spiritual” tour,] you mention connections between the heart and the universe. What are some of those connections that you’ve found for yourself?
RB: Whenever we are hurt, slandered, betrayed, criticized, whenever we pour ourselves into a something and it goes belly-up … whenever things blow up in our face every fiber of our being wants to say, “Forget this.” And just shut down. And when we do that — no wonder there’s no joy there, no wonder there’s no satisfaction. It’s like in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — “You’re going the wrong way!”
What I’m trying to alert people to is these little moments — the hundreds of little decisions that you have to make every day that if you can stay awake and stay aware, you develop a resiliency and you become dangerous. Because all the things you’re most terrified might happen, happened. You’re still here.
CW: There are increasing numbers being put to the rise of the “nones,” those who ascribe to spirituality, often, but are not affiliated with religion. Are they coming to these events?
RB: It’s such a grab bag of humanity it kind of blows my mind. Literally every background, every perspective.
I think what you point out about the nones is what happened, I think, for a whole generation — the institutions and communities that were supposed to cultivate and help us mature in a sense of wonder and awe, that were supposed to help us think through what it means to honor the mystery of existence, that were supposed to help us understand how to give ourselves to causes of the day — a number of those institutions (namely, the church) failed, at a really deep level. So I think it’s a very healthy move, because people are essentially saying, “I want the real thing, and why would I sort of go through the motions?”
… What I’ve seen everywhere are these beautiful little burgeoning communities of innovation — it’s almost like a whole generation is inventing on a laptop in the garage. There are a lot of “nones” that are having meals around their table, and they’re discussing and sharing good food and suffering together and rejoicing together, and they may not call it by the old names but what they have is authentic community. There’s all sorts of new expressions that are really, really extraordinary.
CW: What can the corporate church learn from this spiritual hunger and from some of the things you’re discussing here?
RB: That people can smell from a mile away whether this is authentically, naturally flowing out of the lives of their leaders or not. A lot of systems are inoculated against actual growth. If the pastor were to have a new thought, she would be fired, because it’s not in line with the party line — there’s such deep propaganda.
You would not believe the number of leaders who ask me, “Hey, can we get together?” And then when they come to hang out, they basically say, “Hey, I read your books but if I told the people that I work for that I do I would get fired.”
… Any system where people can’t actually grow and evolve and change and transform, new stuff will arise. People will still grow and will still learn and become better human beings. And that’s what’s happening. And it’s so unbelievably exciting.
CW: You did an “Everything is Spiritual” tour in 2006. A lot has changed in between these years for you — moving from Michigan to California, no longer leading a church, your book Love Wins that, uh, raised a lot of attention—
CW: — What’s different about this tour specifically? What are you bringing differently to it?
RB: I’m having more fun than ever. I’m more alive than ever. I’m more aware of what an extraordinary gift the whole thing is. … The thing about being a pastor is you get to join people in their most poignant moments of suffering. So you see lots and lots of heartbreaking things that have no answer. And if it breaks you. So you either become bitter and cynical and just sort of forget it — or something within you pushes through to the other side and you realize just how holy and sacred and extraordinary it is that we have even today.
So that’s sort of what it’s like. I get to go around and share these ideas with people and make them laugh, and it’s just fantastic. And I live in California and go surfing all the time, and that makes me just about the happiest person on earth. [Laughs.] Other than that, I’d just be happy to talk about surfing. And that’s it.
CW: Another major part of the last couple of years has been your partnership with Oprah. How has Oprah shaped your own spirituality and understanding of faith?
RB: In so many ways. She’s a master spiritual teacher. Many people know her for interviewing people, so they know her for her ability to extract from others what they’re trying to say. But she’s a world-class master spiritual teacher. She has had extraordinary experiences. All those books she’s read, she’s actually read them. And all those people she’s interviewed, she was actually listening. To see somebody who at any point could have hit cruise control who is just more alive and learning and growing than ever is really, really inspiring. I’ve just seen her up close and when the cameras aren’t on, and she’s the real thing. She’s the real thing.
CW: You’ve been openly affirming of same-sex marriage for years, and are so in your most recent book, The ZimZum of Love. I’m curious about the impact of the SCOTUS ruling on your own faith communities — how has that played out?
RB: Well, apparently, love wins. [Laughs.] So my friends tell me.
Consciousness has risen on this and more and more people are like, “Of course, that’s just how it is.” What is going on that this would not just be how it is? So I think everybody sees it as an incredibly encouraging sign, that everything’s moving forward as it should be.
CW: Where do you see the next step for conversation in the church on this?
RB: Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘the church.’ The fact that this is still an issue … I just don’t understand why people would purposefully cut themselves off from the world around us. Why do that? I guess I’m just not in the world where this is even an issue. It’s like, what are you doing? Come on.
CW: So what’s next for you? Are you working on a book currently?
RB: Oh my goodness, there are five in my head, two on my computer, and there’s one that is on the way to being done and will come out early next year. It just never ends. So yeah, I have the next four lined up.
CW: What’s your hope for people who hear “Everything is Spiritual?”
RB: My friend Pete Holmes, an absolutely smashing comedian, has this great line, “We live in a planet and I’m tired of not talking about it.” This whole thing that we know to be life is completely shocking and unprecedented and just completely nuts. People walk around complaining about their taxes, but we’re here and we can do things and make things and scientists are telling us things about space and time that bends and curves. This whole thing turns out is way, way weirder than any of us realized. So I hope at some deep level people will sit there and be blown away by the miracle of their own existence.
They get a shot at this. They get a shot at beauty and love and meaning and purpose. Ninety percent of the universe is dark matter. And something happens when you own your dark matter. When you go into all the unknowns and the sufferings — the abuse, the betrayal, the divorce, all that gnarly dark matter we’re all carrying around with us. When you go into the heart of it, and you own it, you integrate it, you name it, that becomes an extraordinary source of life. You can own all this stuff that you don’t know what to do with and it can become an extraordinary source of life for you. An unexpected new life. That’s something that’s a big deal to me.
Everybody asks, “Why do you do this?” It’s joy. It’s pure joy. It’s just a blast. That’s the real reason. Joy.