Open: Contemporary science is stranger than science fiction. If you can be open to quantum physics, you should be open to God. It's not those who believe in God who are "close-minded," but those who refuse to do so (take that Richard Dawkins!).
Both: We use words to talk about God but we must recognize that our words ultimately fall short of the reality of God. But we shouldn't stop talking about God, but recognize this fact about our language for God.
With: God isn't a deistic god who pops in from time to time, God is always with us.
For: God isn't an angry god who wants to smite you, God is fundamentally for us.
Ahead: God isn't behind us (even if those fundamentalist Christians are), God is ahead of us, calling us further into what God's doing.
So: There's not a spiritual/secular dualism. All spaces are sacred. God is ever-present with us and in us. Open your eyes and see.
As I read the book, two words kept coming to mind: Friedrich Schleiermacher (the title of this post is a play on his book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers). As the saying goes, those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it. Now, I'm not comparing Bell to the philosophical and theological genius of Schleiermacher. But if you don't know who Schleiermacher is, here's a little history lesson, courtesy of John Nugent, who gives a clear and concise summary of the Schleiermacher (aka the father of modern theology):
"In the early 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (you can call him Fred if that helps) sought to make Christianity acceptable to the religious despisers of his day. The Romanticism of that time was known for its rejection of institutional religion. Such religion was perceived to be steeped in religiosity and unnecessarily encumbered with specific traditions and doctrines. They were especially critical of intellectual and ethical approaches to religion.
Sharing those sensibilities, yet not wishing to drain the baby out with the bathwater, Fred redefined Christianity along lines that were acceptable to himself and his peers. His most decisive move was to identify the core of religion with the individual’s feeling of complete dependence on the divine, the infinite, or the absolute. This immediate personal experience, which cannot be received from others, stands at the core of one’s faith. This “feeling” became the throne before which all other practices and institutions must bow."
To me, this book reads like Bell's attempt to make God palatable to those for whom God is not really a workable concept. I get that, and I'm sympathetic. What's interesting is that throughout the book, Bell's move seems to parallel Schleiermacher's: focus on religion as the individual's feeling of dependence and recognition that one is part of something much bigger and much more amazing that one could think. That's not a bad thought, nor untrue. But neither is it specifically Christian. As I was re-reading the entry on Schleiermacher on the Stanford Philosophy site, several other quotes were striking, in that these could just as easily have been descriptions of Bell's thought:
- Schleiermacher conceives of a basic monistic principle as "an original force and the unifying source of a multiplicity of more mundane forces."
- "For Schleiermacher religion is based neither on theoretical knowledge nor on morality. According to On Religion, it is instead based on an intuition or feeling of the universe: 'Religion's essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling. It wishes to intuit the universe.'"
- Religion is a "feeling of absolute dependence."
- "He works to salvage the Christian doctrine of miracles in the modified form of a doctrine which includes all events as miracles."
Characterizing Bell's approach in this book as "based on intuition or feeling" as opposed to thinking or acting seems exactly right to me. My worry--which might be completely unfounded, by the way--is that Bell seems to moving further and further away from the specificity of the Christian narrative, with a robust emphasis on Israel, Jesus, and the church toward a vague, generalized God. I've always appreciated the way that Mars Hill Bible Church, at least in part under Bell's leadership, embraced (and continues to embrace) narrative theology. But this is where Paul's speech at Mars Hill in Acts 17 can be instructive. Paul begins with a vague, generalized, unknown God, but doesn't stay there; in fact, he gets very specific. God is done overlooking ignorance; he's appointed a day of judgment; the Judge is Jesus because it is Jesus who has been raised from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). It's hard to get more specific than that. And that message didn't sit well with many at Athens. By contrast, Bell concludes his book by highlighting yoga, yawning when someone else yawns, neuroplasticity, feng shui, architecture, and a surfer who sees God everywhere. Hear me clearly: I'm not saying that Bell has turned his back on Jesus. But his rhetorical strategy is clearly to focus on something other than the specificity of Jesus in order to explain "what we talk about when we talk about God." In other words, he seems to have left Mars Hill behind in more ways than one.
Related post: "What We Talk About When We Say 'You Can't Put God in a Box'"