Apr 8, 2013

Grace in our Debates

I know I’m at least week late on this, but that’s alright. I don’t want to weigh on any of the debates. I want to talk about the debating. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way debating that has been going on in our nation and I want to comment on how debating happens, especially among fellow believers.

While reading What We Talk About When We Talk About God, I was struck by his chapter on the paradox of talking about God. The paradox of God is essentially the fact that we cannot fully know him or describe him and yet we must. It’s hard to live in this paradox. We want answers to our questions. Bell writes,  “Take faith, for example. For many people in our world, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal, then, within this understanding, is to eliminate doubt.” Many of us want to eliminate doubt. We want it all spelled out for us so that we know what is right and what is wrong. This desire for right and wrong plays greatly into debates that involve theology and morality and it’s this desire that I’ve been thinking about.

People want answers. People were raised to have specific answers for specific questions. Some people, for various reasons, change their mind and choose to believe something else. Whatever we believe, the point is this: we are all trying to do our best to come up with the right answers. When you put the right answers in the context in religion, then the right answers become a big deal. The right answers, for many people, have eternal consequences. Some people are fearful of having the wrong answers and others are concerned that everyone else has the wrong answer.

For that reason, I think that it is important for us to enter debates with grace. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, you need to be graceful. When discussing matters of faith or morality, people have taken that side because they genuinely think that it is right and they are arguing that side and often it’s because they believe it potentially has eternal importance. When we argue over what religion is right, hopefully at some level it’s because there is genuine concern for the other persons eternal destination. The same can go with what is or is not sinful. If I genuinely believe that you are doing something to endanger your eternal salvation, the right thing should be correction.

I know that many are just rude about their beliefs, and that’s just wrong. I think that those people need to be graceful as well. The point is, have grace when you debate. I think we need to understand that part of the reason for the debate is a genuine concern over you life and salvation. If someone thinks that you’re wrong and your life is in danger, then be grateful for their concern and try to debate kindly with them.

Most of us are just people trying to do our best. If we didn't genuinely think our beliefs were right, then why would we hold them? Be gracious, listen, and disagree in love.

Here are a couple of things that I would recommend that relate to this topic:
Video response from Penn Jillette after being given a Bible (I know it’s an old video, but he has good things to say).
Blog from Donald Miller about Religious Legalism. It’s not the same as what I’ve written here, but it certainly speaks to the same issue.

Apr 5, 2013

Talking about God with Rob Bell, Part 3

This is the last part of my review, the first part is here and the second is here.

Rob Bell wraps up What We Talk About When We Talk About God with a chapter called “so” (there’s also an epilogue that’s about 2.5 pages long). The final chapter brings all of the points together and puts it in the context of life. We often live our lives in a very mechanical way especially in the western world. We’ve been told that this is all there is and we’re only a collection of atoms that form the human machine. We also tend live our lives in a divided world where there is sacred time and secular time. We go through a routine that sort of all blurs together and miss what is happening in our lives. Again, Rob Bell is trying to remind us that there is no differentiating between the sacred and secular. God is here, present in our lives and acting in our lives. He is trying to help us and pull us along in the right direction. We should not let our life become ordinary and routine. Bell argues that we need open our eyes that life is much deeper than we realize and that God is at work all around us.

This is the first time I’ve written more than one post on a single book. I’ve done this because I think there’s a lot to be said about this book. For the most part, I enjoyed it and would encourage you to read it. I think this book would be very approachable to someone who is new to talking about God or uneasy about religion. Rob Bell is a very good with words and very funny. His writing is approachable. This book would create great discussions. I think for people who are already Christians, this book will stretch you a little bit. I think we need to do more to recognize God in our daily lives and remember that God is for us. Also, I believe that if more Christians approached theology with the humility expressed in the third chapter (both), that there would be less fighting in Christian circles. When we recognize that God is beyond us then maybe we might relax and be more forgiving as we talk and try to understand who God is.

While I appreciate this book, there are also things about the book that make me uneasy. One is the science. I appreciate his love of science and find most of it interesting, but get a little uncomfortable how he spiritualizes some of it and describes how everything is interconnected. While he is certainly isn’t pantheistic, this feels like it’s dipping into some new age beliefs mixing quantum physics and spirituality (it reminded me of this). Second, and probably more importantly, I feels like Bell is drifting to a more open and accepting religion. I think tht there are times when we need to be stretched in our beliefs, when we need to realize that God is ahead of us and maybe we are wrong. At the same time, some of this book has the feel of leading to a more open faith where whatever you believe about God is alright as long as you're good. Bell doesn't say this, but they way he rights and speaks, it could certainly lead that way.

This is a good book. I suggest that you read it with a friend who is unsure about religion and let it open up some dialogues. I just think that we need to be cautious when venturing into some of the territory that Rob Bell explores. 

Apr 3, 2013

Talking about God with Rob Bell, Part 2

This is the second part of my review, the first part is here.

The second section of What We Talk About When We Talk About God is the heart of Rob Bell’s message. Chapters 4-6 (with, for, and ahead) present his way of “talking about God.” While the first few chapters of What We Talk About is about the "talking" itself, these chapters focus on the content of what is being talked about. They address what we are or should be saying about God.

Chapter 4 is familiar to any Christian. This chapter discusses how God is “with” us. This of course is at the heart of the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” This chapter is a reminder that God is here with us. This also comes through in our everyday lives. We live with this feeling that there is so much more going on in this world. Most people sense that there is something deeper going on in our lives. God is present in all of our lives and we all live in this reality where God is working.

Chapter 5 discusses a God who is “for” us. Many times we think that God is vindictive and out to get us. God, however, is for us. He wants to see us succeed. God cares for us, loves us, and wants to help us. The prime example of this is the story of Easter. Jesus died for us. Yes we are sinners and we’re messed up, but God has come to fix that. Jesus died to save us from our sins. 

Finally, in chapter 6, Bell describes how God is “ahead” of us. Of the three, this is likely the least familiar to readers. It is not very often that someone uses the word “ahead” to describe God. What he means by this is that God is ahead of us in our thinking, that is he is more forward thinking than we are. His example for this is the idea of an eye for an eye that comes from the Old Testament law. We see this law as backward and built on revenge, but what we see in the O.T. is God establishing order in judicial system and ordering that the punishment fit the crime. If you kill someone’s ox, then you owe them an ox. You don’t owe them 3 oxen and you can’t just give them a chicken. Also, as a victim you cannot retaliate by killing 3 of his oxen. There is just payment, no more no less. This is a step forward in thinking, while to us it may seem like a step back. Bell argues that this is how God works. He is always moving us forward and progressing us in our thinking.

For the most part, I believe most Christians will agree with these statements. First of all, Christianity is built on the fact that God is with us. Jesus came lived with us and now the Holy Spirit dwells among us. God is in fact with us. Second, God is for his people. Jesus died for our sins. I’m not sure that you could make the argument that God is against us. Yes, he is against our sin, but has made a way for us to be freed from that sin. Lastly, I do believe that God is more forward thinking than we are. Look at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus takes a few of the commandments a step farther and says it’s not just about murder, instead it’s about hate, or it’s not about adultery, it’s about lust. James says that true religion is displayed by taking care of orphans and widows. God is ahead of us pulling us forward.

I do, however, think that we need to be careful. While God is for us, we are for God as well. We need to be watchful that God being “for” us doesn’t turn into God wants me to be happy. Jesus died for our sins, but he also calls us to take up our cross to follow him. Scripture also tell us Christians will share in the sufferings of Jesus. If God being for us turns into wanting happiness, we can be tempted to do things that make us happy that aren’t good. Bell doesn’t advocate God wanting us to be happy, but he also doesn’t discuss that God being for us doesn’t mean that life will be easy.

My other concern is in the area of God being ahead of us. While I agree with his examples, I am also afraid of what someone could justify by claiming that God is ahead of us in our thinking. One that comes to mind would be in the area of universalism. Is God ahead of us and showing us that all religions are okay? There are some areas that we think God is ahead of us and in reality he is not. God is good and is ahead of us in goodness, but we need to be careful that we don’t step away from the hard truths claiming that God is ahead of us. There are places where God is pulling us, but he has also given us his scripture as his guide. We always need to be faithful to what he has already told us.

Read Part 3 here.

Apr 1, 2013

Talking about God with Rob Bell, Part 1

Rob Bell is at it again. Right around 2 years ago, Bell released his book Love Wins (which I reviewed here). This caused quite a stir in the evangelical Christian community. Now, Bell has written What We Talk About When We Talk About God (the video here sums most of it up). This book has not caused as much of a stir, but is certainly worth discussion. Once I was able to get my hands on the book, I read it and enjoyed it, and I’m going to give it a couple of posts here on the blog. There are essentially three parts of this book and to discuss them all would be too long for just one post. In this post, I'll looking at the first 3 chapters (hum, open, and both). The next posts will explore chapters 4-6 (with, for, and ahead) and then the last chapters (so and epilogue). In the last post, I’ll also give my general review.

His book opens with a comparison of our talk about God with an oldsmobile (see his book trailer for the story). This sets the stage for why Bell is writing. Oldsmobiles are outdated being left behind and God seems to be getting the same treatment. In our fast paced world, God, especially the God of the Bible, seems to be treated as old and no longer necessary. Bell’s experience, however, has been that people recognize in their lives that there is something beyond them and they can feel it (the hum) in their lives, but most religious discussion of God has turned them away. That’s why he’s writing this book. We need to change the way that we talk about God. He argues that we need to speak about God in a way that connects to people. God seems irrelevant, but Bell thinks that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The next two chapters, serve as an extension of the introduction. They prepare the way for Bell to talk about how God is with us, for us, and ahead of us. “Open” is a jump into science. Much of it is very similar to what he spoke about in his video “Everything is Spiritual.” The heart of this chapter is that the universe is not as definable as we think it is. While we are all taught Newtonian Physics, there are many things about the universe, particularly in the realm of quantum physics, that make the universe more open and unexplainable than we realize it actually is. Because of this, it is very sensible for us to talk about God. Bell writes, “When we talk about God, then, we're talking about something very real and yet beyond our conventional means of analysis and description.”

Chapter three, titled “Both,” is focused on the paradoxical nature of talking about God. One one side of the paradox is the fact that God is beyond us and beyond our understanding. We can know God, but we cannot fully know or understand him. Bell writes, “So when we talk about God we're using language, language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe a reality that is fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms.” On the other side of the paradox, we must talk about God. For us to know him, we have to talk about him.

When it comes to the first section of this book. I’m really pleased. The science section is kind of long, and some of it seems unnecessary, but ultimately I’m very pleased how he talks about theological discussion. Ultimately, talking about God is theology and I think more people need to hear what he says about how we discuss theology. We use words and phrases to describe the indescribable. There is humility needed when approaching theology. Many people think that they have solved the riddle of God or that they have theology down, when really they have barely scratched the surface. It reminds me of how Chesterton describes the difference between poets and logicians in his book Orthodoxy. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” There is no way to reason all of God.

The part that I am cautious about is the discussion of updating the way talk about God. While I don’t disagree with Bell, if not careful this can lead anywhere. There are times when we need to change the way that we speak about God, but we need to be careful not to change the truth about God. This too requires humility. Sometimes we need to recognize that we speak incorrectly about God or in an unhelpful manner, and that does require change. On the other hand, we need to also be willing to stick to the truth when it is unpopular.

Part 2 of the review
Part 3 of the review