Welcome to Progressive Christianity, Rob Bell!

A Review by Jim Burklo of Rob Bell’s new book: What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Welcome to Progressive Christianity, Rob Bell!
A Review by Jim Burklo of Rob Bell’s new book:
What We Talk About When We Talk About God
(2013: HarperOne)

A few years ago I wrote a “musing” about Rob Bell’s book, LOVE WINS, in which this former evangelical megachurch pastor abandoned the idea that anybody is going to hell. He now espouses the Christian theology known as universalism: that Jesus saves absolutely everyone. On the cross, love won, and from then on, nobody has been hellbound. One way or another, in this life or the next, God, through Christ, brings everybody to heaven.

On 3/26, Tues, 6 pm here at the University of Southern California, my office will host Rob Bell for a free public event in which he’ll discuss the theme of his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. We already have hundreds of RSVPs. Bell is attracting a huge following, particularly among the young, to the consternation of many evangelical leaders who think he’s a theological traitor.

The book is a quick read: it’s written in the style of an informal, conversational sermon. Most striking about what he talks about when he talks about God is what he doesn’t talk about. The evangetechism about God’s identity is conspicuously absent. He points out the problems with traditional definitions of God as a supernatural being. Instead, he says God is with us, for us, and ahead of us (p 17). In a long, lively discourse about science and religion, he uses (and abuses) quantum mechanics to argue that there’s not a clear distinction between the physical and spiritual world. This, he suggests, opens the possibility of miracles. But he carefully glosses over the question of whether or not God is supernatural.
The book is about our relationship to God, not about God’s nature or identity: “…when we talk about God, we’re talking about the very straightforward affirmation that everything has a singular, common source and is infinitely, endlessly, deeply connected.” (p 118) That assertion positions his thought close to process theology, which grew out of the early 20th century philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, whom Bell does not reference in his bibiliography. Process thought sees the world as a web of relationships rather than a universe of discrete objects. As did Whitehead, Bell talks about God in terms of God’s relationships, rather than describing a discrete, separate supreme being.
Bell beautifully illustrates the human impulse to reverence with personal stories and biblical texts. He celebrates human spiritual experiences of awe, love, and attentive appreciation, and associates them with God. He takes a phenomenological approach to spirituality. He doesn’t deny an evangelical statement of faith; he waltzes problematic doctrines to the other side of the room, if he faces them at all. He focuses on the ways that the Christian tradition illustrates and inspires human spiritual experience. And that’s how Rob Bell makes his exodus from his native orthodoxy, crosses the Red Sea, and makes his way, whether he knows it or acknowledges it, into the realm of progressive Christianity.
The final section, “Resources, Nods, Notes, and a Few Shout-Outs”, is perhaps the most useful and intriguing part of the book, opening a window into Bell’s spiritual formation. It includes a wide variety of sources like Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber and also writers more familiar to evangelicals. He invites his readers to engage intellectually with thinkers outside the theologically conservative closet.
Rob Bell’s “hip megachurch” cred and his rhetorical style preserve his audience among evangelicals. He’s gone over the bridge, but he hasn’t burnt it. He may well be the most influential progressive Christian in America without identifying himself as such. He manifests an historic convergence that’s well underway. The heartfelt devotion of evangelical Christianity is merging with the social commitments and pluralistic theology of progressive Christianity. Could this reunion be the salvation of the Christian faith in America?

JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See my GUIDE to my books, “musings”, and other writings
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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