After reading reactions to megachurch pastor Rob Bells’s video trailer promoting his new book Love Wins, I thought he must be renouncing the faith! Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. Then I looked at the trailer and I couldn’t figure out what was behind the ruckus.
He asks if we might see God as loving, not punitive. He asks us to entertain the thought that there may be other pathways to comprehend God. And he hints that hell might be a state of being.
These thoughts aren’t spelled out in depth, but we’re led to the book where, we must conclude, the issues will be discussed more fully.
This does not strike me as cutting edge theology. In fact, as I see it, it’s the hindquarter of late 19th and early-20th century debates between liberals and fundamentalists. In the 1930s and 40s, Harry Emerson Fosdick was more provocative than Bell is today. Fosdick wrote, “The fact that astronomies change while the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No existent theology can be a final formulation of spiritual truth.” This led him to be called heretic, as Bell today.
This leads me to wonder if this flap is a sign of the maturing of the evangelical movement, of which Bell is a leader. As he and his contemporaries wrestle with the complexities that we all face today, faith must be more adaptable to the challenges life presents us if it is to be relevant.
As with all Christians, they struggle with good and evil, personal faith and social responsibility, piety and justice, divergent theological propositions emerge. Life is complex, sometimes vexing. It confounds simple answers.
Some of us have glimpsed hell. If you’ve had to stand by and watch your child die from a debilitating illness that couldn’t be treated, if you’ve experienced an addiction that continues to ensnare you, if you’ve been to war and are haunted by the inhumanity of the human race, you’ve been to hell already. Hell comes in many forms.
We need a faith relevant to the hellishness of the human condition. We also need an understanding of God that helps us to know that God’s grace is provided to us before we comprehend it; that it precedes us before we even know if we can believe in it and before we have the words to speak of it. God doesn’t command us to accept it, God beckons us to apprehend it. In a still small voice, we hear, “Be still and know that I am God,” and Christians see God incarnate in Jesus.
And that leads to my second hunch. Evangelical Christians like Bell are also coming to terms with life in a multi-faith, interconnected global society.
If we believe this is God’s world and we are the beneficiaries of God’s graciousness, and utterly dependent upon it, then who are we to assert that we can define the great I Am, much less to claim with authority for all time and all people, that we know how God chooses to be revealed? Is God limited to a single expression of revelation? And is this great mystery comprehensible to us anyway?
No, the very thought is humbling. And perhaps that’s where faith takes us today, to a humble place between hubris and muddled, discombobulated belief.
We have scripture, the creeds of the church and centuries of writing to guide us. I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our understanding of Christian faith. In fact, we need to dig deeper, question more. But we must approach our faith and other faiths with humility. As Bernard Schweizer suggests, it’s hard to imagine that Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi or (I would add) Muhammad Yunus are destined to roast in hell.
Maybe faithfulness is in that sweet spot where we search for truth, seek the Holy and apprehend through the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us, that God is indeed still speaking in many languages and voices.
Wesley’s quadrilateral–the use of scripture, reason, tradition and experience to comprehend the life of the spirit–is enormously helpful to me in this search. It provides me with checks and balances that allow me to weigh the spiritual search, religious dogma, history and personal understanding. It’s an inclusive method. It supports humility and leads me to listen to others, and for that still small voice.
And we could do worse than to listen; to “be still and know that I am God.”
(A note: After writing, this seemed incomplete. I realized I had not provided readers with an especially important part of my theological life–the basic grounding that I find most helpful–Wesley’s quadrilateral. I edited the piece by adding the next to last paragraph to provide this background. Changed March 12, 2011, 9:20 a.m.)