the progress of God - more questions from Rob Bell

As I make my way through another Rob Bell book, through all his controversial publicity tactics, sparsely crafted arguments and continued theological elusiveness (yes, his schtick is getting mildly tiresome), I continue to appreciate one particular aspect of his books: he asks good questions.

As I reflected this past week on our view of the world as either good or worse, these questions from Bell’s recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, have lingered for me:

“Is God progressive, with a better, more inspiring vision
for our future than we could ever imagine,
or is God behind,
back there,
in the past,
endlessly trying to get us to return to how it used to be?”

Not surprisingly, Bell argues that God is calling humanity forward, “a continuum, a trajectory, a God-fueled movement within and through human history.”

And he elaborates that such progress happens with or without our awareness or participation in it as Christians - “Churches and religious communities and organizations can claim to speak for God while at the same time actually being behind the movement of God that is continuing forward in the culture around them...”

Behind Bell’s musing on the progress of God is the question of discerning such movement of God. Like the subjectivity in describing our period of history as “worse” - my worseness theory - how do we discern the ways in which we understand the progress of God’s presence in the world?

Here’s where Bell’s writing is incomplete by itself. His good questions don’t always correspond with good answers. He closes the book with some anecdotes on God’s love and presence and our connectedness to one another - good and important stuff. But he only scratches the surface of discerning the progress of God in the world. Here sparse writing means sparse answers. As usual, Bell raises an important issue. And as usual, he basically ends there.

Which brings me back to Bell’s questions about God’s progress. As I read Bell, I’m realizing such questions are harder to answer than they are to ask. And for the Bell, ever the provocateur, that’s probably the way he’d want it...


Mark Tymm said...

Neither. And both.

Rob Bell certainly asks good questions. After recently finishing Love Wins (which raised many great questions) I understand why so many dislike his books.

People like certainty. They like/need to have their questions answered. It must be Calvinism. Or Arminianism. Or "Infernalism". Or Universalism. We set up dichotomies and argue between our selves, as if God's politics are right-winged or left-winged, caucasian or African, capitalist or communist.

I've noticed that we routinely want to be involved in building the kingdom or the church, and set up a variety of programs, events, activities or ministries in order to be involved in such endeavours. We travel to a new country to "bring them the gospel" as if God has not previously made himself known by other means.

"How do we discern the ways in which we understand the progress of God’s presence in the world?" I think we need to get better at this. Perhaps simplifying the question is helpful here? "What is God doing in my church?" "What is God doing in my neighborhood?" "What could God be trying to tell me in my particular situation right now? Through this song? Through this conversation? Through this year?"

David Warkentin said...

Thanks Mark - helpful thoughts. You're right about our tendency to over-categorize.

I like your suggestion to simplify the question - local and particular is good. My concern is asking such questions can become an end unto themselves, divorced from an honest engagement with the challenge of discerning God's presence. Here's where the vibrant theology for a community hermeneutic is needed(thanks Anabaptists!), but not always articulated or understood. I can ask myself how I see God in my neighborhood, but wouldn't it be better to ask how do we see God in our neighborhood?

I worry that Bell, among many, addresses his concerns about evangelical church/community by neglecting community altogether.

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