Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"What We Talk About When We Talk About God," A (backwards) Review

This is an emotional review for me. Please indulge me, as I'm sure I'll tell a few stories.

My review of Rob Bell's previous book, "Love Wins," got a staggering (for me) amount of reads, presumably because this man is crazily popular and "Love Wins" was a firestorm within Christianity, igniting huge amounts of controversy for its' "radical" rethinking of the doctrine of Hell, mainly garnering the accusation of universalism from the more "traditional" in Christianity.

As my readers know, this will come from a different place as my previous one, as I no longer identify as a Christian.

For those of you who don't know, Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, and best-selling author of Velvet Elvis, Love Wins, among other works. He is also the sole Christian leader I have had continual respect for, for his unerring compassion and ability to engage in dialog about anything, seemingly without almost any agenda besides compassionate understanding. I've met him, and I have a signed copy of Velvet Elvis, a book that single-handedly saved my faith when I was all but finished with it many years ago.

Obviously, that was not something that lasted, for many reasons, but they are now actual reasons instead of emotions like anger and bitterness and frustration, which I would not consider to be good reasons to walk away from faith.

Though my respect for Bell remains as a person, this book was the moment that I knew would inevitably arrive. It is the moment when I pick up one of his books and, for once, put it down frustrated. I read "Velvet Elvis" within a week and it changed my life. I read "Love Wins" in two days. It took me nearly a month to get through "What We Talk About When We Talk About God," henceforth referred to as "the book" to avoid me typing it over and over.

Bell's Christianity is historic and time-honored, though not always mainstream. For this, he's been controversial and prominent. When he sticks to talking about historic Christianity and things of that nature, he is rock solid (though perhaps necessarily in possession of rose-tinted glasses at points). However, this book has an entire section devoted to science, and it's meant to be a book about everything.

Some of you already understand my frustration.

There are a few quotes that I think speak for themselves here. Let me first start with one from the very end. Spoiler alert!

"One morning recently I was surfing just after sunrise, and there was only one other surfer out. In between sets he and I started talking. He told me about his work and his family, and then, after about an hour in the water together, he told me how he'd been an alcoholic and a drug addict and an atheist and then he'd gotten clean and sober and found god in the process. As he sat there floating on his board next to me, a hundred or so yards from shore, with not a cloud in the sky and the surface of the water like glass, he looked around and said, "and now I see god everywhere."

Now that's what's I'm talking about."

Rob Bell has a consistent pattern of summing up his entire book at the very end, and this is no exception. If you grew up in Christianity like I did, you will immediately recognize the cliche of the atheist drug addict that found Jesus and now life is beautiful, a la finding a higher power in something like a twelve step program. You want to say something about their theology or their logic or something is just bugging you about the whole thing, but you can't because then you're an insensitive ass and you're not allowing the experience of hearing about this wonderful testimony to change you or some-such thing. You are being strong-armed by an emotional argument from an experience into agreeing with everything that person says, or you're a monster.

That is the feeling I had when reading this entire book, and that's why it took forever for me to finish it. Bell makes an impassioned argument for who God is and why it is reasonable to believe in him, but not for the existence of God. Like most contemporary theologians not stuck in Christianity's past, he admits that proving God scientifically or philosophically is likely impossible, and asserts that God must be intuitively understood. In other words, he would be in agreement with C.S. Lewis, who said: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

It's really his second chapter, "Open," that I have a big problem with, but it is foundational to the rest of the book. The entirety of the rest of the book is him speaking of a way of understanding god that leads to some very good things, like compassion and peace and caring for the poor and conversation and harmony. The problem is that these things have been irrevocably tied to god beforehand, which I find to be misleading at best. In other words, one can affirm all of what Bell speaks of here, but substitute the Christian god for something like an argument for the consequences of one's actions or another god or any number of other things. In other words, Bell speaks about things we all understand, but he asserts that god is part of it. Obviously, if someone disagrees, then they just have not seen god in it yet, or something of that nature, and around and around we go until we come back to whether there is a reason to believe in god at all.

The reason why it is asserted in the book that it is reasonable to believe in god is because scientists have discovered that everything is weird.

I wish I was kidding on this one.

Here are some quotes:

"We live in a very, very weird universe. One that is roughly 96 percent unknown."

"I'm talking about the kind of intellectually honest faith that is open-minded enough to admit that some phenomena have no rational explanation."

"Science shines when dealing with parts and piece, but it doesn't do all that well with soul."

"Which leads us to a crucial truth: there are other ways of knowing than only those of the intellect."

"But to believe that there's more going on here, that there may be reality beyond what we can comprehend--that's something else. That's being open."

Bell, unfortunately, seems to be speaking of a lot of classical science, along with some interesting newer twists. He speaks frequently of dark matter and of quantum theory, though curiously I found this extremely telling quote at the beginning of his chapter on science:

"Or more precisely, the universe?"

This is in the context of speaking of the expansion of our universe. I spent a good ten minutes reading and looking back to see if this was intentional or not, but I could not figure it out. So there are two possibilities: Bell does not know about multiverse theory, or he is specifically stating that it is false here. Given the implications of the multiverse theory and the amount of reading he's done prior to writing this book, I would not be surprised if the latter is true, as that casts some serious questions on his use of the "finely tuned dials" argument that point to a creator.

If our universe is the only one, then the fact that life exists at all can be more easily used to argue that a creator probably created it. However, if there are an infinite number of quantum universes (which there are, according to some of the latest research in dark matter/energy), then our universe just happens to be the one with life in it, among many that either don't support life or support a very different kind of life.

Of course, none of this is actually evidence for or against a creator, it is merely pointing at some things that could or could not be chance and saying "look, someone did that." If you want to know more on this, look up the Anthropic principle. Please.

Here is the problem. Bell's argument that science does not do very well when dealing with certain things is not relevant, and the rest of his argument falls into the classic "God of the gaps" paradigm.

No sane person would dispute that science does not have a very keen grasp on the entirety of existence. Science is more about questions than answers, and when it comes to things like love and our emotions and intuitions, we're still discovering things about how the human brain works. Does that mean there is a soul in the classical sense, something that we can never see or understand because it's immaterial? No, it does not. Maybe we'll come to think of the neural energy that inhabits our brain as a "soul" at some point, but this is leaps and bounds away from the "some phenomena have no rational explanation" that we're expected to go with here.

Now, understand one thing. I'm not attempting to say that Bell's intentionally misrepresenting science or has some kind of malicious purpose here. If anything, he appears to have read extensively on the topic, which is an excellent thing to do before writing about it. Indeed, he references evolutionary theory, the emergence of consciousness, the formation of life, and many other things that indicate that he has a functional understanding of current scientific theory.

The real hangup I have here is that he runs up against the questions which do not yet have answers, and immediately inserts his faith to fill in the gaps. In other words, because subatomic particles do things like disappear and reappear without traveling the distance in between and reality is just so weird and breaks some classical models of science, god. This is not only an exercise in begging the question, it has been done before and will continue to be done by those with religious faith.

All of this I can almost forgive, in light of what comes next.

You see, this is a book about faith, and why it's reasonable. Hence, all of this builds to an overriding point that everyone is a person of faith. To "believe" in the scientific method is the same as to "believe" in god. I won't bother rehashing my last post about faith here, but suffice it to say that this is a blurring of definition at very best. Go read my previous post about faith if you want the full rant. Atheists are not people of faith. For god sake.

Moving on.

This book is an overriding attack on skepticism, defining intellectually honest faith as the ability to say "you can't explain that" and calling it open-minded. Indeed, Bell uses this sort of reasoning later in the book when speaking of practices of slavery and misogyny in the Bible, citing it as being "unbelievably progressive" for its' time. The thing is, when Bell gets into the ancient Hebrew culture and the ancient near-east, he moves back to being spot on with his facts. He's correct that to marry a woman you essentially kidnapped from a culture you are at war with and give her full rights under your culture is progressive for the time. Of course, it's still barbaric, but God is about progressing humanity from barbarism to love and respect and peace.

It's not the facts I have a problem with, or even the observation that religion has sometimes been at the heart of progress. It's the logic. You see, when you continually cite specific examples in a verbose manner and then say "that's god," you're not talking about the historic Christian god anymore. This is why traditional Christians are going to absolutely lose their minds over this book, like all of Bell's other books. His definition of god is so unspecific and open to interpretation and intuitive that it simply lacks a definition other than the most basic philosophical definition of the greatest possible being and the platonic existence of good.

If you want to define god as something that is intuitively understood from the "hum of reverence" within us or our morality or the awe one feels when they look at the universe and how amazing it is, then why not substitute Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster instead of Jesus?

Of course, Bell consistently references in his other works the "historic, orthodox christian faith" and how he is part of that "wide stream" of thought. He is correct in referencing this, and in saying that there has consistently been a group of people within christianity that are for progress and science and the truth wherever it lies. The world isn't divided in the way the christian religion would overridingly have us believe, into believers and non-believers. There are people who think, and there are people who are stuck on being told what to believe. Some who think are religious (christian, muslim, jewish, hindu, etc.), and they're good people, oftentimes in spite of what they have been taught by their religious upbringing, or with an understanding like Bell's. Christianity can be defined as peace in the same way many other religions can.

The problem is, once again, a problem of definition. If religion has consistently had to be corrected while claiming authority or correctness for thousands of years, and I am supposed to take my intuitive experiences and simply say there must be a god, then what exactly am I even talking about, and why does he have to exist or be the Christian god? It is simply impossible to define god intuitively and still be a Christian, because Jesus being god is not an intuitive claim, it is a historical and mythological claim, as well as being an irrational leap of faith and, for Bell, metaphysical.

The problem with Bell's reasoning isn't that he has too many of his facts wrong. The problem is that he is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He asserts that he is part of the wide stream of the historic, orthodox Christian faith, but then god must be intuitively understood. He asserts that the Christian god is progressive as a way of getting around the moral implications of his religion's very real and very bloody historic activity and that Yahweh was a god of war that commanded the death of women and children and then cites other examples. You simply cannot have it both ways. Either you trust in the authority of historic Christianity interpreted through one or a few of its' sects (protestant or lutheran in Bell's case), or you are talking about a god that is incoherent and defined from multiple, cherry-picked, sources. This is why conservatives/traditionalists are angry about Bell. They are purists, and Bell jumps off from the Bible into many other things and then plays semantical games until it is all god, a process that they term as "watering down" Christianity, but that Bell explains as seeing god in everything.

Not only is this book a case of a "god of the gaps" concept being brought forward in the context  of science, it is a case of a "god of the emotional gaps." Because I have an experience and I don't know why or I can't explain it or I feel awe or the presence of something mysterious, I am then inserting god as the explanation for it if I'm going by Bell's logic here.

All of that said, I echo what Bell says in the very beginning of his book in the exact opposite way he means it:

"Much of what I've written here comes directly out of my own doubt, skepticism and dark nights of the soul when I found myself questioning--to be honest--everything."

This entire book hurt me to read because I know exactly where Bell is coming from. I, too, have questioned everything, ever since I learned how to critically think. For that, I have lost friends, been told to "just have faith" in a way hauntingly similar to Bell's contention that all are people of faith, and lost a lot of sleep over what is true and what isn't and whether I would accidentally go to hell or suffer in some other way for asking questions. I still question absolutely everything, because it's how I live, and that nature outlasted my faith, unlike Bell. I've come to no longer trust in historic, orthodox Christianity, as well as the more liberal brand that he is at the center of. However, when I read this book, I see nothing short of desperation, and that he has also paid a very heavy price for being who he is. This is why I have not lost respect for this man. I do not believe this is a book full of good reasoning, but what it is full of is compassion and honesty and the heart of a very real struggle that I understand all too well.

I'd really like it if Bell's god existed. It would give the world a very unique type of hope, and it is very appealing. However, this book really frustrates me because it ignores or misinterprets evidence, equates skepticism with faith through some arguably blurry definitions, brings forward a god so incoherent and semantically flexible that he literally lacks a definition, and then promotes a hope that I would arguably term poisonous. Something can be good and beautiful and make you feel all sorts of good things, but the question is--is it true? If it is not true, that hope is poisonous to you. Think about it.