Thursday, June 16, 2011

'Love Wins' is Great Rhetoric

I bought Rob Bell’s scandalous new book titled Love Wins because my wife was interested in reading it. It’s causing a ruckus because it directly questions eternal hell doctrine, though Bell insists that he’s not a Universalist. Well, since I passed that point a long time ago this book really doesn’t hold much interest to me. From what I’ve read, and heard from others, this book is not aimed at my demographic. I own 5 or 6 books on Universalism that do what Love Wins apparently does not. Which is to lay out an argument for a particular theology, present the verses that support it, present the ones used to dispute it, explain why those ones don’t actually mean what opponents say they mean, talk about the history of the idea and explore its ramifications. Since I’m past the timid questioning of inherited-doctrine stage I don’t have time to retread it in Bell’s book. I just wanted to note that the title is brilliant. Besides being short, memorable, and explanatory enough to evoke interest, it sets a framework for the debate. It’s like the political right does with terms like “pro life” and “war on terror”, or those from the left like “undocumented workers” and “climate change”. What all these rhetorical frames have in common is that they present a position that forces opponents to first explain why they are not ridiculous. No one wants to get on stage and say they are “anti-life”, hence the term “pro-choice”. No one wants to say they support terror. No one wants to say they want to oppress undocumented workers, and no one can deny that the climate changes. And no Christian wants to say that Love will lose or fail.

So to refute Bell’s book they have to start by re-framing the conversation. Of course most Christians will say that Love DOES win. They simply have different stipulations for a winning condition. When it comes to proposing a system that has a win/lose proposition, unless there are agreed upon rules and goals, then “winning” is quite arbitrary and ambiguous. Take the act of living for example. Some think you are loser if you don’t make enough money, or don’t have a hot significant other or if you live with your mom. Some say you are winning if you have inner peace, no matter your material possessions. Hell, Charlie Sheen actually thinks that HE is “winning” at life.

So “Wins” in Rob Bell's book title is fantastic because it’s evocative, emotional, arbitrary, and just like Obama’s political slogans like “Hope we can believe in”: ultimately meaningless because it means something different to everyone.

And this is actually the key to understanding where I am at spiritually right now. I’ve discovered that almost all theological words are more or less just like “wins”. They all carry with them a definition that is unique to every person who hears them. The world of theology involves lots of people hashing out what they think all these words mean, generally within a pre-established system that imposes its own limits on how much wiggle-room one has to really dig into those personal meanings. Without those limits, the system falls apart and the institutional church would disintegrate. So I certainly don’t blame institutional Christianity for carefully patrolling their borders. I simply can’t agree that staying behind the fence is the best way to search for God and Truth. In order to truly search, you need to be able to roam, to ask the questions that don’t get answered satisfactorily by your tradition.

That’s the point I’ve got to in my search. It’s not a matter of rejecting my inherited tradition as false. It’s a matter of recognizing that their definitions may be off. In fact, that those definitions MUST be off, because human language depends on metaphor to conceptualize spiritual ideas, and metaphor by definition cannot be precise. So recognizing that our definitions are loosey-goosey, I can’t very well say: “Christianity (or my particular strain of it) is True.” I can only say I think it’s the closest religious tradition to Truth. But then I have to wonder HOW close it can even be. It could be the case that Christianity is like a stack of 4 pennies, and Hinduism is a stack of 3 pennies, and Truth is a Trillion dollars. In this case the difference is just not that big a deal. Since all our revelation is metaphor we cannot even GUESS at how close our ideas and definitions are to Truth. We can look at how our religious metaphors affect the way we live and act. Though even that is a dubious proposition since there is no way to separate the effects that faith has on a life from culture, upbringing, economics, health, intelligence, etc. My Christian apologetic tradition tries to make the case that we can examine history and see that in the aggregate those under the purview of Christianity have a variety of societal and moral advantages. I’ve come to the conclusion that life and civilization is too complex to attribute this to one factor.

And I guess that is what I’ve come to believe the older I get: life is just too complex to make simple diagnoses and definitions. So if you ask me if I "accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior", I simply can’t give a yes/no answer. Not because I’m being evasive, but because I respect definitions too much to pretend that my definitions for those words perfectly match yours, or anyone else’s. (Just like Sheen's definition of "winning" is different than Rob Bell's and different than Ghandi's.) I simply admit that my metaphors cannot be precise enough to create a tidy system of belief matrices. So I’ve stopped pretending that I can. I don’t consider this a rejection of my faith or a refutation to anyone else’s beliefs. It’s simply a position that says that words are an inadequate medium for expressing Truth. They can point us in the direction of Truth… I hope. But I’m convinced that words cannot get us all the way there. Even though many Christian theologies are predicated on the idea that they can. So I guess I just contradicted myself. This position IS a refutation of a specific belief. The belief that we must Know Truth to attain salvation. Whether that refutation is damning or not I cannot say. Only that I don't know how I could possibly erase the epiphanies that brought me to this conclusion.

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