Rob Bell: Out of the Process (Tillichian) Closet

Guest Post by Deacon Toy Adams

Rob Bell’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About God came out today. Luckily I was able to get my hands on a copy of it two days ago because it was out at a local Books-A-Million store (probably mistakenly). So I have been finishing up the book while most of my friends are just now receiving it (@HelloGregory)! And I am thrilled with it.

bell book

It isn’t an academic book if that’s what one is looking for. This is a book for everyone and it offers a fresh and exciting framework for thinking about God than does most mainline theological approaches. I must tip my hat to Tripp and Bo for doing something (perhaps) as Rob Bell might as well admit to being Process.

Also what I found (unexpectedly) was that Bell is a Tillichian!Thus, I will provide a few examples (so to not spoil it for anyone that hasn’t read it yet) from the book in which Process and Tillich surface so maybe Tripp will believe me (by the way I am going to one of his book signings on Thursday in Nashville so I will be sure to ask him about this in person as well)! I will start with parallels to Tillich and then Process.

I will offer a Rob Bell quote and then a Paul Tillich quote side by side to demonstrate my point:

Rob Bell: “…I should be clear here about one point: this is not a book in which I’ll try to prove that God exists. If you even could prove the existence of the divine, I suspect that at that moment you would in fact be talking about something, or somebody, else.”

Paul Tillich: “God does not exist.  He is being itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him”

For Tillich, God did not exist for God was beyond existence. For Rob, I would assume, this is headed in the same direction. God isn’t some object that one can point to and say, “There it is! I found it—it’s God!”

Which leads me to example number two:

Rob Bell: “When God is described as father or mother or judge or potter or rock or fortress or warrior or refuge or strength or friend or lawgiver, those writers are taking something they’ve seen, something they’ve experienced, and they’re essentially saying, “God is like that.” It’s an attempt to put that which is beyond language into a frame or form we can grasp.”
Also
Rob Bell: “what I’ve experienced time and time again is that people want to talk about God…I’ve found people to be extremely keen to talk about their beliefs and lack of beliefs in God. What I’ve observed is that while we want more of a connection with the reverence humming within us, we often don’t know where to begin or what steps to take or what that process even looks like.”

Paul Tillich: “Man’s ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”

Both express how that all language about God is symbolic and it ultimately fails us, yet God is still a matter of Ultimate concern within all of us. Theology is a matter, for Rob and Tillich that we are drawn to because it is vital to our being human.

There are at least a dozen more quotes and ideas in Rob’s new book that made me think “Oh, that’s totally Tillichian” but I will conclude the Tillich references with one last quote:
Rob says “This is a book about seeing, about becoming more and more alive and aware, orienting ourselves around the God who I believe is the ground of our being, the electricity that lights up the whole house, the transcendent presence in our tastes, sights, and sensations of the depth and dimension and fullness of life, from joy to agony to everything else.”
No explanation needed. If you are remotely aware of Tillich’s theology, this will smack you right across the face.

Now I will demonstrate a few examples of the Process Theology that surfaces in the book:

In chapter 1 Rob says, “I believe that God isn’t backward-focused—opposed to reason, liberation, and progress—but instead is pulling us and calling us and drawing all of humanity forward—as God always has—into greater and greater peace, love, justice, connection, honesty, compassion, and joy… and I want you to experience this pull forward as a vital, active reality in your day-to-day life as you see just what God has been up to all along with every single one us.”
This is lure of God that prompts the possibilities and potentiality for all of creation to move forward in union with God toward Shalom. This is a God of persuasion and not a God of coercive dominance.

Chapter 2 is where Rob breaks out a lot of Process ideas as he talks about science and metaphysical ideas. Rob says, “Matter is ultimately energy, and our interactions with energy alter reality because we’re involved, our world an interconnected web of relationships with nothing isolated, alone, or unaffected.”
This is an absolute Process goldmine.

In chapter 2 Rob also says, “There is a movement forward, toward greater and greater awareness and consciousness and connectivity, that has been unfolding across the history of the universe, an ever-expanding enlightening that transcends any one of us, all cultures, and humanity as a whole. A massive and epic holism that continues to increase in complexity and depth and dimension to this very day.”

In chapter 3 Rob says, “…we have an intuitive awareness that everything is ultimately connected to everything else, and I believe that is one more clue to who it is we’re talking about when we talk about God. How we eat is connected to how we care for the planet which is connected to how we use our resources which is connected to how many people in the world go to bed hungry every night which is connected to how food is distributed which is connected to the massive inequalities in our world between those who have and those who don’t which is connected to how our justice system treats people who use their power and position to make hundreds of millions of dollars while others struggle just to buy groceries which is connected to how we treat those who don’t have what we have which is connected to the sanctity and holiness and mystery of our human life and their human life and his little human life which is why we hold up that baby’s hand and say to the parents, “It’s just so small.””

I could literally go on and on but everyone needs to read it for himself/herself. It’s packed with Process and Tillichian theology. And this is fantastic news for me, as I tend to agree heavily with both Process and Tillichian theology.
JOIN US ROB! JUST COME OUT OF THE PROCESS THEOLOGICAL CLOSET!

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46 comments
Howard Pepper
Howard Pepper

This is a great topic (Thanks, Toy... who I've just learned about, that I recall); also a great interaction!  Not directly related, but certainly indirectly: Is anyone who is reading going to the Founders Day event where Brian McLaren is speaking on this Friday and Sat.? (It's at Chapman College, Orange, CA  -- for those who are not aware and might be curious).  I can only make it Friday, and am kind of cut off from most opportunities to connect with serious thinkers/doers like this group seems to be, so would love to know who I might look for at lunch, dinner break, etc., if anyone here is going.  Thanks.  

craigadams49
craigadams49

I don't understand why @Toy_Adams seems to want to put Rob in a box. I agree with the Tillich quotes but i would sure hate to to labeled "Tillichian" for that reason. The same with Process Thought one can learn from it without identifying with the movement. I think Rob Bell does not want to be labeled.

David Miller
David Miller

I was at a high-level National Council of Synagogues / National Council of Churches interfaith dialogue event last year.  Sitting around a table, having a meal together, one of the Jewish leaders asked about the role of process theology, whether it still had any impact in Christianity.  I commented that, yes, process was making a renewed splash in emergence/post-evangelical/whatever-you-might-want-to-call it circles.  A bigwig in the NCC pooh-poohed what I had said, saying that those circles were tiny and that process is dead.  I just shrugged because I'm just a chaplain at a tiny college, not a national leader of collapsing "mainline" Christianity.  (By the way, I'm a mainliner myself.  I just think there's more out there than what the people in the national headquarters give their imprimatur.)

dangarvin
dangarvin

 “There is a movement forward, toward greater and greater awareness and consciousness and connectivity, that has been unfolding across the history of the universe, an ever-expanding enlightening that transcends any one of us, all cultures, and humanity as a whole. A massive and epic holism that continues to increase in complexity and depth and dimension to this very day.”

 

That sounds like Integral Philosophy, as is being expounded on HBC by Steve McIntosh. Which, of course, draws on Whitehead, Chardin, et. al. Good stuff. I think I will like this book.

MikeClawson
MikeClawson

Rob Bell a process guy?... maybe....

 

The thing is, most of this language isn't exclusive to process theology or even to Tillich. All of the things you quoted Rob on above are things that a lot of us emergent, post-evangelical types are likely to say without ever having encountered process thought or Tillich's theology. Maybe that means we're moving in that direction and just don't know it yet, but I'm doubtful. Just because one talks about "interconnectedness" or the metaphorical nature of our language for God (Aquinas anyone?) doesn't mean they're Process theologians. These concepts belong to theology in general, not just process folks.

 

But I am glad you are finding resonances between Rob's stuff and your own points of view. No matter who gets to "claim" it, it's always hopeful when people find themselves pulling together in the same direction.

Nathan FoxHelser
Nathan FoxHelser

I am no Tillich expert, and certainly have not yet read Bell's book; however, some of the linkages this post provides between Tillich and Bell seem fairly soft.  I can definitely see the process link ups, but most of the Tillich links also perfectly sync with (a Derridian) Kierkegaard--who probably would have taken some serious issues with Tillich's project.  Thoughts?

nashvillebirth
nashvillebirth

%s %s %s thanks for the review. Hoping to go tomorrow night too! %s in the house!

PeterCBlum
PeterCBlum

Tillichian/Process? Here's hoping @realrobbell is no more cowed into fitting "progressive" pigeonholes than "evangelical" ones.

iMentieth
iMentieth

%s %s You know, or maybe he's been reading Deleuze and dealing with arborescent thought. %s

Howard Pepper
Howard Pepper

I love it!  I'm a Progressive/Process Christian... never read Bell's "Love Wins" but followed some of the hoopla around it.  I'd not have been aware of the new book yet but for this, and your citations are wonderful.  I frankly don't see where folks like him, McLaren, maybe Tony Jones, etc. can go except Process (and/or Tillich or Chardin), especially if they take science seriously.  I haven't read much Tillich but a core thing I love about Process is that it has deeply developed categories and language that I think fairly effectively stakes out a middle ground between the seeming contradictions of naturalism and supernaturalism.  Without this, it's only a constant un-winnable battle with neither "side" doing justice to the range of phenomena, nor to realistic relationship (or non-relationship) with God.  

JessePals
JessePals

Thanks Toy! Well I'm intrigued. I'll have to pick it up. The Tillichian language and concepts are definitely present. I'm curious about whether there are indisputable references to expressly Process thought though. I see the 'divine pull' allusion which I just recently heard expounded on by Bruce Epperly I believe. Nevertheless, I'll stay tuned until I read up!

theBoSanders
theBoSanders

%s %s %s that was supposed to be a hash tag ;( %s

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@craigadams49 I'm not trying to place him in boxes! ;-) I'm just pointing out some parallels that show what schools of thought it seems he has been participating in! We all know Rob resists all labels at all costs!

Howard Pepper
Howard Pepper

 @David Miller Thanks for contributing this, David. It's nice to hear such reports on what is being said, and to hear from a mainliner (as I now belatedly am) who is out "doing the stuff", especially with college kids, where a lot of my interest lies... formative thinking stage.  

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

R@MikeClawson hey! The language functioning as symbolism was an example of Tillichian ideas. I realize not all of process is interconnection but the other things in context to it make it seem heavily process. To see God as diverse, relational with all other things, the world as a web of relationships is very process. It could fit in other categories, sure. Thanks for your push back. I think we are moving in a seemingly new framework for speaking of God in less primitive ways. And for that, I give thanks.

jegribble21
jegribble21

@Toy_Adams By the way, my wife and I are planning to be there tomorrow in Nashville. We live an hour away.

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@Nathan FoxHelser hey thanks for the push back! I would suggest that there are similarities between Kierkegaard and Tillich (especially in the first quote about not being about to prove God) because of course Kierkegaard undoubtedly influenced Tillich's existentialism. However the last quote in the Tillich section is probably the best piece of Tillichian parallel because it is beyond what Kierkegaard would have suggested (God as the ground of being and not a being) and I don't see Derrida suggesting the driving force of existence, meaning, and being is God. I think these thinkers all have commonalities but the citations above plus the multitude of ones I did not cite, are more weighty on a Tillichian understanding of union with God as going deeper into human exsotence and being all one can be (conforming to the New Being as Tillich sees as the Resurrected Christ), and also Bell's (seeming) ontology is spot on in a large sense with Tillich's. hope you enjoy reading the book! Thanks! -toy

craigadams49
craigadams49

@Toy_Adams Oh, I'll get over it. I'm sick & tired of the "Bell is a heretic" crap. To which u just contributed.

craigadams49
craigadams49

 @Toy_Adams  @craigadams49 Yeah, okay, but then why the "out of the closet" image? I would recommend learning from Tillich or from Process Thought — or Thomas Aquinas or from whoever — myself. But, I'd hate to have someone say, on that basis, I am a closet Tillichian.

Howard Pepper
Howard Pepper

 @Toy_Adams  @MikeClawson I'm enjoying this interaction... Indeed, there is a lot of overlap in such "categories" as Process, Emerging/ent, Tillichian, Integral.  I would also add New Thought, where I "hung out" several years, although it is purposely less specifically Christian (as is Integral except it's newer branch, "Integral Christianity").  They all seem to share modifications and contributions, from the Enlightenment forward and from a Western and scientific viewpoint, to earlier Eastern pantheism.  This seems the essence of the important label and distinction of "panentheism".  It is about probing down INTO the interconnectedness, the recognition of Universal Mind, Collective Unconscious, Ground of Being... the Lure of God that is in us all, along with the propensity to protect and elevate our seemingly "individual" and separate self (thus to "sin").  

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@jegribble21 that's awesome! I am 5 hours away! I'm gonna do my best to make it! I'm pretty psyched!

Nathan FoxHelser
Nathan FoxHelser

 @Toy_Adams  @Nathan Thanks for the response.  I guess I'll just have the read the book and see.  Given the influence K has wielded on the 20th century and the wide range of interpretations of his works, it seems quite plausible that I'm just more attuned to Kierkegaard's voice echoed in the tradition. 

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

Existence*** not exostence. ;-)

zaneschertz
zaneschertz

@Toy_Adams I haven't read the book yet, but from your post there is def some Tillich\/Process mojo going on.

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@craigadams49 nothing I cited was heretical unless you wanna so that Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Tillich (minus adoptionism) are heretics.

craigadams49
craigadams49

@Toy_Adams The controversy around here (GR) is really bitter. Some people could easily use your post as ammunition.

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@craigadams49 @Toy_Adams I was just using word play. I'm sorry you are so bent out of shape about it. I don't think Rob would go by labels but he openly admits to liking Tillich and Process. He even cites Tillich in the book.

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@jegribble21 thanks man, that means a lot to me! But it's ok bc I think I might be able to talk my dad into going with me. He likes Rob too.

jegribble21
jegribble21

@Toy_Adams Well, we have a couch in Cookeville if you need it. Google says it would add and hour to your drive, but you'd get to sleep.

Toy_Adams
Toy_Adams

@jegribble21 Im not too sure yet. I was thinking about stopping half way or just going for it. Lol.