Rob and Pete

The 4 episodes of ‘Shall we talk about God’ with Rob Bell and Peter Rollins spanned more than 2 hours. Peter says that he doesn’t talk very much about God, but a lot about what we can’t say, and how to be more human.

Many have a view of God – flattering images of self?
Talk of blessing tanks and freedom fighters and condemning terrorists!
Our own world and our own thinking – talking about ourselves in a loud voice?

Four classic views of God: SuperbeingHyperbeing (the most orthodox way of thinking about God) – Ground of beingGod as Event.

God is mostly seen as a projection of our own sense of self onto something bigger.
At its best God is not a projection – God as a projectile.
Why do the ideas of so many try to justify theology – instead of it being a critique?
A projectile that smashes our ideas of what is right and wrong?
A God who breaks open our understanding of the world in which we live?
Away from judgemental attitudes! The lessons we can learn!
What about the outsiders who question our way of looking at the world?

God as a superbeing who either exists or not – an object we can wrap our thoughts around – endless arguments between believers and atheists. Three alternatives to that view:
The Mystical – God as the name we give to a hyperbeing (God cannot be conceptualised – better than anything we can say about God our understanding of God is, is less than what God is!
Maybe a need to be rescued from whatever ideas we have of God!
The suggestion that there is a violent love affair between atheism and theism – a mutually beneficial relationship – that every theism has to have an atheism. If for example we say God is a Father we have to add ‘but not as I understand father’. We name God and then de-name God? A combination of atheism and theism in a beautiful relationship?
A/theist (Eckhart) – the Christian lives in the slash – a theist and an atheist – between creating ideas and knocking them down!
Much of the unfolding narrative of scripture is something that someone has come up with of how God is.
We can’t speak of love so we use many metaphors that often clash (warrior and peacemaker). We can’t just use one name. Some Russians knocked holes in their walls because the ultimate icon is an empty space. Some people are driven by what we cannot speak – speaking comes from frustration and not being able to articulate ones thoughts. What place poets and artists?
Symbolism is more than literal – it helps us to participate in a discourse that we cannot nail down – something we are taken up into? The literalist misses out on the power that pulls us into a participation that transforms!
We cannot capture experiences in words – we may describe a response.
Most theology is idolatry – it treats God as an object – talking about how God is different from what we can conceive.
Do we allow a painting to speak to us? A good painting seldom has a single meaning – we may see something different every time we look at it! A similarity with the words of theology?
What place contemporary art – some is hard to get!
People may have questions when they just don’t want to get it wrong – that can lead to a fear of participation! So different from “I don’t want to miss out”!
There can be a great relationship when we don’t get what the other is saying, but we are able to get at each other because of a real love for each other!

Ground of being (from Paul Tillich) – slightly different from hyperbeing.
God is that from which everything arises. Everything arises from the ground we call God – all speech about God is symbolic.
Whenever we say anything about God there is a subject (me) saying something about an object (God) – but if we make God an object we miss God because God is not an object.
Mystics connect with God through the absolute – contemplation and experience.
We connect with God through ultimate concern. We cannot love God, but in loving someone we love God. God is something we discover in loving others? Subtle but huge!
If someone says “I love God”, what does that mean?
Religionless Christianity – forget about loving God – act in love!
Yoga – returning to early practices – gratitude to source – breathing and its relationship to gratitude!
Are we already in – resting upon God?
Source and breathing fits in well with the mystics.
Giving yourself to a vocation – something to live and die for!
Ultimate concern leads to finding meaning in life – but there is a problem when you make something ultimate that shouldn’t be, such as “patriotism – my country right or wrong”. But if people say they love their country so much that if they see things that are wrong, they will fight against it, that is a healthy ultimate concern – giving of self to ideals!
We find God by bringing more life to the world?

God as event – God as the name we give to that which calls us to greater love of freedom, democracy, hospitality . . . that stops us reducing the world to one dimension materiality.
There is said to be something that calls us to something better.
Many don’t think of God as a being but like God as an event.
Ground of being is a little blurry as to whether it is atheism or theism. If we talk about justice we end up with something less than just. Democracy is never quite what we would want it to be.
There is something that makes us rethink our laws etc – something that the prophets of old gave themselves to.
The divine about liberation in time and space?
Go and care for someone who needs it?
Righteousness should flow like a river!
Many who cannot accept God are thinking of a superbeing and are not aware that there are a lot of other ways of understanding this term – the divine God.
Some suggest that Atheism is closer to the biblical traditions than theism.
Some atheists reject the God who should be rejected
What we see as the best of the Christian tradition is not about getting right beliefs (not an exam) but about a mode of being – a different way of life.
Psychoanalysis – an idea that we don’t know what we believe – what we believe is often hidden from us – what we believe is often a trap – an idealised form of ourselves.
The truth is not in what we think but what we do!

Faith at its best is attempting to reorientate self differently in the world – not having a certain view about the world!

Why bother talking about God?
We are living our life according to something?
We may have grown up as a Christian – immersed in it – and then rejected it – but still in a relationship with it.
It’s the language we have and can’t just take another language like humanism or secularism.
How does our belief function? Not what we believe?

Going Deeper – What does it mean to us when we use the word God?
God as the imaginary – the symbolic – the real

These three terms were used by a philosopher in the mid 20th century to describe what it means to be human – understanding how we understand ourselves; how we try to protect ourselves from suffering (and how that often creates more suffering) – how we tick and what it means to be a healthy human being.
It can be useful to use these terms when talking about God.

The imaginary is the simplest – fairy tales – images we aspire to – the sort of thing that can happen at school – what would it be like to be like . . .
If you are in the imaginary realm too much ‘truth’ will be uncomfortable, and that will not be welcomed in the group. The fantasy image of self needs to be maintained.
Our God is often idealised images of self – such as a strong father or a warrior.

The symbolic is the structure that underlies that image – the justification for what is thought to be good and bad. Different cultures have different symbolic values. The symbolic is what we consider as good and bad – an invisible power we are seldom even aware of – but we use it to judge people all the time (unaware for example of being sexist or racist).
The need to destroy the evil monsters – the myth of redemptive violence!

The real is what challenges the symbolic structure of the fairy tale – is the world really as simple as that? The real challenges our ways of constructing and understanding the world – it ruptures the idealised imagery of ourselves.
The time when the world we have constructed is challenged?

Social media is an idealised version of ourselves – FB profiles as we would like to be seen – we do this all the time – a curated image!
The real blasts all the imaginary and symbolic to shreds. Some may want to unfriend those who challenge and make us rethink things – the person who says, “maybe you don’t have it all together”


The imaginary – God as a bigger version of self.
The symbolic – the use of religion to justify or protect our way of life from anyone who thinks differently – sometimes used by churches to push out anyone who disagrees or asks questions.
The real – the person who says I’m a Christian; a Conservative; a Republican and then a long list . . . reflecting a belief that this would be God’s position on all of these issues.

Karl Barth and others referred to God erupting in our world – God as an explosive force.
Those who have thought through the way we live see things so differently – a higher ethical standard? A greater awareness of how our actions affect others.
The example of living among Native Americans where the kids intermingle with other families while we keep kids isolated and protected. An encounter with the real – another community with ideas that seem to be weird. But if we then try to see ourselves through their eyes – that is experiencing the real.

How can we become a healthy human being?
The three intertwined realities!
We get so caught up in our idealised images and close ourselves off from others. The real has tobe there as well to remind us to be open to new revelation, new possibilities, new ideas – it’s that that keeps us humble – that we are not the centre of the universe.
We have much to learn, mostly from those who are suffering and oppressed!
Everyone is our teacher – learn from them – they will expose something – especially people we don’t get on with!
Church as a community where we can be evangelised – where we can be ‘born again’ – where people are constantly open to being transformed.
Pete in Belfast went to other religions to be evangelised.
Tell us what you believe – we want to listen – a great conversation – informative and enriching!
Then, “What is it like to be a Moslem in Belfast? How has the church responded to you? What is it like to live where you do?”
They talked about problems – being evangelised into being better Christians – seeing things you prefer not to see.

If you are living in the imaginary as soon as your partner points something out you think, “this is too much, I can’t handle this”, you might break up, but they could evangelise you into a better version of yourself!
The healthiest relationships with those you want to tell you the truth.
Please tell me where I’m off-track!
Our defences would come up if that was said by someone who is not a friend.
We need the eyes of others in order to see ourselves!

Who is God to you? How do you understand God?
God is the one who disrupts our imagination!
Paul was persecuting Christians when he was blinded. “Why are you persecuting me?” But the people he was persecuting were there to help him understand?
Symptoms – unpleasant truths we cannot speak – listen to the problems! Symptoms such as a bad back or depression tell us that something in our lives isn’t working.
We might hate our job but we can’t be angry with the boss – the anger is displaced to a partner!
That might be seen as a symptom (in French = holy man = prophet). A symptom can be a prophet – listen to it!
The people were telling Paul that there were problems in the politics and religion of the day – and this was how Paul was transformed?
Listen to the prophets who can tell you how you can have a better life!

Paul keeps coming back to grace – he was so convinced that he had learned something – but actually grace is the engine of the thing!

Those who cause problems are put in prisons – the problems in society are cut off behind walls.
If we go to the prisons or the homeless thinking we are good news for them? But they should be seen as good news – showing something of the flaws in our society.
If we want to be converted as a society we have to go to the most depressed people in it – we need to be born again! Large numbers of homeless people = a real message!
The Protestant Principle (Tillich) – no end of on-going reformation.
The imaginary and symbolic need to be pierced – that’s what keeps things moving!

God is the absurd – based on a specific definition – the experience we have as creatures looking for meaning and stability as we encounter a universe that seems to resist giving us meaning and stability. We have a feeling and that is the absurd. The absurd as something that challenges our systems of meaning and our desires for understanding.

  • Son of god was a Roman way of talking about someone who had a divine favour?
  • The holocaust has no meaning? No good came out of it? So unspeakable.
  • For Europe WWI was an encounter with the absurd? It was for intellectuals a breakdown of progress – of everything becoming better. Progress died in the trenches!
  • In history we are faced with events that are so traumatic that they rupture all the ways we think about things! These may be on a worldwide scale or within families – divorce – that phone call – life as we knew it is fractured!
  • There have been many attempts to explain the cross such as a payment had to be made.
  • What if the crucifixion is that which defies meaning? That is the ultimate Christology (Christ and the end of meaning?).
  • The cross as the punk moment rupturing everything – the ethics of the system of the day.
  • The idea of God being crucified was originally absurd – a stumbling block and foolishness to the wise. Crucifixion blows up all of our ideas of how the universe works – crucified = cursed of God; a nobody. The gods were superbeings who did the blessing or cursing.
  • The cross is the original punk (confronting and challenging the world of music – challenging what art was – looking at surrealist art that didn’t fit into any category).
  • The cross itself is a confrontation with the absurd.
  • Christianity confronts us with unknowing; with doubt; the breakdown of meaning; – it’s hard baked into the cross – the centre of Christianity!
  • We think that the universe is supposed to work to certain rules – it doesn’t – and that can cause heartache?
  • We try to run from the experience to anyone who tells us why that happens (theodicy – the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil).
  • This is sometimes better than having no meaning at all. Some can’t bear not knowing, and any answer is better than none. Religion often gives people a strong sense of meaning – especially when it feels as if life is falling apart.
  • What is the connection between fleeing the absurd and cognitive dissonance?
  • If running away works that’s fine – like getting drunk after a problem – but it comes back.Some do it every weekend to avoid the experience of unknowing, the pain and suffering – by going to the pub or church – or work on Monday!
  • People often conspire with religion to protect themselves from the experience of the absurd – others see this as the way people duck the real truths. Consider the pleasure industries.
  • We live between our lived lives and our unlived lives – the lives we have and the lives we would like to have – and that’s frustrating!
  • It starts when we are young – a world that doesn’t give us what we want – ongoing . .
  • Christianity seen by some as that which helps us to confront the absurd.
  • Is the church really there to give meaning to your life – to give answers and take away unknowing and frustration.
  • Society as we know it is becoming less and less predictable – good people are suffering.
  • Occupy didn’t give an alternative – it questioned the world!
  • Political wake up calls – the system isn’t working – what about Bernie Sanders?
  • God is not that which gives meaning to the world. God is that which breaks into our world and breaks it apart. That is step 1.
    Step 2 is the idea that God is in the midst of life with us – nothing separates us from the love of God – maybe God is where our suffering is – helping us to bear it – and maybe turning it into something that we can use for the good of others.
  • God is not a superbeing – the holy of holies was empty.
  • Then in the resurrection God is in the body where we look out for each other, caring for each other, not where we give an explanation for someone’s suffering – but where we put a hand on their shoulder and say “I’m with you in your suffering – we will get through this together”.
  • The importance of bringing people together in order to share their stories. This can be particularly important when there are no rational explanations.
  • The Buddhist parable of the woman whose child dies and she searches for someone to resuscitate it.
    I can make a potion but I need mustard seed from a house that has not experienced the blackness of suffering that has crossed your life. As she hears the stories of others she gradually comes to terms with her loss. The holy man had provided a context where she could talk to others – so that the sting of suffering could gradually be removed.
  • Jesus on Palm Sunday – you don’t know how peace comes – you are looking for a clean solution to your problems – I’m going to die and break your heart? The only route?
  • A guy on a donkey rather than a warrior – that is absurd!
  • The parables of the kingdom often refer to yeast – the hidden things – about loss – a seed.
  • Some sense they need to suffer – No! We already are suffering!
  • Let’s get away from pretence – that just causes more problems – the more we hide from problems the more damaging they become.
  • We need to confront our deepest truths and bring them to the surface so that we can be set free – speaking about the problems robs them of their negativity – an exciting way to live – lose life to find it!
  • Albert Camus was an Algerian philosopher, author, and journalist based in France. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism:
  • Conservatives try to conserve the world. Revolutionaries try to get rid of the frustration by saying that there is a new world we can get that will fix everything – a new world – a utopia. Conservatives conserve – there is no new utopia.Two sides of the same coin!
  • A rebel is a figure that engages in the absurdity of life – embraces unknowing and doubts and takes it into life and uses it as fuel to create better worlds, but never thinks they are going to get rid of difficulties and frustrations – that’s what makes life interesting!
  • We have to change how we live with doubt.
  • Many religious people think that if we ask questions everything will fall apart.
  • Christ as the original rebel?
  • Crucifixion as the original punk
  • God is the name we give to experiencing depth and density to life – that allows us to bear all our human emotions?
  • The difference between a problem (such as why suffering?) and a mystery (so intertwined with what is being explored that you can’t stand apart from it.
  • When in suffering or grief you can’t stand back – you are within. If you treat it as a problem you lose the very truth of what spiritual language is all about.
  • The borromean knot – a form of trinity – if you cut one element, the other two fall out.
  • The objective element – something will have taken place – maybe read a story or an incredible conversation or cancer in a loved one goes into remission – that really touches our life subjectively – something weird happens (I don’t know what happened!). It opens us up – we become more grateful – it bonds us to them – life is seen as a precious gift. It makes everything colourful again – an evental element – a rebirth – a form of life that enables us to experience everything differently – everything is transformed.
  • Life is not what we experience – life allows us to experience!
  • Religious experience is not an experience of anything – it’s what transforms our experience of everything.If it was just an experience we could get better experiences from say drinking.
  • For mystics the true religious experience didn’t mean that a new experience happened – all the experiences we have are fundamentally transformed.

Is Jesus the son of God?

  • An objective element – somebody was there in history subjectively – we encounter Jesus as someone special – the evental element – we want to give our lives to a better world that some call the kingdom of God. A new way of being we have to try and substantiate?
  • The question can trivialise the power of the term – instead of seeing it as how we transform our life in the world.
  • Jesus had a special and unique relationship with the divine. He calls us to be in the world in a similar way – where we don’t build our empire – we take whatever we have been given and make something of it.
  • But Jesus as the son of God was not born in a palace but in a manger – he didn’t have an army but had disciples.
  • But the phrase was figurative – a symbolic term – a term the Romans used about somebody who had a relationship with the divine – a political statement!
  • For some people that is a litmus test. They might ask, “Do you literally believe . . .”
  • Sermons – the path of becoming a servant of Jesus – a believer – some were on the path growing and transforming – some just wanted to keep repeating the statements about we believe . . . and clinging to statements like Jesus as the son of God as a way of avoiding the messy work of becoming a new kind of person.
  • Religious phrases – a clanging symbol without the other two elements.
  • Atheists v Theists – does God exist? – what’s the point of these arguments?
    We have no place in that debate – we are playing a different game?
  • Some have been transformed – the lights are on – a real hum. Others are just flat – they may be very smart but no sacred hum!
  • A flag is literal – but if a flag means something to you it has a subjective meaning and for some it has an evental dimension (e.g. they want to see their country be gracious to outsiders . . .) Service – Sacrifice – Courage!
    If you say to such people “it’s just a flag” you are missing completely what it means.
  • How do I mourn what I’ve lost (fundamentalism) and how do I celebrate what comes next?
  • Is life possible before we die?