Monday, 22 February 2010

Velvet Elvis, Movement One: Jump

This first chapter (Movement One: Jump) revolves around a metaphor, as do most of Bell's encyclicals. In this case the metaphor is jumping on a trampoline. The act of jumping represents (Christian) life, and the springs of the trampoline represent (Christian) doctrine. Jumping is the actual living, but the springs assist the jumping. Furthermore, the springs are flexible so as to allow exploration, discussion and change. Bell returns to this metaphor throughout the chapter, but it is largely unchanged as he goes.

Writing to a Christian audience, Bell brings out familiar material to start this chapter. First, he asserts that there is more to life than the daily grind of working, sleeping and eating.
What is fascinating to me is that at the center of the Christian faith is the assumption that this life isn't all there is. That there is more to life than the material. That existence is not limited to what we can see, touch, measure, taste, hear, and observe. One of the central assertions of the Christian worldview is that there is "more". (19)
Secondly, he puts forward that every human is ultimately following in the footsteps of someone else (parents, teachers, etc.), and that this is the basic framework of an individual's worldview. "Everybody follows somebody." (19) Specifically, the Christian follows Jesus Christ, with three particular characteristics. The Christian follows what Jesus taught, the Christian thinks that this is the best possible way to live, and that this way puts the Christian in touch with the "ultimate reality"of the universe.
You find yourself living more and more in tune with ultimate reality. You are more and more in sync with how the universe is at its deepest levels. (21)
This kind of life Jesus was living perfectly and completely in connection and cooperation with God, is the best possible way for a person to live. It is how things are. (21)
Being a Christian is a kind of flourishing, in which the Christian engages with the universe itself, becoming part of how the universe was always intended to operate.

Returning to the metaphor of the trampoline, Bell attempts to make doctrines less intimidating. As the springs of the trampoline, doctrines help to live the life, but they aren't the life itself. They aren't, however, a complete and accurate picture of God. God is utterly transcendent and incapable of textual embodiment. For Bell, any doctrine that claims to completely describe God is a false doctrine.
The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. (25)
This kind of doctrinal certainty is, in Bell's extended metaphor, like brickwork. It's inflexible and divides the insiders from the outsiders. With reference to the gospel tradition of inversion, he points out that Jesus reversed the positions of insiders and outsiders, the pharisees and the sinners. Those who define the brick-doctrines are the self-proclaimed insiders who exclude those who don't understand or agree. The inflexible nature of brick-doctrines is responsible for this.

The flexibility of the springs is necessary, he argues, for people to ask questions about God. Although he cites a long list of questions, they're all the same basic question about the problem of evil. That is, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does evil exist? Bell doesn't engage with the question, instead indicating that the reader should do that for themselves, perhaps fruitlessly. It's entirely possible that there is no answer for this, but the correct response is not to give up on God, but to live with the mystery. And mystery, when revealed, will lead to other mysteries. What's important is that the Christian continue to jump, to live the Christian life.

And jumping is joyful. Bell closes the chapter by finishing his story about being on a trampoline with his son. He had fun on the trampoline with his son, and thanked God for it. This, then, is the whole point of the Christian life.
The point is our joy. That is when God is most pleased. (35)

Overall, this chapter could be summarised as, "Follow, obey, enjoy, ask questions if you must, expect no answers." Its reminiscent of a story about Pascal who advised, "Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe!" with the added condition that "you will enjoy!" This is ideology at its strongest, as a little trip through Louis Althusser's theory will show.

Surprisingly, both Althusser and Bell agree that everyone is following someone, although Althusser might phrase it as "always-already in ideology" but that's a minor point. Ideology is inescapable, but that's no reason to let a particular ideology dominate the individual. The integration of ideology and institution is perhaps the most destructive of them all, resulting in a mediated belief system. This is the object of Kierkegaard's attack against the Danish state church in The Book on Adler. Christian truth is universally addressed, and not mediated through any institution. The only way to prevent this is to ensure that the individual is actively engaged with that truth, including having the tools and techniques required for this. Christian education (that is, theological education in content and technique) is necessary.

Whereas the potential for a Christianity mediated through the institution of the Church is the lesser of the two critiques, the more troubling part of Bell's view is the insistence on joy for the individual. That sounds like I'm just being a grumpy old bugger, that I think joy is irrelevant. Let me be clear, though, that I'm not kicking joy out but I want it to be in the right place. Joy is good, but the idea that "God is most pleased" when we feel joy gives Christianity an Epicurean spin that it shouldn't have. It seems to me that the Christian life should be marked by a pursuit of showing love, and joy should be consequential.

This brings us back to the start of the chapter, in which Bell says that being Christian puts the individual in touch with the deepest workings of the universe, a universe that God has created and which is disconnected from humanity except through God. Conversely, I see that the universe is a cold, hard place in which natural forces reign - including the self-interest of survival. Natural behaviour is self-interested, whereas Christian behaviour is not. Christian behaviour is love, and that's not self-interested. What this means is that following Jesus and obeying his teachings actually puts the Christian in opposition to the natural forces of the universe. Christianity is an interruption to natural desires and drives, not a complement to them.

If there is anything that should be taken away from this chapter, it's the sense that this is encouragement for the doubting Christian. It should be encouragement to persevere in the Christian life, despite the presence of evil. It should be encouragement to question doctrine and theology, and not simply swallow what comes from the pulpit. Eventually, the end should be Christians who have thought about, prayed about, and researched about the hard questions of faith and found answers.


Ben and Tamara said...

Interesting. I thought your summary was great, up until the point where you got stuck on "joy."

I'm not sure if that was the main point of the chapter. I think if you look at the whole thing, it seems that Bell is saying that we need to have a spirituality that is flexible (as opposed to brick-like).

And then as a consequence of that kind of spirituality we will probably be a lot more joyful (I don't mean "happy"). It will help us to be more in tune with how the universe is wired, because we will be less confined by restrictive theologies of God.

I also don't agree with your assessment of the universe as "a cold, hard place in which natural forces reign - including the self-interest of survival." Self-interest may be the natural tendency of the non-Christlike humans in the world, but not the entire universe, surely. I think the evidence of God's reflection in the universe would far outweigh the scope of man's selfish influence - if we could only see the whole thing clearly (which of course we won't be able to with our pitiful human eyes).

I think it is sin that is the "interruption to natural desires and drives." Hence the reason creation "groans."

Or maybe I'm just a glass-half-full theologian.

Andrew Smith said...

Don't misunderstand me. It's not that I think joy is the point of the chapter, but it's Bell who says that joy is the point of being a Christian because "that is when God is most pleased." The primary focus of the chapter is how Christians should regard doctrine.

Your dichotomy about the universe as either Christ-like or not is the same as mine, only I think that being Christ-like isn't natural at all. The universe is driven by survival in the face of entropy, and survival is self-interested. Since time began, from coral to sharks, from parasites to primates, we're all naturally interested in survival and it requires an interruption to break someone out of it.

Using the universe as evidence of God's reflection is problematic, for the very reasons that Bell goes on to suggest. It's open to interpretation. A beautiful sunset (or whatever) will not necessarily lead to faith in God, let alone the Christian concept of God. The sense of the numinous does not entail faith in God. Richard Dawkins has no less capacity to appreciate the wonder of the universe than does Alvin Plantinga, but it leads only one of them to faith in God.