Thursday, April 7, 2011

My Response to the Rob Bell Controversy

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I have of course not written on this blog for a month. Instead, I have written about my experience with cancer on my Johns Family blog. You are welcome to go there to read my journal on the experience. A link appears in the column to the right. Needless to say, the surgery has proven a greater hindrance to writing than I imagined.

This week I received a note from a friend in the Pacific Northwest asking my opinion of the current Rob Bell controversy. He asked if I thought Bell represented the fruition of reason run amuck. I responded with the following (quickly constructed and unedited) comments.

I deeply appreciate your question and way you phrased it. I do not believe that reason inevitably leads to chaos. In my opinion, it is not reason that is at fault in post-modernity; it is the set of a priori assumptions to which reason is being applied. Postmodern thought builds on two faulty premises, one long-standing and the other only recently re-introduced. The longstanding error is belief that truth can be known in a vacuum. That is, the Hellenistic worldview assumes there always exists a gap between the knower and the known. Grounded in dualism, this myth ultimately removes truth from the material world, and makes reason the sole arbiter of truth, which in turn limits knowledge to the individual’s ability to reason. Knowledge and truth, while universal in essence, are always private in experience; only the individual can know that he or she knows.

The second faulty assumption is new to the “modern” world. It is a rejection of the longstanding belief that creation is a closed system. Twentieth century physics replaced the certainty of Newton’s Laws with the uncertainty of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which lead to thoughts of alternative time-lines, the collapse of space into time, and multiple dimensions of existence. The material world has an infinite number of possible expressions. And if that is true, then how diverse must spiritual truth be?

I realize I am painting in very broad strokes but it seems to me that post modernity boils down to the union of these two presuppositions, (1) truth can only be known by the individual, and (2) all truth is relative. When these two are brought together the results are the deification of the individual and the nullification of absolute truth (Adam and Eve all over again).

For me the answer lies in a more Biblical epistemology, one that understands all knowledge and truth as (1) being grounded in the Triune God, (2) relational in character (always personal/never private), (3) always constant, consistent, and therefore rational, but (4) also trans-rational [truth cannot be confined to reason alone making reason to not be the sole arbiter of truth].

I have not read Bell’s latest book. Therefore, I cannot comment on his specific views. The reviews I have read suggest he is merely lost in the relativity/uncertainty of post-modernity. The strength of his approach seems to be his willingness to look at hard questions thru the lens of the cultural realities of his generation. The weakness of his approach seems to be an unwillingness to accept and teach with certainty the Biblical answers to those questions.

I have probably strayed too far from your original question. In short, the problem with post-modernity is its predisposition to limit reason to the role of being a tool used to defend truth as a private matter (reason as justification for my brand of truth). To borrow a phrase from Francis Schaffer, post-modernity represents the Western World’s “escape from reason.” I don’t think Bell offers a valid model for reaching a post-modern world. He, and others in the emergent church, are correct in their assertion that it is not enough to ask the right questions with this rising generation; we must understand their epistemology which defines truth as that which is “real” rather than that which is “logical.” They are wrong in that they fail to honor the Word of God incarnated and the Word of God inscripturated as being both personal and objective (present in time and space). We, as Pentecostals, should be providing the answer for post-moderns, truth is found in the person of Jesus who is both real and logical. He is known through encounter and understood through reason.