Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Responding to Rob Bell's book: What we talk about when we talk about God

The Fourth Breast Plate

I borrowed and have read a copy of Rob Bell’s sweet little book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.  I have a deep appreciation for the work being done within the Christian community to begin to free up our hearts to experience our deep unity with God, rather than simply objectifying (idolizing) Jesus and the idea of God. This is another book that is trying very hard to lean that way.

I’m probably quite different from most of the folks who attend my local Episcopal church.  I have been deeply grounded in Buddhist, Taoist and Vedantic thought for most of my adult life.  I have never read the Bible as “just about Jesus” but rather as a way to watch how one human being (my most beloved Icon and my Ishvara Pranidana) lived out of his oneness with the divine.  I have found it helpful to use the Buddhist/Hindi/Sufi terms of relative reality and ultimate reality to help me to wake to the divinity within and around myself.  Each relative piece of reality...you, me, the bird, the tree, stars and galaxies have a distinct and delightful difference. At the same time, there is no me, you, bird, tree and stars and galaxies when seen through the eye of Ultimate reality.  We are not just “brothers and sisters” we are, wholly and totally each other.  Our beginning task is to learn to use both lenses of reality at once, appreciating and loving the separate neighbor as ourselves because the separation that allows the label of neighbor is only based on a single lens, that of relative reality.

Jesus was trying very hard to let us see out of both ways, these lenses of relative and ultimate reality.

I think Rob might have been better served if he had defined some things a little better:  particularly the very real difference between faith and belief.  There is a Sufi analogy that helps me wrestle with this—how religion/belief/relationship/faith operate together and separately.

1. Your first breastplate consists of all the material pieces of your religion:  altars and crosses and vestments and professional religious and buildings and physical Bibles and musical instruments.  These can all be taken from you or change over time.

2. Your second breastplate consists of all the symbolic elements of your beliefs:  the well-turned sermon, the words of the scripture, the dogmas, the creeds, the hymns, the prayers, the mental and verbal beliefs we hold.  All these can be taken from you and change over time.

3. Your third breastplate is wholly relational when you begin to ask, “what does this say to me?”  What is my relationship with God?  We begin to feel rather than simply think, to discern rather than blindly accept, to experience and walk with, rather than follow. We enter into the conversation, into companionship, into discipleship. But these can still be taken from you and change over time.

4. The fourth breastplate is the breastplate of unity with God. "...and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..." (Galatians 2:20b).

That is the breastplate that Christianity has not been good at teaching, except through the hints given to us by our mystics and contemplatives.  This is the place Jesus lived out of and calls us to live out of.  And it’s understandable because it cannot really be given or taught directly.  In a sense, we have to wear each of the breastplates, relying on them at different times (relative reality) even as we begin to live into and out of the fourth breastplate (see the motion of breathing here?). 

Rob is running well on the third breastplate in most of this book.  That’s not wrong, it just doesn’t tell us how to live into and out of that Fourth Breastplate.

A little about Ruach:

If we are interacting with the breath of God, the Mystery becomes more than merely relational or dualistic.  Ruach is life, breath, “mind”...even if we look through the lens of relative reality, can you separate yourself from the breath?  We are, at our cores, our breath.  It is relational (we breathe in and out), it is unifying (we all breathe in and out of each other and the whole of creation), and it is the action in this body that bridges our conscious control (you can hold the breath for a time) and our automatic responses (you don’t have to think about breathing).  It is not “from then into,"  it is shared, unified at one level, relational at another (in and out=this one life, all life, ruach).

History heading “somewhere”?

This idea of a beginning and end, and that end being “good” is based in relative reality.  In truth, Jesus was probably heir to the idea of historical time like a caravan, something Rob is starting to play with. The camel that went first—the big bang of science, if you will—is ahead of us on the caravan and we walk in those footsteps, as well as the footsteps of a man we call Jesus and other “teachers” like Krishna and Buddha as well as Gengis Khan and Hitler.  Our movements in the sand of time will be walked in by those who come after us (the future is behind us), and will help to set their trajectory and lives.

But it’s important to also understand that there is no “real” beginning point...many caravans have set out on this trail, and our caravan is not the only conceivable one.  There is no end point, nor is there good or bad because those words depend upon our placement in the caravan...they are of relative existence.  Remember, one window into this concept of God is “I AM”, not I was, will be, or will cease to be, and yet all of those shades are possible simultaneously. That is the paradoxical nature of unity.  I AM holds the paradoxes of good and bad, right and wrong, up and down, creation and destruction in the energy of the present moment. 

Rob is good at catching the movement into the Third Breast Plate...that God is before us, in relationship with, is equally available to all, etc, but doesn’t quite know how to tempt the reader into that place that is even deeper than simply relational—into the unity that encourages the relational to go beyond the bias of time, place, idols, tribes and personal ideas and religion itself.  That last might be the rub...how to talk about God and remain aligned with Christianity alone.

For us:

Again, the idea of God wanting “good” is a sticky effect of relative reality.  Perhaps God’s trajectory, God’s path, is really about allowing insects or bacteria to become the dominant life form on earth for a while. Who knows?  The real face in us, the face before we were born, is no less there, and God will be no less. That is the epitome of rest and fearlessness, is it not?  This is the energy of all shall be well and all shall be well and all matter of things shall be well.  (Julian of Norwich)  :-)  We label good and bad in our daily lives, but it seems rather presumptuous to think this Mystery we’re talking about thinks in such binary ways and always on the side of humanity.  Nothing in Nature or the Universe would lead us to such a conclusion. The Divine and Human exist in the same place” but also the bird, the star and the great moving “void” of space.

This isn’t nihilistic at all, because when you act out of union with God, or at least in relationship with God, then your definitions of “good” and “bad’ come under scrutiny, with the microscope of wisdom but also of compassion.  So our very gentleness as well as the ability to stand with strength and purpose flow out of us in response to hearts in union with God.  “All must act, even God.  We have a right to our actions but not the fruits thereof” (Bhagavad Gita). Moment by moment we make choices that hinge on how well we are unified with God; we cannot claim either the merits or the demerits of those actions before or after we act—both belong to God and are beyond dualistic definitions. 

This is hard and incredibly easy, like all “Truths”.

Many sages, including Jesus I think, would disagree with the assessment that humans “need help.”  It’s far too easy to leap from that into the first and second breastplates of religion and religious ideations.  Instead, the message of the Gospels could also be read, “stand up and realize your unity with God.”  The thing is, this doesn’t take personal effort, will or “self-power”.  It requires a removal of ignorance that is really quite simple—go to the cross.  Hang the ego of your heart and mind on the upright beam of the spirit and the cross beam of the historical/time entrenched in your relative existence.  Thorns around your head, but your heart wide open.  Be whole and sacrifice everything you think or wish to become.  Be. Be I AM. This is the movement of grace if you look carefully at your life.

“On the sidewalk, in front of the building missing out on what God was up to inside”...Page 155.  This is NOT the message I think Rob will want to see in print as he matures, that God was somehow with the liberals and progressives and not also out with those people on the streets waving their signs.  I love the teaching story, again from Sufism...

Hafiz was on his way to the sacred city of Mecca, and he lay down to rest, his feet facing the Kaaba.  Another pilgrim chastised him for his ignorance and lack of attention.  Hafiz opened one sleepy eye.  “Very well,” he murmured.  “Tell me where God is not.”

It’s not that I don’t applaud Rob saying clearly that we are not about tribe, about this religion over another, that belief over another, that person over another.  But again, he is limited when he tries to stop at the simply relational level, and misses the deeper place that Jesus was trying to teach from.  Social action becomes effortless when we’ve been to the cross, when we’ve entered into union with God.  In John 12:8, Jesus notes that the poor will always be with us.  Not matter how you interpret this—metaphorical or “real” poverty, the message is that we will never wholly fix the world.  And that is OK because the world is not broken at its coreWe can and should certainly work to help those around us, but that basic SUCHNESS of reality is that there is no fixer, no fixed, no action of fixing in the ultimate sense. Only and forever God. This is the very root of freedom, to respond easily and generously to relative reality and to know that everything is already whole in God.  That’s the paradox that gives social action its energy and its compassion and its wisdom.

“There’s a new place where God dwells, and it’s us.”  Almost there, Rob...almost...but what can dwell can also leave, so I’m not quite in step with him. 

Ah, at last, and even better:  “Jesus comes to help us see things as they truly are, ...with greater and greater connectivity higher and higher levels of hierarchy leading to holism beyond even us as all matter is permeated by the redeeming energy and power of [that is] God.

Bingo.  (I’d take out the moving forward for I AM is always before us, with us, and behind us, the paradox of the present moment.  Forward has connotations of “good” and I’ve already weighed in with that one.  Ah, the pain of language, though...)

This, I hope, is the point of his book, but then, reading on, there is still that inevitable slip back to the third breastplate of relational dualism.  It’s inevitable because that is the last “place” we can use words, images, perceptions.  The relational level is the level of the Icon—we see into God and find God looking back at God.  “God became man, so that Man might become [aware that he or she is already] God.” (Clement, Irenaeus and other pre-Nicean Council theologians). It is the flash point, Jesus in the Garden poised between “take this cup” and “thy will be done”.  Three times he went there...we continue to go there until something experiential shifts, and we find ourselves on the cross...and maybe, the cycle repeats, again and again.

I’m working away at the Gospel of Thomas right now, writing about it using a non-dual lens, and the whole things rings with the Fourth Breastplate mentality.  I am thrilled to find such a comprehensive guide there for beginning in the third breast plate and moving into the non-dual practices and living, and in the Gospels if you look at them closely and with fresh eyes or “eyes of the heart”. Because that, to me, is where we are being called—living out of union as well as into it, experiential, beyond language and conceptualization yet alive within the ruach, diversity clear and brightly woven together since the moment of the Big Bang.


Kim Beyer-Nelson

If you want to see the work I am doing with the Gospel of Thomas in its draft form, visit other pages of my blog beginning at:

I’ve worked up to Logion 99, and try to post one or two a day. I will hopefully finish my first draft in June. I try to respond poetically first, then with a short “thought-filled paragraph”, then show how G of T resonates with non-dual teachings, show some practices move into non-dual or discerning relativism and finally capture the energy of the logion in a single sutra or thread-line. Great fun and something I am passionate about.

The Best of the Bunch in this vein that I’ve found to be readable and well-researched—

Immortal Diamond and Everything Belongs:  Richard Rohr

The Hidden Gospel: Neil Douglas-Klotz


Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic: Adyashanti (Apr 1, 2014) (This work is very, very readable, too)

Asian Journals (in parts): Thomas Merton

Jesus in the Lotus:  Russill Paul

Wisdom Jesus/Wisdom Way of Knowing:  Cynthia Bourgeault

Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin by Lynn Bauman

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