What We Talk About When We Talk About God | Book Launch Event

Posted on March 13, 2013


http://www.robbelllive.com/ March 12, 2013, 4pm PST


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[Live Notes]

A book is a strange thing. It’s like you sit at your desk, day after day, and draft after draft. Then you get the email back from your editor, and it could be perfect, or “there’s more work to be done.” And then the day comes, when the book comes out… and then you find out what it is that you’ve made. So this is that sort of day for me.

When my wife, Kristen, was 15, she went on her first date, and on the way home, got hit head on by a drunk driver.

For the first time ever, my father-in-law had tears.

There is something about life, about the value, the worth… The Hebrews have a word “kavod” (כבד), originally a business term, referring to how much something weighed. Over time, it came to refer to something that was “heavy” as in “significant.” There is this “kavod” in certain moments. You become aware of this unbelievably precious, mysterious, hard to define gift called “life.” It’s as if the things in life that weigh the most can’t be weighed. Life matters. You matter.

Over time, when you hold the hand of an infant, and you talk about how small and fragile it is, it’s really because you have a sense… it tunes you in to the fragile sacred nature of life. We know where babies come from, but we don’t really know where babies come from. We kinda get it, but we also don’t.

I wonder if the reason why the baby’s hand moves us, the reason why new life is profoundly moving and mysterious is because all of life is profoundly moving and mysterious. When you come across a baby’s hand, you are actually reflecting on your own sense of life.

I was at a TED conference last year.

All day long you hear these brilliant talks. Then this brilliant lawyer, Bryan Stevenson talked about this moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. When he was done, he got a standing ovation. What’s fascinating to me the crowd was asked, How many of you are religious? And only about 2-3% of the people raise their hand, kinda. So a group of people who essentially say, “We’re not religious,” when someone talks about the moral arc of the universe, they give a standing ovation. It’s like somewhere deep in our bones we have this sense that things are headed somewhere.

Life matters. We’re connected, and things are headed somewhere.

Now, there are voices that essentially say “no.”

You’re here for a brief period of time, then it’s lights out and the show is over. For some people, that works. By the way, sometimes that’s just a critique of bad religion. When I talk to atheists and they talk, it’s like, “I don’t believe in that god either.”

The problem, is that for many, that leaves us bored and uninspired. We’ve heard that piece of music, or we were out in creation and came across something overwhelmingly beautiful, or we were in the hospital, and we held our kid, and something within us said, this can’t all be an accident. And so we go searching to know more about this reverence, to know more about this reverence within us. The problem, is the word that often gets used for that reverence is “god,” and for many of us, the explanations of “god” often feel a bit like Oldsmobile. It was for back then, but not for now. It feels like a step backwards.

So, the reason I wrote this book is because my growing sense is that there is a large number of us, who, the denial path doesn’t work.

We’re too aware of the reverence humming with us, but the standard explanations bring with them a whole package of stuff that we can’t do. So, this book is for everybody who wants to talk about the reverence. Perhaps in some new ways, which means, we talk about God.

The Greeks had a question: “What’s everything made of?”

If you get down to that, then you can answer all sorts of questions like, How we got here, etc. They had the word “temno” (τεμνω) which meant “to cut.” So, something that was a-temno was something that could not be cut or divided anymore. So there must be some elementary piece, a building block this “cosmic lego” which brought them to the word “atom.” When scientists found the atom, they discovered that it was small. A atom is to the golf ball what the golf ball is to the planet earth. They found “it.” But the atom isn’t the smallest thing, because the atom can actually be split. Then they discovered that they could split the particles that make up the particles that make up those particles. At this point, they’ve been able to split an atom into roughly 150 subatomic particles. What they also discovered is that these subatomic particles don’t behave like they’re “suppose” to. Subatomic particles disappear in one place, and then appear in another without traveling the distance in-between. Two particles, when bonded together, when they separate, without any signal, could still communicate with each other.

We were all trained in a classical view of the world. There are these rules based on Newton’s mechanical physics, based in his book Principia. There is a “rightness” to the universe; it functions according to these laws. But then what happened a little over 100 years ago, when they got into the subatomic realm, they realized is that it doesn’t act like anything we have a frame of reference for.

Niels Bohr, said, “If you enter into the subatomic realm and you aren’t outraged, then you aren’t actually understanding what’s going on there.” They then discovered that an atom is 99.99% empty space. If you were to take out all the empty space in the universe, the universe would fit into a space, roughly the size of a sugar cube.

We live in a really weird universe.

If we were to get to the subatomic level of the chair that you’re sitting on, we would discover that the chair, at its core, is essentially energy in relationship.

We were raised with a very clean line, that there is this scientific realm, and then the spiritual realm. But that line doesn’t actually exist. The universe, at its core, ultimately is energy in relationship. And the flow of this energy is what under girds it all. We were taught about the religious idea, but then there is this factual world.

In the middle of it all is you and me. If you inherited a boat from your uncle, but then realized that the planks were bad and you replaced them, and then replaced the hardware, and then the boards on the hull, and if you did this long enough, eventually you would have replaced each thing on the boat. It would be all new materials. But when you take us on a ride, you would still call it your “uncle’s boat” that he gave you. So, is the “boat” in the wood, or is the boat the “pattern” moving through space and time. We are in some ways, planks. We are collections of atoms and energy, moving through space and time.

Beyond that, you are fairly difficult to locate.

If we were to study you under a microscope, your opinions, memories, what you love, what you can’t stand, we would not be able to locate you. There is no “you” in your elbow. You are what’s called a “collective phenomenon.” The “you” we are encountering today is physically different from the “you” we encountered 9 years ago, and yet, we all agree that “you” are “you.” You are a profound fundamental mystery.

So, when we say, ” ‘So and so’ just drained the life out of me.” Maybe they did. “They just took a piece out of me.” I’m speaking subatomically, of course.

I’m fascinated at how women are aware when they’re unsafe. Your body is a finely tuned radar. You just know. How come you can know when someone is lying when you have no tangible evidence for it. Scientists call this sub-cortical awareness. There are the things that we can explain, and then there is a reaction to a piece of music that you can’t explain.

There is this mystery of who we are and how we are.

You share roughly 60% of your DNA with a fruitfly, 90% with mice, and 96% of your basic genes with a large ape; carbon, nitrogen, etc., There are only a couple basic building blocks of life.

So, when people say, “Well, I cannot believe in a god I cannot see,” the problem is I believe in you. And you are a strange phenomenon. Sometimes it’s, “I can’t believe in all that miraculous stuff.” Yeah, but subatomic particles are weird.

In the modern world, I think one of the things we’re going to have to face is that we are not the masters we are taught that we are. All of the bones of our ancient ancestors that we have dug up so far can fit in the back of a pickup truck. That’s essentially how much we know so far. That’s the beauty of science, is the wonder and awe of the hunt, the exploration, the development of a theory, and then new evidence, and then reformulating. Evolution does a wonderful job telling us why we don’t have tails. The problem is it can’t explain why we find that interesting.

The more we know, the more questions we have.

A few years ago, they found the Higgs boson at CERN. This is awesome, but it raises a bunch of questions. Really smart people have taken it to its smallest elements, and what they’re saying is, “We can’t fully explain it, …yet.” When you add “yet,” you are now in the realm of faith. Someday “we will.” That’s faith.

And then there’s you and I in the middle of it.

So what happened to me. I was a pastor, and one Easter Sunday, I was driving to church, and I realized that I didn’t really know if I believed in God.

Which is fine, and we all have doubts and struggles, but I was suppose to give a sermon that Sunday. I was thinking, that would be interested. “I was thinking, in the end, I think we’re all screwed.” What I realized is that the conceptions that I had of God weren’t working for me. I had this strong sense of reverence, there was more than what was going on here. Some of the conceptions I had just didn’t work anymore. There was something about it that lost energy and life.

Through that experience, coming face to face with the real possibility that we are alone here, I came to find new understandings of God, understandings that filled me with life, which is the measure of a good view of God. Like, is this where the life is? Does this shape me into a better person? Does this open me up in ways that nothing else can.

So, this book comes out of that question: Are there new ways to talk about God?

So, in the book, I lay out three simple ways to talk about God. God is with us, God is for us, and God is ahead of us.


As a pastor for years, I found again and again people who had a view that God is somewhere else, generally with a beard and a robe, and then God comes here from time to time for particular reasons. “…and then God showed up.” The problem with this “interventionist God” is you end up with lots of questions as to why did God show up at “this” time when “that” time would have been good. If this is your only perception, this robs me of a sense that life even matters.

The ancient Hebrews had this word “ruach”, (רוח) which refers to the life force of the universe, almost like everything is plugged into a wall socket; the “ruach” is the energy, the hum of things, the sense of presence in something.

We have these incredible experience with friends, of things that are what they are, and yet somehow they point to something more. It’s almost like an echo of some larger sound. It’s a meal, but it’s not just a meal. It’s a baby’s hand, but yet it’s more than a baby’s hand. It has depth. There is something divine about it. It matters. It has “kavod.” My experience is that people who want nothing to do with religion, God, church, etc., are very attuned to this depth. They are very attuned to the sense, at times when they are cut off from this depth.

The people that we most admire are often people who are wise, who we turn to for guidance, are people who are slowed down and who are aware of the depth of things.

So this word “ruach” is often translated “spirit,” but for many of us, it is “non-physical,” non-grounded, etc. But “ruach” was never esoteric. “Ruach” is the sense that things matter. It is the very life force surging through all creation.

What happens if you have a God that shows up from time to time, is you end up having to argue for that God’s existence. And then you end up with schools of apologetics, while the world goes on as it always has. The “ruach” is the presence of God that allows things to go on as it always has.

The real art becomes being aware of this “ruach,” this presence, right here, right now, in our interactions, in our conversations, in nature, and in ourselves. So, I begin with the belief and conviction; I choose to believe that God is present. Like the Psalmist says, Where can I go from your presence.


I believe God is for human flourishing. In a strange sort of way, especially the Christian message for many people, it hasn’t been  about human flourishing. It’s been about a god who is very pissed off somewhere and she is coming soon. So “act busy”

When I was first starting out as a pastor, I gave a sermon, and it was a shaky affair. This guy, George told me I needed to go to AA. So I started going. And I try to start naming what is in the room, and then it hit me; it was like this moment. This room is totally free from bullshit. Nobody is pretending here. This is a meeting where everyone here has brought their actual condition. If you’re there, the fundamental inference to the room is absolute brutal naked honesty…without pretense, without pretending, and with people in their exact “as-they-are-ness.” And, that’s where God is found.

When Jesus came along, and talked about Gospel. For many of us, we have to get things together, clean up our act, and then we are presentable to God. But what Jesus talked about is Gospel, which is fundamentally counterintuitive. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We might call the “poor in spirit,” the zeros, the lame, the losers. One scholar suggests that the way to say “Blessed” is to say “God is on your side.”

“Law” says, “you do these things, and that’s how you get ahead.” You become righteous, holy, perfect, disciplined, humble, then you’re in. But when Jesus comes along, he is saying, “I’m here to talk you about a God who meets you, exactly in the place of not having it together.” This is the God who does not meet me when I have it all sort of together in nice and neat piles. This is the sort of God who meets you exactly in a place where you are most acutely aware of how pathetic you are. By the way, the first people who heard this called this “good news.” That should tell you something.

For many people God is somewhere else and cranky. I would argue that Jesus talks about a God who is present, here and now, in our midst, a God who is for us, and meets us in exactly the place where we are most convinced that this God is nowhere to be found.


Several years ago I did this event with the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu. It was this gathering of every religion, put on by Seeds of Compassion. It is an unbelievable cross-section of humanity. They’ve gathered from the four corners of the earth to talk about the world becoming a more peaceful place. And a guy leans over to me and says, “There are protesters out there.” That’s like being against chocolate. He said, “It’s a bunch of Christians.” Which doesn’t surprise you, does it.

There is this divine “pull” within every single human to a better tomorrow. And this pulling has been pulling across the ages, for people to have food, water, shelter, for us to get along, for us to turn our swords into plowshares. I believe that pull is the divine pull; that’s God.

And you can resist this pull, in the name of God. And while God is doing a new thing in the room, you could be out on the sidewalk protesting it. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t ahead of us.

But when you talk like that, people always say, “But what about the Old Testament.” Let’s take the “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth.” At the time it was given (in Latin, “lex talionis”), it meant, “the punishment must fit the crime.” So, if you injure my donkey, you owe me a donkey. You don’t owe me a donkey and two cows, and I don’t get to go out and kill your donkey, your two horses, and your uncle.

So, in the ANE (Ancient Near East) this was actually and incredibly radical idea. When someone causes you harm, the recompense must fit the crime. You cannot go on a revenge terror and do way more to them. In the ANE, “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth” is a giant step forward.

We read it now, look back, and think “how primitive.” But back then, it was wildly progressive, because it was bringing about a more peaceful, just, society. When you read a sacred text, you don’t just extract it from its setting and sort of jam it into 2013. The question is, What was going on at that time, and what was the world like? It was a click forward. And then there was a click after that. And when we look back and say those primitive people, look how far backwards they were, we miss all of the ways in which we have lots of clicks to go in the divine pull to take us farther.

What is the US? 6% of the world’s population and we have 42.9% of its weapons? What?! By the way, when the Psalms say “some trust in chariots and some trust in God,” you realize that lots of the people in the world go, “you guys are the chariots.”

Couple weeks ago, I’m working with a friend in an office, when out the window I see a girl get hit by a car.

I run out, and she is lying on the pavement, with her head 6″ from the tire of a car at a stop sign, and she is saying, “Somebody please tell me I’m going to be alright.” So, I take her hand, and tell her “You’re going to be alright.” The guy who hit her comes over and says, “Is she okay?” No. He says, “I’m coming home from cancer treatment.”

There was something that happened. There was this sense of holiness. A sense that life matters. Why does it sometimes take car crashes, or cancer, or a loss of job?

One of the main reasons why I wrote this book, is that for a lot of people in this world today, God has become about believing the right stuff so you don’t get in trouble. But Jesus didn’t talk so much about that, what he talked about was “seeing” and seeing uses a totally different set of muscles. I think whatw we really want, what we’re wired for, I think what we all desire more than anything, is that we want to see the depth that is right here and right now, but we’re moving so fast, and we have so many strange ideas about what matters and what doesn’t, that we have this intuitive sense that we’re missing that which has been here the whole time. And I wonder if what is what’s happening in our age is the whole “god” who you need to believe this right and that right, and these doctrines, is that is leading to wars and lots of unhelpful blogging, and something about that whole thing is collapsing in on itself.

I didn’t ask for success, I asked for wonder – Abraham Joshua Heschel.

It’s so easy to become cynical, and jaded. But the really compelling thing for me, the really interesting thing is to become the kind of person who sees. Not just some sort of mountaintop lovely light show, but maybe even down on the concrete where life actually happens where dudes on the way home from cancer treatments hit girls on bicycles going to work.

You find that it matters. Because there is a divine presence, here, now, for us, and actually ahead of us.

That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about God.

Posted in: Religion