Of Rob Bell and Dolphins
Former preacher and megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, is impressed by dolphins. In a recent interview with Lewis Howes, Rob waxed philosophical about the natural ability of dolphins to just be dolphins, to bypass the frazzled attention spans and psychological reflexivity which characterize so much of human life as we know it. “Most of the time when I surf,” Rob explained, “there are dolphins. Like this morning. And a dolphin goes by, ‘I’m a dolphin.’ It’s just pure presence. It only knows how to be here and be a dolphin, which sounds so unbelievably simple and is probably the most profound thing ever.”
On the face of it, Rob’s statement is unsurprising. Americans have always been quick to sentimentalize animals, and a spiritual homage to dolphins served up by a renown ex-evangelical is predictably satisfying fare among the crowds of seekers who yearn for inner peace and well-being sans Jesus. Why not imitate a contemplative cetacean? Why not discover spiritual bliss while walking the dog? To a certain type of person, this makes a certain amount of sense, and Rob Bell is eager to recommend both practices. Both dolphins and dogs, he avers, live in a state of unadulterated presence, and therein is true joy to be found.
But as with most ad hoc philosophies, there are hidden costs. Rob’s veneration of pure presence isn’t entirely devoid of ethical freight, and the Zen-like qualities of his dolphins don’t quite expunge the questions that keep human beings up at night. Listening to Rob and Lewis pursue their dialogue, I noticed that some of the more troubling implications of Rob’s words slowly began to rise to the surface. Questions concerning right and wrong, good and bad, Rob admitted, are no longer interesting to him. Neither is Rob curious about why anything in the universe is as it is. His dolphin-based philosophy is far simpler. Every person is enough. Every moment is a celebration. Every place is a temple. Everything you truly need will be provided as you need it. Ultimately, spiritual life is nothing more than the full and complete awareness of our natural life once it is free and unhindered by our chattering minds, the constraints of society, and the tired dogmas of religious communities.
As a pastor and priest in California, I’ve heard this all before. Such notions spring readily from the lips of Baby Boomers and Millennials alike, and even collar-wearing Mainline clergy are not immune to the spiritual charms of Rob’s seemingly bucolic ontology, a world wherein Tennyson’s unsettling awareness of “nature red in tooth and claw” is conveniently mislaid within the blinding light of pure presence. I’m not sure I should properly call such thinking a “world project,” but it is certainly a common and persuasive line of spiritual reasoning, and underneath it lies a powerful hidden premise: to live within “pure presence” is to step into a higher and deeper form of life.
The narrative supporting this premise is fairly straightforward, though in my experience it is rarely examined or laid out in full. Human beings, it is said, are perpetually troubled creatures, prone to wallow in sin, tragedy and self-pity, but this is largely a figment of our imagination. In reality, it is argued, we are really just ignorant of our true selves, and as a result we carry far too many harmful, judgmental categories and customs within our heads. Nature, however, knows nothing of our self-delusions, and so for Rob Bell and other advocates of the power of Now, it makes perfect sense that when we surf with the dolphins or walk the dog in the morning, we have come near to the very gates of Eden. Animals, they believe, are fully present to the moment. If we imitate them, we can leave behind all the burdens of sin and despair that have plagued us for millennia. In this way, animal life, rather than human life, empowers us – animals show us the true nature of the spiritual world, and they moves us beyond our dismal human notions that life in the Spirit might actually require repentance, restitution and moral renovation.
I’m not convinced, of course, that this vision truly gets at the heart of things. I’m not willing to concede that dolphins and dogs actually do have the capacity to invite us into a deeper and higher form of life. Surely there is a dwelling place for wisdom in our world, but I doubt it’s in the wild. For human beings possess a peculiar glory: a virtue that remains conspicuously absent in animals and ennobles us even when we are at our worst. Christian tradition names this glory as μετανοια and harnesses its power in the spiritual practice of confession and penance, but this glory has many names. We all know the power of guilt, regret, remorse, contrition, repentance, and self-reproach. We would not be human otherwise.
Consider, for instance, these incredible verses from Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.
In Praise of Self-Deprecation
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.
The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, the alligator, trichina, horsefly
Live as they live and are glad of it.
The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
But in other respects it is light.
There is nothing more animal-like
Than a clear conscience
On the third planet of the Sun.
Here Szymborska conveys a very different sensibility from that of Rob Bell surfing with the dolphins on a Sunday morning. The dolphin and the dog may live lives of pure presence, but she sees that it is that very lack of self-reflection and self-doubt that shackles these creatures to their animality. The killer whale’s heart can supply blood to its body, but it cannot break. The locust and the alligator can take all that the world has to offer, but they cannot lay down their life for their friends. Rob Bell’s dolphins may live in the Eternal Now, but these flippered philosophers could not derive any meaning from this fact if they tried. Their world is not replete with love and loss, nor with the bittersweet striving for truth and goodness and beauty. They could not bring themselves to pray for “this fragile earth our island home,” even if I ensured they were well-catechized in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Dolphins, it must be said, live only on the third planet of the Sun, and it is the brilliant clarity of their animal conscience which ensures that is all they shall ever know.
Perhaps this is the reason that, at least within the Christian tradition, it has long been believed that the lives of plants and animals are only fully understood when seen in the light of a rightly ordered relationship with humanity. The hierarchy of Nature is, in truth, reflective of a holy ordering instituted by God as an outpouring of His Eternal Glory. This hierarchy does not push men and women down into animality, restricting them merely to life under the sun; rather, it is the work of the Holy Spirit within Creation to pull plants and animals up, weaving their natures into the strands of personal existence found in the men and women who rightly exercise their stewardship and dominion. In other words, Christians believe that human beings have an essential role to play within the Created order, and the lives of dolphins and dogs depend on it. Both men and women stand between (μεταξυ) God and the lower orders of Creation as cosmic priests. We are called to offer all things to God with grateful praise, and then to receive them back again as grace-filled gifts. And if this Christian vision is true, then Rob Bell has the matter precisely backwards. When we go surfing, we do not see our true nature symbolized in dolphins; rather, as we glide through the water, the deepest truth of dolphins is hidden within us.
Admittedly, this teaching is easy to misunderstand. When C. S. Lewis described the theological relation of humans and animals in his early classic, The Problem of Pain, the renowned spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill protested vehemently, telling Lewis “If we ever get a sideways glimpse of the animal-in-itself, the animal existing for God’s glory and pleasure and lit by His light…we don’t owe it to the Pekinese, the Persian cat, or the canary, but to some wild free creature living in completeness of adjustment to Nature a life that is utterly independent of man.” Yet in reply, C.S. Lewis charitably suggested that Evelyn Underhill had not quite grasped the fullness of the theological vision he was commending. Lewis was not unsympathetic to Underhill’s protest, in truth, he saw himself as even more sympathetic than she. Lewis saw in the Scriptures a call to go farther, to push past the sentimental veneration of mere animality and to rethink the meaning of animals in their entirety.
“I do know what you mean by the sudden ravishing glimpse of animal life in itself, its wildness – to meet a squirrel in a wood or even a hedgehog in a garden makes me happy. But that is because it is, being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for. That wildness would not be lost by the kind of dominion that Adam had. It would be nicer, not less nice, if that squirrel would come and make friends with me at my whistle – still more if he would obey me when I told him not to kill the red squirrel in the next tree…In a Paradisal state if you wanted a horse to ride you would walk up to the nearest herd and ask for volunteers – and the one you chose would be regarded as the lucky one. I’m not so happy as you about what my cat does when she goes off on her own. She has nasty ways with her disabled, but living prey. I don’t think she’d lose any real beauty by being obedient.”
Lewis, as usual, is right. I too am ravished by sublime splendor of Nature, and I envy Rob Bell’s ability to surf with dolphins on a daily basis and rejoice in the sheer beauty of their form. But I will not pretend that I can banish the shadows of the Fall by idolizing them. I have no desire to be more like a dolphin, or a dog, or any other creature that God has made. Instead, I rejoice that I am a Man, created with the sacred capacity for shame and awe, and by God’s grace I hope to be made a fuller and truer Man than I currently am. To this end, right and wrong, true and false, and even the unending quest to know why, will always remain interesting and necessary questions for me. I could not give them up without giving up myself as well. For I do not long for a clear conscience on the third planet of the Sun, but instead to see the whole Creation redeemed and made gloriously new.