No, Rob Bell, The Universe is not Rigged in Your Favour (But We Can Work to Rig It in Favour of Others)
Though you’re probably blissfully unaware of it, there’s been some furore in various small religious ponds about Rob Bell. Once a pastor of a ‘megachurch’ he jumped/was pushed in the fall-out over his book Love Wins, which dared question the doctrine of hell. He subsequently moved out to California and now has a show on Oprah’s network.
I’ve hung out with Rob, and he’s a nice guy. His work with Oprah feels very much in the gooey-spiritual area of self-help, to which I’d normally shrug and get on with life. But then someone shared this video.
It’s a 2 minute piece, ostensibly about Jesus’ crucifixion and how, through it, ‘God reconciles to himself all things.’ By all things, Bell says, we’re talking about ‘all things in the universe that are split and unreconciled being brought back together in proper peaceful relationship.’ Not wanting to alienate the non-theists, he then says:
‘If you have a problem with the “God” word, or the conception of the divine, perhaps you could say it like this: the Universe wants you to be whole. The Universe is rigged in your favour.’
Forgive the strong language, but I think it’s important to communicate this with some force: No. That is bull. The universe does not give a flying fork about you, your mum nor anyone or anything.
To declare my hand: this is something that has been an important part of the new book Getting High that I’m just working through final edits on. Ostensibly a history of the human quest for altitude, I use the events of the latter 1960s to ask why ‘getting high’ is so important to us. Whether it be LSD or the Apollo missions, what is it about the human condition that longs to lift away from Earth?
One part of the answer is this: from positions of height we get new perspectives. The chaos of streets fall into some kind of order, the bustle of human systems finds a pattern, the maze of thoughts suddenly opens up to us.
Technologies of flight always come making this promise to us: that they will offer a revelation about the essential order of the universe. This is true for technologies of religion as much as it is for drugs or astrophysics: at some ultimate elevation, at the Most High point, our world will reveal itself as somehow coherent. The universe will be shown to be rigged in our favour.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson brilliantly critiques this utopian ideal that propagated through the counterculture and ecstatic religion and the halls of NASA. The man who saw it all, drank it all, injected it all and soared higher than anyone, writes in one searing passage:
What [Timothy] Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel. This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries.
This hope for some force tending the light in the universe was not just the grand hope of the hippies and mystics and charismatics. It was also the great hope of the space race too. Utopian from the beginning, part of the hope of going to the Moon was that when people looked back on Earth they would see how senseless war was and all humankind would be reconciled.
Armstrong and Aldrin could see a lot when they stepped out onto Tranquility Base. But they couldn’t see the atrocities continuing in Vietnam far below.
Far more frightening, far more horrifying than finding alien life, is the prospect of our utter isolation. What all space travel and all astronomy has told us is that we are but a tiny fleck in a vast and near-infinite universe that does not know us, does not care about us and feel even the smallest flutter of emotion when we are gone.
No, Rob, the universe does not give a shit. It is not rigged in anyone’s favour because there is no force to do the rigging. It is cooling into entropic flatness. End of.
Happy Christmas eh?! Well, this is part of the problem. We will, it seems, do or believe pretty much anything to escape the existential anxiety at the utter lack of meaning. Shop. Sacrifice. Inject. Shout. Block our ears and turn life up so loud that we can’t hear it.
But, as I explain in Getting High, I’m convinced that there is hope beyond the horror. Once we have accepted that there’s no force out there to rig the universe in our favour, we can get on with doing the hard work of rigging ourselves.
Rob wants ‘the cross’ to be a sign that the universe will one day be reconciled. My view is a more radical one: the cross symbolises the death of all hopes that some grand force will do this work of reconciliation for us. The cross is the place not where Jesus Son of God dies, but where all our gods die, all our great hopes of rescue and redemption by the Maharashi, Capitalism, Chairman Mao, the iPhone 7, Jesus or crack.
The resurrection that comes after this death is this: to get up and begin to work that reconciliation ourselves. We may be heading for the inevitable Heat Death of the Universe, but along the way we can do work (in the language of physics: change the entropy of a subsystem) to bring more peace than there was before, more goodwill than there was before, more equality and fairness than there was before. We might need a word for this work against an uncaring universe through which we fly alone. Might we use love?
I don’t think it’s going to get me a slot on Oprah, because it falls outside of the system of transcendent hope, the religious longings that still hold so much sway in our hopes that various technologies will save us, but here’s my message this Christmas time: while the universe is definitely not rigged in your favour, and really does not care one bit about you, there is still hope.
Yet, in the face of this, we can care for one another and, for the short time we have before we return to dust, work to rig it in favour of justice and peace. In short, in favour of those whom the transcendent systems set up to serve the powerful have oppressed. That, for me, is the message of the shepherds, of the occupied, and of the poor.
It’s not an easy one in a world where Santa is so dearly loved, but beyond the wine and sweetmeats, its the one we need to hear with a clear head and a loving heart. It’s one where the vector is about descent back to earth and an embodied commitment to people, not the flight up to some high heaven, in hope that God, or Saint Nick will sort it.
It’s a message about love. ‘God is love,’ we hear. But it seems to me that a greater love is one that persists in the face of the absence of the divine. Love, perhaps we should say as we celebrate this odd birth, is the only god we will welcome in.
Have a great Christmas.