Ryan Bell’s Quest for the Natural Elephant

Ryan Bell certainly started out his year without God with a media splash. The first entries in his blog were mostly noting the splash. Now it seems he’s settling into the project a bit more and beginning to process.

Getting down to work

His posting from Wednesday (as well as some that have followed) give me hope that it may be productive to follow. He seems to write well and he is listening to his critics. He’s being sufficiently transparent to let us in on not only his year but also himself before the year. As in most cases this “year” is not just a bolt from the blue. He’s been on this path for a while. In this posting he confesses to have been a functional atheist. In a way this is a “coming out” for him.

Larger Story of Secularism

This brings me to James KA Smith’s body of work on contemporary liturgies. Our beliefs are shaped by our lives. Even thought we don’t chose our beliefs we can shape them by shaping the liturgies of our lives.

The “interesting angle” that the press finds in the Ryan Bell story is of course because the man was a pastor and a theological teacher. How could a leader of a religious community defect? As a leader of a religious community I don’t find it hard to believe at all. His defection shows courage or pluck perhaps but I’m not surprised. Our secular liturgies are deep and deeply shape the subconscious gyroscopes that we use to navigate even our metaphysical assumptions.

Elephant Training and Breeding

I was not surprised in the “Trying on” Atheism posting that Dallas Willard’s name was invoked. Dallas of course was a leader in the Christian Disciplines movement that attempted to address the force of secular liturgies by intentionally practicing ancient Christian liturgies and disciplines.

Willard’s approach attempts to address “the elephant and the rider” image of human behavior. Brain scientists like Jonathan Haidt note that so much of what we believe and what we do and how we see the world is a product of the subconscious mind shaped by thousands of years of evolution. Our conscious brain is a small rider atop the elephant. The rider has influence but the elephant chooses the path.

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning— the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes— the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012-03-13). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Kindle Locations 101-104). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Smith and Willard implicitly recognize the relationship and seek to make the rider more savvy. The reigns the rider holds aren’t powerful enough to guide the elephant against his will so the rider patiently grooms the desires of the elephant so that the elephant’s desires are increasingly in accord with the rider’s.

The Holy of Holies

The Holy of Holies in the second temple of Jerusalem was famously an empty cube. Like Pompey entering the most sacred place and finding no statue the irony of Bell’s year might be discovering on the the raised platform where the ark would have sat if the second temple possessed it. If the room is empty the walls have a way of speaking.

Bell notes in the January 16th piece 

I know what you’re thinking: atheism isn’t a set of behaviors. Nor is it a belief system. It’s simply the non-belief in deities. I agree, to a point. While I understand what people mean when they say this (ie. there’s no atheist creed, no atheist sacred text—I said this tongue in cheek in my first post), atheism is, in fact, one single belief (or, atheists would say, fact): that no god exists.

Contemporary American moral values while devoid of some obvious theistic liturgies are flush with the residue of habits of Christian moral and value liturgies. Atheism itself is so highly vacuous that its seekers often implicitly and unconsciously embrace latent Christian artifacts, the kinds of things Nietzsche complained about. Why is an ethic of love more desirable and beautiful than an ethic of power and opportunity?

In a vacuum we default to the comfortable and he might in fact find in the temple vaccum that what seems right to the elephant beneath him was inherited from a thousand years of Christian elephant breeding. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is replaced by the quest for the “natural” elephant. Both quests I imagine will prove equally elusive.

Stay Tuned

I’m looking forward to following Ryan Bell’s quest. We’ll see where the elephant takes the rider.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, How to become a Christian and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ryan Bell’s Quest for the Natural Elephant

  1. An ethic of love is not exclusive to Christianity or in any way only a relic of this one religion. Buddhism lays claim to these while also recognizing that these reside inside of all of us. (Regardless of our religious creed or lack thereof). “Lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and a particular form of equanimity are the four kinds of love taught and encouraged in classic Buddhist teachings.” Seems to me that reflective people of all stripes arrive here.

  2. Pingback: Is Secularism just another version of “white people don’t think they have a culture?” | Leadingchurch.com

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