Love Wins

Earlier this week I posted a link to the cover article I was reading in TIME magazine about Rob Bell's new (controversial) book Love Wins. It touched off dozens of comments from several of my friends on Facebook and it's also touched off debate at the national level back in America which, while being here in Mongolia, I have only read about online. The issues of heaven and hell are complex certainly, but I appreciate the opportunity to talk with friends about what matters to them and think about how these questions apply to our lives. A few people asked what I thought about everything, so I thought I'd respond here. I will read the book soon, but here are my initial thoughts on some of the issues that were brought up.

Openness and Acceptance
To start, Peace Corps has taught me that judgment and certainty don't serve others as well as openness and acceptance do. Peace Corps' mission is to promote world peace and friendship, which involves getting to know people deeply - not only for a few hours or weeks, but for months and years. In a world full of ten-second soundbites, dramatic moments,and  quick fixes, this is more important now than ever before. Relationships take time, friendships develop slowly and we have to work hard at them. When Peace Corps Volunteers go through training we teach them to be aware of their expectations, the lenses through which they see the world when they enter into service, and the standards that they (often subconsciously) impose upon others. All of these things create barriers not only between us and others, but better us and our better selves. I visualize judgment and certainty as a closed fist and a full cup. They aren't ready to accept anything else or take anything more in. Openness and acceptance, however, are something like an open hand and an empty cup. They are ready to reach out to others and fill up with experiences and ideas. Moment to moment we have that opportunity to be closed or open.

It's Not About Us
Another funny thing about judgment and certainty is that they're all about us. Often us against them, in fact. During Peace Corps training one of the exercises they put us through was "The Community and The Problem." In the exercise there are two groups, one is a group of community members and the other is a group of helpers from outside the community who have been told there is a problem they need to fix. The helper group is encouraged to be culturally sensitive as they meet the community and then identify and fix the problem. As the two groups meet for the first time, the real problem starts to unfold. The helpers come in asking questions and trying to fix things - walking around from person to person, exchanging a few pleasantries but always getting confused, frustrated and disappointed by the lack of answers. By the end of the exercise, the helpers usually end up thinking the community doesn't want to talk about their problem and the two groups feel separated by some invisible force. The separation, which isn't fully understood until the facilitators explain it at the end, only exists in the minds of the helpers. There was no problem for them to come in and fix. The community was doing fine and was told just to welcome the new group and just be their friends.

It is a fun and frustrating exercise to go through. Often we come into a community with something we have identified a problem, but later come to realize that we are the only ones who see it that way. As Carl Jung was famous for saying, "When you have a hammer in your hand, every problem seems like a nail." If we put down the hammer for a moment, we start to see that it's not about us. It's about trying to understand others, know them and love them. It's natural that projects, great work and changing the world might come from that, but that's all secondary.

Sincere Ignorance Is Sneaky
Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." This quote always stuck with me, but confused me. I find it hard to ask myself, "Am I being sincerely ignorant or conscientious stupid right now?" Maybe it's because ignorance and stupidity are such strong words. I'll reword it...
"Is there any way, in my life right now, that I'm acting genuinely, but with a lack of knowledge or information? Is there any way I'm trying to do what is right but have a lacking of understanding about the situation as a whole?"
I have to answer a resounded yes. Pretty much every day I act without knowing everything, I try to do what is right without having an understanding that is complete. I do my best but I also know that I need to grow, change, and learn while allowing others to do the same. I am ignorant and stupid a lot, but admitting it helps. I think King is saying it's the sincerity and conscientiousness that make those dangerous. Sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity mean saying we know things we don't know, and pretending we have a perfect understanding of something about which we only have a limited understanding.

Rob Bell was inspired to write Love Wins because of a comment someone wrote next at a peacemaker photo exhibition featuring a quote from Mohandas Gandhi. TIME magazine writes:
A visitor to the exhibit had stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation: "Reality check: He's in hell." Bell was struck. 
Really? he recalls thinking.
Gandhi's in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
I would hope, having not read the book yet, that Rob Bell doesn't say whether or not Gandhi is in hell. That's the point. He wouldn't claim to know something he doesn't know. 

At the end of the day, regardless of whether people like or dislike the book, I'm grateful that Rob Bell has been willing to put himself out there and ask difficult questions. I think wisdom often comes not from accepting the right answers but from asking the right questions. And as Socrates, probably the most famous questioner of all time, said, "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing... God only is wise... the wisdom of men is little or nothing... I appear to be wise, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know."

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