Left-brainers don't understand right-brained Rob Bell

There have been some interesting comments on my post Gandhi and Rob Bell, newfrontiers and Hell, which led me to link the frosty response from some quarters to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (which I still haven’t read) with the different ways in which people’s brains work.

Whole Brain ThinkingMy friend Heather France runs a company Whole Brain Thinking offering brain profiling, which “can help in any aspect of life and work”. An adult profile can be done online for £35. Heather has posted on the company blog my story of how having my profile done helped me to find my wife:

Lorenza and I were just friends when we both went to a brain profiling workshop run by Heather France. But it turned out that we had rather similar brain profiles. This meant that we were put in the same small group for a fun exercise. We enjoyed working together on this and started to realise how much we had in common. Soon after this I asked her out. …

I write this here largely to demonstrate that I know what I am talking about concerning left and right brain thinking. For the record, I am a left-brainer but not very strongly so. There is more to the profile than this: for example, in my brain the L1 quadrant, “Analytical and factual”, is dominant – as my readers could probably guess.

To get back to Rob Bell, the issue came up in comments by Robert Slowley. I discern that Robert is left-brained from his detailed analysis of the NIV 2011 update, which I used in my post on that version. In fact this probably means that his dominant quadrant is L2, “Organised and detailed”. Robert wrote:

That’s what I find frustrating about Bell, he’s not clear at all about what he really thinks.

Later he wrote:

I think Bell has far more defined answers than he’s clearly indicating publicly on these issues, and as such I wish he’d just plainly reveal them.

Despite my attempts, I could not convince Robert that Rob Bell may simply not have any firm and fixed position on the matter in question. Bell may simply be unsure whether Gandhi or indeed anyone at all is going to hell. After all, the matter is left somewhat ambiguous in the Bible. Yet Robert cannot accept that Bell’s answer, if pushed, might genuinely be “I don’t know”.

Now I don’t want to pick on Robert Slowley here. His is simply one example of the thinking commonly found among more conservative evangelicals, especially those in the Reformed camp but also among fundamentalists and dispensationalists. Many of these people show by their words and actions that they are left-brainers.

The following is adapted from my comments in response to Robert Slowley’s:

I can understand the frustration of some, especially those from a more Reformed background, at being unable to pin Bell down to a specific position. But surely this is the right attitude to take about a matter which God has not made completely clear in his revealed word. While liberal Christians may go too far with this doubting and questioning approach, evangelicals are often obsessed with finding and defending to the death definite answers to questions which God has not clearly answered. Rob Bell has rejected this obsession, but that doesn’t make him a theological liberal. And didn’t Jesus often teach by asking searching questions rather than giving definite answers?

I’m not saying that this kind of reluctance to be pinned down depends on one’s theological position. It probably depends more on personality type. Left-brainers want definite answers and so tend towards Reformed or fundamentalist teaching which offers these definite answers. Right-brainers prefer to leave things more open and so are more attracted by liberal Christianity. Thus the correlation between theological preference and frustration with Rob Bell does not imply a causal link.

I suspect Rob Bell is a right-brainer. My suspicion is confirmed by what I read in Adrian Warnock’s post about meeting him. Very likely his R1 quadrant, “Strategic and unorthodox”, is dominant. That makes Bell reluctant to commit himself to any one position, especially on a matter which is not left unambiguous in the Bible. He is not being dishonest, just non-committal. But that doesn’t make him a liberal.

Yes, Bell tends towards one side of the argument rather than another. But he does not, I suspect, have a settled and definite position on it – and he doesn’t feel the lack of it. It’s a bit like me on the Rapture: from my past posts on the subject it should be clear that I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least not in the classic (but actually modern) Hal Lindsey and Left Behind way. But I am not going to come out straight and say that it won’t happen, because Scripture is not completely clear on this, and so we won’t know until it happens, or its time is past. Rob Bell is wisely saying something similar about hell: he may not think anyone will go there, but he won’t say this as a definite position because only God knows. If someone pushes him to say what he thinks, he’ll probably say “I don’t know”.

In fact Adrian Warnock, a psychiatrist who surely understands different personality types and how to work with them, has pushed Bell for answers, and reports that

on at least a couple of questions I got some straight answers out of him!

It will be interesting to hear what those answers are, though sadly I will probably not be able to do that live on Saturday when Adrian’s interview is broadcast (on air and on the Internet) on Premier Christian Radio.

26 thoughts on “Left-brainers don't understand right-brained Rob Bell

  1. I said “I think Bell has far more defined answers than he’s clearly indicating publicly on these issues”, you said “I could not convince Robert that Rob Bell may simply not have any firm and fixed position on the matter in question.”. I’m looking for more defined and clearer answers, not “firm and fixed” answers/positions. Those are different things.

    I tried to indicate this in my earlier comments where I pointed out that rather than just doing a ‘black and white’ categorisation of one’s view on salvation Warnock had tried to indicate that there’s a range or spectrum of viewpoints, and that Bell appears to be somewhere on that spectrum.

    Bell could easily say “Here is a range of views people have on this issue – I don’t know exactly where I am but my view is approximately in this range”, of course he’d use different language to mine, but the approximate idea is there.

    As I said before it’s not that I (and others I presume) don’t understand that some people are ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’ and so think differently. I know people of all personality types, I’ve spent a certain (not a lot!) of time looking at personality profiling models (such as Myers-Briggs) as part of my previous job. I also know that personality type does not mean that people are *unable* to answer questions in other ways, only that their default or best way of communicating and thinking works like that. In any case it’s not necessary for Bell to answer as I would, or use the language I would, for him to communicate in a way that was clearer and specified (rather than being largely unspecified).

    Having a different personality type does not pose a serious difficulty to people being *clearer* about their view. Bell was quite able to say very clearly “I am not a universalist”, his brain type caused no difficulty in being clear about that. The problem is we don’t know what he means by ‘universalist’. Either he’s being really really badly misunderstood by those people who think that he is, or (more likely I think) they’re using the word in a different way. A really good first step for Bell would be to explain what he means by universalist, and then interact with those who think he is by responding in his own language (ideally with the clarity he gave by stating he’s not a universalist).

    Unbelievable goes on Premier’s listen again so you’ll be able to stream it after it’s broadcast.

  2. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  3. Robert, I am not saying that Rob Bell cannot answer straight questions. I am suggesting that he doesn’t see the need to do so. Also he cannot answer a question like “what is your firm and fixed position on this matter” because he doesn’t have one. He could give an “approximate” answer if pushed, and he probably has done to Adrian.

    Yes, it would be helpful to know what Bell means by “universalist” in his denial of being one. But I expect he is using the common definition of the word, and denying that he has a “firm and fixed position” that no one is going to hell.

    Ron, I don’t think I would agree with you. Rob Bell and I share a belief in the uniqueness of the Jesus Christ as the only way to God.

  4. My initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

    Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

  5. So you agree that he’s able to give those sorts of answers, but you think he doesn’t see the need to. I agree there’s probably no need in terms of moral obligation, but the loving and helpful thing to do is to exercise the ability to answer (which you agree he has) to help resolve the confusion. I’m looking forward to him doing that at some point (hopefully!) 🙂

  6. Robert, I don’t think Rob Bell feels any obligation to give any answer at all to the people who condemned him as a false teacher before even reading his book. If he gives some answers, that will only be because he thinks it is in his best interests, not because his enemies demand them.

  7. I’ve just gone through and re-read my comments to check, and I’ve neither ‘demanded’ he answer, ‘condemned him as a false teacher’, or declared him an enemy. What I’ve said is that he could be a lot clearer, and for people like myself who want to understand what he’s saying he could just clearly answer a few simple questions.

  8. Robert, I did not say you declared Rob Bell an enemy. It is others who have done that. But you did ask about “biblical grounds for the denunciation of people for false teaching” in the context of a discussion of Rob Bell. And you have repeatedly asked Bell to give a clear answer to a particular question, and suggested that he is unreasonable, even not “being honest and open about his position”, by failing to do so.

  9. Peter – you’re doing exactly the same thing you’re accusing Bell’s ‘enemies’ of doing. You’re misrepresenting what I’ve said and why I’ve said it here.

    You kept talking about things like ‘witch hunts’ and ‘denunciations’ which is what led to me asking whether you thought there were biblical grounds for denunciation on the basis of false teaching. I’ve not begun any such ‘witch hunt’ etc, and I really don’t appreciate you trying to box me in to a corner that I don’t exist in.

    I’m not really sure who it is who you mean when you say they’ve declared him as an ‘enemy’. I’ve seen people state that his understanding of history is poor, his theology is poor, etc. Largely I haven’t seen people declare him as an enemy, although clearly tempers have flamed a bit (clearly on both sides).

    From some of the posts I’ve read I’ve thought “Maybe they’re misunderstanding him, perhaps he will explain clearly where they’re misunderstanding him?”. So far as far as I know he hasn’t done so. Perhaps he will do so in the future? I hope so.

  10. This post makes a lot of sense to me as someone who is – I’m quite sure – very right-brained. I have always thought that there are unbridgeable divides in religion that stem more from the composition of our brain than from who God is. It’s actually one big reason why I think that human being need not only different approaches to theology, but also different denominations and different worship styles.

    As far as I’m concerned: Bring on the fuzzy! There is a lot more meaning to me in unanswerable questions than in answered ones. But I think that God knew that our world would be lacking if we were all the same.

  11. Robert, it is you who are putting words in my mouth. I was not referring to you when I wrote about Rob Bell’s enemies and “people who condemned him as a false teacher”. I was referring to people like John Piper who infamously tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell”, and Justin Taylor who described him as one of those who “distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine”, both without reading the book. People like this began witch hunts and denunciations long before you got involved. If you are not identifying yourself with these people, good. But you can understand Bell being reluctant to answer questions from people whose already declared position suggests that they are only looking for more rope to hang him with.

  12. Continuing from my previous comment:

    I am actually a bit surprised that Rob Bell agreed to an interview with Adrian Warnock, given that Adrian is something of a John Piper and Justin Taylor groupie, who quoted a Piper post on hell at the height of the Love Wins controversy. On the other hand, Adrian has implicitly criticised Piper and Taylor’s approach to Bell when offering to those writing about him a blogging checklist starting with “Demonstrating patience towards those who disagree with me?” and “Kind in its tone and content?” No doubt this assured Bell that Adrian would take this attitude in the interview and so it would be a worthwhile experience.

  13. Pam, thanks for the comment. This is indeed part of the reason for different preferences in worship style as well as in theology. But it would be sad if Christians separated into different left-brain and right-brain churches. A good church should surely offer something for both types of person.

  14. I know nothing about being left- or right-brained, but I am left-handed which, based upon my limited understanding of neurophysiology, perhaps suggests that I’m right-brained. Whatever the case may be there, however, I generally prefer openness to closure, dialogue to dogma: my theology is open ended — I’m with PamBG, “Bring on the fuzzy!” — which is no doubt why I tend to appreciate Rob Bell’s approach, with questions rather than answers. But it’s not just the questions I appreciate: it’s the willingness to ask them, something I see being bluntly rejected by Piper et al, as if there were an 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not ask questions, nor even think about them, neither thine own nor thy neighbour’s, and if thou dost thou shalt be smitten and outcast and thy life shall be forfeit.” Lord have mercy, but whatever happened to grace??

    Here’s a quote from the TIME Top 100 page on Bell which perhaps goes some way towards addressing Robert S’s request for clarification:

    Bell argues for mystery, not certitude. “In the book, I write about how some have believed that all will be reconciled,” he told TIME, “and while I long for that as I think everybody should long for it, I don’t take a position of certainty because, of course, I don’t know how it all turns out.”

    It’s not that he doesn’t see the need to answer or that he’s being deliberately vague, it’s that he doesn’t know the answer … kinda like a certain messiah when he was asked when certain things would take place; and when I’m not too busy howling at the moon, I’d say that’s a pretty good example to follow…

  15. But it would be sad if Christians separated into different left-brain and right-brain churches. A good church should surely offer something for both types of person.

    I do agree with you.

    However, I grew up in left-brained fundamentalism. I was actually taught that, with respect to theology, the only valid theological process is examination of the evidence. “The Evidence” being Scripture.

    So, tightly parsing Scripture, even down to tiny grammatical nuances, was considered a valid way of understanding God’s will. Intuition – say, by asking God in prayer for a solution to a problem – was considered utterly and totally invalid. They were totally against contemplative prayer and meditation for this very reason.

    So I have no idea how I would co-exist with such people. I could welcome them into my church but they would – and do – consider me to be a non-Christian heretic and don’t want to be in a congregation with me. They would, of course, welcome me if I began to see God and everything else as they do.

    So I don’t know how to get together with people who don’t want to be part of a metaphorical “party” that has me in it. If you have any enlightenment on the matter, let me know!

  16. Well, Pam, I’m not suggesting you join this highly left-brained church or try to join it. But don’t set up a highly right-brained one to complement or compete with it. To the extent that you have influence in a church, I suggest you should encourage it to keep a balance between the two sides, to attract people of all types. But sometimes you have to let the dead bury their own dead.

  17. Pingback: Rob Bell: Resurrection video - Gentle Wisdom

  18. I think there’s much more to this than which part of your brain is dominant. I see the Rob Bell controversy as primarily being one between modernism and postmodernism. Bell is a postmodern Christian – faith for him is less about facts and doctrine, more about searching and asking questions. Evangelicalism (as we know it) is deeply rooted in modernism, which has been the dominant thought pattern in western society for at least a couple of hundred years. But its influence is now fading, and those who approach christianity in a postmodern fashion (like Bell) come into conflict with the moderns. This is evident in your post – for example in the way Adrian Warnock wants straight answers but Bell is unable to produce them.

    Three asides:

    1. I’m aware that “evangelicalism is modernist” is a controversial hypothesis in itself.

    2. An interesting question would be whether left-brain dominance is associated with a modernist worldview, as well as a more conservative approach to theoology.

    3. Also, what determines which half of our brains is dominant – genetics or environment?

  19. I find the evangelical search for certainty and straight answers fascinating: here we have this group of people doing their utmost to follow a man who rarely, if ever, gave straight answers, who almost always responded to questions with questions or stories … who reinterpreted scripture in ways that enraged the religious right of his day … and 2,000-odd years later, along comes another man who takes a similar approach … and what happens? The religious right up in arms again.

    I’m not by any means suggesting that Bell is a new messiah, far from it, but there does seem to be a certain irony in the fact that the very people who claim to be Jesus’ true followers can’t cope with with someone who takes a Jesus-like approach to presenting his message…

  20. The other thing that just occurred to me is that evangelicals always want to view the world in black and white (and seldom can see shades of grey), and they typically do this by dividing people into two camps. For example, people are either Christians or non-Christians, or (in Rob Bell’s case) they are either theologically sound or they are not. Hence the big fuss over wanting to know exactly what Bell believes – is he or isn’t he a universalist – so a label can be stuck on him.

    Perhaps Bell, being a postmodern, is more concerned about what happens on the journey rather than trying to follow someone else’s map.

    @ Phil Groom, half of me agrees with you, the other half says “is it really right to say that Jesus rarely gave straight answers?”

  21. Sidefall, your analysis in terms of modernism and postmodernism is also important. I would say that this ties up quite closely with left and right brains. Under modernism only left-brain thinking was valued and right-brain approaches were written off as unscientific; right-brainers could advance only in art, drama, dance etc. But as the latter forced their way into serious academic areas the more right-brained postmodernism became important. But it is still challenged by modernist left-brainers, especially within the evangelical church. At least that is my take on things.

    Phil, did you see the ASBO Rob Bell cartoon I posted recently?

  22. Peter, I’m basically with you, although I would say that evangelicalism is still dominated by modernist thinking.

    But there is also a weakness in our approach. Historically, evangelicals rejected modernism in the sense that the fundamentalist movement 100 years ago was a disengagement from science and liberal theology. This still has huge influence today. So perhaps the evangelical mindset is only partly left-brained or modernist, in that it wants certainty but isn’t comfortable with critical analysis that might threaten its axioms.

    What do you think?

  23. Sidefall, I think perhaps the resolution here is that liberal theology is not all that left-brained. Theology was one of the disciplines open to right-brainers in the modernist period. They had to pay lip service to modernist ways of thought but could get away with all kinds of unscientific theological ideas as long as they didn’t challenge the supposedly assured results of science. But right-brained evangelicals rejected this approach. Again this is just my supposition.

  24. You had me at the title…YES, Peter, I too sense that this difference in perception is what causes many people to misunderstand Rob Bell. Although the terms “right-brained” versus “left-brained” are psychologically obsolete, it doesn’t obscure your point. It’s as though someone needs to write a book or teach a course about the connection between personality and faith so that people will finally stop labeling each other heretics.

  25. Thank you, Amy. I have seen books linking MBTI personality type with faith and church practice, but nothing related to the psychological differences which I have simplistically labeled left and right brained. The book probably needs to be written by someone with a much deeper understanding of psychology than I have.

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