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.
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.