Aaron Rodgers has long been on “a path to a different type of spirituality that’s been more meaningful.” Back in 2017 he said he didn’t want to affiliate with the label “Christian” anymore. But in a recent interview with Danica Patrick, he took things further, describing his alienation from his former evangelical faith at greater length, including his objections to hell and evangelicalism’s general (for lack of a better term) “vibe.”
Understandably, given his long-public relationship with Rob Bell, many have focused on the section of his interview where he talks about hell. While it may be true that questioning classic views on hell won’t do good things for your faith, I found Rodgers’s self-diagnosis about why he walked away to be far more revealing and worthy of reflection. Asked what the crux of it was, he said, “Ultimately, it was that rules and regulations and binary systems don’t really resonate with me.”
On that score, the interview is a textbook example of Robert Bellah’s “expressive individualism”—the post-Romantic notion that we all have our own ways of expressing our humanity, without needing to conform to some outer, institutionalized model given to us by a specific moral, religious, or cultural framework. Living a meaningful life is not about adapting to the grain of reality; it’s about being true to yourself.
‘The Rules’ and a Meaningful Life
You’d think, of all people, a professional athlete like Rodgers would appreciate the way rules and regulations give meaning, since they’ve been key to his success.
Almost every human endeavor by which we make meaning is, to a large degree, rule-governed. Take language. Even your subjective use of it takes place within the broader structure of an objective, shared language whose rules you don’t arbitrarily alter to suit your own uses. Even writers and poets who make meaning by “breaking” the rules can only do so against their established backdrop.
Almost every human endeavor by which we make meaning is, to a large degree, rule-governed.
The same is true in sports. Without the order and structure of rules, all the running, throwing, and hitting would be meaningless chaos. Part of what distinguishes quarterbacks in terms of dexterity, speed, agility, and quick thinking is the way they defy expectations within the bounds of the rules. Their individuality is displayed precisely in their creative conformity to the standards of fair play.
Incidentally, the rules are also the boundaries within which the game can be safely played. Regulations against late hits, for example, protect players from danger. They protect against predation, the undue dominance of the crafty, the unjust, the unscrupulous; they distinguish the dirty player from the virtuous one.
Structure and ritual also play their role. Ritualized practices—team drills, studies, lifting—shape the athletic virtues that lead to a player’s mental, emotional, and physical excellence. Even the greatest sports prodigies will tell you they couldn’t have attained the heights without the discipline.
It should be clear how this process applies to our moral and spiritual life off the field. Yes, rules can be abused. Regulations can be arbitrarily applied. Rituals can degrade into lifeless forms. But without them, spiritual or moral life descends into a narcissistic game of “Calvinball”—where we’re just making it all up as we go to suit our own interests, no matter the cost to everyone else.
Binaries Are Unavoidable
At first, when Rodgers is questioned about whether he distinguishes between “religion” and “spirituality,” he strikes a more generous tone:
Both can work for people. Some people need structure and tradition and stuff and that works for them. I don’t have a problem with it. It doesn’t resonate with me.
From there, though, he quickly moves to express disdain for how some folks cling to religion:
Religion can be a crutch, can be something that people have to have to make themselves feel better. Because it’s a binary, it’s “us” and “them,” “saved” and “unsaved,” it’s “heaven” and “hell,” it’s “enlightened” and “heathen,” it’s “holy and righteous” and “sinner and filthy,” and I think that makes people feel better about themselves.
Now, many people do use religion in this fashion—a means of distinguishing themselves from others in order to arrogantly prop themselves up. All the same (and it feels like junior-varsity apologetics to point this out), even if Rodgers wants to avoid that mode in his own spirituality, some sort of binary still emerges.
There are those who need structure, ritual, and so forth, and then there are those who are beyond these things, like Aaron Rodgers. Some folks are into the binary—who think in terms of “saved” and “unsaved,” “us” and “them”—and others have seen through the system, like Aaron Rodgers.
Deciding that Pharisee life isn’t for you because of the way he sees the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14) is still a choice that generates division. When Rodgers recognizes that Young Life trips to Mexico to build houses are more meaningful than buttoned-up church services full of folks judging others, he’s drawing a line. As soon as you think there is a better, more compassionate, more authentic, more meaningful way to live, you’re generating a binary.
In that sense, then, rejecting hell doesn’t move you beyond the binary—at best it lowers the stakes.
Rejecting hell doesn’t move you beyond the binary—at best it lowers the stakes.
Jesus and the Binary
Maybe that’s the saddest part about the whole interview—the decision Rodgers has made about what there is to lose. He thinks he’s only rejecting some abstract, “binary system.” But in truth he’s rejecting a relationship with the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus—who forces us to deal with binaries.
Because it’s Jesus who says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He is the one who says you either lose your life for his sake, or you cling to your life and lose it (Matt. 10:39).
Do we think Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he pronounces blessings on the poor and woes on the rich (Luke 6:20, 24)? Do we listen to him when he says you can serve either God or Mammon (Matt. 6:25)? Do we believe him when he says that ultimately, there are those who build their lives on the rock of his words, and those who build on sand (Matt. 7:24–27)? Does Jesus know what rules make for the good life, a life of meaning, or not?
Our choice isn’t whether to live within binary systems or not—it’s who we want creating the binary. Is it the One who humbles us by saying none is good but God (Mark 10:18), and that the line between justified and condemned isn’t our own goodness or wisdom or insight, but the grace and mercy of God (Luke 18:14)? Or is it you?
Our choice isn’t whether to live within binary systems or not—it’s who we want creating the binary.
Ultimately, it comes down to your answer to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Is Jesus the Son of God, the Creator of all things, the great I AM who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)—or not? Another way of putting it is, are Jesus’s words, his life, death, and resurrection, the prospect of eternal communion and relationship with his person, beautiful enough to you? Do you see in them the meaning of all things? If so, he’s worth the rules, the sacrifices, the cost of discipleship—worth life itself.
That Rodgers can’t seem to see that beauty is the real tragedy.