on November 19, 2012
What if Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them? That is one of the questions Peter Rollins asks in this book. When we imagine God as the being designed to satisfy our longings we are simply conjuring up an idol.
The author has some radical things to say to capture the reader's attention and stimulate serious thought:
* Religious hymns become little more than advertising jingles, and the clergy come to resemble slick salespeople presenting their god-product to the potential consumer.
* Instead of God being that which fills the gap at the core of our being, the God testified to in Christianity exposes the gap for what it is, obliterates it, and invites us to participate in an utterly different form of life, one that brings us beyond slavery to the Idol.
* The Idol robs us of the type of pleasure that we could have if only we were able to free ourselves from the false promise that something would render us complete.
* The Good News of Christianity: You can't be fulfilled; you can't be made whole; you can't find satisfaction.
The book provides a devastating critique of many of the practices of contemporary Western Christianity, arguing that the "God" we are trying to "sell" is an idol in our own making. Although I struggled with many of the author's arguments and felt threatened by others, I was impressed by the degree of insight which they contained.
However, when it came time to suggest ways of addressing the "idolatry", the author seems to step off the rational path into Alice's Wonderland. He advocates contemplative practices including one called the Last Supper, which aims to draw people into an experience of learned ignorance; another is called the Evangelism Project, in which Christians visit people of alien beliefs in order to be evangelized by them. He advocates focusing on the writings of atheists during Lent, and he recommends an Omega Course, designed to draw people away from the "mythological form of Christianity" taught by the Alpha Course.
I recommend the book for its reflection-inspiring criticisms of many of our current church practices and beliefs, but I must confess to being too obtuse to understand the value and rationale behind the practices which the author advocates.
on January 9, 2013
I should start by saying that I am a long time fan of Peter Rollins, familiar enough with his work that I refer to him as Pete in casual conversation with peers. While this publication may not damage my high opinion of him, I feel as if he let me down this go-round. While this book is a great source for deep thought and self-reflection, it falls short in terms of its resolutions, ironically and perhaps intentionally so. The content is minimal, relying heavily on redundancy and stories that most current Rollins fans will have heard on numerous occasions.
The breakdown from my perspective:
This book has a very promising beginning. From the start, Rollins does an excellent job of critiquing the external while simultaneously causing extensive internal reflection. His verbal punishments of modern religion as the ultimate source of happiness are liberating on their own, while his observations of the paradoxical and elusive nature of self-satisfaction provide a good ole fashioned gut-check.
In a nutshell, his premise is that satisfaction cannot be attained whilst being pursued through external means. He establishes this train of thought by personifying our innate sense of lack (Original Sin), our natural restrictions (Law), and that object which we seek to fulfill said lack (Idol). In this manner he is able to demonize Christianity as we know it (as well as any religion) by painting it as just another product which falsely promises to provide the certainty and satisfaction we long for.
Like I said, very promising beginning.
However, where I would have to part ways with Rollins is in his attempted resolution. While he portrays satisfaction as a paradox and Christianity as a false hope, he eventually comes full circle to propose a radical Christian theology as the answer to our dissatisfaction. Though this alternative "pyro-theology" is one that is intended to break our addiction to satisfaction through true identification with Christ's suffering, it ultimately comes across as the same familiar mistress in a nicer dress. Same wine, new skin. Rather than be free to pursue happiness, he suggests being free from the pursuit of happiness. His proposed answer is learning to not need an answer. To be satisfied, learn to not will to be satisfied. To be happy, give up on trying to be happy. To love life, learn to love life around you rather than trying to make life into something you love.
While I can agree or identify with this proposition to an extent, it is the forced Christian underlayment by Rollins which causes my departure. It seems as if the book was finalized before someone decided to find a way to make it into a Christian book. Sure, he does a fine job describing the parallels between this philosophy and Christianity, but in doing so he pollutes it with unnecessary ideological context, asserting that though Jesus will not satisfy, he is the only way to pacify the need for satisfaction. In my opinion, the idea that this solution is one that can only be acquired through a Christian religious/a-religious revelation is a stretch. If I were to apply any religious label to what he proposes, it would be that of Buddhism, though it is often not recognized as an actual religion. However, he manages to find a way within this theology to completely obliterate such labels, creating yet another paradox in which the only true "Christian" way to live is without the need for such labels.
In the end, though I enjoyed the book, I was ultimately left with the feeling of being cheated. I was promised freedom but only received a small taste before I was re-shackled to a new set of chains, providing the illusion of freedom while attempting to hopelessly enslave me all over again. He slung the doors of the church wide open only to declare any roaming grounds a by-product of this alternative Christianity. He somehow managed to define the proclaimed indefinite boundaries. He appeared to be onto something significant but then seemingly became sidetracked by the urge to insert religious context where none was necessary, perhaps in an attempt to justify his own minute religious affiliation.
Or maybe I just realllllly missed the point. But the joke's on you... these are special robes.
on March 11, 2013
If I truly respect him, I must betray him.
The timing for this new book was apropos, as this time of year often brings about criticisms and examinations of Rollins' concept of "atheism for Lent", where one endeavours to give up God for these forty days by focusing on the writings of Nietzsche, Marx, etc. To me, the most interesting reading can be found in the comments sections of various blogs and counter-blogs in the, shall we say, folk-theologian circles. The irony particularly arises in the at-times blind reactions of the Devout in such ways that they betray the intentions of the Teacher. The Devout spit, curse, and defend to the bone the sanctity of what they consume from the table of the Teacher from those they believe to be Detractors, but in doing so they nullify the message through their words and attitudes. I find this especially prevalent in those who allign themselves with more post-modern, deconstructionist thinkers, often in the emerging conversation. Their leaders teach the necessity of being critical and subverting the norms of any given theology and shaking of the ritualistic dead faith of the previous generation, and many scarf it down as pure gospel because it inadvertently justifies the pain and dissatisfaction they have with "mainstream/evangelical" Church. So they simultaneously defend a theology that if truly enacted would lead them to a place where they critique the new message as well as the old, rather than jumping on a new bandwagon for the sake of tribal identity.
Specifically in terms of "atheism for Lent", I get it. I think. We can assume the prayer of 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart that says, "God, ride me of God" as a way to tear down our idolatrous reductive ideas of who/what God is exactly, thus exposing the fertile soil for Truth to root itself and grow. In my own life, there have been many times where the ideas from the terrifying "outside" have brought me to a new place of understanding either through a rest or trauma found in exploration of the Unknown. Indeed, much of that journey over the past three years of my life has come from Peter Rollins' work; his books, his lectures, his podcasts. We even had the honor of hosting him at our church in the fall of 2011 as he was switching gears to flesh out this newest book. His reorientation of definitions and process have transformed so much of what I had until then taken for granted. Yet, as we come to yet another lenten season, I find myself less enthused by rehashing this idea of taking up atheistic views of God and the World. The place of trauma actually for me comes from the other side of the spectrum, being confronted in my daily life and my theological perspective by the New Charismatic movement. Bill Johnson, Todd White, and others have caused me to walk that same path as Rollins has before, to allow the light of Truth to shine into the dark places of my own idolatrous thoughts and shake up the status quo found therein. What am I to do with these stories of healing, the proclamation of my value as a Son, the movements of the Holy Spirit in such powerful, daresay biblical, manifestations? Perhaps it is time we developed a "Charismania for Lent", so that none of us become too complacent and smug in our faith on the emerging or reformed paradigms.
So, here's my thoughts on where's Peter Rollins' project has arrived with The Idolatry of God, for what it's worth. I guess my particular critique as of right now focuses on this idea of looking to "God" for satisfaction. Essentially, we find ourselves straddling a tragic gap between the despair of the world as we experience it, and the hope of heaven as we take it by faith. I think Rollins is speaking truth when he says that we treat God like some magical objects in the panoply of other objects that promise us instant gratification and the avoidance of pain or suffering. Often we treat God as a tool that is available for our true pursuit of What We Really Want, whether it be success, happiness, wholeness, etc. As Paul Tillich says, we all have faith in someTHING, whatever that thing is that becomes the ultimate concern of our lives, the thing we chase after with a centered act of every part of Who We Are. And much of Rollins' work has been untangling the mixed messages that have brought us to this place where God becomes idol, where we must confront that fact that we have made to little of [God], and that [He] hasn't delivered, and that we aren't happy or satisfied. But it seems to me that ultimately Rollins has become too ham-fisted in his approach to burning down the whole structure of religion; he's thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the relational aspect of the divine. From what I can tell, he has worked the Personhood of God out of the equation so that God can be a perspective or a subjective experience that informs the rest of our lives. And I wouldn't have a problem with that if he didn't go about it in such a way that eradicates the former attributes. There must be a way to hold both understandings of God in a creative tension, that He is that which transforms our lives, yet is also a Person who desires relationship with His creation.
I would say that Rollins can be, at times, guilty of the very same thing he identifies in the fundamentalist: he needs to make the wrinkles of faith disappear. He needs there to be no God, at least not one that resembles the Person of traditional, historic christianity, in order to let go of the promises of faith and the inherent disappointment that succeeds them. He turns many complex concepts into binary arguments that deny the inherent tension to know God and be known by Him. In this way, he nitpicks the words of Jesus or the theology of Paul to prop up his Lacanian tradition, rather than subverting that process in the tradition of the theologian. Were he allowed the vantage point of a thinker like his forebearer Slavoj Zizek, he could critique religion from the perspective of philosophy (whether "from the inside" or "from the outside"), that would be something else altogether. And perhaps this is even the place for many, including myself, to cut Rollins some slack. We cannot expect our philosophers to also be our pastors, and vice versa. Perhaps it is unfair for me to engage with his work with the same mentality I would of, say, NT Wright or Jean Vanier or others who are more firmly planted in the pastoral/theologian vocation. But to choose what verses support his deconstructionist philosophy, devoid of the Whole, is to do the same things that he has accused the conservative veins of christianity of doing. Where they often choose to ignore doubt, ambiguity, and loss, Rollins forsakes relationship with the Trinity, the hope of the glory, because maybe it just seems too good to be true. Sometimes he makes God seem the enemy of Jesus in much the same way the previous generation told us that God hated us and Jesus stood up to this angry God and took our wrath upon himself. Where Paul speaks often of loss, hardship, and suffering of life, it was his understanding of the character of heaven that made those things worth persevering, not his admittance to this world being all there is. For both Jesus and Paul, it was the creative tension of transcendent experience, personal relationship, and steadfastness of faith in the face of apparent defeat that defined them.
Is it idolatrous for us to say we know our Beloved? Or does our knowledge rather act as an icon, in that what we know and the way in which we allow for that which we don't know to point to "the thing beyond the thing", the True Identity of the Other. I know that my beloved cannot satisfy every whim of my desire, nor can she answer all my questions; yet that does not have to be the role thrust upon her. We are remiss to seek validation in another person. But when I stop being so concerned with seeking relationship in order to get answers, to serve my real pursuit of self-gratification, I seek relationship because I was designed to do so. To know and be known. I don't give up on relationships altogether if they disappoint me. One of my favorite quotes from Rollins is his definition of true love: "I never knew I needed you until I met you. And once I met you I realized I couldn't live without you". The desire for the Other comes as a result of something deeper than the need for answers or selfishness. It comes from the revelation of Love, a law that "knows no `should'" (again, Rollins' genius). This is the kind of relationship we have to the divine, not one where all our questions get answered and everything is fixed instantaneously, but one in which we find definition and purpose and relation. The tension between the Reality of this World and that of Heaven keeps this relationship living and active. "So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen..."
This is the danger of not creatively wrestling with maintaining a narrative theology, whether you attest to believing it but don't allow it to translate into the way you live you life (as the fundamentalists do), or disavow it altogether (as Rollins tends to do). You are able to sift through the scattered testimonies of scripture to find the jewels that best suit your worldview, without needing to be confronted by the terror of those other perspectives that shake us up and challenge our notions time and time again. Yet that continuous invitation to conviction is the key to a faith that is Spirit-infused and alive. That is how can can work out our faith through fear and trembling AND approach God with freedom and confidence.
I look forward to what's next in his process, as I respect tremendously the passionate desire he has to re-examine, reorient, and skewer some weary ideas still pervasive in Christendom. I could go on and on about this man and his work, the tremendous insight I have gained from his wisdom, how it has grown me in such beautiful ways, how I pass it along to my own students and community as a way to help them live in the midst of their own faith. But I cannot follow him into a tensionless world, where all the wrinkles of life are ironed out for a more comfortable, and ultimately too-grounded philosophy that betrays the meeting of God in the thick darkness, and meeting motivated by faith that leads to hope.
on May 8, 2013
This book outlines what a postmodern Christian and church should be like. Basically, a Christian should not be like a Christian and the church should look nothing like a church. The author knows the Bible well, but starts with very different premises about basic ideas of the Bible than most Christians. Like most deconstructionists of the Bible, Rollins does not mention the Holy Spirit or a personal relationship with God. No wonder he is experiences emptiness and a lack of fulfillment in the traditional Christian message. He supposes that only those who can intellectualize that God not only is love, but that He is only Love and nothing more are those that can be fulfilled by not being fulfilled. It is circular argument that could be persuasive to the intellectual non-believer who desires to see something in Christ other than what Christ actually offers. After all, to surrender yourself to God is also to surrender your intellect to Him. We must admit that our wisdom pales in comparison to His. Rollins is one of many intellectuals who can't make this leap. He seeks to miniaturize God to a powerless force that just "is." He believes that to see God as anything other than a lack of something, is Idolatry. Anything we do feel complete, whole, in union with God is seen as Idolatry. Accordingly, we can do whatever we want as long as we aren't doing it to feel complete, whole, or in union with God. People who are failing to connect with God for whatever reason and others who wish to criticize Christianity will probably see something hopeful in the philosophy laid out in this book. However, I, like most Christians believe that God is God. He is God from the beginning of the Bible to the end. He is the Creator, the Father, the Judge, the Advocate, the Friend of Sinners, the Rock, and the Savior. I believe that God desires a deep personal relationship with each and every one of us. If you are a disciple of Christ and believe the Bible is God's Word, then test the text against what you read in the Bible. Take every premise that Rollins lays out and test it against the Scriptures. Read the Scriptures he offers up in context within the Bible. Read multiple versions of the Bible and look up seemingly ambiguous verses in other Christian commentaries to get their meaning.
on January 11, 2013
I have read all of Peter Rollins' books, and have found them to be well worth the effort. I have no training at all in philosophy, so have had to work quite hard at times to follow the arguments. Even so, it has been a great journey thusfar.
This latest book I found perhaps the most accessible of all. It seems he has been working towards this point for a long time, and yes, some of these ideas do occur in previous books. God as an idol which is used to fulfil our needs as against the reality of a God who strips us of the God we have always known and then is free to enter into our suffering and inadequacies to help us face them, is the focus. It challenges us into a more pro-active, compassionate expression of our Christian faith and requires that we "grow up" as Christians.
The ending of the book, where he gives examples of how his ideas were taught and given expression in the various communities of which he has been part, was interesting. The problem I had with it was that the cultural identity of those people who participated in these things were not like my community, and if I were to present his ideas in a worship/presentation context, I would have to re-translate a lot of what he says to be entirely relevant to where I am. But the message would be the same, and would be something we all need to hear.
Peter Rollins' greatest contribution to modern Christianity is that he forces us to look into those areas of our faith which we have been taught are non-negotiable. It is a great relief to read a book which states openly what we have known for a long time, but have been too afraid to acknowledge. I look forward to more work from him.
If you have been silently suffering through the Dark Night of the Soul, wondering what is wrong with you why your "faith" isn't stronger, why others seem to have the certainty you can't seem to find you should read this book. The idea that God is a being out there, something or someone to be "known" was what i was taught and when I couldn't find "Him" or know "Him", I felt like something was wrong with me. When I discovered panentheism, it was not in a Christian context, but it made sense to me.
I was raised as a Christian from the time I could talk. I was taught that the right relationship with God would solve all of my problems. I was in a constant search for that peace I was supposed to have to reach that state where there was no uncertainty, no doubt, no fear. I was always looking forward to the day when I found that Idol that was going to give me the satisfaction I thought I was supposed to have. I never got there. It wasn't until I began to let go of the search for certainty that I started to experience some peace. For me, I had to turn to Buddhism and meditation to find it. The type of Christianity that Peter Rollins teaches was completely foreign to me at the time. It's nice to see some Christian authors writing about embracing our humanity fully.
Peter defines Original Sin as the lack that we all feel that longing to attain something that we feel we once had and are now missing. The Idol is the thing that we think will bring that to us. The Idol can be "success" or money or yes, even "god" in the sense that if we can just get right with god, all will be well with the world. It's strange to hear God called an idol, but when you read it in the context of the book and you begin to understand that God is not a person "out there", it will make sense to you.
I like the idea that this book not only gives me permission to feel the uncertainty that is inevitable, but to embrace it. It presents a different view of Christianity from anything I have heard before and it's one that makes a lot of sense to me.