The Idolatry of Idolatry.
If I truly respect him, I must betray him.
A few people have asked me my thoughts on the newest book by Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God. The timing was apropos, as this time of year as of recent 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. I just read a blog which Rollins himself intends to respond to sometime soon, so it will be interesting to see what comes of this dialogue. 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 the 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.
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. Much of this hinges on my recent thoughts on hope, which you can find in abbreviated form here. Essentially, that 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 is the ultimate concern of our lives, the thing we chase after with a centered act of every part of us. 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 to 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 a philosopher in the footsteps of his hero Slavoj Zizek, he would 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 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. 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'”. 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. 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 having 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 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.