The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction
By Peter Rollins
Howard Books, 2013
- Part one of a two-part review and meditation
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Today the “Good News” of Christianity operates with much the same logic. It is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire rather than as that which evokes transformation in the very way that we desire. Like every other product that promises us fulfillment, Christ becomes yet another object in the world that is offered to us as away of gaining insight and ultimate satisfaction.
In his book The Idolatry of God, Rollins observes that humans, from the beginning of self-consciousness, experience a sense of loss and separation. At the same time we realize that there is an “I,” we also observe that there is a “not I” from which we are separated. Thus we sense a gap, and we begin to feel that we have lost something we once had, we have been disconnected from something (or someone) primordial. Thus, from the start of self-awareness we long to be reconciled, reunited with that from which we have been disunited. In ourselves, we are incomplete.
From early childhood, we pursue various objects and experiences, believing they will somehow fill the void and make us whole. As we mature, these may take the form of pleasure, success, wealth, fame or reputation, power and influence, or true love.
Or faith in “God.”
These days, religion has become another product on the shelf designed to address our sense of incompleteness. This way of presenting God, Jesus, and Christian faith is so common in our time that many think this is the Bible’s Gospel — Jesus has come to fill the gap in our lives and bring us satisfaction.
I remember a simple, winsome little tract from the Jesus movement when I had my teenage spiritual awakening that had that very title: “What Fills the Gap?” The subsequent era of church growth mentality, seeker oriented movements, and the nearly total loss of historical awareness and tradition that this entailed has only accelerated the sense that this “gospel” is God’s good news for people today.
Peter Rollins suggests that Jesus actually came, not to fill the gap, but to set us free from this idolatrous instinct.
But instead of offering a freedom from this type of thinking, the church has simply joined the party and placed its own product in the machine. Their god-product takes its place alongside all the other things vying for our attention with their promises to fill the gap in our lives and render our existence meaningful. Take one or mix and match: luxury car, financial success, fame, or Jesus; they all pretty much promise the same satisfaction.
This idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most of us take it for granted. Whether people accept the idea of God or reject it, they seem to be talking about the same thing: a being who satisfies our soul by filling the gap in our existence. The only conflict is that some people reject this god-product as fiction while others accept it.
However, it is the very framework of thinking that is inadequate, not merely what one puts in the “gap-filler” role. Whether it is a BMW, a soulmate, or Jesus, that thing that we have designated as our “answer” becomes an idol.
That’s right, we can even make Jesus into an idol.
What we see taking place in the church today is the reduction of God to an Idol, that is, to a thing that will satisfy us and fill the gap we feel in our hearts. In thinking of God in this way, the church ends up mimicking every other industry by claiming that they can take away the sense of loss that marks our life. …By misunderstanding the nature of faith, they turn the good news of Christianity into the bad news of Idol worship.
Every person’s Idol has three characteristics in that person’s eyes:
- That which fills the gap in our lives exists — it is “real” to that person, a “thing,” something she can treat as an object.
- That which fills the gap is sublime — it is beautiful and of ultimate worth to that person.
- That which fills the gap is meaningful — it takes on a meaningfulness in and of itself that diminishes the meaning of other things.
However, Peter Rollins suggests that the true and living God in Christ does not come to us like this. Instead, God comes to us in a way that resists any attempt on our part to accept and worship him in an idolatrous fashion.
Here is an extended passage from The Idolatry of God on how God relates to these three characteristics.
In contrast to the Idol that we experience as existing, as sublime, and as meaningful, the God revealed in Christ, as present in the work of love, resists each of these characteristics. While the Idol is a fiction that we experience as existing, we may say that the God of Christ is a reality that we experience as not existing.
Instead, this God is present as the source that calls everything into existence. The word “exist” literally means “to stand out.” The main characteristic of something that exists is that we are able to treat it as an object of some sort. We are able to hold it, contemplate it, smell it, touch it, or hear it. The God hinted at in Christianity is that which calls everything into existence, all the while defying objectification.
To understand what this means, think about walking along a busy street and coming upon someone you love. While walking you are passing hundreds of people, and yet you do not really “see” any of them. You perhaps register them as objects to avoid, but they do not stand out for you. However, when you see someone you love, she stands forth from the background. She arises from the formless mass of others as distinct. With this in mind we may say that God is the name we give to that experience where things are called into existence for us. In this way, it can be said that God is not seen but is testified to in a particular way of seeing. Previously we saw how the Idol is experienced as existing, until we grasp it and discover that it doesn’t. Here God is felt not to exist, and yet by this act of calling everything into existence it seems that the moment we stop trying to grasp God the existence of God is indirectly testified to in the existence of everything we encounter.
This brings us to the second aspect of God that is distinct from the Idol. The Idol is experienced as that which is utterly beautiful, that which is so radiant everything else pales into insignificance. But when we read that God is love, we are reminded that love cannot be directly approached as beautiful and sublime but as that humble reality that renders the world beautiful and sublime. Love does not say, “Look at me,” but invites us to look at another. Unlike the Idol that tries to capture our gaze, the God testified to in love avoids our direct gaze and invites us to be taken up by the beauty that surrounds us. The Idol is seen as beautiful only until it is grasped and we discover the beauty was a fiction. In contrast, it would seem that as we stop trying to grasp God as beautiful we discover that the source of all beauty is indirectly discovered as beautiful in the beauty of all things.
Finally, the God revealed in the Christian scriptures differs from the Idol in that this God is not meaningful. The Idol we desire is not only meaningful to us, it is so singularly meaningful that everything else effectively becomes meaningless. In contrast, the God found in love is not meaningful but is that reality that renders the world meaningful.
When someone is in love he cannot help but experience the world as meaningful, even if he doesn’t believe it is. While the one who does not love cannot help but experience the world as meaningless even if he believes that the world is meaningful. Love then infuses the world with meaning regardless of what one believes about it. By revealing God as love, the Christian tradition rejects the idea that God is a meaningful being in favor of the idea that God is that which lights up our world, rendering it meaningful to us. This means that unlike the Idol, which seems meaningful until grasped, the moment we lay down the idea of God as meaningful and find the world infused with meaning, we bear witness to the meaningfulness of the divine.
The point here is that we should avoid making the mistake of affirming the polar opposite of the proverb that states, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) For Christianity does not assert that we can directly know God any more than it says there is no God. In Christ we are confronted with a different understanding altogether, one in which God is not directly known (either as a being “out there” or as found in all things), but is the source that renders everything known.
To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God. It is to proclaim an Idol, masked as God. The categories of existence and non-existence begin to break apart when speaking of God. The Idol is a fiction that we think exists, a meaningless object that we bestow with all meaning and a mundane object that we believe is sublime. In contrast, we let go of existence, meaning, and the sublime as categories to describe the object “God.” Instead these become ways in which we engage with the world. Yet, as we affirm the world in love, we indirectly sense that in letting go of God we have, in fact, found ourselves at the very threshold of God.
This is wisdom, spiritual writing at its finest.
It brings to mind Eugene Peterson’s meditation on Gerald Manley Hopkins’s sonnet, with its lines:
For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Peterson uses these words as his “metaphorical arena” in which to work out the positive details of what it means to live as a Christian, much as Rollins offers his meditation on “idolatry” as a field in which to explore what it does not mean.
Therefore, I think the following passage from Eugene Peterson, which reflects on Hopkins’s poem, offers a good conclusion to this first look at The Idolatry of God. It moves beyond the deconstruction of our idols in the first part of Rollins’s book and prepares us for the “new creation” that gives us a new framework for thinking about God and the Christian faith.
Hopkins’s diction conveys the vigor and spark and spontaneity that is inherent in all of life. The focused conviction expressed here is that it is Christ, the God-revealing Christ, who is behind and in all of this living. The message is that all this life, this kingfisher- and dragonfly-aflame life, this tumbled stone and harp string and bell-sounding life, gets played out in us, in our limbs and eyes, in our feet and speech, in the faces of the men and women we see all day long, every day, in the mirror and on the sidewalk, in classroom and kitchen, in workplaces and on playgrounds, in sanctuaries and committees. The central verb, “play,” catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. “Play” also suggests words and sounds and actions that are “played” for another, intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty or truth or goodness. Hopkins incorporates this sense of play with God as the ultimate “other” (“…to the Father”) — which is to say that all life is, or can be, worship.
That this is not what our churches are conveying to us by word and action is beyond sad.
For all things are yours,whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1Cor. 1:22-23, NRSV)
God, and the gifts he gives us in Christ through the Spirit, are not worthy to be compared to the idols we make of them.