The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction
By Peter Rollins
Howard Books, 2013
- Part two of a two-part review and meditation
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It is dangerous to put a chainsaw in the hands of a preacher.
We live in a house that is 112 years old and this has been renovation summer. We are engaged in a months-long project of painting the exterior and fixing various trouble spots. We also have a lot of overdue landscaping work to do, including trimming and cutting down trees, pruning back and replacing large bushes and refurbishing gardens.
So I got out the chainsaw last week and went crazy. Our backyard, once dense with foliage, is now filled with light. There is a large dead tree that I can’t get, which is awaiting the chainsaw of a tree professional, but the rest is gone, helpless to stand against my lumberjack wrath. I joked with my neighbor that this is what I do best — wreak destruction. I’m not so good at construction.
At some point Gail and I will have to come to agreement on the plan going forward. What kinds of trees, bushes, and flowers will we plant, and where exactly will they go? We’ll need to envision what we want for these spaces, measure, plan, shop, consult with experts, make purchases and then build a new backyard. We’ve been talking about it, and will soon start making decisions. Then the positive work of making something new will start in earnest.
This is our second day of considering what Peter Rollins has to say in his book, The Idolatry of God. Rollins is an intelligent voice that speaks effectively to a certain constituency in the post-modern, even post-Christian wilderness. He does so by being a provocateur, countering the traditions and claims of the Church with a direct and startling clarity.
The message of his book is that, although God has traditionally been approached as a product that will render us complete, remove our suffering, and reveal answers about which we can have certainty, in reality we can’t be whole, life is difficult, and we remain in the dark, even (especially!) as people of faith. We should therefore embrace our brokenness and stop putting our trust in over-stated mythologies that are set forth as ways of liberating us from the common lot we share with our fellow human beings.
Sadly, then, the church today does not offer an alternative to the Idolatry and Unbelief that weigh us down, but instead blesses them and gives them divine justification. The question that faces us, then, is how Christianity in its most radical and subversive form, critiques the church and offers real freedom.
Fair enough. Houston, we have a problem. But so does Peter Rollins. For although the paragraph above concludes the first part of his book, promising a positive vision of “the new creation” that the Church can promote, he cannot and does not deliver. Deft with the chainsaw, he wreaks what may be a necessary deconstruction of the Church’s inadequate message. However, no true new landscape ever emerges.
Instead, what we get are statements like these:
In this way we learn that heaven is discovered only when we renounce it and put ourselves to the task of embracing the world.
The Good News is not simply a confrontation with the reality that total fulfillment and certainty are not possible, but rather is found in the joyful embrace of this insight.
For to lose the Idol means to be freed from that drive that prevents us from fully embracing our life and taking pleasure in it. It means giving up our desire for ultimate satisfaction and then, in that act, discovering a deeper, more beautiful satisfaction, one that is not constantly deferred but that can be grasped here and now. Not one that promises to make us whole and remove our suffering but one that promises joy in the midst of our brokenness and new life in the very embrace of our pain.
However, what we find in the event that gave birth to Christianity is something far more powerful that one master mythology designed to cover over our unknowing and anxiety. For here we do not find yet another system of meaning to place alongside all the others but a type of splinter that disturbs all meaning systems and calls them into question.
…the identity of the Christian is found in the very experience of feeling the impotence of all identities.
Those who are excluded from the new collective signaled by the new creation are now those who exclude themselves — the ones who so wish to cling to their own identity that they are not prepared to encounter another as anything but a stranger to convert, an alien to tolerate, or an enemy to crush.
For Paul it is this very loss of identity that identifies us with Christ. As we experience the loss of the operative power of our identity, we thus touch upon that experience of utter loss experienced in the Crucifixion of Christ.
The one who identifies with Christ thus stands outside the very tribal systems that seek to define them. As a result we are being asked to give up the sense of mastery that our traditions offer and open them up to the white-hot fires of unknowing and mystery.
In my view, Peter Rollins is missing something vital here. Though he speaks fleetingly of “embracing” the new, it remains largely defined by rejecting the old.
The chainsaw is still running.
In particular Rollins is concerned that the Christian Church has developed a “tribal identity” that Christians must abandon if we are to break free of “idolatry.” He cites Paul in Galatians 3 and develops an entire thesis, complete with charts, to show that being “in Christ” means that we are no longer defined by our tribal identities.
However, he misses an obvious fact – “In Christ” is an identity. It certainly transcends and transforms all of our other identities — it relativizes the various identifications by which we find meaning and set up boundaries between ourselves and others. But it does not bring us to a place where we have no identity besides “human.” Is not the entire story of Scripture a testimony to God’s plan to form “a people?” Is that not a distinct identity?
We define ourselves positively in relation to Jesus, not merely negatively in relation to the “tribal” identities which heretofore determined our place in the world.
And we do not merely identify with the Christ on the Cross, though a robust theology of the Cross is essential. Rollins speaks well to the modern Church’s avoidance of some of the crucifixion’s implications, including aspects which we have been writing about in recent days. We meet Christ in the experience of abandonment, uncertainty, and lament. The ongoing experience of the Cross in our lives engulfs us in the mystery of God — that he is often most present when he seems most absent, that when he hides himself he is most revealed. Rollins is right to rail against the easy certainty and satisfaction offered by the modern Church.
What he does not do is fully consider the reality and implications of the resurrection, ascension, and bestowal of the Spirit, which bring the work of Christ to culmination, creating a people that finds a defining identity in Jesus.
As a result, when Peter Rollins concludes his book with a section answering the question, “What would a group seeking to enter into and remain faithful to such a way of life actually look like?” he has little to offer by way of positive vision. Instead, he offers examples of services and practices that are primarily deconstructionist in nature, designed to get Christians to encounter beliefs and experiences that are alien and threatening to a shallow embrace of certainty and satisfaction. In his view, this amounts to a positive move, since: “this very act of deconstruction is a direct expression of Christianity,” and “the critique of Christianity as a system and the experience of divine absence are inherent parts of Christianity.”
At a certain level and with certain communities, practices like this may be helpful. Deconstruction is sometimes necessary, and the Church ignores that to its peril. However, though Rollins says that these practices “invite us into a different type of existence in which we engage with the world around us in a different way,” he never quite gets to any kind of adequate description of what that “different way” might be.
“to embrace life in all of its beauty and horror, someone who [is] able to smile deeply, embrace suffering, celebrate the cycle of life and accept the inevitability of death. …[Whose] very life [is] her miracle and her example [is] her gift to humanity.”
While this is an admirable description of a healthy and mature human life, and one from which the Church can most certainly learn, it falls short of the Gospels’ vision of the dawning Kingdom and a Jesus-shaped spirituality.
Again, to end this discussion, I will bring in Eugene Peterson to testify to the importance of keeping Jesus front and center in this discussion, something Rollins does not do successfully. For the opposite of idolatry is to be Christocentric, not simply to open ourselves to “the white-hot fires of unknowing and mystery.”
Jesus is the name that keeps us attentive to the God-defined, God-revealed life. The amorphous limpness so often associated with “spirituality” is given skeleton, sinews, definition, shape, and energy by the term “Jesus.” Jesus is the personal name of a person who lived at a datable time in an actual land that has mountains we can still climb, wildflowers that can be photographed, cities in which we can still buy dates and pomegranates, and water which we can drink and in which we can be baptized. As such the name counters the abstraction that plagues “spirituality.”
Jesus is the central and defining figure in the spiritual life. His life is, precisely, revelation. He brings out into the open what we could never have figured out for ourselves, never guessed in a million years. He is God among us: God speaking, acting, healing, helping. “Salvation” is the big word into which all these words fit. The name Jesus means “God saves” — God present and at work saving in our language and in our history.
The four Gospel writers, backed up by the comprehensive context provided by Israel’s prophets and poets, tell us everything we need to know about Jesus. And Jesus tells us everything we need to know about God. As we read, ponder, study, believe, and pray these Gospels we find both the entire Scriptures and the entirety of the spiritual life accessible and in focus before us in the inviting presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh.