The Idolatry of God, by Peter Rollins (LentBooks 2013 #4)

idolatryofgodThis is the first Peter Rollins book I’ve read, although people always seem to be talking about him. Some talk favourably; some less so. I was intrigued enough to add his new book to my Lenten reading list. Just before I read it, a Facebook friend posted a link to this article, and that writer’s critique of Rollins’ thought was in the back of my head as I read, chiming in, to some extent, with the doubts and questions I had while reading. That’s not to say I didn’t find a lot of value in The Idolatry of God, simply that I don’t uncritically agree with everything Rollins says.

The book is subtitled Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. In a lot of ways it speaks exactly where I am in my spiritual life right now, so I was intrigued. Growing up in a church where certainty about doctrine is prized as one of the highest values of the spiritual life, I find myself in midlife questioning almost every certainty I’ve ever been taught (see my Searching Sabbath video series for more details…) It’s been my observation that most people, when they experience uncertainty about their faith, tend to move fairly quickly towards greater certainty. It could be the certainty of rejecting belief and embracing atheism, or the certainty of seeking out another religious tradition to join, or the certainty of rejecting their doubts and holding firm to what they’ve always believed, stifling any further questions that may arise.

None of these options works for me. I want to be (as the tagline on my main blog describes me) a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who doubts, questions, and loves my church. Can one be a faithful doubter? Is it OK to live with uncertainty, to say of some issues, “I don’t know the answers, and that’s OK with me”?

It’s the embrace of uncertainty that I found appealing in The Idolatry of God. Rollins’ premise is that our basic human problem is one of idolatry: we sense a lack, a need in our lives, and we look for something — anything — that will fill it. Whatever we adopt to fill the void in our lives becomes an idol. Traditional Christianity would say the problem here is that we are filling the void with the wrong things: the void is God-shaped, and no idol will ever truly satisfy. Rollins turns traditional Christianity on its head by saying that the god offered in Christian churches is just another idol: we Christians hold out the same hollow promise as everyone else. “Worshipping [the right] God [in the correct way, as we do] will fill your emptiness and make you whole!” Christianity promises, and Rollins contends that in the end this idol is just as empty and unfulfilling as any other.

Lots of people will stop reading right there, because they disagree with this basic premise — and part of me stopped nodding at that point too, because I wasn’t sure about it either. But I did keep reading. Rollins contends that the problem is not so much that we need God, as that we need to stop needing — that what Christianity should offer is not a new and better Idol, but the opportunity to walk away from the idolatry trap altogether. To accept and embrace that hollow emptiness inside, rather than looking for the “right” theology, worship, or ministry to fill it.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you may remember that when I read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, I had to look up the term “apophatic theology,” and that knowledge stood me in good stead here. Though Rollins does not use the word “apophatic” he is definitely promoting a kind of Christianity that is defined more by God’s absence and what we cannot say about God, than by any sense of God’s presence or any positive statements we can make about God. For such a (lack of) belief system, the key moment in the Gospels is not Jesus’ resurrection nor even His cry “It is finished!” but rather that other cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

If this sounds a little bleak … well, maybe it is. I am not much drawn to a religion that centres around the absence of God, and I doubt that “Embrace the Emptiness at the Core of Your Soul!” will ever be a slogan that will fill the seats at evangelistic meetings.

But at the same time, I’m often turned off by the opposite in Christianity — the very thing Rollins is reacting against. I can remember as a teenager hearing the awful sickly-sweet gospel song that went, “I’ve found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, since I found the Lord” or the one that promised “No more tears and no more sorrow, no more worries about tomorrow, you’re gonna love your new life with the Lord!” Even as an on-fire-for-the-Lord sixteen-year-old I could see that those peppy lyrics didn’t match the real-life experience of a lot of Christians I knew. I’m troubled by “prosperity gospel” Christianity and the slightly less blatant form of it that we see in things like the late Leo Schreven’s “All-Power Seminars” (I could get into a HUGE tangent here which I know a lot of Adventist readers would appreciate, but I touched on a little bit of it here and I won’t get into it further now).

I am tired of religion (and I don’t just mean my own church here) that promises false certainties and punishes people for asking questions. I’m tired of religion that promises happiness and then tries to hide the real despair and darkness that good Christians sometimes experience. But I’m not sure the answer is a religion that celebrates the darkness, either. I enjoyed the fact that Rollins included in the end of the book some samples of “worship services” (or rather, non-worship events) at which these ideas were explored through various art forms, but I can’t help feeling that if I went every Sabbath to a place where people talked about their doubts and everything they didn’t know, it would hardly be more edifying than going every Sabbath to a place where people ignored their doubts and darkness and celebrated certainties they weren’t really certain of.

I like the idea that I can live with uncertainty, that I don’t need to invent or discover new certainties to patch the holes in my faith. But I also value the sense that God is with me, that there is a God who has all the answers (even if these answers can’t be fully known or comprehended by me in the here and now). If we are to allow our faith to be as messy and complex as Rollins would like it to be, then that suggests to me we need to allow room for both certainties and uncertainties. That it should be OK to say, “Sometimes I’m not sure God loves me” out loud in front of fellow Christians — but that it should also be OK to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know!” if that reflects where we are in our experience at this moment.

I feel like my challenge right now is to learn how to live in uncertainty, to seek for answers where I can but also to accept that some answers may not be knowable. In attempting to live up to that challenge, I find Peter Rollins’s ideas helpful, but I also find the critique of those ideas (in the blog post I linked above, and elsewhere) helpful too.



Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

7 responses to “The Idolatry of God, by Peter Rollins (LentBooks 2013 #4)

  1. Thanks Trudy. Great critique in language that’s a bit easier to follow than Pete’s. I have to be feeling mentally “strong” in order to attempt to follow his philosophical meandering at times. 🙂 Not exactly in the same place as you…but I resonate with much of what you’ve said. Oh to have places to be able to talk more like this….

  2. Bruce Weaver II

    Thank you bringing this work to our attention. I’m considering obtaining it. When one’s spiritual growth transcends the tight boundaries of one’s familiar religious context a release from bondage can occur. It can be as dramatic as an adolescent awakening from childhood or mature adulthood letting go of the neccessities of parenting young children when becoming empty nesters. The intriguing irony is that at the present moment Christians the world around are honoring the Lenten experience all the while oblivious to the deeper aspects of personal death and resurrection in one’s spiritual and emotional existence. As someone pointed out, to make an omlette egg shells must be cracked. Like the metaphor of Lot’s wife I cannot look back, except wistfully, at my SDA upbringing as a valid model for my present spiritual development. It’s like putting toothpaste back into the tube. A new consciousness arises and growth proceeds from there. Regardless the loosening of a literal reading of the life of Christ, the potent meatphor of Jesus modeling and living life with eyes forward, resisting the trappings of religious culture when it tramples on human decency and compassion, dying to ego and being reborn often with an unfolding, fresher awareness of serving remains valid and worthy.

  3. I need to buy a copy of Peter’s book. I own it in audio format. Listening to him read it in his wonderful drawl was a delightful experience. I confess that at times I got lost in listening to the sound of his words and had to rewind and refocus on the words themselves. As far as what he says, reads, writes, I have no problem with where he takes Christianity because I don’t see it as THE answer to the problems of modern Christian faith. Faith is a journey, both an individual one and a collective one. I see Peter advancing this journey, letting us take from his work things that help us advance our own steps on this way. I think is work is highly useful in pointing out the idolatry of claim to know or understand God. This alone is highly controversial for many Christians and Peter does take this to the extreme. However, without the extreme would we see the contrast as clearly?

    I can’t help but think of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. No doubt this wild-looking, locust-eating man was VERY radical and as such provided an eloquent contrast to the traditional religion of the day. His point was not to make JB clones but to get people to examine their cherished views. This, after all, is the true definition of the prophetic voice.

    Open-minded conservatives and patient liberals are both essential components to any thought continuum. Conservatives are the anchor that reminds us from whence we came. Liberals show us what we probably should or could shed from our past that hinders us from growing forward. Your friend’s critique of Rollins appears to center of the fact that Rollins tends to ignore his view of Christianity (liberation theology to use a short-hand description). Rollins’ point, I believe, is don’t let your view become an idol to you.

    One of the things I most gleefully enjoyed in “The Idolatry of God” was Rollins’ devastating comments on modern Christian music. If I never have to sit through another Praise Service, I’ll be a happy man. However, I do not agree with his vision of how to create a new community. As a friend of mine pointed out, the problem with ultra-liberal Christianity is this: it is impossible to create a community around a negative idea. While one of his “services” might be an interesting intellectual experience, like you, I cannot see its format being something around which one can harness the energy of a group and turn it into something vibrant and effective. Community is still essential to Christianity. I just need to find one to which I can belong!

    PS You mention above “I find myself in midlife questioning.” Really? Perhaps I’m obtuse but other than on Creation (and then, I’d suggest, with great reluctance), it hasn’t been that evident. Maybe I should just wait for the rest of the 27? Just a thought. Slap me down if I’m wrong.

    • Electronic posts, like words, cannot be taken back. Forgive my “PS.” Who am I ..?!

    • No slapping … I think it’s common to think people aren’t asking questions just because they aren’t asking the same questions you are. I think once you start asking “How literally do we read the Bible? Is it God’s Word or a human construct?” then pretty much everything is up for questioning.

      BTW the critique I linked to was not from anyone I know … it was, however, posted as a Facebook link by a friend of mine. And I agree with the critique in the sense that I do think Rollins’s theology is very individual-focused, and does not address the question (which I think is central) of, “What should we as Christians be doing in the world?” I suspect his answer might be along the lines of “doing” less, but I’m not sure how much good that really is.

      • That is where I do agree with Rollins — pretty much everything is up for questioning. Long before Rollins, my contentious self would see the bumper sticker, “Jesus is the answer,” and think, “then you probably had the wrong question.” Faith is inherently a mystery and despite how we were raised, the Bible has (with intention I believe) very few answers — particularly in regard to doctrine.
        It is not uncommon for someone to become so focused on an issue that it is a point of single mindedness — save the whales, be anti war, the imminent return of Christ to name just a few. I don’t fault Rollins for being this way. In fact it is possible the reviewer (critiquer ?) suffers from the same fate — all Christians should be doing x in the world. And if so, I wouldn’t fault him either. Some are called to minister to other Christians and this is why used the term “prophetic voice” in connection with Rollins. Prophets, by in large, didn’t minister to the poor and downtrodden but instead called to individuals and communities to reexamine their lives, opinions and choices. Rollins does this eloquently. But again, like you, I don’t see it as being the basis for the formation of new community. And finally, if we were all less certain about things, wouldn’t we be a little more tolerant of those who saw things differently than us? If so, perhaps Rollins is doing something “in the world?”

      • On that point I certainly agree with you, Evert. If more uncertainty leads to more tolerance (and the reverse appears to be true, so why shouldn’t it?) then I’m all for uncertainty.

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