This 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.