I remember a guy I go to Seminary with telling me that you consider your newborn adorable but then when some time passes and you see the pictures, they sort of resemble lizards. Now, I think Belle was a particularly adorable newborn, but there is some semblance of truth to what this man told me.
Check out this article. Basically it's about a kid who screwed up in high school, and as a 17 year-old senior engaged in some sexual activity with a 15 year-old sophomore. Because of that he has been sentenced to ten years in prison. I am not saying anything about how good this kid is - he obviously made several mistakes, of which this is just one. Apparently he was a promising athlete being recruited by numerous football programs. He had (has?) a chance to become a contributing member of society. Of course we all know that there are plenty of football players out there who exemplify stupidity and poor decision-making - but how in the world is it right that this kid is locked up for ten years? Man.
Here we are again. I'm sorry these posts are so long and if you're gonna "tl;dr" (short for too long;didn't read) that's fine. I am doing this so I can think through some of this stuff myself. I do want input from others, and the questions I ask aren't simply rhetorical. If you come across this and you take issue with what I have to say then please let me know. I really want to learn and understand what I'm reading.
Anyway, this post will be about Chapter 2 of the book, titled "The Aftermath of Theology." The chapter begins with an analogy/story about a "mystic," and "evangelical pastor," and a "fundamentalist preacher." Basically each of these is faced with the afterlife and comes to see the "real" truth about God. The mystic and evangelical pastor accept correction by God, but the fundamentalist preacher carries his bible into the confrontation with God, and certain of his reading/interpretation, clings to his reading of the bible in the face of the real God. Rollins casts himself (and emergents) in the role of the mystic, and those who bow to conceptual idolatry as the fundamentalists who will not receive correction, even from God.
He writes: "the Christian mystic [is] committed to his tradition yet acknowledges that it falls short of grasping the mind of God...[he] acknowledges that the relationship we have with God cannot be reduced to our understanding of that relationship." (p. 20) Now I completely agree with the stance of the mystic here, as it is stated. But then Rollins goes on to describe the errant fundamentalist's position as "a type of idolatrous relation in which we believe that our ideas actually represent the way that God and the world really operate." (p.20-21) As I've already stated in my previous posts I believe he's creating a false dichotomy here and unnecessarily equating a sense of spiritual humility with complete uncertainty.
Later Rollins says it is important for our religious traditions to be a response to God rather than to define God. I say that's a good idea - we shouldn't simply define God with religious traditions, but in what way is our Christian tradition a response to God? A response to what? To a feeling? To the bible? To our thoughts and reflections about our experiences? At the bottom of page 21 Rollins makes a wonderful point, stating that we should be "a/theological." By that he means "we must still speak of God (theology, as traditionally understood) while also recognizing that this speech fails to define God (a/theology)."
Again, good as far as it goes. But again to Rollins in order to say our speech fails to define God we must also say our speech cannot be an accurate representation of anything about God. I can't do that.
He says that various Christian denominations testify about God by virtue of their existence rather than their content. I have two questions in response to that line of thought. First, why then do not all religions testify to the existence of God via their existence rather than their content? If God is so completely un-knowable how can one consider Christianity any more "true" than Buddhism, which makes completely contradictory claims regarding God and the universe? Second, where then are denominations supposed to get their content? How can a tradition get any sort of meaningful content if it constantly affirms it can know nothing about God or the world as they really are? Isn't he building on work done in an invalid (according to his standards) way to live. He says he doesn't want to change what Christians believe but rather how they believe. How does he get to the what in the first place, if not by people who believe they are making statements that correspond to God and the world in a meaningful and at least semi-accurate way?
Finally when it comes to doubt I am again pretty close to on board with Rollins. He says we must acknowledge doubt and be willing to alter what we believe. In the life of even the most devout Christian, there is doubt. Sometimes I wonder if it's all a big fairly tale. I've been through some years of serious doubt and a period of a couple years out of high school where I wasn't sure if I believed in God anymore. Even as someone going to Seminary and working in ministry I am no stranger to doubt. So yes, it is important to acknowledge doubt and it is also important to acknowledge that we cannot completely contain God in our beliefs and doctrines and whatever else.
But Rollins prevents us from saying anything meaningful about God. It doesn't follow that simply because we can't fully contain God that we can't say anything without becoming idolatrous and errant. God is a "subject" (not just an object) but we must also make objective claims about Him to say anything meaningful. I am not understanding how one can maintain/defend orthodoxy with Rollins' system. Despite his statements of intention to the contrary, if we go along with Rollins we will not just change how we think, but what we think. His "epistemological silence" is too damaging. We must maintain intellectual honesty and the room for error and a change in our understanding, but in so doing we cannot say that it is impossible to make any statement of meaning about God or the world.
It seems I'm repeating myself a bit through these various entries. But I think Rollins keeps making the same error. I am on board with his heart and to a degree with his insistence upon the limitations of our language and doctrine. But he unfortunately reduces Christianity to a "tradition" like any other world religion, and when we follow his path we have no reason to be Christian over being Atheist or Agnostic or Buddhist. When you throw away the ability to have even a working knowledge of the world around you, or if you throw away the ability to know things not based on experience, you aren't left with much of anything.
Today the Bears and Colts both won to advance to Super Bowl XLI. Up until the Colts managed an awesome comeback every single team I decided to root for this postseason lost. I was thinking I'd be subjected to a Bears-Patriots Superbowl when the Colts were down 21-3. I have to say Peyton Manning got the monkey off his back in dramatic fashion. He did a great job leading the Colts to a comeback victory. I say congratulations to Peyton, and I was quite happy to see the Patriots lose. They've won 3 of the last 5, they don't need any more. I am now rooting for the Colts to win it all. I really think they can take the Bears. Apparently they're 7-point favorites in the early lines. We'll have two weeks to listen to the hype.
Schadenfreude is a term meaning "pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune." It's that feeling you get when you see someone on a high moral horse get brough low, or that warm fuzzy feeling when you see a terribly rude driver miss their exit. It's that satisfaction you get with yourself when you see someone and think "wow, I'm pretty normal." It's also the feeling that drives the success of American Idol's initial episodes. Everyone loves the first episodes because there are so many people there who are completely awful singers or completely deluded. All sorts of people who are clueless in all sorts of ways - whether it's social skills or fashion sense we are brought face to face with a parade of people to laugh at.
Sometimes these people need to be set straight, and Simon is good at that. Some are unduly arrogant and really do need to be told they aren't good singers or performers. You don't do someone any favors if you keep giving them the false notion that they an have success when it comes to a singing career. Sometimes, however, the people are on there simply so we can marvel and laugh at how ugly/dumb/foolish/terrible/socially awkward they are. Last season was the first season I kept track of (since we got DVR) and so far there have been a couple episodes this season.
More than ever before I find myself feeling a little guilty for laughing or wanting to laugh at some of these people. And while I often appreciate the way Simon bluntly informs people they need to pursue other career paths, he often takes the opportunity to completely shame and insult people. And of course that's on the show not so we can hate Simon but rather so we can laugh. This last episode in Seattle had Simon telling one guy that he was "very odd looking" and that he looked "like one of those creatures from the jungle."
As someone who claims that every person is valuable and who wants to follow Christ's command to love others and accept those the rest of the world doesn't accept, I find myself a little conflicted when I watch the show. Some of the people are obviously going for a laugh, but others are just clueless about their situation. They are purposely let through the process to see Simon, Paula, and Randy so we can laugh at them. I'm not condemning the show or anything but I'm trying to remember these are actual, real people, not just characters. And if I make a habit of laughing at people who are different then it's not really going to help me as I go through life and encounter people like that. What do they need? Not to be laughed at but rather to be loved, accepted, encouraged, etc. So thank you American Idol for reminding me what a jerk I can be sometimes.
Finally as an aside...in a culture where "tolerance" and "acceptance" and "not judging" are considered the only truly right/moral things, I find it curious that the most popular episodes of the most popular show are the ones where we laugh at people for being different.
Chapter 1 of the book is called "God rid me of God." In this chapter, Rollins expounds a bit on his thoughts regarding orthodoxy (right belief) vs. orthopraxy (right practice), and spends a lot of time discussing his belief that current forms of theology are idolatrous. He talks about how we must move beyond "binary" thinking. We must not treat the Christian life as a journey or a destination. Rather, we must move beyond such words and consider the journey a type of destination. (p. 6) Rollins describes the emerging movement as "not then a revolution that seeks to change what we believe, but rather one that sets about transforming the entire manner in which we hold our beliefs." (p. 7) That sounds nice but upon further reading I'm not sure what he means by this.
Rollins moves on to discuss the Christian concept of "revelation." As it stands the Bible is generally looked at as something that reveals God to us. We currently believe that through the Bible we can learn things about God because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us in it. Rollins describes this as placing God and theology within the realm of reason, because it leads to the belief that "by employing pure reason (reason untouched by prejudice) one could decipher the singular meaning of what was being studied." (p. 8) He then goes on to describe the faults with this way of looking at things. Of course we all have our prejudices and our perspectives, which color the way we look at and interpret the world around us. He says that our understanding is always an interpretation of the information presented to us. This makes sense and any intellectually honest person has to admit they bring their own lens to any situation. Rollins refers to this as a "critique of ideology" because "it questions the extent to which any existing understanding of the world is really able to express anything objective about how the world really is." (p. 10)
It seems to me that Rollins buys into this perspective - that because we all have a perspective we cannot say anything about how the world really is. He doesn't take this to the extent of relativism (essentially the belief that there is no real meaning to be found), however, which he rightly rejects on page 11, declaring that it is "inherently self-contradictory and devours itself." Instead, Rollins says "we can still talk of a real world: it is just that we can never see it in an unadulterated manner because, as interpretive beings, we always filter the real world through our experiences, language, intelligence, culture, and so forth." (p. 11) I am on board with this statement. We must be constantly aware of our perspective and realize that our conclusions are colored by who we are. I cannot take the next step with Rollins, however.
Rollins declares the following:
[Idolatry] can be understood to refer to any attempt that would render the essence of God accessible, bringing God into either aesthetic visibility (in the form of a physical structure, such as a statue) or conceptual visibility (in the form of a concept, such as a theological system). (p.12)
So what Rollins appears to be saying is that any time we try to say something about God or what God is like, we are engaging in idolatry because we are trying to put God into a form we can understand. He uses the story of Aaron and the Golden Calf in Exodus to expound on his idea. I'm not sure I agree with Rollins' exegesis of the story - but I do agree that the Bible condemns even building idols of the real God, not just idols of false gods and worshipping them. From here Rollins makes a few more statements regarding the nature of revelation and what the Bible is useful for.
In noting various difficulties (none of which he details, but rather asserts) with the Biblical text, Rollins states:
"...the writers and editors of the text did not see any reason to try and iron out these inconsistencies - inconsistencies that make any systematic attempt to master the text both violent and irredeemably impossible...such fissures help to prevent us from forming an idolatrous image of God, ensuring that none of us can claim to legitimately understand God as God really is...the text bars any attempt at colonization by individuals or groups who claim to possess an insight into its true meaning...the result is not an account that is hopelessly ideological but rather a text that shows the extent to which no one ideology or group of ideologies can lay hold of the divine. The text is not only full of fractures, tensions and contradictions but informs us that fractures, tensions and contradictions are all we can hope for." (p. 13)
So what he's saying here is that because the Bible is so messed up, contradictory, and fractured (claims I do not grant but am willing to here for the sake of argument) God is telling us that we cannot really know who He is. We can't claim to know anything about God as He really is and if we do that we are engaging in idolatry. Now, I will readily admit there are difficulties in the Biblical text. In my previous post on inspiration and revelation I expressed some of my thoughts on the matter. Basically I don't understand why God would bother to "reveal" Himself if in the revealing He was simply letting us know that we could never actually know anything about Him. And if the above is true, how can Rollins claim to know that the text "God is love" actually means that "God is love?" Isn't that an idolatrous statement by his own definition? And if any attempt to understand the actual meaning of the text is "violent and irredeemably impossible" then what is the point of the text in the first place?
In addition, in order to make his point about idolatry Rollins uses the story of Aaron and the calf. But how can he use that story and claim to understand what it means? Isn't he bringing his own viewpoint into the mix and therefore doing violence to the text by imposing his meaning onto it? How can you make any conclusions regarding the meaning of a passage after saying the text is so hopelessly fractured we can't reach its meaning?
On pages 15-16 Rollinskeeps referring to the unknowability of God an uses Scripture to support it - how can he reject a claim to true understanding of the Bible but still make claims with it as a basis?
He says we put up conceptual walls of human abstraction to understand God but we really can't, and any attempt to do so is idolatrous. He says the warning against "hollow deception" in Colossians 2:8 is a warning against putting words to who God is. It seems to me Rollins is himself using a complex frame of philosophy to reach his view that "theology" as it is traditionally defined is idolatrous. It is quite possible to believe I have an understanding about God that corresponds to reality but is not idolatrous. I can acknowledge my limitations and God's infinity without declaring it impossible to reach a pretty solid understanding of a text of a view of God derived from Scripture that has some degree of accuracy. To claim a complete and total understanding of who God is in His essence is arrogant and impossible - but to claim we can therefore make no statement about God without being idolatrous is going way too far.
Does he really believe that the people who wrote the Bible thought that we couldn't understand anything about God? Did they really put all that stuff in there about God specifically so they would contradict one another, specifically so we would understand that we can't understand God? Why then wouldn't they just go out and say God is beyond our ability to understand and leave it at that? Why would they bother to say anything at all about God? Doesn't it make more sense that we live and work with the tension of a God that is loving and just, holy and merciful? The key to that tension is not throwing out the idea that we can know anything about God.
Later Rollins compares the Bible to art (p. 16-17), which has no real meaning - the meaning and value is found in what it does to/for/with the observer. Like Rollins I think we must understand the limits of our conceptions of God but in so doing we cannot make any conception of God or what the Biblical text says viable. Isn't it possible to have some understanding informed by the text while acknowledging we are limited? Why do we have to go so far?
I am sympathetic to Rollins' distaste with the arrogance displayed by many Christians who claim to completely encompass God in their systematic theologies. And while Rollins claims to reject relativism his statements about God and idolatry and the Bible seem to effectively fall there. He does say there is a real world and a real God and real meaning, but we cannot apprehend it. Perhaps later in the book Rollins will further nuance his view, but as I currently understand him, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Rollins contradicts himself by using Scripture to prove his view and "properly" expounding it to all of us "binary" thinkers who haven't yet journeyed to the point he has. While I don't believe Rollins is personally arrogant and I have no doubt of his desire to follow Christ and love God, I think his ideas here are harmful at worst, pointless at best.
He ends his chapter with a sentiment I can totally agree with. He says:
If we fail to recognize that the term 'God' always falls short of that towards which the word is supposed to point, we will end up bowing down before our own conceptual creations forged from the raw materials of our self-image, rather than bowing before the one that stands over and above that creation. (p. 19)
Amen, Mr. Rollins. But with what you're saying I'm not sure how you can say anything at all about God. What right do Christians have to claim Jesus Christ came to die for the sins of humanity? How can we say that God is love, or God loves you? How can we say anything meaningful and claim it corresponds to how God actually is? I'm all for humility with respect to our own ideas and conclusions, but this is beyond humility. It would seem with your system, all we have is a God of our own creation since we cannot see or understand anything about the real God.
24 has returned with tonight being the second of a "two night premiere EVENT!" If you haven't yet watched the episode(s), read further at your own risk. Jack's inaugural kill for the season was a memorable one, hearkening back to his early days as an actor. I'm also enjoying the fact that he's running around with Alexander Siddig, who played Dr. Bashir on DS9. Siddig looks tougher than usual, what with the scruffy salt-and-pepper beard, the the penchant for jabbing knives into the kneecaps of traitorous henchmen.
Last season was criticized by some for having too many Iraq parallels in the storyline. 24 deals with terrorism and all that, the kind of thing that plays a center stage in the world and political events these days. I appreciate the way the show seems to avoid oversimplifying the issue...of course it's easy to avoid oversimplifying when you have Jack Bauer to save the world. So we can't take 24's "political discourse" too seriously. It would be nice if watching shows like this increased the public discourse on the events it portrays. For example, if people got educated on international terrorism and global politics because of 24 that would be great and we could pretend it was making our society better. Of course what we're all really looking for is for Jack Bauer to crack a few skulls while occasionally looking tortured and conflicted.
Of course there are still things we can take from the show, and when something is this popular in culture it is communicating something that people are hearing. So as with anything I think it's important to think a little bit about the implications of the things that happen.
The NFL Playoffs are in full swing, with the divisional round having just concluded with two great games today. I didn't watch the Seattle-Chicago game but I kept track of it via radio and periodic TV viewing. Partway through the game I decided I wanted Seattle to win so was disappointed when Chicago pulled it out (though I am happy for Nate, whose Chiefs got punked last week).
Yesterday I was partially rooting for Philadelphia because I've been a Garcia fan since he was a 49er. I was happy to see New Orleans win, considering they are perennial losers. No matter what NFC team heads to the Super Bowl I'll be happy - if the Bears, for Nate, and if the Saints, for the Saints. AFC-wise I actually want to see Peyton Manning win a Superbowl. I'd feel pretty sorry for him if New England marches into Indy next week and beats him again. As overexposed as Manning is, he is disliked by many just because he is Peyton Manning. I'm ready to see Tom Brady lose.
Next year will be great, with Alex Smith assuming his rightful place atop the NFL world. He, Frank Gore, and Vernon Davis will lead the 49ers to glory once more. At least I hope...the problem is next season will be full of pressure.
I'm a sucker for new programs even if they aren't particularly useful. Windows Live Writer seems nifty. It's a program you put on your desktop that you can use to write blog posts and upload them without having to connect to a particular website, etc. It's WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get" for you non-nerdy) and makes it pretty easy to edit and publish posts from what I can tell. Blogger has its own fairly useful post-writing tool but I guess this is cool too. I'm sure there are all sorts of features I know nothing about. My biggest problem with this program is that it's a bit harder to do the picture thing than with Blogger, and the difficult of entering tags/labels for the posts. This post is sort of a dry run.
Anyway, we'll see if this is actually useful or something I stick with. But for now it's fun enough to keep my attention.
At long last I'm actually posting on the content of the book. Things have a tendency of getting out of control, especially around Christmas/New Years and with a baby and an ill wife. So anyway, on to discussing some of the content of this book, How (Not) to Speak of God.
The first half of the book is entitled "Heretical Orthodoxy: From Right Belief to Believing in the Right Way." In his introduction of this part of the book Rollins lays out what he will further develop in the ensuing chapters. He offers a definition of theology and says that "theology, in its modern form, has been concerned with upholding and defending the notion of orthodoxy as that which articulates a correct understanding of God." (p. 2) Rollins then states his belief that this is an inadequate way to "do" theology, since:
"Naming God is never really naming God but only naming our understanding of God. To take our ideas of the divine and hold them as if they correspond to the reality of God is thus to construct a conceptual idol built from the materials of our mind." (p.2)I am with him up to a point here. Surely God, being infinite, is greater than the ability of finite humans to completely grasp. We can't know all there is to know about God and we might even say that our understanding of God cannot fully do Him justice. For example, I might say "God is holy" and I might describe what I mean by that. But am I fully capturing what it means for God to be holy? I doubt it. But am I to be considered an idolater because I am trying to describe God and saying that my description of Him in some way "corresponds to the reality of God?" It seems to me that Rollins believes we cannot meaningfully speak of God's attributes here. He's saying when we try to describe God and say our description corresponds to reality then we are creating idols instead of actually describing God.
I am puzzled by this because he later says "To love is to know God precisely because God is love." (p. 3) How can he say we cannot make statements that correspond to the reality of God and then say God is love and we can precisely konw God when we love? Rollins goes on to say "the emerging community, at its best, can teach us again that love must be the first word on our lips and the last, and that we must seek to incarnate that sacred word in the world." (p. 3) I am on board with this to an extent. Love is key and it has been lost. But if you're trying to outline a system of belief here, how can you at one time claim we can't make any statements that correspond to reality with regard to God and then claim "God is love?"
Rollins says he is not embracing relativism. He believes there are true things about God and the world. He seeks to redefine orthodoxy as "a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world." (p. 3) That's fine as far as it goes, but why must it be either/or? Rollins previously said he is not reducing Christianity to an ethical system and then he says what's important is that you believe "in the right way," which he appears to go on to elaborate as loving in a Christlike manner. Now, I doubt Rollins would say I could believe God was a three-headed dragon of fury and still be orthodox as long as I was loving...but the ideas he's putting forth here seem to indicate that.
The priority of love is emphasized in Rollins' introduction to this first part of the book, and I think that is great. I also think it's important for us to realize that we cannot fully understand God. But I see two problems in this short introduction. First, Rollins claims any statement we make about God that we claim corresponds to reality is idolatrous. He then claims "God is love" and that we can "know God precisely" if we love. Second, Rollins wants to redefine orthodoxy as "believing in the right way" rather than "believing in the right things." I think it's important for orthodoxy to encompass both. I don't want to simply make an assertion though - Rollins goes into more detail as to why he believes these things as the book progresses (at least as far as I can tell) so I will deal with his "case" as we go. His introduction ends with this quote:
Orthodoxy as right belief will cost us little; indeed it will allow us to sit back with our Pharasaic doctrines, guarding the 'truth' with the purity of our interpretations. But orthodoxy, as believing in the right way, as bringing love to the world around us and within us...that will cost us everything. For to live by that sword, as we all know, is to die by it."(p. 3)I think those are beautiful words and I resonate with them to an extent. I'm just not sure how Rollins can arrive at them based on his claim about doctrine being idolatry. Too often Christians become enraptured with their doctrines and beliefs and philosophies, constructing elaborate theologies that go way beyond what Scripture says or maybe even what is useful. But I don't think you can go all the way on the other end and claim any sort of doctrine about God is idolatry. In fact it would seem Rollins himself doesn't believe this because He makes a claim about God - that God is love. I can see what Rollins is reacting against but I'm not sure his reaction is the right one so far.