How (Not) To Speak of God - Pt. 2

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mikey G says... I can answer to support Rollins's positions with quotes like Matthew 16:6 "Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." and Luke 8:18 "Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him."
But even this is the "wrong way" of thinking (if I understand correctly) even if it were saying the right thing.