How (Not) to Speak of God - Pt. 3

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.


62173979 said...
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Anonymous said...

Mikey G says... I haven't read this book but I am familiar with the concepts, questions and problems.
Some problems arise when we try to analyze different paradigms. Newtons's physics were not an improvement of Aristotlean physics; they replaced them. The two are independent methods used to solve similar problems but they do not speak the same language. You could not use Aristoltlean physics to prove the superiority of Newtonian physics.
Some of the difficulty in understanding this book is probably because it is trying to use "traditional" theology to explain some other paradigm of religion. Thus your questions about using Bible stories to show you shouldn't use Bible stories.