How (Not) to Speak of God - Pt. 4

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.


Anonymous said...


i'm enjoying reading your thoughts. the one thing that seems to really be getting you, is the idea that we can't say anything definitive about God. what I got from peter rollins is the idea that we should never hold our ideas about God above God. that each conclusion we come to, must be balanced by the idea that it is an incomplete one. the idea of having some sort of disbelief in the midst of our belief. that's what i read. keep up the good thoughts.


Jackson said...

Thanks for the input Trevor. I'm with you on what you're saying and I do think it's really important to understand our ideas about God do in fact fall short of the "Real Thing." It just seems to me that in reacting against the unjustified certitude and dogmatism of certain Christians Rollins is going a little further than he probably should. Thanks again for commenting and reading, I know the posts are long, and as I said in this latest post I want input/feedback/other peoples' thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Mikey G says... It is a frightening thing to be in the hand of the Living God.

Anonymous said...

I've written a little bit about this book, although certainly not as extensive as you are doing. One aspect of thought as you might have noticed, is that Rollins dabbles in 'paradox.' There is a fresh quality to this, as Christinas tend to be more comfortable with certitude than paradox.

I do think Rollins can be a bit radical in some of his ideas, and might be too philosophically 'heavy' to ground a theology for the Emerging community, but I could be wrong.

Nevertheless, when I finished reading the book, I found MYSELF in a state of 'paradox.' In that -- although I didn't agree with a lot of it, I thoroughly enjoyed it, in fact, I loved it.