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Idolatry of GodWhew! I am relieved that my journey with Idolatry of God is finally over! Though of course, in many respects, it’s just beginning: the hard work of further reflecting on, critiquing, questioning, adapting and applying the ideas will be a daunting and difficult undertaking.

The reason I enjoy Peter’s books and talks is because they provoke me, frustrate me and resonate with me. As someone who enjoys reading the same philosophers as Rollins, I appreciate that he (as one who has formally studied philosophy) can creatively engage with their ideas in the service of critiquing the Church. Of course, at the same time, he irritates me because he is not always astute (in my humble opinion) when it comes to biblical or theological nuances.

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Idolatry of God 9

We come now to the end of our reflections on the book, The Idolatry of God, by Peter Rollins, with the final chapter, “Want to Lose Belief? Join the Church”.

It would be easy to dismiss Rollins as some young hipster dude who spends far too much time with Žižek and Lacan than with Jesus and Paul. However, though he may come across as pretentious and even heretical to some, I believe he has something valuable for us to hear. At the very least, if he provokes us to rethink our assumptions, prejudices and traditions, then that is not a bad thing.

The demand upon our lives is the demand that we should pursue our happiness and fulfillment at all costs. It is then as important as ever that we create clearings where we are invited to give up this vision, spaces where we the deception of this demand is exposed and where we can simply learn to be. Where instead of certainty and satisfaction, we can embrace unknowing and celebrate life without the felt need to be complete.

Given that most churches are not comfortable with questions, doubts and challenges to the status quo, Peter argues that it will require “the formation of collectives that invite us to leave our cultural, political, and religious views at the door.” He goes on to present three case studies, attempts to “embody these ideas in liturgical form” at ikon, a collective he helped form in Belfast.

Case Study 1: Fundamentalism

While attendees were waiting for the venue’s doors to open, there was a group (planted unknownst to the participants) of protestors who denounced ikon as heretical with their chants and tracts they passed out. As tensions began to mount, the doors finally opened and the attendees gladly made their way inside.

They are confronted by a “large, stark stage” with five motionless people and a large wooden soapbox. Around the room are hundreds of pages from the Bible, crumpled up “like rocks ready to be thrown”. Seats are arranged to face the stage “to resemble a traditional church environment”.  One of the five people step up onto the soapbox and reads John 14:6; after he steps back to place, another man comes to the stage and begins playing a “contemporary worship song connected loosely with the Bible verse” just read. But as they reach the second verse, various phrases begin to overlay themselves over the lyrics:

I am the truth
Follow me
Be my friend
I shall crush my enemies beneath my feet
I am the way
It is my way or no way
I am the truth
There is no truth for those who would reject me
I am life
There is only death for those who displease me
Love me
Or I will hate you
I am the truth
Follow me
Be my friend
Or I will destroy you

The musician then gave his testimony of how he lost his Christian faith. As he left the stage,

a young woman who had been standing silently in the background stepped forward and stood on the soapbox. She paused for a moment and looked out into the crowd. Then she opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She stammered for a moment, paused, then cleared her throat. But again no sound  came from her lips. After a minute or so of this hesitation and silence, she simply hung her head in shame adn returned to her spot on the stage.

Then a passage from 1 Corinthians 14 is projected on the wall behind her: “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (vs. 34; ESV). Next, another woman steps onto the soapbox and eloquently preaches a deeply moving sermon entitled “The Singing Ministry of Christ”, a “grace-filled reflection that overflowed with the themes of forgiveness and love.” Immediately after she concluded the sermon, the speakers crackled loudly through the speakers and a voice of an “infamous fundamentalist preacher … boomed loudly around the room”, preaching the same beautiful sermon, which he composed.

After this, another musician took to the stage and “sang a hymn full of brokenness and humility”. Meanwhile, ushers gave each person a piece of rice paper with a doctrine written in food coloring. After the song, another man on the stage took to the soapbox and spoke of how our beliefs serve as barriers to genuinely encountering others whom we disagree with. Finally, a young woman asked everyone to reflect on their beliefs and then turn to the person beside them and say, “These are my beliefs, broken for you”, followed by everyone consuming the rice paper.

The gathering closed with everyone encouraged to take home one of the crumpled Bible pages home as aid to further contemplation.

Case Study 2: The God Delusion

Attendees are confronted with three different doors to enter in through, each labeled with a large banner: “believer”, “unbeliever” and “doubter”.

bud

Actually, all doors led to the “lobby where some stalls had been set up that offered various exotic-looking pills and potions.” People at the booths were pitching free samples, claiming they would help fill the void in our lives and heal our hearts. Other people were mingling with the crowd offering bandages with words like “Faith” ,”Wealth”, “Health”, “God”, etc. or passing out small vials labeled “the solution”.

The door at the other end of the lobby led into the main room where attendees were confronted by an 18 feet tall woman in a multi-coloured dress, with pieces of yarn from her dress stretched in all directions, leading to various people’s knitting needles.

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-1-32-42-pm

The small stage was empty save for a tiny marionette against a dark curtain. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling over the stage. Off to one side of the stage, a woman sat unfolding origami cranes. The Nicene Creed is projected onto the walls and people are invited to use the computer on the desk to add or take away words from the Creed.

A young man gets on the stage and pulls the string to turn on the light bulb, and addressed the audience, saying he heard the voice of God — at this point the giant woman said, “I do not exist”. The young man continued, “It seemed as if I was being confronted with the loss of God instigated by none other than God …”

marionette

He switched off the light and a spotlight fell on the marionette, which began to move and began to tell a story about a caretaker, a priest and a refugee.

Next, a young man turns on the light bulb and began to ask, Where does your faith lie?

When he finished speaking, the young woman off to the side of the stage who was unfolding the cranes, “stopped what she was doing and addressed the crowd”:

I am trying to learn origami by going backwards. I have stolen a paper crane from the shoebox of junk in the corner and am unfolding it slowly, stopping with each reversing stage to commit the shape and passing landmarks to memory. I quickly discover that it doesn’t work. When I reach the beginning of all this unravelling I am forced to accept that, despite its map of lines and creases, what lies before me on the table is just a piece of paper and I am powerless to turn it back into a bird.

Another person went over and joined her, taking a crane and pulling it apart and began to speak:

Here I am unravelling!

It  began with a doubt. A tickling thread, an element itching. Not much, but at the time I wanted it gone; I prayed for it to disappear.

Unravelling. Some early questions coming out of the fray: How can I claim to know God? How can I comfortably address Infinite-God in prayer? What is my faith made of?

Ravelling. Disentangling, not collapsing. My faith didn’t unravel, it ravelled. They mean the same thing. I learned to revel in ravelling. The questions proclaim more than the answers. The searching confirms that there has been revelation. The hunt for an unattainable treasure confirms that we have found it. Tearing apart what I love is evidence that I love it.

Forever doubting! Forever failing! Forever uncertain!

I am ravelling.

Then a woman who had been busy knitting stood up and spoke:

Things come apart. The centre cannot hold.

As soon as I was knit together in my mother’s womb I began to unravel.

Suddenly realised that I did not know God. And as I thought that most terrifying of thoughts, he left me. …

God left me.

Things come apart.

The god with the answers was gone. The god with my security was gone. The god with my future, secretly stored until the appointed time of its revelation, was gone. …

I remember the exact moment of my undoing. The moment where I realised that all my answers had to change because I had changed. …

And it is now my observation that my god is in the business of unravelling. God is not keeping me all together, wrapped up in swaddling clothes to keep me safe, or bandages to hold me in, or a shroud to mask my death. Because the only real safety is in death. And I was born to unravel myself down the path of life towards life.

People were then invited to share their edits of the Nicene Creed. “Threads that had been cut from the dress of the giant woman were distributed by the ushers who said, ‘Pull yourself apart,’ while tying them around people’s wrists.” Finally, the marionette told one final story about two rabbis arguing over a passage. At the conclusion of the parable, God offers to tell the rabbis what it means, but before He can, both rabbis look up and say to God, “Who are you to tell us what the verse means? You have given us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with it.”

The gathering closes with a benediction entitled “Go in Pieces” by Pádraig Ó Tuama.

Case Study 3: Pyro-theology

Rollins describes this liturgical experience thus:

Once through the doors everyone had to walk along a short blacked-out corridor with a fire alarm sounding and a woman’s voice, repeating, “There is a fire inside the building, please remain calm and step inside.” On the other side, people were given a page from a religious text that was being ripped out of a book at random.

Small unlit bonfires lay dotted around the room, while a large funeral pyre stood at the front with five people on top of it, blindfolded and wearing burnt clothing.

A version of the song “This Little Light of Mine” played as people found a place to sit.

A huge image of a burning church filled the wall behind the funeral pyre, while a man positioned on a smaller stage was quietly attempting to set alight a large Bible with flint and some kindling.

Then one of the people on the funeral pyre began to read from a large old book with his blindfold still on (see Peter Rollins, Insurrection, 2011; p. 137,138). Basically the story is about God separating the sheep from the goat, the wheat from the chaff. The earth was overflowing with suffering and pain, and a heartbroken God invites those who wish to escape the horrors of the world and in “an instant, millions were caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm, leaving the suffering world behind them.” The twist in the ending is that God and the angels leave Heaven to take up residence in the earth with those “who would forsake heaven to embrace the earth” with all its suffering and pain.

After this, a well-dressed man gets on stage and shares some words from St. Cosmas of Aetolia, interspersed with songs about fire, child abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland, poetry and personal reflectiions. Each time he came back to the stage to quote more from St. Cosmas, his clothes were more and more burnt.

If you want to find perfect love, go sell all your belongings, give them to the poor, go where you find a master and become a slave. Can you do this and be perfect?

You say this is too heavy? Then do something else. Don’t sell yourself as a slave. Just sell your belongings and give them all to the poor. Can you do it? Or do you find this too heavy a task?

All right, you cannot give away all your belongings. Then give half, or a third, or a fifth. Is even this too heavy? Then give one tenth. Can you do that? Is it still too heavy?

How about this. Don’t sell yourself as slave. Don’t give a penny to the poor. Only do this. Don’t take your poor brother’s coat, don’t take his bread, don’t persecute him, don’t eat him alive. If you don’t want to do him any good, at least do him no harm. Just leave him alone. Is this also too heavy?

You say you want to be saved. But how? How can we be saved if everything we are called to do is too heavy? We descend and descend until there is no place further down. God is merciful, yes, but he also has an iron rod.

Rollins’ describes what happens next: “After some silence one of the people on the funeral pyre removed her blindfold and led everyone in a call and response liturgy on the theme of burning away the old to make room for the new.”

The response consisted of crinkling the paper they were given at the beginning, “creating a wave of rustling that moved across the room that sounded like fire.” Then everyone was encouraged to burn the paper in one of the bonfires, thus symbolizing that our “religious narratives are but ash before the all-consuming fire of divine mystery.”

A fire alarm sounded to end the meeting and as they left, people were given some matches and exhorted to “go start a fire.”

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Idolatry of God 8

In chapter 8, “Destroying Christianity and Other Christian Acts”, Peter shares two more practices, or Dis-Courses, to “draw out how the critique of Christianity as a system and the experience of divine absence are inherent parts of Christianity.”

During my “decade of disbelief”, I learned to live with God’s absence and I got very comfortable with the likes of Christopher Hitchens. But throughout this time, I still could sense “traces of the transcendent” in my life; indeed, it was the absence of God and the critique of Christianity that led me back home.

Rollins introduces “Atheism for Lent … inspired by the book Suspicion and Faith by the philosopher Merold Westphal, a text designed to introduce readers to some of the greatest critiques of Christianity.”

Just as Christ experienced the loss of God as object on the Cross, so the Atheism for Lent course invite participants into that desert space traditionally called the dark night of the soul.

The aim and hope of undertaking this journey through doubt and denial, criticism and challenge, is to emerge at the end purified of our Idolatry of God, i.e., false ways of conceiving our faith. The format is simple: for each day of Lent, one reads, watches or listens to a critique (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Hitchens, Hawkins, etc.). Once a week, participants gather together to share their reactions over a meal.

As a variation of this, the next practice that Rollins introduces us to is The Omega Course, which explores the same themes and in a similar format to the popular Alpha course. The difference is that participants are exposed to different perspectives within the Christian tradition, “perspective that often stand in sharp contradiction to one another.” The point is not to argue for the “right” answer, but “the conversation is what is deemed important. Disagreements are encouraged and the passionate exchange of ideas is affirmed.”

If some are wondering whether Rollins is encouraging a relativistic space where there is no Truth, he assures us that is not the case. Rather, this practice “draws out the possibility that the truth is not what lies on one side of the debate or the other, but is hinted at in the ongoing debate itself.” This practice creates a safe space for honest sharing of questions, doubts and beliefs. In my experience, churches are seldom safe places for one to question and disagree.

Through the four practices that Rollins has discussed, we are

confronted with a more disconcerting type of mystery. Not a mystery that lies beyond the world we understand but a mystery that lies within it. …

The point is not that the mystery of God is dissipated in the Incarnation, but that this mystery is brought into the heart of the world. The mystery is now in our midst.

The key thing to remember is that we must experience this ourselves by taking “this journey into unknowing and immanent mystery rather than just intellectually affirm it.” Again, I was fortunate to have taken this journey (though rebelliously) for almost 10 years. It is not for the faint of heart: it is discomforting and disorienting; it runs the risk of despair and outright denial. Pete reminds us that this “dark night of the soul is not something we discuss and dissect but instead is a reality we are invited to enter into.”

Most importantly, and what I did not have, was the support of companions as I wandered through the valley; it was a lonely and depressing trek, which is why Rollins says “we must go through this traumatic, liberating event in community.” In my life, I have known and heard of many in church leadership whose journeys ended in denial and departure. I often wonder if things might have been different if they chose to humble themselves and honestly admitted their doubts and weaknesses. But the problem is our idolatrous ways of thinking about church and church leadership; not only is the clerical system a departure from the NT model, Christians encourage and enable it with their neediness and wrong expectations. This has been my heart’s burden for a long time: to free people to serve in a more honest and biblical manner.

What idolatrous beliefs do you and your church have? Are you prepared to confront them and change?

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Idolatry of God 7

“I Need Your Eyes in Order to See Myself” is the title of chapter 7 of Rollins’ book that we have been reflecting on. It is the opening chapter of the book’s final section, titled “The New Collective”.

One again, Peter reiterates that the “church in its present form seems caught up in the very prison of seeking certainty and satisfaction that the Christ event abolishes.” Though I don’t agree with everything he’s written thus far, and even where I agree with him, I may have wished he was at times more nuanced. Nevertheless, the general thrust of his argument rings true and I can relate to it as I contemplate my own journey.

So often we avoid confronting our own prejudices by covering them over and avoiding anyone who might expose them. But it is the other who so often holds the key to our development. Not by presenting us with something we do not know, but by presenting us with something we do know (insomuch as we live it out) but refuse to acknowledge. (emphasis mine)

It is not hard to experience this in church life. I remember as a new believer how the church I was attending seemed to be fragmented into several homogeneous cliques. By forming tribes around shared “values” (vices ?), one is sheltered from those whose views and values might disturb one’s prejudices and pursuits that are antithetical to the gospel.

Rollins notes that it is “easy to see how we seek to protect ourselves from a genuine encounter with others” and that even if we claim to listen to others, we still subtly insulate ourselves from others and their views. Christians are guilty of this in their encounters with non-believers and with each other.

Even when Christians try to come across as humble and open, they find a way to “maintain their tribal identity while experiencing a domesticated sense of openness to the other.” How do we know we are guilty of this? Well, we can ask ourselves these questions: Are we only reading books or listening to programs that “confirm our already held positions”?  How much time do we spend with people who are different from us? Do we seriously engage with other views that differ from ours?

How do we create the space where we are truly able to rupture the defense mechanisms that are designed to protect us from an encounter with the other so that we can glimpse the poverty of the narratives we construct, important though they are? In short, how can we begin to fracture the fortresses of certitude that we have built?

Rollins argues that embracing uncertainty and accepting our finitude is what faith entails: “When we accept our unknowing and brokenness , we are not weakening our faith, we are boldly expressing it.” How then can churches become places where we can not only discuss these issues, but also experience them, an environment where we can “invite people into this revelatory rupture”?

In response to this, he outlines two contemplative practices “designed to rupture the power of our mythological narratives so that we are better able to glimpse the truth they obscure.”  In the first practice, The Last Supper, the aim “is simply to provide a space for participants to meet and interact with someone whose political, religious, and/or social views” is different from ours. The format is simple: a group of about twelve people share a meal together, during which a guest gives a talk. This is followed by a time of Q&A and discussion. As Peter explains it, “The idea of the Last Supper as a contemplative practice is to walk people into an experience of learned ignorance.”

The second and more challenging practice that Rollins introduces is the Evangelism Project, which “involves bringing people to different religious, political, and cultural communities, not to evangelize them, but to be evangelized.” The first visit is to just observe the community and their activities, the second visit is to learn about the community’s beliefs and practices through conversation and the last visit involves asking how they (i.e. the Christians) look to the community. “The aim of the practice is to provide those attending with a way of encountering the alien beliefs and practices of others in order to discern the alien nature of their own beliefs and practices.” That is, we can discover

… a gap that exists within ourselves. For when we genuinely look at how the other sees us, we are confronted with a distance that exists between the image we have of ourselves and the reality of our actions.

He cautions that both practices need to be committed to and carried out over a prolonged period of time in order to have any significant impact and lasting effects.

Wonder how many of my fellow Christians I could interest in trying this out with me?

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Idolatry of God 6

Peter Rollins begins chapter 6 as follows:

It is not enough for us to merely identify how the event of Christ offers freedom from our zombie-like attachment to Idolatry and from the addiction to certainty that prevent us from embracing the mystery of existence and complexity of life.

… the only way out is through a change at the very core of being, something that the apostle Paul called becoming a new creation … that offers us freedom from the obsessive drive for that which we (falsely) believe will make us complete and from the mythologies that give us a (false) sense of mastery.

He says that when we first believe the Gospel, we understand Jesus as “the answer” through whom we can “grasp certainty and satisfaction”; in essence we hold Christ as the “ultimate Idol”. It is only in the Crucifixion that “signals the loss of the Idol”. He asserts that to “make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God. It is to proclaim an Idol, masked as God.”

To go through the event of Crucifixion does not then mean that we are unified with that which will make our lives complete, nor that we are given some secret knowledge that will abolish our ignorance, but that we can live without being complete and can celebrate mystery instead of being afraid of it.

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The Idolatry of God 5

Peter Rollins opens Chapter 5 thus:

In addition to expressing a form of life that can break us free from the desire to find wholeness and satisfaction, the other freedom that the Crucifixion testifies to is liberation from that second, but deeply intertwined, oppressive system: Unbelief.

He reminds us that “crucifixion was the most potent sign of someone being rejected by the cultural, political, and religious systems of the day … Those who were crucified were treated as complete outsiders. … it was a sign that the one being killed stood outside of the divinely given order.” For Rollins, this signifies the absolute exclusion of the crucified from “all systems of meaning”. I know what Rollins is saying, but I think he’s overstating his case here.

Nevertheless, based on this perspective, he argues that the apostle Paul “invited everyone into a community in which everyone exists beyond or outside the operative power of any given identity, including a Christian one.” Indeed, many people proudly identify as Catholic, Baptist, etc., or as “Christian”. But the gospel transcends identities and also transforms relationships between identities (Gal. 3:28), and all that matters now is that “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and that life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20; LEB)

Rollins explains this by way of what he calls the “Pauline Separation”: as a result of the Gospel, we who are now part of the New Creation, “have more in common with people from different social, religious, and biological positions than with people within their own community” (i.e., Jew or Gentile, Democratic or Republican, male or female, slave or free).  “This new cut divides those who are willing to hold lightly to their identity  from those who wish to retain it at all costs.”

This “cut” is also what Jesus said he would do in Matthew 10:34-39: “how the sword of Christ … cuts into the very heart of all tribal allegiances, bringing unity to what was previously divided while dividing what had once been unified. … For Paul it is this very loss of identity that identifies us with Christ”. In his book, A Fellowship of Differents, Scot McKnight writes: “The earliest Christian churches were made of folks from all over the social map, but they formed a fellowship of ‘different tastes,’ a mixed salad of the best kind.”

This all sounds good enough, but in practice, my experience in church is that others still view me first and foremost by ethnicity. Also, many Christians’ identity is shaped by their cultural, professional and political identity rather than their identity as a child of God, in Christ.

Rollins concludes the chapter with this thought:

Paul provocatively described Christians as the trash of the world (1 Corinthians 4:13). In other words, like rubbish, that which dwells outside, that which does not have a place within the walls. Christians were thus understood to be the excremental remainder that existed outside the social body, outside the various concrete identities of the day. They were that which did have a place inside the body.

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Idolatry of God 4

“One of the defining aspects of being human is an obsessive drive for the Idol, a drive that is part of our humanity and yet undermines it. … It is the reality of this drive that helps us understand the genesis of zombie mythology, for zombies express this pure drive completely divorced from any social constraints or self-interested pursuit of pleasure.”

Idolatry of God“The freedom to pursue our highest ambitions is often not experienced as a freedom from an oppressive system but is itself felt to be oppressive.”

“Political freedom often leads to a society with greater material wealth and better opportunities … But there is another, more radical form of freedom hinted at in the Gospels — not the freedom to pursue what we believe will satisfy us, but the freedom from the pursuit of what we believe will satisfy us.”

“Truly embracing the fragility and tensions of life, supremely difficult as this is, brings with it the possibility of true joy.”

Rollins then finally gets to the heart of his thesis about what he calls the “Good News of Christianity: You can’t be fulfilled; you can’t be made whole; you can’t find satisfaction. … The Good News is not simply a confrontation with the reality that total fulfillment and certainty are not possible, but rather is found in the joyful embrace of this insight. An embrace that robs the reality of it oppressive sting.”

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