Peter Rollins Insurrection - an early review, part 2

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In part one of my review of Peter Rollins' new book Insurrection - To Believe is Human, to Doubt Divine, I focused on his theology of the cross. In this second part I would like to address his understanding of a relationship with God.

Rollins writes that "there are people who claim God is at work in the world and we can have a deep relationship with Him here and now." As many of you are aware, I am one of those people. I think that developing a living relationship with God is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Rollins, in contrast, sees it as a "world-renouncing approach to faith" because he associates it with an "addiction" to exceptional emotional experiences (in a worship service for example) which he sees as devaluing the rest of life: "[L]ife as a whole is negated, and we are left unable to fully embrace and enjoy it."

Now, I agree that charismatic worship services do have a tendency to promote this kind of hyped-up emotional experience, and as a result can lead to disillusionment and disappointment. This however reflects a broken understanding of what healthy relationships are about. Relationships are not just about good times -- all candle light dinners and feelings of bliss. Relationships are about sharing all of your life with someone -- getting to know them and letting that rub off on who you are. We hang out with Jesus, and in so doing, we become like Jesus.

This is a broken world we live in, and because of that, as Paul says, we see God "through a glass darkly." We see God in glimpses. It's true that we can over-emphasize those times of epiphany in the same way that our culture over-emphasizes romance, but that does not mean that we need to see these times as a rejection of life. Why can't they instead fill our ordinary lives with meaning and value? Maybe these times are intended to change how we see everything else, so that, as Rollins writes "the world is transfigured and rendered wonderful."

That's the way it should be, but Rollins is right to say that our "triumphalist music, confident prayers, and sermons of certainty don't necessarily reflect the beliefs of the people offering them or receiving them." The problem is not, as Rollins notes, that there is a lack of ministers who experience doubt, but that the predominant church culture does not allow them to. They are only allowed to admit struggles if they are safely in the past. That's the narrative we want to hear: I used to have a problem, but then I met Jesus and it all went away.

Wouldn't it be good for our faith if we could be real about it together? Is a Christian leader really someone who never has any struggles, or is it instead someone who can model how to deal with those real struggles of life with honesty and grace? What if worship leaders were allowed to sing songs about real struggles and doubts? Wouldn't that reflect the way we really experience our faith and our lives?

An amazing example of that is Kevin Prosch who was the personal worship leader for John Wimber. Kevin's songs have a gut wrenching honesty. Take for example these lyrics from his song Please:
I know that sometimes you win
But most of the time I get this feeling that I'm losing
And the cruel, cruel lessons of loneliness... I believe this must be my portion in life
If there really is a hereafter and after all

Maybe a moment of grace could bring the gates of heaven near
I wish someone could tell me, have I wept these tears in vain?
But even then... there's this loneliness

This loneliness
Wow. Can we please sing that in church next Sunday?

I'm totally with Rollins in wanting us to be able to be real in church, and have that honesty and depth reflected in our liturgy and sermons. But he does not stop there. Rollins does not think we can love God directly at all, because he ultimately does not believe God exists. He argues that we should "no longer approach God as an object we love. Indeed, the idea of loving God directly becomes problematic. Instead we learn that God is present in the very act of love itself." In other words, he does not believe that God is a someone who can speak to us, love us, and be known by us. Rather, God is "love" and so "belief in God" for him simply means being a loving person.

He writes that "Love does not seek out our hymns of praise and prayers of adoration. Love does not want our sacrifices or seek our time. For love always points toward the other." While I deeply disagree with this on so many levels, at the same time I have to say that if that meant that he never sang another worship song again, and never prayed again, but only focused on caring for the least and showing grace to others, I really can't imagine that Jesus would be mad at Pete for that. Because in doing that, he really is loving God.

But does that mean that we all need to stop praying? Does it mean that we need to tell Kevin Prosch to strop singing his beautiful heart-wrenching love songs to God? I hope not, because that would mean stifling the honest expression of his heart. Mine too.

I'm sympathetic to Pete when he writes that "there are numerous people who affirm the view that God can be encountered here and now, yet who experience nothing." I don't want him to fake it. I understand if he feels that he is "not getting God and feeling empty, constantly chasing God and never finding rest." I've felt that way at times too. But I have also experienced the undeniable reality of God's love in my life. I know first hand that God is real and can be known.

Let me underline here that I am not just talking about having some emotional religious experience. That alone is not a relationship. I'm talking about learning to listen to God, letting God speak into my life, changing and molding me into the image of Christ. I don't think we should lose that, and in fact, I think we need a lot more of that. I want us to be real, but that includes honestly crying out to God, both in expressing our need and doubt, and also our thankfulness and love. I would not want to lose any of that.

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Peter Rollins Insurrection - an early review, part 1

I was asked to review the pre-release version of Peter Rollins' new book Insurrection - To Believe is Human, to Doubt Divine. There's a lot of good stuff in it, so I'm planning on covering it over a few posts. In this first post I want to deal with his theology of the cross, which is the core thesis of his book. Before I do though, I want to give a few caveats:

First, I'll be quoting from the pre-release version. Those quotes may change or be refined in the final version. Second, (and more importantly) I will be disagreeing with a lot of what Pete says. That does not mean that I don't like where he is coming from. I do. I consider this a friendly review/critique among common allies. As you will see, I strongly disagree with him on some major areas, but if you are at all familiar with Peter Rollins' thought, you'll know that he wants people to disagree, and not to just passively swallow all he says. As he writes in Insurrection, truth is found "in the ongoing testing and transformation of those claims through the fires of passionate, loving debate." So it is in that spirit that I offer this:

There are several "flavors" to the theology of the cross: Luther, Moltmann, John Douglas Hall, Bonhoeffer, etc. Rollins' theology of the cross is largely built off of Bonhoeffer's idea of becoming "religionless." Rollins refers to this as "a/theism" which he contrasts with the New Atheism of folks like Richard Dawkins which is a mere intellectual rejection of theism. Rollins' a/theism in contrast is about the emotional loss of God, the feeling of forsakenness and utter loss that Jesus felt on the cross when he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Compared to this, Dawkins' atheism is detached and cheap -- in the end New Atheism is just a type of fundamentalism with all the same intolerance and arrogant certainty. The emotional a/theism Rollins advocates in contrast rips away at that arrogant certainty.

Rollins wants to dismantle religious systems of comfort which lead us to mask over and ignore hurt and oppression. His theology of the cross therefore involves the striping way of these securities and comforts, resulting in the "trauma" of personally experiencing the absence of God where one is "crushed by a deep existential loss of certainty" and we "give up everything including God" (his emphasis). That is a very provocative statement, but if one can read on to the end of the book, we discover that what Rollins ultimately means here is the loss of the religious image of God, the loss of our immature picture of God as a sort of heavenly grandpa. This is the theology of the cross that Bonhoeffer wrote of from inside the German concentration camp before his execution. In the face of the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer knew we needed the God on the cross, the God who is there in the middle of our suffering, in the middle of an unjust and broken world.

The question is: In losing the God of religious comfort and certainty, do we also lose the God of hope? It is here that I think Rollins' theology goes astray because he mixes up the meaning of the Resurrection with the meaning of the Incarnation and Crucifixion. Rollins writes that to affirm the resurrection means "embracing the broken world." Resurrection life, he writes, is a way of "truly affirming life" in the midst of "the experience of death we find in the crucifixion." But that is not the meaning of the Resurrection, it is the meaning of the Incarnation. The meaning of the Resurrection is that, despite all the brokenness in our world, we have hope that there will one day be an end to sickness, death, and hurt. That is what the resurrection means. Rollins adamantly rejects the hope that “everything will work out in the end” as an immature illusion that he aims to strip away. In other words, his theology of the cross annuls the hope of the Resurrection. He writes, “In sharp contrast then to the idea that, at the heart of Christianity, we find the loving embrace of some Supreme Being; to participate in Christ’s Crucifixion involves experiencing the destruction of all cosmic security. Here, in this experience, radical doubt, unknowing, loss, desolation, and forsakenness are to be found.”

Rollins sees the Resurrection as “the state of being in which one is able to embrace the cold embrace of the cross.” Now, I fully agree that God embraces us in all of our ugliness and pain (that’s the meaning of the Incarnation), but I also hope Rollins would agree that God does not affirm abuse; God does not want us to be victimized by injustice, or by our own self-hatred; God does not want us to drown in our in despair and grief. God loves us in our hurt, but God does not love hurt, and neither should we. The cross, in embracing us in our ugliness, does not advocate oppression or hurt, rather it is a protest against it. As Moltmann says, the suffering God is the protesting God.

Rollins is all for protest I'm sure. (Heck, that's what "insurrection" means!) But in denying the meaning of the Resurrection, he pulls the rug out from under himself. It is a theology of the cross without a theology of the Resurrection, and therefore without Resurrection hope. So while I affirm all that Rollins affirms, my problem is with what he rejects. In the end, I think he throws the baby out with the bathwater. The gospel is more than that. I want a bigger insurrection. I want an insurrection rooted in the Resurrection.

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A Personal Relationship with God?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

(originally published in the Huffington Post)

"A personal relationship with God." It's a phrase you've probably heard before if you've spent any time around church folks. Many would say it captures the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, and I agree. There are a lot of Christians, however, who have a problem with the idea -- people I have a lot of respect for. Rob Bell, for example, correctly points out that the phrase is not found in the Bible. But then again, neither is the word "Trinity."

The real question is whether the concept itself is biblical, and Jesus says the very heart of the law is to "love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself." Those sound like relationships to me. So what's the problem?

For Brian McLaren, the problem is the stress on "personal" relationship and "personal" salvation. The original intent of stressing the personal was to distinguish it from an impersonal relationship (like the orbital relationship of the moon to the earth), and stress that faith is not something we are born into by default, but involves us personally. It needs to be lived. The problem, as McLaren points out, is that the idea of something being "personal" also has an individualistic self-focus to it: personal computer, personal trainer, personal space. As a result, faith becomes focused on us as individuals -- a focus on personal morality, personal prayer, personal Bible study.

The idea of a personal relationship with God should not be taken to mean a privatized faith. If we really took the idea of relationship seriously, we would recognize that faith understood as relationship needs to be both personal and social. A relational faith, by its very definition, is inherently social. As the epistle of John so powerfully says, "if we say we love God, but do not love our brother, then we are deceiving ourselves." We simply cannot say we love God if we do not love those around us.

While salvation begins personally and intimately, it cannot end in a myopic self-focused faith. Genuine personal relationship with God must flow over into all of our relationships -- caring for the least, loving our enemies, and showing the fruit of that genuine personal connection. How could it not? If we really are in a living relationship with Jesus, then won't we come to see people the way he does, and care about the things he cares about?

I'll say it again: If we really took the idea of relationship with God seriously, we would also love others. So rather than focusing on relationship less, I think we should focus more on it. Relationships are at the core of who we are as humans. Nearly every artistic expression is about relationship, from Shakespearian dramas to the current top 10 music charts: songs of love lost and found, tales of our deepest longings and greatest tragedies. Relationships reflect our deepest human struggles. They are the source of our most profound joy and pain -- what we long for most, what keeps us up at night.

It is in relationship that we find out who we are as humans, and what matters most in life. We as humans are made for relationship, and outside of relationship cannot be truly ourselves. We have a relational identity, a social self. As babies we begin life as self-focused and gradually learn to see ourselves as beings in relationship as we learn to love and be loved. That relational love from our parents shapes our self-image, who we are. Our very identity as humans is found in relationship.

This all goes to say that relationship is central to understanding who we are and what life is about. That's why I think that speaking of having a "personal relationship with God" has the potential to revolutionize and deepen theological reflection, so long as we move beyond cheap slogans and sound bites. Again, the problem is not with speaking in terms of a "relationship with God," but that we do not take it seriously enough.

So what might it look like if we did? I've written about this in a lot more detail elsewhere, but here are a few of the consequences of what understanding faith through the lens of relationship would entail:

It would mean a focus on a loving relationship with God and others, and not a focus on abstract rules or doctrine. It would mean an experienced faith now, and not just one that looks to a book from the past. Or more precisely, it would look to Scripture not as a set of rules, but as a witness to what the disciples had experienced of God in Christ in order to get a hold of what they had gotten a hold of.

A focus on relationship would recognize that believing in God is not simply to affirm a fact, but to engage in a trust relationship. Faith means trust. It would see that sin is not primarily about a legal transgression, but more deeply it is a relational breach -- cutting us off from God, others and ourselves. A relational faith would remember that "knowing" in a biblical context is not about intellectual surety, but relational knowing. To know truth does not mean we possess independent absolute knowledge, but rather is a statement of trust and intimate surety that we are known by God.

Most of all, focusing on relationship means caring more about treating others right, than about "being right." As the Apostle Paul says, if we have all the correct doctrines in the world, but have not love, it means nothing. So many Christians use truth like a weapon, and don't seem to care who they hurt with it. But one cannot separate truth from love any more than one can separate the head from the heart. Truth without love is not truth at all.

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