ESR student and Raysville Friends pastor Michael Sherman offers a reflection on Peter Rollins’ new book, The Idolatry of God. Rollins will be on campus at ESR as the keynote speaker for our annual Willson Lectures on April 8.
A friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook the day after the shootings at Sandy Hook a month ago. “The tragedy that happened yesterday has solidified my disbelief in an all knowing and all powerful entity. Either your god isn't all-powerful and couldn't stop it or he is and sat idle while they screamed, probably for him. Either way, I am firmer than ever.”
My friend went on to ask: “so, Biblically we are taught to believe that there was a divine plan that even though god could save the day and end the crucifixion at any point, that in order to fulfill the prophecy and save our souls that Christ had to die?” This concept of God is fairly prevalent in mainstream Christianity. It is, however, an idolatry of God. It is a creation of an idea of God which isn’t true. God’s presence or the acceptance of Christ into one’s heart does not change our reality. We still suffer pain and loss. God is not some talisman we can claim forcing all our enemies and travails to lay down before us. An all-powerful, all-loving God is a beautiful picture but those terms and our understanding of them are laced with our human understanding of powerful and loving. Personally I'm not ready to drop 'all powerful' but I wonder if God's all powerful is different than our understanding or wish for God's power. It’s nice to have logical, reasoned answers but sometimes there are none for us to have, sometimes there is only mystery.
Peter Rollins’ new book The Idolatry of God; Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction speaks directly to this topic. Rollins has written and spoken about many of these ideas before. In this book he ties many of his previous thoughts from his other books Insurrection and How to (Not) Speak of God together building a framework and foundation for moving faith forward.
The starting point is Rollins’ definition of ‘Original Sin’ and its entanglement with the Law and subsequent construction of various idols. He places the origin of sin in the moment as infants when the ego begins to form. Initially an infant has no boundaries. It is essentially, by perception, one with the world. At some point a realization grows, identifying itself and the other. It is a picture of separation. Once separation is realized and we feel something is missing the awareness that something is lacking builds. It is this perception of lack and our pursuit to fill a void that is not really there which is ‘Original Sin’.
In the next move Rollins demonstrates the Christian Church’s use of the pursuit of God/Christ as the fulfillment of our lacking. If you just had this one thing you’d be better - it will fix all your problems. In using God/Christ the church never addresses the problem of our perceived lacking; it uses and preys upon our sin to sell itself, thus creating an idol of God/Christ. If we just did all this Christian stuff better or prayed more or read more Scriptures then…but all of that falls apart. There is no amount of prayer or reading which can bring us closer to a God who is already at hand. The truth is there is no separation. Jesus says “The Kingdom of God is at hand”, right here at our fingertips. We cannot move ourselves to reach it, because it is already here.
Rollins closes his counter observation of the crucifixion with this statement:
The Crucifixion bears witness to a form of life that is free from our obsessive drive for the Idol, a form of life which our zombie nature (unthinking all consuming drive) is cured. For to lose the Idol means to be freed from that drive that prevents us from fully embracing our life and taking pleasure in it. It means giving up our desire for ultimate satisfaction and then, in that act, discovering a deeper, more beautiful satisfaction, one that is not constantly deferred but that can be grasped here and now. Not one that promises to make us whole and remove our suffering but one that promises joy in the midst of our brokenness and new life in the very embrace of our pain (97).
Rollins’ understanding of the Crucifixion isn’t comfortable or comforting, but it is definitely freeing for both us and God. It allows us to be honest. It is this honesty which is at the heart of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount: For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20, HCSB). The scribes and Pharisees were slaves to perception. The picture they illustrated did not match the truth of their hearts. Jesus wasn’t calling the disciples to be more ‘Law’ abiding than the scribes and Pharisees, but to be more honest about who they are and the truth of their hearts sharing both triumph and struggle.