Review: The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins (Part 2 of 3)

by Chris TerryNelson


(You can read Part 1 here)

In Part 2 of The Idolatry of God, entitled “The New Creation,” Rollins turns from the nature of our addiction to a vision of freedom from it.  The nature of addiction itself is best captured by zombie mythology.  Whereas animals only attempt to meet their own basic needs, human beings are obsessively attached to a goal beyond their needs.  The utilitarian calculation for gaining pleasure and avoiding pain is overcome by a drive that does not answer to reason.  Enter the zombie: a being that embodies a completely unconstrained drive for satisfaction, consuming all flesh without ever actually being satisfied.  Zombies express what is uniquely (in)human about us: our desire.  Yet they express how our desire dehumanizes us, even to the point of killing us.

The fact that we are all zombies, beholden to a drive we are unable to control, creates a major problem not only for our individual lives (which the psychoanalytic perspective tends to favor), but also for our collective life within systems such as capitalism.  For capitalism is based on the assumption that individuals will act rationally within their own self-interest, and the competitive dynamic between them benefits everyone.  But, Rollins notes, the failure of this system lies in its notion of what constitutes “the natural.”  Unlike zombies, we suffer with the knowledge that our behavior is killing both us and our relationships.  What we ultimately need is not freedom from constraint (government and law), nor the freedom to pursue our satisfaction.  Rather, we need freedom from the pursuit of satisfaction itself.

Whereas totalitarian systems encourage internal protest when things aren’t going well, “free” systems lack anyone to blame except the individuals within it.  Rollins is not interested in picking one system over another, but showing how we are oppressed by this quest for satisfaction even in our free society.  “The problem, for most of us, is not that there is a lack of things we should be able to get enjoyment from, but that we are unable to actually enjoy these things” (83).  So what is the solution?

First, one must recognize that “heaven” as the utopia whereby my desire for peace and tranquility is satisfied “would be a type of living death” (85).  On the contrary, by “truly embracing the fragility and tensions of life, supremely difficult as this is, brings with it the possibility of true joy.

Second, in forsaking heaven, one must embrace the world.  Rollins provides this wonderful quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

This is what I mean by worldliness – taking life in one’s stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness.  It is in such a life that we throw ourselves into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane.  That is faith, that is metanoia and that is what makes a man and a Christian (in John de Gruchy, ed., Selected Wrights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1987, p. 294).

Third, one must begin to approach the Good News of Christianity, which entails accepting this maxim from Rollins: “You can’t be fulfilled; you can’t be made whole; you can’t find satisfaction” (86).  It is only by embracing this insight that we are freed from the oppression of the Idol, and freed from the sting of life’s difficulties.  As you can see, this sort of Christianity, rather than providing a solution to an already existing problem (“how can I find meaning, purpose, and Truth?”), is interested in revealing a problem (“you can and must stop letting this question control your life”).  Of course, we begin to question whether the Gospel is the embrace of nihilism, but Rollins anticipates this response later on.

In a subsection entitled “Christ and Value,” we come to the place where Rollins begins to provide his Christology and atonement theory.  This is where things become a bit muddled for me.  Rollins writes: “In order to understand how the Gospels hint at a freedom from this slavery to the Idol, we must begin by exploring the meaning of the idea that Christ is without sin” (87).  This is followed by the puzzling claim: “From the line of thought that we have been developing, this means that Christ is experienced as one who lacks the lack.  In other words, as one without a sense of separation at the very core of his being and thus without any attachment to some Idol that would falsely promise to make him whole.”

This puzzles me precisely because it seems to go in precisely the exact opposite direction one would expect Rollins to go, but perhaps that says more about me than it does Rollins.  As an author who strikes me as very existentialist and this-worldly, it is counter-intuitive to say the least when Rollins has a Jesus with an unfallen nature.  Doesn’t he rob the incarnation of its power as Good News by refusing the claim that Jesus took on sinful flesh?  What of the early church’s claim that “what has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved. . .” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101)?

Clearly, the categories of divinity and humanity require further definition in order to make sense of the claim that Jesus lacks the lack (this comes later, unfortunately).  Rollins claims that the early church “presented Christ on the Cross as being without sin and yet representing all sin.  It is therefore claimed that he lacked the foundational separation constitutive of human beings (the gap that renders them inhuman), yet he took on that gap and felt it in its most acute form” (88).  Rollins is clearly attempting to put himself in line with the early church, which is fine, but further clarity is needed and not provided.  For the early church has a radically different ontology than Rollins is operating with, given his Lacanian redefinition of Original Sin.  The early church, especially Augustine, did not believe that their separation was an illusion.  Yet, Rollins believes it is.  I’m not interested in writing Rollins off as a heretic, but some historical honesty would be appreciated here.

He goes on: “This is the radical message of the Cross, not that a man is tortured and killed, but one who is without the lack experienced the incision that marks us all: fully and completely feeling that cut in our being that prevents us from being one with ourselves” (88).  The cry of dereliction on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is Christ’s experience of “that profound sense of separation and alienation that marks all human beings” (italics mine).

The fact that Jesus only experiences a profound sense of separation on the cross upholds his claim that this separation is an illusion.  Yet he wants to claim that “Jesus lacked the foundational separation constitutive of human beings (the gap that renders them inhuman), yet he took on that gap and felt its most acute form.”  The Good News, in terms of the narrative, runs so: A.) The problem with humanity is that we believe there is an illusory gap in our being, which creates all sorts of addictions to certainty and satisfaction.  B.) But Jesus was unique in that he was not under this illusion, and thus was not an addict.  C.) Yet he took on this illusion for our sake on the cross.  The question is: why and how (C)?

The meaning of Christ being without sin and yet taking sin onto himself is deceptively simple.  It means that Christ is understood to experience the horror of separation and alienation from the Idol that actually creates the void.  He feels Original Sin, the Law, and the birth of Idolatry; but because he is not enslaved by them, we witness their abolition in the text (90).

There are a number of things latent within this paragraph.  First off, Rollins has identified the God that Jesus cries out to as the Idol.  To say that this is a significant claim would be an understatement.  Secondly, once we recognize that the human problem is an illusion of a separation, we can see why in this theological framework Christ would have to be considered “sinless,” for he is under no illusions.  This is simply something that he cannot embody, for it is not an ontological category.  He cannot “put on” the illusion, or pretend to be under it.  Otherwise, he would not have lived the way he did.  But what happens on the cross?  Did Jesus knowingly go onto the cross to expose Original Sin, the Law, and the Idol for what they are: nothing?  Rollins is not interested in what Jesus knew, but this is certainly how Jesus functions.

The ecclesiological payoff is huge for Rollins.  For once Original Sin, the Law, and Idolatry are exposed as fictional, the Temple curtain is torn to reveal the truth: “there is nothing behind the curtain” (91).  Anticipating the outcry that Rollins is a supersessionist (or worse, Anti-Semitic), he replies that all of “[t]his is not to say that the Jewish faith operates with a lie that is revealed in Christianity.  The reality is more interesting that this.”  He turns to Ecclesiastes (“everything is meaningless”) and the prohibition against the graven image of the divine as two examples to show that Jewish has this robust anti-idol theo-logic embedded within itself.

Turning to the atonement theory more directly, Rollins, borrowing Gustaf Aulen’s framework, locates his own theory as a kind of Christus Victor alternative to the traditional conceptions of penal substitutionary theory (what he calls the “conservative reading”) and moral exemplar theory (the “liberal reading”).  Here, the Crucifixion is neither the ultimate sacrifice nor a moral message but “the sacrifice of sacrifice itself” (94).  For in penal substitutionary theory, the sacrifice is used as a solution to the problem of Original Sin as truth.  Thus, the ultimate sacrifice follows the logic of satisfaction.  Here, Rollins could really make use of Feuerbach’s critique of religion as anthropological projection, whereby the conservative Idol itself is an addict to satisfaction (there will be blood!).  Likewise, in the moral exemplary theory, the liberal Idol is addicted to certainty (an enlightened message and way of life).

Instead, the Crucifixion performs the same function that love does in fulfilling the Law.  “For the apostle Paul, love is understood as fulfilling the Law, not by being an Überlaw, but by raising us into a different register where we live beyond the prohibition” (94-95).  This means that Christ does not pay our debts, for they do not exist. Instead, he abolishes the debt system itself.  Christ is victor over this oppressive system.  He “bears witness to a form of life that is free from our obsessive drive for the Idol, a form of life in which our zombie nature is cured” (97).  It’s interesting to me that Rollins wants to say that our zombie nature is cured while maintaining the language of brokenness, for if separation is an illusion, then the only brokenness that would remain are the parts of our psyche that have yet to give up the illusion.  So it’s not that we’re really broken – we just think we are.  And so we are.  We can never be made whole again, because for that wholeness to be true would be to return to our first-birth state, which is impossible.  In other words, we would have to give up our consciousness.  So apparently to be given a self contains the curse of a sense of separation that can never be cured.  Hence, the cure is “acceptance,” rather than “reversal.”

Besides Idolatry, we also form Unbelief through a religion that gives us “yet another grand narrative that tells us why we are here, where we are going, and what we ought to be doing” (98).  Christianity, rather, “disturbs all meaning systems and calls them into question” (99).  We begin to see how Christianity is actually being translated into the project of postmodernism itself.  The Crucifixion is “the most potent sign of someone being rejected by the cultural, political and religious systems of the day, all of which were seen as divinely established” (99).  However, the Crucifixion is utilized as justification for our cultural, political and religious status quo.  This is ironic, to say the least.  For our individual selves don’t undergo death in order to be raised into new meaning within a religious construct.  Instead, our identities undergo a death that rids them of any system of meaning.

This leads Rollins to speak of Christian universalism.  He utilizes the foils of a conservative and liberal version of universalism.  The conservative version believes that the Christian message is for all, but cannot accommodate those who refuse the message except by placing them in a “lost” category, or “hell.”  Either way, it creates outsiders, vomiting them out or tolerating them at best.  The liberal version believes the message is not only for all, but it is already true of all, and thus constitutes a Christian worldview.  It seeks to consume the other (perhaps by emphasizing its “inclusivity”) or finds a way to find base agreement.

The third way Rollins offers is a Pauline Christian universalism that requires the putting away of our concrete identities (Republican/Democrat, Rich/Poor, Male/Female) so that they may be transcended in community.  “For Paul, the identity of the Christian is found in the very experience of feeling the impotence of all identities” (101).   The fact is, we all experience and put on various identities in our cultural matrix, and begin to believe and behave in a way that is consistent with these identities.  We are given a foothold in the world through this particularism.  However, we also experience a world of “us” and “them” as we give ourselves to these tribes.  And this division gives birth to a value system: “we” are good, “they” are bad.

Unfortunately too many Christians participate in this tribal separation as well, considering Christianity to be a competing worldview alongside other religions (Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, etc.).  Whether liberal or conservative, the Christian worldview remains one that distinguishes between those who believe the Christian message and those who don’t.  The Christian churches are willing to adapt their communicative forms of this message in order to convince people to switch to their tribe (hence the continual “hip” music/fashion/cultural references).  They are willing to sell their message and commodify their contexts for the sake of their growth.  This all results from Christianity functioning as a worldview, as a tribe with certain beliefs and practices.  Like other tribes, Christianity endows itself with divine providence – a story of its genesis, its sustenance, and its future (in which all of “them” will become like “us”).

It is precisely against this way of thinking that Jesus’ declares: “I do not bring peace, but a sword.” Rollins shows how Jesus the Sword cuts through all tribal divisions: religious (Jew and Gentile), political (slave and free), and biological (male and female).  This cutting is necessary so that all may be one in Christ.  The Christian can no longer be captivated by any worldview, and paradoxically, not even her own.  Despite the fact that we cannot fully give up our religious, political and biological identities, we can hold them as if we do not hold them.  Paul expresses this in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:

What I mean brothers and sisters is that the time is short.  From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep, those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.  For this world in its present form is passing away.

Our relationships, circumstances, and possessions all continue to exist, but we hold them differently.  They must be held as if they are lost.  Rollins sees this loss of identity as central not only to the Crucifixion, but also in the very logic of the Incarnation – the kenotic self-emptying of God who becomes a human being and a servant.  It this manner of life that allows Jesus to consistently transcend the identities of the people he encounters: tax collectors, Samaritans, women, etc.

Whereas the Old Creation continues in this tribal division, the New Creation

participates according to this tribal transcendence, so that Jew and Gentile, Slave and Free, Male and Female have more in common with one another than with their own tribes, precisely because they have accepted the limits and impotence of their respective identities.  In holding their identities as if they do not hold them, their beliefs and practices become open to question and cease to function as protection from anxiety and mystery.  Of course, once the Jesus-Sword passes through a community, nothing seems to have changed.  And yet everything has changed.  Because our identities are drained of their power, they no longer separate us from one another, so that we become “more fluid and exhibit plasticity” (116).

However, not all is well.  By uniting what was once divided, Christ really also divides those who were once united.  “Those who are excluded from the new collective signaled by the new creation are now those who exclude themselves – the ones who so wish to cling to their own identity that they are not prepared to encounter as anything but a stranger to convert, an alien to tolerate, or an enemy to crush” (116).

What unites us with Christ is the experience of losing our identities as he did on the cross.  The old creation continues to justify itself, safeguarding and solidifying its identity with “God, Destiny, Fate, Historical Necessity” (117).  But the new creation, which Rollins believes must band together to become a collective, must become “religionless, insomuch as one’s identity is experienced as provisional, ungrounded, and permeated by unknowing” (117).  This new collective must embrace a new identity, which Paul calls “the trash of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:13).  These are the people who no longer have a place held for them.  In a somewhat ironic twist, Rollins writes: “We are all invited to join this liberative collective of nobodies and nothings, and to preach this Good News to the very ends of the earth” (119).

Sometimes the ecclesiological payoff is so huge, it makes one wonder if Rollins does wants to make the Good News to be the existence of such a community.  For this Good News is only accepted existentially, and not just intellectually. We cannot escape this system of Idolatry through our intellect, “because we did not intellectually enter into this system… the only way out is through a change at the very core of our being…” (121).

This change is not just one of thinking, but of having one’s mind renewed to the point where we give up the chasing of the Idol that will satisfy us and give us certainty.  Unfortunately, most of us who converted to Christianity or decided to start taking it seriously (as I did in my teenage years after an evangelical rally) end up using Christ precisely as an Idol.  When Jesus becomes dissatisfying, many will begin to harbor doubts, perhaps even decide to reject Christianity in the hopes of finding some other object to satisfy them.  But what they have done is reject one Idol (Jesus) in the hopes of finding another (money, politics, etc.).  Clearly, the problem is the nature of the search itself.

Rather than ridding ourselves of Jesus, we must delve deeper into who he is.  Returning to Christology, Rollins explains more fully what it means for Jesus to be human and divine.  Jesus was one who lacks the lack, who was “not marked by Original Sin, who was outside the reach of the Law and thus not driven by the Idol” (133).  Rollins recognizes that this description might seem to make Jesus not fully human after all (our fear noted above), since it seems to be a fundamental and universal human experience.  Instead, he wants to view this experience of a sense of separation as inhuman or pre-human.  “It is this sense of separation that prevents us from finding a peace with ourselves and those around us” (134).  Jesus is fully human in a way that we are not – we participate in a separation from ourselves that Jesus refuses.  The problem is not that we are separated from God, but that we are separated from ourselves.

On the other hand, for Jesus to be fully God means that Jesus has no relation to the false Idol posited by religion.  Rollins defines the divine not “as that which lies beyond the abyss created by Original Sin, but as the ground from which everything arises” (135).  As he wrote more fully in Insurrection, Rollins notes his abiding commitment to a divine ontology of love.  “We must approach God as that reality we encounter indirectly through a deep and committed love of the world itself (136).  What seems to be assumed is that any depiction of God as being or Big Other can only be utilized as a false Idol that gives us certainty and satisfaction.  What this means is that, from our vantage point, God does not exist, is not sublime, and has no meaning.  In order for God to avoid the charge of narcissism and to avoid becoming an Idol, God remains hidden to us.  And so any relation to God remains indirect and mysterious.  God is that which calls the world into existence as that which is sublime and meaningful.

This reverses the meaning of Paul’s admonition against Greek philosophy: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).  The problem with Greek philosophy in Paul’s time is that it taught that ascribing meaning to the world was irrational.  Christianity refuses to engage the world in this way.  “The rejection of wisdom philosophy in Christianity is not, then intellectual in nature, it is existential; it is a protest against living as if there is no meaning” (141).  This is hardly the endgame of nihilism, which many accuse Rollins of leading us towards.

“Love is the crazy, mad, and perhaps ridiculous gesture of saying yes to life, of seeing it as worthy of our embrace and even worthy of our total sacrifice” (141).  Returning to Ecclesiastes – a book that begins but does not end in despair – we see how the paradoxical embrace (rather than escape) of the world’s meaninglessness turns out to give it meaning.  Life is worth enjoying because of Love.  This is the meaning of Resurrection life, which lies on the other side of the Crucifixion of Idolatry.  Clearly, Rollins has no interest in speculating about an after-life (which is not to say that he denies it).

If the message of Ecclesiastes is that everything is meaningless but we can still find solace in embracing our life, then the message of the Resurrection is that the categories of meaning and meaninglessness are part of an old order that has been superseded by a new one.  The way of Resurrection opens up a different type of understanding, one that is not affirmed intellectually but lived.  An understanding that can only truly be grasped once one has been freed from the old order of Idolatry and Unbelief (145).

I assume that this lived existence can only become a form of repentance in the kind of community that Rollins has helped to found: Ikon.  Part 3 will deal with “The New Collective,” providing examples of liturgies that Rollins has written in order to walk us through a process of dying to our old selves (addicts to certainty and satisfaction) in order that we might live into the New Creation.