Disruptive Grace

A Theology of the Holidays (Christmas, Halloween, Easter, & Thanksgiving)

A few weeks ago I was honored to give four keynote addresses to junior high and high school students at NaCoMe Camp and Conference Center.  I love NaCoMe – it’s a place that never fails to give me the rest that I need.  You can’t get cell phone reception there, so the dead-zone provides freedom from technological distraction.  Plus, the cinnamon buns are to-die-for.

The four keynotes were designed on the theological significance of the holidays of Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, as they each describe themes and movements that are necessary for living in this world.  I’m told that they were not only significant and meaningful for the kids, but for many of the adults as well.  Even my 5-year old daughter was able to repeat a few significant points (then again, she is a Pastor’s Kid).

So here they are:

A Theology of Christmas

A Theology of Halloween

A Theology of Easter

A Theology of Thanksgiving

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

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The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Satisfaction and Certainty. By Peter Rollins. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2012, 208 pages.

Part 3 of The Idolatry of God concerns the Church, or what Rollins calls “the New Collective.”  This community, rather than being a religious crack house, refuses to worship the Idol which would give us certainty and satisfaction.  Instead, this community is marked by an attempt to look through the eyes of the Other in order to see ourselves.  It is by embodying this act of love that we indirectly love God.  The strategies of tribalism (consumption, vomiting, toleration, and agreement) are rejected in favor of liturgies that place ourselves (and our beliefs, practices and desires) into question.  As Rollins has noted previously, this existential embrace of the Other cannot be an intellectual exercise.  It is simply not enough to tell ourselves and others that we are open to learning, challenging and developing our ideas.  Rather, we must willingly put ourselves in places where we can encounter those who differ from us.  This is more difficult than we recognize, for we can pretend to meet the Other merely for the sake of emboldening our own ideology.  As an example of this, Rollins uses a famous story in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, but I won’t spoil it for you.  While we can handle being wrong on the edges of our beliefs, we cannot handle having our foundation challenged.  Yet this is precisely what are called to do.  One might even consider this an act of discipleship, though Rollins does not use that term.

So how can this be done?  We must first begin by reflecting on “what we read, whom we engage seriously with, and who our friends are” (154).  The fact is, we have multiple mediums that we surround ourselves with in order to defend our narrative.  Rollins is especially critical of intellectual idolatry – the desire to have all the answers.  Yet the God of Christianity is precisely not one to maintain a God’s-eye-view of the world.  If we are to become like God, we must become human.  We must celebrate our finitude, our limits, and accept the mystery that we are immersed in.  This is the meaning of faith – to accept our brokenness rather than escape from it.  The “New Collective” is designed specifically to provide a space for social encounters that help us to discover where we have absolutized our selves and our opinions about the nature of reality and God, and to let those parts of ourselves die in and through the encounters.

Rollins describes a number of “Dis-Courses” that were designed by him in conjunction with his work in Belfast, Ireland through the Ikon community.  Some of the discourses are designed to help us encounter the views of others, whereas others are supposed to challenge Christianity more directly.  That is all I want to say about them, because, as one friend commented, this review has probably revealed so much as to “obviate the need to read the book.”

CONCLUSION:

As a self-professed Barthian (yes, there are indeed such things, despite Barth’s supposed wishes that there should not be), Idolatry of God comes as the fourth book in a series which have led me out of Barth into the realm of postmodern philosophy and radical theology.  This began with a little-known book by Ronald Gregor Smith, entitled “Secular Christianity,” which relies on the apocalyptic theology of Rudolf Bultmann and Friedrich Gogarten to interpret Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” in his  “Papers and Letters from Prison.”  While I’m not well-versed in everything that was happening in the 60’s surrounding Bonhoeffer and secularism, I know that Smith was joined by Harvey Cox and Gibson Winter, et al,  in attempting to describe an incognito Christian existence.  What also appears to have been born alongside this movement is the Death of God theology of Gabriel Vahanian, Paul Van Buren, William Hamilton, John A.T. Robinson, Thomas J. J. Altizer, John D. Caputo, and the rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein.  I’m not aware of how much cross-pollination occurs between these two movements, but it seems that Rollins has become a contemporary voice for aspects of both these movements today.  Rollins acknowledges Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, Bruce Fink, Paul Hessert, and Frederiek Depoortere as instrumental for the Idolatry of God.  My biggest criticism of Rollins is the same one I have for Rob Bell – citations!  Rollins does not cite his sources beyond extended quotes of Bonhoeffer and Lacan.  Most of what he is writing I have later found out is an echo of what has been previously said but forgotten.  Rollins is skilled communicator and writer, but he is more than an Irish Rob Bell.  He is not a wanna-be scholar – he is a scholar!  IoG really could have benefited from the use of endnotes, if nothing more than to show his research from overwhelming the average layperson.

That said, I would not have gone google-searching all of these authors and attempting to understand the lay of the land had it not been for Rollins, and so I’m grateful for his capacity to open up new vistas of thought.  There is a bigness to his thinking that is severely needed, and the fact that he can write as a practitioner of his ideas is extremely refreshing.

What has been accomplished in this book?  I think the beginning is the true gamechanger, because the fact of the matter is that when you change the problem, you change the solution.  When you define the problem of sin as the illusion of a separation from ourselves and others, you must define salvation as the exposure/revelation of this illusion.  Despite my long-held insistence that theology must always begin axiomatically with the Gospel, this axiom itself is a foundation that has been rendered empty by my encounter with Rollins.  For while it may be true, it is a truth that is held foundationally, unquestioned.  What is the nature of this Gospel?  It seems that life experience of pain and suffering gives rise to certain problems of our existence, which are the bread and butter of our doctrines of sin.  Despite Barth’s attempt to use the Gospel as an Absolute Ideal (even if it is only revealed and not naturally evident), everybody does theology from the bottom-up.  It’s just that everyone has a different bottom.

Rollins is clear that he is working from the context of Belfast, as someone who was lured into the magic of pentecostal worship, and who even maintains an appreciation for that experience.  While owning his context, there is something in his critique that cuts against much more than his own experience – and this can be attributed to his Lacanian description of much thinking in the West.  For instance, I decided to attend an atheist gathering through Meetup.com in my neighborhood.  As I watched the group castigating Christianity, I smiled not only because of the whole “I don’t believe in that God either,” but because I was seeing how the Other as enemy can be such a powerful unifying force.  And yet, as a Presbyterian pastor, I was the enemy.  Later on, I shared Rollin’s point about Lacan – that we all are under the illusion that there is a void that we must fill, and so we fill it with all sorts of things – God, possessions, careers, family, etc.  This insight, which all of a sudden holds more than just religion accountable for its psychological function, had a powerful effect in the room.  Things were not as neat and tidy as previously thought.

This book is probably the most disruptive of Rollins work, precisely because its material content is exposed.  I applaud Rollins for showing us what’s under the hood.  But he hasn’t shown us everything.  The length of his book suggests very careful strategy to only reveal pieces at a time.  I imagine he lost quite a few interested readers on the fence with this one.  How could you not when you describe the God that Jesus is crying out to on the cross as the Idol itself?!  But then again, why not see where this thought takes you?  Slippery slopes are the most adventurous ones.  I’ve realized that my trepidation in writing the review of this book had to do with the fact that I take my beliefs and opinions too seriously.  It’s ok not to know what one thinks.  In fact, it would be best to admit that in order to live this life to the fullest.  And it might mean that we make some unlikely friends along the way.

Accepting Our Church For What It Is

As the pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (EPC), I sometimes write posts that are intended to be heard directly by my parishioners.  Yet, my sense is that there are others who need to “overhear” this.  With this post, I hope to provide an account of the work the session of elders did at NaCoMe retreat center on the weekend of January 25-27, 2013. Some of our elders were not able to attend (David and Cooper), and some had to skip sessions to head home early(Ginia and Terry A.), and so it is important for them to get a grasp on what happened as well.  I hope this will give you a picture of how God moved and worked in our midst, and why I think EPC has been given a simple gift that it must receive and cultivate: a singular passion for relationships marked by growing intimacy, transparency, and belonging.
We were privileged to have Jane Herring, a current VA Hospital Chaplain and Vanderbilt MDiv graduate, lead us in the contemplative work of “The Cycle of Grace.” This cycle has four distinct movements: Inputs: (1) acceptance & (2) sustenance; and Outputs: (3) significance & (4) fruitfulness.
With each movement, we started with the personal, asking questions of acceptance like “How have you experienced acceptance from others? And how have you experienced rejection from others?  How have you experienced acceptance from God, and how have you experienced the absence or even rejection of God”?   We moved from sharing from our own lives to asking these questions about EPC.  So how is EPC accepting?  One person shared that the act of corporate confession and the declaration of forgiveness constitute a mode of acceptance.  We take the risk of bearing our sin before God, and we are accepted as sinners.  Our masks are taken off, even if for a moment.

And it is this moment that, strangely, is a source of sustenance for us.  We cannot necessarily articulate why this is, but Sunday morning worship has a mysterious quality to it.  Jane, as a relative newcomer, shared with us that this has been her experience at EPC.  This was a gift to the session, for the experience of sustained weekly acceptance has become so familiar that it can be overlooked – “Well, ALL churches offer that! All churches say they are welcoming!”  And yes, we do refer to ourselves as welcoming, as a home.  But very few churches have a welcome that goes deep – that accepts the person behind the mask.  While it is dangerous to generalize regarding everyone’s experience (I’m certain some people have felt rejection by both people and God at our church – we are sinners after all), the session began to recount the times where we had each experienced a moment of acceptance in our church life.  The more we talked about it, the more began to model it, bringing down our own masks.  I, as the pastor, was allowed to participate fully, and didn’t feel that I had to use a filter.  The filters were taken down to the point where an elder told me: “Chris, it’s been painful to share my life with you and feel that you were not present to me.”  Ouch.  But I did not die, or lose my job, or any of the worst case scenarios that played out in my head.  No, I accepted this word.  It was a gift.  I had known all along that I wasn’t “all there,” at the least the way I had hoped I would be.

I began to face up to the fact that, against the best advice and wishes of my colleagues, my identity had become entangled with that of the church.  Neither of us know who we are.  We haven’t “found” ourselves.  And so we began looking to each other.  One person asked me when I first began 2.5 years ago: “So, what’s your vision for this church?”  If I couldn’t answer that question and execute accordingly, my life had no meaning.  And sure enough, after trying on multiple identities and visions (the language of “being missional” and “discipleship” played prominently in this endless exercise), executing with only momentary gain followed by momentary loss, I began to give up.  The church had exhausted me.  And so I began to look elsewhere.  I began to think that my salvation lay in going half-time, and using the other half of my life for my true passion.  Ah, but lo and behold, I did not know what I was passionate about.  I did not know myself, so attempting to separate even half of myself from the church would only yield the same results.  There is no greater pressure in our time than to find one’s self.  The future always holds a promise to us: move here, do this, give up that, and you will be happy and content.  But it is an empty promise.  It is what fuels the rat race, the one we judge in others, and the one that makes us judge ourselves.  We are never good enough, it seems.

Jane asked a very simple question to our session at this retreat.  If all we do is gather for worship once a week, and provide a space of acceptance for people, hoping and praying that they experience a mysterious transcendent presence, is that enough?  “Is that enough?”  That is the question we must ask of our current circumstances.  I recognize how much baggage we bring to the church as leaders.  We are always susceptible to projecting our own “stuff” onto the church.  Yet, this is what I have done.  I have not been able to accept the church as it is, and thus have not been able to accept myself, as I am.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  I don’t know, and that’s okay.

Knowledge and reason have been my primary weapons in the fight against feelings I don’t enjoy feeling – like anxiety.  So when I don’t know something, I get anxious, and I have no protection left.  The search for knowledge is fueled by a fear of unknowing.  But what if I were to accept my place as an unknower, an unsagelike, unwise person?  What if all we have in front of us is all that there is to know?  What if EPC’s one true gift is its simple worship, its gathering weekly for 1 hour?  Is that enough?  Am I enough?

We are distinct, and yet we are on this journey together.  There is so much we do not know of ourselves, and we do not know our future.  But we do know what is right here, right now.  EPC, you are enough, as you are.  And I am enough, as I am.

To begin here is to begin with the Gospel, as it turns out.  This is not just a motivational exercise.  It is the truth we confess in Jesus Christ.  To begin here, with the simple acceptance, begs the question: what can we do to sustain this acceptance with one another?  What particular sign or gift has God given us as a means to bring this acceptance to the world?  And what fruit do we hope or expect to grow from such acceptance?

Needless to say, I have been putting the cart before the horse.  I have tried hard to figure out what I must do in order to make the church and myself worthwhile, meaningful.  It has not just been enough to bracket out what the community thinks of us.  What do I think of myself?  What do I think of Emmanuel?

Two things happened at this retreat that I think coincide quite nicely:

1. It was the first time where I saw myself in the third-person.  It was an out-of-body experience.  I was viewing myself as if I was being filmed.  I was smiling.  I actually liked what I saw.  This was further helped along by the fact that each session member went around and told me something about myself (not just my “professional self”) that they liked about me.

2. I, along with all session members, experienced ourselves as “cups running over.”  It was now effortless to give praise to Emmanuel, to the concrete detailed ways in which our little church exhibits so much love and joy.  In previous times, this has felt coerced, as if I’m praising the church for some political gain, or because I know they “need” to hear it.

I am writing this account to you church, so that there can be some account-ability.  While many of you were not at NaCoMe, I refuse to believe that this was just a one-time experience.  It has changed everything for me, even as it appears that nothing has changed.  It must bear worth repeating in its own way, its own time.  It is not something that only I must say, but we must all say with our own voice.  But allow me to confess my sin to you as your pastor: forgive me for not loving you as you are.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  You are enough for me as you are.  And you are enough for God too.  May we cultivate space together for one another so that we may dwell in love together for many years to come.

Your friend,

Pastor Chris

 

Melancholia and the Apocalypse of God (Guest Post by Joel Avery)

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Melancholia and the Apocalypse of God (Guest Post by Joel Avery)

“What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” – Friedrich Nietzsche (1)

“He feels he has lost the meaning of life. Out of this awareness the religious question arises. The awareness of the predicament is most sharply expressed in great art, literature, and, partly at least, the philosophy of our time.” – Paul Tillich (2)

Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, raises what Tillich calls “the religious question” and can be read through the lens of radical theology. This approach offers both an interpretation of the film and an entrée into radical theology.

Melancholia tells the story of two sisters, Justine and Claire. In the first part of the film, Justine has just been married and arrives at her wedding reception, held at Claire’s mansion. What follows is a nightmare scenario. Justine suffers from chronic depression, and try as she might, she cannot enjoy the party. She is beset by demands to enjoy herself by her family, her employer, and the wedding planner.

Each has different expectations of Justine. Her father is a hedonist, and encourages her to enjoy the extravagance of the party. Her mother is opposed to marriage, and encourages Justine to seek happiness by abandoning her new marriage. Justine’s wealthy brother-in-law, John, tells Justine that since he has spent “a great deal of money” on the wedding, he expects her to look happy in return. Her employer offers her a toast, but turns the moment into an opportunity to promote her to a new position at his ad agency, and demands that she give him a tagline for a new campaign that very evening. The wedding planner grows impatient as Justine’s withdrawal from the party due to her depression ruins his carefully laid plans.

Justine’s husband tries to console her with a photo of an orchard he has secretly bought for her, in the hopes that some day she can go there and be free of her depression. He gives her the photo to keep with her as a memento. After sexual foreplay, Justine abruptly leaves the room, leaving husband and photo behind as she distractedly wanders the opulent grounds of the estate.

Over the course of the evening, as Justine fails to meet the expectations of her family, employer, and social norms, and fails to enjoy the wealth, beauty, and sexual pleasure available to her, each guest turns against her in anger and frustration. As dawn breaks, Justine’s family has berated her, her new husband has abandoned her, and her boss has fired her. All bonds, familial, economic, and social, have been broken in the course of the evening.

The second part of the film takes place some time after the wedding. Justine has slipped into an almost catatonic depression. Strangely, in the time since the wedding, a massive rogue planet, named Melancholia, has emerged from behind the sun, on a path toward Earth. Astronomers predict that it will pass by the Earth, providing an amazing astronomical spectacle, but leaving the Earth untouched.

Justine’s brother-in-law John is an amateur astronomer, and follows news of the new planet enthusiastically. Justine’s sister Claire is afraid that the planet will collide with the Earth. Despite John’s insistence that astronomers have calculated its path and determined Earth’s safety, Claire obsesses about the planet, and visits websites that claim that the planet’s true course is being covered-up by authorities.

John spends his days with his son, Leo, excitedly anticipating the arrival of Melancholia. Claire spends her time caring for Justine, who she is able to gradually bring to good health. Leo is excited for his aunt’s return to health, as he wants to build “magic caves” with her, a request he makes repeatedly, thought Justine is as yet too ill to do this with him. Gradually, Justine becomes more functional as Claire attends to her with patient care. Justine is able to care for herself, but remains depressed and uninterested in regaining all that she lost on her wedding day.

It soon becomes apparent that Melancholia will pass by Earth only to arc back again on a collision course. Justine welcomes the destruction of the Earth, calling the world “evil”. Claire is incredulous that Justine could say such a thing. John initially denies the prediction of disaster, but once his own calculations confirm it, he commits suicide. Claire is terrified of her and Leo’s impending doom, and tries to flee with him to the local village. After returning from this vain attempt at escape, Claire tells Justine that she wants to spend their last moments together out on the terrace, with music and wine. Justine rejects this idea entirely, upsetting Claire.

Justine goes outside to Leo, and tells him they are going to build a magic cave. As Melancholia looms larger in the sky, the trio gathers branches and make a tipi outside. They gather together inside, as Melancholia collides with and obliterates the Earth.

The Apocalypse of God

Melancholia captures what Peter Rollins terms the Apocalypse of God. (3)  This apocalypse is an event that Jesus initiates when he calls the Kingdom of God from the future into the present moment, bringing the transcendent into the immanent. This ushers in the religionless religion that Bonhoeffer identifies as faith: “Faith is the participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form – not, as in in oriental religions, in animal form, monstrous, chaotic, remote, and terrifying, nor in the conceptual forms of the absolute, metaphysical, infinite, etc., nor yet in the Greek divine-human form of ‘man in himself’, but ‘the man for others’, and therefore the Crucified, the man who lives out of the transcendent.” (4)

But what brings about the for-otherness? According to Rollins, it follows from the experience of crucifixion. (5)  To follow Christ is to follow Christ’s loss of all systems of meaning (religious, social, political, etc) on the cross. Crucifixion is the experience by which God calls us to enter the world without the power and protection of systems of meaning. Bonhoeffer says that “[W]e cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! … The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (6)

In Melancholia, this stripping away of all systems of meaning happens to Justine at her wedding. Yet all of these were oppressive to her – they all made demands of her that she could not meet, and made promises of meaning upon which they did not deliver. Any investment she would have had in them would have been idolatrous. In Tillichian terms, if she had made any of these her ultimate concern, they would have failed to fulfill her. In this way, the stripping of these sources of meaning strips away the power these narratives have over her. So far, this is a properly Tillichian approach, but Rollins takes us further than Tillich. Where Tillich suggests that these idols fail because they do not ultimately fulfill, Rollins argues that anything that promises ultimate fulfillment is an idol. In this way, any image of God that offers fulfillment is an idol. Christ on the cross loses God. Bonhoeffer calls us to live without God. What is lost is the deus ex machina that guarantees meaning.

The crucifixion of Christ occurred outside of all systems of meaning. The crucified were stripped of political rights, were cast out of society, and to be crucified was to be cursed, religiously. So when Paul calls us to follow Christ (in whom there is no Jew or Greek, etc), we are being called to exit all systems of meaning. Christianity is not another meaning-granting system among many, it stands outside of all meaning-making systems. Bonhoeffer addresses it in this way:

“Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above [the God of the gaps], which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting point for our ‘secular interpretation’.”

Although Justine is liberated from the systems that oppressed her, her experience of liberation is devastating and traumatic, and suggestive of what is to come in the full Apocalypse of God. It is once one has been liberated from these systems that the Apocalypse of God can occur, that one can be for-others, because one is no longer committed to this world, one is not defined by it, and so one can be for-others without prohibitions that arise from our systems of meaning. But how can one be for others if one rejects the world?

Starting from Nietzsche’s death of God, Altizer describes this rejection of the world as a radical No that allows for a radical Yes, an eschatological faith:

“Friedrich Nietzsche … brought to an end the metaphysical tradition in the West. … No longer is there a metaphysical hierarchy or order which can give meaning or value to existing beings. …[T]he proclamation of the death of God – or, more deeply, the willing of the death of God – is dialectical: a No-saying to God (the transcendence of Sein) makes possible a Yes-saying to human existence (Dasein, total existence in the here and now). Absolute transcendence is transformed into absolute immanence. … Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence is the dialectical correlate of his proclamation of the death of God.” (7)

Altizer points out that Nietzsche’s critique of the Christ of Christianity makes room for Jesus:

“What Christianity has called the gospel is actually the opposite of that which Jesus lived: “ill tidings, a dysangel.” Christianity is a dysangel because it retreated into the very “history” which Jesus transcended and transformed, the transformation of blessedness of Jesus’ proclamation into the No-saying of resentment. Thus Nietzsche looked at Christianity as the stone upon the grave of Jesus.” (8)

So Christianity has acted to block the Apocalypse of God by becoming a meaning-making system (undoing the crucifixion), and it is this system that Nietzsche critiques. But Nietzsche’s critique leads us back to Jesus, and the possibility of a different kind of faith. Altizer again:

“[In Eternal Recurrence], opposites coincide, radical negation has become radical affirmation. … Does Nietzsche point the way to a form of faith that will be authentically contemporary and eschatological at once? We shall define eschatological faith as a form of faith that calls the believer out of his old life in history into a new Reality of grace. This Reality (the Kingdom of God) effects a radical transformation of the reality of the world, reversing both its forms and structures, a transformation that must finally culminate in the “end” of the world. … [I]n Jesus’ proclamations … the Kingdom of God ceases to be a promise and becomes instead a present reality. … [T]he Kingdom – supramundane, future, and belonging to a new era – penetrated from the future into the present, from its place in the beyond into this order, and was operative redemptively as a divine power, as an inbreaking realm of salvation.” (9)

Eschatological faith is also dialectical. The Kingdom of God and kosmos (“old creation”) are antithetical categories. … But Hellenistic Christianity assumed a non-dialectical form: the world became the arena of sanctification, redemption now takes place without any effect upon the actual order of the world. … The Church thus invested the world with an ontological reality … and thereby established what Kierkegaard was to call the great compromise of Christianity. … Christianity had become a “world-affirming”religion. … If the death of God has resurrected an authentic nothingness, then faith can no longer greet the world as the “creation”. Once again faith must know the world as “chaos”. … Therefore the dissolution of the “being” of the world has made possible the renewal of the stance of eschatological faith; for an ultimate and final No-saying to the world can dialectically pass into the Yes-saying of eschatological faith.”

Justine demonstrates with No-saying when she calls the world evil. Whereas John denies that Melancholia will destroy the world, and Claire is terrified that it might, Justine never indicates what her expectation is, though she welcomes an apocalypse, because the world, as it exists, is a source of oppression.
This echoes Tillich’s concern about reading God into the horizontal plane:

“If the idea of God (and the symbols that applied to Him) which expresses man’s ultimate concern is transferred to the horizontal plane, God becomes a being among others whose existence or nonexistence is a matter of inquiry. Nothing, perhaps, is more symptomatic of the loss of the dimension of depth than the permanent discussion about the existence or nonexistence of God – a discussion in which both sides are equally wrong, because the discussion itself is wrong and possible only after the loss of the dimension of depth.” (10)

For John and Claire, the threat posed by Melancholia is their ultimate concern. John responds to this threat by despair and suicide, and Claire responds by despair and religious ritual: she tries to flee what cannot be escaped, and then proposes “wine and music” at the mansion(Sunday morning, anyone?). The existence of the threat is of ultimate concern for the couple.

For Justine, however, the ultimate concern is the evil of the world. If Melancholia will destroy the evil world, she welcomes it. Her eschatological faith is one that is independent of the actual threat of Melancholia. If the rogue planet had simply passed by Earth, she would still remain committed to the destruction of the world.
Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

“Who is God? Not in the first place an abstract belief in God, in his omnipotence, etc. That is not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others’. His ‘being there for others is the experience of transcendence. It is only this ‘being there for others’, maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.” (11)

Justine has experienced crucifixion. A personal apocalypse engenders in her an eschatological faith that prepares her for the Apocalypse of God: the coming of Melancholia to destroy the world. Because Justine’s faith is not a world-affirming faith, she can become other-affirming. The radical No produces a radical Yes. She says No to Claire’s religious responses to Melancholia, to anything that offers assurance (and not just false assurance). Justine’s radical Yes comes when she goes to Leo and tells him it is time to build a magic cave. Justine invokes magic and uses sticks to build an obviously-feeble shelter. There is absolutely no pretense here. The invocation of magic and the frail and failing shelter point directly to the coming Apocalypse, rather than directing Leo and Claire to thoughts of escape or survival. In this place of weakness, Justine comes together with those she loves, free to love them as they are as Melancholia/God comes to obliterate the world.

This is radical liturgy: an act of love that exposes and affirms our brokenness rather than trying to cover over it. In this space, Claire is able to weep, and to be with those she loves. Justine remains calm, and Leo, the child, waits almost expectantly. Radical liturgy does not draw us into despair, but acknowledges the place where we already are, and allows us to acknowledge it and share that place with others in love.

What happens after the world ends? What does the post-apocalypse look like? It is not a place where all is made right according to the systems of meaning of the old creation. It is a place that begins to emerge in the magic cave, in a place of weakness, united in love and frailty, open to the world-destroying, incoming Apocalypse of God.

1 Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 182.
2 F. Forrester Church, Ed., The Essential Tillich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-7
3 Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God
4 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 273-75.
5 Peter Rollins, Insurrection
6 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 273-75.
7 Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and The Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1966) 98-103.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 F. Forrester Church, Ed., The Essential Tillich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-7
11 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 291.

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

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(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.

Review: The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins (Part 1 of 3)

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The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Satisfaction and Certainty. By Peter Rollins. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2012, 208 pages.

In his new book, The Idolatry of God, Peter Rollins unveils the positive content driving his deconstructive moves in previous books, such as Insurrection (2011), The Fidelity of Betrayal (2008), and How (Not) To Speak of God (2006).  I will focus my review on the logic of this content, and leave the juicy cultural tidbits and parables for the reader to digest on their own.  Needless to say, Rollins never disappoints in the latter department.  The former, however, does leave me with a slight (and ironic) sense of lack.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Rollins is interested in breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction.  The first third of the book, entitled “The Old Creation” is all about the origins of this addiction.  In his wonderfully titled first chapter, “The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered,” Rollins explores the source of our desire. Using Jacques Lacan’s development theory of “mirror phase,” he points to the way in which we all undergo two births: a physical birth, and the birth of our consciousness (between 6-18 months).  This second birth is where we experience a separation from our mother, developing selfhood, but also introducing our first sense of loss.  In being given an “I” (an inner world), we also experience for the first time a “Not-I” (an outer world). 

But as Rollins quickly points out, this sense of loss is an illusion.  “Why? Because there was no ‘me’ before this experience of separation … The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place” (13-14).  Rollins calls this illusory gap “Original Sin,” and describes how it generates many beliefs and actions that attempt to fill the gap with objects (what he calls “Idols”). The problem, as we all experience, is that this insatiable hunger is never filled by our Idolatry.  It turns out, not even God can fill it, though Christian worship bands do not want you to know this.  But the reason God can’t/won’t fill the void is because it is an illusion in the first place.  Here, it’s worth noting that Rollins is working with a significantly altered form of privation-theory.  What distinguishes Lacan from Augustine is that Lacan believes this privation is, again, an illusion.  

The Law, in turn, as a prohibition of whatever object/idol we chase, actually has the unintended affect of intensifying our desire to fill the illusory gap.  In saying “no” to the object (perhaps in deference to God as the only Object worth loving), the Law actually maintains the system of idolatry.  “While people tend to think that the Law and sin existed at opposite ends of the spectrum – the Law being the thing that defended us against sin – Paul writes of how they actually are intertwined and exist on the same side” (29).

Yet even when the object/idol is not prohibited but comes into our grasp, its impotence to fill our illusory void becomes apparent, giving the void greater power over us.  We intuitively know this, which puts us in a double-bind.  This is why many will unconsciously sabotage themselves to prevent themselves from grasping the idol once and for all, which would only reveal its impotence.  Furthermore, the ego is constructed as a self of Unbelief that will refuse to peer behind the curtain, where the real beliefs about our selves exist.  The ego focuses us on a new story, in which we are in control of our destiny.  These new mythologies spin out an identity that is political, cultural and especially religious.  The larger mythologies that we participate in become levels of ego that create our social norms, providing us a place and purpose.

However, Jesus, despite being commodified for the purpose of religious self-denial by many Christians, actually becomes most angry in the Gospels when he encounters those who present themselves as right, good and moral.  In contrast, Jesus is gentle with those who show no pretense.  In order to have our pretense broken, we must intentionally put ourselves in places where we encounter different mythologies that challenge the absoluteness of our own.  The problem is that we handle the mythologies of the others in four ways: (1) by consuming them into ourselves; (2) by vomiting them out of ourselves; (3) by tolerating their existence while denying or suppressing their differences; (4) by aiming for base agreement.  Rollins says that all of these responses assume a position of strength, and we see the church today utilizing all four of them.  What the church really needs to do, for Rollins, is to assume the posture of Christ with regard to its own mythology, so that we stop viewing the Other as strange and alien, and to begin viewing ourselves as strange and alien.  This will become an instrumental for the ecclesiology that Rollins sets up in the last third of the book (“The New Collective”).  

 

I will post Part 2 of my review in the next few days.

Trusted Colleagues

I can’t tell you how sweet these words are to my ears.  In addition to my last post, which calls for trusted friends within the congregation, there is also the need for trusted colleagues.

The most prophetic sentence: “The only way to get a trusted colleague is to be one yourself, and the only way to be a trusted colleague is to find some colleagues with whom you can absolutely BE yourself. No fake smiles. No unnecessary pieties. Just your true, most real, most honest and unedited self.”Amen.

More Than A Pastor: A New Year’s Resolution

It all started with an article in the Christian Century by a pastor and professor (and soon to be president of my alma mater, Princeton Seminary) Dr. Craig Barnes.  It has the rather straightforward thesis as its title: “Pastor, Not Friend.”  Landon Whitsitt has done a remarkable job in responding to Barnes with his post entitled “Pastor AND Friend.”  

There is a lot happening in the subtext of this topic (a favorite word of Barnes in his seminal book, The Pastor as Minor Poet).  Obviously we need to name the pastor/friend dichotomy as unnecessary.  But, in a sense, the distinction IS necessary depending on who the pastor is, and who the congregant is.  There simply is no one-size-fits-all-approach to this issue.

In my first two years of ministry that I have become close friends with certain congregants – mostly those who are of a similar age/life situation (young parents).  There are others with whom I am colleagues, much like Barnes’ elder Jack, and we share quite a bit of life together beyond our church business.   There are many who attend church who I sense a kinship with but simply haven’t been able to get to know better yet.  There are others who are very glad I’m at the church because they like my performance, and their support is all the mutuality I will receive.  There are perhaps others who are not so happy with my performance but are still coming to church for other more important reasons.

These last two groups I would not consider friends.  Through an organic negotiation over time, it has become clear that, for now, I am their professional pastor.  The first two groups, however, center on trust and intimacy, and that means that while I am their professional pastor, I have become more than that.  I have become their friend.

On the one hand, I am realistic.  The Church is a diverse group of people, and it is clear that one cannot find a sense of kinship and friendship with everybody.  And surely, one can even speak to varying degrees of trust and intimacy between friends, which why Facebook allows us to label our friends as “Close friends” vs. “Acquaintances.”

On the other hand, my personal preference would be for all of us to be friends.  I would rather use my preaching/teaching profession as a means to this end.

Barnes speaks about being ordained to a kind of holy loneliness by virtue of the nature of the call, and I’m sure that accepting one’s role as a professional keeps things very decent and in order.  But our world is not decent and in order, and frankly people my age are not willing to share their lives with a professional (only an emergency will send them into my office, or that of a therapist).  Instead, they want a friend.  Not a professional friend either, where friendship is a means to some other end.

The good news is that this mode of relation is itself a medium of good news.  Jesus called his disciples friends.  He depended on others.  He was vulnerable with others.  He did not have friends outside of his ministry.  And yes, it was messy – they wanted to be his favorites, and yet they misunderstood him, disappointed him, even betrayed him.

I sometimes wonder if the reason pastors prefer to keep a professional distance and have a universal rule of “no friends in church” is to keep themselves from getting hurt.  Or, perhaps more likely, if this is intended to keep pastors from hurting others unintentionally (like Elder Jack).  But the question I sense my own generational peers asking is this:  “How do I know you’re for real?”  The answer?  Friendship.

I took the call to my current church not knowing anyone as a friend.  Instead, I was known and installed as the professional pastor.  I tried to find friends outside of church, and I did.  They have been wonderful.  But that was not enough, and it shouldn’t be enough.  I needed to be more than a professional pastor, I needed to be a friend.  And this is about meeting two needs: first, the need to be faithful to my own vision of what a Christian community should be like.  And second, the need to be loved and appreciated as the person who I am, not as the professional.  Now you might say: “why can’t being professional be incorporated into your person, Chris?”  Well, the truth of the matter is, I don’t want my relationships with people in church to be made or broken based on my performance.  That is not mutuality.  That’s business.  It’s also called works-righteousness, which is possible not only in our relationship with God but also (especially!) with other people.

While I will remain faithful to my calling as Teaching Elder, I will do so in a way that refuses professional distance (sorry Barnes).  I will be pouring my best energy into those I can call my friends, because I would rather drink deeply from waters that are sustaining rather than attempting to please people by becoming someone I am not (or not yet).  This is who I am.  This is what I value.  And even if not everyone can be my friend right here and right now, my hope and prayer is that everyone will have a friend in our community.  One must simply love friendship for its own sake.  We must love people for their own sake.  We have failed at this, using relationships and people as a means to an end, usually compensating for something we think we lack in our lives.

I am no doubt failing according to the traditional metrics of church health and success, and this has caused me unnecessary grief and heartache over whether I belong where I am.  Giving is down, attendance is down, and I have not baptized a single convert in my time as pastor.  But I have more friends than I started out with, and I have seen friendships form that did not previously exist.  Some might say I’m settling for less than what God wants.  I think what God wants is right under our noses.

Finally, I implore you: do not make a new year’s resolution that attempts to add something extra to your self.  If anything, make a resolution to accept who you already are.  And enjoy the next year with people who accept you as you are.

*note: I have not offered an exhaustive definition of “friendship,” beyond vague notions of mutuality.  That’s because I don’t really know what it is I’m looking for: friendship is a mysterious thing, like love.  Like God, even.