Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Review: How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins

I finally finished reading (#19) How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins. I would describe this book as a theology of the emergent movement, a 'foundations' sort of book. Maybe Rollins wouldn't describe it that way, but I mean it as a compliment. The book describes an understanding of God - or a not-understanding of God - that is where I see a lot of people these days, where I see a lot of people who are looking for a spiritual life, a faith community.

Rollins writes two parts - the first is the 'heavy' stuff - the theology, and the second is outlines and explanations of twelve worship services that represent what he's talked about in the first part. The services aren't meant to be copied, though they can be, but they're meant to give more tangible examples of what he's talking about. I had a hard time getting into the book at first, so I went and read the services, part two, first, and then went back and read the 'heavy' stuff, which I found a helpful approach. I managed to finally finish it off (I have no excuse, really, it is a short book) when I was stuck in a doctor's office waiting room for 2+ hours.

Rollins talks a lot about how we often think we can talk about God in a knowledgeable way, but he stresses that what we don't know, and our realization of what we don't know, is often more significant. He talks about "conceptual idols" - making idols of our beliefs about God. "Like an aesthetic idol . . . the conceptual idol refers to any system of thought which the individual or community takes to be a visible rendering of God. The only significant different between the aesthetic idol and the conceptual idol lies in the fact that the former reduces God to a physical object while the latter reduces God to an intellectual object." (12) Revelation is "not to be though of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown." (17)

Rollins talks a lot about our beliefs, our theology, as something that can potential get in our way of having actual encounters with God. He sees this is the problem of the Pharisees in the New Testament. "They held so closely to their interpretation of the Messiah that when the Messiah finally appeared in a form that was different to what they expected, they rejected the Messiah in order to retain the integrity of their interpretation." (21) It isn't, then, necessarily that what they Pharisees believe is so wrong or destructive. It is that what they believe and how committed they are to the rightness of what they believe leaves them unable to experience anything greater than their beliefs. He continues, "If theology comes to be understood as they place where God speaks, then we must seek, not to speak of God, but rather to be that place where God speaks." Compelling.

Some other highlights:
"God is not the object of our thought but rather the absolute subject before whom we are the object. This is confirmed in baptism when we say that we are 'baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.' Here we do not name God but God's name names us." (23, bold is my emphasis.)
What Rollins calls an "a/theistic" approach to God: "a form of disbelieving what one believes, or rather, believing in God while remain in dubious concerning what one believes about God." (26)
The idea of God as "hypernomous" - not anonymous as in completely unknown. But hypernomous - so known to us that God is unknown. Overwhelming.
"It is only in the midst of undecidability that real decisions are made. For instance, take the example of two people getting married with the firm conviction that the union will last as long as they both live. In this state of obvious delusion no real decision needs to be made. The future is believed to be so certain that the decision to marry requires no decision at all. Yet if two people understand that their relationship will face various hardships, that the future is uncertain and that there are no guarantees, then, far from preventing a decision, this is the very point when a real decision needs to be made. The vows of marriage are not so much affirmations of what one believes will take place but rather promises that one will work towards ensuring that it will indeed happen." (34)
Rollins talks about Jesus not as one who gives us all the answers, but as one who makes us want more, ask more: "Instead of religious discourse being a type of drink designed to satisfy our thirst for answers, Jesus made his teaching salty, evoking thirst." (37)
"A true spiritual seeking can be understood as the ultimate sign that one already has that which on seeks, or rather, that one is already grasped by that which one seeks to grasp. Consequently a genuine seeking after God is evidence of having found." (50)

All along while reading I had been thinking of Derrida and deconstruction, so I was glad Rollins mentioned him (45-46) too. I first encountered Derrida in my senior year of high-school English, and found it all a bit overwhelming and disagreeable. So, I took a whole course on Derrida in seminary, and found him a little bit more disagreeable (and thought-provoking.) But the context in which Rollins talks about Derrida and theology finally had me getting and appreciating a bit more.

Rollins' final section in part one transitions towards the more concrete, talking about love and ethics and what the previous chapters mean about how we live as disciples of Jesus Christ. This leads to the transition to the worship services, which are really quite unique.

An excellent read. And probably a short read, if you're a bit more determined than I've been about reading these last few months!
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