Monday, January 4, 2010

Emergent Theology: A Review of "How (Not) to Speak of God" by Peter Rollins

Several people, including current and former students, have asked me to comment on Peter Rollins 2006 book: How (Not) to Speak of God. It has a glowing foreword by Brian McLaren and it purports to be a contribution to the "emergent conversation." The back cover claims (with the usual modesty of back covers everywhere) that the "emerging church" movement "offers an unprecedented message of transformation that has the potential to revolutionize the theological architecture of Western Christianity." Well, obviously no hype there.

It is characteristic of all things postmodern to claim that modernity has been left behind and that we should pay no heed to that very modern looking man behind the curtain. I'm afraid I just don't buy it. A transcending of the modern would look very, very different from what we see in the Emergent Church, which has been called (rather unkindly) the seeker sensitive movement for overgrown youth groups.
But it is true that, as Os Guiness points out, the great flaw in the emergent conversation is that all the critique is directed toward a modernity that is supposedly dead anyway, while the contemporary (pop) culture is swallowed uncritically. As long as attention can be distracted by all the "bad, old modern stuff," we don't have to be specific about what the positive program is going forward. Ah . . . but I forgot, it isn't a program but a conversation. A very convenient dodge, that. Does it mean the emergent church is all talk and no action? Does that mean it is just a debating society in a non-academic but still very ivory tower? Or does it just mean: “Don’t try to pin me down on what I believe because I’m not sure anyway.” Anyway, you already knew I was skeptical. On to Rollins.

Like all good books, this one is organized around one "big idea" and it explores that idea from different angles and discusses the implications of that idea for a number of areas. The big idea of this book is that God is unknowable. On the very first page, Rollins writes:
"Christian faith, it could be said, is born in the aftermath of God. Our fragile faith is fanned into life in the wake of what we believe to have been the incoming of a life-giving encounter in which we feel connected with, and transformed by, the source of everything that is. . . such faith cannot be reduced to the mere affirmation of religious dogma . . For Christians testify to having been caught up in and engulfed by that which utterly transcends them.” (p. 1)

Rollins goes on to explain that naming God is only naming our experience of God (p. 2) and that all doctrines that pretend to give a true knowledge of God are idols. (p. 14) He argues that this position is not liberal because it does not give up on the possibility of speaking of God, as liberalism does. While Rollins never names who he means by “liberal” in this book, he seems to have the John Spongs of the world in mind, those who call us to move “beyond theism” to some sort of totally immanent, post-Christian humanism. Rollins rejects this move as one extreme and then describes “Fundamentalism” all theology that purports to declare truth about God (which pretty much takes in everybody from Irenaeus to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Wesley to Newman to Benedict XVI).

“Very briefly, fundamentalism can be understood as a particular way of believing one’s beliefs rather than referring to the actual content of one’s beliefs. It can be described as holding a belief system in such a way that it mutually excludes all other systems, rejecting other views in such a way that it mutually excludes all other systems, rejecting other views in direct proportion to how much they differ from one’s own.” (p. 26)

How on earth is one to respond to such unmitigated nonsense? I can only suppose Rollins finds it convenient to go to a “fundamentalist” doctor when he is ill; that is, one who rules out wrong beliefs in making the diagnoses and stubbornly clings to the “fundamentalist” notion that a belief system built on the existence of germs and antibiotics is superior to one built on the ideas of witches and spells causing all ailments. Or does Rollins believe that “fundamentalism” is only defined this way with regard to religion? If so, he is essentially agreeing with the modern doctrine that religion should be private, rather than public, because religion deals with values while science deals with facts. The restless ghost of Hume mumbling about the inability to derive an “ought" from an “is” haunts the pages of Rollins’ book along with the grisly ghost of Kant ceaselessly flogging his belief in the inability of man to know anything about God.

Although there are no footnotes to Bultmann and Tillich (and there should be) any reader who is familiar with neo-orthodoxy can easily recognize Rollins’ ideas as broadly similar to those of these early 20th century writers. God as the source of our being, faith as an encounter with that which cannot be named or described, orthodoxy as idolatry – it is all rehashed once again. One is left scratching one’s head thinking “But I thought all that stuff was dead and buried. Has Rollins not heard of the 1960s when neo-orthodoxy ended in the death of God theology, which itself lasted less than a decade?” Is Rollins urging us to go back to the 1950s?

Oh, but Rollins apparently has heard of the “shattered spectrum” of the 1960’s revolt against all theological systems, including the neo-orthodox ones that had arisen during the first half of the 20th century in opposition to the over-optimistic social gospel of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Great War dealt a hard blow to Western optimism and the presumption of progress and the Niebuhr brothers savaged a liberal Protestantism that overlaid a thin religious veneer over a Rotary Club optimism in its role as the culture religion of Modernity.

But the neo-orthodox emphasis on sin and tragedy didn’t last long. When New Left of the 1960s arose, a chastened optimism returned in the form of Marxian views of history, ideology and revolution. Latin American, Black and Feminist Liberation theology preached a message of Christian love re-defined in terms of personal liberation from poverty, restrictive morality and traditional ethics. Rollins gives clear evidence of having bought into liberation theology in his book as he puts forward as a substitute for doctrine about God a teaching that love is all you need.

One has flashbacks of reading Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics at times while reading this book, right down to the examples of the Nazis at the front door when you have Jews hidden in the attic being the reason why lying is sometimes good. (p. 57f) Rollins opposes “ethical systems” (one presumes he means divine command ethics here) to love. (p. 65) He goes on to expound his Marxian (pragmatic) view of truth that could have been lifted straight from John Dewey.

“If we take truth to mean any act which positively transforms reality, rather than describes reality, then there is no problem acknowledging that, while denying there are Jews in the house is empirically incorrect, it is true in a religions sense precisely because it protects the innocent.” (p. 57)

The problem with this view is how one knows what it means to positively transform reality as opposed to negatively transforming reality. Not all change is for the best as even Rollins would acknowledge. (If you doubt this, ask him if the election of Sarah Palin in 2012 would constitute “progress.”) So what constitutes good change as opposed to bad change? Traditionally, Christian thought (and the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions in philosophy) would answer that good change is change that brings people and society into a closer approximation to the Good. The Good is objective reality, at the apex of which is (for Christians) the God who created the world according to his divine wisdom. So change that brings us closer to God and his will is good and that which takes us away from God is evil. Good and evil are knowable categories precisely because God has revealed both himself in Jesus Christ and his will in the Law and supremely in Jesus Christ. But for Rollins, we cannot know God or objective truth of any kind. So how do we evaluate whether we should join the revolution or oppose it, take up a given cause or ignore it, vote for this candidate or for that other one? In theory he has no way to decide; in practice he simply follows the politically correct crowd.

There are a couple of fundamental mistakes in the book that lead to great problems. One is on p. 14 where he mentions the Old Testament prohibitions against placing the divine into representational form and then, astonishingly, equating this with the idea that God can be revealed thorough the human logos. He completely ignores the fact that it was precisely the Word of God that came to the prophets that was the way that God communicated with Israel. The prophets denounced idolatry in words, which were the only fit way for the true God to be revealed. Then, when Jesus came, he was the Word of God made flesh. Rollins applies the Old Testament strictures against images of God to both Old and New Testament revelation through the Word. The baby (the Word of God) is thrown out with the bath water (idolatrous images of God).

Of course, there is truth in the big idea of the unknowability of God. All the great theologians of the Tradition have known that God is greater than any human words or concepts used to describe him. And this fact is precisely why we can only have true knowledge of God by means of God’s self-revelation culminating in Jesus Christ. The revealed word of God is the Bible’s answer to the dilemma of the human inability to know God by human reason or imagination. Through Christ and the Scriptures we can know God truly, though not exhaustively. What we know of God is certain because in Christ we have seen God. Throughout the book, Rollins attempts to imagine God, to think of God in human categories – doing exactly what he says should not and cannot be done. Yet, how could be otherwise once revelation has been rejected as it is in this book? I found no evidence that Rollins views Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God in this book; if he believes it, he draws no implications from it.

Rollins explicitly disavows the teaching that the Church has Good News for the world: “In contrast to the view that evangelism is that which gives an answer for those who are asking, we must have faith to believe that those who seek will find for themselves. . . the job of the Church is not to provide an answer . . . but to help the religious question to arise.” (pp. 40-41) Rollins gives a good summary of his views in the sentence: “Christianity thus engages in a pragmatic discourse which intends towards the one who lies beyond all language.” (p. 41)

When pressed for specifics, Rollins defines this rather abstract concept of Christianity as being reducible to love. He interprets I John 4:7-16 as follows:

“Here John equates the existence of religious knowledge with the act of love. Knowledge of God (the Truth) as a set of propositions is utterly absent; instead he claims that those who exhibit a genuine love know God, regardless of their religious system.” (p. 57)

Rollins selectively quotes and misinterprets Scripture here for his own ends. In fact, the very chapter he quotes begins with a doctrinal test for how to tell a false prophet from a true one:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (I John 4:1-4)

Here we have just one example of the New Testament proposing a doctrinal test for false prophets. Against Docetism, John affirms the humanity of Christ. In I John 5:1-5, he also affirms the Messiahship (v. 1) and the deity of Jesus Christ (v. 5) as propositions to be believed. So the foundations of the two natures doctrine of Chalcedon are laid already in I John: one person who is fully God and fully man. We could also refer to I Cor. 15:1-2 or to Romans 10:9-10.

“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Rom. 10:9-10)

The Apostle Paul fits Rollins’ definition of a fundamentalist. For all his talk about a postmodern critique of the modern idolatry of pure reason, the reality is that Rollins stands with the modern philosophers in their rejection of revelation and their Cartesian starting point of the autonomous self instead of the self-revealing God of Scripture. His real problem is not with modernity, but with Scripture itself and with the orthodox tradition of theology preached by the Church down through all ages beginning with the Apostles.

This book could only appear to be “new,” “profound,” a “third way beyond liberalism and fundamentalism” to those who are biblically illiterate and blissfully ignorant of history. There is nothing here that Bultmann and Tillich didn’t already say and the move to liberation as the content of salvation was already made in the 1960s by Gutierrez, Cone and Reuther. There is no Gospel here; only a dreary moralism and a free-flowing religiousity detached from historic Christianity. So why are young Evangelicals eating this stuff up? Why don’t they recognize it as modern, liberal heresy?

All the answers I can think of are depressing. But it is a fact that sound doctrine is seldom preached from the seeker sensitive churches and the megachurches and that much of Evangelicalism has sold its soul to pragmatic church growth techniques derived from the social sciences and has embraced experience as its authority just as much as liberal Protestantism has. So when its young people are lured into hoary, old, liberal Protestant heresies via the Emergent Church, it should look at itself in the mirror and ask some hard questions about the place of expository preaching and Christian education in the contemporary church. All Rollins has to offer is a temporary half-way house between Christianity and Spongism. Can we not offer something better?


Anonymous said...

I suspected that you would not be a fan of Rollins from the moment I saw the title of this post. Nonetheless it made me think hard about why I actually liked his book.

If I can make a case for Rollins' appeal it would like have to be that it's a reaction against the sort of small, maudlin, simplistic God that was sold to those of us under 40 by evangelical cultural Christianity. Part of this will go against the encrusted dogma of evangelicalism (which is itself now more post-modern than it would care to admit) much of which is more cultural than Biblical. I don't think Rollins gets there all the way, but without reading him I don't think I would have picked up Charles Taylor who was much more convincing about just how far we are from even just the medieval church.

Craig Carter said...

Thanks for your response. I can't understand why there aren't more responses given the high interest in Rollins that is out there. I'd make two responses.

First, you don't speak for people under 40 any more than I speak for people over 40. It may be psychologically comforting to huddle behind a demographic grouping but it is an illusion. Lot's of under 40 people don't have the same jaundiced view of Evangelicalism that you are expressing and I know because I teach many of them and I read many of them. Own your personal reactions and opinions as a responsible individual.

Second, if you actually read Medieval or Patristic sources or even reliable guides to their thought, you will see that Rollins misunderstands the Pseudo Dionysius, for example, who was no forerunner of postmodernism but rather the major transmitter of neoplatonic thought to Thomas, who quotes him almost as much as he quotes Aristotle in the Summa Theologica. My point is that the understanding of God as beyond our human understanding is right there in the Augustinian-Thomist tradition that is the common heritage of the Church including Evangelicalism and does not need to be "discovered" by Kant, let alone by Derrida and co. This is why good theology leads to worship in the presence of mystery and awe. It does in Thomas, it does in Barth and where it doesn't we should be on the lookout for signs of accommodation to culture.

I will admit that Evangelicalism's main weakness is its theological shallowness. It is like a an old woman who lives alone in a single room in a mansion on a vast estate and never gets out. The problem is not the tradition but a generation too distracted by TV and other trivialities to be bothered probing its own spiritual and intellectual heritage. This is characteristic of our age as a whole, of modernity, not just of a single generation. Rather than turn to Rollins, I would wish that young evengelicals with a lifetime ahead of them would turn to the study of patristics, the schoolmen, the reformers post-Reformation orthodoxy and the best of the Roman Catholic theological and philosophical tradition like Daniel Williams, Hans Boersma, Chris Hall, Peter Widdicombe and so many others are doing. I think of Timothy George, J. I. Packer and Tom Oden as models here.

The problem is not our faith or the tradition, but our accommodation to our hedonistic, superficial, materialistic, image-driven, illogical culture. Perhaps on that we can agree.

Anonymous said...

Let me first clarify something by saying that I wouldn't want to be a member of any generation that would have me as its spokesman (apologies to Marx - Groucho that is). Nonetheless, I'd stand by the observation that at least some of us have felt that way.

It does not terribly surprise me that the idea of God as beyond human understanding is woven all through church history. What has happened in evangelicalism is that God has been depicted as everyone's pal. Out of this someone produced ironic "Jesus is my homeboy" t-shirts that were subsequently co-opted by young evangelicals thinking "hey Jesus IS my homeboy." I suppose thinking of God as your friend is good as far as it goes but it can also be over-emphasized.

Wanting a different or perhaps more complete picture of God is likely driving a number of movements that are fracturing evangelicalism: emergents, neo-reformed, and Catholic as well as Orthodox converts. Though I'm sure that any number of learned evangelical scholars or pastors would heartily agree that God is beyond our understanding, this is not what has been emphasized by the movement.

Craig Carter said...

Good points all, but why not cut the "Evangelical Movement" a little slack or at least apply the same standards as we do to everything else? T-shirt theology? Should we not distinguish between the popularized, lowest level expressions of a "movement" and the other levels? There are scholars, pastors, members and geeky teenagers. Not all are the same. Everything that is alive has a fringe.

It seems to me to be a bit like judging Roman Catholicism by looking at a syncretistic parade in Mexico by peasants who worship a statue of a pagan deity thinly disguised as the Virgin Mary. Or like looking at a fanatical Al-Quaeda terrorist and saying: "Yep, that is Islam for you." Or like looking at the eco-fascist Sea Shepherd Society and saying "I could never be an environmentalist because of them."

I, for one, don't think the answer is to convert to Catholicism, much as it remains a perennial temptation, because Catholicism has its problems too just like we do. {I'd rather they gave us the Pope and Mother Theresa and kept the dead ritualism, bad singing and homosexual clergy.)

If there is anything that HAS been emphasized by the movement, it is evangelism. And you know, you can do worse. Trust me: worse stuff has been done in the name of Christ.