Thursday, February 14, 2013

Should We Give Up God For Lent?

Note: For the latest in this conversation, check out my reply to Peter Rollins' response to this piece, The Radical Within.

Some people give up chocolate, coffee or movies for Lent, but Peter Rollins has a slightly more radical proposal: Why not try giving up God?

Peter Rollins argues that real spiritual courage involves fully experiencing the absence of God. He warns that, as long as we allow ourselves to believe in a personal God who intervenes in history for the sake of love, we risk constructing a false god in our own image. Far too often, he says, our belief is in a super-hero God who serves as a crutch for our own inability to cope with reality.

As an alternative to this fairy-tale God, Rollins encourages us to embrace Jesus' felt sense of abandonment on the cross, presumably on an ongoing basis. His message seems to be that truly daring and courageous Christians aren't afraid to abandon belief in God and experience the desolation of atheism. To promote this message of radical doubt, Rollins has developed an annual campaign: Atheism For Lent.

I have been following Peter Rollins' ministry for some time now. Many people I respect find his writings deeply inspirational. This has encouraged me to take his message seriously. I have heard him speak in person, read his book and followed his online campaigns over the last couple of years. After extended consideration, I now want to outline some serious problems I see with the gospel he is preaching.

The Mystique of Elitism

As far as I am aware, Rollins has never laid out exactly who his target audience is, but my observation is that most people who are engaging with his message are either seminary trained or have a serious commitment to theological study. This is not surprising, given Peter's language and style of presentation. Of all the popular Christian thinkers I know, Peter Rollins is one of the most avant garde and edgy. His mystique is the promise of something new and unique in the 1st-world Evangelical/Protestant experience.

I wonder about the implications of this mystique. When I read Peter Rollins, and when I follow the commenters on his social media offerings, I cannot help but notice a theme of intellectual elitism and a fascination with secret knowledge. Ordinary Christians believe in a fairy-tale God-in-the-sky, but we know the truth. Most believers use God as a crutch, but we see clearly and cast aside our beliefs with courage. Most people who read the Bible think it is a story about God blessing the world, but we know that it is actually a story about radical doubt and abandonment by God.

I encourage my friends who are big fans of Rollins to take a serious look at what attracts them to his teachings. There is good stuff there; I do not deny it. The dark night of the soul can be just what the doctor ordered at certain points in our lives. But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?

Injustice and Intellectualism

Something else I find troubling is how little Peter Rollins speaks about the need for social transformation, peacemaking and justice in our world. Instead, he emphasizes the personal experience and condition of individuals. He preaches individual salvation through an embrace of radical doubt. As Rollins presents it, the way forward is through each individual's decision to embrace a reality in which God is mute and uninvolved with the creation.

This sounds oddly familiar. Despite the fact that Rollins is superficially at odds with mainstream Evangelicalism, his message is one that bears great resemblance to the personal salvation narrative that is so central to Evangelical churches. Whether it is accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior or accepting the godless doubt of existential atheism, the major push is personal transformation via intellectual belief. The very fact that Rollins can ask us to give up God for lent suggests that he thinks that faith in an active, personal God is a preference, a chosen belief system, rather than a conviction that grows out of long experience and relationship with the Holy Spirit.

For those of us who really have experienced a living and powerful God - a God who intervenes in history and shows us God's true character in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus - these intellectual games do not cut the mustard. Whether offered to us by mainstream Evangelicalism or the avant garde of Peter Rollins, these head trips do not offer the whole wheat bread of life that we need to survive, thrive and bring healing to this broken world.

Safe Games for Comfortable People

I have a friend who spent years in the L'Arche Community, living alongside individuals with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. He is also an erudite and astute theologian, and we got to talking about Rollins' Atheism for Lent campaign. At one point in our conversation he looked at me and said, "I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L'Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God."

This statement drove home for me how irrelevant much of Peter Rollins' message is to those who are the most marginalized in our society. To those who are struggling under the burden of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment or broken homes, is atheism the answer? For the defrauded migrant worker, for the dispossessed Palestinian refugee, for those who are imprisoned for conscience - would Rollins prescribe atheism?

In my experience, a godless worldview (whether it takes the form of explicit non-belief or functional atheism) is most attractive to those who enjoy privileged positions in society. Rich and middle class people have the luxury of doubting God. But for those who face oppression, injustice and persecution, the reality of God's leadership and presence is absolutely essential for survival. While Peter Rollins purports to preach a hard-core gospel of existential doubt, he has little to offer those who are daily experiencing the reality of Christ's suffering.

We Really Do Need God

Tearing down false images of God is an important task, but this cannot be the end of the story. God does not leave Job sitting on ashes and picking at his sores. After the night must come the dawn. Unfortunately, Rollins seems unwilling to engage in the process of developing an alternative vision. Rather than offering a positive understanding of who God is, he seems solely interested open-ended deconstruction.

Leading people into darkness and doubt and leaving them there is simply irresponsible. We live in a deeply broken world that is in more need than ever of the redemptive power of God's living Spirit. How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing! How can we give up God for almost six weeks? How would we sustain our struggle for justice, truth, mercy and genuine love? What could be the possible benefit of denying this healing, life-giving power for forty days? We live in a world desperately in need of God's presence and intervention. Will we dare to believe?


glassdimly said...

Right on, Micah. Well said.

Bill said...

Peter Rollins call to embrace suffering is not a new idea. Jesus' disciples heard Jesus call them to take up their cross and follow him. And it was not a "head decision" or a "heart decision" but a "whole-being decision." Jesus was talking about following him to a literal cross. Early Friends embraced the cross and sought to experience an inward cross that matched up to that outward cross that Jesus was on.

The real spiritual (and lenten) challenge is to remain connected to God while on the cross. Letting go of God is foolish.

tracker said...

I wanted to provide an answer (not THE answer) to the statement regarding people with schizophrenia or disabilities (mostly the former).

For schizophrenics, there is a powerful sense that the voices and hallucinations are very, VERY real.

When you embrace a supernatural philosophy, like an all-powerful humanoid creator, prophets, evil spirits, demons, exorcisms, and so on - it lends validation to that perception, so suddenly the person suffering from schizophrenia doesn't have a neurological problem, they're possessed by demons, and when (not if) religious "solutions" to demonic possession don't work, they start asking themselves why.

And the voices always have an answer.

They keep on with the same answers they provided since the beginning.

"You're evil, that's why. Everybody can see it."

"The priest has given up. He knows you're worthless. You should just kill yourself."

"You're slime. The world would be better without you."

"They're not trying to help you, they're trying to hurt you. You can't trust them."

Suddenly these aren't hallucinations, they're real forces that have an intelligence.

You hear, over and over again that you're worthless/bad/evil/wrong, from voices that sound more real than the humans around you, and you hear from the humans around you that there are supernatural forces in the world, including evil ones, or that you're possessed, or that if you pray, God will help, that lends reality to the voices, and when God DOESN'T help, because prayer never cures schizophrenia, it must be because of something wrong with YOU, just like the voices said.

The outcome is not guaranteed, or course, and I'm sure there are schizophrenics who've found faith to be helpful. I'm game for anything that works, but there is a VERY real danger that if you tell someone with schizophrenia that there's a kind and loving god out there that helps good people, you will be condemning them to a life of fear, pain, and misery.

For people with disabilities, the danger is much, much less. That said, the assertion that there's an all-powerful deity does, from time to time, imply that said deity WANTED you to be disabled. Not everybody finds that helpful or comforting.

If you tell someone with problems like that there is no god, it COULD be bad for them, but it could just as easily release them from the worry that there's something wrong with them on a metaphysical level. Suddenly the disability has no risk of supernatural cause, and the voices are the result of neurological problems, not demonic forces that can never be overcome, and science and human ingenuity can help overcome those problems.

Medicine, therapy, reassurance, surgery, and machinery can allow people to have freedom from the persecution of hallucinatory voices, and assurance that their problem doesn't speak of a bigger problem that will put their soul at risk, and blindness, deafness, or both can be overcome.

There is a VERY real danger in faith for some people, and a very real source of hope in atheism.

The Digital Quaker said...

I don't need to abandon God to embrace God.

Some people are radical for the sake of being radical.

Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas said...

Tracker makes an important and interesting point. A lot of things depend on your perspective. Not your creedal formula but literally the angle of your position in time and space relative to the formula.

I would say that I respect and am deeply influenced by the writing and oral messages that Peter Rollins has delivered over the years. I would even say that he has provided a bridge for the growth and sustainability of my faith over the past few years. I would even say that I can't think of any other living voice who is well-known that has had anything like the impact on me in the past few years that Peter Rollins has had.

AND I find that I also don't disagree with you on any specific point you're making here. I think maybe you're both right, because you might be talking about different things with the same words.

I'm thinking that maybe Peter Rollins is talking about a semantic and psychological distinction where you might be talking about an ontological distinction?

Is there a huge population for whom lessons about semantics is totally beside the point, and quite possibly devastatingly harmful?


Is there a huge population who would really benefit from spending some time thinking about the semantics of their stated beliefs & claims?


One of your most cutting insights goes like so: "Despite the fact that Rollins is superficially at odds with mainstream Evangelicalism, his message is one that bears great resemblance to the personal salvation narrative that is so central to Evangelical churches. Whether it is accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior or accepting the godless doubt of existential atheism, the major push is personal transformation via intellectual belief."

But maybe he sounds like that because these white, affluent Evangelicals might compose a large percentage of the people his specific gifts enable him to help?

Think of it in terms of degrees.

Think of a group white, affluent, healthy Evangelicals hereafter referred to as WAHE's. Forget about giving up God for Lent, what if these WAHE's just gave up all Christian jargon for Lent, and withdrew from their small groups and church meetings to be among the people you spoke of who live with disabilities & mental illnesses in the L'Arche community. Without the insulation of cliches and truisms about God's mysterious will and the remuneration with which the sick and genetically unlucky will be compensated at Judgement Day do you think it's possible that the WAHE & the L'Arche dweller might be available to one another in a more intense way? As human beings? Shorn of normal defenses, mightn't the WAHE, observing the faith of the schizophrenic, learn something new about God? Or "not God"? That maybe they needed to find out about? And about themselves? Is this possibly part of a reconciliation that needs to take place between the abstract fantasies of theology and the reality of the world we live in, where Kingdom & Principalities interlock and resist one another with such intensity?

James Breiling said...

God is? How do we know this?

God is the the basic particles from which the universe has come according to God's laws of physics, chemistry and (for life and its evolution) biology. Something is responsible for the basic particles of the universe and the laws of science that have governed the evolution of the pieces of the universe. God seems a reasonable name. Agreed?

God is anything else? What? How do we know this? How do we distinguish this of God from our creation of what we think this of God is?

Is our conception of what else God is fundamentally different from conceptions of the deity and/or diety-like entities of various non-Christian societies that we view as myths?

How do we distinguish our creation of what God is saying to us from our creation of what God is saying to us?

Unknown said...

Do you think it's possible you've misread Rollins' diagnosis and treatment for one kind of sickness in the western church as being intended as a panacea for all people everywhere? Atheism for Lent surely can't be proscribed universally, rather it's right for some people sometimes, not a new gospel. The people you describe already know and partake in the suffering of God, whereas A4L is more intended for those who use God to insulate themselves from Gods-own suffering and their own too. By not giving the full road-map to re-forming faith, Rollins is to be congratulated for not making a new gospel, for not setting himself up as a new fount of healing. His role is to point out the death and decay that already exist within, especially to those who are unaware of it. Universalising postmodern thought like this initially makes it look incomprehensible, then shows you have misunderstood its fundamental premise.

James Breiling said...

What is the God that Rollins advocates giving up for Lent?

God is? How do we know this?

God is ... the the basic particle(s) from which the universe has come according to God's laws of physics, chemistry and (for life and its evolution) biology. Something is responsible for the basic particle(s) of the universe and the laws of science that have governed the evolution of the pieces of the universe. God seems a reasonable name. Agreed?

God is anything else? What? How do we know this? How do we distinguish this God from our creation of what we think this of God is?

Is our conception of what else God is fundamentally different from conceptions of the deity and/or diety-like entities of various non-Christian societies that we view as myths? (Suggestion: Think of the Greek myths.)

How do we distinguish our creation of what God is
saying to us what God truly is saying to us? How do we know that that differentiation is successful?

Giving up the God of the first particle(s) and laws of the natural and physical sciences is to deny truth. Surely no one advocates giving up that God.

For persons with psychopathological delusions, giving up the God of their creation represents therapeutic progress. Yes, give up that God.

For the well who have created God, giving up that God may be an opportunity for challenge and growth . It may be unsettling and distressing -- and the loss of a helpful placebo. But placebo effects are not necessarily positive, the effects can be negative.
What role does God of one's creation play in one's life?

So we are left with the question: Is there a real God beyond the first particle(s) and natural and biological laws of the universe? And how do we know this God as truth? If there is such a God, what does it mean to give up this God for Lent (or any other time)?

Unknown said...

I would like to address this post as a member of the non-seminary trained “class” of people who has connected in a meaningful way with the work of Peter Rollins. I was raised evangelical and fully lived out what I was taught. But this radical doubt you speak of began in my adolescence and plagued me into adulthood. I tried everything I knew to address it: read the Bible more, prayed more, fasted, tried to pump up my faith, got more involved in church, served more, assumed leadership roles in ministries, sought spiritual healing or deliverance, and tried as many other forms of Christianity as I could and came back to the same place – stuck with the doubt that none of the forms of Christianity I tried would allow me to have and to remain a member in good standing, so to speak. Once I really confronted what I (might not) believe I was considered a heretic, certainly dangerous, or, at best, a project for other well-meaning Christians to fix. There was no place inside the Christian structures I knew for me to exist. These structures were all I knew and it was devastating to me. People (including Rollins himself) often joke about his message being depressing – for me it has been exactly the opposite – it is hope. To me, Atheism for Lent is a way of engaging an experience that has been common to me in other ways for a long time. I hold some of the same views as those who criticize Christianity. I have both sides inside of me – one who doubts so many things and one who is drawn to Jesus. I tried for many years to drown out the side of me who doubts by immersing myself in more and more things I was told are Jesus. It didn’t work - the doubt still existed. In like manner, delving into my doubts has not erased what draws me to Jesus.

You asked how those of us who connect with Rollins look at fellow Christians who do not share this radical doubt – the answer is the same way I always have – with a bit of envy. I wanted that to be me – and I tried to make it be me, but it just didn’t work. I listened to a talk that Rollins gave where he concluded with the idea that he hoped that the audience disagreed with his message. If you agree, things become difficult– especially when those you love most don’t share or understand this doubt. I don’t understand the attack on Rollins’s message. For those who “really have experienced a living and powerful God” as you say – his message is no threat. If the God you have experienced is that powerful, these words won’t connect with you and the members of your group and you can move on to reading something more meaningful to you. But you need to know – for some of us – Rollins’s words are life-giving and they bring hope. A hope that was not brought about for me and others like me by the God you have experienced. I am so grateful that his message was out there when I needed it.

You also said that “To those who are struggling under the burden of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment or broken homes, is atheism the answer?” I don’t think Rollins is saying that and I also think a lot of suffering people would say that traditional Christianity hasn’t been the answer for them either (though, of course, for some it has been). You also said that if you gave up God for six weeks, how would “we sustain our struggle for justice, truth, mercy, and genuine love.” At one time in my life, I would have agreed with you. When I only knew Christians in my Christian structures, I thought “we” were the only ones who struggled for these things. It’s just not true - I now know so many kinds of people – both Christian and non-Christian – who struggle for these same virtues. I realized that this former viewpoint of mine was a form of elitism that I held. Rollins does offer something positive for all people, struggling or not. Rollins’s message on the other side of doubt is to embrace our humanness and the world we live in and to love. This may not bring hope for some, but it does for me.

Tonda said...

So here's my advice, Micah. Don't give up God for Lent. Phew. Glad we solved that. Also a piece of advice. Don't give up breathing. Also important, or so I understand with my measly intellectual powers.

Tonda Wolfe

Community of the Holy Trinity said...

I think you raise some valid concerns about Peter Rollins' teaching. Yet, I must say I'm also sympathetic to the commentators that are pointing out that some even some who are the poor and oppressed might be helped by Rollins' teaching. But then I understand Rollins as going after our idols, which then seems to me to assume that which is not the idol.
Lastly I'd caution judging Rollins' by his followers. Jesus might not look too shiny either by that measure. Elitism is a problem, it is a lack of humility. I have experienced Rollins as one who seeks to be humble. That others may use his teaching to feel superior to others, yes that is the risk of this apophatic mysticism, but really it simply is a risk of being human.

Lausten North said...

Kinda of strange to recognize elitism when looking from one form of a religion to another. Doesn’t any religion claim special knowledge of the truth? If not, why choose one over the other? Why prayer to any particular name of God if you have a way of discerning that a particular is better than another? Apparently you came to your search already equipped to determine what is good.

Worse, you imply that somehow you, Micah, might be able choose atheism, but someone with mental or physical disabilities, or just a poor person really needs God. How elitist is that? Doubt is not a privilege; it is our nature to ask questions, to explore and to learn. Saying that doubt is a luxury is the definition of “imprisoned for conscience”.

Unknown said...

Nicely done, Micah. I hold these concerns as well. Especially the fact that there is little mention of societal transformation or the prophetic call that Jesus constantly challenges his followers too.

Rollins does not represent the many voiced movement of the Quakers, and other grassroots movements like that. He is an educated white guy who gets book deals and speaking gigs saying shocking things. We've already got lots of those around.

I too have been helped by some of his thought, but I've been far more helped by the ancestors of the Quaker tradition and Scripture. Folks who lived out their faith in ways that have radically transformed society into something more just. I'll stick to trying to learn from them.

How has this criticism come off on the interwebs? Most folks don't take to kindly to challenging our Christian celebrities.

tracker said...

I guess one other thing I would add is that if your purpose, in "giving up god for lent" is to know how miserable life is without god, then you're essentially setting yourself up to fail.

The vast majority of atheists aren't miserable. They don't suffer for their lack of faith. People of faith tend to think they MUST be suffering, but that's just because the people of faith DO believe in [insert deity], and only seem to be able to see things through that lens.

The challenge Rollins is making is NOT to be atheist for Lent, it's to be a theist who's roleplaying what they think an atheist is, with the pre-determined conclusion that atheists are unhappy. That, I would say, is disingenuous at best. If you want to embrace suffering, by all means do, but do it honestly. Don't pretend you're something you aren't, and then use that to denigrate people you evidently have made not attempt to understand.

Anonymous said...

I understand why Peter Rollins might be off-putting to people (I am a tad uncomfortable with his speaking style, which does seem a tad contrived), but I respect that he is trying to go deeper and understand what it is we are saying when we say we are "theists" or "Christians." Continuing to speak 1611 Bible-talk (or 1660 George Fox prophecy-talk for that matter!) is not getting anyone anywhere. I like a lot of of what Wess Daniels, one of my fellow commenters, has written elsewhere, but seriously? What are most of those commenting here, myself and you included, if not "educated white guys saying shocking things"? What makes us more knowledgeable about the true nature of Christianity- or Quakerism- than anyone else? The only difference is that Peter Rollins does, in fact, as Wess notes, have a book deal, probably because he is willing to wrestle with issues that make a lot of people uncomfortable because such an examination shakes their orthodoxy. I don't know if we need "atheism for Lent" either, but I doubt that is what he really means it its most literal sense. I don't really think the whole trendy IKON community would be my thing, to be honest, but I appreciate what he is trying to do for people. So what if he is not joining Occupy Wall Street? Everyone has their individual gifts.

Robin said...

Just reading Rollin's response to the post...I understand his position more and agree with it less...I know I need God in every fiber of my being.

Unknown said...

Call me naive, or uneducated, or whatever, but experience of the living God, called by whichever name one prefers, is an entire different animal than Believing.

And, I submit, those of us with such experience are a minority often judged to be unstable.

I was challenged once, many years ago, to pray that God might reveal God's self to me. I offer the challenge to those who would accept it.

Abigail Smith said...

I'm a little late to this party, but I just got the link. I'm surprised that nobody pointed out the logical flaws in this critique.

1) Mystique of Elitism. Criticizing the people who "follow" him as being "elitists" is mere labeling. Ad hominem, and guilt by association.
Also, since when is "the argument is too intelligent" a bad thing, exactly? Would you rather have someone preach fluffy platitudes? Do you think "Christians these days are just too smart" is a common argument...? Everyone has different backgrounds and specialties. Some people are called to be basic and earthy, and some people are called to engage the world of thought and theory.

2) Injustice and Intellectualism. Again, guilt by association. "A (a specific aspect of Rollins' message) is like B (a specific part of evangelicalism), which is wrong; therefore, A is wrong too."

3) Safe Games for Comfortable People. How can you prove that the people who listen to and follow Rollins are mostly affluent and comfortable? How do you know that people in desperate situations AREN'T reading these things and finding a new way of approaching the world? I, for one, consider myself as fitting into a couple of the desperate categories you listed--broken home, poverty... But my testimonial wouldn't be appropriate here...
Not trying to be rude, but I see these criticisms as mostly straw men.

Nan said...

Thank you thank you thank you. I'm dealing with all thus right now. One of my fears is that I will be considered a
project for other well-meaning Christians to fix. Ive just left my church and I'm hoping nobody bothers to ask me why. There's no way I can explain it to them. They live in that comfy world and I just cant. I'm recognizing also that I have to let go of anger at them because we don't see the world the same way. And you're definitely right about the elitism. I just found out about Peter Rollins, and I'm looking forward to what he has to say.

a project for other well-meaning Christians to fix.