For Peter Rollins, Belfast native and leading writer and thinker in the Emergent Christian movement, “God” has fallen prey to our grasping, market-driven existence—just another shiny thing we acquire to make ourselves feel okay.
Alfred Hitchcock called this (in another context entirely) the “MacGuffin,” or as Rollins explains it: “that X for which some or all of the main characters are willing to sacrifice everything, something that people want in some excessive way—the object that seems to promise fulfillment, satisfaction, and lasting pleasure.”
And yet when we get our hands on the longed-for MacGuffin, it doesn’t do away with our feelings of emptiness or brokenness, and may well deepen them. Instead, Rollins argues, there is no cure for our brokenness, other than the full and complete acceptance of it.
Rollins talked with RD’s Candace Chellew-Hodge about his new book and his radical ideas of what church looks like when Christians give up Christianity.
The title of this book, “The Idolatry of God,” is immediately provocative. What do you mean by it?
I’m very interested in taking on theological concepts like “idolatry” and “sin,” “original sin” and “salvation”—these terms that in some liberal circles are brushed under the carpet. I think there’s a real depth to these words and we just have to rob them of the religious jargon they’ve become.
The word I’m most interested in is “idol.” I describe an idol in the book as any object that we treat as if it will make us whole and complete and satisfy us and rob the sense of loss in the core of our being. It could be money, going out with a certain person, looking a certain way or having a certain job or worshipping a certain God. It plays to something very deep in our psychology. We all want something that will make everything okay. Everywhere we turn, advertisements tell us “consume this,” or “buy this product,” or “look this way and you’ll be happy.”
The world is like a huge vending machine and it’s filled with these idols.
My argument is that when we reduce God to that object that will make us complete and whole and happy, we just put our own product in the vending machine. The church becomes the shop front, the clergy become the salespeople and the worship becomes the jingles.
But what about certainty and satisfaction (which you call ‘addictions’ in the subtitle of the book)? We Americans are told that we can have both, especially in church. If we pray the right way, believe the right way, we can have all these things. Are we not entitled to them?
They’re addictions for me because of the way they operate for most of us. They give a fantasy of wholeness whenever we’re really fractured. What I argue is that religious, cultural, and political beliefs give us a sense that we on this side of the river are right and those people on that side of the river are wrong. They hide our anxiety and brokenness. The reason it’s like an addiction is because deep down we know it.
Some of my critics say I’m telling them to doubt, but that’s not it. I’m saying you’re already full of doubts. It acts the same way as alcohol abuse—the alcohol makes you feel better about yourself, but then you have this hangover where you realize you’re just covering over some sort of brokenness. I’m saying when you’re in church around people who believe the same thing and you’re reading all those books, it feels great, but then, at night over a drink with a friend in a bar, you feel like that there must be a better way. It prevents us from encountering our own brokenness and working through it.
How do we confront ourselves, that brokenness, without being overwhelmed by it?
It’s like Kierkegaard’s idea: I’m not trying to make you depressed, I’m saying you already are depressed. We cover over that depression by pursuing something we think will make us whole and by grasping hold of beliefs that give us a sense of mastery, but the problem is symptoms. The brokenness and doubts comes out in other ways—in hatred of others, in hatred of yourself, in scapegoating… it always comes out.
So wholeness is not really the goal?
What happens can be structured like a magic trick. A vanishing trick has three parts. There’s the pledge, where you present an object, like a rabbit. Then there’s the turn, where the rabbit disappears. It’s put behind a curtain and then it’s gone when the curtain is pulled back. Then there is the prestige, which is the return of the rabbit. You pull it out of a hat or something—and, of course, it’s generally not the same rabbit. The other rabbit is somewhere else. What I’m arguing is that in life we have a similar structure. You see this in the Garden of Eden where you can basically eat any fruit, but a prohibition comes in that you can’t eat of that one tree. The question is: why is that tree magical? Because it’s prohibited. Everyone who has a kid knows that. As soon as you say you can’t have the puppy, then you really want the puppy.
You’ve got the stage set—there’s the object, which is the tree. You’ve got the curtain, which is the prohibition that stops us from getting the tree, and you’ve got the audience in the garden. The trick doesn’t work though because it’s not completed. Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree and it all goes to pieces.
What I argue is that this is reenacted, this primordial scene, in the crucifixion, where you have again the magic act. You’ve got the Holy of Holies, the object, you’ve got the curtain that obscures that, and you’ve got the court of the Gentiles in the temple where you can go to make your sacrifices—and Jesus is the divine illusionist who rips the curtain away and finishes the trick.
We see the turn, there’s nothing in there, so that’s the death of the idol—the object we think will make us whole and complete is gone. But, then there’s the prestige—the return of God and the body of believers. You realize that God is in the midst of life, and where two or three are gathered together, and not out there to be grasped but rather in the depth of life itself.
You see this in the eucharist. You’ve got the pledge, which is the bread and the wine. You’ve got the turn, the disappearance in the eating, and the prestige, where we now become the body of Christ. The trick is this—the pursuit of something that will make you whole is what makes us dissatisfied and unhappy. The strange move is by giving up the idea that there is whole and complete and embracing the brokenness of life, we actually find a form of wholeness, a form of satisfaction. But not a wholeness and satisfaction that lacks unknowing and that lacks brokenness—one that just robs them of their sting.
How can we live that out?
This is the problem for most of us. So many of us cannot find depth in our lives. People go to counseling not because they’ve lost something they desire, they’ve lost the ability to desire anything at all. If you lose someone you love all the other things you used to like—going out concerts, eating good food—no longer mean anything to you. Your world is drained of color and you don’t experience depth in life.
What Christianity calls us into is an experience in which we cannot help but find beauty and meaning in our lives. I don’t mean intellectual meaning. If you believe the world is meaningful but you don’t love, you cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. If you think the world is meaningless, but you are in love with life or with a person, you can’t help but experience the world as utterly meaningful. That’s faith for me—a material enactment of the beauty and depth of life.
In America, faith has come to mean cognitive belief in something that lacks sufficient evidence. So, I can say I have faith that there’s milk in the fridge. Somebody may have drunk it, but I’m making a commitment to that belief. What I’m arguing for is not faith as a mode of insufficient evidence, but faith as a mode of commitment to life and to existence itself.
In the American church, and especially the evangelical church, faith has been about giving proper assent to a list of beliefs. How do you change the churches that emphasize money, marketing, and that modern experience? How do people in the pews find meaning anymore?
Christianity has become an identity just like any other worldview or system. But, Christianity isn’t one more identity marker. It should be the experience of losing your identity and identifying with the one who lost his identity on the cross. Which, by the way, is the meaning of the crucifixion. You were no longer a political, cultural, or religious system. You were cursed of God. You were ripped of identity. So, when Paul says “there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are made one in Christ,”
I would add that it would say today, “there is no Christian or non-Christian for all are made one in Christ.” Christianity itself has to be rejected by the church in order, paradoxically, to get back to the radical scandal of Christianity.
The Emergent Church movement that you’re part of puts these ideas out into an atmosphere in the American churches would be apostasy. How have you seen these kind of ideas change the church, especially in America?
Whenever I talk to churches I ask them, “Do we really think we’ve worked it all out? Let’s be honest with ourselves.” In very conservative settings, you can often feel a sigh of relief that they don’t have to pretend they know everything. That’s not universally true, but I have discovered that these ideas ring true to us.
When people vehemently disagree with me it generally signals to me that they don’t really disagree with what I might be saying but something I said resonates with them in a way they can’t bring to the surface. It comes out in anger and frustration. It shows there is a crisis within that community of doubt and concern and questioning that they simply haven’t had a place to come to the surface. A lot of what we’re doing is trying to help bring to the surface what’s already there.
In most liberal churches people don’t believe in this God-idol, that God is going to make everything better—but we liturgically enact that god in our prayers and our worship songs. So, we don’t have to be fundamentalist, because the structure is fundamentalist on our behalf.
For instance, a parent obviously doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, but they don’t experience the trauma of not believing until the child stops believing. So, they get the pleasure of believing in Santa Claus without having to be stupid enough to believe in Santa Claus. Parts of the liberal church get to have their intellectual credulity while existentially experiencing a form of fundamentalism. My argument is the church needs to have a liturgical structure that enacts the death of the god-idol that brings us to a place of brokenness.
There have been criticisms that the Emergent Church isn’t diverse enough—it isn’t open to women or gays and lesbians. How do you respond to that?
It’s not so much about including other people, you have to do that. But, if you don’t break the scapegoat mechanism, we will always “other” somebody else. What we have to do is create collectives where the scapegoat mechanism is destroyed—then you’ll see increasing diversity. For me, it’s not so much looking at what particular group is being excluded—though that’s important to do—it’s looking at how that exclusion functions to create a community that has a sense of solidarity. If you get a community to embrace the fact of their own brokenness, hopefully more inclusion will happen.
I hear you saying that in any group, liberal or conservative, if they create an “other” it lets them avoid dealing with their own brokenness.
Yes. And it’s difficult for people to lay down their identity for a moment and see the other beyond their identity, but for me that’s the rule of the liturgical space. For one hour we create a place where there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female, atheists or theists, gay or straight.
What is your ultimate vision for the church?
My broad critique of fundamentalist and conservative communities, is that in them we verbally affirm a God that is basically a guarantor that we’re right. The critique is more subtle than simply saying that we don’t really believe it. We say God takes care of everything, but still put a lightning rod on top of the steeple.
If you have an argument with your partner and they say, “I want you to leave,” what they’re really saying is, “I want you to fight to stay.” That allows them to say, “No, I want to stay because I care about you.” There’s always an underlying grammar to discourse.
So, when the fundamentalists say, “If you have faith and don’t doubt, then God will heal,” everybody knows the subtext of that is, “unless it’s really serious, then you call an ambulance.” That’s why the radical move in fundamentalism is not to say they believe too much—that’s the liberal critique of fundamentalism—but no, the radical critique is they don’t believe enough. The reason you can have your belief is that you disbelieve in your belief. That’s why the psychotic is the most dangerous—the family where the kid does get sick and they don’t call an ambulance because they didn’t understand the subtext everybody else knew. That’s why, in some respects, the people who come out of fundamentalism are not the ones who didn’t really believe it. They’re the ones who really did. They took it completely seriously and experienced this impotence.
The church needs a liturgical structure like the psalms that has the full range of human emotions, that confronts us with our brokenness, but not so that we despair. That’s the good news of Christianity for me. It’s not that you can be happy and whole, but rather that life is crap and you don’t know the answers. It’s good news to be freed from the oppression that there’s something that’s going to make it all better. When you’re free from that and begin to work through your brokenness and suffering with a set of rituals, practices and sacraments that help us encounter our humanity, I think we become more loving, more beautiful, more grace-filled people.