How (Not) to Speak of God: Book Review

Daniel Avatar

Peter Rollins‘ book How (Not) to Speak of God shook my world and made me excited about the emergent movement. The text deconstructs several core Christian theological concepts: the place of doubt in Christianity, salvation, truth, one’s desire for spiritual transformation, and the place of God. Rollins strength is in his philosophical approach to theology. He re-frames so many conceptions of Christian theology and I don’t wish to examine each of these important points, but rather this post will seek to clarify what exactly Rollins’ main ideas are in terms of the key theological ideas he raises. The second half of the book is a series of concrete examples of the Ikon community, their rituals and dramaturgical approach to worship. In many ways it felt like a sort of blueprint, and I was left wondering how many hundreds of readers refer to that second part of the book as a guide for starting emergent communities?

I note eight key concerns of the text, and each is a suggestion for an actual experiential and theoretical shift: 1. from how to read the Bible, to 2. concealment as a path to salvation, to 3. a conception of God as hyper-present, to 4. a call to affirm the place of doubt, to 5. support silence, to 6. religious desire as part of faith, to 7. the Christian faith as a/theological, and to 8. truth as a soteriological event.

We typically have a very limited idea of revelation. How does revelation operate for the Christian follower? Rollins claims that “God is not revealed by words but by the life of the transformed individual,” and that in one’s very desire for spiritual transformation itself, a transformative experience occurs. The praxis ends up then becoming something of the following: by placing the desirous individual (one’s own spiritual desire and longing for God) at the center of what revelation is, the process of spiritual transformation – an experience, becomes a part of revelation. As Rollins continues to point out, “all desire for God is born in God,” meaning our desire for God, just like our desire for love is defined by our longing. Thus a true spiritual seeking can be thusly defined as that which is already a real faith, or one finds God not in some stopping point and realization of an established relationship in absolute knowledge, but in the flux and flow of the search.

This idea of revelation as rooted in subjective experience and desire is closely related to his conception of God as a transcendent (wholly Other), but importantly not in the modern idea of transcendence as something larger than we are. It seems interesting to me that as the philosopher of the emergent movement because here he seems to be incorporating a Levinasian conception of the Other as God, as the infinitely untranslatable other that Levinas of course referred to as the human Other. More on the connection of Rollins’ idea of infinity as hyperpresence.

Since the Christian religion implies a relationship to God as the very figure that can never be predetermined, when we speak of God as language or develop what Rollins calls “God language,” we end up speaking of something that doesn’t exist. Human and anthropomorphic conceptions of God are inherently poverty stricken, i.e. we lack the tools to conceive of God, in which case God takes on a “hyper presence.” This is of course supported by numerous examples I won’t get into from the God of the Old Testament, who always remained elusive, at one point he gives, and at others he takes. When humans seek to speak of God, God continually gives warnings that his presence could never be contemplated, and often humans suffer for their presumption to know God. God is elusive not because God is absent, but because God is overly present in the world, this “hyperpresence” also makes God a hypernonomous figure.

Another interesting point from Rollins’ text is in how to read the Bible with the in an objective textbook manner by which we interpret the text – eisegesis and exegesis. The transfinite and the finite: the Bible cannot be read in an infinite number of ways. The central interpretive tool that Jesus gave us when interpreting the Gospels is the prejudice of love. Jesus’ teachings aren’t an “ethical rulebook” but they represent an excess of teachings on love.

Christ’s core message is that in fulfilling the demand of the other beyond what is expected, you are fulfilling his calling. This is evidenced by the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we learn that no matter what command the Good Samaritan is given, there is no simple fulfillment of that demand and a resolution, he must always continue in his service to God through the other. The demand of the other through God leaves the fulfillment of the demand as near impossible. Love can be considered the excess of the demand that fulfills the telos of the Christian subject, that fills in the excess. As Alain Badiou in his book on St. Paul and the Foundation of Universalism notes, the Christian structure of ethical experience can be broken into four moments:

1. Grace: the universality of the demand of the good, or what Paul calls the addressee.
2. Faith: the arising or coming forth of the subject – a subjective certitude that approves of the demand.
3. Love: the practical labor of the subject that has bound itself to its good in faith. This is summed up by the practical maxim, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is love that allows the subject to persevere in a process of truth.
4. Justice: Love binds itself to justice on the basis of hope – hope can be called political love.

In a similar vein, Rollins places truth in a relationship to the real that always involves a transformation of that reality. Truth is objective and it transforms the subject. Knowing God is experienced, and to be born of God is to be born out of love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: