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Peter Rollins: more fragments of a review (3)

March 30th, 2007 by isaac · No Comments

The nature of “revelation” seems to be a fundamental issue in Rollins’ project in How (Not) to Speak of God (2006). Most of the church these days, according to Rollins, conceives of revelation as the solution to what seems to be God’s hiddenness. He writes, “Revelation is thus understood to be the very opposite of concealment… God has graciously disclosed something of God’s nature to us” (7). The trouble here for Rollins is that the Christian understanding of revelation is overdetermined by the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. According to this paradigm, revelation becomes “the science that places God within the realm of reason” (8). Rollins suggests that the problem with this understanding of revelation is that it is too confident, even proud. This Enlightened conception of Christianity believed in the ability of “pure reason” (“reason untouched by prejudice”) to “decipher the singular meaning” of God and faith and our lives (8).

But such a confident position could not stand the attacks of the 19th critics: “perceptive thinkers as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, each of whom explored the extent to which our supposedly objective understanding of the world or God is always already affected by such factors as our education, upbringing, economic position and psychological make-up (9).

These figures help us see that there is no such thing as ‘pure reason,’ and therefore no access to revelation that does not pass through our humanness, our desires, our prejudices. They expose the way we deceive ourselves “when we make absolute claims.” Therefore, we must exercise some self-reflection when we talk about revelation because we are “always affected by what we bring to the table” (9).

At this point Rollins defends himself against the pious, yet silly, attacks from the Christian quarters: this is not relativism! Rollins shows how “relativism” cannot stand because it is itself an absolute. To claim that there is no absolute meaning, no absolute truth, is itself an absolute statement. (This is the same classic move that I heard from the apologetics classes of my youth). The so-called ‘masters of suspicion’ (i.e., Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) were by no means relativists, according to Rollins. They only rejected “the idea that human beings could grasp this objective world in an objective manner.” They correct the proud vision of the Enlightenment by helping us see that “as interpretive beings, we always filter the real world through our experiences, language, intelligence, culture and so forth” (11).

These ‘master of suspicion’ not only offer a corrective for philosophy as such, they also can help Christians understand what the biblical condemnation of idolatry is all about. According to Rollins’ read of the biblical narrative, “the conceptual idol refers to any system of thought which the individual or community takes to be a visible rendering of God” (12). Idolatry makes God immediately accessible to our human rationality. The bible itself counteracts this intellectual idolatry by offering an “excess” of images and descriptions for God: “In the Bible we find a vast array of competing stories concerning the character of God” (12). It is a “cacophony of voices” (13).

I think that is a very helpful way of reading the variety of texts in our Bible; it corrects our absolutist tendencies. Texts always cause us to re-read and re-think our convictions and understanding. And that re-reading and re-thinking is also part of “revelation.” There is always more to discover, more to learn, more to find. As Henri de Lubac would say, in his Augustinian voice, our Holy Scriptures offer us “perpetual satisfaction.” It’s not something we eat from, and leave the table when satisfied. It always satisfies our insatiable hunger.

My only criticism of Rollins at this point regards the minutia, which may or may not be important. It seems as if he wants us to read our Bible as a book of dissenting voices: “a cacophony.” Rollins’ language may lead us to take the voices as at war. Maybe he is offering us his Derrida at this point, only in disguise. For Derrida, the text gives life when we participate with the ongoing struggle of language present in the text—a text full of differance. As Derrida puts it in one place, “language can only indefinitely tend toward justice by acknowledging and practicing the violence within it” (Writing and Difference, p. 117). The text is at war with itself. It is a mess of discordant voices—a cacophony. While I think Rollins helpfully displays how the variety of our Bible ‘deconstructs’ our idolatrous conceptual tendencies, I don’t think he is necessarily right to turn our text into a civil war. Others talk more helpfully about the divergent voices in the Bible in terms of an ongoing conversation. Sure, there may be disagreement, but it happens in the unity of a conversation. It’s more like a polyphony than a cacophony.

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