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back to Rollins: (not) speaking about God

April 17th, 2007 by isaac · 8 Comments

I haven’t been very good at keeping up with my fragmented review of Peter Rollins’ book, How (Not) to Speak of God. My most recent excuse is that the demands of Easter took over my life for a bit.

Rollins first chapter explicitly shows his debt to Meister Eckhart, the significant mystical theologian of the early 14th century. Rollins even uses Eckhart’s famous sentence for the title of his chapter: “God rid me of God.” He picks up on Eckhart’s insights on page 13: “as Meister Eckhart once claimed, the unnameable is omninameable.” The point is that all our names and descriptions of God fall short of the mysterious wonder of God. The Scriptures supply us with a multitude of metaphors and titles for our life-long journey of knowing God. We describe God and name God while along a never-ending path into that mysterious reality we call ‘God’. The names we use to name God our iconic—that is, they are not closed, finite, conclusive. Rather, they open us and invite us into the God who is beyond yet immanent to us.

All this stuff from Eckhart pays off for Rollins when he talks about revelation. Sure, God reveals Godself to us. And for that we are grateful. But Rollins wants to undercut any prideful claims of possessing God through revelation. It’s not that at some point God is hidden from us, then God appears (i.e., is revealed) and we can rest in that revelation. That’s not it at all. For Rollins, “revelation far from being opposite of concealment, has concealment built into its very heart” (16). Even at the “very site of revelation,” we must “speak of God’s otherness and distance” (15). And again: revelation is “the overpowering light that renders God as unknown…. God is thus the secret who remains concealed in the sharing” (17).

The best way to demonstrate this hidden revelation, this concealed appearance of God, is to point to the divine name: YHWH. “The very fact that the term ‘YHWH’ lacks the vowels needed for pronunciation reminds us that this ‘proper name’ is very improper insomuch as it is impossible to say… [It] preserves the mystery of God” (15).

As much as Rollins wants to distance himself from the errors of “Western theology” (12), his emphasis on ‘YHWH’ as the most appropriate ‘name’ for God echoes that bastion of Western theology, St. Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas (who precedes Eckhart), the Tetragrammaton (i.e., YHWH) is the most appropriate name for God because it, paradoxically, communicates God’s incommunicability (see Summa Theologiae 1.13.11).

Peter Rollins ends his chapter on a strong note, almost a commissioning (18):

the emerging conversation is in a unique place to acknowledge the long-forgotten insight that God hides in God’s visibility, realizing that revelation embraces concealment at one and the same time as it embraces manifestation and that our various interpretations of revelation will always be provisional, fragile and fragmentary. While all of the Church has maintained that there is a revealed and hidden side of God, the difference here is that we are rediscovering the Barthian insight that even the revealed side of God is mysterious.

I appreciate the nod at Karl Barth. But I have to admit: I get tired of Rollins tirade against this generalized and homogeneous entity called “the church” or “Western theology.” This time, in the block quote above, it’s “all of the church.” It seems that Rollins positions his project over against something called “the church” and calls for something new—not quite “church,” but something else. For him it’s all about creating a space where God may arrive, but he doesn’t want to think that this place can be something like the church that sustained the faith of Thomas Aquinas or Meister Eckhart. But maybe my comments on ecclesiology should wait for the second half of the book where Rollins describes the ‘liturgies’ of his community.

For now, I find it interesting that Oliver Davies doesn’t need to use Eckhart to establish a provocative “heretical orthodoxy” like Rollins does. For Davies, “Meister Eckhart is fundamentally orthodox” (The God Within: The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe, p. 68). Eckhart was a servant of the church—a Vicar General in the Dominican order even! And just as Eckhart didn’t abandon the longstanding tradition of faithfulness that claimed his life, Davies finds in the writings of Eckhart a source for a renewed Christian life. As Davies writes toward the end of his chapter on Eckhart,

Eckhart taught is listeners that all we need do is to grasp that before God we are nothing, that God has implanted within us a special element whereby we may come into intimate knowledge of him, and that this unmediated encounter with the highest Godhead is possible for each and every one of us, whatever our position in society and whatever our learning.

Sure, Meister Eckhart offers a mystical spirituality that in a sense subverts the hierarchy of the church—it’s about an unmediated enounter with God, no priests are needed. But it’s not like Eckhart imagines that his mysticism should led us away from the community of worship called ‘the church’.

I know all this sounds quite conservative. It’s funny: I don’t think of myself as a conservative. But there’s something about this cultural moment when everyone wants to abandon the past for the sake of an unknown future that makes me hesitate. I’m not advocating for a retreat to a safe past, a secure tradition. I hold no nostalgic illusions about a return to paradise. I’m a Mennonite so I know that the mainline traditions of the church easily turn unfaithful (Anabaptists like to remind the mainstream church that the only thing the Protestants and the Catholics of the 16th century could agree on was that it was a good idea to kill the Anabaptists).

But I also take seriously Jacques Derrida’s hesitation and warning about our openness to the future, and the newness that we hope may arrive:

The irruption of the new, the unicity of the other today should be awaited as such...; it should be anticipated as the unforeseeable, the unanticipatable, the non-masterable, non-identifiable, in short, as that of which one does not yet have a memory. But our old memory tells us that it is also necessary to anticipate and to keep the heading, for under the banner—which can also become a slogan—of the unanticipatable or the absolutely new, we can fear seeing return the phantom of the worst, the one we have already identified. We know the “new” only too well, or in any case the old rhetoric, the demagogy, the psychology of the “new”—and sometimes of the “new order”—of the surprising, the virginal, and the unanticipatable. We must thus be suspicious of both repetitive memory and the completely other of the absolutely new; of both anamnestic capitalization and the amnesic exposure to what would no longer be identifiable at all.

That long passage is from Derrida’s, The Other Heading: Memories, Responses and Responsibilities (pp. 18-19). I want to hesitate (with Derrida, I think) where Rollins seems to jump headlong. Rollins seems to follow the Derrida in the first part of the quote: the irruption of the new… But I wonder how important the second part of Derrida is important for Rollins—the part that needs “the old memory.”

So far, I worry that Rollins’ decidedly provocative edge leads him too quickly away from that tradition and memory of the church that may be the only charm to exorcize the return of the phantom of the worst. At the very least, that long passage from Derrida puts a question mark to all the contemporary attempts at trying something new because the old stuff got boring. Why must we hesitate with Derrida when we are offered “the postmodern”? Because, as Derrida says, “it is necessary that we learn to detect, in order to resist, new forms of cultural takeover” (54).

But whatever concerns I may have with Rollins at this point. I am more than willing to let him take us to the witness of Eckhart. So, let me close with two beautiful passage from that European churchman of the 14th century. The first is a description of what happens as the pilgrim soul mystically journeys into God; the second is a description of that kind of mystical journey, beginning with a meditation of the divine name, YHWH (something I imagine Rollins would appreciate):

But when all images have departed from the soul and it sees single Unity, then the pure being of the soul, passive and resting within itself, encounters the pure formless being of Divine Unity, which is being beyond being. O wonder of wonders! What noble passivity it is when the being of the soul perceives nothing but the pure Unity of God.

The repetition of ‘I am who I am’ shows the purity of the affirmation of God to the exclusion of all negation. It shows also a kind of self-reflexion of being upon itself, a dwelling or settling within itself; it shows even a rising up, or self-generation—being seething within itself, flooding and simmering in and upon itself; it is light which shines in and upon itself, which penetrates itself entirely and which floods and radiates back into itself from all sides…for life means a kind of overflowing, in which something swells within itself, first pervading itself utterly, every particle, before spilling out, overflowing. That is why the emanation of the Persons in the Godhead is the basis of the creation and precedes it.

Tags: reading corner · theology

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lee // Apr 18, 2007 at 4:46 am

    This may be addressed later, but I wonder what role Jesus is supposed to play here? The mystical flight to the pure, formless, divine Unity seems at least in tension with the claim that in Jesus the fullness of divinity was pleased to dwell and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Not that this dispels mystery, but it does seem to give a content to the divine character that a purely negative theology would lack.

  • 2 Anonymous // Apr 18, 2007 at 7:53 am

    Isaac, I think so far you have given Peter’s book a fair review and I appreciate your perspectives. I do wonder though whether his critique is aimed at the church as a whole in that his suggestions talk about an individual’s response to the Devine. I see him less as a critic of the church and more as an examiner of individual faith. His community’s identity (ikon) doesn’t seem to be suggesting a new form or function of church rather a refreshed look at our own interaction with what we call God. Maybe he is stepping on the church’s toes in that they have current monopoly on all “experiences Devine.”

    Lee I appreciate your words as well, though I would have to wonder, do Jesus comments about his oneness with the Father make anything clearer? We have Jesus talking with Devine language one second and then denying that language the next. Isaac brushed on this a little, but the book describes Jesus role not as one that makes God clearer rather one that destroys what we thought we knew. Because it is in that destruction and concealing of God that we begin to experience God’s presence.
    Peace, jared

  • 3 isaac // May 14, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Lee, thanks for the great comment. And I’m sorry for my extremely long and rude delay in responding.

    I think you are totally right in pointing out the missing Jesus so far in Rollins’ book. I don’t think Jesus, and the importance of confidently following Jesus plays an important role in Rollins’ project. But I would imagine that he would disagree with that kind of characterization. He might say something like, all this is a reflection on the kind of revelation made available in Jesus.

    But it is interesting that the “Barthian insight” that Rollins names is that “even the revealed side of God is mysterious” (18). Most people talk about the central Barthian insight as being the centrality of Jesus for the revelation of God. But not for Rollins, for some reason.

    I would much rather read and learn from some different folks about the significance of negative theology. Lee might be right to point out how Rollins’ version of the apophatic tradition lacks content when it comes to talking about the divine character revealed in Jesus. But there are other options for the via negativa that give Lee what he wants… maybe. Alex Sider offers a wonderful account of negative theology that shows the centrality of following Jesus. Here’s the last couple lines from his essay, “The Hiddenness of God and the Justice of God” (in Vital Christianity):

    “We imitate the incarnate Christ in his acts of love, poverty, and compassion. There is no more determinative knowledge of God than this…. No guaranties, no security, no rest—just epektasis, unceasing advance. Negative theology is not finally useful as a ‘spiritual’ technique for criticizing human patterns of knowing and doing. Negative theology is useful because it points out the resourcelessness of any Christian spirituality, ethics, or dogmatics abstracted from a tenacious following after Christ.”

    I think that’s a better use of the apophatic tradition than Rollins’ project.

  • 4 Lee // May 17, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Hey Isaac, thanks for your reply and no apologies necessary. Heaven knows we all have things we should probably be doing with our time other than commenting on blogs. 😉

    I’m intrigued by the quote from Sider and may have to follow that up a bit. I’d still be skeptical of a theology that was reduced entirely to the imitatio Christi, if that’s what he’s getting at – and maybe it’s not – but it sounds more promising to me than a purely “negative” theology.



  • 5 isaac // May 29, 2007 at 7:19 am

    Jared, maybe I haven’t done a good enough job at making it clear that I find Rollins book very interesting, the most interesting thing that has come out of this whole emergent thing.

    But that being said, I think your comment exposes something about Rollins that I’m still try to work through. You named it when you started talking about an “individual faith.”

    But here’s the thing: if he really is more interested in the individual faith, then what’s with the second half of the book? It’s all about the shape of the community’s gathering. Rollins gives accounts of all these different services. It’s a liturgical text through and through.

    I’m not so sure about this: “His community’s identity doesn’t seem to be suggesting a new form or function of church rather a refreshed look at our own interaction with what we call God.” How is that the case if he ends his book with different ways to form a community that receives God. He says, “we must also explore how such theory translates into a liturgical context” (74).

    I think Rollins gets that it’s the gathering that transforms the individual. God is mediated through others—no direct access to God that shortcuts the gathered community. My only concern is that of Derrida’s: “But our old memory tells us that it is also necessary to anticipate and to keep the heading, for under the banner—which can also become a slogan—of the unanticipatable or the absolutely new, we can fear seeing return the phantom of the worst, the one we have already identified.”

    Derrida raises the question about the nature of the spirit that we are awaiting. For in the absolutely new comes the phantom of the worst. How does Rollins identify the right spirit of revelation? No, I’m not trying to talk about demons and all that. I am talking about the competition of spirits like capitalism, for example. Whenever I consider all the ways folks try to make church more sexy, I think of the logic of capitalism. Maybe being boring and ordinary is our form of resistance against the capitalism spirit that infects our ways of conceiving of the religions—something new and interesting that keeps up with the cultural industry.

    This is what I want to say. Church isn’t about the manipulation of feelings of faith. Faith is simply the decision to go to church and hear and speak the Word of God that comes to us through the Holy Spirit as we gather around Scripture. Faith doesn’t have to be impassioned (91). It doesn’t have to be rooted in doubt (34). There’s nothing wrong with the ordinary sorts of faith displayed in regular people going to church because it’s just what they do, no matter what happens, no matter what emotions are stirred, no matter what is produced.

  • 6 jared // May 30, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Isaac, these are good thoughts. I am often torn between the tensions of; as I become more educated, my faith becomes more complicated. As I remain child like, my faith doesn’t weather some of the storms a complicated faith brings. So which is better? Can you return to innocent faith after you have begun to complicate it? I know that I am assuming some of the boundaries of this conversation. Pete talks about negative theology and faith rooted in doubt, and you talk about a faith that simply goes to church to hear the Word of God and obey it. Now I have over simplified these two points and called what you describe as “innocent” and Pete’s as “complicated”. I don’t know how fair that is to do in that both of you bring innocents and complication into your faith, but what I would say is I am learning to see faith as something that moves in and out of these two boundaries.

    For example, you ask are we making faith more sexy or are we engaging in an attempt to truly authenticate faith in our lives? This is a good question. I don’t know if the answer is as black and white as one would hope. It makes me think about Freud (here is where we can get into our book decision). Freud talks about a woman who refuses to ask herself tough sexual questions, and thus her sexual desires manifest as physical pains in her legs. My question is do we refuse to ask ourselves tough theological questions for fear of:
    1.break from tradition and orthodoxy
    2.or because it is trendy to do so and we don’t want to be consumers of our faith.
    If so how will these unasked questions manifest themselves in our lives?

    On the other hand I worry that in our rush to ask all of these tough question we won’t value the answers that our tradition has already given us and we will be blinded by our need for sexy consumeristic faith.

    I am sure that goes no where near hitting on what you were talk about. for now what I would say is for some, faith is not simply deciding to go to church and listening to the Word of God it is more complicated. Now whether that is good or bad I don’t yet know.
    Peace, jared

  • 7 isaac // Jun 1, 2007 at 6:16 am

    Jared, I like how you think. I especially dig the way you brought Freud’s sessions with Elizabeth von R. I think you are right to use that case to help us think about our fears.

    But let me just say that I don’t have any fears about breaking with something called “orthodoxy.” I am part of a community whose existence reminds the mainstream “orthodox” tradition (Catholics and Protestants) that they tried kill us off and failed. Anabaptists were labeled heretics by the mainstream. So, I have no problem with others naming me or my church “heretics.” That’s nothing new. (There’s also the issue of who has the authority to name name another communion as “heretics.” There’s no ecumenical church around anymore that can legitimately name some group “heretics”—but that doesn’t stop Ratzinger!)

    Back to the good stuff you brought up.. I think I have some explaining to do. I can see why you might think what I’m talking about with faith as church participation is “simple.” Let me explain why that’s not the case. And the only way I can do that is to describe to you what “church” looks like (i.e. our liturgy) at Chapel Hill Mennonite.

    I stand out front and welcome folks who come in the door. Then everyone takes a seat in our worship space which is circular—that means the center is criss-crossed with lines of sight, faces always encountering faces, bodies turned toward one another. Someone gets up and welcomes everyone to church and leads us in a responsive call to worship that is sort of like a prayer based on the Scriptures assigned for that particular Sunday. Then that person sits down. Someone else gets up and prays for us and with us—it’s also a prayerful meditation on the passages. Then that person sits down. Someone else leads us in singing songs from our hymnal. Then a series of different people take turns reading the lectionary passages (usually a Psalm, an OT reading, something from a Gospel, and something from somewhere else in the NT). Then there’s a sermon—which is basically a reflection on one or some of the passages, the preacher’s life, and the life of community. But it’s important to note that it’s a different preacher from the community every week—it’s a shared responsibility. After that person is done talking, they sit down and someone else gets up and opens the floor for conversation. (The final word is always deferred, postponed, shared—awaiting transfiguration). It’s a chance for anyone present to share what they think about the sermon or the prayers or the songs or the Scriptures. It’s a conversation of those gathered around our holy text. The time is called “the discernment of the Word.” God’s Word arrives in our midst through our conversation, where we share what we think the Spirit is saying to each of us and all of us. (It would be interesting to see how this fits with Freud’s “talking cure”). After that we take time to share our lives with each other—that means we give time and space in the middle of our worship service for people to share their joys and concerns, reasons for thanksgiving or for tears. Then someone offers up all these things to God—even the unresolved pain, the doubt, the troubles.

    All of that is our worship. All of that is how we receive God’s Word. All of that is what the decision to go to church involves. Participating in this kind of liturgy is our way of opening ourselves to God, of inviting God, as we center ourselves on that tried and true text while listening to each other and looking at each other while we wait for the unexpected. And the unexpected always happens since so many different people speak.

    The way we learn to be present to one another, and the way our presence with one another is an invitation for the Spirit of God to come into our midst, is anything but simple. Or, I should say, it’s as simple and as complex as a human being. Because it’s all about the ways our bodies come together in worship—gathered around the text, awaiting the Spirit—mediate God’s manifold revelation. And as Augustine’s dictum goes, “God gives God” (that’s something Rollins talks a bit about)—that’s the reason why we are called “the body of Christ”.

    Jared, there’s a lot more stuff that your helpful comments elicit from me. But hopefully I’ve said things that complicate what you mean when you say: “faith is not simply decided to go to church and listening to the Word of God.” ‘Simply’ going to church is the beginning of a very complicated encounter.

  • 8 jared // Jun 1, 2007 at 8:22 am

    Isaac, I keeping forgetting that you are really removed from the shallow pool of evangelicalism and are apart of an amazing tradition. I think I am a little jealous. I knew that the “simple” comment was not really conveying the direction I wanted. It almost conveys a negative connotation and I don’t mean that. But this does bring me back to Rollins’ book, I guess what I recognize in his book is the tension you bring up. I know that Rollins, like us, comes from an evangelical background and is now attempting to discover the hidden beauty of the Christian tradition. Maybe your exploration with the Anabaptist tradition, his with “negative theology” and mine with “whatever mine is”, is really a way for us to keep seeking the presence of God while at the same time stay some what within our tradition. What you describe as a gathering might not be new, but is new to you. What Rollins describes may or may not be new but is new to him. What I am doing here is new to me. Now the question you brought up before is, does that point out consumerist distractions within our personal faith or does it describe something beautiful, even God given, a desire to relentlessly seek God. Maybe it reveals that deep in our soul is a desire to seek that, which is Devine, though we have found different ways to express that. You speak a voice of tradition, Rollins speaks a voice evolution (though I know the ideas are not brand new) and I think I like to explore what it means to honor our tradition through evolution. What do you think.
    By the way your service sounds beautiful. Peace, jared