Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Review of The Idolatry of God, or, How (Not) To Use Footnotes While Writing Theology

The theological goal of The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction is to prove to us that God is an idol. God is an idol, the argument goes, because God has been turned into an object created by our sinful hearts to fill the void that we think we have. This, according to Rollins, is the true meaning of the term original sin. We have fooled ourselves into thinking we lack something, but the feeling of lack/separation is a myth. This phenomena could be likened to a marketing campaign which tells us that we need a certain product without which our lives will be incomplete. The marketing campaign and its product/idol therefore generates a mythical void - and because mythical, impossible to fill.

If this is the problem as Rollins portrays it, then the solution is to smash the idol, to point out that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. The freedom that Christ offers isn't a product, a remedy to the old problem of separation. It is the freedom to live fully in this life as human beings, embracing mystery, uncertainty, brokenness, doubt, and abandonment. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is the beginning, and, perhaps in Rollins' narrative, the end of faith.

In light of this we must wear our identities lightly, if at all. Rollins espouses the Pauline universalism espoused by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, which advocates a dismantling of the fences which divide us. Christianity isn't about Jew and Greek getting along as Jew and Greek. It says that there are no longer these demarcations which secure a certain niche for ourselves. Our identities have been ruptured beyond repair. What remains is the conversation/relations/collective in which we find ourselves and in which we must be always open to experiencing the other as other - and ourselves as other. And when we have this experience, it is at this point that we can begin to name God as God. God is somehow incarnated in this experience.

The ecclesiological goal, therefore, is to form collectives that will foster these kind of experiences. Rollins describes the work of some of the collectives in the final part of the book. There are practices such as Atheism for Lent, The Last Supper, and The Omega Course (a course designed to aid one's exit from Christianity) which groups of people can embrace as ways to free themselves from the tyranny of the idol and instead to hold on to each other as revealers of the divine.

There is an overwhelming problem with the argument of this book. Namely, the book falls on its own sword. Rollins intends to break our addiction to certainty and satisfaction, yet he seems quite certain this his approach to Christianity will satisfy us. Perhaps there is simply no way out of this circle. Embrace dissatisfaction and you will be satisfied.

While Rollins wants to do away with the original sin which tells us that there is a void in need of filling, the book's argument actually amounts to just another way of telling that same story of lack, except this time what we lack is the knowledge that the 20th century French intelligentsia can provide for us. Rollins continues to work from the premise that he aims to destroy: namely, that we need something, that we are incomplete. In this telling of the familiar narrative what we need instead of the God of most Christian churches is the God of a small number of these new collectives. The product has changed, but the idolatry that Rollins names is perpetuated. He cannot seem to escape its clutches; perhaps there is no escaping.

The book is not without merit. Indeed, that the church is in thrall to idols is a truth that needs to be named, simply because it is true. Contrary to Rollins, however, idolatry isn't synonymous with worship. Idolatry is the worship of false Gods. It seems like Rollins wants to do away with worship entirely, as if Christian language does not and should not refer, and all we are left with are our mysterious conversations. Telling us to embrace this is like telling Sisyphus to embrace the rock.

The Christian canon doesn't end with our conversations. It ends with our worship of the Lamb who was slain. Rollins wants to do away with such concreteness. He tells us that we cannot know God. The apostle Paul of Pauline universalism tells us that there is a day coming when we will know even as we are fully known.

There is also an ethical dimension to the book which I haven't yet touched upon. It is all well and good for a group of intellectuals to sit in a pub and tell each other that they don't actually lack anything and that they simply need to embrace their brokenness, and that their profound doubts about God are actually an instance of deep faith. Jesus, on the other hand, promises to make all things new. The poor are given the certainty that they will be satisfied in the kingdom of God. Ironically, there seems to be no space in Rollins' ecclesiology for those he calls us to embrace. They will always be outsiders, for they will always look to God for the certainty and satisfaction that in Rollins' theology makes them idolaters.


  1. outstanding. Hope post-grad studies beckon?

  2. Me too! I have applied for a few different masters courses around the UK, so hopefully I get some positive responses.

  3. I'm now wondering if I should read the book or not. What do you recommend me? Another questions? What other books do you recommend me to read during the summer break? Dec, I missed you tonight, so I came to your blog and read most of the latest entries! I miss talking to you!

  4. I always get the feeling that it's all a bit Gnostic or something, it's like there is some secret to really being enlightened dressed up in language that you either get or you don't get,it's all wink wink nudge nudge over a pint and some.
    I'm amazed how it get under my skin though when someone retweets something Pete has said. I find myself wanting to shout something like 'OK,OK, we get the picture, we can't box God in, we can't know God'. It's like he sits on one side of the scale while Mark Driscoll sits on the other.

    Anyway, much better to reflect on Laudrup's passing.