Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rollins, Zizek, and Ecclesiology

Slavoj Zizek likes to tell an anecdote about physicist Niels Bohr. It goes like this:

Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn't believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn't believe in it!’
The point of this anecdote for Zizek is its commentary on the nature of ideology: a social structure - say, democracy - works even if none of those members of the society really believes in the ideals of democracy.

Peter Rollins transposes this into an ecclesial context. For Rollins, the Church functions as an ideological structure which, in a sense, believes for the individual so that the individual does not have to believe. This is where Zizek's comments about laughter tracks also comes into play. According to Zizek, the purpose of the laughter track is not to prompt us to laugh, or to accompany our laughs. The laughter track exists as a substitute for our laughter. The laughter tracks laughs so that we don't have to. The Church believes so that the individual does not have to.

Rollins's "insurrectionist" Christianity is an attempt to move away from this ideological ecclesiology. I am sympathetic with this attempt, which I understand to be an extreme and undiluted form of evangelicalism. What Rollins wants is authenticity. It doesn't matter what form that authenticity takes: it could be authentic faith or authentic doubt. What matters is that it is authentic. Christianity as a religion which critiques religion should be about fostering authenticity.

This places a great burden on the individual to be authentic; that is to say, to be an individual. My worry is that individuals were never meant to be as individual as Rollins thinks they should be. At this point Rollins even departs from Slavoj Zizek's "faith." For Zizek it is precisely the Church as institution which interests him. For Rollins, on the other hand, the Church as institution is in tension with authentic Christianity. This is why Icon did "non-membership courses" and "Omega courses," which were designed to free the individual from the clutches of institutionalism.

In being so freed we are free to be ourselves. But are we made to handle this freedom? What Rollins is trying to do is to create a space in which the individual is free, even obliged, to doubt. "To believe is human; to doubt, divine" hangs over his webpage. The reason we do not need the Church to have faith for us when he have lost our faith is that losing faith is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite: doubt, for Rollins, is a cardinal theological virtue, given its paradigmatic expression by Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Rollins - like Zizek - makes much of the verse, but I'm not sure it can carry the weight he attaches to it. The overwhelming testimony of Old and New Testaments is that faith (or "belief") is to be commended, while doubt, in the end, is shown to be unreasonable. "Oh ye of little faith" was not a compliment to the disciples.

Rollins is right that doubt or lack of faith should not be suppressed. It should be given a voice, as it is in the hymn book of the Bible, the Psalms. Where Rollins is wrong, however, is that it is precisely the Church as believing (or faithful) community that can carry these doubts within the context of faith. It can do this because it does not depend on the individual to be always faithful. That the Church has faith even when the individual is at the end of her faith is good news.

In what was a very Hauerwasian moment, the preacher in Everwood said the following: "The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness." One of Hauerwas's students, Chris Huebner, wrote about this very gift in an essay on memory, faith, and Alzheimer's disease. He describes the Church as a place of memory for those who can no longer remember. This is what being a member of the body of Christ is all about.

No comments:

Post a Comment