Note: For the latest in this conversation, check out my reply to Peter Rollins’ response to this piece, The Radical Within.
Some people give up chocolate, coffee or movies for Lent, but Peter Rollins has a slightly more radical proposal: Why not try giving up God?
Peter Rollins argues that real spiritual courage involves fully experiencing the absence of God. He warns that, as long as we allow ourselves to believe in a personal God who intervenes in history for the sake of love, we risk constructing a false god in our own image. Far too often, he says, our belief is in a super-hero God who serves as a crutch for our own inability to cope with reality.
As an alternative to this fairy-tale God, Rollins encourages us to embrace Jesus’ felt sense of abandonment on the cross, presumably on an ongoing basis. His message seems to be that truly daring and courageous Christians aren’t afraid to abandon belief in God and experience the desolation of atheism. To promote this message of radical doubt, Rollins has developed an annual campaign: Atheism For Lent.
I have been following Peter Rollins’ ministry for some time now. Many people I respect find his writings deeply inspirational. This has encouraged me to take his message seriously. I have heard him speak in person, read his book and followed his online campaigns over the last couple of years. After extended consideration, I now want to outline some serious problems I see with the gospel he is preaching.
The Mystique of Elitism
As far as I am aware, Rollins has never laid out exactly who his target audience is, but my observation is that most people who are engaging with his message are either seminary trained or have a serious commitment to theological study. This is not surprising, given Peter’s language and style of presentation. Of all the popular Christian thinkers I know, Peter Rollins is one of the most avant gardeand edgy. His mystique is the promise of something new and unique in the 1st-world Evangelical/Protestant experience.
I wonder about the implications of this mystique. When I read Peter Rollins, and when I follow the commenters on his social media offerings, I cannot help but notice a theme of intellectual elitism and a fascination with secret knowledge. Ordinary Christians believe in a fairy-tale God-in-the-sky, but we know the truth. Most believers use God as a crutch, but we see clearly and cast aside our beliefs with courage. Most people who read the Bible think it is a story about God blessing the world, but weknow that it is actually a story about radical doubt and abandonment by God.
I encourage my friends who are big fans of Rollins to take a serious look at what attracts them to his teachings. There is good stuff there; I do not deny it. The dark night of the soul can be just what the doctor ordered at certain points in our lives. But how does this special knowledgeaffect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?
Injustice and Intellectualism
Something else I find troubling is how little Peter Rollins speaks about the need for social transformation, peacemaking and justice in our world. Instead, he emphasizes the personal experience and condition of individuals. He preaches individual salvation through an embrace of radical doubt. As Rollins presents it, the way forward is through each individual’s decision to embrace a reality in which God is mute and uninvolved with the creation.
This sounds oddly familiar. Despite the fact that Rollins is superficially at odds with mainstream Evangelicalism, his message is one that bears great resemblance to the personal salvationnarrative that is so central to Evangelical churches. Whether it is accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savioror accepting the godless doubt of existential atheism, the major push is personal transformation via intellectual belief. The very fact that Rollins can ask us to give up God for lent suggests that he thinks that faith in an active, personal God is a preference, a chosen belief system, rather than a conviction that grows out of long experience and relationship with the Holy Spirit.
For those of us who really have experienced a living and powerful God – a God who intervenes in history and shows us God’s true character in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – these intellectual games do not cut the mustard. Whether offered to us by mainstream Evangelicalism or the avant gardeof Peter Rollins, these head trips do not offer the whole wheat bread of life that we need to survive, thrive and bring healing to this broken world.
Safe Games for Comfortable People
I have a friend who spent years in the L’Arche Community, living alongside individuals with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. He is also an erudite and astute theologian, and we got to talking about Rollins’ Atheism for Lent campaign. At one point in our conversation he looked at me and said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.”
This statement drove home for me how irrelevant much of Peter Rollins’ message is to those who are the most marginalized in our society. To those who are struggling under the burden of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment or broken homes, is atheism the answer? For the defrauded migrant worker, for the dispossessed Palestinian refugee, for those who are imprisoned for conscience – would Rollins prescribe atheism?
In my experience, a godless worldview (whether it takes the form of explicit non-belief or functional atheism) is most attractive to those who enjoy privileged positions in society. Rich and middle class people have the luxury of doubting God. But for those who face oppression, injustice and persecution, the reality of God’s leadership and presence is absolutely essential for survival. While Peter Rollins purports to preach a hard-core gospel of existential doubt, he has little to offer those who are daily experiencing the reality of Christ’s suffering.
We Really Do Need God
Tearing down false images of God is an important task, but this cannot be the end of the story. God does not leave Job sitting on ashes and picking at his sores. After the night must come the dawn. Unfortunately, Rollins seems unwilling to engage in the process of developing an alternative vision. Rather than offering a positive understanding of who God is, he seems solely interested open-ended deconstruction.
Leading people into darkness and doubt and leaving them there is simply irresponsible. We live in a deeply broken world that is in more need than ever of the redemptive power of God’s living Spirit. How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing! How can we give up God for almost six weeks? How would we sustain our struggle for justice, truth, mercy and genuine love? What could be the possible benefit of denying this healing, life-giving power for forty days? We live in a world desperately in need of God’s presence and intervention. Will we dare to believe?