The Radical Within

Last week, I posted an essay entitled, Should We Give Up God For Lent? The piece was a critique of what I saw as some serious problems with the message of scholar, speaker and community-founder Peter Rollins. I took issue particularly with his campaign, Atheism for Lent, which provocatively asks Christians to give up God for Lent. I was especially concerned with Rollins’ apparent assumption that belief in God is primarily a matter of intellectual assent.

Because I am grounded in the highly experiential Quaker tradition, and also due to my own personal experience of transformation through a direct encounter with the living presence of the Holy Spirit, it felt important to lift up another perspective: That while belief in God can be idolatrous when borne out of fear or an unexamined desire for existential security, belief can also emerge from a profound encounter with Christ within.

I write as someone who has lived through the process of deep existential doubt, a felt sense of abandonment by God. Ultimately, it was through fully engaging with my doubt that the Holy Spirit freed me from the false conceptions of God that held me in shackles. Far from being the form of idolatrous escapism that Rollins describes, this encounter is a profoundly humbling experience, one that strips away layers of pretension, self-centeredness and delusion. It is precisely when we are faced with the reality of who God is, when we stand in the light and beauty of the Spirit’s presence, that we are empowered to strip away the false images we have created to control God and impose order and certainty upon our world.

I was glad that Rollins was able to make time to respond to my concerns in a blog post of his own. Unfortunately, as some very perceptive observers have noted, we seem to be talking past one another. Rollins spent much of his post analyzing me from the perspective of a Liberal vs. Radical dichotomy, concluding that I am a Liberal. In effect, he positioned me as being outside the realm of the kind of analysis that he wants to do. He also seemed to assume that I am uninterested in theory and analysis. Instead, I gather that he views me (and, more importantly, those with an experience and worldview similar to mine) as a reflexive doer, a do-gooder who acts immediately and without sufficient consideration for the structural consequences and context of my actions.

I understand this aspect of Rollins’ critique, but I disagree. His evaluation of my stance is unnecessarily reductionist, and I question his decision to create two camps and assign me to one and himself to another. (Given Rollins’ deep awareness and appreciation of Girard’s scapegoat mechanism, I am surprised by this move.) As an alternative to this us-versus-them dichotomy, I would like to suggest that both Peter Rollins and I are holding up an important aspect of the faith/doubt journey that we are called to walk in together as friends of Jesus.

In many quarters of my own tradition (Quakers), there is a problematic reluctance to engage with deep theory. At times, this can result in exactly the kind of behavior that Rollins describes – knee-jerk reaction to circumstances, action for its own sake without thoughtful regard to context and consequences. I am grateful for this critique from Rollins, and I hope that Quakers will take it to heart (and mind!).

Yet, my observation is that Rollins’ own perspective is also presently unbalanced. Our lived human experience is important, too. I find Peter Rollins’ dismissal of personal and communal experience of God’s presence and action to be deeply problematic. This represents an amputation of the heart, which is just as devastating as the intellectual lobotomy that he warns against.

I argue that the answer to an unreflective faith is not to cease action, but rather to engage in action that is informed by reflection. The proper response to a religious life that is overly dependent on individual experience is not to deny experience, but rather to hold that experience in dynamic conversation with theory. If we are to live out the full gospel, a balanced and complete gospel, we must wed faith and action, experience and analysis.

Besides this basic message of dynamic tension and balance, I would also like to briefly speak to the final portion of Peter Rollins’ response, in which he addresses my own experience of and relationship with God. Rollins concludes that I “admit that I need God in order to gain meaning and work for justice.” He identifies me as someone “whose belief in God… is not something they can question without the sense of destruction that would result.” In effect, if I understand his overall critique properly, he concludes that I worship an idolatrous God of my own making, and that I have not yet been through the process of purgation required to release what he calls the God-object, the human-created image of God that one clings to in order to escape reality.

While I understand how Rollins could come to this conclusion, he is mistaken. Though it is easy to read my words as expressing a terror at the loss of God, what I am actually communicating is an awareness of a deep ontological reality that is, in my experience (and that of my community), inescapable. I could no more give up God for Lent than I could give up gravity. I say this because, for me, at this point in my faith/doubt journey, the God whom I worship is not a thing out there. On the contrary, my (and my community‘s) experience is that of a thou in here.

This living and visceral experience of the Holy Spirit comes unbidden, is uncontrollable and calls us into unpredictable lives of relationship with Jesus. Rather than a fetish object out there, this mysteriously personalGround of Being draws us into lives of deeper trust, greater humility and community with others who also live in relationship with God. With this understanding, I do experience my own faith collective as a community where, as Rollins puts it, “people encounter this depth-dimension precisely by breaking the sense that there is some thing that is needed like air (for reducing faith to the affirmation of a thing renders the sacred into an object to be placed alongside other objects).”

In our experience as a community, we recognize that there are so many idols competing for our allegiance. It is by seeking after the deepest reality, the amazing divine Spirit that breathes in us and grounds our entire life together, that we are liberated from bondage to the many thingsthat demand our loyalty and draw us into destructive patterns. In this, I perceive that Peter Rollins and I share a common mission, even if we still disagree on the best way to get there.

Lest there be any doubt, I would like to state clearly that I value the work that Peter Rollins is engaged in. I think that unmasking idolatrous conceptions of God is a crucial task that we must undertake as followers of the ultimate revealer, Jesus. Insofar as Rollins provides an analysis that allows us to strip off the false vestments of human-constructed deities, I stand in solidarity with him.

I am grateful that Peter Rollins has been willing to engage in this conversation with me. I think that being able to publicly discuss these questions of faith/doubt and life is crucial, and I am glad to have Rollins as a conversation partner as we seek to build up the Body of Christ. Moving forward, I hope that we can find ways to hold the tension between faith and action, experience and theory. What are ways that we find the synthesis between faith and doubt, reflection and action, rigorous analysis and reckless love?

PS: I have felt so blessed by the passionate conversation that has arisen around last Thursday’s post, and I want to extend my thanks to all the bloggers and commenters who have engaged with these questions. I have gained a lot of insight from all of the bold, scholarly, imaginative and curious people who have added their own critique, asked questions and pointed out where they saw Rollins, me or both of us missing the point. Here are some links to some of the key sites where this conversation took place: