In short, the Christological crisis is one where everything that grounds us (the political, spiritual, and social) is torn away, where we stare into the void, and, as Nietzsche once said, we feel the void stare back. In this place we are alone as we dimly glimpse life without the gilded cage of religion. And it is here that we stand or fall. Here we must choose whether to embrace life or to turn and run. It is only here, in this dry and barren land of death, that we can approach the truth of life testified to in the event of Resurrection. If, however, Resurrection is not possible, then those who go through this death are, as the apostle Paul knew, ‘to be pitied more than all men.’
Pirates and Prodigals with Kester Brewin, Barry Taylor, and Peter Rollins
We are all in a state of becoming. All changing, all growing, all dying, all decaying. Bending, breaking, repairing, rotting.
There is no other reality but change. Stagnation, though perhaps perceived, does not exist.
Over the last couple of years, my faith has been in various states of crisis. It started with something small (namely, reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins). Up to that point, I had done very little questioning of my understanding of Christianity. I believed Jesus was the only way to heaven, hell was eternal conscious torment, and the Bible was inerrant (among other things).
Rob Bell, however, changed many of my assumptions. Poor exegesis of some biblical passages aside, I began to think, to question, to doubt.
What if hell isn’t real? What if I’ve misunderstood all along? What if God isn’t who I think God is? Have I simply accepted the story I’ve been given without hesitation?
Love Wins was the gentle push I needed to look over the edge of the cliff of my own certainty, my own satisfaction that my story was the ‘right’ one, that I had the answers. (Let me just say, I recognize my story is hardly novel. This type of encounter seems to be a common occurrence among young conservative evangelicals right now.)
It was sometime after this point that I encountered the philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins. If Rob Bell forced me to look over the edge of the cliff, Peter Rollins pushed me off. In fact, Peter Rollins’s theology – up through Insurrection – was the focus of my senior thesis. I spent hours and hours of my life consumed by his work. His first book, How (not) to Speak of God, helped move me past simply questioning some ‘secondary’ doctrines (at this point in my journey, I could still consider myself an evangelical) towards questioning my acceptance of orthodox Christianity completely. I became (in Rollins’s terms) an a/theist. In other words, the binary between atheism and theism broke for me. I gained a desire to lose any conception of ‘God’ which, according to Pete, functions as an idol – for ‘God’ is unable to be contained within any conception or idea (including that of the biblical writers).
The Fidelity of Betrayal and Insurrection were the next two books that deeply impacted my faith and understanding of ‘God.’ Fidelity helped me view the Word not as contained within the biblical text, but as an Event that the Bible (among other things) pointed to. While the text itself was cracked, its broken nature does not make it incapable of conveying the divine Word. This is not the only thing Fidelity speaks to, but was the theme that most affected me.
Finally, Insurrection helped me walk through utter darkness. By using the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus as models for our own lives. Following Jesus’ cry – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – I underwent the experience of God-forsakenness. This kind of atheism (not an intellectual one, per se, but certainly one felt at the core of one’s being) was, and will always be an integral part of my faith journey. The way of the cross, in my own life, involved the loss of religious foundation. Just as Jesus loses all identity on the cross (e.g., social, economic, political, religious), so I gave up all of my assurance in ‘God’ and Christianity. ‘God’ was no longer the deus ex machina, the object that exists to make sense of the things that don’t. Though I don’t feel as though I’m in that place anymore, I agree with Pete that this is a fundamental part of the Christian experience. Resurrection then became for me a method of living post-Crucifixion. It was an acceptance of the inherent meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion. This Resurrection-life is not a rejection of the meaninglessness found in the Crucifixion experience, but its purpose is to allow humans to love in the midst of non-meaning.
What was I to do after this? After having existential crisis after existential crisis, I felt lost in a sea of non-meaning. Though Rollins’s call to create meaning via love in the midst of the utterly mundane is meant to help rob those things of their sting, something still felt missing. I tore down every bit of belief that I had – up to, and including, the belief in ‘God.’ Some days I felt like I could maybe affirm ‘God’s’ existence (What kind of existence, I wasn’t sure. Is God a person? An actual object? Love itself?), but other days, the notion of ‘God’ was ludicrous – like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
The problem, for me, was that this wasn’t enough. Not that love itself wasn’t enough, but that there was more. Something deep, something divine, that is a part of the very fabric of reality itself. No matter how hard I tried, I could never really shake the feeling, deep within me, that there is something beyond the physical. My doubts about their existence haven’t gone away (and probably won’t). But the fact is I cannot deny that ‘hum’ I feel deep within the core of my very existence. That feeling was not that everything is meaningless but that everything was full of meaning, and not simply because it has some kind of ‘personal meaning’ to me.
This is also not to mention that I don’t have any real desire to leave Christianity. In it, I find beauty, life, love, hope, justice, and mercy. And there seem to be deep truths within Christianity that resonate with my experience of Reality.
So, this is where I start. I have torn everything down. It is now time to rebuild. My desire is to rebuild a sustainable, hopeful, honest, broken, loving faith. One that is not based on guilt; one that is not simply a false creation-of-meaning in the midst of anti-supernaturalism. There is something to be said for the loss of the divine (Jesus did it!). But there is also something to be said for the existence of sacredness, the source of life as divine. In light of this, here are the five things that I affirm, on faith, about Christianity:
- The Crucifixion and the physical Resurrection of Jesus
- The Incarnation – that Jesus was and is the peasant-God
- The Trinity – that God exists as three separate, yet united, entities
- The Inspiration (but not inerrancy!) of Scripture
- The Atonement of humanity, by God, is at least our salvation from what would otherwise be a destructive system of violent sacrificial scapegoating
As far as the rest is concerned, I’m wide open or skeptical (or both). Some days, I will be plagued by doubt. Other days, I will be confident in the things I believe. In spite of this ebb and flow of doubt and ‘belief,’ my desire is to remain faithful to the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
This post is part of a series on Evolution, Original Sin, and the Atonement. To start at the beginning, click here.
Moving along regarding Original Sin!
Last time, we talked about the individual nature of Original Sin as the feeling of meaninglessness and loss of the (non-)thing that makes us whole and complete. Even further, this feeling of meaninglessness – if we don’t deal with it directly – drives us to pursue things that will fill the hole we feel. We are driven to pursue anything that will make us feel satisfied, like we have the answer. This includes ‘God’ – particularly the God-product so many churches sell.
This individual notion of sin manifests itself in a communal way.
Often, when we feel the sense of lack that I have described, we project unwarranted value onto an object that another person already has. In other words, we covet what the ‘other’ has because we believe the lie that the object they possess actually brings about real satisfaction in their lives (and will do the same in ours). René Girard calls this kind of desire ‘mimetic.’ Mimetic desire is inherently dangerous because, over and over again, it leads to rivalry and violence.
The problem, however, is that violence doesn’t just end with the individuals who are at conflict with each other. The violence that occurs from individual covetousness always leads to increasing levels of (often vengeful) violence. It doesn’t simply stop tit-for-tat (or “eye for an eye,” if you will). Let’s look at a common example (taken from Brian McDonald at Touchstone Magazine):
Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.
The story above is familiar to us because it is natural to us. It is something we all do or have done. As we can see in the notion of individualistic sin, the desired object isn’t important. That object has no special power, no intrinsic worth. It is only our mimetic desire that causes us to want the object.
Further, as vengeful violence builds due to our desire for completeness and satisfaction, that violence does not stop with the individuals. Those individuals are part of families, tribes, and communities. Let’s say I try to take the object of desire that you possess, and you harm me physically for my actions. I’m not going to try and simply hurt you as badly as you hurt me – I’m going to try and hurt you more. Then, you not only want to cause damage to me, but to my family as well.My family, in turn, desires to inflict damage on the larger community your family might be a part of. This isn’t rocket science. This is something we understand because it is inherent to our very humanity.
So our very existence is bound to the feeling of lack, of meaningless, incompleteness, a sense that we are missing the thing that gives us satisfaction. To compensate for this, we project value onto objects we believe will make us whole, not lacking anything. When that object is possessed by someone else (and it always is), our desire becomes violent. We do whatever we need to do to obtain the object of desire. This violence never stops by itself. Violence always breeds more violence, until the communities in which we are part of destroy themselves from the inside, from the infectious disease we all carry.
However, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we see a move away from vengeance and violence and destructive desire. This is where our need for atonement comes from, and where we will turn next.
Last time in the evolution series, we talked a little about ‘original sin’ and why it’s still important for us to maintain the concept of ‘sin,’ despite the outmoded doctrinal baggage attached to the language.
Before we set out to talk about individual sin, I’d like to say one thing. Although I’m focusing on the two major ways I understand sin to operate in this post and the next, I am by no means saying these are the only ways we can or should understand original sin. This is the best way I’ve learned to describe it for myself, at the moment. I may understand it differently later in life, and others may not agree with my conclusion. The fact is, I find these two understandings of sin most viable right now because they cohere with my own experiences. And despite those who would say it’s improper to allow my experiences to govern my understanding of God and reality, I’m going to argue that we have no choice but to do so. Say all you want that we need to ‘go back to the Bible.’ Regardless of whether we do that or not, our experiences always govern our understanding of reality, and there is no way around that.
In The Idolatry of God, Pete uses the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to talk about the feeling of ‘separation’ and ‘lack’ that is inherent to the human experience. For Rollins, if we “consider Original Sin in its most literal definition, we can begin to appreciate how it refers to a primal separation… [It is] the feeling of gap that marks us all from the very beginning” (IoG, 19-20). In other words, every single one of us, at some point, feels a sense of lack, meaninglessness, and dissatisfaction. This is a normal part of the human experience.
Rollins explains that this is a commonly observed phenomenon that originates during what Lacan calls the ‘mirror phase’ in early childhood development – particularly between 6 and 18 months after birth. The ‘mirror phase’ is the stage of infancy where the child’s self-consciousness is birthed. Before this stage in development, there is no real sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’ in the child’s consciousness. S/he is totally unaware of a separation between him/herself and the surrounding environment. However, as soon as the child develops a sense of ‘I,’ there is also an immediate understanding of the existence of ‘not I.’ Rollins states, “The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation” (13).
This sense of separation from something also leads us to the experience of the sense of a ‘loss’ of something. From the very birth of our self-consciousness, we constantly experience dissatisfaction because we feel as if we are ‘missing’ something – something that actually can bring us satisfaction and rid us of our feeling of meaninglessness.
It is this feeling of dissatisfaction, this feeling of loss, that leads all of us, throughout our lives, to look for ways to get rid of that feeling. We use things like money, power, sex, family, and so on to try and fill the gap we feel, yet we find that none of those things ever make us feel fully satisfied. Further, the Church often makes ‘God’ into another one of these products that can fill the gap, placing the divine on the same level as every other object that promises us some kind of certainty or satisfaction.
In short, Rollins says it this way: “We mistakenly feel that we have lost something central to our humanity (Original Sin) and then postulate some object we believe will restore what we have lost, something we believe will bring wholeness and fulfillment to our lives” (27-28). When we ascribe this value to anything (including ‘God’), we have created an Idol out of the object.
Thus, ‘original sin’ is not something that we need to be punished for because of some inherent level of disobedience to God’s will that we have the second we are born. Rather, on an individual level, it is the feeling of separation, anxiety, and lack that is universal to the human experience.
Next, I’ll focus on how this individual sin progresses to systemic/communal sin and – in the following posts – how the atonement addresses these problems.
This is a series on Evolution, Original Sin, and the Atonement. To start at the beginning, click here.
In my last post, I ended with a question that I think needs to be answered in light of the acceptance of evolution within the paradigm of Christianity: what is sin, how does it affect us, and why is the cross a solution to that problem?
I’d like to address sin specifically in the next couple of posts. As I said before, I don’t think Paul’s writings warrant the view of original sin common to evangelicalism today (I should say at this point that my view of Scripture as non-inerrant does not mean I de-value it or think it worthless. On the contrary, I think it is extremely important and worth our attention. I just prefer to avoid proffering some kind of “paper pope” status to it). It seems to me that Paul, in places like Romans and 1 Corinthians was looking through the lens of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and trying to make sense of the Event that occurred.
In other words, the cross was a solution, but to what? To the universal reality of death, and the universal reality of sin. Paul may have used Adam as an example, but his example does not warrant doctrinal certainty that we should say something like “Adam sinned, thus we are all guilty.” Again, Genesis doesn’t teach this, Judaism (both before and after Christianity) doesn’t teach this, Jesus doesn’t teach this.
What the common, current doctrine of original sin teaches is “Why?” But here’s the thing – I don’t think that’s the point. The point is this: sin, death, hurt, the feeling of meaninglessness, violence… they’re all real. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to define sin, but we don’t need to create a system where one (pre-)historical dude sinned, and because of some weird cosmic justice that God must adhere to, blood is required to atone for Adam’s (and our!) disobedience to God’s commands.
Another unfortunate consequence of thinking about sin this way is the loss of the systemic nature of sin. In other words, the common view of original sin places the spotlight on our individual sinful natures and requires a personal atonement, but can only go that far. This kind of view doesn’t allow us to view the problem of sin/evil as existing in the systems we create, and if it does, it assumes that the problem would be fixed if we all just became a(n) ____________ kind of Christian. Or, if the entirety of humanity just believed the same as us, everything would be alright.
Contrary to this, I’d like to affirm a view of sin that is both individual and systemic/communal. I will not / cannot address why things are the way the are. Personally, I don’t think any of us can; I think we just like to try, because we like certainty, satisfaction, etc. I also don’t think it’s important to try to speculate about how sin came into the picture originally. What I do think is important is to address the fact that sin exists, and move on from there.
In my next post, I’ll address sin as an individual issue, via the Radical Theology of Peter Rollins (though many of you may not agree with my conclusions), and the post after that will address systemic sin via some of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. Tune in!
Back into Friday Funday! Let’s see what we have this week…
- Darrell over at My Obama Year posted an excruciatingly open and heartfelt post about the healthcare debate.
So here is my invitation to you: the next time you get into a discussion about healthcare put my face on the pain of millions of people just like me. Maybe if you can see my wife as the one who needs help it will be easier to speak a little more softly and be a little kinder even when we differ. Let us be the ones you see when you think about the sick and needy. Let our story speak for them.
- Peter Rollins writes about hiding the truth from the “big Other” so that we can actually hide the truth from ourselves.
By singing songs that claim we are happy, fulfilled and utterly devoted we protect the Big Other from seeing the truth of our inner antagonisms The more frenetically we sing the more we attempt to conceal the truth from this Big Other.
- Dr. Eric Seibert wrote a series of posts at Peter Enns’s blog entitled “When the ‘Good Book’ is Bad: Challenging the Bible’s Violent Portrayals of God.” (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3)
It is hard—some would say impossible—to justify the killing of infants and toddlers in stories like these. Reading this way sensitizes us to the problem of violence in these texts and keeps us from simplistically classifying such moral atrocities as good.
- John Manguno posted an article at One Theology on the relation of ANE mythological creatures to some of the rich imagery found in the Old Testament.
There are a smattering of sea monsters and dragons throughout the OT. Their roots as ANE chaos monsters is to me quite clear, but exactly how much of that mythology survived into Israelite thought is a question which requires a great deal of thought and individual examination.
- David Henson wrote a fantastic article about Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl as a display of feminism and power, NOT sexuality. (Unless, of course, that’s what you wanted to see.)
Because Beyoncé’s performance Sunday night in New Orleans wasn’t about sex. It was about power, and Beyoncé had it in spades. In fact, her show was one of the most compelling, embodied and prophetic statements of female power I have seen on mainstream television.
Peter Rollins wrote a post a while back entitled “The Problem with Unbelief Is That It Enables Us to Believe Too Much.”
The general idea is this: the problem with most people’s adherence to a fundamentalist belief (although I would argue that his definition of “fundamentalist belief” is broader than my own) is that it requires the use of disavowed unbelief – in other words, I can’t adhere to beliefs like “God will send everyone who doesn’t ‘believe’ that Jesus died for their sins to hell” without temporarily suspending that belief every day. Otherwise, my life would like remarkably different. At the very least, every second of my life would need to be consumed with the motivation of trying to get people off of the path towards hell and onto the path to heaven – which, in this scenario, would be to convince them somehow to “believe” that Jesus came and died for their sins.
Let me say that again. If I really, truly, honestly believe that every single person I know that doesn’t “believe in” or have “faith in” Jesus as the savior of the world will spend an eternity being tormented due to their lack of belief, I am morally obligated to spend my every waking moment trying to convince those around me to have faith in Jesus, knowing their fates are sealed otherwise.
This truth can also be seen in other everyday scenarios. For example, my mother and I used to enjoy – and still do – watching The Breakfast Club. Personally, we both find the movie hilarious and even emotionally moving at parts. However, the movie’s contents present a problem for a person who genuinely believes in non-Christians will go to hell due to non-belief. In order for us to actually enjoy the movie, we had to suspend our belief that those actors were doing “ungodly” and “unholy” things, and they were going to go to hell for it. If we had honestly believed our beliefs and taken them to their logical conclusions (that every individual actor in that movie, due to their actions, was certainly going to hell), we could not have actually enjoyed the movie. Rollins says it this way:
The point here is that the unbelief allows the communities to get the psychological pleasure from the beliefs that they hold (treating them as a security blanket) without having to confront the horror of them.
Our claimed “belief” was only sustained by a disavowed unbelief.
That is, according to our actions, we didn’t – couldn’t – actually believe those people were going to hell.
If we lost the disavowed unbelief, we would have had to encounter the true horror of our beliefs (in this case, that we believed in a God who would torture these people for eternity in hell). In encountering the claimed belief, we would have had two options: change our posture towards the movie (i.e., stop enjoying it – how could we, knowing those people were going to be suffering for their actions?) or lose the belief itself.
This post is a preface/intro to a series I’m starting on synthesizing the theory of evolution with Christianity. I plan on writing a post at least once a week on this topic (hopefully more, but we’ll see).
I’m about to graduate with my B.A. in Theological Studies. I basically finished my final assignment this week, which means I have had time to do some reading that I actually want to do. My book list has at least 50 books on it, and that’s just ones I could think of off the top of my head. I was so excited to finally get started this week, and my first choice (since it was at the library) was Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam.
While reading it, I was struck again and again by how much the acceptance of the reality of evolution will truly change a theological system if that system doesn’t allow for anything other than special creation and a historical Adam. The acceptance of the theory of evolution as true (which I do) is a step that takes serious consideration, especially for Evangelicals. (As an aside, I’m guessing the best way to classify myself at the moment is some kind of progressive [little e] evangelical… whatever that means.) Anyway, the point is, most of the Christians I am in contact with are Evangelicals in the strictly fundamental sense – for the most part.
Because of this, my desire is to show those around me that not only is it simply acceptable to accept evolution as true – it’s necessary. It’s especially necessary if the Evangelical community is going to have any kind of credibility with the rest of the world in the future. However, this also means that the Evangelical theological system needs to change dramatically. Specifically, I think the acceptance of evolution affects two major areas, which I’ll be addressing in the series:
- Original Sin
- The Atonement
Of course, these aren’t the only theological areas evolution affects. It will, of course, also affect our understanding of the nature of God’s relationship to the universe, God’s character itself, the very being of God, and so on. However, this series’ focus will be on the two subjects outlined above.
At the outset, I should also mention one other issue. This will probably have some kind of effect on how many of my readers view my understanding of the rest of the posts in this series, but it needs to be said. I do NOT affirm that Scripture is inerrant (and I’m a little iffy on infallibility as well, but I’m not sure that’s relevant). To be clear, I am not saying that I think Scripture is useless or simply another document that is inspired in the same way that Shakespeare or whatever is an “inspired” piece of work.
Rather, I am strictly Neo-Orthodox in my understanding of Scripture. Karl Barth, the father of Neo-Orthodoxy probably spells out my view of Scripture best. He says that Scripture itself is not the Word of God, but the Word is an event, to which Scripture is a witness. And although the “witness is not absolutely identical with that which it witnesses,” it can still be trusted to convey the Word of God in some sense – even while we cannot necessarily trust it to always convey propositional, historical truth.
Peter Rollins takes this idea slightly further, saying,
The idea of the “Word of God” becomes pale and anemic when reduced to the idea of a factual description of historical events. The words of the Bible, wonderful as they often are, must not be allowed to stand in for God’s majestic Word, as if the words and phrases have been conferred with some sacred status and the phonetic patterns given divine power.
I apologize for the lack of posting lately. Spring break was a couple of weeks ago, and during that time I was busy finishing up my senior paper, preparing a presentation on it, getting a cold, attempting to spend time with my family during much-needed time off, and countless other obligations. Blogging always takes a backseat, and for that, dear readers (like there are really that many! Haha!), I am sorry.
I had the pleasure yesterday of turning in my senior paper, Twentieth Century Theology paper (basically on the same subject), and abstract. I also presented on my senior paper and led a class discussion on Peter Rollins. I must say, I was (and am) greatly affected by his thoughts on theology and philosophy. Though I cannot say I completely agree with everything he has to offer – I don’t think that should be the case for anyone – I can say that his work provides great insight into what I would consider a healthy view of Christianity. This is especially true when it comes to holding our “beliefs” at arm’s length, and allowing ourselves to question our assumptions and theological presuppositions. As I’ve said before, when we regard our beliefs as absolutely true and do not even consider the possibility that we might be wrong, our beliefs become poisonous – not only to ourselves, but to those around us. And I mean this for all of our beliefs.
However, I should mention that I think there is a time and a place for differing views of theology. Rollins would have us believe that at the core Christianity lies a constant state of meaninglessness and a constant need for the deconstruction of our beliefs. I think this can be healthy, to an extent. Nevertheless, I also think a constant reflection on the apparent meaninglessness of life can lead to utter despair. This is something I experienced firsthand as I became more and more entrenched in Rollins’ theology.
To be honest, though I think that Rollins has something good to offer those who find themselves in the Christian tradition, I think that his theology lacks holism. The New Testament writers, though they affirmed the need for an individual to experience Christ’s Crucifixion, also affirmed joy, hope, and peace. Take Paul writing to the Philippians, for example. Though he should have been the first candidate for affirming the absence of meaning in a given situation, he instead writes:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God,which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:4-9).
This view of the Christian faith does not seem to be a part of Rollins’ Christianity. Though the reflection on and enacting of the Crucifixion in our own lives is a necessary part of Christianity (and by this I mean the felt loss of God as the deus ex machina, or the one who provides us with meaning), there is an “after.” Though I also think it is necessary to revisit, time and again, the real (non)meaning of the Crucifixion, it is also necessary to recognize that if we do not move past this, we will fall into despair. Truthfully, the Gospel is not only a Gospel of death, but a Gospel of life. And, I would argue, not one that simply lives in spite of that loss of meaning, but finds new meaning in the aftermath of the felt experience of God.
I’m not saying I understand what this might entail. I have simply come to realize that Christianity, throughout the ages, affirms both the loss of meaning and the retention of hope.
If you would like to check out Peter Rollins’ work (I think you should! After all, I have spent the last three months saturated in his work.), check these out below: