December 4, 2020

Good News from Peter Rollins: God does not exist, is not sublime, and has no meaning

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Poussin

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Poussin

The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction
By Peter Rollins
Howard Books, 2013

– Part one of a two-part review and meditation

* * *

IdolatryofgodPeter Rollins thinks that much modern Christianity has become, in essence, idolatry.

Today the “Good News” of Christianity operates with much the same logic. It is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire rather than as that which evokes transformation in the very way that we desire. Like every other product that promises us fulfillment, Christ becomes yet another object in the world that is offered to us as away of gaining insight and ultimate satisfaction. 

In his book The Idolatry of God, Rollins observes that humans, from the beginning of self-consciousness, experience a sense of loss and separation. At the same time we realize that there is an “I,” we also observe that there is a “not I” from which we are separated. Thus we sense a gap, and we begin to feel that we have lost something we once had, we have been disconnected from something (or someone) primordial. Thus, from the start of self-awareness we long to be reconciled, reunited with that from which we have been disunited. In ourselves, we are incomplete.

From early childhood, we pursue various objects and experiences, believing they will somehow fill the void and make us whole. As we mature, these may take the form of pleasure, success, wealth, fame or reputation, power and influence, or true love.

Or faith in “God.”

These days, religion has become another product on the shelf designed to address our sense of incompleteness. This way of presenting God, Jesus, and Christian faith is so common in our time that many think this is the Bible’s Gospel — Jesus has come to fill the gap in our lives and bring us satisfaction

I remember a simple, winsome little tract from the Jesus movement when I had my teenage spiritual awakening that had that very title: “What Fills the Gap?” The subsequent era of church growth mentality, seeker oriented movements, and the nearly total loss of historical awareness and tradition that this entailed has only accelerated the sense that this “gospel” is God’s good news for people today.

Peter Rollins suggests that Jesus actually came, not to fill the gap, but to set us free from this idolatrous instinct.

But instead of offering a freedom from this type of thinking, the church has simply joined the party and placed its own product in the machine. Their god-product takes its place alongside all the other things vying for our attention with their promises to fill the gap in our lives and render our existence meaningful. Take one or mix and match: luxury car, financial success, fame, or Jesus; they all pretty much promise the same satisfaction.

This idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most of us take it for granted. Whether people accept the idea of God or reject it, they seem to be talking about the same thing: a being who satisfies our soul by filling the gap in our existence. The only conflict is that some people reject this god-product as fiction while others accept it.

However, it is the very framework of thinking that is inadequate, not merely what one puts in the “gap-filler” role. Whether it is a BMW, a soulmate, or Jesus, that thing that we have designated as our “answer” becomes an idol.

That’s right, we can even make Jesus into an idol.

rollinsAs Rollins puts it:

What we see taking place in the church today is the reduction of God to an Idol, that is, to a thing that will satisfy us and fill the gap we feel in our hearts. In thinking of God in this way, the church ends up mimicking every other industry by claiming that they can take away the sense of loss that marks our life. …By misunderstanding the nature of faith, they turn the good news of Christianity into the bad news of Idol worship.

Every person’s Idol has three characteristics in that person’s eyes:

  1. That which fills the gap in our lives exists — it is “real” to that person, a “thing,” something she can treat as an object.
  2. That which fills the gap is sublime — it is beautiful and of ultimate worth to that person.
  3. That which fills the gap is meaningful — it takes on a meaningfulness in and of itself that diminishes the meaning of other things.

However, Peter Rollins suggests that the true and living God in Christ does not come to us like this. Instead, God comes to us in a way that resists any attempt on our part to accept and worship him in an idolatrous fashion.

Here is an extended passage from The Idolatry of God on how God relates to these three characteristics.

In contrast to the Idol that we experience as existing, as sublime, and as meaningful, the God revealed in Christ, as present in the work of love, resists each of these characteristics. While the Idol is a fiction that we experience as existing, we may say that the God of Christ is a reality that we experience as not existing.

Instead, this God is present as the source that calls everything into existence. The word “exist” literally means “to stand out.” The main characteristic of something that exists is that we are able to treat it as an object of some sort. We are able to hold it, contemplate it, smell it, touch it, or hear it. The God hinted at in Christianity is that which calls everything into existence, all the while defying objectification.

To understand what this means, think about walking along a busy street and coming upon someone you love. While walking you are passing hundreds of people, and yet you do not really “see” any of them. You perhaps register them as objects to avoid, but they do not stand out for you. However, when you see someone you love, she stands forth from the background. She arises from the formless mass of others as distinct. With this in mind we may say that God is the name we give to that experience where things are called into existence for us. In this way, it can be said that God is not seen but is testified to in a particular way of seeing. Previously we saw how the Idol is experienced as existing, until we grasp it and discover that it doesn’t. Here God is felt not to exist, and yet by this act of calling everything into existence it seems that the moment we stop trying to grasp God the existence of God is indirectly testified to in the existence of everything we encounter.

This brings us to the second aspect of God that is distinct from the Idol. The Idol is experienced as that which is utterly beautiful, that which is so radiant everything else pales into insignificance. But when we read that God is love, we are reminded that love cannot be directly approached as beautiful and sublime but as that humble reality that renders the world beautiful and sublime. Love does not say, “Look at me,” but invites us to look at another. Unlike the Idol that tries to capture our gaze, the God testified to in love avoids our direct gaze and invites us to be taken up by the beauty that surrounds us. The Idol is seen as beautiful only until it is grasped and we discover the beauty was a fiction. In contrast, it would seem that as we stop trying to grasp God as beautiful we discover that the source of all beauty is indirectly discovered as beautiful in the beauty of all things.

Finally, the God revealed in the Christian scriptures differs from the Idol in that this God is not meaningful. The Idol we desire is not only meaningful to us, it is so singularly meaningful that everything else effectively becomes meaningless. In contrast, the God found in love is not meaningful but is that reality that renders the world meaningful.

When someone is in love he cannot help but experience the world as meaningful, even if he doesn’t believe it is. While the one who does not love cannot help but experience the world as meaningless even if he believes that the world is meaningful. Love then infuses the world with meaning regardless of what one believes about it. By revealing God as love, the Christian tradition rejects the idea that God is a meaningful being in favor of the idea that God is that which lights up our world, rendering it meaningful to us. This means that unlike the Idol, which seems meaningful until grasped, the moment we lay down the idea of God as meaningful and find the world infused with meaning, we bear witness to the meaningfulness of the divine.

The point here is that we should avoid making the mistake of affirming the polar opposite of the proverb that states, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) For Christianity does not assert that we can directly know God any more than it says there is no God. In Christ we are confronted with a different understanding altogether, one in which God is not directly known (either as a being “out there” or as found in all things), but is the source that renders everything known.

To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God. It is to proclaim an Idol, masked as God. The categories of existence and non-existence begin to break apart when speaking of God. The Idol is a fiction that we think exists, a meaningless object that we bestow with all meaning and a mundane object that we believe is sublime. In contrast, we let go of existence, meaning, and the sublime as categories to describe the object “God.” Instead these become ways in which we engage with the world. Yet, as we affirm the world in love, we indirectly sense that in letting go of God we have, in fact, found ourselves at the very threshold of God.

The Kingfisher, Van Gogh

The Kingfisher, Van Gogh

This is wisdom, spiritual writing at its finest.

It brings to mind Eugene Peterson’s meditation on Gerald Manley Hopkins’s sonnet, with its lines:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Peterson uses these words as his “metaphorical arena” in which to work out the positive details of what it means to live as a Christian, much as Rollins offers his meditation on “idolatry” as a field in which to explore what it does not mean.

Therefore, I think the following passage from Eugene Peterson, which reflects on Hopkins’s poem, offers a good conclusion to this first look at The Idolatry of God. It moves beyond the deconstruction of our idols in the first part of Rollins’s book and prepares us for the “new creation” that gives us a new framework for thinking about God and the Christian faith.

Hopkins’s diction conveys the vigor and spark and spontaneity that is inherent in all of life. The focused conviction expressed here is that it is Christ, the God-revealing Christ, who is behind and in all of this living. The message is that all this life, this kingfisher- and dragonfly-aflame life, this tumbled stone and harp string and bell-sounding life, gets played out in us, in our limbs and eyes, in our feet and speech, in the faces of the men and women we see all day long, every day, in the mirror and on the sidewalk, in classroom and kitchen, in workplaces and on playgrounds, in sanctuaries and committees. The central verb, “play,” catches the exuberance and freedom that mark life when it is lived beyond necessity, beyond mere survival. “Play” also suggests words and sounds and actions that are “played” for another, intentional and meaningful renderings of beauty or truth or goodness. Hopkins incorporates this sense of play with God as the ultimate “other” (“…to the Father”) — which is to say that all life is, or can be, worship.

That this is not what our churches are conveying to us by word and action is beyond sad.

For all things are yours,whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1Cor. 1:22-23, NRSV)

God, and the gifts he gives us in Christ through the Spirit, are not worthy to be compared to the idols we make of them.


  1. Christiane says

    I was talking to a co-worker one day about something on the news regarding an extremely far-right conservative Christian group and she said something I had not heard before: “They have such a small god”

    Perhaps this post explains to me a bit more about what she meant by that statement. . . do people sometimes make God into their own image or place Him into a box that can be manipulated to cultural or political or social agendas, and do all of this without realizing what they have done?

    “’If you think you have grasped Him, it is not God you have grasped’ – si comprehendis non est Deus.”
    (St. Augustine)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >“They have such a small god”

      It is not a new turn of phrase; I grew up with the phrase “little tin god”. At some point that also became a Don Henley song:

      You don’t have to pray to a little tin god
      Step out of the way for a little tin god
      You might fear the reaper, fear the rod
      But you never have to get down on your knees
      You don’t have to holler, please, please
      No, you never have to get down on your knees
      For a little tin god

      For me that really nails the right-wing and my years in Evangelicalism. The funny thing is – I don’t miss the “certainty” of fungelicalism at all, it was not comforting or assuring, it was smothering [and after awhile, just *loud*].

  2. I do not see how the metaphor of God as infused light is any less susceptible to idolatrous understanding than the metaphor of God as being, and the advantage of the metaphor of God as being is that it is the most consistently and often used metaphor in Scripture, by a long shot. If one is not very careful with Rollin’s ideas, one soon ends up with God as an impersonal force and energy, not unlike Eastern concepts of the divine, and the disadvantage of a force, energy or light as metaphors for God is that none of these things can respond relationally to us, and none of them is alive.

    Much of this sounds uncomfortably like the theory behind the Zen practice I undertook decades ago, to which I say, “No thank you, I’ve been there and done that. It’s an antinominan dead-end and I’ll stick with the metaphor of God’s personal reality since it’s the one most consistently used by Scripture and Jesus, despite its admitted and duly noted dangers.”

    Nothing different here from what Bishop Robinson wrote decades ago in his “Honest to God,” and I honestly find nothing sustaining in it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >by a long shot. If one is not very careful with Rollin’s ideas, one soon ends up with
      >God as an impersonal force and energy

      True, but it is not more heretical [to my ears] than God The Creator as the “papa” god which exists at the other end of the spectrum [and in my cantankerous old age makes me throw up a little bit].

      Ideas, all ideas, need to be handled carefully. Avoiding an idea because it has a “handle with care” sticker isn’t useful – because all the good ideas do [“truth is nuclear”, as a I heard someone say, “it will take you to the stars and cure cancer, or kill everyone in your village”]. But I do agree with you that there is nothing new here beyond the copyright date. I don’t worry about Zen-Christianity much anymore – it used to make me irritated. If you go to scripture, Zen is so very obviously not what you find. If someone finds Zen-Christianity then they are no more a ‘seeker’ than the fungelical – they are just finding what they want to; there is very little point in arguing with them. If you are seen arguing with a fool…. as the saying goes. Still I’m grateful for books like this. You can recommend these as reading to the Zen or papa-god friend when the subject comes up, avoid argument, and go back to the topic last nights hockey game; if the time is right, they might just read it.

      >This idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most of us take it for granted

      Yep, there certainly is no arguing with this. Nearly everybody uses some version of the God-shaped-hole model. Even Pope Francis [who, I gotta say, I’m very impressed by] uses the god-shaped-hole [since he impresses me (and so few people do) it tweaks me every time]. You see this argument everywhere – especially if you come to the point where you emphatically do not believe in the god-shaped-whole or anything like it. Clearly a great number of people do not have such a thing. And it is insulting to say to someone – you have a god-desire! Even when they say that do not. That’s awful.

      >To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God.

      This is taking it a bit far, I do not see the leap. I say I know my neighbor – that doesn’t express a totality of understanding, we say that to mean some kind of familiarity. The author is tweaking language when he writes like this. I can also say I know about Mars because I’ve read books on Mars. Everyone would know what I mean when I said that, it would not imply I’ve walked on the surface of Mars or watched the sun rise between two moons [that is a different kind of knowing]. But then, I’d never say I “know God”, probably just because I’m argumentative about the use of language, not for the reason the author implies. And …scanning memory banks… I can’t recall anyone saying “I know God”.

      • Yeah, all ideas need to be handled carefully, though they rarely are; but, personally, I don’t want to end up at the God-as- impersonal- energy- or -force destination. I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind, and as long as I call myself a Christian I feel I must heed what Jesus had in mind rather than some early 21st century, postmodern flash-in-the-pan theologian. Besides, it’s boring.

        This theology has been around a long time; it never gains much traction, because so many people hunger for, thirst for, are literally dying for the personal. They are human in a matrix of human relations, and they would not even begin to know how to comprehend a God who is not personal or relational,a God who cannot respond or initiate.

        • Is it not possible that both can be true of God? That God is both personal and impersonal? It IS a form of idolatry to proclaim that God is only one of those things, although one may be more comforting and familiar to the human experience than the other. Jesus came to express the Character of God – something we CAN relate to, yet at the same time there is something completely unknown and unknowable about God and no one – not even Jesus- can demonstrate or explain that. What if we are just talking about two different functions of the same thing? It could be said that God the Father is the Creator. The Son is in the Creation. And in the relationship in between the two we have a Force, Pure Being, Etc that is known as the Holy Spirit. The Master Vibration that sends all the atoms into a frenzy and forms them into a substance. The Nothing from which Something came from. The link between the Creator and the Created. Could it not be true that God is both that which Is and Is Not – Matter and Antimatter? God is Both and Neither. God is beyond definition and cannot be contained inside any thought construct or mental image because anytime someone attempts to do this you create a This and That. But God is also Neither This Nor That. God is One and without boundaries – with no beginning or end, yet at the same time IS the Beginning AND End of Everything. That Which Gives Rise to AND That Which is Risen. All at the same time! Maybe in a roundabout way this is what Rollins was talking about.

          • I don’t agree with the way you distinguish the members of the Trinity by function; for instance, I believe that the Son and the Holy Spirit are just as involved in creating as the Father is; and I believe that the Father and Holy Spirit are present in Creation along with the Son. And there is a relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Father as well as a relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus. And the Father and Son are both as much pure being as the Holy Spirit is. What defines who the different Persons of the Trinity is their relationship with each other, not their functions.

            Can God be both personal and impersonal? I think not. To my thinking, and the thinking of the main stream of Christian theology, God is both personal and supra-personal, which is not the same thing. Are we ignorant of much about God? Yes, but we do have some positive knowledge about him which he has revealed to us, and which can be stated accurately and truthfully in words, limited as they are.

            One thing for sure: God cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. As to whether God can be something and nothing, there is no such thing as nothing; nothingness is a completely abstract concept unrelated to anything we can experience, know or apprehend. No one ever has or ever can experience nothing because there would be nothing to experience.

            On the other hand, emptiness and nothingness are not the same; rather, as the Buddhist “Heart Sutra” proclaims, form and emptiness are both the same. Objects cannot exist without a space to exist within; that space we call emptiness. But emptiness is not nothing, it is the field that exists both outside and within any object, and cannot exist without the object, the form, just as the object, the form, cannot exist without emptiness. Form and emptiness both exist, and are so mutually interdependent that the Heart Sutra rightly says of them that they are the same, arising interdependently and reflecting different facets of the same reality.

            Does the maximal being of God exist as both form and emptiness (speaking analogically here)? If what Rollins means is that God has both maximal form and maximal emptiness, then I agree with him; to speak analogically again, outside and within the infinite form of God is an infinite emptiness which is also God.

            But this is not what Rollins means; he means that we possess no positive knowledge of God with any certainty, and that our statements about God are always about an uncertainty which we have reified into an idol, that is, into a something which God cannot be. I disagree with Rollins: I apprehend, and experience, God as a something, and more importantly a Someone (three Someones, to be more precise), who exist in form and emptiness.

            Yes, there is a shadow side to God, a hiddenness, a reticence, a shyness, a darkness; but this aspect of God is not something apart from the revelation we have received in Jesus Christ. Give up that positive revelation, and we make the darkness and hiddenness, and the infused light, into an idol.

    • It helps to keep in mind that metaphors and analogies do not *define* God, rather they serve as illustration–and that’s the best we can do in talking about God. Rollins is challenging our analogies that fail to illustrate and rather produce another idol in our idol ridden culture. An idol is a good thing made into an ultimate thing. When we use God/Jesus as that which will fill our emptiness then we are idolaters; God in Christ does not present himself as that which is intended to fill my personal void, rather, as the Person in whom all fullness exist–including our emptiness.

      Rollins is essentially saying, “Grow up will ya, for God sakes!! Because God is love, we know him by loving.” That sounds an awful lot like the beloved John to me.

      • Good summary, Tom

        • Thanks CM.

          I was drawn to Rollins several years ago. A good deal of what he says doesn’t get caught in cogi-trap, but he’s been very helpful in my journey out of Fundygelicalism. I find that NT Wright serves as a good counter-balance. And, it’s just simply entertaining to see Peter and Phyllis Tickle interact — what a crush they have for each other!

          I think he “speaks” best to those who have the hardest questions and greatest suspicion of the “god” presented by too many “Christians”. He also does a great job of handling/dealing with the Transcendent/Immanent mystery of God’s Being.

    • I think it is different, Robert. Rollins is speaking to the way we actually experience God, in contrast to the way we speak about it, which can lead to the idolatry he is criticizing.

      God does not come to us directly. We do not see him, hear him, touch him. We have the testimony that the early disciples were able to access Jesus like this, but we do not. Instead, God comes to us through the Spirit, whose fruit is love. When we love, laying down our lives for the life of the world, we “know” God as he has come to us in Jesus Christ. But this knowledge is experienced, as Rollins and Peterson say, in a heightened sense of the meaningfulness of life, the world, and the people around us. Life takes on sacramental meaning.

      • David Cornwell says

        “this knowledge is experienced, as Rollins and Peterson say, in a heightened sense of the meaningfulness of life, the world, and the people around us. Life takes on sacramental meaning.”

        And then the idols evaporate into nothingness.

        • Christiane says

          reminds me of this from Flannery O’Connor:

          ” . . . but if you believe in the divinity of Christ,
          you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. “

          • I’ve just read the Wikipedia article on Rollins, and there is no doubt in my mind that Flannery O’Connor would have had nothing but savage sentiments for the theology and practices that Rollins has developed had she been alive to know of them. She might even have written another short story involving a Rollins-like character and her infamous Misfit.

      • “But this knowledge is experienced, as Rollins and Peterson say, in a heightened sense of the meaningfulness of life, the world, and the people around us. Life takes on sacramental meaning.”

        How then is this not idolatrous by substituting one object for all? Feelings can also be idolatrous, particularly when we speak about a Spirit who is known in both “spirit (by his fruits) and truth (by His Word).”

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          I do not find this generalized concept of “idolatrous” to be useful. I reject the notion that “Feelings can also be idolatrous”. Idolatry I only recognize as conscious deliberate worship / praying to / identification of ultimate significance. Therefore money is an idol when a man declares “$$$ is king!” – otherwise it is greed, or vanity, or merely distraction; but not idolatry. Turning every single thing I ever focus on, am distracted by, or grant *some* significance to as “idolatry” (a) turns the concept of idolatry into mush and (b) is not helpful in any way whatsoever.

          Evangelicals *LOVE* the idea of idolatry, and ex-Evangelicals especially continue to use the generalized term. But maybe they need some exposure to actual idolatry to realize this is nothing at all like idolatry.

          • Adam, I don’t disagree with your sentiments…though, when in Rome…. Perhaps I should have said feelings can be inordinate or profane in order to be more exact. Particularly, I was thinking about when Christians (evangelical or otherwise) make their feelings into a proof of their faith and begin to rely more on their emotional state as to whether or not they are right with God rather than striving to just hold fast what is true – regardless of what is felt at the moment.

      • “God come to us through the Spirit…” But in Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is God, and he comes to us directly as God.

    • “the advantage of the metaphor of God as being is that it is the most consistently and often used metaphor in Scripture, by a long shot.”

      Robert, the term “being” and how we understand it is entirely a Greek concept brought into theological discussion and terminology by the Church Fathers. It is a metaphor of God, certainly, but one that has its origins more in Greek philosophy than in Hebraic thought-forms. I love the Fathers dearly and admire much of what they said and did, but this is one area where they introduced problematic concepts into the Church.

      • Katharina von Bora says

        Really? “I am that I am” is definitely found in the “Hebraic thoughtform.” Perhaps you have some more esoteric meaning of “being” in mind, but I’m not sure that it matters if you do, as the most central and classic revelation of the nature of God in the “Hebraic thoughtform” is “the One Who Is.”

      • To say that God exists is an analogical statement; it means that there is a an analogy between the way God exists and the way we exist. It does not mean that God exists in exactly the same way as we exist, as a being among other beings; but it does mean that there is a valid analogy to be made between our existence and his, despite the tremendous differences. God does not exist in less a sense than we do. To say that he exists is more accurate, to say that he does not exist is more inaccurate, although neither is completely accurate if we were able to compare all the particulars of God’s existence with our own.

        Regarding the root meaning of the word “existence” as “to stand out”: it is exactly the God who not only stands out, but in the portrait and controlling metaphor of a personal God that we find in the Bible, stands against and confronts in judgement, and calls human beings to give account and repent, that is lost by reducing the controlling metaphor for God to something as vague and impersonal as “infused light”. A very distinctive characteristic of the biblical God is that he encounters and confronts us as the One who calls us out of sin, slavery, idolatry, etc., and into new life and redemption. He is a living God who may oppose us and stand against us as well as support us and stand with us; “infused light” can not stand in as a metaphor for God in his vitality because it can not “stand out” to do any of these things, only a person can.

        And if it is inaccurate to reduce God to just one object among many, it is even more inaccurate to attribute less reality to him than to an object. In another metaphor used by the Bible, we should remember that God does not object to being the “rock” to which we cling, and upon which we stand.

        Another problem with the use of “light” as a controlling metaphor for God is that God is not only “light,” but “darkness” as well; he infuses the whole world with light, but he also hides himself in the darkness that the long shadows of his creation casts, and his creation exhibits the alternating characteristics of light and darkness almost equally.

        If I decide that light, or something like it, is the proper controlling metaphor for God, I’ll become a Quaker; until that time, I find the personal metaphor that Scripture and Jesus use most frequently and consistently to refer to God to be more adequate and to have more depth and range than any other single metaphor or group of metaphors working together. There are dangers in the use of any metaphor for God, but I’ll stick with the dangers that Jesus hazarded when he spoke about and named God; and, yes, I know that Jesus used many different metaphors to refer to God, but the controlling metaphor was unquestionably the personal one of “Abba.”

        • That is, he also hides himself in the darkness of the long shadows cast by his creation…

  3. “To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God.”

    Wow. I guess then I will ever have eternal life, according to Jesus:
    “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

    • Yes, I will push back on some of this on Thursday.

      • Looking forward to it.

        • However, let me push back on your comment a bit too.

          When we say we “know God” what do we mean by that? Have we seen God face to face? Do we “know” him like we know a spouse, a friend, a neighbor?

          You may say, we know him in Jesus. But I would ask again: have you had personal interaction with Jesus in the flesh? Have you seen his face? heard his voice? felt the touch of his hands?

          Well, you say, we know him through the Spirit, whom God has given us. And I would say, yes that is true. But here is where I think Rollins is going. The Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love. And so the Spirit’s work in our lives is to fill us with God’s love. Therefore, we “know” God by the work of love in our hearts. And that love is not just something we feel, but extend toward others for the life of the world. As John puts it:

          Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1Jn. 4:7-8)

          • Yes, it is different than knowing a person standing in front of me. However, “knowing” still takes place, and the fruit of that knowing includes (most of all), love.

          • “The Bible says says that the fruit of the Spirit is love.”

            Not to be picky, but no, it doesn’t. The Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

            Actually, it says it in Greek: ? ?? ?????? ??? ????????? ????? ????? ???? ?????? ?????????? ????????? ????????? ?????? ??????? ????????? ???? ??? ???????? ??? ????? ?????

            Agap?, chara, eir?n?, makrothymia, chr?stot?s, agath?syn?, pistis, praÿt?s, and egkrateia are the fruit of the Spirit and it is against these things (or this nine-fold thing, if you prefer) that there is no law. But the fruit of the Spirit is far more than “love”….

            You oversimplify. I can say that A is my child, period. My fruit. And that would be true. But B and C are my children (fruit) too (and by extension, to match the example in Galatians 5, D, E, F, G, H and I). It is not wrong to say A is my child. But it doesn’t tell the whole story or give the full picture.

            That’s all I’m saying when I say the fruit of the Spirit is not love.

            • Actually, the syntax can be read: the fruit (note singular) of the Spirit is love — that is, joy, peace, patience, etc. The characteristics following “love” are subsumed under love and are aspects of it. They are all relational in nature and describe the essence and character of love.

          • All those question marks were Greek letters when they started out — I apologize for the mess I managed to male of the comment.

            I get what you’re saying but that point of view seems to me to be just a human construct not supported in the original. Where is the “that is” in the Greek that imlies that the 2nd through 9th are “subsumed”?

          • managed to make….

          • When I read the Bible, I come to know God, not completely but in a limited way; nevertheless, in a true way. That is not completely unlike my knowledge of my wife, friend or neighbor who I also come to know by “reading” their actions and words and “presence,” so to speak.

            Also, the Bible does not say love is God; it says God is love. The two statements do not mean the same thing. God is more primary than love, and we learn what love is by looking to him.

          • The reading I gave is supported by the singular “fruit,” which would not be appropriate to introduce an entire list of virtues.

            The thought is similar to Colossians 3:14: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” and other passages which speak of love as the characteristic that sums up our Christian duty.

        • No one’s arguing against love (at least, I’m not). It has just become such an all-encompassing, catch-all word in today’s world that it no longer has much real meaning. Love has come to mean whatever the speaker or hearer wants it to mean (never having to say you’re sorry, anyone?. That’s why the other eight fruit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 are basic as well. In trying to be all things to everybody, we Christians too often have become nothing to anybody.

          I dislike intensely (I feel a rant coming) how the modern translations have changed mercy to unfailing love in so many places. Certainly mercy (like grace) is part of unfailing love, but they are not identical. If grace is getting something you don’t deserve, then mercy is not getting something you do deserve. I suppose my fundagelical background is showing.

    • oops- of course I meant: “…I will never have….”

    • R David, that’s the money quote of the article and yet, as you’ve pointed out, Scripture rends Peter’s persepective as false.

      It would also be interesting to know how Peter separates his own views with an unhealthy idolatry and more confusing still, Scripture zeros in on idolatry in terms of the object and authenticity of worship, not in terms of “you’re doing it wrong (an idolater) because you are taking Scripture at face value when it comes to worshipping God.”

      His remark here is also categorically false: “For Christianity does not assert that we can directly know God any more than it says there is no God.”

      Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. – 1 John 4:7

      • Brad please see my reply. Rollins is using language carefully here. We most certainly do not “know” God in the same way that we know other persons or things in our lives. It is experientially different.

        • I disagree. He’s very sloppy with his terms…at best.

          • Brad, I don’t see sloppiness. I see someone who is being deliberately provocative with his language. In order to make us see what we really mean when we say something dogmatic about God, he asserts the opposite or forces us to look at the term from an entirely different angle. I don’t always agree with him — and this will become clear Thursday — but the last thing I would charge him with is sloppiness.

            Maybe I’m misunderstanding. How do you see it?

          • Mike, in examining the key quote ….

            “To make the claim that you know God is actually to proclaim a no-God. It is to proclaim an Idol, masked as God. The categories of existence and non-existence begin to break apart when speaking of God. The Idol is a fiction that we think exists, a meaningless object that we bestow with all meaning and a mundane object that we believe is sublime. ”

            ….I find several possible ways I could take Peter’s vagaries here. But treating the quote as is, within the full context you provided, if claims are tanatamount to idolatry then so would be the claim “to claim God is to proclaim a no-God.” It’s circular reasoning…to me..and therefore it seems to be very sloppy reasoning. Looking forward to your response article.

          • In fact, to make the counterclaims that Rollins makes requires a positive knowledge of what God is, because there can be no negative knowledge without positive knowledge antecedent to it; if I make a string of statement about what God is not, I must have positive knowledge of what God is, or I could say nothing. It’s just that Rollins doesn’t fess up to the positive knowledge behind his statements but keeps it hidden in the background or up his sleeve. In playing this game, he puts those who disagree with him at an unfair disadvantage until they realize that what he is doing.

            To Rollins I say: to make the claim that you know that making the claim that one knows God is actually to proclaim a no-God is to proclaim a God…

            It’s a fun game to play, but it’s not real and substantive discussion.

        • “We most certainly do not “know” God in the same way that we know other persons or things in our lives. It is experientially different.”

          Of course, we can’t see him face to face, but that’s not what Peter is complaining here in the context of idolatry is it?

          The following is from David, but these reflections are no less consistent with the approach the Church takes in worshipping and knowing God that Peter somehow finds idolatrous:

          I have seen you in the sanctuary
          and beheld your power and your glory.
          Because your love is better than life,
          my lips will glorify you.
          I will praise you as long as I live,
          and in your name I will lift up my hands.
          I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
          with singing lips my mouth will praise you. – Ps 63:2-5

          • Given such a high level of abstraction (which does make me a little uncomfortable) it’s not clear that Psalm 63:2-5 must be read as idolatry from Rollins point of view. Here’s a pseudo commentary to illustrate my point:

            I have seen you in the sanctuary
            and beheld your power and your glory

            The key is that David sees God, as well as God’s power and glory, in the sanctuary where there are no images of God.

            Because your love is better than life…

            Not that God’s love is on a scale where life is at one place and God’s love is at a higher place. Rather God’s love is distinct (off the scale) from everything that is called life.

            I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of food…

            But of course God isn’t rich or even the richest of food.

            • My question would be, when David says, “I have seen you in the sanctuary,” what did he mean? Is he speaking of a theophany? Or is he speaking of “seeing God” in the divine service in the Temple? If the latter, then this speaks to a sacramental knowledge of God. David “saw God” and “saw” his power and glory through the sacramental means that God gave in the Temple worship.

              As I will say on Thursday, I think Rollins’s perspective leads naturally to a sacramental theology. The Spirit uses means to communicate the presence of God to his people. He speaks of “love” as a means by which God makes himself known (yet not pointing to himself but to the beloved). I would argue that Jesus himself gave us sacraments like baptism and the Lord’s Table as liturgical means, as well as the Word through which he speaks.

              Unfortunately, Rollins does not go there, fearing the institutionalization of the divine.

          • Rollins; perspective leads to a sacramental theology only in the sense that he might say the entire cosmos is a sacrament. William Blake wrote “For everything that lives is Holy,” and this is where Rollins thinking naturally leads. Not pantheism, perhaps, but certainly panentheism.

          • For Rollins, that may be a danger. Which is why I brought in Peterson as the positive counter here. Rollins is a good deconstructionist; he does not necessarily display a clear vision of a faith he wants to promote.

          • “Rollins is a good deconstructionist; he does not necessarily display a clear vision of a faith he wants to promote.”

            Forgive me for belaboring the point, but that’s kind of big deal, isn’t it? There are certain things in the Christian faith that are irreducible and therefore non-negotiable…yes?

      • Christiane says

        “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God”. – 1 John 4:7

        I love this verse . . . it speaks to me of many of the so-called ‘lost’ who do not know the Holy Name, yet they know Him and He will know them.

        and it also tells me how there can those who counted themselves ‘saved’ but Our Lord confronts them on the Day and puts them with the goats to their great surprise. . . and He tells them ‘why’ in St. Matthew’s Gospel and it connects up to 1 John 4:7 . . . they could not recognize Christ in the suffering of those they encountered, and did nothing to alleviate the suffering when they might have done so with compassionate care.

        Even the evangelicals themselves admit that we will all be surprised on the Day of the Lord, but we can’t say the sacred Scriptures didn’t give us the heads-up . . .

  4. That poem is beautiful! I don’t think I’ve been so struck since the first time I read “He Wishes for the Clothes of Heaven”.

    Also, I am glad to hear someone speaking in this way. In college I encountered the idea of our God as a “weak God”, or “God in / of weakness”; that he works through and for the weak, and he is best encountered by the weak, that he is best known through weakness.

    I don’t know what to make of this kind of formulation. I grew up with the God of Calvin, a God so in control, so incapable of un-control, that to think of Him as weak in any way feels like heresy.

    And yet I think it’s a necessary push back, really. Thinking of God as all-sovereign may lead to good orthodoxy, but in my opinion, thinking of God as weak, as pleased with humility because it is an action in His image, leads to good orthopraxy. My humility and reverence, become not mere obedience, but actions in accordance with my Imago Dei. Something I do out of love and “self-ness”, not fear of punishment.

  5. I think this may be a good time to introduce the Palamite distinction of the essence vs. the energies of God over against the Thomistic distinction of essence and existence.

    What I think I see among thinking individuals dwelling in our Calvin-haunted uplands is a hunger for an immanent God, a God who will put a personal Face on the swarming, buzzing multiplicity of objects. This is a hunger that has not been assuaged for the last, oh, thousand years. Yes, you have the odd Julians of Norwich, the Jacob Boehmes, the Swedenborgs, and people like Lesslie Newbigin who aren’t afraid to go off the beaten path and catch some heat for it. But any serious investigation into the immanence of God trips the heresy wires almost immediately, and the red lights start blinking “Caution! Pantheism Ahead!”. The faint of heart usually turn back.

    What I think I see among less-reflective people is a desire for what I call horizontal transcendence, which is usually expressed through abuse of sex or drugs, but which can lead to what is popularly called “Earth-based spirituality”, although to be cerain, there is plenty of sex and drugs to be found in that arena as well.

    • But Rollins is about removing the idea that there should be an immanent personal Face to God and replacing it with an “infused light.”

  6. George Plasterer says

    My question to Mr. Rollins would be to what extent does the fact that God does provide meaning and purpose is important in any evangelistic and apologetic work. Of course, if God is simply a means to that end, we have an idol we have made. However, if the longings of the human mind ans spirit do not in some way find their fulfillment in God, I am not sure God has much value.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >Of course, if God is simply a means to that end, we have an idol we have made

      I do not know it is an idol, but it is bad and incomplete theology. It sounds more like it would just be a “coping mechanism” rather than real religion.

      > However, if the longings of the human mind ans spirit do not in some way find their
      > fulfillment in God, I am not sure God has much value

      Ok. Value is always a relative statement. God [I assume] has no value to my dog, my dog has no use for God [I assume]. If I have no use for God, then the same would be true. In neither case I do not see how it would have any theological bearing.

      In scripture I find precious little to indicate God is much about fulfillment. There are a few verses – and ‘we’ quote them frequently. I more are more wonder if a real barrier to understanding is that in the modern western world we have simple lost the concept of “sovereignty”. The concern of a sovereign is rarely about how one of it’s subject feels.

  7. This comes awfully close to Eastern Orthodox theological discussions of the inability to know any person in that person’s Essence (including God), but rather knowing a Person by experiencing that person by means of their Energies (which is certainly as much a “part” of that person as one’s essence – one cannot know an essence, but one can know a Person directly, and this is how) in a relationship of love. This was solidified by Gregory Palamas in the 12th century, but was discussed much earlier than that. God as “not-being” or “being beyond all being” is to be found in (pseudo)Dionysius (4th century, maybe earlier), as Unknowing and Darkness in Gregory of Nyssa, and as Uncreated Light similarly earlier. See Mule’s comment above. All these discussions were in the context of the question “Who is Jesus, and what does that mean for… everything?”

    I’ve not read any of Rollins’ books, but every time I come a cross a quote I think, “How true is that!”

    Ch. Mike, Fr John Behr has a book scheduled to come out next month, “Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image.” I am going to snap it up as soon as it is released. I think you would grok it 🙂


  8. CM wrote;

    For Rollins, that may be a danger. Which is why I brought in Peterson as the positive counter here. Rollins is a good deconstructionist; he does not necessarily display a clear vision of a faith he wants to promote.

    That is the key to reading Rollins.

    • Totally agree. Peter’s problem is when he gets a really good idea for an article, he pads it out into a full-length book, weakens it, and makes it virtually unreadable.

  9. I would not agree that God does not provide meaning, but what he is saying about God being the source of meaning or beauty is profound.

  10. i offer this obervation of an elephant in the parlour:

    is not proclaiming jesus to BE god or BE messiah/christ (which no red letters ever claim) the same idolaization?

    the author (and rollins?) *presume* this to be a fact. making jesus into god (whether true or false) precisely objectifies god into a tangible, no?

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