Matt's blog

The story of me, an American in Edinburgh, Scotland finding my place as a musician, a husband, a father and a Christian.


How (Not) to Speak of God

The Emergent conversation is something that I know very little about. Andrew has been involved with Emergent get-togethers in So Cal, as he has mentioned on his blog, and Jeni and I even attended a church which described itself as “emergent” for a few months in Spokane. I know that the Emergent movement isn’t an attempt to create a new denomination or religion, nor is it an attempt for another Reformation. I know Emergent in general values artistic expressions in worship. I also know that whenever the Emergent movement is spoken of it is usually tied to postmodernity, a word which quite un-ironically has no adequate singular meaning nor concise definition. On occasion I’ve asked Andrew to try to tell me more about the Emergent conversation, which is something I care about knowing more about if for now other reason than it is obviously quite important to Andrew and he is quite important to me. He lent me the book How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins who is involved in an Emergent community called Ikon in Northern Ireland. Rollins lays out his ideas in a theoretical context in the first half of the book and gives examples of ten services held at Ikon which reflect these ideas in one way or another in the second half. Today's post is a summary of Rollins' thought as presented in the first half of the book. Over the next few days I'll give my critical response to the services described in the second half of the book.

The thoughts in Rollins’ book flow mainly from the idea that our words are inadequate to speak with any accuracy about the nature of things as they really are. Whenever we speak of anything we are limited by our cultural context, our prejudices, our selfish desires for the thing we are describing and the limits of our language. Hence, we are unable to speak reliably about even ordinary objects. My neighbor Rob gave me the example of a tree: a child sees it as useful to climb, a gardener sees it as decorative, a carpenter sees it as material for a table. Even among two carpenters, one may desire to build a table and one may desire 2x4s for framing a house. Our context defines how we understand things. This obfuscation of communication is compounded by the fact that we cannot experience God directly with our senses and compounded again by the fact that God’s being is far beyond what we could ever even conceive. Rollins uses Anselm’s definition of God, that God is “the one who is conceived as inconceivable.” God’s being overwhelms and short circuits our capacity for reason. Rollins uses this as the basis for his critique that the traditional way of dealing with God in the evangelical church, that is in a modernist context with a strong emphasis on reason and understanding, is inadequate and often shuts us off from God and buttresses our own ideals and interests in God’s name.

With that thought in mind, Rollins reaffirms several ideas which have been part of Christian thought for generations but which have fallen out of favor in evangelical Christianity. To quote from the introduction to the second part of the book, in which Rollins summarizes the first:

“This understanding includes a rediscovery of ideas such as: concealment as an aspect of revelation; God as hyper-present; the affirmation of doubt; the place of silence; religious desire as part of faith; Christian discourse as a/theological; God-talk as iconic; a recognition of journey and becoming; truth as a soteriological event; and orthodoxy as a way of believing in the right way.”

Rollins speaks pointedly against fundamentalism, which he characterises as the belief that “our ideas actually represent the way God and the world really operate.” He advocates instead for a belief that is aware of our limitations and hence incorporates an appropriate amount of doubt. A healthy faith incorporates even an element of atheism as we disbelieve our own ideas about God, knowing that they fall short of God’s true being. Since one cannot hold firmly to any truly orthodox ideas about God, Christianity is a journey and not a destination. One never becomes a Christian for that implies an ending point where one fully understands God, but instead one is always becoming a Christian, always being evangelised to and always growing. Since one cannot believe the right thing, one instead tries to believe in the right way.

The right way, by the way, is love.

In short, Rollins encourages us to deny the truth of our beliefs, since only God in Godself is true, not God reduced to doctrine. Instead we are to focus on believing in the right way, being overwhelmed by the hyper-presence of God and becoming people through whom God's love flows.

Check back in the next few days for my personal response to the book, and be sure to leave comments!

3 Responses to “How (Not) to Speak of God”

  1. # Anonymous ln

    I am extremely intrigued. Especially as I find myself falling short yet again. The idea of the journey being Christianity is encouraging. I'm interested to hear more thoughts.  

  2. # Blogger Anastasia

    i saved this post until I had time to really read it. looking forward to your future posts on this and your own critical reflections.  

  3. # Anonymous Eric Herron

    Thanks for those thoughts Matt. I am excited to read Rollins' book. Your description of it reminds me of a poem by C.S. Lewis (yes, he wrote poems!). It is called: "Footnote to All Prayers"

    You can read it here.

    Phaedian refers to the greatest sculptor of antiquity, who was renowned for his life-like statues. Like the sculptor, our words may - if we're lucky - come close to speaking accurately to the "one to whom we bow". However, more likely, we are conjuring deaf idols if we believe our own descriptions of God to literally.

    It takes God to "translate our limping metaphors". Brilliant!

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Matt.  

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