Atheism for Lent

should-we-give-up-god-for-lentAlthough I’d like to take credit for this, the idea belongs to Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher who has been associated with the Emerging Church. Rollins recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an extended critique of his work on Red Letter Christians. Since Micah Bales, the writer of the post, critiques Rollins in a way that appeals directly to the habitus of liberal evangelical Christians, I wanted to respond to his points from my perspective. Given the choice, I would quickly and easily choose the theology of Rollins over Bales’ critiques.

The critique comes out of the context of Atheism for Lent, an idea Rollins has promoted for several years, which suggests that rather than giving up something like chocolate or TV for Lent, we give up God instead. Why? To experience the sense of abandonment by God that Jesus felt on the cross. To fully embody the doubt that Rollins contends is the hallmark of Christianity. It is only by giving up our preconceived ideas about God that we can experience the love that fills the hole left by their absence. I’ll talk more about this in the future, because there is much to like about Rollins’ approach, which draws on Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek, John Caputo, and others. Bales’ critique here is not directly about Rollins’ theology, though, but his approach.

His first critique is that Rollins is toying with Gnosticism. Bales doesn’t use the term, but suggests that Rollins’ appeal lies in the draw of some special knowledge that others don’t know about or don’t grasp. He asks, “But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?” The questions are irrelevant to the legitimacy of Rollins’ approach. I agree with Bales that Rollins’ approach is crafted toward a more intellectual crowd, but that has no bearing on the authenticity of its content. Gnosticism was a blanket term used against Christians in the early Church who saw the key to Jesus, not necessarily in his bloody death, but in the knowledge he imparted before death. While the term is often used in a pejorative sense now, before the triumph of orthodox Christianity, it was just one among many legitimate strands of Christian thought and practice. In short, the accusation of Gnosticism is a polemical approach that can only be made from the standpoint of the majority. Because a particular version of Christianity holds sway today, if someone like Rollins promotes an understanding that requires rethinking the traditional means and symbols we use to think about Christianity, it is easy to claim that its appeal lies in its elitism. It was the same charge leveled against early Christians by Rome.

Bales’ second point is that Rollins doesn’t talk about social justice enough. He only talks about the personal aspects of Christianity, the ways in which the individual responds (or not) to God. Bales is right that Rollins does not give an extensive summary of ways for Christians to enact social justice, but I couldn’t disagree more with the heart of this point. A great part of Rollins’ appeal for me as I was jettisoning mainstream Christianity was the way in which Rollins tears down the hypocrisy inherent in typical Christian responses to social justice, responses that have little more to recommend them than participating in social justice by buying your latte at Starbucks and knowing that 1% goes back to the coffee farmers. (This is a classic example of Žižek.) Rollins suggests that Christian attempts at social justice are largely playing a role, gesturing at the actions that we think Christians ought to perform through singing songs, putting bumper stickers on our vehicles, and putting an extra $5 in the collection plate for overseas missions. It is true that Rollins’ work is focused on deconstructing Christian norms than outlining a social justice platform. I don’t know that Rollins would argue this, but I think the bigger problem is that Christians believe that theological propositions (God died for me, etc.) are the foundation of social change when they have no necessary connection. In other words, Christianity as it is practiced institutionally does not require social change. It requires maintenance of the status quo.

Bales’ third point is a variant of the first; namely, that Rollins’ message only appeals to those in a relatively comfortable social class, those that have the freedom to play with their beliefs. There is a sociological point here, in that those with other structural supports are less likely to rely as heavily on theological truths to secure their wellbeing. Bales writes that his friend who works with individuals with severe disabilities said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.” This critique is misleading. If Rollins is correct, then Bales is blaming him for trying to give people a better understanding of Christianity when they have been given misinformation. This paradigm says, “Well, they’re happy now, so don’t bother them.” Which approach values these people as individuals more? It’s also a fallacy to believe that these people need to have the theological crutch they have to survive. Much of the world survives without such a message, a a good portion dies with it. I would argue that this approach is precisely what prevents the social change Bales deplores is missing. Atheism may not the answer for those in need right now, but Christianity may not be either. The answer could be, without touting a theological message, to show the divine to the person in need with love, empowering them to thrive in the world by extending, as much as possible, the structural supports that we casually suggest are our rights.

We could put this another way. The reason Christianity is more appealing to those who are young and to those who are in dire straits is that allows them a simple way to distance themselves from their circumstances. These populations have the lowest intellectual resistance to the institution because they are weak and vulnerable. Is that a point to objectively recommend Christianity? Or would it be more valuable to give people the tools to understand their own circumstances in a different way and explore different ways to relate to them?

In short, Bales’ critique serves as a reaffirmation of the status quo. While it looks to me as if he does comparatively more than the average Christian (whatever that means) to practice his beliefs, his message here allows Christians to remain happily static, instead of challenging the dependency of their theology upon social and cultural norms. My critique of Rollins, essentially, is that he is a closet atheist who continues to use the Christian message for political purposes. He thinks he can make greater change within Christianity than abandoning the narrative all together. Or perhaps he does think that the Christian story is an appropriate narrative to understand our existential relationship with the world. Part of me thinks that he may be right. But the greater part thinks that the tradition has done too much damage in the past to be trusted with our existential future.

5 thoughts on “Atheism for Lent

  1. No, this idea does not belong to Peter Rollins – it belongs to Merold Westphal, who first developed it in his 1998 book, “Suspicion and Faith”. That you now think it does belong to Rollins is precisely the reason why he should have acknowledged his indebtedness to Westphal in the piece you’re citing (to be fair to Rollins, he has acknowledged this elsewhere, but given its centrality the borrowing should have been acknowledged).

    • Hi jtworr,

      Thanks for the comment and correction. Inappropriate turn of phrase. I just meant it as an introduction to the conversation in question, that of Bales. I don’t think the origin is germane to Bales’s critiques, but I appreciate knowing the source. I’ll have to look it up.

  2. It’s a wonderful book – you’d really enjoy it I think. It’s a testament to Pete’s acumen that’s he picked up on and publicised it. It’s just that there shouldn’t be any perception of his passing it off as his own.

  3. Interesting to hear Micah associated with the status quo! He’s a Quaker Christian and was instrumental in founding Occupy DC.

    Also, I invite your response to my own response to Micah here:

    Basically, I believe that culture forms us. Deeply. And that it is our responsibility to form intentional communities that spur us towards the good.

    Insofar as Christianity is counter-cultural (which it must be in order to be legitimate), it is a force contrary to culture and remains one of the few points of institutional resistance to both capitalism and the state. It’s operated that way in American history.

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Thanks for your comment. Wow, there is so much to talk about in your post as well as the others you linked to. Just as a couple points of intersection, I too travelled to Fort Benning in 2011 with a group of students for the SOA protest. Though I did not have your conviction to climb the fence, I certainly considered it as I stood there, as well as many of the other students with me. (My wife made me promise not to before I left!) I was also glad to see you linking to Nathan Schneider’s article, as he and I attended graduate school together.

      I was surprised to learn that the post has been taken off the Red Letter Christians site, and like the author at Indefinite Definiteness, am disappointed that the site decided to take it down for any reason. Regardless of the positions held, Micah’s post was balanced and thoughtful and I can see no reason for it to have been taken down, or for anyone in the Rollins camp to have wanted it to be taken down. The content is certainly not lost, but it reflects poorly on the available space for public discourse.

      To clarify a point that you respond to, I was not trying to indicate that your friend is a status quo Christian. I of course do not know him, but from what I can see, he is not. I was stating that his response affirmed what the average Christian would agree with, without having to “act” as your friend does.

      Although Nathan’s article would deserve a more detailed response–regarding the way that you are using it to support Christian counterculture–I will say that Christianity has historically more often served, as other institutions do, to become culture, to become authoritative, and thus to become static. I find it interesting that people conceive of Christianity as countercultural. I would agree with you that you and your friends are taking a countercultural stance, but I think it is that stance itself, and not Christianity, that makes it countercultural. I’m certain you believe that it is your Christianity that motivates your actions. But as I’m sure you’ve encountered at SOA protests or Occupy, others participate in the same act without the impetus of that ideology. Why, if Christian culture is insufficiently motivating to others to enact the kind of changes you want to see or the actions you want to perform, would you place the “life” of those actions in Christianity and not the actions themselves? The only way that I can see to make that conclusion is that you’ve already decided, from a theological standpoint, that the Spirit is the source. I would have agreed with you for many years, until, over a gradual period of time, I didn’t anymore. I realized (for myself) that Christianity was not necessary to be the person I was or wanted to be in the world. That is not to say that it could not ever be helpful, but that it was not the source of my convictions that I thought it was.

      As for your post, I’ll respond there, as you requested. Thanks again for your thoughts, and I look forward to reading your blog in the future.

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