I went downtown last night and tonight to hear Christian philosopher Peter Rollins speak. He is the author of How (Not) to Speak About God and The Fidelity of Betrayal, a book which he originally wanted to call What Would Judas Do? Tonight’s event happened at a cool coffeehouse in Castleberry Hills in Atlanta. Hence the title of this post.
Rollins is brilliant and witty and his Irish brogue is the best schtick I could imagine for a philosopher in his vein. I’m glad I heard him before reading his books so I will read them in an Irish brogue and hear his quick wit in action.
Lest you think I am enrolling new members in the Peter Rollins fan club, something he would think misses the point anyway, I learned from him and took some things away while radically disagreeing.
His thought is very much about deconstruction, critiquing every idea and seeing the self-undermining quality of all our language about everything, including and especially God. Knowing God, says Rollins, is like looking at the sun. There is too much of the sun for the eyes to handle and ditto with God and the mind. In another analogy, he said knowing God is like being two inches from a giant screen television. There is too much there to take in. So the Bible gives us too much to comprehend about God, sometimes giving us contradictory images (God the warrior and yet peacemaker, for example), because our mind is inadequate to comprehend.
Rollins is excellent at critiquing anything and everything. He has a mind that sees the flaw and self-undermining quality in every idea. Christianity is self-undermining he says because it is about including the excluded. Thus, every time any Christian community builds it must reach out to the excluded ones and thus define itself out of existence.
He deconstructed common acts of charity by calling them fetishes (idols). Giving a gift to a Christmas charity, for example, is a way many Christians can feel better about living every day in support of various injustices (cheap food and clothing won off the backs of poor workers). Charitable gifts and charitable volunteerism can prevent change in the social self by making us content.
It’s all heady stuff. I’m not doing well at communicating here a thousand things he said that added to my understanding of life. He really did and I appreciate what I have gained so far.
But the deconstructing cannot go on forever. I noticed and commented on it at the group. I wish I could have had a one on one conversation for an hour with him. I asked him, if he doubts everything, why then does he cling to certain ideas as though they are fundamental truths. I noted in his talk that some ideas about God, such as incarnation, seemed like bedrock principles in his speech. And most of all, his commitment to ideas like lovingkindness, blessing, and goodness seemed absolute. I’d like to know how he would respond to what I am going to say below.
You can’t doubt everything even if you try. Deconstruction can be deconstructed.
Try deconstructing the idea of lovingkindness or mutual blessing.
You can’t really do it. I mean you could mouth some empty words about love being an illusion and we tend to define love in self-serving ways and yadda yadda. But try living as though lovingkindness is not an axiomatic value. Try valuing meanness and spite equally with lovingkindness. Find a poor person and take money from them. Make a kid cry. Pour a Coke in the red kettle of the local Salvation Army worker ringing his or her bell outside your local store.
Go ahead. Pretend you can question everything and doubt all things equally. I don’t buy it.
In fact, though C.S. Lewis might be regarded by some as an outmoded philosopher, I think there is something to his argument in Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man that there are some absolute and universal values that we cannot deny. Those who deny them, at least in appearance, by being hideous and cruel, prove the point by being loathsome to all who evaluate them.
There is good in the world and we can’t escape our attachment to it. It may be a leap from that point to the next one, but it seems to me a good reason to believe in God. The idea that God made us and built certain values into us is the best story I know to explain how we got this way. And Yeshua is the best story I know to explain God’s goodness concretely in our own history.