I am reposting this review because How (Not) to Speak of God is on sale for $2.99 for Kindle until March 1.
I have read one other Peter Rollins book, The Orthodox Heretic. My opinion of How (Not) to Speak of God is very much the same. Rollins is very bright. He knows what he is talking about (although I don’t always understand), and in this book where he is more directly talking about philosophy and epistemology, he is way beyond my ability. I consider this one of those books that I read outside my comfort zone (both theologically and philosophically) to help expand my horizons.
I am not alway sure what he is talking about, and even when I am, I do not always agree with it. But there are three ideas that I pulled out of this book that I do think are useful and/or are a different way of approaching how to speak of God.
His first tack is to take on the traditional idea of idolatry. Not many modern people literally worship physical stone or wood idols. But Rollins wants to move away from a concept of idol as thing. That is common. We have all heard sermons about turning money or security into idols. But Rollins takes it a step further.
Idolatry does not rest in the idea of the object itself but rather in the eye of the beholder. In other words, it is the way one engages with an object or idea that makes an idol an idol rather than some kind of property within it. For instance, in the past many Romans would have perceived a statue of Apollo as the visible representation of a divinity, while today we appreciate it purely as a sculpture or ancient artefact.
This is similar to the way we approach music. I remember as a teen in the 1980s, articles about missionaries to Africa coming back to the US and saying that American Rock music used the same beats as African animists do to call evil spirits. But that concept is pretty rare now. We understand that music does not hold spiritual power in and of itself. It can prod us toward emotion, it can have words that move to toward God or away from God. But really the power of the music is dependent on the listener. I can go a concert and feel worshipful, another can go to the same concert and feel revulsion. Money or security in Rollins eyes are not idols, only the way that we use and view them empowers them as idols.
The central idea of the book is viewing God as ‘Hypernymous”. This is a play on the word anonymous. God is not anonymous, God has revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ, through scripture, through creation and through a variety of other sources. Rollins says that God has revealed himself through so many sources that it overwhelms our ability to separate God from anything else. God is in everything, is always present (although he is not advocating pantheism). He gets at the same point another way in this quote:
As the psychologist Victor Frankl once pointed out, true knowledge is always knowledge plus – that is, knowledge that understands that it is always penetrated by unknowing. The result is that God is not defined as the greatest conceivable being or as that which is greater than conception, but rather, as Anselm argued, God is the one who is conceived as inconceivable. In other words, it is precisely God’s participation with us that allows us to understand that God is beyond understanding.
In other words, we know so much about God that we know that God is beyond knowing. He of course is not saying we should not attempt to understand God or that God is completely unknowable. But that the way we approach God is affected by the greatness of God. We should be humble in our conceptions because all conceptions are inadequate and biased. He uses this as a way to encourage ecumenical cooperation. Because all pursuers of God have a bias about the part of God they pursue.
My pastor’s sermon this past week was about the uncomfortable tension between pursuing both Grace and Truth. Pursuing one without the other drives us away from God. This is similar to Rollins’ idea of reading scripture by searching meaning in the text (exegesis) and bringing meaning to the text (eisegesis) through our preconceived ideas of God, culture, and biases. That last part is very uncomfortable for Evangelicals. But Rollins has a real point. We cannot read the text without our culture coming into it. And we need to be careful not to ignore the historical realities of the text. We need both in order to understand what God is communicating to us right now.
In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.
The last section of the book is a group of worship services that are designed to show what Rollins means by the first half of the book. Unfortunately I was borrowing the book on kindle and it expired before I read more than the first couple. For me the most important part was the first section. But worship leaders and pastors may find some real value in the last section as well.
- The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable (bookwi.se)
- Miroslav Volf, Ed. Do We Worship the Same God? [Feature Review] (erb.kingdomnow.org)