Here is the fourth of five engagements around Pete Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God. It is by Will Samson, the co-author of the upcoming book, Justice in the Burbs, published by Baker Publishing. He is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Kentucky, a founder of the Emerging Theologians project and a member of an intentional Christian community in Lexington, KY.
Review of How (Not) To Speak About God
by Will Samson
I am not a philosopher. I am an emerging theologian and an aspiring sociologist and, on my better days, an organic intellectual, to use Gramsci’s description. In reviewing Peter Rollins’ book, How (Not) To Speak About God, these are the perspectives I bring. In this way, I see this book raising important questions about how we speak about God, how we live as people of God and what impact those concerns will have on the organized church.
First, allow me to address the book from a theological perspective. One of the most important contributions of the postmodern turn has been to cause those of us who think of God to be more critical of the words we use in our reflection. While Richard Rorty and his text, The Linguistic Turn, were influencing a generation of philosophers, George Lindbeck was appropriating the works of Wittgenstein to create a post–liberal linguistic framework for our understanding of God. Nancey Murphy was arguably doing similar work in post–conservative scholarship.
Rollins appropriates well both the theological and philosophical traditions of linguistic evaluation. In Rollins’ hands, or perhaps keyboard, doubt becomes a virtue, Christianity is viewed through an a/theistic lens and orthodoxy is allowed to be “heretical.” This linguistic play allows Rollins to finish the first chapter by quoting Meister Eckhart’s famous phrase, “God rid me of God,” and acknowledge that “the God we are in relationship with is bigger, better and different than our understanding.”
Throughout the book the author reflects on the difference between the language we have used to construct an understanding of God and the ways that language may differ from God. This is particularly seen in his notion of God as other. Consider, for example, his discussion of “YHWH,” a name that, through its absence of vowels, “preserves the mystery of God.”
This is an important corrective for the Western Church. Rollins’ observations come from, at least in part, his work in philosophy. It also could flow from his context, which is a missional community named Ikon in the heart of Belfast. Ireland has been torn apart over generations by theological differences, each side battling to be right. In this setting, it is no surprise that Rollin’s is suspicious of what Plantinga calls the “creeping certitude” of modernity and wants to mess with the language that has brought about a false sense of certainty in Western Christianity.
This brings me to my second point, which is the social implication of this book. It is difficult to imagine that many in the Western Church would be willing to trust God boldly enough that they might, for example, spend time with people from faith traditions outside of Christianity and expect to be “evangelized” through those traditions, hoping to find a more faithful understanding of God as revealed in Christ. Yet this is precisely what Rollins both advocates in the book and inhabits as a spiritual discipline within the Ikon community.
And this perhaps forms both my greatest critique and my strongest love for the book. This is a book written for the emerging church, those who, at the least, have entered into a liminal space between how they have historically understood God and the place to where God might be taking them as they deconstruct from the Church that modernity built. Make no mistake: this will be perceived as a dangerous book to a mind seeking certainty within the Christian faith. Rollins’ steady theme is that the revelation of God displays a being that is not wholly knowable.
As I mentioned, however, this is also what I loved the most about the book, because it addresses where I find myself and where a large segment of the contemporary Church is also. We have left a foundationalist understanding of God, namely that God can be understood through a syllogistic formula or that we can form an argument for God through our experience. We are anxious to find new language for the God who exists above the level of scientific validation.
Yet, the implications for the kind of questioning Rollins is willing to pursue are vast. Years ago McLuhan spoke of the “moral panic” that comes from questioning our use of language. Imagine if we were to question a basic ontological plank of the Western view of God, the notion that continued searching reveals answers about God. What if the answer waiting at the end of our struggle is a mystery, something undiscoverable?
This is an important philosophical question for the Church. As I read this book, though, I wondered if Rollins acts more in the role of an organic intellectual than a philosopher. Have no doubt – he is messing with our categories and quoting philosophers to do so. But a read through the second half of the book, the part that contains the liturgies, seems to demonstrate Rollin’s desire to shake up our religious understandings. It seems to advance an agenda of deconstruction.
I have participated in two of these liturgies (Prodigal and Sins of the Father). These are powerful services that force a rethinking of the familiar. And that is precisely what How (Not) To Speak About God does. Through an analysis of the way in which we speak about God and through a peek into the kinds of liturgies that come from that thinking, Rollins has invited the reader on a journey to discover a God who is most certainly beyond the certain.
[i] Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. (New York, NY: First Vintage Books, 1996), 67.
[ii] Plantinga, Alvin.
[iii] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1966), 85.