The Idolatry of God

I did something I have never done before: I pre-ordered a book. Those of you who know me or have been interacting with me through Two Friars and a Fool for a while probably won’t be surprised that it was a Peter Rollins book, and here it is: The Idolatry of God.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. It is a good book, well worth your money to buy and your time to read. It is certainly on a level with Insurrection, it surpasses the Fidelity of Betrayal and How (Not) to Speak of God in terms of clarity and power. The Orthodox Heretic remains my favorite of his works because Rollins is at his best when he is telling stories, but this new book is his most systematic and holistic explanation of his project to date. Reading this will help you make sense of everything else Rollins has talked about. If you’re new to his work I would start with OH, then Idolatry of God, then Insurrection, then the others.

In essence, the Idolatry of God is a complete telling of the Gospel. Rollins called it his stab at Christology on Twitter. He begins with an anthropology heavily informed by the french psychologist Jacques Lacan, wherein he describes the human condition as being one of perpetual grasping for satisfaction and certainty due to a perception of loss in the core of our self-awareness. This gap is created when we are born into self-awareness, a transition occurring in infancy which has the effect of creating a feeling of estrangement from our environment. We feel like we lost something we previously possessed now that we perceive the gap between ourselves and the objects of our need and desire.

This loss isn’t real, of course, because we didn’t exist prior to that awakening (what Lacan calls the Mirror Phase). So in a real sense what we’ve lost is nothing. There is a void in our center which we continually try to fill with ever-more sophisticated objects of desire money, success, power, lovers, and even God. This void is what Rollins identifies as Original Sin, and the object of our obsession is what Rollins calls an Idol.

Jesus, he argues, helps us to overcome Original Sin, not by offering yet another Idol for us to pursue and ultimately be disappointed by, but by exposing the absolute emptiness of our drive for satisfaction in the first place. His cry of dereliction places at the heart of the Christian Faith the experience of the absence of God. Salvation isn’t the thing which finally plugs that hole it is letting go of the need to be whole in the first place. It is turning into our brokenness and embracing the world.

There is more in his analysis, he has a place for the Law in the creation of Idols, a wonderful exposition of the problem of tribal identities and what he calls the Paulinian Cut which undermines them, and some great use of film and pop-culture examples to illustrate his point, but I don’t want to spoil everything.

This is powerful stuff. For a long time progressive Christians have been welcoming doubt and decrying certainty, but here for the first time, I think, someone cohesively shows that doubt isn’t merely an inevitable or acceptable part of faith, but the essence of it. What is especially delightful is that Rollins does this using classic theological language. He employs it very differently, almost diametrically opposed to how it has sometimes been used, but he does it artfully and, in my opinion, it holds up.

Where I feel his book, and his argument could be strengthened is by engaging with some quantitative study of the theories behind his anthropology. Lacan has been around a while and his claims about human psychology are testable. A major question lingering for me in reading this is whether Lacan is right about the Mirror Phase or whether early child development works somewhat differently. Rollins is a philosopher and he sometimes seems resistant to having his claims tested, relying solely on the beauty and coherence of his ideas. Maybe this is where someone like Richard Beck could help him match his ideas not just with art and anecdotal evidence, but with empirical observation as well.

I’m also surprised not to find clearer links in his work with Girardian theory. There is so much overlap here it is astonishing (he even has a section subtitled “The sacrifice of sacrifice itself”) but if he has been influenced by Rene Girard or any of his devotees he doesn’t mention them in the acknowledgements and he is silent about key aspects of Girardian thought (like the mimetic nature of desire) where they seem like a natural fit.

A final area of fruitful cross-pollination that seems a natural partner for his work is Buddhism. The role of desire in creating suffering, the emptiness of our self, and the turn away from certainty and satisfaction all seem ripe for comparison with Buddhist dharma.

I guess what I’m saying is, there are a lot more books I would like Peter Rollins to write so I can pre-order them.

  • sarahinez

    Religious and not spiritual. Oh my gosh, I thought I was the only one.