“This idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most of us take it for granted. Whether people accept the idea of God or reject it, they seem to be talking about the same thing: a being who satisfies our soul by filling the gap in our existence. The only conflict is that some people reject this god-product as fiction while others accept it.”
Peter Rollins wrote the above quotation in his latest book, “The Idolatry of God.” It was also appropriated for an online devotional group called Atheism For Lent. Known for interpreting Christian narratives through the lens of postmodern philosophy, Rollins has been a sought-after lecturer and writer for the better part of the last decade, which is surprising given his association with radical theology. Atheism For Lent’s premise is simple: for the entirety of Lent, participants read into and reflect on some of the strongest criticisms of Christianity from the atheist world. I took up the challenge, hoping to see my faith from the perspective of nonbelievers not to strengthen but to question my religious convictions and purge arrogance and overconfidence from them.
Each week of the exercise focuses on a different theme, usually tied to a specific philosopher or thinker. Week two focuses on Freudian critiques, the third week Marx, week four on Nietzsche, and the penultimate week on contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Issues discussed largely centre around how our underlying desire for satisfaction and happiness drives us to embrace idolatrous ideas about God. God becomes a way to resolve life’s conflicts, the church a place to experience elation and comfort in the midst of a broken world. Consumeristic and youth-obsessed American Christianity are not the only institutions that are implicated in this; orthodox and traditional religious expressions of all kinds are also criticized for encouraging addiction to religious practices as a way to avoid directly dealing with life’s problems.
Undergoing this process of deconstruction, shaking my faith and plunging right into the midst of my most profound doubts, was neither precisely uplifting nor depressing. It was, at its best, a way to see the bizarreness of what I would take to be normal beliefs. To some atheists, belief in God is aberrant, a dangerous distraction from the real, material work that needs to be done in the world. It forced me to take real stock of what kind of God I believed in and why. Was my God there as a light at the end of the tunnel, bedazzling my eyes when they should be looking at what the light illuminates? Does my love of beauty and divinity make me reluctant to look the shattered face of the world in the eyes? I would like to think not, but it might take the judgment of others to decide.
The precise effect of participating in Atheism For Lent has remained difficult to articulate. Perhaps the best way I have found is to tell the story of my Easter Sunday. After mourning in shadow on Friday, Christians all over the world congregate and affirm the living hope of resurrection embodied in the risen Christ. Sitting in the church service, hearing baptismal liturgies and the vows of those who were professing their faith, I felt as though I were standing on the opposite side of an invisible rift. While still having a strong faith in the Christian story, I was dislocated. This was my home denomination, the place where my faith had its genesis. Many of those around me were family members, and this was a church building whose air I had breathed many a time. Yet the discomfort ate at me.
I later confided to a friend that, though my conscious beliefs and language are Christian, I feel much more comfortable around those who are not, or are struggling in the same way I am.
I believe that learning to see yourself as others do is a vital step in understanding oneself. So often in this postmodern world we can slide into either indifference — the gospel of “whatever” — or harden our hearts and file ourselves into little in-groups. Shaking the foundations of our core beliefs, as Atheism for Lent is intended to do, is both difficult and necessary. Everyone at Calvin might not be ready for this kind of faith experiment, but those looking to make a difference in the world will eventually have to encounter the world. And what we have to realize is that we are in the world. I do not believe that it is impossible for us to give up our religion and our certainty and still embrace the truth of the gospel, the sword that Jesus carried and that will continue to disrupt illusions and myths if we do not try to grasp it.
Say it with me, dearly beloved people of Calvin. God is not standing outside history, waiting to save us from our mistakes. Our cause is not just. Our knowledge is permeated with unknowing. We are often wrong. God is still at work, investing life with openness and giving us a vision for a radically better future. Nothing, however, is guaranteed, which is the treasure and price of our freedom.
Luke’s book of Acts opens with the story of Jesus’ ascension. I believe it carries with it the seeds of the very notions I am expressing.
“[The disciples] asked [Jesus], ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’” We are the witnesses. History is ours to make and remake, to ruin or redeem. We claim a special relationship with God as Christians. Let us draw our eyes away from heaven and embrace the world that it illuminates. Perhaps we, the resurrected Body of Christ, might find our way to shalom after all.