How (Not) to Speak of God: Chapter 1

The title of Chapter 1 in Rollins’ book is based on Meister Eckhart’s prayer: “God rid me of God.” This prayer has become well-known over the years because it acknowledges that “the God we are in relationship with is bigger, better and different than our understanding of that God.”

Rollins’ main point in Chapter 1 is that there is a relationship between a postmodern way of thinking that he calls the critique of ideology and the Jewish/Christian concept of idolatry.

What is the critique of ideology? Essentially, it is a way of saying that it is not possible for people to learn and know “objective” truth. What we come to hold as a system of beliefs in life is inevitably a function of our childhood training, our culture, and our desires for sex, money, power, etc. Thus, you would never find a child raised in a fundamentalist Christian family professing to practice Hinduism any more than you would expect a single, inner-city mother struggling to make ends meet serving on a Republican committee to advocate welfare cuts. Everyone holds different belief systems about God, politics, etc. because we make “sense” of the world based on our training, education, and experience. 

Does this mean that there is no such thing as objective meaning? No, Rollins argues, it simply means that we must give up on the idea that human beings can fully grasp that meaning. To illustrate this point, he shows us an “ink blot” type diagram which, depending on how you look at it could represent a duck or a rabbit. (I don’t have access to a scanner right now, so I can’t show it to you). The lines and colorings in the diagram represent its reality, but we have a tendency to impose meaning on it by thinking of it as a duck or rabbit. Similarly, we all “see” the same “reality,” but we experience it and interpret it differently.

What does all of this have to do with idolatry in scripture? Plenty.

Rollins notes that, particularly in the Old Testament, God is consistently portrayed as being transcendent of human understanding. He is invisible, unsearchable, inaccessible, and even inexpressible. The entire book of Job, for example, is a story of how different people try to make sense of how God is acting in Job’s life, and none of them can come up with a satisfactory explanation.

Idolatry, Rollins argues, is an effort to reduce God to something that is understandable. The most striking example of this is the key moment in Exodus where Aaron fashions a golden calf for Israel to worship. When Aaron proclaims a day of festival in connection with the calf, he actually indicates that it will take place in the name of “Jehovah.” His intention is to embody God himself in the calf, but by “reducing” the transcendent God to a calf, he encourages idolatry.

As I read it, Rollins’ ultimate point in Chapter 1 is this: the critique of ideology has exposed a form of idolatry in Christianity – the idolatry of ideas. When Christians come to think that their ideas of God are the same thing as God himself, they reduce God to something less than the holy, transcendent being that is worthy of our worship.

Other posts:
1. Introduction
2. The meaning of heretical orthodoxy

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2 Responses to How (Not) to Speak of God: Chapter 1

  1. Thurman8er says:

    Playing catchup here. And afraid, as always, to read your blog because you make me want to buy books. And add them to the enormous stack of unread books I already have. And when my son grows up, I am going to spend days on end in my comfy chair, reading.

    Can we take our stacks to Heaven?

  2. Matt says:

    This book is well worth reading, Thurm – and its not that lengthy, either.

    And…yes – I’m quite sure the bible says (somewhere) that there will be books and cozy reading chairs after the resurrection…

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