“Easter Philosophy”: Faith can be a crutch (Rollins). It can also give life (Jones).

26 Apr


Yeah, I’m still FOB (Flat on Back) today.  Thanks for asking.

Yesterday’s post featured a “vlog” of me responding to a great discussion between philosopher Peter Rollins and pastor/theologian Tony Jones (who just defended his Ph.D. dissertation yesterday at Princeton) that occurred on Easter in New York City.

(I’m still not happy with my vlogging attempts so far, btw.  If anyone has some ideas as to how to improve them, I’d be happy to hear them.  [Anyone else find it immensely awkward to talk to a computer screen?] )

But yesterday I offered some passing thoughts regarding Rollins, who is far more interested in the present-day manifestations of resurrection-living in faith communities, than in the historical facts of the resurrection itself.  (Which sounds Marcus Borgish, and it kinda is, but I think his objectives are quite different.)  I wondered what the implications were for his take on resurrection for missional church behavior, and I tried to summarize his take on the relationship between faith and doubt in comparison to my own.  By comparison Jones makes a case for a physical resurrection, not by prooftexting or using apologetics, but by talking about what makes a story about a physical resurrection compelling, fitting, and beautiful.  In many ways, their positions well summarize the two primary so-called “postmodern” approaches to Christian philosophy today, although the divide is not nearly as dramatic as it was in the modern era. 

When we say “I love God,” is this really what we mean?

Today, in contrast, I want to mention where I particularly resonate with Rollins, and then talk a bit about (what else?) faith.  Follow me, beyond the jump.

Rollins’ plea: don’t use faith as a crutch

The issue for Rollins, as I interpret the discussion, is his desire to not so much disprove a physical resurrection, as it is to free Christians from the idolatry of history and facts. For Rollins, faith in God is often used as a crutch (quoting Marx, as well as virtually every atheist the world has ever known).  Historical idolatry (my term; i.e., doctrine) can be used to enhance that false sense of security, leaving people with faith no need to continue searching after God or question their interpretations. Jones, on the other hand, is concerned with the logic and meaning of the Christian narrative itself, freed from the modern need to either prove or disprove, that compels real change in the world. 

I’m thankful for both of these impulses.  On Easter I heard and read several Christian pastors say, as I have heard so many times before, that the resurrection is the “proof” that Jesus was divine, and that His sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to take away all sin.  This is a perfect example of a violation of BOTH Rollins’ and Jones’ concerns… b/c according to this implicit theology, the ONLY importance of the resurrection was that it actually happened, stripped of both its theological meaning (Jones’ primary concern), and its practical meaning (Rollins’)! 

Let me emphasize the practical concern, first.  Rollins says that what is “real” about the resurrection is how the resurrection manifests in the lives of Christians and churches… and that any beliefs in past events that do not compel a real, present-day change in the way we live are pointless.  He also pleads with Christians to not run away from doubt, but that doubt is part and parcel to the Christian life, as Christ Himself modeled on the cross (for as Rollins says, when Jesus cries out “Why have you forsaken me?,” in that moment God doubted God). 

Both of these latter points are, in my view, critical for Christians to wrestle with.  I also think Tony Jones would agree with them.  Indeed they were both quite intentional in their desire to free the resurrection story from the common assumptions that are made about it. 

Let’s be honestwe do use our beliefs about scripture/faith/God as a crutch, oftentimes, in the church.  We do chase after false security, which actually encourages complacency and passive complicity in the injustice of our world. We do use doctrines as a measuring stick, a new “dividing wall,” a litmus test… goals which actually have nothing to do with real spirituality, real discipleship, real community, or real love (and which actually work against these things).  Rollins is right:  our pursuit of what is “real” (i.e., “true;” what “really happened”) can actually distract us from pursuing the “real” (i.e., the living-out of our faith in the world expressed through our love). 

The flip side: Faith gives life

On the other hand, faith (and theology) can also give life, I believe.  The issue at hand is that, actually, we misunderstand what faith is.  It is not a set of beliefs; it is a life lived in faith-FULNESS TO another.  So it is about history, in the sense that we are shaped by the stories of how people have been faithful to God (and not faithful to God), and how God remained faithful to people in spite of this. But faith doesn’t end with believing that things in history (i.e., the Bible) actually happened; faithfulness means that we continue in that story in the present, seeking after God, and He after us…. as we participate in what God is wanting to do in the world. 

Faith is, then, both about the past AND the present

But it is also about the future, which is where I perhaps my most pressing questions for Rollins. 

Because if we examine those stories in the scriptures, we see, again and again, signs of hope.  Not a metaphorical hope, a real hope, an “ontological” hope, if you will.  And if we trace the trajectory of the story, we understand why:  From Genesis to the Exodus to Mt. Sinai, to the tabernacle, to the temple, to Jesus, to Pentecost…. God has becoming increasingly with us, and available to more and more people.  The story’s inner logic is that one day, as Paul says, God will be “all in all.”  A return, in a sense, to Eden. God with us, with the world (not just with me.) We live in loving faithfulness to that vision.  That is our present, AND future, hope. 

Is this a crutch?  Yes, in a sense.  And yet it’s a crutch that I’ll gladly accept, because it is about life-giving and life-inspiring, and compels not complacent behavior, but loving, purposeful behavior that might actually be incredibly uncomfortable at times, for the sake of God and others.  Hope should not extinguish or override our love; love and hope should propel each other.  Love without hope does not have the strength to truly encourage or empower; hope without love will lead to selfishness and passivity. [In the modern era, we might accuse certain liberal Christians of the former, and conservative Christians of the latter; in the postmodern era I hope to find more of an insistence for balance!]

So I don’t have a problem with the idea that our faith gives us hope and a sense of comfort—the hope for the Kingdom of God’s return and the making of all things new have given many a persecuted, broken, hungry, depressed, martyred, and degraded person in this world meaning and purpose. But if the resurrection is not a physical reality, then this hope is a crutch.  But if such hope helps the hurting to make sense of their suffering and to catch a glimpse of the greater purposes of God for the world, and propels them to act on behalf of that vision for a better world, then faith (i.e., “faithfulness”) is an honorable “crutch.”  

Holding onto God in midst of struggle is a crutch I’ll gladly take.


Staying in the “naiveté cycle” between both

Paul Riceour, another philosopher, coined the term “second naiveté” to describe what it’s like to move from beyond a 1) face-value reading of doctrine or scripture, to a place of 2 )questioning (i.e., purifying; i.e., allowing God and mind to rid our understandings of their idolatry), and then beyond that into a 3) re-assumption of beliefs (of sorts), having been tempered and humbled by the fires of doubt, and now owning one’s beliefs as one’s own.

Crudely stated; fundamentalists are those for whom moving beyond the first tier is never an option.  This is where faith statements and doctrine can become crutches, and actually barriers to spiritual growth.

Skeptics, agnostics, and modern Continental philosophers such as Jacques Derrida are those who have moved into the second tier and have stayed there, unable to ever claim or reclaim knowledge, out of the fear that such knowledge would become idolatrous. 

In the third tier, we find progressive theologians of various sorts, and Anglo-American philosophers in the tradition of Alasdair Macintyre, who now make claims to faith, but do so with humility.   But as the second-tier folks were afraid of, oftentimes those in this category often falling back into a first tier-mindset, set in their beliefs and unable/unwilling to change, becoming idolatrous again.  We see this in the modern liberal tradition, as well as some conservatives that eventually gave up the pain and discomfort of the search, rushing back into familiar faith categories.

Jones is in the third tier; Rollins is as well, although he also keeps one hand in the second tier, so as to ensure that third-tier folks don’t stop questioning and doubting.  But they both make first-tier assumptions on some level; none of us can truly say that we have challenged every assumption that we hold.  And we all crave the stability and security that comes from idolatry; therefore we are always at risk of moving back into tier one. 

So in my understanding, instead of fighting this cycle, we work with this cycle, and continue submitting to it.  A narrative approach to theology helps to facilitate this process.

This is why the church needs to be led by those like Jones, and continually challenged by those like Rollins.  Rollins pulls the first-tier into the second-tier (I sincerely doubt he would have the nerve to tell someone who was selfless and full of love, who was suffering deeply but found the strength to continue serving and loving because she believed that Jesus’ resurrection foreshadowed the world’s resurrection and its reconnection with God, that she was using God as a crutch).  Jones (and the church) pulls the second tier into the third tier, and when we naturally gravitate back around into the first tier, there is Rollins to free us again.  And with every revolution we grow in faith, and come into deeper embrace of the story and the mystery, and experience regular renewal of love and missional conviction. 

Because we find that the one thing that we are called to hold onto… is something we cannot see, grasp, define, or explain.  That is the only “crutch.”  This crutch we cannot hold onto too tightly, for He eludes our grasp (control).  But he is the crutch that holds onto us.  In the meantime, all other crutches must go, no matter how pure or noble they seem.

And in doing so, as Rollins might say, we can experience resurrection anew again and again, within ourselves, and within our churches.  Love with purpose; and hope without complacency.

Thoughts?  Does this make sense?  Am I WAY off-base? Any thoughts as to what Peter thinks of Tony in this picture?

Click here to find the Rollins/Jones discussion.

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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in theology


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