A Healthy Dose of Atheism

One of the central points that Peter Rollins makes in “How (Not) To Speak Of God” is that part of believing in a God who is “beyond understanding” necessitates a degree of atheism in our theism. As we embrace a God who is, by  nature, transcendent, we are forced to recognize that in order to maintain faith in an unfathomable God we must disbelieve in our concepts of God, to a certain extent.

I know that no matter how carefully, or even “biblically” (there’s that word again) I try to connect my theology, it is inevitable that there will be things I believe about God that are wrong. Is that a slight on the authority of the Bible as the primary revelation of the story and the character of God? Not at all. But this does represent a humility in how I understand my authority to speak for God, and a recognition that my ability to accurately interpret a text written in a foreign language, in a different era and drastically cultural setting is deeply limited.

So I’ll be taking a healthy dose of atheism with my beliefs. I want to understand how people who have a different interpretation of the bible came to believe what they believe. Because I know that I’m wrong. Often. Just not as often as you are.

(For more of my thoughts on this sort of thing, you might want to read “Biblical is a Stupid Word“)

Update: It seems similar themes are going on at Backyard Missionary

21 Replies to “A Healthy Dose of Atheism”

  1. Yep I have a bit of a fasination with liturature from athiests. I ususally have to read one or two of there books a year. I’m reading Philip Adams vs God at the moment. It is one of the best books I’ve read on the matter. Mainly because of the Australian perspective.

    1. I’ve been meaning to read that book, but there’s a long line of books for which that is true. He’s a fascinating guy Philip Adams, and usually more generous than some of the guys like Hitchens, etc.

  2. From the perspective of saying that not all we swear to be truth is really truth, I get it and wholeheartedly agree.

    On the other hand, Rollins, Jones, McLaren, and others have abandoned right belief in favor of right practice. This is wrong on many levels.

    1. It leads to legalism – this is the epitome of salvation by works.
    2. It is contrary to Scripture and is consistent with their embrace of “Christian Universalism”.
    3. It is an unnecessary over-reaction to those who have abused the idea of right belief. Because right belief has been turned into legalism does not mean that right belief is wrong.

    Personally, contrary to Rollins, I’d recommend deeper Bible study, prayer, Christian service, etc. over being “evangelized by other faiths”.

    1. I’d disagree with your statement that Rollins et al have “abandoned right belief in favor of right practice”. I think they’ve said instead that right belief that doesn’t result in right actions isn’t really right belief in the first place.

      28″What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
      29″ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
      30″Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go
      31″Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
      “The first,” they answered.
      Matthew 21:28-31

      1. Well – “wrong” right belief would not result in right behavior but “true” right belief absolutely does – this is “Biblical”. 🙂

        Rollins, page 42, of How Not To Speak of God, “When it comes to God, we have nothing to say to others and we must not be ashamed of saying it.”

      1. The quote you couldn’t read was:
        28″What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
        29″ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
        30″Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go
        31″Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
        “The first,” they answered.
        Matthew 21:28-31

  3. How do you interpret Rollins’ reference to IKON as a community which “has no substantial doctrinal center … just as a doughnut has no interior, but is made up entirely of an exterior.” if not as the abandoning of right belief in favor of right behavior?

    1. You’ve taken a statement that says “to belong to IKON, there isn’t a doctrinal center that you need to subscribe to” and read that as saying “what you believe is not important”. I don’t think those two are the same thing.

        1. To unpack that further: I think that Rollins is hoping to build a community for whom there are as few barriers to inclusion as possible. I think he’d even say that in lots of ways there is no intention of that necessarily being a “Christian community”. Instead, he’s hoping to build a community who are interested in investigating the claims of Christ with few preconceptions. Should a community like that have a set of core doctrines? I’m not sure that they should? Are they still upholding the value of right belief: absolutely – that’s ultimately why a community of people would seek to investigate who Christ is. Sometimes, to value right belief highly enough, you have to recognise that it’s not possible that you have it yet.

  4. I’m sorry for “bombing” this one but I’m interested in your interpretation of these statements if they are different than mine. I had forgotten another from the back cover of “The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief” which states, “What if one of the core elements of a radical Christianity lay in a demand that we betray it, while the ultimate act of affirming God required the forsaking of God? And what if fidelity to the Judeo-Christian scriptures demanded their renunciation? In short, what if the only way of finding faith involved betraying it with a kiss?”

    Doesn’t that seem to say we should abandon doctrine in contrast with Acts 17.11, 2 Timothy 2:15, and 2 Corinthians 10:5?

    Again, I get it when someone notes that much of what we swear as truth is our own culture rather than Scripture and that we need to re-center ourselves in Christ and God’s written communication but these very smart guys are using words that mean more than that and a LARGE number of people are taking their words at face value – words that contradict the clear meaning of Scripture (i.e., their un-Biblical … sorry, I just couldn’t resist).

  5. 2 Corinthians 10:5 – “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” What Rollins is saying, as I understand it, is that sometimes the “pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God”, is our concept of God itself – and that in betraying the God we think we know, we can actually find who God really is. And I don’t see anything in any of those three passages which would disagree with that.

    1. Well, we disagree where you said, ” I don’t think those two are the same thing.” My overall take is opposite as yours. Your words earlier, “right belief that doesn’t result in right actions” are what convince affirms my concern. So it is because of my start point that I understand the statements different than you which lead to the contrast with Scripture.

      We agree on the point of false knowledge. We disagree to the extent the people you are reading are taking it.

      1. I’m not sure I understand: ‘”Well – “wrong” right belief would not result in right behavior but “true” right belief absolutely does – this is “Biblical”.” – how is that different from what I was saying about “right belief that doesn’t result in right actions isn’t right belief in the first place”?

        Feel free to let this lie if you’re sick of the discussion! 🙂

        1. I hope this is coming across in the spirit intended. I am genuinely interested in your take on what you are reading because I get just the opposite of what you are saying.

          And I need to be careful. The phrases “true right belief” could easily end up having the same wrong affect as “born-again Christian” due to the redundancy. I only use it because unlike you, I don’t read Rollins, Jones, McLaren, et al, as saying what you said. I read them as throwing out belief, ala “has no substantial doctrinal center” and “the ultimate act of affirming God required the forsaking of God”.

          “One feature of what is sometimes called the ‘emerging church’ is a turn from doctrines to practices; unity is built less around a list of things one professes to believe and more around how one pursues truth and puts beliefs into action through practices. In this way, churches and other similar organizations…see themselves as communities of practice” (McClaren, The Last Word, 197). This sounds good if one reads into it and ignores some of the accepted practices seen in these groups. The point is I do not see an emphasis on right belief to result in right behavior, I see an emphasis on right behavior.

          McLaren furthers this inclusive behavior orientation with, “to be truly inclusive, the kingdom must exclude exclusive people, to be truly reconciling, the kingdom must not reconcile with those who refuse reconciliation.” (The Last Word, p138)

          Gibbs and Bolger write in Emerging Churches, “Evangelism or mission for me is no longer about persuading people to believe what I believe, no matter how edgy or creative I get. It is more about shared experiences and encounters … Christians cannot truly evangelize unless they are prepared to be evangelized in the process.” This is echoed by Rollins on page 53-54 of How Not to Speak of God.

          Rollins states that “we deemphasize the idea that Christians have God…” Sorry, in the end, while I can make up something to smooth all of this out, I cannot turn it into something consistent with Scripture. Be careful.

          1. First of all Rick, don’t worry about whether I understand the spirit of the discussion – I really do enjoy having the conversation. When you say “sounds good if one reads into it and ignores some of the accepted practices seen in these groups” – I’m left to probably just take your word for it. I don’t have a lot of experience directly with the groups your talking about, so I’m only left with the words at face value.

            The inclusiveness question is an interesting one. I’m not 100% comfortable with the “excluding the exclusive” quote, but I’m not sure I get it either. But I guess I don’t really understand your reaction to words like inclusive, because I certainly see in the example of Christ a consistently inclusive pattern. Historically in the church, inclusion into Christian community has meant ascribing to a carbon copy of the specific doctrine of that Church. Given that you hold so tightly to Calvinism, it’s unlikely that we could ever have discussed faith. What Rollins and McLaren are advocating is that we allow people to belong in Christian community well before they behave or believe: that we love first and sort out belief second.

            I must admit though, that I am curious as to where you’ve found all these quotes. Have you read these books, or are they sourced from elsewhere?

            1. Regarding the quotes … it’s a mix. I was quick to “defend” emergents because I saw many making straw man charges, using generalizations, guilt by association, not taking time to understand what the other person was saying, just being offensive rather than constructive, etc…

              In that I realized I had no real understanding of what the label emergent was supposed to mean. Some of the things explained to me (friends, books, internet) I took as good but I didn’t see them as “distinctives”, i.e., an emphasis of this group or something that set them apart from Christian in general.

              I read Bolger and Gibb’s Emerging Churches (touted at that time as THE book on emergents) a couple of years back. While I still hated the way some attacked emergents, I found some disturbing things (at least to me).

              Since then I’ve tried to focus on individuals (since the group emergent didn’t seem to have an identity). I’ve read some books on-line and read some excerpts here and there.

              But coincidental to this discussion with you, I am in the process of reading Michael Wittmer’s Don’t Stop Believing. This book is well balanced, well mannered, and specific. A majority of the quotes here are from that since it is what I’m currently reading – but all of them were not new to me. I took the time to re-read at least the surrounding text and in some cases a full chapter on-line in an effort to check an opinion I have been forming over the past couple of years.

              Coincidentally, I will likely post a short piece on inclusive v. exclusive. I do not see Jesus being inclusive in the manner I perceive McLaren, Jones, and Rollins recommending. In once sense yes, but Jesus called sin sin and I haven’t seen that in these guys – in fact I see the opposite. Even worse, it sometimes appears that their embrace of the missing and the marginalized is more motivated by the ugliness they see in those that call themselves evangelicals than by a true love for the lost. But that’s my observation and I could be very wrong about them. I don’t think however that I am wrong that their definition of inclusion is consistent with Christ’s.

  6. For some reason I don’t see your latest reply here.

    You wrote, ” think that Rollins is hoping to build a community for whom there are as few barriers to inclusion as possible.” I have no issue with that in and of itself and I participate in several of those for the purpose of “evangelizing”. I cannot speak to Rollins’ intent but as you explain, cool. But I know many who misapply that. We need Christian community as well and this is not that. And it becomes especially deceptive when others piggy-back on that with comments such as Bolger and Gibbs’. Certainly Rollins’ is aware that this is happening and I haven’t heard him make any correction.

    I perceive also that many (you and me included) see Rollins’ as an excellent communicator. You said, “Are they still upholding the value of right belief: absolutely.” Yet I haven’t read/heard him say that. In fact his words are the opposite. So is our assessment of his communication capability is correct or have I just missed this statement from him or is it not as you perceive?

    In contrast, Wittmer offers diagrams such as found here in an effort to explain (perhaps not perfectly) how some of what is required is a point of separation (at least ultimately) but not nearly as much as we as fallen people would like to think.

    1. The missing reply was up in reply to “hmmm”, because that was the comment I was trying to unpack.

      I’ve got to admit, while I have heard people on both sides of the fence quoting Gibbs and Bolger: I’ve not read their book nor had anything to do with them.

      To answer your question: what I have heard is a statement along the lines of what I was saying above – “sometimes the ‘pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God’, is our concept of God itself – and that in betraying the God we think we know, we can actually find who God really is.”

      Inherent in that concept is a statement that upholds right belief: even above our own feeble attempts at understanding God. It upholds right belief to point of recognising that it is ultimately an unachievable goal, that any effort at understanding a transcendent God is always just a best effort.

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