Curing the Religious Disease, Part 4: A/theism

In this final installment to this series we turn to perspectives coming from the emerging church conversation. Specifically, I want to walk through Peter Rollins' notion of Christianity as a/theistic.

In his book How (Not) to Speak of God Rollins talks about a/theism:

"...the early Christians were called atheists because their own affirmation of God involved a rejection of the gods advocated by the Roman Empire. Yet the atheistic spirit within Christianity delves much deeper than this--for we disbelieve not only in other gods but also in the God that we believe in.

As we have seen, we ought to affirm our view of God while at the same time realizing that that view is inadequate. Hence we act as both theist and atheist.

This a/theistic approach is deeply deconstructive since it always prevents our ideas from scaling the throne of God. Yet it is important to bear in mind that this deconstruction is not destruction, for the questioning it engages in is not designed to undermine God but to affirm God. This method is similar to that practiced by the original cynics who, far from being nihilists and relativists, were deeply moral individuals who questioned the ethical conduct they saw around them precisely because they loved morality so much. This a/theism is thus a deeply religious and faith-filled form of cynical discourse, one which captures how faith operates in an oscillation between understanding and unknowing.

This a/theistic language employed by those involved in the emerging conversation is not merely a way of shedding some inaccurate ideas we have picked up about God and faith before we can begin the serious task of construction, and it is certainly not a provisional clearing away that must happen before a new religious structure is built: rather it is a recognition that negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation. It is an acknowledgment that a desert of ignorance exist in the midst of every oasis of understanding.

...the a/theistic approach can be seen as a form of disbelieving what one believes, or rather, believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God. "
(pp. 25-26)

"This is in no way equivalent to saying that the Christian ought to adopt a position of disinterested agnosticism--far from it. The point is only that the believer should not repress the shadow of doubt that hangs over all belief (the potential lie that may dwell in the heart of every belief)." (p. 34)

"To be part of the Christian religion is to simultaneously hold that religion lightly." (p. 44)

"...there is a sense in which Christianity is atheistic because it rejects its own understanding of God...This does not mean that Christianity teaches us to reject our religious beliefs but rather reminds us that we must engage in a process of 'de-naming' God every time we name God." (p. 97)

For Rollins this whole approach is summed up by Augustine (p. 98): "What do I love when I love my God?"

To conclude this series, I hope you have been struck by the following similarities:

Tillich's Protestant Principle

Barth's dialectical method

Rollins' a/theistic approach

I find the convergence here remarkable considering the differences among the thinkers given their agendas, settings, and ecclesial situations.

Recall in my first post I said that the "religious disease" sets in when faith becomes insular, static, and morally convicted. And I hope in my comments to my first post I clarified that I am not saying that moral convictions per se are diseased. Far from it. Moral convictions only become toxic and potentialities for violence when they become impervious to external critique and possibilities for growth.

So how do we cure the religious disease? I think we've seen the way. Tillich suggests building criticism into faith. Barth suggests that we alternatively affirm and reject our notions of God in a forward moving conversation. Rollins suggests that we hold our faith "lightly."

All this suggests, as Rollins has noted, that there is a cynical, self-critical, and even atheistic facet to healthy faith. A faith so configured is always listening for God, searching. God is encountered then released. Or, rather, God is continually escaping, transcending, leading. This keeps the believer leaning forward, intently seeking.

Further, given that the believer is actively engaged in self-critique and a/theism, sources of religious criticism from atheists are welcomed, valued, and embraced as containing a truth we need to listen to.

For, as I like to say, idols always need smashing and many hands make for light work.

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3 thoughts on “Curing the Religious Disease, Part 4: A/theism”

  1. Of course, all of this is only true if you're a winter Christian. If you're a summer Christian, then all of this discussion is sinful... :)

    Not sure if I understood all of the details of these guys beliefs, but I appreciate this series and your conclusions. I definitely don't feel adequate in debating the question of God, but I'm becoming more interested in finding materials and discussions between a/theism.

    I was trying to explain to a friend the other day why I was interested in learning more about atheism, but I couldn't quite seem to grasp a good reasoning. Then you're Part 3 came up (exactly the next day), so I told her about your post and copied the last half to her.

    Thanks again for the series. I'll be interested to see what you tackle next.

  2. Hi Daniel,
    I've been thinking about your comment this weekend and it has prompted me to have a post or two on why people can't go this route in their faith journey. Thanks.

  3. Just found your blog and I am very happy to have done so. I do a lot of reflecting on similar themes, and a few of my musings have made it into my blog, which I write for a popular audience:

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