The Idolatry of God

Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction

LIST PRICE $14.99

About The Book

Theological firebrand Peter Rollins asserts that mainstream Christianity reduces God to an idol, made in our own image, for the purpose of providing certainty and satisfaction.

You can’t be satisfied. Life is difficult. You don’t know the secret.

Whether readers are devout believers or distant seekers, The Idolatry of God shows that we must lay down our certainties and honestly admit our doubts to identify with Jesus. Rollins purposely upsets fundamentalist certainty in order to open readers up to a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love.

In contrast to the usual understanding of the “Good News” as a message offering satisfaction and certainty, Rollins argues for a radical and shattering alternative. He explores how the Good News actually involves embracing the idea that we can’t be whole, that life is difficult, and that we are in the dark. Showing how God has traditionally been approached as a product that will render us complete, remove our suffering, and reveal the answers, he introduces an incendiary approach to faith that invites us to joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence. Only then, he argues, can we truly rob death of its sting and enter into the fullness of life.

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered

Creatio ex Nihilo

Whether we look at our own personal history or reflect upon the history of civilization, it is difficult to avoid the sense that we feel a lack in the very depths of our being, a lack that we try to cover over with any number of religious, political, and cultural remedies. This feeling might touch us like a breeze or knock us over with the force of a hurricane, but however it comes, most of us can testify to the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help to fill this void, whether it is a person, money, power, possessions, God, or heaven.

It is natural for us to think that our present discontent arises as a result of something we currently do not have. We imagine there might be a way of abolishing the feeling if only we had the money, fame, job, or health that currently evades us. But people from all walks of life seem to experience the same kind of dissatisfaction that we do, even when they have the very things we believe would make our lives whole. And on the occasions when we gain the thing we believe will make us happy, we find that the satisfaction we experience is at best partial and at worst utterly unfulfilling.

In order to approach the root cause of this dissatisfaction and work out why it seems so difficult to abolish, let us begin by reviving an obscure and seemingly absurd Latin phrase that refers to the idea of something coming from nothing: creatio ex nihilo.

How can absence or lack be a generative and creative force in the world?

Upon first being confronted by this idea it might seem like nonsense, for how can nothing give rise to something? How can absence or lack be a generative and creative force in the world?

Yet the idea of nothing bringing about something is not as strange as it might sound. Take the following example:

There was once a young woman who, late one evening, was taking a shower when the doorbell rang. Knowing that her husband was dozing in the upstairs bedroom she quickly wrapped herself in a towel and ran to the door. When she opened it, she was greeted by her next-door neighbor Joe.

Upon seeing her wearing nothing but a towel Joe pulled four hundred dollars from his back pocket, looked her in the eye, and said, “I have always been attracted to you. What do you say to the following indecent proposal? If I were to offer you this four hundred dollars right now, would you drop the towel for me?”

After a moment’s reflection, she reluctantly agreed, dropped the towel, and let him look at her naked body. True to his word, Joe gave her the money and left.

Picking up the towel she hid the money and then went up to the bedroom. As she entered the room, her husband woke up and asked, “Did the doorbell ring a few minutes ago?”

“Oh yes,” replied the woman. “It was just Joe from next door.”

“Great! Did he give you the four hundred dollars he owes me?”

Here we witness a type of creatio ex nihilo at work, for the neighbor Joe has nothing to offer except the illusion of something (four hundred dollars that is not his), but this illusion generates a desired effect—the woman exposing her body. Nothing was made to look like something and created a result.

So how can this idea of nothing creating something help us understand the dissatisfaction that seems so much a part of human life?

We Enter the World with Nothing

Infants undergo two births. The first is also the most plain to see—their physical entry into the world. The second, however, is less obvious; it is the birth of their self-consciousness. These two events occur close together, but they are not simultaneous, for their tiny bodies have already come onto the scene before they develop any real sense of being an individual. In this way their physical bodies are a type of womb out of which their selfhood arises.

Infants undergo two births.

This important point in human development was named “the mirror phase” by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is generally estimated to start between the ages of six to eighteen months. While the process is gradual, it is around this time that the infant begins to identify as existing in separation from her surroundings and slowly begins to experience herself as an individual.

The time before this awakening can be described as a type of prehistory, for it is the time before language, before self-consciousness, before the sense of “I.” It is only as the infant begins to enter selfhood that her history really begins, a history that cannot articulate what came before it, yet which remains indelibly marked by it.

One of the fundamental experiences that arises from this second birth is a profound and disturbing sense of loss, for as soon as we experience our inner world, we encounter for the first time an outer world. As we develop a sense of our internal space, we are confronted with another one, a space existing beyond the borders of our flesh. Before the formation of our inner world, there is no sense of “me” and thus no notion of “you.” There is no near and no far; no inside and, therefore, no outside; no barriers that would separate me from everything beyond the threshold of my skin. Before the advent of selfhood, the infant’s body exists in a type of equilibrium with the environment, being impacted by it but not standing in contrast to it.

All this changes as the child gains a sense of selfhood, for at this point, the world is experienced as “out there.” With the advent of the “I,” there is an experience of that which is “not I.” The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation.

This means that one of our most basic and primal experiences of the world involves a sense of loss, for when we feel separated from something we assume that there was something we once had. The interesting thing to note, however, is that this sense of loss is actually an illusion, for we never actually lost anything. Why? Because there was no “me” before this experience of separation. Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us. The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place.

This primordial experience of separation means nothing less than the experience of a gap, a feeling that there is some gulf between us and that which we have “lost.” In light of this we can read the scriptural saying “For we brought nothing into the world” quite literally, as meaning that we enter the world with one thing in our possession: nothingness itself (i.e., a sense of some space separating us from the world we inhabit).

Horror Vacui

It is this sense of a gap that causes us to feel incomplete in some way. As a result, one of our first impulses is to find ways of abolishing the void. We attempt this by connecting our vague and abstract sense of separation to something concrete and then trying to gain it. Just as someone might manage what would otherwise be a crippling anxiety by coupling it with something particular (creating, for example, a fear of spiders), so we take our general sense of separation and connect it with an actual object that we might be able to gain. However, this strategy can never wholly work, as the disquieting sense of separation that makes its presence felt in our bodies has a hunger bigger than any object or objects could ever satisfy.

As we grow, the things we feed to this insatiable hunger change. As children we may think that a certain friendship, toy, or adventure will satisfy us, while as adults we might believe that a certain partner will fill the gap, or perhaps a job, a spiritual entity, a child, a political goal, or reaching a certain level of fame. The things that we believe will rid us of this gap differ and change over time, but the belief that something will fill the void remains constant.

The very thing we say we hate in the other is often the very thing we desire most of all.

Of course most of us will scoff at the idea there is something that will render us whole and will satisfy our seemingly insatiable desire. But what we deny with our lips is often found in the very texture of our lives. For instance, someone’s hatred of the wealthy and famous is often little more than a sublimated form of jealousy. The very thing we say we hate in the other is often the very thing we desire most of all. Perhaps we feel unable to achieve such wealth, or we have been taught that it is morally wrong to do so. As such we have to turn our desire into a form of hatred, a hatred that masks what we really want. For instance, it is not uncommon to find small churches that speak disparagingly about larger communities, claiming that small is better. While this may sometimes reflect their true beliefs on the subject, one wonders if some of these churches would feel the same way if they began to grow significantly.

This mechanism is something we can see played out every day in school playgrounds across the world. Witness a little boy pulling the hair of a girl in his class—the only person who doesn’t know that he really likes the girl is often the boy himself. What he denies with his words, however, is undermined by his actions.

An important distinction needs to be made at this point between objects that we seek because we feel (whether rightly or wrongly) that they will improve our life in some way and objects that we believe will fill the gap we experience at the very core of our existence. For example, one person may wish to make money in order to look after her family or gain some extra comfort, while someone else might pursue money in a way that suggests they think that wealth will provide them with ultimate meaning.

There is a very simple but vital mechanism that transforms an object from being something we would like to something we believe would make us whole: a prohibition. Whenever something we would like is refused to us in some way, this refusal causes us to want the object even more.

We can see this happening in a very transparent way while watching children play. We might imagine a child wanting to play with a toy he sees but is denied access to by a parent. By this act of prohibition, the child’s normal desire for the object is transformed into something much more potent. He is likely to invest that toy with a significance not merited by the toy itself.

This prohibition was called “the Law” by the Apostle Paul. He understood that the prohibition of the Law does not cause one to renounce an object but rather fuels a self-destructive drive for it. This is a subject that we will take up in more detail in the following chapter.

I Need the Rabbit’s Foot

Hollywood has made billions playing into this human experience of the gap, providing myths in which the lost object we believe will make us whole is finally gained. Film theorists call this lost object the MacGuffin, a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The MacGuffin is a name that is given to whatever object helps drive the narrative forward, providing the necessary tension to keep an audience interested. The MacGuffin is that X for which some or all of the main characters are willing to sacrifice everything. In this way the object they seek is more than something they want in order to make their lives a little better; it is something that evokes in them an obsessive form of desire. The object might take the form of money, fame, victory, power, a man, or a woman. The point is not what actually fills the role of the MacGuffin, but that there is something that has that role, something that people want in some excessive way. It is the object for which everything will be sacrificed, the object that seems to promise fulfillment, satisfaction, and lasting pleasure.

One particularly interesting example of a MacGuffin in action can be seen in J. J. Abrams’s film Mission: Impossible III. For here the director hints at the MacGuffin’s utterly contingent nature.

The entire movie revolves around a mysterious object called the Rabbit’s Foot. All the main players in the movie desperately seek this object, and yet at no point do we ever learn exactly what the Rabbit’s Foot actually is. This is brought home most clearly in one scene where a technician working for the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) christens this enigmatic object of desire with the name “Anti-God”—a name that gives us a glimpse into the very nature of the MacGuffin. For if God is understood as the source of everything, then the name “Anti-God” brings to mind nothingness itself.

By refusing to give the object any real content, Mission: Impossible III hints at the provisional and ultimately superfluous nature of the MacGuffin. The movie shows how it acts as a type of void, a void that produces all the conflict and desire. It is a nothing that produces everything. It is creatio ex nihilo in action.

In reality, the movie does give the impression that the Rabbit’s Foot has some positive content when it implies that the black market arms dealer knows what it is. What might have made the movie more intellectually satisfying would have been a final twist, one where we discover that the only reason the arms dealer is so obsessed with possessing the Rabbit’s Foot is because he mistakenly thinks the Impossible Missions Force wants it. In this way the Rabbit’s Foot could have existed in the movie as a pure fabrication without any specific content, a nothing that gains its significance purely through a misunderstanding.

In life we find ourselves pursuing various MacGuffins—impotent things we falsely believe will make us whole.

In life we find ourselves pursuing various MacGuffins—impotent things we falsely believe will make us whole. What we see in the structure of Hollywood movies is but a clear reflection of this structure. And just as Hollywood movies generally hide the impotence of what we seek, so our dreams and fantasies do the same—ultimately covering over the fact that what we think will satisfy our souls is really powerless to do so.

The Originality of Original Sin

This idea of a gap at the core of our being has an ancient theological name: Original Sin. Unfortunately this term has all but lost its depth and credibility due to its misuse by the church today. But if we consider Original Sin in its most literal definition, we can begin to appreciate how it refers to a primal separation—for “sin” means separation, and “original” refers to that which comes first. In this way Original Sin is simply the ancient theological name given to the experience that we have outlined above. It is a phrase that refers to the feeling of gap that marks us all from the very beginning.

We have seen how this nothing at the core of our being causes us to imagine something that might fill it, something that would make us whole. But this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive we have for books, talks, and people who promise a life of total sexual, emotional, and/or spiritual fulfillment. This Original Sin is the very thing that causes us to falsely think it is not original at all. This sense of gap makes us think that there must have been something before it, an original blessing that we somehow lost.

Sadly, almost the entire existing church fails to embrace the full radicality of what Original Sin actually means, for they presuppose that there is something we are separated from, something that will bring wholeness and insight.

This is witnessed in one of its most raw forms in contemporary worship music. There is today a profound similarity between popular music and the music that is being created by contemporary worship bands. Often the two are almost indistinguishable, the only difference between them being the object they hold up as the meaning of existence.

Both operate with the same structure in that both affirm some object (a particular woman or man, fame, sex, money, God, or revenge) as that which evokes our desire and deserves our devotion. Some object is thus claimed to be the answer to the profound lack that we experience at the core of our being.

The logic of popular music is profoundly attractive to much of the contemporary church because the charts are full of worship songs created by a multibillion-dollar industry, and while this industry is not interested in holding up the religious idea of God as the ultimate answer, it is very interested in exploiting the human desire to hold something up as the ultimate answer. It is then a simple matter for Christian bands to swap Jesus for whatever object a particular song sets up as the ultimate answer. Indeed, it is not uncommon for church music groups to go further than simply copying the logic of contemporary pop music, going so far as to take specific songs and changing a few of the words so that they point to a different love object. This technique attempts to gain some credibility from people like Luther, Charles Wesley, and William Booth, all of whom based some of their hymns on the popular tunes of the day. Is it any wonder that musicians like Ray Charles returned the favor, basing some of their most popular music on old gospel songs? The issue is not which came first, sacred worship music or the more secular kind, but the fact that in both the church and the charts today we find the same style of music: one that holds up some object as the highest principle around which our life should revolve.

Sell Church

If we take the idea that contemporary worship music holds up some X as the highest good that we desire, seek, pursue, and adore with all our might, then it starts to become clear that worship music is ubiquitous today. The menu is of course varied, with a whole range of things being placed on the throne before which we worship, but the throne remains intact throughout. Each worship song points to something that implicitly or explicitly promises to fill the gap we feel piercing the heart of our being.

Each worship song points to something that implicitly or explicitly promises to fill the gap we feel piercing the heart of our being.

When such music is used in a church context, it renders the source of faith into just one more product promising us fulfillment, happiness, and unwavering bliss. The church then takes its place beside every other industry that is in the business of selling satisfaction. Religious hymns become little more than advertising jingles, and the clergy come to resemble slick salespeople presenting their god-product to the potential consumer.

In daily life we are confronted with a vast array of voices telling us that we can be happy, fulfilled, and content only if we adopt a particular lifestyle, buy a particular product, or look a particular way. Everywhere we turn we are being promised that our life can be wonderful if we follow a certain formula. It is as if the world is a huge vending machine full of products, each one promising to satisfy our soul.

But instead of offering a freedom from this type of thinking, the church has simply joined the party and placed its own product into the machine. Their god-product takes its place alongside all the other things vying for our attention with their promises to fill the gap in our lives and render our existence meaningful. Take one or mix and match: luxury car, financial success, fame, or Jesus; they all pretty much promise the same satisfaction.

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.

A God by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

The particular object we postulate as the way of filling the gap we experience in our lives is irrelevant. It may be success, good looks, money, Jesus, children, a partner, or even stamp collecting. It is whatever we act toward as if it were the thing that would rid us of our sense of emptiness. It is that seductive object that seems to address us with a promise: “I can make you whole and complete if only you would come to me.” Yet, as with the Sirens of Greek mythology, heeding this call, as we shall see, always ends in wanton destruction.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Idolatry of God includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Peter Rollins. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Is God just another product on the market, promising the elusive happiness and satisfaction we crave? In The Idolatry of God, theological firebrand Peter Rollins asserts that a deep existential conflict exists between people who are willing to embrace doubt and uncertainty in matters of faith, and those who cling to certainty—who make an idol of God. To close this gap, Rollins invites us all to take a hard look at our most cherished beliefs, to approach truth in bold new ways, and to embrace a faith that throws us into the world rather than shielding us from it.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Reflect on the book’s title, The Idolatry of God. What thoughts and/or questions does the title raise in your mind?
 
2. In the Introduction the author writes that his book is about the theme of salvation, saying that this is “not the type of salvation that is preached today from the pulpit, the false salvation that promises us freedom from our unknowing and dissatisfaction, but a salvation that takes places within our unknowing and dissatisfaction. One that directly confronts them, embraces them, and says ‘amen’ to them.” Is this a new idea for you? Do you find it comforting? Disturbing? Neutral? Discuss this idea, drawing on your own experiences of faith and belief.
 
3. Do you sense that there is a “gap” in your being, dating back to infancy? If so, describe what that gap feels like for you. What is the source of this gap, according to the author?
 
4. Discuss the MacGuffin and how it is depicted in various movies and books. Do you cling to any personal MacGuffins?
 
5. In Chapter 1 the author defines Original Sin as the gap in the core of our being. Compare this definition to what you believe or were taught about Original Sin. Which definition seems most reasonable? Why? Also consider the author’s explanations of Total Depravity and the Law and how they fit, or don’t fit, with what you have been taught.
 
6. What is an Idol? What purpose does it serve? Provide a few examples of an Idol.
 
7. In Chapter 2 Rollins outlines three strategies used to avoid a confrontation with our pain: deferment, repression, and disavowal. Is this something you think has resonance for you? Do you typically default to one of these strategies? If so, which one and why?
 
8. In Chapter 3 the author reflects on four coping responses—consumption, vomiting, tolerance, and agreement—that we use to protect ourselves from the disturbing effect of encountering someone with a different worldview than our own. Have you used any of these in your own life?
 
9. What is “literalistic listening”? Give some examples of literalistic listening in action. Think of a conversation you’ve had (or witnessed) recently. Might the conversation have taken a different course if one or both parties had employed literalistic listening? Explain.
 
10. According to the author, how does modern Christianity resemble a zombie apocalypse? Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? Why?
 
11. What does it mean to call the Crucifixion “the sacrifice of sacrifice itself”? How might accepting this approach affect the life of the Christian, as compared to more traditional conservative or liberal approaches?
 
12. Explain what the author means by the Paulinian cut or Paulinian universalism. Have you experienced the Paulinian cut in your own life? If so, describe the experience. What tribes were you separated from? What tribes did you move toward?
 
13. In what way(s) can an “addiction to certainty” pose a problem for the Christian? Do you agree that it is a problem in the church today? Why or why not?
 
14. In Chapter 6, Rollins imagines God whispering to a doubting believer, “It’s okay, you don’t have to stop believing in me; I have stopped believing in myself.” What does this mean? Share your reactions. Discuss some ways in which the true God differs from the Idol introduced earlier.
 
15. What did you hope to learn or experience by reading this book? Were your expectations fulfilled?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Within your group, practice literalistic listening as described in Chapter 3. Imagine a few potentially heated conversations. Invite two volunteers to demonstrate this imaginary conversation using non-literalistic listening. Then do it again with one or both participants demonstrating literalistic listening. In what ways did the two conversations differ? Discuss some practical ways your group can practice literalistic listening in your daily lives.
 
2. Summarize each of the following “Dis-Courses” and describe the purposes of each:

    • The Last Supper
    • The Evangelism Project
    • Atheism for Lent
    • Omega Course

Why does the author emphasize that these events should be experienced in community rather than alone?
 
3. What do you think about introducing these or other kinds of Dis-Courses within your group or community? Discuss various “tribes” that might be involved. Choose an idea and plan some action steps for making it happen.
 
4. In Chapter 9 the author describes three ikon case studies: Fundamentalism, The God Delusion, and Pyro-theology. Discuss the elements included in these events and your reactions to them. Can you envision introducing similar elements into your own faith community? Why or why not?
 
5. What might such a collective experience look like in your community? As a group, brainstorm some possibilities. What might be the theme, and why? What impact would you hope the event would have on the community?
 
6. When you’ve finished brainstorming, share whatever thoughts and feelings came up during the process. Did you find the exercise easy or difficult? Did envisioning this type of collective experience make you feel optimistic? Pessimistic? Anxious? Hopeful? All of the above? Why?
 
7. If your group favors the idea of organizing a collective gathering, think of some practical ways that you, as an individual and as a group, could help bring it about. Where could a gathering be held? Who would attend and why? What kinds of songs would be sung or music played? Is there a specific action that you can take this month? This week? Today?   
 

A Conversation with Peter Rollins 

Can you discuss the title, The Idolatry of God, and how it relates to the central question of your book?  

It is becoming more and more popular today for people in the church to avoid specifically theological language in their conversations and writings. You see this take place, for instance, in the ongoing creation of Bible translations that aim at a text written in “plain language.” In contrast to this trend, I am interested in returning to, rethinking, and reengaging with many of these ancient theological notions. This is because I believe that these terms possess a depth, potency, and weight which we have barely touched upon, an incendiary force that goes far beyond the facile understanding of the terms we so often find preached by religionists.

The central term that I wish to explore and open up in this book is idolatry. More specifically, I want to show how the idea of God today preached within much of the church is nothing more than an impotent Idol. Simply stated, this boils down to the claim that God is treated as nothing more than a product, a product that promises certainty and satisfaction while delivering nothing but deception and dissatisfaction.

This might be a bold claim, but it gets to the heart of my theological project. By grasping this the reader will understand what I mean when I claim that the actually existing church broadly represents the old creation, along with my argument that a new collective is possible, a collective that exists beyond idolatry. A collective that can cross tribal boundaries, teach us how to embrace the world, and fight for real emancipation.

What factors inspired or compelled you to write The Idolatry of God at this time? Do you feel it contains a message of particular significance “for such a time as this” in the history of the church?  

All of my books are written in an attempt to speak into and identify the core issue that we must wrestle with in order to birth a new and vibrant community grounded in the liberating message found in the event of Christ. My books and writing seek to find that Archimedean point from which we can overturn the mammoth structure that propagates a reactionary and idolatrous form of life in the false guise of Christian faith; a structure that we might mock with our minds, but which we embrace at a liturgical and material level. This latest book is my most systematic and clear presentation of the problem as I envision it. In this way I believe that it offers the interpretive key from which all my other work can be understood. It represents the enclosure within which the rest of my work rests.

What specific trends or characteristics of the modern church do you seek to counteract with this book? What changes do you hope to see in areas of worship, ministry, and community?  

Basically I argue that the modern church engages in a host of material practices designed to act as a security blanket for life. It does this by offering preaching, prayers and songs that solidify our tribal identities and promise fulfillment. In so doing the church becomes a type of crack house selling feel-good drugs to those who enter its doors. The problem, however, is that our attempt to avoid the inherent difficulties of life does not mean that we are free from suffering but rather that we are most oppressed by it. The truth that we suffer might be one that we can avoid much of the time, but we are always in danger of being directly confronted with it. Because of this we tend to cling to a security blanket, whether it is church, drink, or drugs.

Such acts are not in themselves a problem but rather the solution to a problem—namely, the problem of pain. Yet the limitation of this solution is exposed the next day when we experience the return of everything we had repressed. The pain is not worked through but simply avoided. As a result we are tempted to repeat the cycle.

There is, however, a different way to approach our pain. This other way involves participation in symbolic activity. For example, you might go to hear a poet who puts into music the suffering of loss, an individual who is able to speak the type of suffering you feel in lyrical form. In such a poet we encounter an individual who has demonstrated profound courage, for in being able to sing her suffering she shows that she is not overwrought by it. As we listen to the music we are invited to touch the dark core of the music so as to encounter our own dark core in a way that we can handle.

My concern is that most of the actually existing church acts as a type of drug den with the leaders being like the nicest, most sincere drug dealers. What we pay for are songs, sermons, and prayers that help us avoid our suffering rather than work through it.

In contrast I am arguing for collectives that are more like the professional mourners who cry for us in a way that confronts us with our own suffering, the stand-up comedians who talk about the pain of being human, or the poets singing about life at the local pub.

In other words, a church where the liturgical structure does not treat God as a product that would make us whole but as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties. A place where we are invited to confront the reality of our humanity, not so that we will despair, but so that we will be free of the despair that already lurks within us, the despair that enslaves us, the despair that we refuse to acknowledge.

What kind of resistance have you received from the religious establishment as a result of the views expressed in The Idolatry of God, and how do you respond to these critiques?  

Resistance is an interesting phenomenon, as it is different from mere disagreement. There are plenty of people who will disagree with me, many of whom I count as my closest friends. However, there are occasions in which I encounter a type of venomous disagreement that we might term “resistance.” What is interesting about this is the way that this response often signals the very opposite of genuine disagreement. Resistance arises whenever a person feels some deep inner conflict over what has been said. This conflict is often the result of some kind of internal clash in which they resonate with what they hear but are unable or unwilling to express that. Strange as it might initially sound, people who show the most resistance to what I am saying often are doing so because what I am saying makes the most sense to them.

Generally I find that people are willing to acknowledge this inner conflict and work through it as long as I approach them in a nonantagonistic, friendly way. In fact some of the people who have attacked me most vigorously in the past have subsequently become friends.

Because of the unsettling nature of my work, I often think that if you have no resistance to the ideas I explore you are not engaging with them seriously enough. I know that I still have resistance to them.

Which of your ideas seem to have ignited the most controversy within Christianity? Why do you think that is?  

Some people have been unnerved by the way that I bracket out certain questions, beliefs, and debates that many in the church take to be central. By “bracketing out” I am referring to the academic craft in which one places certain questions to the side in order to address more basic and potentially important ones. While the church and its most vocal opponents have tended to focus on issues to do with the existence of God, the historicity of the various doctrines, and questions related to the status of the Bible, I am primarily concerned with the meaning of the Christian event described by the apostle Paul and what mode of life it expresses. In addition to that I am concerned with how we enter into that life and express it.

Have you received feedback on the ideas contained in The Idolatry of God from people outside of the Christian fold, including atheists and people of other faiths? If so, what reactions have you received from them, and how have you responded?  

Yes. Indeed, my primary inspiration for writing the book came as a direct result of sharing the ideas with some people who would not describe themselves as theistic or religious. They had not known that there was such a thing as a faith that genuinely embraced unknowing, celebrated difference and encouraged a direct embrace of life. Indeed, as I speak across the country, I am discovering that more and more people from no religious background are engaging directly with this Christian vision. In addition to this I am finding myself in more conversations with people of various religious traditions (Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian). Ideas such as the letting go of tribal identity, embracing the world rather than running from it, and rejecting systems that make snake-oil promises of knowing and fulfillment are finding resonance in all sorts of places. Perhaps because these themes are larger than any one religion and prove important to all those interested in what it means to be human.

On a personal note, did the process of writing this book uncover any surprises for you, or take you down a path you didn’t expect?  

One of the reasons why I so enjoy writing is because of the way that it takes you to places you never imagined when starting off on the journey. Once a book is finished, authors often talk as if they always knew the vantage point that they would get to, but the adventure of writing is much more anarchic than that. If a writer starts with a strong idea of where he will end up and then lands there, he is likely to be engaged in mere dogmatic work rather than the perilous and exciting work of real thinking.

I didn’t initially think that I would write a book that so strongly employed theological language. This was not my original intention. I simply wanted to explore what it means to be human and how we might embrace life fully. However, as I wrote, I couldn’t get past the provocative resources of the Christian tradition, even though I needed to do a lot of work in order to rescue them from the snatches of the church. As someone who would never have had any intension of writing what academics call a systematic theology, this is what began to take shape as I explored the contours of the landscape I was traversing.

What is the primary message you hope readers will take away from The Idolatry of God?  

My main desire is that this work would help to agitate and disturb the reader in a positive way. Rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing with the message my hope is that those who engage with the book would find themselves reflecting upon their lives in new and beneficial ways. While there is a part of most writers that gains enjoyment from convincing people to see the world in the way that they do, my primary desire is not in getting people to agree with my vision of the world, but rather to give them a work that encourages them to ask difficult questions of themselves.

My main concern is not is changing what people believe but in asking readers to reflect upon why they believe what they believe. I am inviting people to engage in a type of archaeological dig aimed at discovering if their beliefs are protecting them from the embrace of unknowing and suffering, and if so, what ought to be done about it. Finally, for those readers who find that they are questioning some of the things that they once took for granted, I hope the book will encourage them to seek out like-minded people who are on the same journey. Individuals who might become fellow workers in the task of forging the new collectives hinted at within the Christian text.

What would you say to the reader who is challenged by The Idolatry of God and wonders what is the next step in accepting uncertainty and doubt concerning matters of faith as integral to the Christian faith?  

Sometimes I find myself hoping that readers will be unconvinced by what I say or treat it as relatively unimportant. For then they can engage with it in a critical way or read it in a purely recreational way. For those who think that there is something to what I’m saying will find a difficult path stretching before them. If they are a part of some faith community, they might have to ask some difficult questions, questions that will likely be perceived as a threat to the organism. Alternatively the reader might feel convinced to start one of the contemplative practices mentioned in the third section, or even to attempt the creation of a collective which helps people to embrace mystery, unknowing and dissatisfaction. None of this is easy and there are few models available to help, let alone a structure of financial support. It will take the brave, the committed, and the stupid. But the foolishness required to actually try something may just turn out to be wiser than the wisdom of the world.

Do you have another book project in the works?  

Yes, I actually have a few. Every time I write I think I have said all that I can, but then every book I write opens up more questions than it answers and reveals new paths that lead into strange, exotic new territories. I can’t wait to see where this next one leads.

About The Author

Photograph © Jenny Kim

Peter Rollins is a widely sought after writer, lecturer, storyteller, and public speaker. He is the founder of Ikon, a Belfast, Northern Ireland, faith group that has gained an international reputation for blending live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theater, ritual, and reflection. He currently resides in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Raves and Reviews

“This full-scale repurposing of Christian vocabulary and endorsement of theological mystery is often deeply rewarding.”

– Publisher's Weekly

“Caveat emptor. Let the reader, the Christian, the skeptic beware, for with The Idolatry of God, Peter Rollins has taken his theological program of turning everything we believe upside down to the next level. Not content to simply subvert how we believe, Rollins now turns his attention to what we believe. If you don’t want your faith challenged, don’t read this book.”

– Tony Jones, author of A Better Atonement

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