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I’m currently reading through a little book by Peter Rollins called How (Not) to Speak of God. Rollins seeks to lay out some of the theory and praxis behind the movement known as the “emerging church,” and in so doing attempts to re-emphasize what is sometimes referred to as the “apophatic” strand of Christian tradition. Put briefly, this tradition sees God as so radically transcendent that it is more appropriate to speak of him in terms of negation—what he is not—because all of our positive statements fail to capture his essence, and communicate only our own understanding of God.

Rollins uses the term “hypernymity” to blend this sense of God’s hiddeness and mystery with his immanence—kind of like an information and sensory overload, or “excess of presence.” This concept is thought to open the door to a more mystical and less binary understanding of God which embraces apparent paradoxes or “creative tensions.” Doubt is seen as a proper part of belief, rather than something to be gradually shed as faith matures.

With this concept of hypernymity (which, I fear, I have understood and explained rather poorly) in mind, consider the following quote:

The believer who encounters serious doubt does not renounce his or her faith but rather uses it as an opportunity to affirm it. We may call this acknowledgment of doubt a Holy Saturday experience (a term that refers to the 24 hours nestled between the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ). This day marked a moment of great uncertainty and darkness for the followers of Jesus. Yet it is precisely in the midst of a Holy Saturday experience that the decision to follow Christ becomes truly authentic. A faith that can only exist in the light of victory and certainty is one which really affirms the self while pretending to affirm Christ, for it only follows Jesus in the belief that Jesus has conquered death. Yet a faith that can look at the horror of the cross and still say ‘yes’ is one that says ‘no’ to the self in saying ‘yes’ to Christ. If one loses one’s life only because one believes that this is the way to find it, then one gives up nothing; to truly lose one’s life, one must lay down that life without regard to whether or not one finds it. Only a genuine faith can embrace doubt, for such a faith does not act because of a self-interested reason (such as fear of hell or desire for heaven) but acts simply because it must. A real follower of Jesus would commit to him before the crucifixion, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, and after the resurrection. (emphasis added)

Now while I’m all for recognizing human epistemological limitations, and while I would certainly affirm that doubt is a normal, even necessary part of faith, and while I acknowledge that little context is provided for this quote and that I have not completed the book, I found myself disagreeing strongly with Rollins here. Does anyone else think this sounds suspicious? Does a faith that depends on the resurrection really only affirm the self? Is the authenticity of one’s commitment to Jesus really measured by whether or not one “needs” the resurrection? Does the need for Christ’s victory over death make one’s faith somehow less worthy? Is doubt a virtue in and of itself?

A lot of stuff goes through my mind when I read a quote like this, and I could certainly write a good deal more – especially about the importance of the resurrection and the defeat of evil… But I’m curious to hear if others have any thoughts? Am I missing something obvious here? I think that Rollins’ concept of a “hypernonymous” God who is transcendentally immanent and at least partially resists human conceptualization may be a useful one, but I don’t know that I’m willing to go as far as Rollins seems to be advocating here…

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  1. I’m almost through the book myself, and–as you might expect–my reactions differ significantly.

    In a crude sense Rollins is asking if we’re placing our bets only after the race is over. Then there’s the issue of atonement theory…

    Lots to think about.

    February 8, 2007
  2. Gil #

    “A faith that can look at the horror of the cross and still say ‘yes’ is one that says ‘no’ to the self in saying ‘yes’ to Christ.”

    If Rollins is saying that we should have faith whether or not we have the ‘reassurance’ of resurrection then I would emphatically disagree. The cross is just one more meaningless and heartbreaking tragedy if it is not followed by resurrection. The early Christians experienced the cross as ‘good news’ precisely because of the resurrection and the triumph over death that it signalled.

    It might be useful to remember the condition of the disciples on ‘holy Saturday’. They were a fearful, hopeless group of people who had concluded that the whole ‘Jesus thing’ was a mistake. These same disciples were radically transformed by the conviction that Jesus had actually, physically risen from the dead. Doubt is still part of the equation (especially for those of us who still wait 2000 years later) but we don’t live on Saturday anymore, we live in the aftermath of Resurrection Sunday.

    If Rollins is saying that it is dangerous to have faith only when that faith is propped up by experiences that validate it then I would certainly agree that this is a misguided approach. I spend far too much time looking for reassurance and it’s good to be reminded that this might say more about me than God.

    February 8, 2007
  3. Hey Mike isn’t there an important sense in which we only place our bets BECAUSE we think the race is already over? I suppose a lot of this is going to hinge on one’s views about eschatology, but I’m not sure I could look at the cross and say ‘yes’ without the resurrection and what I believe it has and will ultimately accomplish.

    By the way, I suspect that I share many of your difficulties re: some versions of atonement theology…

    February 8, 2007
  4. Craig #

    “A real follower of Jesus would commit to him before the crucifixion, between the crucifixion and the resurrection, and after the resurrection.” I think this statement is ridiculous. It is not an option for any human being that lives after the resurrection to accept Christ “before the crucifixion, between the crucifixion and the resurrection,”. Our human states do not transcend time and we can only now accept Christ, his life, his death, his resurrection as a whole. “A real follower of Jesus” still has doubts, but can only commit to Christ based on the entire story. Accepting Christ does mean you accept Christ from birth to resurrection, doesn’t it? I would be curious to know what Rollins idea of faith is and how it is formed. I have problems with “A real follower” because faith seems to me to be more of a journey where you may only accepts parts of the story as God works in you. Is a new or young Christian not “A real follower” then?

    February 8, 2007
  5. Craig, I think you raise a good point – simply by virtue of our historical location, we can’t really get at a Jesus that doesn’t come mediated by a couple of millennia of Christian tradition – a tradition which, as Gil pointed out, would not exist without the resurrection. Maybe Rollins is just using this pre/during/post crucifixion language for rhetorical flourish – as a way of saying that we shouldn’t just believe in Jesus because of what we can get out of it (i.e., entry into heaven, defeat of death etc). Even then, I might have a tough time going with him – I’m not sure it’s possible for human beings to be so disinterested as to not think about how this will ultimately affect us…

    February 8, 2007
  6. so are we saying that the disciples were not transformed or being transformed during the Jesus’ pre-death ministry?
    is it accurate to see the crucifixion and the resurrection as similarly provable events? that Jesus died would seem relatively indisputable while his resurrection is something that we must choose to accept as real right? what was accomplished on the cross and after the tomb can only be a reality with the assistance of faith right?
    is the resurrection really the end of the race?
    i guess for me the importance of the resurrection to good theology has not changed but I’m not sure i consider it God’s greatest achievement. The incarnation itself as a moment and a concept stands a far greater act of grace and triumph as, to me, it demostrates God’s benevolence in modelling and teaching us how to live on this earth. In my mind a God who is willing to identify with me in my reality will forgive my sins and provide atonement as a matter of course. If he is willing to become like me – I am willing to let him take care of those details. the resurrection does not really reassure me instead I find it often lets me off the hook for leading an irresponsible life. But it’s not like its one or the other.
    i realize that it is important to see God as being ultimately victorious over evil and probably the resurrection does that. But was there really any question that he would or could?

    February 9, 2007
  7. Dale, I don’t think that we have to say that the disciples weren’t in the process of being transformed during Jesus’ life and ministry, but I certainly think that the resurrection represented a quantum leap forward. It certainly seemed to provide his followers with new courage, boldness and perseverance that arguably was not evident in abundant supply pre-resurrection.

    “what was accomplished on the cross and after the tomb can only be a reality with the assistance of faith right?”

    I disagree. I think that what was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ is simply real and true regardless of whether or not I or anybody else decides to put my faith in it. Either sin/death/evil is defeated by this act or it isn’t – my faith (or lack of it) isn’t going to change this.

    I think that you raise a good point at the end of your comment – the cross certainly does demonstrate God’s benevolence in modeling and teaching us how to live; however, I’m not sure that I can view things like death, suffering, evil as “details” that we can trust God to work out because he’s demonstrated his benevolence in becoming like us. To be honest, Christ’s benevolence doesn’t mean much to me without the resurrection. There’s plenty of human beings who are benevolent and admirable – Jesus would just be one more, unless he actually changed things in the most objective way imaginable.

    February 9, 2007
  8. how is it possible for the cross and resurrection to be ‘simply real’? In what sense do you mean that? Am I missing something?
    to me it would seem that there really are no objective markers that could prove absolutely that sin/death/evil were defeated at the cross/tomb. Is that not a ‘reality’ that I have to accept through faith?
    I admit that whether or not it actually happened is not dependant on my faith for it to be a reality but there is no objective proof that the atonement/defeat of evil actually took place.
    Death, suffering, evil, sin are not just ‘details’ to me. But how (the method) God chooses to defeat those forces is really up to him and that (the method) is relatively (it would seem to me) insignificant (details)in the grand scheme of things.
    To me the great act of grace was in giving us access to the person of God through Jesus’ identification with us in human form. To me its like God is saying, “You’ve been wondering how to figure out life with all its crap, pain, and garbage – so here you go – I’ll show how it’s done. And just to prove that I am God – so that you have a really big miracle to rely on – I will raise myself for the dead.”
    In someways it sort of matches the sentiment that Jesus expresses when he heals the man who came through the roof…

    February 11, 2007
  9. Dale, you make a valuable distinction between objective reality and what we, as human beings, can actually know; however, I still resist the idea that the resurrection is “incidental” in any way (i.e., “just to prove that I am God”). I think that the resurrection is MORE than a “really big miracle.” I am convinced that death is THE enemy to be defeated, and that Christ’s resurrection objectively changed its hold on the cosmos. The defeat of death is far too prominent a feature of Christian tradition to relegate the resurrection to a validation of Christ’s suitability/authority to show us how to deal with life. It does this, certainly, but I think it does much more.

    February 11, 2007
  10. perhaps it sounds ridiculous that I would suggest that the resurrection is relatively insignificant as a method that God would choose to use in defeating evil. But my understanding of who God is, tells me that whatever method God would have chosen to accomplish the defeat of death would have been legitimate. God was/is not bound to using his own death (in human form) and subsequent resurrection to accomplish this.
    my suggestion is that the resurrection exists becuase we (human beings) need it.
    That God has defeated death and evil is not insignificant in any way.
    Unfortunately, we tend to ‘NEED’ the resurrection in ways that are not entirely helpful. Some of these I have mentioned earlier…
    I hope this next question does not come across as being a pest (and feel free to ignore it) but…
    Is there a way to objectively prove that the cosmos has been changed with regard to the hold evil has on it?

    February 11, 2007
  11. “Is there a way to objectively prove that the cosmos has been changed with regard to the hold evil has on it?”

    No. It certainly can’t be objectively proven to the satisfaction of all that Jesus was raised from the dead, or that the universe will one day be freed from the effects of sin and evil. Evil persists. In some ways, to believe that the putative resurrection of a first-century Jewish insurrectionist changed anything is extraordinarily counter-intuitive. It’s a risk to believe such a thing, and sometimes it seems like this belief is in the teeth of the evidence. Other times, it seems like nothing could be clearer or more beautiful. Maybe that’s why Paul says we live by faith and not by sight… If all we had to go on is what we see, we might never believe.

    February 11, 2007
  12. J #

    Ryan and Dale,

    Wouldn’t the church be an “objective” proof of the resurrection? Without the church, you don’t have hospitals, orphanages, abolition of slavery, etc. etc. I think the world is quite different (for the better) b/c of the church, which was motivated by the resurrection.

    February 12, 2007
  13. J, I think that the church would be objective proof that a group of people BELIEVED in the resurrection, and that this belief had a transforming impact on the world. I don’t know how much more you could say beyond that without having to argue along the lines that only an event of this type could produce a response of that type etc. etc…

    I think you’re right, the world is a better place because of the church’s existence, but I don’t know how one could support the claim that it objectively proves a miraculous event. I don’t think anything could prove it in a way that would satisfy most skeptics.

    February 12, 2007
  14. There were plenty of other crucified messiahs to place hope in…

    …what makes this one any different?

    December 17, 2009
    • Which other ones did you have in mind?

      December 17, 2009

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