February 26, 2013

From the Brain of Bart, 2/26/13

(Photo Credit: Dead Philosophers in Heaven)

(Photo Credit: Dead Philosophers in Heaven)

by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)

The Southern Baptists aren’t the only ones facing in-house theological squabbles. Voices from the amorphous emergence Christianity/evangelical leftist community are arguing over “giving up God for Lent.” No, this is not a time set aside for studies in apophatic theology.

Instead, author Peter Rollins is setting aside forty days to study and possibly entertain critiques against the existence of God. He hopes to experience an absence of the Divine, artificially engineering a “dark night of the soul.” This idea received a critical rejoinder from Micah Bales, a Quaker activist whom I met at an Occupy DC event last year.

Rollins responded with a post in which he delineated between Liberal and Radical theology. I highly recommend this piece for those interested in theology since it makes several helpful distinctions. Nevertheless, Bales rebuffed the accusation that he and others were simply run-of-the-mill activist Liberals. Instead, he offered a compelling case that the Holy Spirit is a Ground of Being, announcing, “I could no more give up God for Lent than I could give up gravity.”

Perhaps it’s just my inner-theologian, but I find this exchange to be a fascinating discussion (at least from the perspective of an outsider looking in). I actually resonate with points on both sides, but I do wonder if both projects are misguided.  While I’m all for de-objectifying God to prevent idolatry, I can’t help noticing that both Rollins and Bales seek to elicit an experience and manufacture meaning, all the while lacking a stable liturgical practice (Quakers reject such forms while emergents tend to constantly innovate rather than stick to the worshipful practices of the patristic and medieval ages). This is just me shooting from the hip; such crises rarely occur in the traditionally orthodox circles of Christianity. As such, I’m putting this all under the hashtag of “#emergentproblems,” at least for the time being.

What are your thoughts? Share below!


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  • http://www.facebook.com/noel.weymouth Noel Weymouth

    I’m a little confused. I thought the left-wing churches experienced an absence of the Divine all year.

  • http://twitter.com/micahbales Micah Bales (@micahbales)

    Hey there –

    Thanks for participating in this conversation. I’m a little bit confused about the conclusions you’ve drawn. Especially wondering how you came to the conclusion that I seek to “elicit an experience and manufacture meaning.” Also not sure what liturgy has to do with this.

    In point of fact, we Quakers have a liturgy, too – it just looks a little different. We participate in a stable practice of expectant silence as we seek to be led by the Holy Spirit in the details of our liturgy. :)

    Also confused at your comment that theological disputes are rare in more traditionally liturgical traditions. I’ve sure noticed a lot of churning in the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions lately, just to name a couple of high profile examples!

    • Bart Gingerich

      Great concerns–allow me to clarify.

      First, I wasn’t asserting that theological disputes don’t happen in orthodox traditions–they most definitely do. However, I don’t see _the kind of controversies_ you all are going through. The RCC and the Anglican communion are the largest and 3rd largest Christian communions respectively–there are some radical outliers with any body that size, but I haven’t seen anything like “let’s do atheism for Lent.”

      Second, let’s look at liturgy. This critique is mostly directed at Rollins really, but it’s a resource that I don’t think the Quaker customs have going for them. To pull on Aristotle through Aquinas, our habits form our character. During Lent, I say pretty much the same prayers for Morning and Evening from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer whether I feel like it or not. Sometimes, our intentions and desires are rightly oriented, and thus drive our actions. However, we as fickle humans don’t feel like doing the right thing. We may feeling an absence of the divine or maybe even entertaining rational/reasonable doubts about God’s very existence. This aspect of love–acting even when we don’t feel like it–is something that’s been lost to us (perhaps the rise of divorce could be evidence for this, but I digress). In other words, love is more than a state of mind, intentions, or attitude. Ideally, intellect, will, and passions are in unity oriented rightly by and to the Divine, but we live in a fallen world and we are a bent people. The good does not come easily to us.

      We forget that the ancient and medieval saints (as well as certain Reformation (Martin Luther) and Counter-Reformation (Ignatius of Loyola) figures) all had their dark nights of the soul within this practice of participating in the Mass and in ordered daily prayer (practices around since the earliest eras of the church) EVEN WITHIN these times of absence and divine silence. The affections can fool us; love is deeper than affections.

      So, traditional Christians say prayers that exalt, magnify, and reaffirm God’s Being and being-there (Immanuel). Christ is physically with us at least every Sunday in His Body and Blood–let us not forget that actual liturgical traditions (not waiting around to see where the Spirit leads nor making up something new every Sunday) affirm the Real Presence of the Eucharist and baptismal regeneration.

      In all this, then, Lent is about pressing further into God. What we sense in it and about it really depends. Fasting has a humiliating effect that illumines our dross and our idols. They vary from person to person. We keep praying to a God Who is there, even if we feel like an atheist. I question an individual’s ability to devote an entire Lenten season to atheism when in fact we are supposed to be drawing ourselves closer to the side of Christ.

      Nevertheless, I don’t want to throw Rollins’ ideas out wholesale. If you’ve ever participated in a Good Friday Service or even the stations of the cross, you’ll notice the Church as community does have a place for Christ’s own words of dereliction. If I may quote copiously from Chesterton’s _Orthodoxy_: “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

      Of course, once one understands, accepts, and is reborn into this Dying God, he isn’t much of an atheist any more, is he?