Book Club Discussion: Rejecting both absolutism and relativism

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’m really excited about the book club selection for the month of May, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins. Anyone who is curious about the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the emerging church movement will benefit from Rollins’ fresh and intelligent approach to the subject. It’s one of the best books about theology that I’ve read in years, my copy already suffering from the wear and tear of constant referral. 

Rollins starts by discussing two seemingly contradictory ideas, summarized in the following phrases: 

  • “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
  • “God is the one subject of whom we must never stop speaking.”

Holding both of these views simultaneously is one of the greatest challenges of the Christian life, and is the theme of Rollins’ book. 

In searching for a worthy response, Rollins says he is drawn to Christian mystics like Meister Ekhart, “for while they did not embrace total silence, they balked at the presumption of those who would seek to colonize the name ‘God’  with concepts…By speaking with wounded words of their wounded Christ, these mystics helped to develop, not a distinct religious tradition, but rather a way of engaging with and understanding already existing religious traditions: seeing them as a loving response to God rather than a way of defining God.” 

Throughout the book, Rollins critiques the idea that theology defines or explains God in favor of the idea that theology is our way of interacting with God, which at its best, is manifested by a loving and Christ-like manner. 

Rollins writes that “the difference between the idea that our Christian traditions describe God and the view that they are worshipful responses to God is important to grasp, for while the former seeks to define, the latter is engaged with response.” (21)

Rollins argues that revelation is not the opposite of concealment, but that the Word of God has mystery built into its very heart. As believers, we must acknowledge the extent to which our supposed God-talk fails to define who or what God is, not to the degree that we stop talking about God, but to the degree that we leave room in our theology for mystery, doubt, complexity, and ambiguity. 

Central to Rollins’ thesis is the rejection of the modern notion that humans have the capacity to grasp objective universal truth. Rollins insists that “when we make absolute claims concerning what we believe about the world or God, acting as if our opinions were the result of some painstaking, objective and rational reflection, we end up deceiving ourselves, for our understanding is always an interpretation of the information before us…and thus is always affected by what we bring to the table.” 

(This, of course, is a typical postmodern approach to epistemology: No one can claim to be a truly objective observer; we are all influenced by our interpretive communities.) 

This is where the emerging church comes in. Rollins writes, “here I picture the emerging community as a significant part of a wider religious movement which rejects both absolutism and relativism as idolatrous positions which hide their human origins in the modern myth of pure reason. Instead of following the Greek-influenced idea of orthodoxy as right belief…the emerging community is helping us to rediscover the more Hebraic and mystical notion of the orthodox Christian as one who believes in the right way - that is, believing in a loving, sacrificial and Christlike manner.” (2) 

I love this description of the emerging church. Rollins hits the nail on the head when he describes the movement as a rejection of both absolutism and relativism. I also appreciate his emphasis on orthopraxy. I think a lot of young evangelicals are getting frustrated with the apologetics-driven culture of modern fundamentalism, which often emphasizes “right belief” to the neglect of  “right action.” 

So what do you think? Are believers really able to grasp absolute truth? Can one reject absolutism without embracing relativism? Perhaps more importantly, what is the purpose theology? When is theology truly effective?

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