There is a scene in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings in which, on the eve of the Jamaican bobsled team’s improbable shot at Winter Olympics glory, the team’s coach – a disgraced former bobsledder stripped of a gold medal for cheating – offers a bit of final advice to his unlikely protégé.
“A gold medal is a wonderful thing,” the coach says. “But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”
In church, lessons like these are often taught about all sorts of worldly accomplishments: the dream job, the big raise, the right friends. This week at EMU, an influential theological writer in the emergent church movement, Peter Rollins, delivered a similar message about God, who, Rollins argued, is too often (and falsely) imagined as an idol capable of providing true wholeness and fulfillment.
Sin – from denying pain of life?
Rollins, originally from Northern Ireland and now living in New York, argued that sin is the result of everyone’s relentless drive to escape the pain of being alive, regardless of whether relief is sought in drink, in friends or in the church. Salvation, then, doesn’t come from attaining closeness to God and relief from pain, but rather by embracing that pain of being alive and letting go of our drive to heal it.
“Religion helps us avoid facing up to our brokenness and troubles … [and] that is devastating,” said Rollins, during his chapel presentation. “We need to have spaces where we can be open about the places where we’re suffering.”
Rollins, whose most recent book is titled The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, also hosted a “talk back” at the Common Grounds coffeehouse, spoke at the year’s first University Colloquium, visited classes and led an evening conversation hosted by EMU’s Freethought Coalition.
At the colloquium, Rollins criticized contemporary religion’s tendency to place itself right beside competing products in a “vending machine” that purports to offer people various paths to fulfill our primal desire for wholeness. What the church should be doing, he said, is taking a sledgehammer to that vending machine and disabusing us of the idea that we’ll ever be whole. (During chapel, Rollins criticized the church for getting people “drunk on sermons” and on God to distract them from the reality that everyone “will die and never be again” and everyone we love “will die a cold death.”)
Community based on love
During his coffeehouse talk, Rollins said he finds hope in building a community in the present – not in some next world or afterlife – where love exists among people who embrace their collective and individual hurts.
Rollins’ ideas have become influential in the emergent church movement, which offers critiques of religious institutions and traditions that cut across denominational and ideological lines. This criticism can be as applicable to seemingly counter-cultural religious institutions like EMU as they are to mainstream Christianity.
While Anabaptist traditions may emphasize alternative ways of living and thinking about God, they often still reinforce the notion of longing for wholeness.
“Rollins argues that you instead learn to live with being human, being broken, being, in a sense, unfulfilled. And in the shared humanity of that, you find true fulfillment,” said Early. “The move that needs to happen is not that you abandon being a Mennonite or being an Anabaptist, but that you hold it differently…. It’s something that’s really important for us to wrestle with.”
The value of the “light of inquiry”
Thomas Millary, a junior and co-president of the Freethought Coalition, said he admires Rollins’ call to embrace, rather than trying to escape, the brokenness that everyone experiences in life, and hopes Rollins’ visit will spark wider conversation on campus about finding joy and community in the midst of pain.
“This campus could really benefit from dialogue about faith and [Christianity] from a perspective like Peter’s,” said Millary, who founded the Freethought Coalition to provide a space for honest exploration and discussion of difficult or controversial topics.
When introducing Rollins at the University Colloquium, Provost Fred Kniss said that inviting Rollins to present his provocative ideas at EMU offered the university the opportunity for self-reflection.
“It’s important that our basic assumptions are not just taken for granted, but that they are held up to the light of inquiry, that they are examined,” Kniss said.