Book review - The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction

Questioning Church
Belief and Unbelief
Image of a bonfire
Peter Rollins

Book review by Peter Fisher

This is a challenging book which some people will find uncomfortable to read. That is the intention of the author – a young Northern Irish theologian and philosopher who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. He acknowledges being influenced by the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, which some will find significant.  It is subtitled “Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction”.

We all want the world to be perfect, and millions of people are fascinated by the idea of Apocalypse – the end times that will see the coming of a new age which probably has to be preceded by the destruction of this world. The New World is thought of as a place where our dreams, desires and longings have  their ultimate fulfilment.  Rollins sees Christianity as having its own version of these longings and apocalypse. We experience a sense of loss, a gap that needs to be filled,  and the Church, according to Rollins, does this by making an idol out of God – an object which in fact gives us nothing . Rollins sees Christ as being the answer, but not the Christ that is simply another version of the God – idol. He focusses on Jesus on the cross, suffering, humiliated and uttering those despairing words ,”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(Rowan Williams does likewise in his recent little book “Meeting God in Mark”: “God has chosen to be, and to be manifest, at that lowest, weakest point of human experience”.)

Rollins’ idea of God is rather ‘shaky’; “The God revealed in Christ is found in the loving embrace of life; it is a reality that we experience as not existing.Instead, this God is present as the source that calls everything into existence, all the while defying objectification….the moment we stop trying to grasp God, the existence of God indirectly testified to the existence of everything we encounter.

Salvation, for Rollins, does not  come through avoidance of pain or fulfilment of our hopes and longings but through facing up  to the suffering and the mess;  facing up to all the ways we delude ourselves, learning from other people, and being compassionate. At the end of the book he tells us about the practical ways this way of living can be a reality; dialogue with people whose ideas we do not share, the creation of small inclusive communities, lighting symbolic bonfires, -“fires that will burn away the idols we hold onto so tightly, fires that will melt away the false certainties in which we clothe ourselves, fires that will keep us warm as we go about the difficult task of facing up to  our anxieties, accepting the mystery of life and embracing the world in love.”

Rollins wrote this book three years ago; he had no means of knowing about the disastrous, potentially apocalyptic situation that has developed so rapidly in Syria, Libya, Central Africa and elsewhere, largely as a result of the obscenely cruel ways  religious  certainties are put into action. The appalling suffering of migrants forced to flee for their lives. the indifference of governments and affluent communities and individuals certain of their right to maintain their privileges; refusal to take seriously the threat of Climate change and global warming consequent flooding and famine and even more massive movements of migrants and refugees – taken together they paint a picture of a world we will not recognise.

Peter Rollins’ ideas challenge us to grasp this reality and see our idols for the delusions they really are.

Hodder and Stoughton
Edition / Date Published
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Books and book reviews