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The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief – P. Rollings

September 29, 2015

TFOBHaving greatly enjoyed and been provoked by the author’s previous book ‘How (not) to speak of God’, I was very disappointed with this book.

He takes a very long time to say, essentially, that Christianity is not a religion but, rather a critique of all religious systems.

And he rambles through many theologians and philosophers to back up his point.

The one enjoyable idea was to ask, ‘What would Judas do?’

And there were some good stories/parables.


One immediate problem with attempting to re-read the narrative in this way concerns the seeming anathema pronounced against Judas in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says, “But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Yet, on closer inspection, these words may yield a very different meaning to what we at first assume. For although these words are traditionally presumed to represent some kind of curse and condemnation, the wider biblical context mitigates against such a reading. First, why would Jesus curse the one who was about to betray him? Did Jesus himself not teach that one must bless those who seek to harm us? Second, such pronouncements of woe in ancient Judaism are generally expressions of love and concern rather than hatred or retribution

There are countless people who betray Christianity, individuals who turn their backs on its message because they no longer believe in it or because it asks too much of them. But there are a few who betray Christianity, not because they no longer believe in it, but because they believe in it so deeply, because they understand that unless the seed of our Christianity falls to the ground and dies it will remain a single seed, but if it is allowed to die it will produce many seeds.

“Rather, by asking whether Jesus would betray Christianity as Judas betrayed Christ, I am asking if Jesus would plot the downfall of Christianity in every form that it takes. Or rather, to be more precise, I am asking whether Christianity, in its most sublime and revolutionary state, always demands an act of betrayal from the Faithful. In short, is Christianity, at its most radical, always marked by a kiss, forever forsaking itself, eternally at war with its own manifestation.”

“As this structure is gradually revealed, I argue that the consequences are twofold: First, we are led to embrace the idea of Christianity as a religion without religion, that is, as a tradition that is always prepared to wrestle with itself, disagree with itself, and betray itself. Second, this requires a way of structuring religious collectives that operate at a deeper level than the mere affirmation of shared doctrines, creeds, and convictions. It involves the formation of dynamic, life-affirming collectives that operate, quite literally, beyond belief.”

“In Christianity as a religion without religion one cannot make this distinction between one’s actions and one’s beliefs.”

“As such, those institutions that advocate biblical inerrancy expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to offer explanations that will effectively reconcile any problems that they are presented within the Bible. Yet it is this very process of rational justification that makes fundamentalism a very modern phenomenon, one that sets it at odds with the more ancient tradition of inerrancy found within the church”

a happening, an event, that we affirm and respond to, regardless of the ebbs and flows of our abstract theological reflections concerning the source and nature of this happening.” This argument flips the Cartesian understanding of self-reasoning on its head, as the event that is outside of us is the determining factor, not ourselves, in our lives. The story of Jesus healing the blind man is used as an example of this. When questioned by the Pharisees if Jesus is a sinner, the blind man replies: “I don’t know. One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see”

“One of the results of thinking about the truth affirmed by Christianity as comprised of facts that can be externalized and reflected upon (i.e., as made up of substantive claims concerning God, the world, the ministry and person of Christ, and the status of the Bible) is that it introduces a distance between a person and that person’s faith….In this way a distinction is set up between the subject (the one who thinks) and the object (that which is being thought).

the truth affirmed by Christianity is not merely similar to the notion of life, in the sense that it is undergone rather than experienced, but rather it is that which claims to bring us life. Just as God is presented as speaking life into the formless void in Genesis, so the truth affirmed by Christianity is that which breathes life into the darkness and desolation of our own lives”

Thus, the first faithful betrayal we are called to are the reach of both anti-intellectuals and academics who try to influence and manipulate the right understanding of the Bible and accept the fact that “in order to accept the Bible we need to reject any interpretation as final, being ready to engage in an ongoing, open-ended dialogue and discussion with it”

We have been taught to think that this is incorrect and intellectually dishonest, but in fact this betrayal is one of humility and openness to the foundation of theology since Christianity’s inception (and what Rollins calls the second faithful betrayal): our God is greater than any theological interpretation or understanding, therefore “we must learn that in order to approach the God of faith and truth affirmed by Christianity, we must betray the God we grasp—for the God who brings us into a new life is never the God we grasp but always in excess of that God”

what the believer encounters as a presence exploding from the heart of the text, a presence that can never be captured in some confession of faith or creedal formation, no matter how beautiful or profound it may be”

“Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath of the miracle, a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all of this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief”

the Catholic Church protected a group of Jews from persecution by letting them take refuge in Vatican City. The problem with this arrangement was that, as time passed, some priests became concerned that the community had stayed too long. They became distressed by the situation and approached the pope with their concerns, saying, “Father, Vatican City is a Catholic refuge and a beacon of Christian light for the world. While we must help our Jewish friends, we cannot allow them to settle here.” The pope was not prepared to simply ask these guests to leave, and so he asked some of his emissaries to go to the Jewish community and ask if the chief rabbi would agree to a debate. If the rabbi won, the community would be able to stay as long as they desired; however, if he lost, the community would have to pack up their possessions and move on. The chief rabbi agreed, and a date was set for the great debate. The only problem was that there was a language barrier, and both the pope and the rabbi wished to debate in private, so it was decided that the debate would be held purely with hand signals.

When the day finally arrived, the pope signaled the begin­ning of the debate by holding up three fingers. The rabbi immediately responded by holding up one finger. The pope hesitated and then put his hand in the air, waving it in a large circle. Again, without hesitation the rabbi pointed to the ground. Finally the pope stood up and went over to a large table upon which lay some bread and a silver chalice full of wine. Picking these up, he showed them to the rabbi with a smile. In response the rabbi reached into a bag beside him and pulled out a luscious red apple, holding it aloft, before leaving. As soon as he had left the room some priests ran up to the pope and asked who had won. The pope was visibly shocked and weakened by the debate. Shaking his head he said, “The community can stay. The rabbi had an answer for everything. First I held three fingers aloft to signify the glorious triune nature of God, but the rabbi held one finger aloft reminding me of God’s wondrous unity. Then I held my hand aloft and waved it in a circle to signify that God is transcendent, inhabiting the heavenly realm, but the rabbi pointed to the ground reminding me of God’s immanence in the world. Finally, I showed him the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, the second Adam, but my rabbi friend, second-guessing me at every point, had known to bring in an apple, reminding me of the fall and the first Adam who preceded the sacrifice of Christ.”

At the same time some of the Jewish leaders rallied around the chief rabbi to hear what had happened. “Incredible,” said the rabbi, “I can’t believe what just happened. First he tells me that we have three days to leave, but I signal that not one of us will go. Then he says that he is going to round us all up, but I told him that we are staying rooted to the spot.” Then the leaders asked, “So what happened next?” “That’s the most frustrating thing of all,” replied the rabbi. “Then we broke for lunch.”

The reason this anecdote works is that it capitalizes on a misunderstanding generated by the contrast between a Christian doctrinal emphasis concerning faith with a more Hebraic emphasis upon the lived outworking of religious conviction in concrete existence. However, this traditional understanding makes more sense, not if we see one as a Christian approach and the other as Jewish, but rather if we see this as a tension that is opened up by and operates within the traditions themselves.

While certain beliefs are affirmed as a means of reflecting upon the faith of Jesus, these beliefs can never take the place of, or fully describe, that faith. A metaphor that may help to illustrate this relationship concerns a beautiful, bright-white dove that, one day while flying through the air, imagines how high and fast she could soar if only the air, with all its resistance, did not exist. Never did this dove realize that it was the air she cursed, with all of its restrictive forces, that allowed her to rise up in the first place. We must endeavor to understand then how the common critique that Christianity offers a particular, “narrow” stance in relation to the transcendent fails to understand that this “constrictive” location is itself a privileged opening into the transcendent. It is only by locating oneself in a narrow particular site, perceived as such, that one can gaze beyond it.

There was once a fiery preacher who possessed a powerful gift. Far from encouraging people’s religious beliefs, he found that from an early age, when he prayed for people the result would be the individual’s loss of all religious convictions. When he prayed for people he found that they would often walk away having lost all of their religious beliefs, beliefs about the prophets, the sacred Scriptures, and even God. Since this was the case he would, as you might expect, rarely pray for others and instead would limit himself to sermons.

However one day, while traveling across the country, he found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction. This businessman was very wealthy, having made his money in the world of international banking. The conversation had begun because the businessman possessed a deep faith and had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. Because of this he introduced himself and they began to talk. As they chatted together, the rich man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. It turned out that although he worked hard in his work he was not really interested in worldly goods.

“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work there are situations in which I find myself that challenge my Christian convictions. But when confronted by such situations, I try, as much as possible, to remain true to my faith. Indeed, it is my faith that stops me from getting too caught up in that heartless world of work, reminding me that I am really a man of God.”

After listening carefully to the businessman’s story, the preacher responded by asking if he could pray for him. The young man readily agreed, not knowing what he was letting himself in for. And sure enough, after the preacher had said his simple prayer, the businessman opened his eyes in astonishment.

“What a fool I have been for all these years,” said the businessman. “There is no God above who is looking out for me, there are no sacred texts to guide me, there is no spirit to inspire me.”

As they parted company the businessman, still confused by what had taken place, returned home with one less item than he had left with. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs to make him question his work and hold it lightly, he was no longer able to continue with it. Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, he began to despise himself. And so, shortly after his meeting with the preacher, he gave up his line of work completely, gave the money he had accumulated to the poor, and started to use his considerable expertise in helping a local charity. One day, years later, he happened upon the preacher again while he was walking through town. The man ran up to him, fell at his feet, and began to cry. After a few moments he looked up at the preacher and said, “Thank you for helping me to discover my faith.”

The key to understanding this parable lies in grasping how one’s very religious convictions can actually fuel actions that would stand opposed to them. In the above example we can imagine the businessman thinking that his faith in Christ and his involvement in a local church are what encourages him to pose certain ethical questions about the industry he works in, questions about the type of investments his bank backs, the damage of debilitating international interest rates, and the greed that fuels so many of the decisions that the bank makes on a daily basis.

He thinks that it is his faith that pushes him to influence banking decisions in a manner that includes the consideration of moral issues. Although he is a tough and committed businessman who is making a great deal of money, he knows deep in his heart that he is a Christian who does not place his true value on earthly treasures. Indeed, his attempts to influence the bank in ethical ways hint at this deep truth: namely, that he does not take the world of making money and business success too seriously. It is what he does in order to provide for his family and the local church, but it is not who he is.

However, in contrast to this commonsense view of the situation, let us offer a different interpretation. In contrast to the idea that the man’s faith is the deep inner truth that prevents him from fully engaging in a heartless capitalistic drive for wealth, one could say that it is precisely his faith in God that enables him to be a hard-nosed business man in the first place. While slightly moderating his drive for financial success at any cost, his supposedly true inner identity simply acts as the fuel that powers his work by allowing him to escape from facing up to the reality of his actions. In Christianity as a religion without religion one cannot make this distinction between one’s actions and one’s beliefs.

There are very few of us who would want to knowingly dedicate our lives to the selfish pursuit of making money at the expense of others, yet it would seem that so many of us do in fact work in such environments (in businesses that make use of child labor or that cause significant environmental damage). What if these types of destructive businesses run efficiently precisely because most of us who are involved, when asked, will voice concerns and even some guilt about what we do? What if, over a drink, we confide that we are really people with deep ethical and/or religious convictions who have moral dilemmas about our work and are attempting, in small but important ways, to address these problems. While we may think that these deep ethical and religious identities are the deep truth of our being that helps us to undermine the immoral aspects of our activities, perhaps these very identities are the fantasy that allows us to engage in the activities we really desire.

In the above parable the “deep truth” of the businessman’s inner life (that he has faith in God and his family) is actually a pragmatic fantasy that enables him to engage in making money at other people’s expense. When his faith is removed and he looks at himself as he really is, he can no longer embrace his occupation.

Another way in which we can see this play out concerns various forms of political protest. We can so easily make claims concerning the need to end child labor or look after the environment, and yet we continue to buy the products that employ child labor or damage the eco-system. Our religious or political ideology here functions as that which allows us to continue living in the way to which we have become accustomed with a minimum of guilt. The last thing we really want is to get what we are asking for, because this would cost us so much in terms of how we live. We do not want to sacrifice our comfortable lives, yet we find it hard to acknowledge that distasteful truth, and so we engage in forms of protest that enable us to blame another (the government, big business) while enjoying the benefits that such a corrupt system offers us. It is a little like employees talking about their manager behind her back while at the same time working hard, coming in on time, and seeking approval. The backbiting that goes on in the office is not, contrary to expectation, something that undermines the manager. If anything, it is the very valve that enables the manager to keep the employees from taking their grievances further.

The other day I had a dream. I dreamed I arrived at the gates of heaven, heavy-shut, pure oak, bevelled and crafted, glinting sharp in the sunlight. St. Peter stood to greet me; the big man wore brown, smile set deep against his ruddy cheeks.

“You’re here,” he said.

“I am,” I said.

“Great to see you—been expecting you,” he smiled. “Come on in.”

He pushed gently against the huge door; it swung silently, creakless. I took a couple of steps forward until, at the threshold, one more step up and in, I realized I wasn’t alone. My friends had joined me, but they hovered behind, silently, looking on. None spoke. I realized only I could speak. I looked at them; some were Christians, some Hindus, some Buddhists, some Muslims, some Jews, some atheists. Some God knows

what. I stopped, paused. A hesitant St. Peter looked at me, patiently, expectantly.

“What about these guys?” I asked him. “My friends. Can they come?”

“Well, Phil,” he replied, soft in the still air, “you know the rules. I’m sorry, but that’s the way things are. Only the right ones.”

I looked at him. He seemed genuinely pained by his answer. I stood, considering. What should I do? I thought about my reference points, and thought about Jesus, the bastard, the outsider, the unacceptable, the drunkard, the fool, the heretic, the criminal, and I knew exactly where I belonged.

“I’ll just stay here then too,” I said, taking my one foot out of heaven. And I’ll tell you, I’d swear I saw something like a grin break across St. Peter’s face, and a voice from inside whispered, “At last.””

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