St. John of the Cross and Peter Rollins

(Authors note: What follows is not expert opinion.  I’m reliant upon others acquaintance with both St. John of the Cross and Peter Rollins.  The connection between the Dark Night of the Soul and Atheism for Lent is not mine, but Jeremy John’s.  I’m mainly familiar w/ St John of the Cross from general religious Studies courses and a seminary course on the spiritual discipline of silence.  I’m mainly familiar with Rollins based on his Insurrection Tour a few years ago, I attended one of his stops in a pub in Chicago.  Since then I have read his blog on occasion and caught a number of his videos.  I haven’t read any of his books.  I then in this especially stand to be corrected. I speak at the request of a friend who values my insight and so I offer to him and to you my reader what I have.  And what I have is this moment of intersection, I pray it is helpful to some.)

My friend Jeremy John, asked me to write something in response to his piece on Peter Rollins’ “atheism for Lent” and the dark night of the soul.

On some level I feel unqualified to speak.  Since asked, the dispute between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins worked itself through various corners of the internet.  Jeremy’s post responded to Bales original critical post of Peter Rollins.

Billy Kangas wrote, a couple of years ago over at The Orant, a far better post on the Dark Night of the Soul and Lent, than I could write.  So, I will be using Kangas’ summary of St. John of The Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, to engage Jeremy, Peter and Micah.

I’m not certain that Rollins’ Atheism for Lent is the Dark Night of the Soul though some of St John of The Cross’ approaches to faith and God have some similarity to what Rollins seems to be encouraging people to realize through “atheism for lent” and his emphasis on the role of doubt.

There are 4 aspects that  Kangas draws out in his summary of The Dark night of the Soul, that have some overlap with Rollins.  St John of the Cross calls us to let go of our Spiritual practices as the guarantor of our relationship to God. Related to this is that St. John of the Cross also tells us we aren’t to concern ourselves with doctrinal certainty.  (Yes, a saint beatified by the Roman Catholic Church does not give much credence to certainty – hmm… this might reveal a certain complexity we often don’t recognize in “religious” organisms.).  You could say that St. John of the Cross recognized that God isn’t our ideas about God.  We can get stuck in our ideas about God.  (This seems to be the main point of connection between the dark night of the soul and Rollins’ Atheism for Lent.), Lastly Kangas points out that St. John of the Cross reminds us that we can get stuck in what helped us know God in the past.  God and our relationship to God can’t be contained in merely repeating the same disciplines and practices without thought or reflection.

I’d argue that there is some overlap between St. John of the Cross’  Dark Night of the Soul and Rollins’ Atheism for Lent and his lifting up the way of doubt.  In this Rollins calls us to let go of past practices, to give up certainty, and let go of our God-ideas.    But as Kangas also points out this is not all there is to the Dark Night of the Soul.  St. John of the Cross wants us to encounter a God beyond, a God who guides us through the transformation of ourselves.  Part of this Transformation is the dark night. Encountering the true God beyond our ideas, our practices, our certainties  is a terrible thing.

I can see that for some Rollins’ works and Atheism for Lent might provoke a dark night of the soul, it might lead someone to the point of this deep encounter with what is beyond all our certainties, ideas, and spiritual practices, but I’m not sure that Rollins’ focus on our ideas and practices we mistakenly name as God can guide one through to genuine encounter in the darkness.

To put it another way, Rollins’ project around doubt and his Atheism for Lent, might just be the practices that we can’t depend upon for our encounter.  I wonder if there is a place for the radical trust that St. John of the Cross is really calling us to.  Rollins enjoins us to a Radical doubt, and on some level so does St. John of the Cross, but more importantly St John of the Cross calls us to a radical trust even when all falls away, even when we can’t even bear our selves, even when our very sense of self begins to dissolve.   St. John of the Cross calls us to something unflinching, a trust beyond our knowledge and certainties, but based upon the one who leads us into the darkness and the desert.  And that one who guides us can’t simply be another human being.  At most we as human beings may accompany one another in these moments of this radical transformation, called the dark night of the soul.

  • Here I see St. John taking issue with my idea of praxis fidelity during the dark night of the soul. I wonder, though, if that is really true. And especially I wonder if St. John’s dark night of the soul isn’t something far more deeply mystical and profound than my own spiritual deserts.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      I’ll have to think on that. But also what are you meaning by praxis fidelity? Also, my hesitancy around this whole subject matter, which I get to in the second thing you have asked me to post on, is that while I have found my self in spiritual deserts, I’m hesitant to claim for myself having ever had a dark night of the soul, perhaps put my toe in the waters of said abyss but to have entered it. I suspect I have set at the edge. But as someone has pointed out elsewhere, according to St. John we don’t take ourselves into the dark night of the soul, rather God gives it to us.

  • a question occurred to me as I read Larry’s excellent piece here. When Larry writes: “Rollins’ project around doubt and his Atheism for Lent, might just be the practices that we can’t depend upon for our encounter” it makes me ask (and humbly so, having no way of knowing, but just asking Peter about this possible “counter-to-his-encounter”) : Is it possible that Peter also needs to let go of his formula for letting go? This is probably yet another way of asking what is already asked here by Larry.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Yes, very nice restatement of what I said. And possibly a tad bit clearer.

  • IOW, although I find deep resonance with the importance of admitting that God does not give us “answers” in the sense that many of us want, as it is obviously a deep problem of faith, I have to wonder if there is MORE than some mysterious mass of unknowing (or “cloud of unknowing as another saint put it) ; that the “unknowing” is not to be rendered by us as something not nevertheless “worthy of pursuit”, even as say our relationships to a spouse is a lifelong relational pursuit and commitment to continuing pursuit no matter what. I don’t want to run the risk of shutting off that center of listening that allows me to hear God by denying there are such avenues, even though I may question every one of them as I discover their very possibility as a means of listening.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      I understand Rollins as in large part addressing those Christians for whom knowing or being certain about a set of beliefs about God has replaced the sort of relationship you are talking about. I’m agnostic about whether or not Rollins finds any place in his outlook for a god who is relational and personal, once one has admitted that our conceptual apparatus is always at its limits when it comes to what we call “God”. It is possible that “relational” and “personal” are too Rollins some of the very concepts we must abandon.

      • If that’s the case, then my worst fears about Rollins would be in play. I hope that’s not the case, but his constant avoidance/glossig-over any indication of any “connection” that is of any mutuality is the source of my continued discomfort.

  • Dale & Larry I appreciate the perceptive and respectful dialogue you carried. It helped to further stimulate my thinking about all of this. I would like to point out how you use words and phrases like “no way of knowing”, “I (have to) wonder”, and “conceptual…limits”. This IS atheism for Lent and it seems to be stirring souls.

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Peter, if this IS atheism for Lent then I guess I’m well practiced in it and have lived here for a very long time.

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