(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.