Christ(ianity) is a Problem, Not a Solution

One of the most fascinating and (perhaps) important trends in contemporary Christianity and theological discourse is that of (a new expression of) Radical Theology. What this new expression of Radical Theology is attempting to do (through thinkers such as Peter Rollins, Kester Brewin, Barry Taylor, John D. Caputo, and Slavoj Zizek), in addition to putting forward its own specific and fascinating theological vision, is put forward a critique of how the demeanour and posture of the actually existing church influences and shapes the way Christians, today, understand and hold their beliefs.

In his latest book, The Idolatry of GodPeter Rollins outlines his vision of this RT project like so,

Today… Christianity… is sold to us as that which can fulfil our desire, rather than as that which evokes a transformation in the very way that we desire. Like every other product that promises us fulfilment Christ becomes yet another object in the world that is offered to us as a way of finding happiness and ultimate satisfaction. Jesus is thus presented as the solution to two interconnected problems: that we exist in a state of darkness concerning the meaning of the universe, and that we are dissatisfied with our place within that universe…

[But] what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he is not the solution? What if, instead of being the solution (i.e. the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question? …

In concrete terms, this means that the darkness and dissatisfaction that make their presence felt in our lives are not finally answered by certainty and satisfaction, but are rather stripped of their meaning and robbed of their sting. (2-4)

Enter your local (Christian) bookshop and you will be overloaded with books promising happiness, wholeness, certainty and the like. Look at billboards or watch advertisements and you will see items or lifestyles etc. presented as products or ways of being that will surely satisfy and bring wholeness. Go to your local church and the songs and the sermons will affirm all that you (already) believe – reinforcing the (belief) structures’ (supposed) ability to bring happiness and satisfaction, and impart certainty and security.

In this sense, Christianity has put itself on the shelf alongside so many other happiness and certainty promising products. It simply goes one further, presenting itself as an über, quasi-divine, product (or, idol). “God is able;” “God is strong;” “God is right;” “God is good;” “God is the greatest” and so on. We may be keenly aware of our inability to be fully satisfied and certain, but Christianity today is not simply organised around our ability to believe, but around our beliefs about a God who believes in God – we believe God believes in God’s own sureness, stability, and ability to satisfy – and our churches, and our songs, and our sermons, are sure to remind us of them.

In all of this Christianity is presented as a solution to a problem – the problem of our need for, in Rollins’ mind, certainty and satisfaction. A solution to our desire for confidence and assurance; for satisfaction, meaning and happiness; for a foundation and a symbolic world – all free from doubt, emptiness, and the threat of meaninglessness.

What if, however, we follow Rollins in thinking of Christianity not as a solution to a problem, but as itself a problem? Its aim: to free us from the need for certainty and satisfaction; to break apart the problem/solution matrix; to bring us to an affirmation our existence in spite of – or rather, through the embrace of – uncertainty and dissatisfaction.

This is, Rollins argues, a kind of ‘salvation.’

Not the type of salvation that is preached today from the pulpit, the salvation that promises us freedom from our unknowing and dissatisfaction, but a salvation that takes place within our unknowing and dissatisfaction. One that directly confronts them, embraces them and says ‘amen’ to them. (5)

This break; this problem; this freedom that can be experienced, is witnessed in the crucifixion. Here the “fully human / fully divine” one suffers and is left abandoned and rejected. Here the Christ himself feels the full effect of uncertainty and dissatisfaction – “Eloi, eloi, lema sabacthani!” These fundamental experiences of uncertainty and doubt (“Why have you…”) and dissatisfaction and emptiness (“My God, My God…”) are brought into and affirmed in God, through the Christ. Here God (in some sense) ceases to believe in God – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – here “God” becomes an atheist (in other words, this is the death of God as the Big Other, as an idol). It is then the work of the disciple to affirm and join in the facing of these experiences – refusing to treat God (idolatrously) as another path to certainty and satisfaction, like anything else; but seeing in (the Christian) God the very end of that pursuit.

This is why Christianity is a problem, not a solution. We can never truly avoid uncertainty and doubt, or dodge dissatisfaction and emptiness. This is the problématique, and there is only ever facing it; there is only ever confrontation; there is only ever the embrace of the negation – which is, in turn, a most fundamental kind of affirmation. Anything else is avoidance and repression – and this is where (a) critique of actually existing Christianity begins.