Smoke rises above the skyline, parents search for their children. Rockets fly overhead and can be heard by all alongside prayers outside of mosques and synagogues. The situation in Gaza has come to a head. For a Christian living in the United States, it is sometimes hard to relate to a Jewish/Islamic conflict half a world away, but most Christians do think the conflict is something they should relate their faith to in some way. Although there is not much Christianity in the conflict, there are very prevalent theological insights to be understood from it that can act as a warning against certain types of belief that are beginning to become more prevalent in our culture. There are great people, saints, working on both sides of the conflict there, but the fact that we need these saints so much brings a quotation to mind:
“What if the church should be less concerned with creating saints than creating a world where we do not need saints? A world where people like Mother Teresa and MLK would have nothing to do.”
― Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine
Peter Rollins is a leading figure in what has come to be known as Radical Theology, which has been influenced by what I suppose one could call “Christian Atheism.” At first glance that seems awfully oxymoronic, but if you are unfamiliar with the term you’ll just have to take my word that it does ultimately make sense. All of this, in turn, is firmly rooted in French structuralism and post-structuralist theory which was espoused in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s by Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and other arrogant Frenchmen. Going a bit deeper down the rabbit hole, the particular flavor of French philosophy Peter Rollins takes from is rooted in the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud. All of this to say that this particular brand of theology is obtuse to say the least.
Why is any of that exposition important? Because Radical Theology is so heavily influenced by psychology, how we, as Christians, view the world and construct our personal narratives. As Peter Rollins would happily tell you, he is not concerned with what you believe, but how and why you believe. For example, one of his arguments is that all belief in God is rooted in a firm layer of unbelief, which sustains our rituals. Think not? Then imagine your son or daughter has some sort of lung condition and suddenly stops breathing. Do you wait to call an ambulance to say a prayer, or do you pray as your child is loaded onto the ambulance? And what do you think of parents that refuse to give their child medical treatment in favor of only performing religious ceremonies?
Now most people tend to retort with the old adage, “God gave us brains for a reason!” but if you really, genuinely, to your core thought that God was going to save your child you would be acting perfectly rationally (from a subjective perspective, you may not be rational to the rest of us) to deny medical treatment to your kids in the event of an emergency. Secondly, most parents still, even after using their brains, praise God when their child is miraculously saved by the most advanced medical treatments in the history of the world (sarcasm intended); rarely is the praise thanking God for giving them a brain functional enough to call 9-1-1. The truth is that most people do not actually believe God saves their children, but the unbelief sustains their ability to believe. A church would not last long if they recommended prayer for the sick and the sick kept dying. Frankly, a little bit of unbelief is okay. I’m fine with it, and one of the goals of Radical Theology is to explain why it’s okay. Quite simply, the alternative is Gaza.
That is the choice we all make, do we choose to really believe all of the stuff we say at Church, or do we not believe it subconsciously so that we can keep believing it consciously. What is it about Gaza that is so ineffable to the West? Why won’t both sides just stop, call the ceasefire that the U.N., the U.S. and most of the rest of the world wants? If one reads the Hamas mission statement, Hamas being the main violent, anti-Israel faction inside of the West Bank and Gaza, it is very outright. The destruction of Israel at all costs and the reclamation of land which is viewed as Islamic. However, Israel is no less at fault for theologically founded beliefs which are bound up in their history as an oppressed people group who constantly need to fight for survival. Indeed, both positions are theologically fundamentalist. In other words, to not have tension would, in a way, eradicate the identity of both groups. Since Hamas effectively abandoned humanitarian operations in 2005 it would be hard to maintain a group whose purpose is to eliminate Israel without an Israel to fight. Conversely, Israel would lose its own identity if they suddenly had no one to struggle to retain their identity against, they do not know how to be at peace.
The conflict there is infinitely more complicated than simply Israeli aggression, or anti-zionist militants not being willing to reason or engage in diplomacy. The symptomatic feature of the conflict is its fundamentalist-theological underpinnings. What characterizes the beliefs as fundamentalist is how it is not just that the Israelis espouse an ancient Jewish state which was given by God, or a narrative of constant persecution, but that they really believe it. To us in the West, it seems unfathomable. Think of our own political situation, an honest democrat or republican knows that their idealistic hopes cannot feasibly happen, so they “pretend” to be idealistic will accepting the necessary limitations of society. This is where compromise, a proverbial “cease-fire,” in congress comes from. Then think of the idealists who are idealists, folks like the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, and the disastrous consequences they have for the political process. The GOP establishment does not like the Tea Party precisely because it so naive to actually believe what it says it does.
Fundamentalism is the force which attempts to create saints instead of a world that does not need them. So what if we invert the equation, and profess unbelief while secretly, subconsciously believing. This is why Rollins and other radical thinkers would argue that only an atheist can truly be a Christian, because they are the only ones who are free to actually believe.
Now imagine that Hamas and Israel did not actually believe any of the political-theological statements they make. We would likely see a cease-fire, compromise and probably a two state solution through the creation of a separate Palestinian state. But what if they inverted the equation, Israel really believed in its theological narrative but outwardly did not believe. This is where progress occurs, in embracing all the tension and fragility of life as such and freeing us to experience true joy. The joy in dubious unknowing, fully disbelieving in anything but still having the courage to say yes to life and spread love to the world because of some crazy, unfounded subconscious belief in God. The subconscious acknowledgement of a wrong against you by your neighbor, Hamas firing rockets into Gaza, but the conscious decision to give them statehood anyway, this is Christian love for one’s neighbor. A radical, totalizing, self-defeating love.
I deny Christ, the resurrection, the Church, Christianity each and every day.
I am not ashamed to say that I do.
Each time I praise God for a test score I got because I studied hard. Each time I help someone out of “Christian love” when it is really just because I wanted to make someone’s day for my own enjoyment.
But there are scattered moments when I affirm Christ.
When I do something for someone I hate just because I think I should. When I choose to love when I know life has no meaning.
This is where I feel unbridled joy. This is where my belief sustains my disbelief. Only when I have such pure joy can I see the world as it really is, as ugly, in need of fixing, in need of saving, in need of changing.
This is the upper limit of faith in Gaza, to inwardly believe the faith one outwardly expresses can be disastrous, one only need look at the needless death in Gaza. This should inform us of the upper limit of our faith here at home. As controversial and counterintuitive as it may be, I do not think the current church message of learning to really believe what you say you believe is a good message. That is the surest track to fundamentalism, the pharisaic interpretation of orthodoxy as holding onto certain truths and guarding them. That position is far too easy to be considered truly Christian. Christianity needs to be more radical, Christianity needs more disbelief.