theological porn

I have spent the past few days reading Peter Rollins:  How (Not) to Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and The Orthodox Heretic.  I say it’s like reading theological porn because it’s titillating, it makes you feel dirty, and you could lose your soul doing it.  I suspect that Pete would happily agree with this assessment, though perhaps in an ironic way.  He describes a voyeuristic nude scene from the film American Beauty in one of his books, so his writing actually does include a bit of pornography (though to be fair, he uses it to make a theological point).

At any rate, here is my streamlined assessment of his main argument.  For those of you who know Rollins, or for Pete himself, I would like to know if you think this focused presentation omits anything important or misrepresents what he is saying (I have omitted the footnotes for ease of posting).  For the rest of you, pay attention to the final two paragraphs, where Pete has some provocative (pornographic?) ideas on the resurrection.  I’ll post my evaluation later this week, but for now see if you can spot any similarities between Pete and Friedrich Schleiermacher (emergent ideas aren’t new, they are just recycled).

Peter Rollins writes that the heart of Christianity lies in a born again experience which transforms us into followers of Christ who sacrificially love those who are oppressed and excluded.  Anyone who has experienced this life-altering event cannot doubt that they have received it, but they can and should doubt everything they might use to describe it.  They cannot even assert with confidence that this event was caused by God, for God is too lofty to say anything about.

Rollins rightly emphasizes that God is the wholly other Subject who transcends the limits of our minds.  But rather than balance God’s transcendence with an equal appreciation for his immanence, Rollins allows God’s transcendent mystery to overwhelm the immanence of his revelation.  Unlike John Calvin, who said that the majestic God is able to stoop to our level and communicate something of what he is like, Rollins argues that God’s dazzling glory blinds our intellects so that we are unable to know anything about him.  Speaking about God is like gazing directly into the sun; we are so overwhelmed by his presence that we cannot see him.

Rollins contends that because the transcendent God surpasses the categories of our minds, we cannot even know whether he exists.  When we say that God exists we “reduce God to the realm of objects,” forgetting that “God utterly transcends all concepts and thus cannot be approached as an object at all.”  Rather God is “the ineffable source that is received but never conceived.”  Better to identify God with the born again event (which turns God into a verb) and remain agnostic “about who, what, or even if God is (as a being).”

Rollins claims that anyone who thinks they have knowledge of God is guilty of idolatry, for “no concept of God (theism) can do justice to the reality of God.  In this way, all concepts of God are now rejected in advance.”  So Rollins cheerfully recommends “believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God” and offers that “when it comes to God, we have nothing to say to others and we must not be ashamed of saying it.”

When asked why he would affiliate with Christianity if he “did not believe that it revealed God,” Rollins responded that the dubious nature of his faith was actually an argument in its favor.  First, “If the truth affirmed by Christianity lay in something that people could intellectually grasp, then the truth of faith would be something that one could hold without ever hearing or following its demand.”  In other words, the shiny object of knowledge may distract Christians from following the path of Jesus and loving their neighbor.

Second, Rollins argues that doubt is essential for faith, for “it is only in the midst of undecidability that real decisions can be made.”  He explains that if two people get married “with the firm conviction that the union will last as long as they both live,” then “no real decision needs to be made,” for “the future is believed to be so certain that the decision to marry requires no decision at all.”  Conversely, if they have doubts about their relationship and what the future holds, only then are they able “to make a truly daring and authentic decision—the only type of decision worthy of the name.”

Third, Rollins contends that the uncertainty of faith purifies our love.  Those who obey Christ because they are confident that he arose from the dead and will shower them with eternal rewards are behaving selfishly.  But those who love without knowing whether Jesus is alive indicate that they are truly born again, for “they follow him without thought of some future reward, and thus they follow him in a truly sacrificial way.”  In this way the resurrection may actually hinder the Christian life, for it is difficult for those who believe in its truth to love unselfishly.

This idea supplies the thesis of Rollins’ book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, where he suggests that we must give up our Christian beliefs for the sake of Christian love.  We must “destroy what we love for the sake of what we love…putting our religion [beliefs] to death so that a religion without religion [love] can spring forth.”  He argues that just as the disciples were left hanging on the Black Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, so we who live on the other side of the resurrection still “wonder if Christ did return and if death was defeated.”  We should courageously accept our predicament, because only this uncertainty can purify our love from self-interest and “approach what the good news of Christianity really is.”

12 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Can’t believe there are no comments on this one yet. I’ve only read How (Not) to Speak of God when it came out and then followed his blogging, etc. which contains a lot of excerpts (including full chapters and parables) and ideas expressed in other books. This is the best overview (of this length) of his work and beliefs as i’ve read. And i have been paying attention to what others are (not) saying. I have no idea why he hasn’t been a major target of the emergent opposition. Apparently their research and ability to engage is limited to only the biggest names and examples that all their friends are already using. I’d say more about this but i’m digressing.

    For me, his writing has provoked as much or more contemplation per word count as any other current author. If his goal is to make points by overstating them he has succeeded in my case. But i am very cautious, to the point of not reading his other full works yet- partially because i don’t want to be overly influenced by them. As stated earlier, he has had significant time impact on my thoughts and i try to not to let any one resource (outside of scripture) have too much influence.

    I’m interested to hear your take on his ideas.

  2. Maybe it’s just because it’s late, but I when I read your summary of Rollins’s words I immediately think of the ongoing redefinition of terms in Orwell’s “1984.”

    Doubt = faith.

    I don’t think so.

  3. Pam, I think your comparison holds water. Rollins does seem to be doublespeaking in order to load our old concepts with new meaning.

    If I choose to be charitable with Rollins, I wonder how much of his doublespeak about faith (read: doubt) is a reaction to the ways human, fallible certainty has besmirched the church’s witness? Others will know more about this than I do–has Rollins spoken against hatred that’s been supported by (bad) biblical interpretation? (Examples of bad interpretations: citing John as a ground for anti-Semitism; the South’s anti-African theologizing in the 19th century.)

    Dr. Wittmer, I can’t speak to similarities with Schleiermacher, but Rollins sounds like an existentialist in your paragraph about making “daring and authentic” decisions. I’m not sure if he’s actually making any sense, though; he seems to tear down the concept of “conviction” only to replace it with seemingly identical “real decision.” I’m reminded of The Who: “Meet the new boss / same as the old boss.”

    Well-written post, Doc!

  4. Why should we be charitable to a blatant “antichrist”? While Rollins tries to sound like he’s being profound he’s really only showing is utter ignorance of the Scripture. Of course, he can choose to disregard Scripture as the Word of God; and since he does (in practice) he should just admit that he is not a Christian. A “born again” believer would certainly not speak the way Rollins speaks.

    For all the talk about the necessity of “conversation”, Rollins has proven that he has nothing to say. If we can’t speak about God then conversation as essentially ended. If we can’t speak about God, then we certainly don’t need to be reading His Word since He can’t possibly communicate Himself to us. If we can’t speak about God, then we have no reason to believe a word that Christ said.

    If we can’t approach God as an object of knowledge, then He ceases to be a “person” and only becomes a “force” that we can Know nothing about. The Trinity has been obliterated, the Fatherhood of God destroyed and the Son aborted!

    This guy doesn’t deserve the time of day. The only “conversation” he’s facilitating is the aggravation that true Christians endure in trying to explain to unbelievers that Rollins doesn’t represent Christ at all!

    Jason

  5. Having not read the book, I can only say that what Mike has described here in this post fits my understanding of what is called “neo-orthodoxy” with all its existential angst. If the Bible was being read in Rollin’s hearing, would he say he was listening “to the word of God”, or that he was listening “for the word of God”?

  6. This guy seems lost in a maze of his own making, and is trying to reason his way out of it. Unsuccessfully.

    It’s a shame that others are looking to him as a teacher…the blind leading the blind.

  7. another posts of doctor mike’s that makes my brain hurt

  8. Southerners have a phrase to describe men like Rollins:

    “He’s crippled too high for crutches.”

    Nothing Rollins says bears any resemblance to what Old Testament prophets preached or what New Testament authors, evangelists and teachers declared about knowing God and truth.

    Pete’s rai·son d’ê·tre seems to be communicating angst at his inability to know God and convincing us of his his ignorance- ἄγνοια (Acts 17:30).

    The Apostle Paul says to Pete Rollins:

    “For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” -Acts 17:23

    Rick Brentlinger

  9. You guys have already said everthing that can be said. I applaud the depth of comment and the accuracy of the points made.

    Believers must reveal this heresy. We cannot permit charlatans to sell bottom-less buckets to the masses.

    Rollins and his co-conspirators have repackaged and old product and put new advertising on the cover. His drivel is nothing more than “Gee, I don’t like the God of the Bible so I will create one for myself that I do like’. It seems very convenient to say that God is unknowable. That allows man to deviate from any and every truth with bearing guilt. The problem is found in the fact that God is knowable because He revealed Himself. He also spelled out the rules of how things work.

    I enjoyed reading all of your posts. Carry on…

    T.

    http://www.truthinator.wordpress.com for daily Bible study

  10. Does Peter Rollins believe that God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Gospels? Does he believe in the incarnation? If not, what is Christian about his beliefs or lack thereof?

  11. Really summary post. Regardless of whether this is an accurate portrayal of what Rollins thinks or not, I am on board with what you said here. He certainly upsets all our fundamentalisms that we try to pass off as ancient orthodoxy, but that’s a very necessary thing.

  12. That should say “really GOOD summary post”!
    🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: