From Despair to Hope?

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

I originally entitled this article “Why Peter Rollins Gets On My Nerves” (actually, my original title was even less polite than that, but in deference to the delicate sensibilities of my gentle readers, I restrained myself.) It’s still a kind of unofficial subtitle, but I think what I want to write about goes deeper than that.

Firstly, a bit about the man himself for people who don’t know who he is. Peter Rollins is a theologian from Belfast. I think the tagline from his blog gives a good picture of what he is on about: “To believe is human, to doubt, divine.” Here is a quote from his website’s about section:

Peter Rollins is a provocative writer, lecturer, storyteller and public speaker who has gained an international reputation for overturning traditional notions of religion and forming “churches” that preach the Good News that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret.

My story of trying to engage with his thought is that I attempted to read his book How (Not) To Speak Of God while I was walking the Camino de Santiago a few years ago. I came across him via a reference from Brian McLaren, who I’ve got quite a lot of time for. I have to admit, I couldn’t finish it – it annoyed me too much, and, given generally how much suffering I was enduring on the Camino,  I felt I didn’t really have to push myself any further. Then a friend of mine was interviewed on the ABC (the Australian public broadcaster, not the US TV station) and Rollins was interviewed as well, and I was surprised at the strength of my reaction.

However, the very strength of my reaction interested me. One of the things I have learned is that if you feel strongly about something, there is something interesting afoot. Why exactly does he push my buttons so exquisitely?

Part of it, I’m sure, is good old fashioned jealousy. At Cafechurch we are struggling to keep it together, like so many churches of our ilk. We’ve been doing our emerging thing for years, and no-one ever asks me to talk about it, even in Melbourne, let alone invites me onto the radio in other countries during my speaking tour. So I have to acknowledge that about myself. I am not a good person. Fortunately I’m a strong believer in grace 🙂

But, then again, there are lots of international speakers about, and the difficult task of keeping Cafechurch going is old news, and my difficult relationship with the institutional church is even older. There is nothing new here. Yet, here I am, with this surprising level of annoyance.

Interesting. What else is going on?

On reflection, I think this story from Rollins’ book is the key to what gets my goat.

When Jesus was crucified, a few of his disciples made a run for it. They fled to a mysterious island, where they remained undiscovered for many, many years. In that time, they stayed faithful disciples of Christ. They taught their children to do good things, to die to self, and to expect no reward. They had fled before the resurrection, so they had no idea of anything after Good Friday.

One day, Christian missionaries discovered the island, and were amazed to hear their story, and were delighted to be able to share the next phase of the story with them – that Good Friday was not the end after all, but things had ended much more joyfully. They all had a big celebration to mark the wonderful news, and all seemed good.

‘Why are you in such sorrow?’ asked the missionary in amazement. ‘Today is a day for great celebration!’

‘A day for great celebration and great sorrow,’ replied the elder, who was all the while crouched on the floor. ‘For over 300 years we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We followed his ways faithfully, even though it cost us deeply, and we remained resolute despite the fear that death defeated him and would one day defeat us also.’

The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the face. ‘Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judge him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him not because of the implicit value he has, but because of the value that he possesses for them.’

Rollins, Peter (2011-06-30). How (Not) to Speak of God (pp. 80-81). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.

At one level, I get this. There is triumphalist stream of Christianity – very much Luther’s Theology of Glory – who emphasize the way that following Jesus will have all sorts of good effects on your life – that you will be blessed. It doesn’t get the cross-centred thing at all. It ignores, not only the fates of the apostles, but all the scriptural passages which draw a sharp distinction between worldly success and following Jesus.

So there’s that. As a prophet against triumphalist, Christendom ways of thinking, I agree, to a certain extent.

But, really, is what he is teaching Christianity at all? Where is the good news here? That “the better you are, the more they nail you up”? That one should do good for the sake of goodness itself, not because of extrinsic benefits to you, even though it may very well cost you your life? Not only does that not qualify as “good” in the sense of “welcome”, “liberating”, or “exciting”, it isn’t even news. Why do bad things happen to good people is a question thoroughly addressed by Job, among many, many others. Indeed we don’t even need the Bible for that – Socrates was deeply interested in that question.

This seems to me not so much Christianity as a form of lightly Christianised stoicism. It’s a familiar sort of moralism which you encounter in church circles, which goes something like this: God wants all my love. But I enjoy doing this thing, so I am getting a reward already. So I’m not doing this purely because I love God – my motives are inadequately pure. So I must do this other thing (which I hate and am inevitably going to do very badly) because only there will my pure, unsullied love of God be most fully displayed.

It’s stupid. Guess what! Your motives are never, ever going to be pure. You are almost certainly entirely incapable of an altruistic act. Even if you think that you are trying to please God, really you are getting the payback of feeling like you are pleasing God – which is just as much of an extrinsic benefit as money would be. There is no way out of this cycle – so long as you are focussed on yourself like this.

That is one of the many outworkings of grace. You are free from worrying about it. You are serving God – good for you. You should be enjoying it, and if you aren’t, then you should probably stop, partially because you aren’t going to do a good job, but mainly because the love of God isn’t about duty, but about grace and love – and, above all – about Joy.

This final point, that joy is the central thing, is the thing which is missing here. I know all about suffering, depair, radical doubt, about the cost of doing the right thing even when it doesn’t seem to be paying off, in fact, sometimes quite the contrary. What I need, what I hunger for, and what I think God promises, is joy; the paradoxcal of dying to self, joy beyond, through, somehow transcending the pain and doubt of life.

Not just me, but our whole culture needs that. We know about radical doubt – read Camus or look at Munch’s Scream. What an “emergent” Christianity needs is a way to convey that joy of Jesus, and of God.

We need to be mystics, not just skeptics and cynics. Be as cynical of the claims of our culture as you like, be as skeptical of the doctrinaire, theologically “correct” but joyless, triumphalist churches of the theology of glory as you want. But I need more. If all Rollins’ version of “emergence” has is just a po-mo take on liberalism, then what on earth is the point? Why on earth would I want anything to do with it?

And what’s more, I think it is possible to get to the joy beyond, but still in the midst of, pain. To feel the difficulty of life, to be in solidarity with those who suffer, but still be able to say “and yet…” To be entirely free of the anxious fretting about the purity of my motives, because I believe that God’s grace is even able to forgive the unutterable self-righteousness pharasaism of saying: my hands are clean, my motives are entirely pure.

Anyway, that’s my rant over. What do you think? A lot of people seem to like Rollins and his thoughts: what’s the appeal?

5 comments

  1. timeaside · · Reply

    “One of the things I have learned is that if you feel strongly about something, there is something interesting afoot.” IS NOT!!!
    Great read mate, much to think upon.

  2. I can undoubtedly say that that book is one of the most life changing things I’ve ever read (definitely in the top 3, and most probably above the Bible I’m afraid). There is SO much in that book and in his thinking to digest. It’s a short but hefty book.

    But to try to answer your question (which may need reframing by the way – I’m not entirely sure what it is), I think that one of his main drives is away from the focus on eschatology back into the here and now. There is a huge emphasis on the afterlife and whether you are saved or not in mainstream Christianity, to the point where when someone converts/is saved/goes to church/follows the Lord/becomes church member/ then the attitude is, “Done, dusted. Another one dealt with. On to the next person”.

    There are two things which stand out for me here. One, this ultimately treats people as targets – something I didn’t realise until I deconverted and realised how I and almost all other Christians around me had been thinking. Non-christians are primarily just that – the ‘other’, which I don’t think is healthy or genuine. Second, the emphasis on the afterlife means that very little is really done about the here and now. What does that actually mean for my life right now? Emerging churches tend to focus on a Theology of Practice (God’s reaching into the world and wants to get involved, how do I respond to that and his plan?) whereas most mainstream Christianity focuses on a Theology of Salvation (do I believe the right things, and will I go to heaven? Are my friends/family going to heaven? If not, that’s top priority!).

    There’s also the reaction to the very scientific (and legalistic – I mean in terms of the legal profession, not the loaded meaning of obsession with rules that it’s commonly used for in theological discussions) thinking style of the modern church. This is where the mysticism and it’s importance comes in for me. The modern church, despite its protestations, thinks that it can explain God and his doctrines using the same style of logical thinking that scientists use to talk about genes and defend themselves using the same kind of rhetoric that barristers use in the courtroom.

    This is bollocks. Yes, it may make things more fuzzy, perhaps a little ‘po-mo liberalistic’, but in my mind and my heart it makes it a damn sight more real and authentic than anything I’ve ever experienced in a church building.

    I could go on, that book started a lot of thought processes for me, but I think I should stop!

  3. The parable you quoted is just one of many parables, and triumphalism is just one of the many things that he critiques. I think you may have read Peter wrong. I thought he was teaching a christianized form of stoicism for quite sometime aswell, but quickly came to realize that this is far from accurate. Peter’s entire discourse revolves around the unveiling of the unbelief that in many cases sustains belief (ex: the doubts that seems to drive the fundementalist to rigid certainty), and this is only done by painfully confronting our deepest doubts and fears. Peter levels the playing field. With the help of psychoanalysis and post-structuralist philosophy, he is able to take polar opposites (concervative vs liberal and other dialectics) and expose that, at the end of the day, they function in the same way. We’re all human, and we are all full of ghosts. Our subconcious desperately craves meaning, and we are quick to administer it, even when we know deep down inside that it’s not really there.

    And this is where most of us think he’s going stoic, because the only catagories we’re capable of concieving is ascribing meaning (and perpetuating desire) or neglecting it (and suppressing desire), but what if there were a third catagory? One where we actually face the unbelief that drives our desperate search, a sacred space where no doubt is unmentionable. You’d figure that with the vast majority of the psalter being psalms of lament, we’d be more quick to incorporate them in our liturgical space, but we dont. Why? Because we can’t bear the thought that our certainty, or even our mysticism might be challenged by the reality that we aren’t really satisfied. At this point you may thoroughly agree, we need to have the room for lament in our liturgical space, but lets be real, 99.99% of the time we just continue as if everything is going to be just fine. We appreciate the concept of embracing our deepest fears and overcoming them, but only as a concept. I’ll be honest, I’m seldom bold enough to face the reality that most days, I really don’t believe. Before I can practice the prescence of God, I must learn to be real with him and lament his absence. Remember, the same poet that said God’s hand would guide him in the darkest pit ended up asking why he had been forsaken by God. With this in mind, I think you’ll recognize that there’s a lot more depth and beauty to what Peter has to say, and perhaps the reason he makes you react is that he challenges your cherished joy and certainty. Emergents and fundies are really not that different when we observe ourselves honestly.

  4. […] I was particularly chuffed to find this after my attempt to analyse what I think is wrong with Peter Rollins’ thought a few weeks ago. […]

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