Christian Humanist Profiles 31: Pete Rollins

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There are Christian books that try to engage philosophical learning in a strong, rigorous manner, and there are Christian books written for a general audience. And then, once in a while, there’s a book like The Divine Magician, the latest offering from Peter Rollins. Advancing a theological agenda that’s part Hegel and part Nietzsche and part Derrida, Rollins approaches the complex task at hand with a storyteller’s style, inviting readers to a radical theology without the jargon and a challenge to theology that affirms faith.

13 thoughts on “Christian Humanist Profiles 31: Pete Rollins

  1. As I listened to this interview, I was reminded of the exclamation by Governor Porcius Festus during Paul’s defense before King Agrippa in Acts 26:

    At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”  (v.24)

    And, I’m sure that if Mr. Rollins heard this charge he would reply like Paul did:

    “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable.”  (v.25)

    I’m glad that Nathan read this book so I don’t have too.  I didn’t know what to expect from this interview as I knew nothing of Peter Rollins or his books.  But when Rollins started talking about his take on Genesis 2 and 3, and then his profoundly bizarre take on covenants in the bible, I started getting my first glimpses into what Nathan was getting at in his “part Hegel, part Nietzsche, and part Derrida” disclaimer in the intro.

    What a weird and dangerous project from Mr. Rollins.  To be so interested in the fruits of Judaism and Christianity while having – at best – only a passing apathy in the triune God who authored and created the world and religion that fascinates him is what is so weird.  What is dangerous is how he so skilfully appropriates and re-defines biblical language for Satanic purposes.  No doubt he doesn’t see his project as Satanic, but in reality it is.

    He sounds like a likeable guy and I’m sure he can be pleasant company to keep.  But the ideas he expressed in this interview, however interesting on intellectual terms, are exactly what Satan would want out in the marketplace of ideas.  Reminds me of Mark 13:22-23 – “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.”

  2. ChenBuLei And honestly, that’s why I was excited to have Pete on the show–his take on what philosophical concerns are primary and which ones can be relegated to adiaphora differ so wildly from my own that I thought that we’d get into a fairly lively dispute on a radical philosophical level.

    I hope I didn’t disappoint. 🙂

  3. ChenBuLei To expand on that just a bit more, part of where Rollins and I disagree profoundly is on the question of whether one’s notion of a good life can take its form irrespective of a metaphysical account of reality.  Pete seemed to say that one could believe in a resurrection and a renewal of the world or in a world that simply dies as the universe’s heat gives out, and “good” would retain a basic meaning.  I tried to contend that in fact a universe in which a Creator will also renew creation eschatologically yields an entirely different notion of what counts as good.  

    That’s where I attempted to jab at him with my crack about “the gospel according to Don Quixote.”  I honestly didn’t expect him to agree so readily!

  4. Nathan’s comment about ‘the gospel according to Don Quixote’ was both humorous and incisive. It *is* a gospel–Rollins is staking definite claims to the nature of reality, including significant qualitative distinctions as to the good (‘hypergoods’ as Taylor calls them). Yet it’s the gospel according to Don Quixote because it’s hard to see how it isn’t just arbitrary, and/or self-serving. Rollins made no attempt to ground or warrant his method and his conclusions. 
    Nathan’s question about why Rollins’ method can’t be turned back upon itself–why his synthesis isn’t just another thesis (‘pledge’, ie., idol) was also perfectly on point. It seems to me that Rollins mostly just obfuscated in response.
    Rollins’ biblical hermeneutic–unacknowledged, but thinly veiled–is plainly a hermeneutic of suspicion. Just as Freud posited human motives inaccessible to, and discrepant with, the intentions of ordinary consciousness (and only ‘gnostically’ available to the psychoanalyst), so Rollins posits a biblical interpretation discrepant with (??repressed by) the intentionality of the biblical authors. While many forms of ‘orthodox’ exegesis are happy to accredit the text with meanings outside of the author’s ken (eg., figural exegesis), all of these are held together by the belief that God is the author of all history. Rollins, on the other hand holds no such commitments to divine inherence. It’s sometimes hard to tell where the locus of meaning lies–perhaps the biblical text is only one convenient medium, as long as, after psychoanalytic interpretation, it means love and community and solidarity through trials–the hypergoods Rollins implicitly takes as axiomatic–to those involved. 
    I also find it not a little bizarre that Rollins cleaves so tightly to Freudian psychoanalysis–this theory has now been largely discredited by academic psychology and psychiatry. As much as such a thing can be falsified–on the grounds of its explanatory power and the clinical benefits of using its model, at least–it has often been found wanting. Not only so, but in psychoanalysis, the locus of power always resides with the psychoanalyst. Thus, while I’m sure that Rollins intends to help people with the hypergoods he promulgates (not bad things in-and-of themselves), he cannot help but set himself up as something of a new healer/emancipator/lord in this model.
    Radical theology this is, but new it is not. An eclectic blend of Freud, Nietzsche, Schweitzer, Hegel, and New Age–one is tempted to say that there is nothing new under the sun. Rollins is a very bright fellow, who has had some important things to say–unfortunately, his recent work, and this interview, are not among them. It’s kind-of a shame.

    Great interview, Nathan.

  5. Dr. Gilmour,  Thank you!  The recent interviews you’ve done have been really extraordinary.  You have managed to get really great guests, and your questions are very thoughtful.  It’s been a real gift for me.

    I’ve listened to Peter Rollins a number of times on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast.  Initially, I did think it was a bit bizarre, but over time I came to appreciate the way he really reorients the traditional way that I’ve heard the Christian constellation of ideas presented.  

    This came to mind especially with regards to the question asked in the interview about the possibility of the prestige turning into another pledge.  When I heard that, I was reminded of the first of Luther’s 95 theses:  “Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, when He said “Repent,” willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”  It seems to me that the constant need for repentance in all areas of life is a pretty common theme running through Rollins’ work.  

    For instance, in this interview, he mentioned how sometimes people can get really worked up “in defense of God” and that sometimes the fervor with which they argue is actually not due to their care and concern for the people with whom they are arguing.  Sometimes it’s actually born out of a kind of desperation and fear. 

    That’s how I’ve come to appreciate his stubborn deferral on questions like the historicity of the resurrection.  He’s not saying that it doesn’t matter.  Even if everything that you confess to believe is actually true, the way that you make use of it rhetorically can be sinful or edifying depending on how you confess it. 

    I see particular value in this approach as a radically ecumenical pastoral concern.  I think that’s evident in the way that he can critique and edify liberal Protestants as well as evangelicals. 

    ChenBuLei CWP I’m curious about the kinds of things that he said that would make him a Messiah figure rather than a writer with a pastoral concern.  It didn’t occur to me think of what he said as messianic; I thought he offered some helpful insights that actually affirm Christian faith.  I think the kind of people that can be especially helped by his approach are people who have either been hurt by people in the church or suffer in silence with persistent doubts because they fear they will be excluded if they express them.  I took his “Jerry Springer moment” near the end to be his statement of authentic pastoral concern for hurting people.

    That said, while I do think that he is providing a value resource for repentance (particularly in terms of a wholistic virtue of truthful speech, or speaking the truth in love with gentleness and respect) I don’t think that he is providing a systematic exposition of the Christian faith.  I think he takes for granted that, especially in the present context, there is a pretty broad spectrum of beliefs confessed by Christians.  But regardless of what you believe, the practice of examining the fears that prompt us to speak in certain situations is worthwhile in checking against the temptation to be “right” rather than to build up our neighbors.

    I’m thinking here of ngilmour’s  comment about how one’s conception of the good would be rather different depending on what one believes about the eschatological renewal of creation.  I guess I think that the regular practicing of naming and confessing our idols is an edifying Christian practice regardless of the strand of the tradition with which you identify.  In terms of true repentance, it certainly matters what you’re turning towards after you name and turn from those idols.  And I think that debates about the good are worth having, but I see a lot of value in Rollins’ ecumenical appeal to begin those debates by making clear our fears about what’s really at stake before we allow ourselves to hide behind confessional [terministic] screens;)  Do you think that the practice of naming our fears or “sacred objects” is dependent on a particular conception of the good?

    I really appreciated the interview, and I can’t say enough about how valuable I think the Christian Humanist podcast network is for thoughtful Christian engagement.  Thank you.

  6. ngilmour This is totally unrelated to my other post, but I thought that your discussion with Rollins that began with his understanding of the law brought me a real moment of clarity. 

    He started with Paul’s schtick in Romans about the law making sin increase.  He went on to make a more general claim about the way that prohibition functions to create unhealthy attachments, using the example of the child and the box.

    Then you voiced the Aristotelian concern about needing prohibition when desire fails.

    He used Jewish-Christian mysticism as another point-counterpoint with an emphasis on just getting on with our living our lives without reference to God.

    You lifted up the value of the generativity of dwelling in the negative spaces.

    He responded with a pastoral example of working with fundamentalists and opening them up through the introduction of Chrisitian mysticism while maintaining that the final goal ought to be love for neighbor.

    You reiterated the concern about the insufficiency of mere good intentions in sustaining that love.  We need the continued proclamation of the God who transcends our imagination.

    He responded with AA as an example of a radical community of acceptance, where everything is permitted but not beneficial.

    You highlighted the ritual component of AA.

    And he agreed with the importance of liturgical formation!

    His discussion of the cross and stoicism led back to the function of the cross in Christian community

    You brought up the medieval practice of meditation of the cross as a liturgical site for the rupture of worldly wisdom.  

    He didn’t have confidence that the church as it exists can actually provide the kind of practices where that is allowed to happen, but you resonated with his emphasis on “embracing lack” and he admitted that his communal practices in Belfast were inspired by historic liturgical practices.

    It seems that when the discussion began with the law, the two of you disagreed about the value of its role in promoting love in the Christian life.  However, when the “ritual life of the Church” centered more on liturgy than law, there was a lot more common ground.

    I am interested what you think about the distinctive roles of liturgy and law in the Christian life. 

    The reason that this exchange meant so much to me is that for awhile, I was hearing you guys carrying on the classic Protestant debate about the “third use of the law” (Does the law only condemn us, or is there an important guiding function of the law that persists in the Christian life?).  However, when it came to liturgical formation, the disagreement softened and the value of ritual formation was shared.

    I don’t know exactly what I think about that, but I’m wondering what you think the law provides that is lacking in the liturgy?  Or is the law an extension of liturgy?

  7. As I keep listening to this, I kept thinking of two saints — Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) and Therese of Lisieux.  

    When Come Be My Light was published a few years ago, we learned that while Teresa of Calcutta had a profound sense of intimacy with God during her young adult years, that vanished about the time she founded the Missionaries of Charity and though she lived another fifty years it never returned.  That’s not really an intellectual doubt, more of an emotional thing, but it was a deep emotional state that lasted for decades.  From what I saw, evangelicals weren’t able to cope with that.  Some said this is what happens when you pour all your energies into good works and neglect prayer (please review the Missionaries of Charity daily schedule and try criticism again).  Others said “well far be it from me to judge someone else’s salvation but …” (in ways that you really only say when you have serious doubts about someone’s salvation).  Others said her spiritual directors fell down on the job.  You need to rebuke the devil!  One way or another this means you’ve done something wrong and it can and should be fixed!  I don’t think that’s right at all.

    Therese of Lisieux, if you can get past her flowery style (which takes some getting past) had a rough life.  She lost her mother figure three times by the time she turned eleven.  That leaves some major scars.  And for the last couple years of her life she underwent a crisis of faith, deeply doubting there was a heaven (which is no small thing for a young twentysomething dying of tuberculosis).  As far as we can tell this continued up until her death.

    And still both of these women persevered.  In darkness and doubt they kept putting one foot in front of the other and kept on living the life of faith until the very end.  Does this make them “not really Christians” or heroes of the faith?  My money is on heroes.

    There is a ton that Rollins gets very very very wrong.  But he does recognize that doubt and darkness do not disqualify you from being a “real Christian” but the important thing is persevering through them.  And maybe (hopefully) that’ll last for a day or a week or a month and then dissipate, or maybe for the rest of your life.  Hopefully it won’t, because it isn’t much fun at all, but if it does that’s okay.  You’re in good company.  The important thing is what you do in the midst of it.

    And that is very true and very right and too many of us miss it.

  8. CWP A couple things come to mind.  First, psychoanalysis might not be mainstream in academic psychology, but I know it’s not by any means gone away, either in literature departments or among practicing analysts.  

    Also, as someone who spends his working life teaching Aeschylus and Plato, I think that Hegel and Nietzsche are quite new, thank you very much! 🙂

    Finally, and this is my actual point, I am going to reiterate that the strong differences between my approach and Petes’ are precisely what made this conversation enjoyable.  Because I confronted a way of thinking that starts in wildly different places from my own way of making sense of reality, at the very least I got the chance to articulate some axiomatic claims that normally would go unexamined.  Pete is a good conversation partner, making me own up to the places where my own thought needs better articulation, and for that I’m grateful.

  9. michaeldobler ChenBuLei CWP ngilmour I think you’re right that, for Luther, this time-between-the-times doesn’t stand susceptible to solving by normal human means.  That’s precisely why he insists on the radically gracious character of salvation, and on that point he’s right.  (If you’ve listened to our shows very much you know I disagree with Luther on several other points, but that’s for another day.)

    My point in pressing the metaphysical question is that saying that this time-between-the-times doesn’t see resolution and saying that this time-which-never-differs-from-other-times doesn’t see resolution are two very different sentences.  I’m sure somebody is going to call foul on me for taking Nietzsche too seriously, but I do tend to take my cues from Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals on this point: what counts as a good human life derives its intelligibility from the way the world is just as much as the shape of our lives (including but not limited to our liturgies) lends form to our expectations of the world.  I see Pete’s approach as short-circuiting that dialectic.

    So with regards to naming and confessing idols, the whole notion of an idol assumes that there’s something not-idol (and likely not-idle, but I Derri-digress) that lends the “idol” term its intelligibility.  Certainly the terms of what’s idolatry and what’s right worship are always subject to dialectical investigation, but as a horizon, true worship lends the whole pursuit its intelligibility.  

    So yes, I do think that a vision of the good is always in place when we name this practice “rebellion” or “blasphemy” or more generally “bad” and that practice “flourishing” or “worship” or “good.”  I think that most of us, if we’re honest about the ways we live, live our lives oriented towards some intelligible notion of the good while at the same time knowing that any moment could disclose to us a more adequate notion of the good, perhaps even one that radically differs.  The pity is not that we have notions of the good but that we sometimes forget the character of those notions.

  10. michaeldobler ngilmour Good question, and not unrelated.

    I was using Aristotle’s notion of a legal prohibition of something like murder or theft rather than the Torah’s when I brought that up.  For Aristotle, criminal law provides us with boundaries within which a citizen’s excellence stands possible.  Violating one of these laws makes one criminal, not merely vicious, and that distinction is precisely that between a citizen and an outlaw.  (Dante’s distinction in Inferno between the vices of lust and gluttony and wrath on one hand and violence against political order and natural order and sacred dogma on the other reflect this hierarchy of vice and crime.)  Laws in that sense do not make a human being an excellent human being so much as they draw the boundaries between human beings who might be excellent and human beings who have forsaken the order of the polis and thus the chance to be excellent citizens.

    Excellence, as Aristotle imagines it, comes from habitual actions within those parameters that develop intelligible dispositions towards further good acts.  Thus the prohibition against treason does not make one courageous, but fighting in battles and holding the line when one has the option not to hold the line does.  Likewise a prohibition of adultery does not result in wisdom, but dialoguing about the nature of family and duty might.  Those seem to be Aristotle’s ways of distinguishing between law and habit.

    The Torah, as the Psalms and other texts imagine it, is a different sort of thing: Psalm 119 (on which we had an episode not long ago) holds that contemplation of the Torah not only draws parameters for a good life but serves as an object of contemplation precisely for the sake of developing wisdom and other modes of excellence.  Thus any synthesis of the two (and I try to incorporate the best of both) must do something with the “you shall not murder” laws, which define boundaries within which one can live as YHWH’s people, and the contemplation of those laws, which presumably lead the faithful to regard life, and the lives of one’s neighbors, as gifts from YHWH.  

    Now something else happens when St. Paul writes about nomos (the Greek for law): the Torah remains good for such things, and the life towards which the Torah might point remains the ideal (otherwise Paul wouldn’t have such strong reactions to the vices and crimes of the Corinthians), but the event of Jesus’s death-and-resurrection situate the Torah in an entirely new story, one as gracious as the Exodus (in which YHWH saves Israel gratuitously, not necessarily because they were more moral than the Egyptians) but radically redrawing the contours of God’s grace so that they defy not only the tyrants of the earth but even death itself, a tool of tyrants to be sure but also something that terrorizes even the seemingly powerful.

    And there’s where liturgy/Torah/ritual, as I imagine it, takes on its dialectical character: Torah promises a way of life that Torah itself can’t deliver on, and the incarnation and life and death and resurrection of Jesus radically alters the course of the world in a way that (contradiction of contradictions!) points human existence precisely to the life of Torah.

    And once again, that’s what I liked most about Pete’s project: it brings Hegel (who’s one of my favorite philosophical conversation partners) into theological reflection in a way that doesn’t require folks to read Phenomenology of Spirit, unless they’re just inclined to do so.

    But to get to your law/liturgy question a bit more directly, I think that the Bible presents law and liturgy as involved in complex ways, not least of which is the fact that public recitation and interpretation of the Torah is precisely the core of liturgy as presented in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and (at least in the synagogue scenes) in Mark and Luke.

  11. kristenfilipic Certainly.  And that’s why I value dogma more highly than Pete seems to.  Like I said in the interview, I’m terribly inconstant, so I need something more solid than my own psychological state if I’m to keep any bearing at all.  In other words, I’m religious, but I’m not spiritual.

  12. ngilmour michaeldobler 
    I like your dialectic way of thinking about the Torah promising, failing to deliver and reappearing in a new way through the life of Christ; however, I wonder if it isn’t quite so mysterious.

    I have often thought of the movement from the old covenant to the new as moving from the logic of law to the the logic of imitation.  

    As a tennis player, some of the best instruction I ever got involved thinking in terms of imitation rather than remembering technical tips.  So when you make a mistake, instead of trying to keep in mind a list of rules about where my hips need to be, how to point the racket, where to look on the court, etc. it is better if you return to a mental image of the perfect swing.  Because if you focus too much on any one element, you will likely overcompensate and unwittingly introduce other flawed elements.

    I wonder if that is not at least a bit of what Paul is getting at with his alarming displacement of “the law” in light of Christ.  It seems that his aim in Corinthians and in all his other epistles is to approach “ethics” from an eschatological perspective, centered on the revelation of Christ as a [proleptic] revelation of the image we are to ever behold as we are being transformed.  Given your valid point about the reading of the law in liturgical settings, I wonder how you read what’s going on in 2 Corinthians 3?  For me this is one of the clearest places where Paul invites us to behold Christ and be transformed in the Spirit rather than dwell on the law represented by the figure of Moses.

    It strikes me that in comparing the Old and New Testaments, there are so many more injunctions in the New to “be imitators of God” or to follow Christ; whereas, Israel in the Old Testament is usually invited to participate in the life of God through holiness (e.g. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth…therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy).  And Jesus seems pretty intent on refiguring exactly what holiness looks like (breaking the Sabbath, cleansing the Temple, communing with lepers and sinners, etc.)

    It seems to me that the precepts and life of Torah are perfectly condensed and constellated in the person of Christ (“fulfilled”).  So that the Psalmist’s call to meditate on the Torah is revealed to actually be a meditation on and an abiding in Christ (Torah fulfilled).

    I think that Christian liturgy is the site where Christ is always held out to us in full as the One worthy of imitation/worship–not for his sake, but for ours.  That as we grow in intimacy with Christ as he presents himself in the Word of the Gospel as the promise of reunion with God and in his self-donation in the Lord’s Supper we become more Christ-like and mature into true human beings.

    In light of Pete’s comments, I think that his radical critique is the kind of thing that is helpful when the ritual life of the church fails to present Christ transparently as gift.  Therefore, I suspect that his lingering appreciation for the rituals of the Church is born out of a wish that they would more fully embrace the whole Christ (the language of “love” and “solidarity” being shadows of the one under whose name all such virtues cohere).  Often I long for the same thing.

  13. ngilmour michaeldobler ChenBuLei CWP
    What you say makes good sense.  

    I think his use of the term “idol” is interesting because I think it immediately evokes a thing that we wrongly desire.  However, as he unpacked it, it seemed more like he was concerned with the kinds of fears that lead us to act in excessive ways.  

    I forget which episode it was, but one time you made a comment about advertisements preying as much if not more on our fears than our desires.  That struck me as right on.  Because whenever you see an ad, you know exactly what it is telling you to want.  The product as object of desire is on full display.  However, the more insidious, aggregate effect of advertising is that it keeps consumers in a constant state of fear–fear that we will not be whole or complete, that we won’t be fully adequate unless they consume this or that product.

    Now in terms of right desire, what you’ve said about the conceptions of the good seems right to me:  it’s not the fact that we think something is good is the problem but that we do not consistently hold out the character of that good when we make decisions.

    It seems to me that that inconsistency is a result of some kind of fear (usually of scarcity, despair, or inadequacy) rather than a wrongly conceived good.  The power of fear is that it eclipses what we would otherwise consider our true telos.

    The value I see in Pete’s employment of psychoanalysis is that it provides a way in through a universal vocabulary of fear.

    It is much easier for me to distance myself from others by speaking of what I think is good or right.  It is much harder to do so if I am honest about my fears.  The expression of fears is almost inherently vulnerable and signals a bid for connection; whereas, expressing what I think is good is often taken by the other as an exercise of control or power.

    That’s why I can appreciate the deferral on the questions of the true, the good, and the beautiful, because what he is really doing is providing a tool for creating meaningful connections and beginning truthful conversations, especially in church situations that are fraught with particular fears about expressing doubt.

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