Fr Michael Bennett on Peter Rollins — Doubting Doubt?: Guest Post

imageSome time ago, Fr Michael Bennett, a missionary priest of the St Patrick’s Missionary Society (Kiltegan, Wicklow) now serving in South Africa, wrote a series of guest posts on this blog about the Irish Catholic Church.

Now, Fr Bennett reflects on a post on this blog about a talk given by Dr Peter Rollins at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, ‘The Resurrection as Insurrection.’ Fr Bennett has some doubts about Rollins’ articulation of doubt, but argues that what Rollins has to say can make some positive contributions to church life in a variety of expressions.

Doubting Doubt

Peter Rollins speaks about doubt as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The end is the ‘not-knowing’, the  ‘not being-in-control’, the  letting go, the abandonment. Doubt strips away the covering (the ‘abstract beliefs’), removes the props and the crutches (the ‘security blanket’),  exposes me to the real gods to which I give my life (and there are many: false ego striving; desire for money, status, power and control) and leave me unfree.  In essence what Peter is talking about is central to the mystical tradition of Christianity and, in this sense, is not new.

But I believe that Peter is expressing old, largely neglected and forgotten truths in fresh ways and for post-modern people burdened by narcissism and individualism, and searching for meaning. I commend him for this. It is only when we come to that authentic inner space  before the enfolding mystery, that the shackles are removed, and the dynamism of life and love can be embraced and lived.

I can see some difficulties with the notion of doubt. It can be mistaken for intellectual doubt in the existence of God, which is not what Peter is talking about. I can also appreciate- what Rodney Neill refers to – the danger of ‘sterile binary dualism where doubt is privileged over faith’.

Perhaps Rodney Neill is pointing to a need for Peter to clarify the relationship between doubt and faith. Peter talks a lot about doubt;  the notion of faith is implied but hardly gets a direct airing. If the relationship is clarified,  Peter’s message will have a greater impact.  Otherwise the dualism may be real. 

Can I attempt to offer some clarity?!  As Peter indicates, doubt can become an end in itself, where we have ‘the intellectual pleasure of doubt without the traumatic experience of doubt (a la ‘being stripped’)’.  The latter is the experience of Christ on the cross, the saints and the mystics, and it is what Peter is referring to. Doubt is privileged over faith where it is a warm, secure blanket covering the master-bed of unquestioned, abstract belief.

Doubt is not privileged over faith where it is an expression of letting-go, emptying and abandonment. This ‘doubt-which-lays-bare’ should not be viewed in opposition to faith but as the companion of faith, and as a catalyst of faith’s expression. Then faith, as much as doubt, becomes the existential ‘not-knowing’, ‘not-being-in control’ referred to.

Faith also involves unswerving trust in the mystery of God revealed in human history, a trust which ultimately involves a letting go without reserve and with boundless confidence. 

The gospels emphasise the need for faith (‘you people of little faith’, ‘your faith has saved you’, ‘if your faith were ….).  Faith as a letting go, an unswerving trust in Abba (‘daddy’), are central to the experience of Jesus during his life, whatever his experience at his death. This relationship in faith was, according to South African theologian Albert Nolan:

‘… of the deepest intimacy, beyond gender, without a hint of patriarchal (dominant male) attitudes. God is being spoken of as a loving parent who embraces, holds and protects his or her child.  And, like the love of any good parent, it is warm, unconditional and totally dependable. 


We too are invited to enter into a similar relationship. The faith of Christians is ultimately the faith of Jesus. The Abba of Jesus is our Abba. Again, Nolan:

If we find it difficult to take Jesus seriously today and to live as he lived, then it is because we have not yet experienced God as abba. The experience of God as his abba was the source of Jesus’ wisdom, his clarity, his confidence and his radical freedom. Without this it is impossible to understand why he did the things he did.’       
(Albert Nolan, Jesus Today, ix, Orbis, Maryknoll, 2006)

Gospel references to doubt are rather scarce. The experience of ‘doubting Thomas’ and an inability by Jesus to work miracles (marvellous deeds) because of a lack of faith, seem not to stem from a sense of existential doubt, but from hardness of heart.

I do believe that Peter’s talk is touching on something profound. For many in Ireland and elsewhere the structure of the ‘meta-narrative’ no longer holds. Peter and his friends seem to operate on the fringes of church and society, the hedgerows of today.

While their style and approach is informal, unconventional and will appeal to the marginal, they offer something significant to conventional and formal traditions. They can also receive and be enriched by these traditions. 

Not every aspect of the ‘pub tour’, I suspect, would be welcomed in formal circles; indeed, I cocked my ears when some elements of the ‘Omega experience’ were briefly described!

However, more formal settings should not feel threatened but be enriched by a mellowed expression of what Peter is advocating.

‘From the pub to the pulpit’ should be a realisable journey.  Not just the metaphorical pulpit but its literal aspect, perhaps during ecumenical occasions (church unity week in January,  for example), periods of group recollection, etc. Peter does not lack the humility and sensitivity to adapt his message to any group he encounters.

The essence of what Peter is advocating in the talk I listened to, is central to the experience of prayer and authentic Christian renewal (or emergent Christianity, or whatever concept is used).

The problem, as ever, is that such talk and its reception can be viewed as a curious academic exercise rather than as an invitation to a bending of the knee and self-emptying.

Accepting this invitation is the ongoing challenge. Any course (Omega, or otherwise), however creative, can only, at best, articulate the challenge and act as a means to an end. The end is the life-giving transformation and that is done to us, not by us.

One thought on “Fr Michael Bennett on Peter Rollins — Doubting Doubt?: Guest Post”

  1. Some great points made by Father Michael. I would agree that it is clear that the N.T. encourages faith rather than doubt whereas Peter seems to encourage doubt rather than faith! I have met Pomo Christians who seem to despise Christian ‘believers’ and hold that to be really spiritually mature you have a lot of doubt -in God, in his love etc.
    Jesus, Paul and Job for example in the midst of extreme trial put their faith in God. Job for instance cried out ‘though he slay me yet will I trust him; Paul declared ‘nothing shall separate me from the love of God’; and Jesus though he cried out ‘My God why have you forsaken me’ (often quoted by those who want to exalt doubt) soon after cried out ‘Father forgive them’… and ‘It is finished.’- words of great faith in God not doubt.None of them encourage doubt and as Fr Michael states:’The gospels emphasise the need for faith’.

    There also seems to be a certain intellectual elitism and snobbery among the Pomos such as Peter. This is sad, but like every other human -educated to PhD level or not, each of us become as a little child if we are to enter the kingdom of God.

Leave a Reply