Peter Rollins Seminar: The Uprising of Christ

pete rollins Dr Peter Rollins, a Research Associate with Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics) returned to Belfast today for a seminar on ‘The Uprising of Christ: The Resurrection as Insurrection.’ Rollins is currently based on the east coast of the US.

Rollins is fresh off his Insurrection Tour of US and Canadian cities, in which he, Pádraig ÓTuama and Johnny McKeown provided a pub-based example – in word, music and visual – of what Christianity in post-modernity might look like.

The Insurrection Tour started in Belfast in March. Rollins said that the form and content of the pub experience (or ‘theo-drama’) had developed since then. He joked that the Belfast launch was ‘the rubbish one’; and that you should never open a tour in your hometown!

Today’s seminar was a chance for Rollins to distil the main points of the talks he gave during the Insurrection Tour and to field questions and comments about his ideas. You can listen to the full talk and discussion below.

To hear the talk press the play button below:

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Want to save the talk or listen to it later? No problem click here to download the mp3 file…

Most of Rollins’ remarks centred round themes he has been exploring over the last year or so, including,

To Believe is Human

Rollins said that Joel Osteen’s job is easy, because it doesn’t take much to get people to believe something: ‘you have to be three times better (or more convincing) to get people to doubt.’

Osteen is a prosperity-orientated American evangelist/self-help guru who – it could be alleged – tells people what they want to hear by implying that change is easy and can bring them health and wealth.

Rollins, by contrast, sees Lacanian analysis as a framework for understanding how people can be prompted to desire real and meaningful change in their lives. Health and wealth are not the goals, instead the point is instigating a process of self-discovery that allows people to live justly and with integrity.

To Doubt is Divine

Rollins acknowledged that ‘doubt’ has become fashionable in church circles but expressed anxiety that this would tame what he sees as the role and power of doubt within Christianity.

He admitted that in his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God (2006), he didn’t push his discussion of doubt far enough. Rollins says that after reading this work, people could come away thinking that doubt is a good thing for Christians, because it helps them to be more humble about their faith and to ask more questions. (And maybe that’s fair enough.)

But he adds that this kind of doubt can be pleasurable because it allows us to congratulate ourselves on our cleverness, but doesn’t demand too much of us either intellectually or in the real world.

And, Rollins adds, this kind of doubt still allows room for a ‘meta-belief’ that although we may doubt God, God never doubts us. He says that this meta-belief acts like a security blanket.

The way to move beyond the security blanket is to identify with Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ For Rollins, these words are Jesus’ confession that he has experienced the full trauma of doubt as he has been ripped away not only from his God, but also all the religious, social and political narratives that grounded his life in his world.

Militant Doubt & Material Faith

Rollins contrasted this ‘militant doubt’ to the ‘humble doubt’ of How (Not) to Speak of God and said that what the resurrection is about is participating fully with Christ in the ‘trauma’ of doubt.

Participating in the trauma of doubt means entering into darkness and ultimately recognising that the real test of who you are is what you do, not what you believe. The resurrection of Christ is then present in the life that you are living. Rollins called this ‘material faith.’

Rollins was asked if he thought that doubt was either good or bad. Rollins responded that it was neither good nor bad, rather he thought of it as a doorway out of intellectual abstraction (some might call it existential angst!) and into ‘material faith’ or ‘resurrection Christianity.’

So What?

Rollins’ talk provoked a lively discussion among those present, some of whom questioned whether it was necessary to talk so much about doubt or to use the tools of Lacanian analysis to convince people to live like Christians, i.e. doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God.

I think that’s an open question for those of  us who are interested in or involved with what has been variously called emergence, emerging and emergent Christianity. Does the philosophy behind it matter?

I suspect that it does, and that the ways of thinking that Rollins is talking about are embedded in the practices of emergence Christians in ways in which we are just beginning to understand …

3 thoughts on “Peter Rollins Seminar: The Uprising of Christ”

  1. I can think of a whole host of problems/questions with this talk (the sterile binary dualism where doubt is privledged over faith for example) and relating it to being in the world. I also have a growing fustration with the term ’emergence Christianity’ which I initially liked but now fear it has so many diverse meanings to different people as to be a practically useless term….another faddish red herring in the postevangelical subculture?


  2. Always amazes me that some people gain elementary understanding, stop there, and just don’t “get It”.

  3. (I did press the play button recently and it did work. The wonders of IT (thanks, Brian?). I listened intently to Peter, mainly because I heard him speak two years ago and was impressed.)

    Peter 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. However, 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 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, 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.

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