Peter Rollins Insurrection - an early review, part 2

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In part one of my review of Peter Rollins' new book Insurrection - To Believe is Human, to Doubt Divine, I focused on his theology of the cross. In this second part I would like to address his understanding of a relationship with God.

Rollins writes that "there are people who claim God is at work in the world and we can have a deep relationship with Him here and now." As many of you are aware, I am one of those people. I think that developing a living relationship with God is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Rollins, in contrast, sees it as a "world-renouncing approach to faith" because he associates it with an "addiction" to exceptional emotional experiences (in a worship service for example) which he sees as devaluing the rest of life: "[L]ife as a whole is negated, and we are left unable to fully embrace and enjoy it."

Now, I agree that charismatic worship services do have a tendency to promote this kind of hyped-up emotional experience, and as a result can lead to disillusionment and disappointment. This however reflects a broken understanding of what healthy relationships are about. Relationships are not just about good times -- all candle light dinners and feelings of bliss. Relationships are about sharing all of your life with someone -- getting to know them and letting that rub off on who you are. We hang out with Jesus, and in so doing, we become like Jesus.

This is a broken world we live in, and because of that, as Paul says, we see God "through a glass darkly." We see God in glimpses. It's true that we can over-emphasize those times of epiphany in the same way that our culture over-emphasizes romance, but that does not mean that we need to see these times as a rejection of life. Why can't they instead fill our ordinary lives with meaning and value? Maybe these times are intended to change how we see everything else, so that, as Rollins writes "the world is transfigured and rendered wonderful."

That's the way it should be, but Rollins is right to say that our "triumphalist music, confident prayers, and sermons of certainty don't necessarily reflect the beliefs of the people offering them or receiving them." The problem is not, as Rollins notes, that there is a lack of ministers who experience doubt, but that the predominant church culture does not allow them to. They are only allowed to admit struggles if they are safely in the past. That's the narrative we want to hear: I used to have a problem, but then I met Jesus and it all went away.

Wouldn't it be good for our faith if we could be real about it together? Is a Christian leader really someone who never has any struggles, or is it instead someone who can model how to deal with those real struggles of life with honesty and grace? What if worship leaders were allowed to sing songs about real struggles and doubts? Wouldn't that reflect the way we really experience our faith and our lives?

An amazing example of that is Kevin Prosch who was the personal worship leader for John Wimber. Kevin's songs have a gut wrenching honesty. Take for example these lyrics from his song Please:
I know that sometimes you win
But most of the time I get this feeling that I'm losing
And the cruel, cruel lessons of loneliness... I believe this must be my portion in life
If there really is a hereafter and after all

Maybe a moment of grace could bring the gates of heaven near
I wish someone could tell me, have I wept these tears in vain?
But even then... there's this loneliness

This loneliness
Wow. Can we please sing that in church next Sunday?

I'm totally with Rollins in wanting us to be able to be real in church, and have that honesty and depth reflected in our liturgy and sermons. But he does not stop there. Rollins does not think we can love God directly at all, because he ultimately does not believe God exists. He argues that we should "no longer approach God as an object we love. Indeed, the idea of loving God directly becomes problematic. Instead we learn that God is present in the very act of love itself." In other words, he does not believe that God is a someone who can speak to us, love us, and be known by us. Rather, God is "love" and so "belief in God" for him simply means being a loving person.

He writes that "Love does not seek out our hymns of praise and prayers of adoration. Love does not want our sacrifices or seek our time. For love always points toward the other." While I deeply disagree with this on so many levels, at the same time I have to say that if that meant that he never sang another worship song again, and never prayed again, but only focused on caring for the least and showing grace to others, I really can't imagine that Jesus would be mad at Pete for that. Because in doing that, he really is loving God.

But does that mean that we all need to stop praying? Does it mean that we need to tell Kevin Prosch to strop singing his beautiful heart-wrenching love songs to God? I hope not, because that would mean stifling the honest expression of his heart. Mine too.

I'm sympathetic to Pete when he writes that "there are numerous people who affirm the view that God can be encountered here and now, yet who experience nothing." I don't want him to fake it. I understand if he feels that he is "not getting God and feeling empty, constantly chasing God and never finding rest." I've felt that way at times too. But I have also experienced the undeniable reality of God's love in my life. I know first hand that God is real and can be known.

Let me underline here that I am not just talking about having some emotional religious experience. That alone is not a relationship. I'm talking about learning to listen to God, letting God speak into my life, changing and molding me into the image of Christ. I don't think we should lose that, and in fact, I think we need a lot more of that. I want us to be real, but that includes honestly crying out to God, both in expressing our need and doubt, and also our thankfulness and love. I would not want to lose any of that.

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At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Corey Diekman said...

Hi Derek. Great blog, glad I stumbled across it.

You are correct, I believe Pete welcomes challenges to his books and finds dialogue in Christianity not only beneficial, but crucial. I certainly can't speak for Dr. Rollins, but I can try to express my take on some of his ideas.

I don't think he is conveying that "ultimately God doesn't exist" or only exists as love. While he does often explore the notion of "God in the midst" he doesn't just leave it there. In his last book "How (not) to speak of God", he explores the idea of God as a hyper-nymity, or an overwhelming sacred presence that we can merely understand a small fraction of. Like the ancient mystics expressed, once we reduce God to a mere personality we can converse and be buddies with we loose touch with the overall presence of God. In the new book as well, among other misconceptions he addresses he talks about the idea of God and Jesus merely being a solution to a problem, a Deus ex Machina, a God of Philosophy where upon we place our own constructions upon the notion of God.

In my view, I believe Rollin's a/theism is not a cleverly disguised form of atheism, but a strong faith that allows doubt and questioning in order to how we think ABOUT God - not wether or not he exists at all - though there is the freedom to explore such a thought. If we are honest who hasn't gone through these 'dark nights of the soul' grappling with such things.

Anyway, just what I get from Rollins. Once again great blog and I look forward to your future posts!


Corey Diekman, Golden, CO USA

At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Corey,

I certainly agree that it is good to have a faith that can ask hard questions with the motivation of challenging us to move towards being more loving. I recently blogged about this over at Huff Post:

I do think this is Rollin's main motivation for all the questions he asks. So while I don't always agree, I do appreciate that his motivation is to question as an act of loving faithfulness.

At 6:21 AM, Blogger Maris Mols said...

My intellectual part affirms the existence of God. I see it in the nature and history. I can also see God working in everyday life through occasional miracles and different events and "coincidences". My knowledge about God comes from the Bible and stories about Jesus told by those who knew him at the time.

But I have never really seen God myself. I have never heard his voice. I've read about Him, but I've never had a conversation with him.

I know that some people claim to hear God's voice. Some might say: I feel that God wants me to do this or that. The big question for me is - how do I know that these feelings are coming form God and not just generated inside my brain. Sometimes we are trying so hard to hear Gods voice that we might start hearing all sorts of things, especially if the person we are trying to listen to doesn't want to talk. And for me the fact that God very often wants to stay silent is very obvious.

If God really wanted to say me something can't he just come in my dream, or speak clearly so that there is not confusion, can't he send an angel like in olden days or just leave a note on my table. Yes He surely can do it, but He chooses not to. Like in the days when Job was so desperate to hear anything from God, God was silent. And there was a good and important reason for that. Its not because he doesn't love us, he does love. But he is silent. I'm not gonna go into answering why, but the point is - that it is difficult to build a relationship when the other person doesn't really speak.

I can't really build a relationship with my wife by reading a book about her. If my wife talked to me in the same way God does, I couldn't call it a relationship.

After praying for several days we finally get the answer from God which is one word: yes or no. That's not relationship. Even If I had one definitive Yes/No answer from God each day, which would be amazing, that still can't be called a proper relationship. Yes he is leading us, he is molding us, he is helping and healing and protecting. But I can't see his face, can't hear his voice tone, can't read his body language. How is he feeling today? What is worrying him? What's he thinking about me NOW, not in general? I don't know.

Perhaps in the heaven when we "will see Him" its all gonna change, but for now we are where we are.

At 4:53 PM, Anonymous Corey Diekman said...


Thanks for the link to the article. Ugh, I don't know how you handle the hostile and largely uninformed commenters over at Huffington. Dawkin's tired arguments against supernatural theism...yawn.


At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Oh man I know, it drives me crazy actually. On the positive side, it is interesting socially to see what a strong negative reaction people have to Christianity, while on the flip side they seem open to ideas like restorative justice and love of enemies. It has made me think a lot about how to communicate to different audiences. When I'm talking to that larger secular audience in the public square (as opposed to the folks here which is a more intimate setting) its almost like Christian ideas are welcomed so long as they are not identified as Christian. Being in the middle of that really does try you because out of their hurt they are being hurtful. So in my better moments I think "how can I act here to overcome evil with good?" and other times I just want to yell with Charlie Brown "Aaaaarrrgghh!"

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


These are really good and deep issues you raise. Perhaps I will devote a blog post to it soon. For now let me give a brief response:
Yes, there are things about a "relationship with God" that would be unusual and even hurtful if they happened in any other relationship. God's frequent silences in the middle of out times of need is strong an example. In that sense, perhaps it is better to think in more impersonal terms, like connecting to some sort of "force" or "inner voice" rather than have the image of someone who wont return our phone calls.

On the other hand, there are times where I have experienced being filled with the sense of being loved by God. There are times when I felt let and directed into some new life-giving truth by the Spirit. These times seem to fit with a more personal, relationsl, interactive, way of thinking about God. Similarly, when I pray or worship (which my heart longs to do) I don't want to pray to some impersonal "Something," I want to pray and sing to a Someone.

Then again, that very longing for intimacy with God through devotion and worship can become unhealthy because God is invisible and so often silent. So again, that balance between conceiving of God as personal and impersonal (or perhaps really a category that is bigger and other than either of these descriptions of earthly things) becomes really important.

Along these lines, I find it fascinating that in Luke ch 11 Jesus tells a story about prayer (v. 5-8) where he compares it to beating on the door of someone's house in the middle of the night, and says that they will help you not because of friendship but because you are so obnoxious and instant about it -- an impersonal model where prayer is a battle or a struggle to persist through.

Then right after that (v. 11-13) he tells the story of how a father will not give their kid a rock if they ask for food -- now pray is conceived of in personal terms of trust and loving relationship. Logically these two pictures are contradictory. But that is what prayer is like. It is about struggle and it is about trust. So to capture that complex reality we need to have a variety of pictures for it, both personal and impersonal.


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