A Chat With Peter Rollins, Postmodern Barroom Philosopher03/17/2008
Editor's note: A Belfast Protestant who talks about God in a bar is the closest we could come to a St. Patrick's Day feature, and we still missed it by a day.
Interview by Becky Garrison
Inhabiting a space on the outer rim of church experience, Ikon, a Belfast-based collective, offers anarchic experiments in "transformance art." Challenging the distinction between faith and "no-faith," Ikon employs a unique and provocative cocktail of music, visual imagery, theater, ritual and reflection, immersing participants in an experience of theodrama. Holy or heretical? Faithful or foolish? Boxers or briefs? The questions abound as we sit down to chat with Ikon founder and postmodern philosopher Peter Rollins.
DOOR: In your first book, How (Not) To Speak of God (Paraclete Press, 2006), you say that we must seek not to speak of God but rather to be that place where God speaks.
PETER ROLLINS: Within my own Christian faith tradition, there has been an attempt to "speak of God," and by this I mean that there has been an attempt to understand the thoughts of God. However, I think that this pursuit is misguided. There is an ancient Jewish parable which illustrates this, in which two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, "What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them."
DOOR: Wanna ‘rassle?
ROLLINS: In this parable the rabbis do not want a God’s-eye view because, even if that were possible, that is not the point of faith. Faith seeks to transform reality rather than merely describe it. The parable works from the tradition which states that one must wrestle with the text in every context, rethinking it and learning afresh from it like a piece of art rather than treating it like a textbook to be mastered.
DOOR: Sure you don't wanna ‘rassle?
ROLLINS: The desire to get a God’s-eye view of the world is reflected throughout history in theology, mythology and philosophy. In much of the Western intellectual tradition there’s a strong desire to name and capture God in conceptual form. I am trying to explore the ancient idea that God transcends all names. We can’t reduce God to a theological idea without making an idol out of words. Instead of thinking of God as a noun it is perhaps more useful to think of God as a verb. For God is known through action. To say we need to be the place where God speaks means that we need to be the place where God moves through the world. We have to endeavor to be that place where we embody the life of God instead of merely talking about God.
DOOR: Elaborate on this phrase, please: “Such fissures of God as depicted in the Old and New Testaments help to prevent us from forming an idolatrous God, ensuring that none of us can legitimately understand God as God really is.”
ROLLINS: What I’m trying to get at there is that God, as presented in the Bible, escapes our attempts at capturing him in conceptual form. This happens in two major ways. Firstly, we cannot grasp God, not because there is a lack of names, but because there is such a surplus of them. These different ideas and names of God clash at various times—for instance, when God is named a warrior and then a peacemaker, or one who is unchanging and one who rethinks situations. The fact that there are so many ways of naming and describing God is a way of saying that no name or group of names can grasp God.
DOOR: We can sing all the words to Monty Python’s “The Philosopher’s Drinking Song.” Wanna hear us?
DOOR: Never mind. Do continue.
ROLLINS: Secondly, there are those moments within the Bible when God appears in a way that refuses any name whatsoever. Both of these strategies seem to fight against the desire that many have to place God into words as witnessed in the Kabbalah tradition where there are lots of names for God such as the Monogrammata (the one-letter names of God), the Diagrammata (the two-letter names of God) the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name of God), the Octagrammaton (an eight-letter name of God) and the Decagrammaton (a ten-letter name of God) as well as the twelve-, fourteen-, twenty-two-, thirty-three-, forty-two- and two-hundred-and-sixteen-letter names of God. All of which pale into insignificance when compared to the massive three-hundred-and-four-thousand-eight-hundred-and-five-letter name.
DOOR: Some would say this name game sounds un-Orthodox.
ROLLINS: Well, that all depends on where you stand and how you define orthodoxy. The word today has taken on a rather unhelpful Enlightenment-influenced definition as “correct belief”—the ability to affirm a certain creedal formation. However, in the more ancient tradition the doxa of orthodoxy does not refer to belief but rather to praise. We see this in the word "doxology" which doesn’t mean belief, but rather worship. So orthodoxy actually means correct praise not correct belief. In that kind of a way, it becomes less about the affirmation of a theological approach—important as theology is—but a way of being like Jesus. We have to rediscover this idea that orthodoxy isn’t belief -oriented but praxis-oriented. In this way the approach I outline isn’t un-orthodox if it helps to bring people back to wonder and praise. Whether it does or not is of course open to question.
DOOR: Our brains hurt.
DOOR: Okay, what then is the task of orthodoxy?
ROLLINS: The answer to that is simple, and yet infinitely complex, for to be orthodox is to bring praise to God through one’s life. While people these days are asking the question, “Is Christianity true?,” the more fundamental question must be, “What does Christ mean when he uses the word truth?” The reason I am asking that question is that when Jesus talks about the truth, He talk about life. The truth is what brings life. My axiom for today is that Christianity at its core doesn’t explain life but it brings life. We must thus ask whether our beliefs and actions bring life, healing and love to the people in the world.
DOOR: (Sings) All you need is love ...
ROLLINS: To bring love into the world is to know God, for God is love. This is not the knowledge of creeds and theology but the knowledge of a transforming relationship with the source of all love. Truth in Christianity is thus different from the way we understand truth in the world, for the truth of Christianity is life, not description. This is why I talk about heretical orthodoxy, i.e., someone who does not understand God yet who changes the world in love.
DOOR: Some would say this sounds more fishy than faithful. What then does it mean to be a Christian?
ROLLINS: It means entering into a journey of becoming one. It does not mean accepting a world view but rather entering into a healing journey of life. To be a Christian also means that one is committed to exploring this life through the Judeo-Christian tradition, wrestling with it, learning from it and being transformed by it. Being a Christian means learning how to be the opening of life into the world.
DOOR: Why do you call Jesus a subversive prophet who signaled the end to all religious movements?
ROLLINS: One of the interesting things about Christianity is that Christ both founded a religion and yet signaled the end of all religions. Jesus said there will come a time when we worship in spirit and in truth rather than on one mountain or another. The parable of the mustard seed grasps this. It speaks of a seed becoming a tree that will provide a nest of birds. The traditional interpretation is that this tiny movement will become an institution that will house people. But then there is another interpretation which says that the birds of the air are symbols of evil. In this reading, the movement will grow into an institution that will house that which stands opposed to God. What if neither interpretation is true but rather they both are? In Christianity, we need both the priest and the prophet. If religion loses the prophet, it can become prideful and arrogant. If it loses the priest, then you end up with nothing but silence. Christ can thus be seen as founding an irreligious religion, a religion that critiques the idea of religion, a religion without religion. This is one way of understanding deconstruction.
DOOR: So how do you define church in the 21st century?
ROLLINS: That’s a tough one.
DOOR: We stumped the philosopher. You owe us a Guinness.
DOOR: Sorry bud. Do continue.
ROLLINS: I guess I will say this. In the West I think we will continue to rediscover the wealth of the mystical tradition and negative theology. These are the wells that we should drink from and which may bring new life to the church. I really hope we rediscover the place of parable, of art, of not trying to give people doctrinal answers but rather to evoke questions. In Ikon we are exploring the idea of transformative art, an art form which evokes transformation in the participant.
DOOR: Mmmm, some would say this sounds a bit Bishop-Spong-like...
ROLLINS: My analogy for this is you imagine going into an art museum. If we imagine that the piece of art is the Bible, so many of us have been so obsessed with getting the "correct" interpretation, but the mystical interpretation is how you interact with the painting. You can’t interpret the painting any way you want. There are boundaries, but within those boundaries, there’s real freedom to interpret this work of art. The point is not to get the right interpretation but to explore how there are so many ways of interacting with it.
DOOR: Getting a bit personal here. Describe your faith journey growing up in Belfast.
ROLLINS: My life is an open book that anyone can read, though I don’t know how interesting it is.
DOOR: Well, in the interests of not bringing the interview to a dead stop ...
ROLLINS: I started my faith journey at age of 17 when I was converted through street evangelism.
DOOR: Praise the Lord! Preach it, brother.
ROLLINS: That’s when it all began. I started working for the church and became a church planter and evangelist with the Christian Fellowship Church. Then I started getting interested in philosophy to prove what I already knew but started to be very profoundly challenged by it. When it came to doing a Masters degree, I gave up the youth work and continued to work with the church. I started Ikon when I began my PhD, so I could work out my theories in practice.
DOOR: Moving on to that whole putting-theory-into-practice thingie, how do Ikon’s services put into practice your belief that the truth in Christianity is not described but experiential?
ROLLINS: In a sense I would not even want to say that the truth of Christianity is experiential in so much as the truth of Christianity is life and life is not experienced. Rather life is what allows us to experience. Just as one does not see sight but it is sight that enables one to see. In other words I don’t think we experience the truth of Christianity but the truth of Christianity is hinted at in the renewed way we experience everything else. In this way the truth of faith is not one thing among other things but rather is that which brings us into new relationship with all things. The way we explore this within Ikon is by attempting to create a gathering in which Christianity is not fundamentally about an understanding or experience but rather a way of being and interacting in the world.
DOOR: Why do you have your services in a bar?
ROLLINS: Whenever Ikon started meeting in bar, it was the least important place. I liked this bar and I asked the bartender if I could do it. As time went on, I almost reversed completely. You hear talk about different types of space, intimate space between a couple, personal space, social space, and public space. Church often feels like intimate space between you and God. So we’re exploring doing this in social space where secular and social begin to get blurred. We're tying to inhabit that social space and live out our fractured lives in public. I don’t know many groups who are experimenting with this.
DOOR: Most of the US religious leaders who act out in public tend to get arrested.
DOOR: When we’re having services in a bar, you get people smoking blow, heckling, things like that. It’s really scary. But it also created this wonderful dynamic. Some people who could never go near a church find they can go into this bar and explore their faith. After a year or two of going to Ikon, they could go to a church again. Our most committed regulars are workers at the bar. If we ever have elders at Ikon they’ll be bar staff. Our bartender is in prison at the moment, but he could put the fear of God in anybody that heckled us. At first he never engaged with us, he was suspicious of who we were. One day we brought some Catholic workers in and at that moment his attitude changed. There was a moment when we had a member of Ikon go to light a cigarette. He stopped and offered to light her cigarette. That was a real breakthrough moment when he crossed over and he joined us.
DOOR: Wanna drink? We’re buying.
(Note: portions of this interview appear in,
Words From Peter Rollins
"God spoke to me, repeating four simple words: 'I do not exist.'"
— Introduction to Ikon’s service titled “The God Delusion” (Greenbelt 2007)
"What if one of the core elements of a radical Christianity lay in a demand that we betray it, while the ultimate act of affirming God required the forsaking of God? And what if fidelity to the Judeo-Christian scriptures demanded their renunciation?
In short, what if the only way of finding faith involved betraying it with a kiss?
By employing the insights of apophatic theology and deconstructive theory this book seeks to explore the subversive and clandestine nature of a Christianity that dwells within religious institutions while simultaneously undermining them.
'The Fidelity of Betrayal' explores the Promethean nature of a faith which attempts to live up to the name bestowed upon it by the divine: Israel, one who wrestles with God."
— from "The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief"
"We must avoid confusion between remaining silent and saying nothing. For while the former is passive the latter is active. By saying nothing we endeavour to speak of that which manifests in our world as a no-thing, as an absolute mystery which infuses our world with light and life. To undergo and then speak of that which is not a thing but which transforms our relationship with all things ... this is a sacred and subversive vocation. Here you will find my own fragile, failing attempts to be a mouthpiece for that transformative silence."