Thursday, February 28, 2013

A dialogue with Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins is this year’s ESR Willson Lecturer on April 8. Our hope going into this year’s Lectures was that they would not just be a one-time encounter with a theologian, but include community-wide discussion both before and after Peter’s visit to campus. We are pleased to share that this is already taking place online, and invite others into the discussion. Below is a summary of a recent dialogue between Peter and ESR alum Micah Bales:


Among other things, Peter is behind a campaign called “Atheism for Lent.” As described on the site, “Atheism for Lent seeks to use some of the most potent critiques of Christianity as a type of purifying fire that might help us appreciate and understand Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross in a new way. Just as Christ experienced the loss of God on the Cross, so Atheism for Lent invites participants into that desert space traditionally called the dark night of the soul.

After hearing about and looking into this campaign, Micah posted an article on his blog – “Should we give up God for Lent?,” in which he makes the case that “Tearing down false images of God is an important task, but this cannot be the end of the story. God does not leave Job sitting on ashes and picking at his sores. After the night must come the dawn. Unfortunately, Rollins seems unwilling to engage in the process of developing an alternative vision. Rather than offering a positive understanding of who God is, he seems solely interested open-ended deconstruction.”

After some online discussion, Peter responded to Micah with the post “How Could I Possibly Need Atheism For Lent? I Need God Like I need Air!” In this response, Rollins suggests that “those in the Liberal tradition generally advocate a form of perpetual concrete action when faced with the injustices around them. In the words of Levinas, the face of the other issues a cry for help and the liberal is one who responds directly to that cry. The issue here is the nature of the response, one that can be termed ‘perverse.’ The pervert is, psychoanalytically speaking, unable to say ‘no’ to the desire of the other. The pervert’s desire is to be the object of the others pleasure. They are the one who always says ‘yes.’

“In a similar manner the liberal experiences a cry in the concrete face of the other that always demands a direct response. Hence there is a dislike of critical theory, which involves a form of stepping back from that cry (attending university, reading, writing etc). In Micah’s piece this is classically played out in his use of words such as ‘intellectualism’ and ‘elitism.’ Because the liberal tradition always attempts to say ‘yes’ to the call of the other any form of theoretical activity is viewed as oppositional to (or, at best a distraction from) the emancipatory project. The European tradition of Leftist theory is seen as divorced from the exigencies of actual action to eleviate inequality. Theory is seen as a type of second-order reflection on political activity rather than a form of political (in)activity. We see here, of course, the influence of American pragmatism.

“From the Radical perspective however the perverse response needs to be avoided. This means that there are times when we should refuse to respond to the concrete cry of the other for the sake of wider and deeper transformation. This means having to take on a certain guilt while working toward real change.”

Micah followed up with a response to this, “The Radical Within,” where he argues “that the answer to an unreflective faith is not to cease action, but rather to engage in action that is informed by reflection. The proper response to a religious life that is overly dependent on individual experience is not to deny experience, but rather to hold that experience in dynamic conversation with theory. If we are to live out the full gospel, a balanced and complete gospel, we must wed faith and action, experience and analysis.”

What do you think about Micah’s and Peter’s comments? Do you find the concept of “Atheism for Lent” helpful or not? What other elements of Peter’s work do you find yourself either resonating with or pushing against?


  1. If there can be "Consumerism for Christmas", why not "Atheism for Lent"? Maybe God doesn't believe in us(our nihilistic,if abject,responses)anymore either?!

  2. I find the "Methodist quadrilateral" helpful for understanding the conversation between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins. My understanding of the quadrilateral is that Christians are urged to balance the four sources of authority for Christians: Scripture, church/tradition/community, reason, and personal experience.

    Rollins describes himself as a "cultural Christian" and says he doesn't have personal experience of God. Therefore he emphasizes what reason tells him about God. Bales emphasizes experience of God as a major source of authority - as Quakers usually do. While Bales seems to appreciate the intellectual contribution Rollins makes, he also critiques Rollins for engaging only in an intellectual enterprise and discounting experience as the basis for faith.

    Rollins then tries to understand Bales' critique, but because he dismisses religious experience as a source of authority, he tries to interpret Bales' experiential approach by using an analysis of political action forms. Needless to say, he misses the mark. How could it be helpful to analyse divine experience as a political action form? It's as if Rollins were using a hammer to twist a screw into place. There's nothing wrong with either the hammer or the screw, but they don't work together?

    I have learned a lot from following this discussion, but I confess that I have been concerned to see what appears to be Rollins' disdain for experience and his willingness to speak disparagingly about those who do draw upon experience.

  3. Rollins really tried hard to understand but his experience in god may be not worked out.but this is quite interesting fro me