Although I’d like to take credit for this, the idea belongs to Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher who has been associated with the Emerging Church. Rollins recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an extended critique of his work on Red Letter Christians. Since Micah Bales, the writer of the post, critiques Rollins in a way that appeals directly to the habitus of liberal evangelical Christians, I wanted to respond to his points from my perspective. Given the choice, I would quickly and easily choose the theology of Rollins over Bales’ critiques.
The critique comes out of the context of Atheism for Lent, an idea Rollins has promoted for several years, which suggests that rather than giving up something like chocolate or TV for Lent, we give up God instead. Why? To experience the sense of abandonment by God that Jesus felt on the cross. To fully embody the doubt that Rollins contends is the hallmark of Christianity. It is only by giving up our preconceived ideas about God that we can experience the love that fills the hole left by their absence. I’ll talk more about this in the future, because there is much to like about Rollins’ approach, which draws on Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek, John Caputo, and others. Bales’ critique here is not directly about Rollins’ theology, though, but his approach.
His first critique is that Rollins is toying with Gnosticism. Bales doesn’t use the term, but suggests that Rollins’ appeal lies in the draw of some special knowledge that others don’t know about or don’t grasp. He asks, “But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?” The questions are irrelevant to the legitimacy of Rollins’ approach. I agree with Bales that Rollins’ approach is crafted toward a more intellectual crowd, but that has no bearing on the authenticity of its content. Gnosticism was a blanket term used against Christians in the early Church who saw the key to Jesus, not necessarily in his bloody death, but in the knowledge he imparted before death. While the term is often used in a pejorative sense now, before the triumph of orthodox Christianity, it was just one among many legitimate strands of Christian thought and practice. In short, the accusation of Gnosticism is a polemical approach that can only be made from the standpoint of the majority. Because a particular version of Christianity holds sway today, if someone like Rollins promotes an understanding that requires rethinking the traditional means and symbols we use to think about Christianity, it is easy to claim that its appeal lies in its elitism. It was the same charge leveled against early Christians by Rome.
Bales’ second point is that Rollins doesn’t talk about social justice enough. He only talks about the personal aspects of Christianity, the ways in which the individual responds (or not) to God. Bales is right that Rollins does not give an extensive summary of ways for Christians to enact social justice, but I couldn’t disagree more with the heart of this point. A great part of Rollins’ appeal for me as I was jettisoning mainstream Christianity was the way in which Rollins tears down the hypocrisy inherent in typical Christian responses to social justice, responses that have little more to recommend them than participating in social justice by buying your latte at Starbucks and knowing that 1% goes back to the coffee farmers. (This is a classic example of Žižek.) Rollins suggests that Christian attempts at social justice are largely playing a role, gesturing at the actions that we think Christians ought to perform through singing songs, putting bumper stickers on our vehicles, and putting an extra $5 in the collection plate for overseas missions. It is true that Rollins’ work is focused on deconstructing Christian norms than outlining a social justice platform. I don’t know that Rollins would argue this, but I think the bigger problem is that Christians believe that theological propositions (God died for me, etc.) are the foundation of social change when they have no necessary connection. In other words, Christianity as it is practiced institutionally does not require social change. It requires maintenance of the status quo.
Bales’ third point is a variant of the first; namely, that Rollins’ message only appeals to those in a relatively comfortable social class, those that have the freedom to play with their beliefs. There is a sociological point here, in that those with other structural supports are less likely to rely as heavily on theological truths to secure their wellbeing. Bales writes that his friend who works with individuals with severe disabilities said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.” This critique is misleading. If Rollins is correct, then Bales is blaming him for trying to give people a better understanding of Christianity when they have been given misinformation. This paradigm says, “Well, they’re happy now, so don’t bother them.” Which approach values these people as individuals more? It’s also a fallacy to believe that these people need to have the theological crutch they have to survive. Much of the world survives without such a message, a a good portion dies with it. I would argue that this approach is precisely what prevents the social change Bales deplores is missing. Atheism may not the answer for those in need right now, but Christianity may not be either. The answer could be, without touting a theological message, to show the divine to the person in need with love, empowering them to thrive in the world by extending, as much as possible, the structural supports that we casually suggest are our rights.
We could put this another way. The reason Christianity is more appealing to those who are young and to those who are in dire straits is that allows them a simple way to distance themselves from their circumstances. These populations have the lowest intellectual resistance to the institution because they are weak and vulnerable. Is that a point to objectively recommend Christianity? Or would it be more valuable to give people the tools to understand their own circumstances in a different way and explore different ways to relate to them?
In short, Bales’ critique serves as a reaffirmation of the status quo. While it looks to me as if he does comparatively more than the average Christian (whatever that means) to practice his beliefs, his message here allows Christians to remain happily static, instead of challenging the dependency of their theology upon social and cultural norms. My critique of Rollins, essentially, is that he is a closet atheist who continues to use the Christian message for political purposes. He thinks he can make greater change within Christianity than abandoning the narrative all together. Or perhaps he does think that the Christian story is an appropriate narrative to understand our existential relationship with the world. Part of me thinks that he may be right. But the greater part thinks that the tradition has done too much damage in the past to be trusted with our existential future.