“Insurrection” Book Symposium – Rollins’s Response to Clark
The symposium on Peter Rollin’s Insurrection has been a really great exchange so far. Katharine Moody engaged with Pete’s work helpfully on the level of philosophy, bringing Pete’s work further into conversation with one of his main influences, Slavoj Zizek. Jason Clark’s review approached Pete’s work from a pastoral perspective, offering some challenging reflections on Pete’s work with respect to situating Pete in relation to historical and confessional theology. Pete’s response to Clark is below. You can read more about Pete and his work at his website. Thanks for all the interaction in the comments. With this post, the Symposium concludes, but can the conversation can continue with your comments.
I appreciate the concerns that Jason raises in his reflection on Insurrection and will try to address what I take to be his main criticism. Before doing so however I just want to push back on one minor point. Jason seems frustrated that I make certain generalisations. But I am not so sure that this is, in and of itself, a problem. When one wishes to make observations concerning some underlying structural reality manifested in the historically concrete, one explicitly does this. We do not carry around maps the size of the territory we are seeking to explore. They are scaled down and, as such, miss the vast majority of minor, insignificant details. The purpose of the map is to accurately portray the information needed to get to where you want to go.
The issue then is not that I make generalisations (even multi-volume texts on specific parts of church history do that), but whether the generalisations are accurate descriptions of underlying structural tendencies.
So what are my generalisations? In brief the primary one is that there are two broad tendencies in the church today, either we find communities that explicitly treat God as a garniture of meaning (our faith gives us a way of understanding the world and our place within it, God acts as a being who offers happiness, satisfaction and bliss, i.e., is treated like a product etc.) or we are free to question the idea of God as garniture of meaning while the liturgical structure we participate in continues to treat God in this way (thus acting as a type of security blanket). The map I draw won’t, of course, be a 1:1 of the territory it describes. The question rather is whether it puts its finger on a virtually ubiquitous underlying reality (and here, unlike elsewhere, I think I stand very close to the late Bonhoeffer). I then go on to try and show why this notion of God is problematic and how we might create collectives where the liturgical structure draws us into an encounter with our own brokenness.
Let us now consider what seems to be Jason’s main concern. He makes the case that I do not pay enough heed to the confessional theological tradition, that I am not interested in the historical context of the theological terms I employ and that I reduce central Christological claims to mere existential events. If we were to go head to head on these issues I would like to tease the claims out a little more and push back a bit. However, to a greater or lesser degree, I can agree with his assessment. My interest in this book (though not my sole theological interest) is to explore the existential import of Christianity (the subjective in Kierkegaard’s sense – meaning the way that its transforms our subjectivity).
An analogy might help to elucidate what I mean. If I am an analyst and someone comes to me to talk about their memories, dreams and fantasies I do not ask myself whether or not they are historically accurate descriptions of empirically observable situations. Rather I delve into the meaning they have for the individual. Together we explore their subjective significance. This does not mean that I judge them to be false in some objective way. Rather the question of historicity is bracketed out so that we can concentrate on the meaning and power of what is being discussed. I would, if I had space, argue that this type of approach to the faith is an eminently theological project and that if one wants to talk about the historical claims of Christianity a better person to dialogue with would be a well-trained archaeologist or historian.
To make his point Jason quotes me saying that God is not someone we directly encounter and thus not one we directly experience. His point, if I understand correctly, is that I am not interested in the objective reality of God, even rejecting the idea completely. As an aside the statement that he quotes can actually be seen as a rather orthodox one (there are many places throughout the Bible that speak of humans not being able to directly encounter God, let alone the ideas of God as found in the midst of service to the other). But the point that I am making (which he does not refer to) is not primarily related to this. Rather I am presenting the idea that the notion of “rebirth” does not, properly understood, actually describe an experience but rather the transformation of how we experience everything (just as one does not experience birth, for birth is what opens one up to experience).
This takes me to the heart of why I am interested in bracketing out the debates that saturate the popular arena of religious debate. To understand this let me take the example of the rabbi of Gur that I employ in The Fidelity of Betrayal. The story goes that during the Second World War he escaped from Germany and met with Winston Churchill to talk about the Nazi war machine. The story goes that this rabbi said, “there are two ways in which the Nazis could be stopped: the natural and the supernatural. The natural solution would involve 10,000 angels with flaming swords descending upon Germany. The supernatural would involve 10,000 Englishmen parachuting down from the sky.”
The point is that is if 10,000 angels with flaming swords descended upon Germany this would be a natural event. In other words these angels would act like other objects in the world; they would be seen, heard, and experienced. These angels would exist within space and time like every other object.
In contrast, the rabbi speaks of a supernatural response, namely 10,000 British soldiers descending in parachutes. Here the rabbi is hinting at a deep change in the hearts of the British that would precipitate such a drastic response. This change, for the rabbi, would be deeply supernatural because the change itself would not be something that could be captured in a laboratory or measured by reference to some purely utilitarian calculation. Unlike the descent of warrior angels, this change would not lend itself to be approached as a natural object to be reflected upon; it would not be made manifest to the senses but indirectly testified to in certain actions.
This no more excludes the possibility of phenomenon being influenced by something outside a closed system of cause and effect than it affirms them. Rather the point is that physical changes are natural insomuch as they take place in the natural realm. In contrast conversation on a miracle worthy of the name does not register it as an object that can be recorded and beamed around the world but rather refers to an event so radical that while nothing need change in the physical world nothing remains the same for the one who undergoes it.