Peter Rollins is a postmodern pastor, theologian and philosopher born and raised in Northern Ireland. In 2006, he published his first book, “How (Not) to Speak of God,” as an attempt to bring the mystical approach of viewing God into the wider Christian community of the Western Church. The core of this endeavor can be found in the following statement articulating the tension between mystical humanism and religious fundamentalism:
“That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking” (page xiv).
Drawing heavily on postmodern philosophy and the tradition of medieval mystical thought (especially that of Meister Eckhart), the book itself was directed to those engaged or interested in the “the emerging conversation” (page xvi). Accordingly, Rollins spends the first part of the book providing a theological framework for this view of God before shifting into a more practical outworking of the material. While Rollins’ application of his theoretical framework is interesting, this review is going to focus solely on the theological first part of the book.
In the first chapter, Rollins introduces two very important concepts. The first is that each of us unconsciously projects our view of the world on to the Scriptures, affecting the way in which we see and understand God. Once we know this, then we are able to understand the second major concept, that of mystery and concealment. It is this later concept that serves to drive the book forward as Rollins explores how God can both be concealed and revealed at the same time: “revelation embraces concealment at one and the same time as it embraces manifestation and that our various interpretations of revelation will always be provisional, fragile, and fragmentary” (page 18).
Chapter two builds upon this foundation by “exploring how such thinking critiques the idea of theology as that which speaks of God in favor of the idea of theology is the place where God speaks” (page xv). The core of this exploration is the concept that while we must continue to speak of God, we must also recognize that our words will always fails at truly defining or describing God. This “a/theology”, as Rollins calls it, is an “uncollapsible tension between affirming our religious ideas while also placing them into question” (page 28).
The next chapter continues to developed the a/theology concept with a focus on virtual of doubt. Rather than trying to know everything completely, a/theology focuses on the Holy Saturday experience between the shock of the cross and the glory of Resurrection Sunday. Namely that the decision to follow Jesus on Holy Saturday, when the future is unknown, is the true decision while the same decision on Resurrection Sunday, when the future is certain, is a false decision. This embracement of doubt causes one to realize that “God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual” (page 44).
The theme of doubt and mystery continues to build in chapter four with Rollins exploring how the “rediscovery of mystery, doubt, complexity and ambiguity in faith helps us come to a more appropriate understand of religious desire” (page xv). For Rollins, it is the “seeking” after God that is important rather than the “finding” Him as other traditions have done (page 53). This core thought behind this can be understood in the following statement:
“A true seeking after God results from an experience of God which one falls in love with for no reason other than finding God irresistibly lovable. In this way the lovers of God are the ones who are the most passionately in search of God” (page 53).
All of this mystery, doubt and complexity on whether one can fully talk about or understand God leads to question how we can understand which reading of the Bible is “good and which reading is not” (page 64). Rollins tackles this question in the fifth and final chapter of part one during which he “draws out the centrality of love in Christian thinking” (page xv). Rather than having an infinite number of ways in which one could interpret the Scriptures, love provides the boundaries that keep the interpretations in check. This prejudice of love is draw from Rollins view that it was the “central interpretive tool that Jesus employed when interpreting the scriptures” (page 65).
In reflecting on part one of Rollins book, I found myself really enjoying and agreeing with chapters one through four. The mystical concepts of the unknowable yet knowable God is something I have embraced over the years, primarily through the reading of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity. In this tradition, they have something called apophatic theology which attempts to describe God by what He is not just like cataphatic theology seeks to describe Him by what He is. The back-and-forth nature of the Eastern Orthodox’s apophatic and cataphatic approaches to theology creates a sense of mystery which fits beautifully with Rollins a/theology viewpoint.
My main disagreement with Rollins is over the centrality of love in chapter five. Rather than seeing love as the central interpretive tool used by Jesus, I see Jesus embarking on the mission of God as seen through the lens of Kingdom Theology. God is the Creator King who created humanity in His image as a signpost to all of creation declaring His rule and reign. After breathing life into humanity, the Creator King beckons them to join Him in His mission to establish His kingdom throughout the earth. Jesus, in entering into a specific culture at a certain time and geographical location, joined His Father on this mission while destroying the works of the evil one and challenging the different contemporary interpretations of the kingdom. We, as followers of Jesus, are to embrace the mystery of the inaugurated eschatological kingdom established by Jesus and allow that mystery to guide us in how we view God and the Scriptures.