The “Faith” of Peter Rollins

rollinsAuthor and Post-Structuralist thinker, Peter Rollins, describes himself as a “provocative writer, lecturer, storyteller and public speaker who has gained an international reputation for overturning traditional notions of religion and forming ‘churches’ that preach the Good News that we can’t be satisfied, that life is difficult, and that we don’t know the secret” (link). Here one is inclined to agree with Rollins. It really would overturn (or at least sideline) the traditional understanding of the Gospel—that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21)—for us to replace it with the sad tiding that people’s longings and desires frequently go unsatisfied, and that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

No doubt these things are true (or close to truth). But how is this good news–let alone “the” good news? Is it even news? Just in case you’re too young and missed it: ever since the 60s, Mick Jagger has been repeatedly telling us that we “can’t get no satisfaction.” You might say that’s his message (one of them anyway). By stark contrast, the Apostle Paul says that as “Christ’s ambassadors,” we have been entrusted with something wholly different and vastly superior: “the message of reconciliation…that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:19).

Living in Faith, Living “As If”

Now one of the declared purposes of Rollins’ blog—perhaps the main purpose—is to challenge “the idea that faith concerns questions relating to belief.” This comes out in various posts, including one entitled “Faith ≠ Certainty, Doubt, or Belief” (link). The title tells us what Rollins thinks faith is not. What does he think it is? Here are a few of his ideas:

Faith thus exists in a different register to the categories of belief, doubt and certainty. It exposes the implicit impotence of these categories when applied to the event of Christ. To have faith is to see differently.

To live in faith is to live as though the world has meaning, as if matter is special, as if what we do is significant. It has then nothing to do with belief, doubt or certainty but rather with a particular mode of living as-if.

Faith then is the experience of being taken up in the experience of meaning, of feeling the world to be wonderful, the other as sublime and our neighbour as worth dying for. We cannot will such a way of engaging with the world into being, at best we can invite it, hope for it, wait for it, pray and weep for it.

Rollins doesn’t make it clear how “the event (?) of Christ” factors in here, nor how it shows that such epistemic categories as belief and doubt are made impotent. Impotent in what respect? Was there something they were expected to do, but then fell short? Well, we’re not told. What we are told is that faith is an experience or feeling of something—a feeling that the world is wonderful and so is our neighbour: wonderful enough to die for. Faith is also an experience beyond our direct control, since Rollins says we must wait and pray for it to put in its appearance. If and when it does, we can “live in faith,” that is, “as if” our lives were meaningful.

Is Rollins’ “Faith” Christian? As-If

Like other would-be critics of Christianity and the church, Rollins has a rather idiosyncratic way of defining his terms. His aim, I can only surmise—as in everything else he writes—is to “overturn” the traditional Christian understanding on some given topic (faith in this case). I say this because Rollins-faith bears little resemblance to faith as defined in, say, the New Testament. Why should Christians jettison the biblical understanding of faith for Rollins’ favoured postmodern notion? Rollins is entirely silent on the matter. But this is entirely too easy. Anyone can pontificate on faith, baldly declare it to be such-and-such, and then start drawing conclusions. Mark Twain says it’s “believing what you know ain’t so.” Only slightly less derisive is Peter Boghossian‘s recent definition: “believing without evidence” (link). However, there’s no reason to think Christians must take responsibility for either.

Finding Faith in Hebrews

Strangely enough, Rollins shows no interest in trying to square his concept of “faith as a feeling of worldly and neighbourly wonderfulness” with what is undoubtedly the classic New Testament passage on the matter: Hebrews 11:1—“faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Now here, of course, the author of Hebrews isn’t identifying faith with certainty or conviction. (For the logical purists, the ‘is’ at stake is not that of identity but rather predication.) We know that because there are things true of faith that aren’t true of my being certain of unseen things. For example, faith is the sort of thing that pleases God (“without faith it is impossible to please him [11:6]) and that I can be commended for. Not so for being in a state of mental certainty about unseen things. You don’t get “snaps” for that. As Aquinas once said, certitude arises when the mind is “impelled to consent by force of a conclusive proof” (ST, 2s2ae. 2, 9, reply). In such a case, the assent of reason isn’t meritorious; God expects it.

But don’t miss the point (which I think Rollins does miss): while biblical faith isn’t the very same thing as certainty or conviction, it is nevertheless characterized by it. And yet Rollins tells us faith has “nothing to do with belief…or certainty.” Here he moves too quickly. For if you read even a smidge further into Hebrews 11, it becomes apparent that faith is actually fueled by factual knowledge; indeed, it cannot operate in a knowledge (/belief) vacuum. Thus, the author writes (11: 17-19):

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, [18] even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” [19] Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death (NIV).

Why Rollins-Faith ≠ Biblical Faith

There are a few things to note here. First, while Rollins-faith is passive (you have to wait for it to show up), biblical faith is active. It isn’t something that happens to you; it’s something through which you do something you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. Notice all the active verbs. By faith: Abel offered his sacrifice (11:4), Noah constructed an ark (11:7), Abraham offered up Isaac (11:17), the people crossed the Red Sea (11:29), Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh (11:24), and so on.

Second, Rollins-faith doesn’t seem to have an object or an end; it isn’t goal directed. It’s just a feeling or experience that happens to you. Not so for biblical faith. It involves actively trusting in someone for something. The object of faith (what faith is placed in is the Lord himself). That’s the source of certainty and conviction. What gives faith its momentum is the end (or final cause) of our action: the promised but unseen reality of great value. And thus we are told:

  • “[Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
  • “[Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. [27] By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:26-27).
  • “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. [14] For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland” (Hebrews 11:13-14).

Third, contra Rollins, if I’m Abraham, it turns out that I have to know (hence believe) plenty of things before faith can operate. I have to know: (1) that God exists, (2) that he isn’t a deceiver, but rather rewards those who earnestly seek him, (3) that there are unseen realities, (4) that these realities are “better” than earthly realities. Finally, I have to know (5) that God really has prepared a “homeland,” a “better country,” a “heavenly city” for me. Now if I don’t know these things, then my faith won’t even exist; for it will have no object and no end. So faith presupposes knowledge. Notice what it says about Abraham: “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead” (Hebrews 11:9).That’s why he was able to act by faith; he knew something about God.

So what is biblical faith? In a nutshell, it is a confident trust in and readiness to obey the Lord for the sake of unseen but greatly valued realities based on what I know to be true about God’s person and Word. When you define it that way, it’s easy to see why faith is pleasing to the Lord. Because if I’m willing to give up everything I can see (my possessions, my money, my reputation, my worldly comforts) for something I cannot see (but which God has promised), it shows the Lord where my heart is. I cherish and value him above all these things. It shows that my trust is in him to keep his promises, and not in those visible things.

At the end of the day, the real measure of what you and I value is what we’re willing to part with or endure to obtain it.

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. [36] Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. [37] They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— [38] of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Hebrews 11:35-38).

Rollins-faith is nothing at all like this. By his own admission, faith has nothing to do with believing let alone being certain that there are unseen realities, that God exists, or that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. In short, Rollins-faith is no less a product of Rollins’ imagination than is Twain’s or Boghossian’s idiosyncratic constructions. It seems to me, therefore, that in this case at least, Rollins has failed to live up to his “international reputation for overturning traditional notions of religion” if indeed that was his intent.

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One comment on “The “Faith” of Peter Rollins

  1. […] Boghossian doesn’t tell us. And it’s hard to see how it would go. I’ve argued elsewhere (see here) that the ‘is’ in (11:1*) is not that of identity. What this passage teaches, therefore, is not […]

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