The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief.
Dr Pete Rollins interviewed by Ian Mobsby about his new book.
What made you write this book? What question was a central motivation for it?
In many ways my reflective life has been consumed by a desire to dig deep into a seemingly simple idea, to burrow into its consequences, mine its depths and unearth its theoretical and practical wealth. This idea can sound rather humble and insubstantial at first, but as one really enters into its dark depths one realises that it leads to revolutionary modes of thought and action. The idea can be expressed in many ways, here I will pose it in terms of a question, “what if God is not to be found directly in our beliefs and practices but rather indirectly as the name we give to the source that generates our desire to form beliefs and practices”.
If one believes that we ought to take this question seriously then we are led to ask where it leads. This is something that I began to explore in How (Not) to Speak of God and that I have continued to investigate in The Fidelity of Betrayal. If the last book involved exploring how such an idea leads to the embrace of doubt, complexity and ambiguity then this new book investigates faith as the outworking of a constant wrestling with our religion, a struggle that involves being ready and willing to betray the very theological and ecclesial structures that sustain us. In exploring this I wish to show how betrayal, contrary to popular thought, can actually express the most radical fidelity to the source that generates our desire to forge these vast structures in the first place. In short, the book can be described as a singular sustained reflection on what it means to be baptised into the name “Israel”, a name that describes one who grapples with God.
What do you think your book says for those involved in the emerging church of different traditions?
In many respects I hope that this book discourages people from making the deconstructive, apophatic leanings of various emergent groups into some kind of new denomination or creedal affirmation. I hope that people reading this book will realise that deconstructive approaches to faith should never become ‘deconstructionism’, i.e. just another doctrinal system which one has to believe in order to be ‘in’. The point here is not so much to create a new set of beliefs but rather to challenge the way that we hold our beliefs. It is not about holding them lightly any more than it is about holding them tightly. It is about interacting with them in a different register entirely. I am constantly attempting to draw people back to the idea that faith is about living in the aftermath of an event that utterly transforms our mode of being in the world. Thus, while faith operates within language (for we are language beings) the Event of faith is never reducible to language.
I sometimes like to think of emergent groups as analogous to the warning on the packets of pills you get at a pharmacy. The label often reads something like, “these tablets have many health benefits but may cause drowsiness, have laxative effects and become addictive”. For me the church is like the packet of pills and emergent groups are saying, “the church has many health benefits but it may cause drowsiness, have laxative effects and become addictive”. The community of faith is made up of the pills and the warning, the priest and the prophet, the orthodox and the heretic, the religious and the irreligious. This is why I argue that Christianity is an irreligious religion, that faith is fundamentally ir/religious. It is also why I describe myself as a non-Christian in the Christian sense of the term.
How does your book impact the vision of emerging churches exploring contextual forms of worship mission and community?
I suppose I would have to say that it does this by questioning the very ideas of “Worship”, “Mission” and “Community”. To take one example I think that emergent groups ask really interesting questions about what it means to be community and whether we should ever try to be a community. I mean the phrase, “whether we should ever try to be a community” very precisely insomuch as I am not saying that these groups won’t end up being community, just that they shouldn’t necessarily try to be one. For instance, as soon a group begins to identify itself as a community people begin to have pastoral expectations. The result can be an unreasonable pressure on those who organise the meetings, the slow formation of hierarchical leadership structures (in order to meet those needs) and the danger that the group can become a psychological crutch for many who attend. However, if a group refuses to offer pastoral care and makes it clear that it is not a community, rather just a collective of disparate people exploring faith and life, the fewer expectations are generated among people. This direct denial of community can turn out to be the most fertile soil for real community to develop indirectly. For if there is no ‘group’ who cares about the person sitting beside me then there is more need for me to care about that person. If there is no pastoral support team in place then I need to be the pastoral support. The refusal to offer pastoral support thus generates a potential place where pastoral care is distributed among everyone. As Dovstoyesky once said, ‘we are all responsible for each other, but i am more responsible than all others’.
You say ‘the group can become a psychological crutch for many who attend’ – may be so – but is that necessarily wrong? Isn’t independence a modern individualistic myth?
My concern is that people do not begin to think of a religious collective as an entity that can satisfy certain felt needs. Now a religious group will, of course, coalesce into an entity of sorts, one with both implicit and explicit expectations and norms. However I would argue that Christian groups must seek to exist as a very special type of provisional entity. For me Christ structurally privileges the outsider, the outcast, the persecuted. Basically those people who are without a voice, who exist outside the given power structures. As soon as a structure is created with a defined ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ then Christ will be found ministering to those on the outside. Every entity creates an ‘inside/outside’ dichotomy to some extent and this is fine. However the Christian can be thought of as the one, not who serves the ‘inside’ but as the one who serves the ‘outside’. The result is that the Christian is the one who systematically acts outside systems, the one who seeks the lost sheep outside the pen rather than staying with the ninty-nine within it.
One of the results of this is that religious collectives should always be looking beyond themselves toward the excluded other, and in living like this people find healing and fulfillment. Religious collectives offer healing to those who join not by offering direct satisfaction of some felt needs but by offering a self transcending mode of living whereby one looks beyond oneself. The idea is not then to find a way for me to love myself and then I can love others but rather to provide a context for people to love others and thus begin to love and accept themselves indirectly as a result. In short, to get people to the point where they don’t need psychological crutches.
I worry that the modern world causes us to focus in unnatural ways on our own personal ‘needs’. It causes us to exist as de-politiced individuals who seek personal happiness in material possessions and fulfilling relationships. In other words it would seem as if we can find happiness and fulfillment when we have a certain level of physical comfort and can look into the eyes of our beloved and block out the world. In Western Capitalism we are sold a romantic myth alongside the myth that we have a variety of needs which can be met through consumption. Both of these effectively stop us from engaging in wider environmental-socio-political issues. In contrast I see community being built, not as we meet each others eyes (needs) but as we look to a common goal hand-in-hand. In a strange twist I would say that it is in laying down the inward gaze to our own needs (as individuals and a community) we will find our needs are fulfilled, because they will be transcended (just as love fulfills the law, not by meeting it but by transcending it).
This is not then about independence but rather a kind of asymmetrical interdependence in which we find healing in encountering the outsider and they find healing encountering us.
I think I hear what you are saying – but dumbing down on community – isn’t that just selling out to liberal capitalism. What is wrong with caring for each other? Where’s the love and gentleness in what is increasingly an impersonal world?
My desire is not to abolish community but rather to provide a context for it to flourish. My concern however is that, in contrast to the idea that we are living in a less gentle and more impersonal world we are living in a world where everything is sugar coated and about the personal. What I mean by this is the increase of a politically correct world where the only fear is fear of the other’s inappropriate views. A world where harassment is an over-riding concern, which is nothing less than a fear of the over-proximity of the (racist, sexist, etc.) other. Here we see the growth of the ‘naked public square’ where we demand that we do not encounter potentially offense views in the places we frequent. In short, we like others as long as they are like us and thus not really Other. In addition to this but there are numerous retreats, forms of therapy, new age health remedies etc. on offer in the world that invite us to focus upon the self. For me Capitalism has helped to create a world where we enshrine the protection of the individual from the ‘pollution’ of the Other (contrary to the popular view that liberalism celebrates Otherness) and where the consumers every need is taken care of. I think Christianity offers a radical solution to this narcissistic element of society. Here I am with the Late Bonheoffer who writes of the possibility of a religionless Christianity. While this phrase needs unpacked it does include the idea of a Christianity that is not obsessed with us knowing the ‘bad news’ (our own inability to find happiness and fulfillment) before the ‘good news’. For this just makes Christianity into a self-interested pursuit that parodies the world (like an advert which tells you that you lack a good razor and then provides the answer). It has always struck me as strange that some churches invite people into a life of selfless love of others by getting them to join through targeting their most personal, existential self-interest.
So what does leadership look like in these collectives?
Facilitating this type of community without community is not easy and it needs people whose job it is to resolutely refuse leadership and authority. A job that I would argue helps to define the tru role of the leader. Another way of describing this role would be in terms of the priestly rejection of priesthood, an act that encourages what the bible calls a priesthood of all believers. This does not at all mean that there is no role for leaders, for the role of refusing leadership is one that needs to be filled.
No leaders but still having a leading role? What do you really mean in practice?
Well in mundane terms I could use the example of someone starting a group and then, at the point when people start to look to them for support and answers, stepping back in order to create a void that will be filled by others. Here the leader does not fill a void but rather forms it and then stands back from it. To put it in different and more provocative language one could say that movements mature when the founding figure is killed. When the founding figure is rendered in some way absent in order to bring what they created to its fruition.
It is a common feature of religious life that we often seek a leader to tell us what to do. In these situations I would argue that it is good to have a leader who refuses to take on that role. Who, by doing so, forces the other to take responsibility for themselves. This is somewhat analogous to a psychoanalytic session where the analyst refuses to take on the position that the analysand wishes them to inhabit. It is a popular misconception that the analyst takes on some kind of paternal role in the session, providing interpretations of the analysands experience. In most schools of psychoanalysis the analyst refuses to take on the role that is assigned to them as subject-supposed-to-know.
The truth is that many of us seek a particular kind of leader, namely one we can lead. What this means is that we want someone to tell us what we want to hear, but that we want them to take on the responsibility for our actions rather than embrace that responsibility ourselves. The leader who refuses to lead short-circuits this manipulative game and invites people into taking on the responsibility for their own decisions.
What are the central themes of your book (in summary)?
I guess the answer to that can be expressed in relation to the title. Firstly, the title itself refers to the idea that, in order to remain faithful to Christianity, we must be prepared to betray it. Secondly, the sub-title of the book, Towards a Church Beyond Belief, refers to my desire to help the reader envision the possibility of faith collectives which exist, quite literally, beyond belief. In other words, radical collectives that are unified at a deeper level than the mere acceptance of shared doctrines and creeds. For so much of the church, and you see this throughout the Christian blog-o-sphere, the vital issue relates to what you believe. In this way what you intellectually affirm defines whether or not you are orthodox or even Christian. I want to show that this is a deeply problematic way of approaching the revolution that Christ was instigating. An approach that misunderstands the earth-shattering message of the biblical text itself.
Has writing the book changed you in anyway?
Yes, totally. I guess that’s part of the reason why I write. I know that regardless of whether anyone else gets anything from what I put on paper I do. Indeed I say at the beginning that this book has already reached the person who was supposed to read it because that person is none other than myself. Writing this book has not only helped to clarify my own thinking but has challenged me personally.
Part of my argument in the book is that the truth of faith cannot be approached by academic reflection, that it cannot be grasped by books or in talks. The only thing that a book like mine can do is remind the reader of this and invite them to move beyond the words.
As such, in writing this book, I was consciously trying to remind myself that my ability to write about the truth of faith did not in any way mean that I was living in that truth. It is all too easy to fool oneself into thinking that, by writing about the truth of faith, you are actually living it. But just as writing about climbing a mountain isn’t climbing a mountain so writing about faith does not mean you are living a life of faith.
So the book was a challenge to me that faith must be lived, not merely reflected upon, and that I must recall that sacred source that moved me to write in the first place. For the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I would become a ‘professional believer’, and in the process lose my faith.
Concerning professional believers losing their faith… Are you trying to tell me something?
We are both in a similar position here and so perhaps we have to wrestle with the same danger, namely that of having our livelihood so bound up in our religious convictions that we could end up affirming our religious convictions because our livelihood depends on it (although both of us would admit that what we make at times hardly counts as making a livelihood). This will not necessarily take place, but I think it is a potential danger.
However, in saying that I am in no way claiming is that we should avoid this danger or even simply negotiate it as some kind of necessary evil. For it is in seeing this danger, wrestling with it, and attempting to be honest with ourselves and others about own motives that this danger is revealed as transformative. As that which can bring about spiritual depth and maturity.
What questions has this book raised for you – that need further reflection?
I guess the book leads to the question, ‘how do we form these communities beyond belief, what do they look like, what is leadership like etc.’ While I begin to ask these questions in The Fidelity of Betrayal I hope to dedicate a book to the subject. Though I have just finished a book of parables entitled The Orthodox Heretic and other Impossible Tales that will come out before this.
Pete Rollins Spends his time writing, lecturing and co-ordinating the experimental collective Ikon. His primary philosophical interests lie in the area of continental philosophy of religion, phenomenology and post-modernism and helping to render these accessible to the church.
The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. is published by Paraclete/SPCK.