Peter Rollins's Response

Recently, as a part of my The Slavery of Death series I wrote a critique of Peter Rollins's book Insurrection. Yesterday, Peter posted a response (I think because many of you tweeted at him) over at his blog. Head on over and check it out and share your impressions there or here (or both places).

The gist of my original post was that I couldn't find in Insurrection the necessary connection between the "death of god" (crucifixion, Part 1 of Insurrection) and the practices of love (resurrection, Part 2 of Insurrection). More specifically, why does the Deus ex Machina interfere with love? Why do we have to get rid of the Deus ex Machina for love to flow forth?

As I wrote in my original post, the only connection I could discern in Insurrection was that the Deus ex Machina promoted an otherworldly spirituality. Love is projected onto a god "out there" rather than being directed at flesh and blood people. This is the root of my critique in the Bait and Switch post.

So I agree that this is a problem. Otherworldliness is rampant in contemporary Christianity. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, American spirituality is "too spiritual."

This is correct as far as it goes. I just don't think it goes deep enough. In my opinion, the deep problem with the Deus ex Machina isn't otherworldliness or existential infantalism (believing that God is the Benevolent Father in the Sky who will take care of us), though these are problems. My take is that I think these are surface level symptoms of the deeper disease, the runny nose rather than the virus itself. The real problem, in my opinion, are the biblical problems, the Christus Victor problems:

Sin. Death. The Devil. The Principalities and Powers.

As I read it, these are problems that don't show up a lot in Insurrection. What I think is lacking in Insurrection (surprise, surprise) is the very thing we are working through in the Slavery of Death series (and which I touch on a bit in The Authenticity of Faith): a robust theology of sin and the satanic, the roots of selfishness, rivalry, and violence.

1 John 3.8
The reason the Son of Man appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
In summary, I don't think Rollins and I disagree at all on the surface level, that the "death" of the Deus ex Machina is necessary for love to be truly embraced. The difference, if there is one, and there might not be one, has to do with 1) how we specify the underlying machinery (the psychological dynamics at work), and 2) where the root problem is to be found. For Rollins the problem seems to be existential infantalism (the need for the Big Other). For me, that's a symptom a deeper problem: our slavery to the fear of death which produces the works of the devil in our lives. The Deus ex Machina in this case is less a cause than a symptom, a mask that is deployed (mostly unconsciously) to obscure the deeper dynamic.

What I can't tell is if these distinctions in our projects make much of a difference. There's considerable overlap. But I do think starting with the slavery to the fear of death as prior to the Deus ex Machina is a beginning place that has greater explanatory power and can incorporate more biblical, theological and psychological material.


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19 thoughts on “Peter Rollins's Response”

  1. I would argue (and do in my next book) that the underlying problem is neither the death of the Big Other or our death (or even the death of the ones we love al la the interesting Gabriel Marcel). I would see the latter as an epiphenomenon. I argue that nothing is the ultimiate reality which we have to wrestle with. Nothing as something. In other words nothing rendering into nothingness. This is, of course, manifested in anxiety. We can, via Tillich's reading of Freud, isolate three type of anxiety (which are really concrete manifestations of the same): death, meaninglessness and guilt. As Tillich says each epoch emphasizes one over the others, for the 20th Century West it was death but we must be careful not to think of death as THE manifestation of nothingness. Here we confuse the content for the form. I argue in the next book that the challenge is how to rob nothing of its sting - exposing its reality as nothing. I also deal with some of the other themes you mention above. Look forward to hearing your thoughts when it comes out.

  2. > So I agree that this is a problem. Otherworldliness is rampant in
    contemporary Christianity. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, American
    spirituality is "too spiritual."<

    Yes, I agree.  I don't think the distinctions in your projects make much difference -- hence the seeming overlap.  These ideas are all about an Ultimate Other World, as and such cannot really be spoken of in THIS world practical terms without ongoing otherworldly references.  The pleasure is in the attempt toward understanding and practicality, however, as evidenced here every day.

  3. Really ooking froward to your next book. Your focus on anxiety gets us, I think, very much in the same ballpark. Thanks for the conversation Peter.

  4. Richard,

    Not quite Deus ex Machina, "Bait and Switch" or "fear of death," but Jesus "went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with him."  Now that combats nihilism.


  5. I'd rather start dealing with our "slavery to the fear of death," as Scripture itself seems to address this more prominently.

    Great thoughts!

  6. Agreed. I love that verse. It's a good day when you feel like you went about, even in small ways, doing good and healing those oppressed of the devil. A good day indeed.

  7. Perhaps a very simplistic comment:

    I think you (Dr. Beck) and Dr. Rollins are approaching the exact same point from different perspectives--Rollins, philosophy; Beck, psychology. I think this accounts for the "difference" being bantied about. I think you both are saying the same thing.

    Which is to say... I guess not much.



  8. No, I think you're right. Which, I think, explains some of my desire to add my two cents. Rollins's work is getting increasingly psychological but, in my estimation, many of the continental philosophers he is using are too abstract to be of much help to his project.

  9. I just read Peter's response...I could sense some adrenaline besides some Wittgenstein at work.  To me,Richard, your critique never felt like a contradictory move towards Peter's ideas; to him, it looked to me like he felt them as contradictory.

    I think we should note for ourselves, that place of snot or virus which you describe, presents an opening- not a challenge. And from the looks of it, we're all (any of us involved that is) moving into that opening with the angel and devil on either shoulder and Wittgenstein on our head: there's a  bit of a cumbersome and slippery way ahead of us.... Could be fun!

  10. From my perspective, it appears that you (Richard) are investing the language of Scripture (death, devil, etc.) in this series with this very concept of "Nothingness", or at least pointing in that direction. So yeah, in the same ballpark. And I think it is a good fit, bringing greater coherence to the narrative.

    (btw, discussions about nihilism remind me of "The Neverending Story", one of my favorite movies as a kid)

  11. I admit, as someone who is pretty spiritual himself (hope that doesn't sound presumptuous), it is a bit awkward to be reading this. Though, the typical "hands raised to the air/One Way Up" spirituality of the churches isn't my own, necessarily.

  12. Dr. Beck,

    I want to say that, first of all, your writings have been a tremendous help to me both personally and as a minister. As a United Methodist, I find it extremely heart-warming that I often quote you in my sermons.

    What I've found interesting is that I had the opportunity to talk with Pete last fall for the good part of an afternoon and in our discussion I mentioned some of the thoughts from S. Mark Heim's book (which I read on your recommendation) along with some areas I'd also been dealing with pastorally. At the time, Pete said much of this sounded similar to what he was working on.

    So, now that you two are having this discussion I find it highly amusing while, at the same time, refreshing. Please keep up the good work and thank you so much for being one of the wonderful sources that God has used to inform and transform my work.

  13. Thanks Derek. It seems like quite a few people have been amused that Pete and I have "made contact." I really would like to get to talk with him in person some day.

  14. Richard and Peter,

    I am going to put in a good word for hope--in addition to love--as having an important family relationship to faith. And hope has a crucial other-worldly aspect to it, which--in my opinion--should not be discounted.
    If I really believe that the world will end tomorrow, I can be excused from numerous kinds of good deeds that depend on the hope that the world will not end: planting trees, nurturing a friendship with a shy acquaintance, etc. Similarly, if I believe that evil or indifference will triumph in the end, in my life I will see less reason to dedicate myself to (ultimately pointless) good deeds, while I will feel justified in making compromises with evil: better a compromise that lasts than a pure heart that comes to nothing, I might well think. 

    Here's the point: this is not anxiety or fear motivating my life in the absence of hope, but a sober view of what I believe is the Reality I face. 

    If you look at Tillich's approach to the resurrection, it is a restoring of hope in the face of the annihilation of good (the crucifixion, for the disciples). It's an insistence that the annihilation of good will not be the final word. 

    I'm with both of you in the need to make sure that other-worldliness does not become the focus of faith. But we should recall that--in my opinion--the purpose of the otherworldly aspect of faith is the preservation of a hope that puts the focus on love--Paul's "Faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love."    

  15. Richard, when will your 'The authenticity of faith' be available in the UK? It is still not showing up on Amazon. Thanks! 

    Am loving this extended discussion and dialogue.

  16.  Thinking some more. What links death/devil/principalities/powers to nihilism in the Scriptures is the prophetic imagination. The prophets employed metaphors of de-creation toward the powers, a return to the Void before the beginning. Kings were stars that fell from the heavens. The plagues of Egypt neutered their entire Universe. The cosmos of the nations were deconstructed by Israel's God, who rendered all the Somethings into Nothing, and called into Being that which was not, a not-people into a people.

    But then we get into trouble when a Chosen identity becomes a conquest identity and we claim god on our side, as Bob Dylan put it so well. There is hope when someone can claim, "My name it is Nothing."

  17. I'm coming to this discussion very, very late (3 years too late, judging by the dates of the comments). Despite some bright spots, there are many weaknesses in Rollins' Insurrection. See my full review (>11,000 words) at

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