Under the pretense of talking about pirate theology, Peter Rollins, Kester Brewer and Barry Taylor gathered to discuss “radical theology” at Fuller this month. Rollins, in particular, analyzed the intersection between psychoanalysis and theology, arguing that Christians need to experience doubt like Jesus on the cross, asking God, the father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” After much contrived discussion, the panelists concluded that radical theology will lead to the death of Christianity as a religion in order that a new manifestation of Jesus-following might emerge. While I sympathize with Rollins and co.’s intentions, I am not certain how radical theology’s psychoanalytic approach relates to non-western contexts. Moreover, their assessment of radical theology’s (read: Emergent Church) role in church history falls victim to the same dialectical trap that Rollins critiques in his work.
Rollins and co. want us to renew our practice of doubt. Exploiting the apophatic theological tradition, Rollins has written books called How Not To Speak God and the Idolatry of God; the subtitle of his blog is To Believe is Human, to Doubt is Divine. Aside from mere rhetorical polemics, Rollins wants to crucify our beliefs in ideology, religion, and God in order that we might come to accept our finitude and broken nature. He is largely responding to the fundamentalist elements in the U.S. and Western Europe, a subset of Christianity which argues that a few key beliefs are integral to faith. Influenced by this fundamentalism, western protestantism has developed a theological litmus test of faith. Rollins is responding to this trend and challenging them to doubt their misguided and lazy belief, proposing a materialist Christianity in its place. In the west, this kind of discourse, while certainly not new, is a welcomed tonic to the toxic divisions caused by ideology and belief.
At the same time, I am not sure that this call to doubt everything has any relevance to subjugated communities in the peripheral areas of empire, where doubt is more normative than belief. Places where death and decay are visible, global capitalism ravages the land and resources of the commons, disease threatens lives every day, and US-backed dictatorships function as tools of maintaining oppression in order to procure cheap labor and oil. In these places, belief in a savior God might be the only unifying system they have. The mythology of Christianity becomes the only hope to liberate one’s self of constant doubt. Are we to fault someone living in this context for desiring a benevolent Big Other to redeem them? And if this spiritual energizing and this horizon of hope aids them in movements toward liberation and freedom, then why support a temporary ideology of hope and new creation? These questions remained unanswered.
Some might argue that Peter Rollins is merely addressing his context. This might be true, but Rollins also claims that his radical theology has the power to revolutionize Christianity by bringing an end to religion and allowing for rebirth, following some Nietzschean-esque metanarrative of a historical march toward liberation. Aside from the fact that this categorical critique of religion is heavily influenced by the faulty enlightenment ideas in its reduction of religion to institutions and power relations, this contrived understanding of their movement’s significance falls victim to the same historical trap that the movements against capitalism fall victim: they are absorbed into the larger movement and become tools to perpetuate the system. Slavoj Zizek, Rollins central intellectual influence, critiques movements seeking to break the logic of capitalism because these movements more often becomes tools to further entrench the relations of capital. For instance, environmentalism began as reaction against over-consumption and abuse of the non-human world. As more people began believe that the crisis was real, what started as a movement apart from and against capitalism become a tool for perpetuating capitalism. Companies began producing green products, cars, and other necessities with the environmentally-friendly stamp. So, what began as movement against the basic logic of capitalism (growth and consumption), turned into an emerging market. In the same way, this radical theology will likely function as a tool to help Christianity through a period of deep alienation: we are increasingly burdened producers; we sit at computers all day, busily constructing simulacrum to support a virtual apparatus called global capitalism. At night, we return to boring television, boring sex with our boring spouse, and maybe some whiskey. We are told by political propagandists and virtually all media outlets to enjoy life, but most of us aren’t.
Rollins provides the perfect salve for these thirsty travelers with his psychoanalytic Christianity, arguing that it is okay to be frustrated with your life and we should join others in honestly talking about our frustration with things. While Rollins vaguely mentions something about materialist Christianity we never discover what that is, partly I’m guessing because to name the system would make it into another big, whereas Rollins is trying to liberate us to doubt everything. Ultimately, what we have here is new opiate version of Christianity based on psychoanalysis. Rob Bell’s resounding endorsement of Rollin’s work is testament to the fact that in churches there is a market for this kind of self-help Christianity. Like the new age movement, Rollins movement seems a perfect fit for the guilty and anxiety-ridden liberals. If he wants to break from the system, I am not certain that the answer will be found in theological therapy of this kind. Theology then becomes a way to deal with the anxiety of being human and that is not the telos of Christianity.
Radical theology, if we must call it that, certainly has a role to play in the church. It’s role is not to rupture Christianity and create a new horizon of following Jesus. Radical pluralism and insider movements are far more radical in their methods and objectives than radical theology. Nevertheless, Rollins and company might help to awaken a subset of western Christians to begin thinking outside of their privileged western paradigm. Rollins and co. just need to walk more carefully in prescribing doubt because in the wrong hands it might to lead to stasis and inaction.