In reading various reviews and reflections on Robert Bellah’s latest tome, Religion and Human Evolution, I was reminded of some thoughts I had written down about Peter Rollins’ work. I have tried to cobble something coherent together here which conveys my general criticism, which is basically historical in nature. One reflection on Bellah at the SSRC blog entitled “The Return of the Grand Narrative” echoes a work Quentin Skinner edited many years ago called The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences. This collection attempted to provide a map for the major schools which had recently arisen in the human sciences, such as the Frankfurt School and deconstruction. I thought it might be useful to consider Rollins in light of this map (also useful for a reading of Bellah).
Rollins writes what is basically an engaging form of deconstructionist theology under the aegis of someone who wants to effect practical change in the Christian church. How (Not) to Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and The Orthodox Heretic are short, punchy, and demanding works of philosophical theology done within the context of and for practicing Christians today. The crux of the matter, at least for a historian like me, lies in the background story which gives Rollins’ parables, paradoxes and jokes their meaning and force. And this story is basically the story deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida have put forward, where the history of western philosophy is bedevilled, amongst a series of other spectres, by the something called the metaphysics of presence.
Rollins draws upon the apparently divergent voices from this tradition, such as negative theology, modern fideism and existentialism. Pseudo-Dionysius and Meister Eckhart square off against St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard against René Descartes and Immanuel Kant, and so on. It is a large-scale contrast between those who think they can say something about God, God’s nature, and the truth, and those who do not think the limitations of human nature grant us any such ability (i.e. the play in Rollins’ title, “how (not) to speak of God”). There is little doubt about who the good guys are in Rollins’ story, and who the bad, or about the underlying structural binary drawn within this history – a rather puzzling binary given Rollins’ reliance on a post-structuralism that cut its teeth by attacking such dualisms (i.e. Derrida’s take-down of Claude Levi-Strauss). The problem for a historian remains the validity and applicability of such contrasts, and whether the rival paradigms put forward as indicative actually constitute something unitary called “the history of western philosophy”. As Quentin Skinner put it 40 years ago in his famous essay “Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas”, to what extent is the study of ethical, political, religious, and other modes of thought contaminated by the application of paradigms the familiarity of which disguises an essential inapplicability to the past? Are these thinkers actually talking to one another? Are they actually talking about the same thing? Are they really just variants on a universal theme, variants that can be used to champion or criticize a current philosophical position?
Consider, for instance, the distinction between Academic and Pyrrhonian scepticism, germane to Rollins’ discussion of past figures like Pascal and Descartes. Academic scepticism, derived from Cicero’s Academica, tended to be dogmatic in its assertion that nothing could be known. Pyrrhonian scepticism, based on Sextus Empiricus’ The Outlines of Pyrrhonism, eschewed even this dogmatism, and preferred to suspend judgment altogether, including the dogmatic assertion of the Academics that nothing could be known. Attentiveness to these kinds of distinctions and to the much more immediate context in which these distinctions were used, negotiated, and even distorted – i.e. a context that goes beyond the rarefied air of free-floating ideas generated by elite white men in texts – are extremely important for an understanding of, say, the religious controversies of early modern France in which Pascal and Descartes were situated.
Consider also Rollins’ understanding of “the Enlightenment”. At various moments in his texts “the Enlightenment” is taken for granted as a singular, monolithic, reified intellectual movement. The picture Rollins creates in drawing a contrast between a purportedly Enlightenment understanding of divine revelation and his own view is in the end little more than an Enlightenment view of “the Enlightenment”. That is, Rollins’ historical understanding of the movement is actually far more in tune with the movement’s own advocates (hardly the kind of thing to be taken at face value). It is also closer to a historical understanding native to the modernism he critiques as equivalent to “the Enlightenment” than any deconstructionist, poststructural, or postmodern approaches to the study of the past. Rollins the deconstructionist has actually embraced – albeit in an impoverished form – a version of the understanding of “the Enlightenment” that Jonathan Israel has recently defended in his massive, three-volume, highly erudite work (The Radical Enlightenment; Enlightenment Contested; Democratic Enlightenment). Yet Israel’s account, one made on the basis of the standards of modern historical practice, aims to refute the claims made about the consequences of “the Enlightenment” by thinkers like Rollins. Moreover, approaches to history similarly based on modern historical practice, and historical accounts which have moved beyond such standards, have repeatedly called the homogeneous notion of “the Enlightenment” into question. If Israel has to spend 3000 pages defending “the (radical) Enlightenment”, the concept is by no means given – otherwise why write so much about it? What happens to the plot of Rollins’ grand narrative when one of the major foils against which he sets himself starts to look a lot like a straw man?
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, to find Rollins at one point describing Jesus as a deconstructionist. This is to turn the past into a mirror, a clear reflection of oneself and one’s own mental horizon. If you are inclined accept from the outset an adumbrated, fundamentally binary story about the history of philosophy and theology, Rollins’ work will potentially seem full of many keen insights. If you are inclined to question the assumptions of this particular grand story, either in terms of its approach to the past or in terms of how it represents the past, Rollins’ work may still be of some philosophical and theological interest (as indeed I think it is), but, given his inclination to rely upon a past in which ambiguity, complexity, and context are breezily smoothed over if not entirely ignored, far too many questions remain unanswered and, perhaps more importantly, unasked. To my mind at least, if we want to learn how (not) to speak of God, we need to be equally vigilant about how (not) to view the past.
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