Peter Rollins in Belfast, 2007
31 March 1973|
Belfast, Northern Ireland
|School||Continental Philosophy Postmodern Philosophy
Post-Structuralism Psychoanalysis Phenomenology
|Main interests||Radical Theology|
Drawing largely from various strands of Continental Philosophy, Rollins' early work operated broadly from within the tradition of Apophatic Theology, while his more recent books have signaled a move toward the theory and practice of Radical Theology. In these books Rollins develops a "religionless" interpretation of Christianity called Pyrotheology, an interpretation that views faith as a particular way of engaging with the world rather than a way of believing things about the world.
In contrast to the dominant reading of Christianity, this more existential approach argues that faith has nothing to do with upholding a religious identity, affirming a particular set of beliefs or gaining wholeness through conversion. Instead he has developed an approach that sees Christianity as a critique of these very things. This anti-religious reading stands against the actual existing church and lays the groundwork for an understanding of faith as a type of life in which one is able to celebrate doubt, ambiguity and complexity while deepening ones care and concern for the world. As an outspoken critic of “worldview Christianity” he argues that the event which gave rise to the Christian tradition cannot itself be reduced to a tradition, but is rather a way of challenging traditions, rendering them fluid and opening them up to the new. This event cannot then be understood as a religious, cultural or political system, but is a way of life that operates within such systems.
In order to explore and promote these themes Rollins has founded a number of experimental communities such as ikon and ikonNYC. These groups describe themselves as iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing and engage in the performance of what they call 'transformance art'  and the creation of "suspended space." Because of their rejection of "worldview Christianity" and embrace of suspended space these groups purposelessly attempt to attract people with different political perspectives and opposing views concerning the existence of God and the nature of the world.
Although Rollins does not directly identify with the emerging church movement, he has been a significant influence on the movement's development. As a freelance speaker and popular writer, Rollins operates broadly outside the walls of an academic institution, and currently lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. His most influential book to date is How (Not) To Speak Of God (2006).
- 1 General Background
- 2 Academic Background
- 3 Early Writing
- 4 Shift to Radical Theology (later writing)
- 5 Parables and Story-Telling
- 6 Current Thinking
- 6.1 Humans have a natural and destructive disposition toward the pursuit of satisfaction
- 6.2 Humans have a natural and destructive disposition to seek out certainty
- 6.3 Religion falsely promises to offer the certainty and satisfaction that we seek
- 6.4 The Liberal and Progressive forms of Church are structurally similar to Conservative and Fundamentalist Church
- 6.5 Faith is not a system that offers certainty and satisfaction but is a mode living free from these drives
- 7 Projects
- 8 Public Speaking
- 9 Books Discussing Rollins' Thought
- 10 Selected Publications
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Rollins grew up in East Belfast during The Troubles, a period of intense and violent sectarian conflict that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and resulted in the deaths of more than 3,500 people before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, which is generally regarded as the end of the conflict, though pockets of violence persist today. He attended Orangefield Boys High School and left at the age of sixteen without the qualifications required for further study. He was unemployed for several years before taking a job as a youth worker in Carrickfergus and working in a homeless shelter run by the Simon Community on the Falls Road, Belfast. He then went on to study an access course on the Castlereagh Campus of the Belfast Metropolitan College (an intensive one-year course designed for disadvantaged students who wish to attend university but lack the entry requirements). He subsequently attended Queen's University, Belfast
Academics such as Cathy Higgins have explored how an understanding of Rollins activism requires an appreciation of The Troubles. The development of groups like ikon was at least partially a response to the pervasive atmosphere of violence, economic hardship, rigid identity markers and deep rooted sectarianism in operation in the provence. The sectarian violence combined with the use of religion to legitimate injustice, the fundamentalism of many Protestant churches and the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, played a major role in creating the frame of reference from which Rollins works. The result being an emphasis on creating practices designed so that “participants [could] set aside the various identities that define them" and gather as a gathering of equals to "share stories, struggles, and rituals that help them respond to one another in a Christ-like way.”  In contrast to a dogmatic form of religion and she notes that ikon provided a space in which “doubt is viewed as healthy and necessary for owning our material reality, vulnerability and limitedness”. 
While operating broadly outside the academy Rollins does work with various academic institutions across the UK and US. He has been a research associate with the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College, Dublin) and is currently on faculty at the Global Center for Advanced Study.
Rollins' unpublished PhD (His Colour is Our Blood: A Phenomenology of the Prodigal Father) offers a survey of religious thinking in the aftermath of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. It engages directly with Martin Heidegger's critique of onto-theology and explores the religious significance of Jacques Derrida's post-structural theory and Jean-Luc Marion's saturated phenomenology (drawing out the points of connection and conflict between them). This manuscript represents Rollins' initial attempt to articulate an approach to faith that would short-circuit the categories of theism and atheism and problematize the various debates that arise from them. In so doing this marks an approach to Christianity that is not related to a system of belief but rather to a particular mode of life.
His first book, How (Not) to Speak of God (2006) popularized the main themes of his PhD by blending the apophatic work of Meister Eckhart and pseudo-Dionysius with the Post-structural work of Derrida and Marion. John Caputo's work is one of the prime influences in the style and direction of the book. How (Not) to Speak of God also outlined how the theory was developed and worked out in a concrete way through the ikon collective (the second half of the book outlined a series of 'transformance art' liturgical experiments).
While his early work is marked by themes that continue to play a central role in his later development, they remain largely within a specifically theistic and mystical register.
Shift to Radical Theology (later writing)
The Fidelity of Betrayal (2008) signalled a movement from apophatic and post-structural discussions witnessed in his PhD and How (Not) to Speak of God into Radical Theology. With this work we begin to see a critique of purely theistic forms of faith and witness the growing influence of political philosopher Slavoj Žižek and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his overall project. The Fidelity of Betrayal is thus a work that bridges the more mystical influence of his first writings toward a theological materialism, a trajectory that was subsequently fleshed out and deepened in Insurrection (2011) and The Idolatry of God (2013). In these later books the influence of Hegel, Žižek, Lacan, later Bonhoeffer and Tillich comes to the fore. Though John Caputo remains as an ongoing point of reference.
Parables and Story-Telling
As a storyteller Rollins incorporates narrative forms into his talks to create a more informal style of communication. In 2009 Rollins published The Orthodox Heretic, a book that contained 33 short, parable-like stories he had developed and delivered in various settings. He is also currently working on a book of fairytales and a Play on the theme of desire. 
Rollins' overall project is marked by the themes of doubt, complexity, unknowing and embracing brokenness. More than this, he has been interested in showing that these themes are central to the founding event of Christianity. He is interested in showing how the central scandal of Christianity offers us a critique of religion (including the need to believe) and tribal identity, both of which have been lost in the actually existing church; an institution that he argues represents a fundamental betrayal of the insurrectionary power of faith. His work is an attempt to show that Christianity does not rest on theistic belief, some commitment to supernaturalism or the affirmation of some set of dogmas. Rollins has named his theological program pyrotheology. The name was inspired by the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti's statement that "the only church that illuminates is a burning church." The phrase has also inspired much of Slavoj Zizek's work related to radical theology.
As such Rollins is advocating a fundamental reformation aimed at reconfiguring the basic understanding of Christianity today, a reformation he believes to be as far reaching and significant as the ones that signalled the birth of the early church, the split between East and West in the eleventh century and the development of the Protestant church with Martin Luther. Something he believes is glimpsed by Bonhoeffer shortly before he was executed.
Rollins’ work operates at the intersection of where Post-Structuralism, Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, and Existentialism meet and inform each other. What follow are some of the major themes evidenced in his project:
Humans have a natural and destructive disposition toward the pursuit of satisfaction
By employing insights developed by psychoanalysis, Rollins argues that humans tend to seek some object that would seem to promise satisfaction. The particular object will vary (from money, to being with a particular partner or worshipping a certain God), but the function of this object (which he calls the Idol) remains the same. This very pursuit is, however, itself destructive, for we either don't get what we seek above all else and thus always long for it, or we do get it and discover that it is actually unable to offer us what we sought.
Humans have a natural and destructive disposition to seek out certainty
Employing the insights of childhood development in the area of metaphsycology Rollins argues that, as children, we identify with false images that help us to cover over our weakness and dependence on others. We are told that we are strong when we are weak, that we are fast when we are slow and that we are brave when we are scared. While important, Rollins claims that adults often remain caught within these false images. We can use political, cultural and religious ideas to cover over our unknowing and weakness. Our various beliefs offer us a certain level or security and sense of belonging. But he argues that they ultimately damage us by distancing us from others, causing us to repress doubt and preventing us from being positively impacted by people who think and practice in ways that are different from our own.
Religion falsely promises to offer the certainty and satisfaction that we seek
While certainty and satisfaction are being offered to us from multiple sources, Rollins argues that the church offers the paradigmatic version of this pursuit. God is offered as that which will give us satisfaction and a certainty not available elsewhere. He argues that anything that we believe offers this type of happiness and confidence is actually nothing but an idol that offers, ironically, the opposite: dissatisfaction and uncertainty.
The Liberal and Progressive forms of Church are structurally similar to Conservative and Fundamentalist Church
While Conservative and Fundamentalist churches can be seen to fall into the problems Rollins outlines, his main concern lies with Liberal and Progressive communities. He argues that Liberal and Progressive churches verbally advocate doubt, complexity, ambiguity and brokenness, yet generally enact an idolatrous view of faith in their liturgical structures.
He uses the example of a parent who doesn't believe in Santa Claus, yet who gets the pleasure of the belief through the belief of her child. As long as her child believes, the mother continues to have all the psychological enjoyment of this belief without having to affirm it. In contrast, Rollins argues that the Radical tradition enacts the death of belief in the liturgical tradition itself. The differences can be seen in this way:
- Conservative/Fundamentalist = The idol is alive
- Liberal/Progressive = The idol is dead (but remains alive in the structure)
- Radical = The idol is not only dead, but undergoes decay (meaning that the structure enacts the death)
Faith is not a system that offers certainty and satisfaction but is a mode living free from these drives
For Rollins, the Radical tradition offers the full opening up of faith as a mode of living without certainty and satisfaction. This, he argues, is the good news of Christianity, for as we learn to live in the midst of unknowing and brokenness, we can find depth and meaning in the midst of existence rather than in the fleeing from it. For Rollins, the sacred does not exist as some realm that can be set alongside the secular, but rather, the sacred is the name we give to the feeling of depth we can experience in life itself. The role of the church is not to give us something, but rather to help us experience the beauty of everything. Thus the church exists to invite us into a full participation in life that is marked by care and concern.
Rollins's project involves attempting to encourage a constant rupturing of ideological forms of Christianity through the development of non-dogmatic collectives that embrace doubt, complexity and ambiguity, open themselves up to critique, and face up to the human experience of lack. He has stated that these communities have a structural similarity to twelve step programs insofar as they involve facing up to one's issues and working them through in communities where grace and acceptance are fundamental principles. However psychoanalytic idea, particularly from the school of Lacan, play a fundamental role. Rollins has developed a number of "contemplative practices" that are designed to help in this process.
The Last Supper
The Last Supper is a contemplative practice in which approximately twelve people (though sometimes more) gather together over a meal in which a guest (often of public influence) is invited and asked to share their political, religious, and/or social views, views which likely differ from those attending. The guest sits at the centre of the table, symbolically occupying the space of Christ. The point of The Last Supper is to create a safe and warm environment for people to encounter views that might be different from their own. The symbolism of the guest sitting in the seat of Christ is at least two-fold. Firstly, this solidifies the idea that the guest is one who might bring a new revelation. The point is not that those around the table are encouraged to accept what is being said, but rather that they might allow what is being said to challenge and open up their current thinking. Secondly, the guests position on the seat of Christ is there to remind us that we often fail to see those who might be instruments of our further transformation and end up killing them. Indeed the event is playfully called the Last Supper because, if the presenter does not prove convincing it may be her last supper.
The Evangelism Project
The Evangelism project is a contemplative practice in which a group opens themselves up to be transformed by a system of belief or practice different from their own. This is done by visiting communities with different religious, political or cultural positions from those held by the group engaged in the practice and listening. The point however is not to be converted into the system that one is visiting (although that might happen) but rather ask the community being visited to reflect back what they see. For instance, if a Christian group visits a Muslim community then the question will be asked, "what do Christians look like to you," and/or "what criticisms of Christianity do you have?" In this way the group can come to see problematic things in their own position that they were previously blind to and thus be encouraged to make changes. Instead of attempting to domesticate the other, The Evangelism Project thus seeks to allow the other to speak into and disturb the beliefs and practices of those engaged in the practice. The aim is to provide those attending with a way of encountering the seemingly alien beliefs and practices of others in order to discover the alien nature of their own beliefs and practices. The “good news” of the Evangelism Project is then not that those involved will be converted by the group being visited but that, by seeing themselves through the others' eyes, they might begin to see things in themselves that were previously repressed.
Atheism for Lent
Atheism for Lent is a contemplative practice in which a group of people work through forty reflections over the Lenten period made up of many of the greatest, most perceptive criticisms and critiques of God, religion, and faith. Lent is a time that is traditionally reserved for a type of psychological purging that leads up to the Crucifixion. In light of this, the Atheism for Lent course seeks to use some of the most potent critiques of Christianity as a type of purifying fire that might help us appreciate and understand Christ’s cry of dereliction on the Cross in a new way. Just as Christ experienced the loss of God on the Cross, so the Atheism for Lent course invites participants into that desert space traditionally called the dark night of the soul.
The Omega Course
The Omega Course is a contemplative practice that plays off the large-scale evangelical project called the Alpha course. The Omega Course explores many of the same themes taken up by the Alpha course and does so in a similar manner (via video clips and discussion). However, unlike the Alpha course, the conversation does not direct participants to a conclusion in which people are encouraged to embrace the “right” doctrinal answer—instead, the conversation itself is what is deemed important. Disagreements are encouraged, and the passionate exchange of ideas is affirmed. By the end of the course, people thus experience firsthand that Christianity is not a rigid, monolithic, unchanging system of creeds, but rather a fluid tradition that welcomes interrogation and rigorous discussion.
Transformance Art and Suspended Space
Transformance art is a psychoanalytically influenced approach that combines music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre, poetry, storytelling, ritual and reflection to form a space in which people are invited to question their cultural, political, and religious views, let go of the pursuit of wholeness, sensitise to the needs of others, and learn to embrace existence.  Central to transformance art events is the creation of suspended space which is concerned with creating a place where the various divisions and distinctions that separate people are placed into question. The aim of this is to create a space where people might encounter each other as fellow human beings and expose the structures that promote inequality.
As a public speaker and storyteller Rollins been involved in various tours (often in collaboration with musicians and artists). These include How (Not) to Speak of God (2006) Beyond Belief (2008), Lessons in Evandalism (2008) Insurrection (2009), Building on Fire (2013), and Playing with Fire (2014). In addition to this April 2014 saw the inauguration of an annual 3 day festival event currated by Rollins exploring the theory and practice of pyrotheology.
Books Discussing Rollins' Thought
- What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church By John Caputo (Baker Academic, 2007)
- Toward A Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church Is Good News for Mainline Congregations By Phil Snider and Emily Bowen (Pilgrim Press, 2010)
- Curating Worship By Jonny Baker (Seabury Books, 2011)
- Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics By Phil Snider (Cascade Books, 2012)
- Churches in Exile: Alternative Models of Church for Ireland in the 21st Century By Cathy Higgins (Columbia Press, 2013)
- The Deconstructed Church: The Religious Identity and Negotiated Practices of Emerging Christianity By Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel (Oxford University Press, Forthcoming 2014)
- Post-Secular Theology and the Church: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist By Katharine Sarah Moody (Cascade, Wipf and Stock, Forthcoming 2014)
- Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practice By Katharine Sarah Moody (Ashgate, Forthcoming 2014)
- How (Not) To Speak Of God (Paraclete/SPCK, 2006)
- The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church beyond Belief (Paraclete/SPCK 2008)
- The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Paraclete/SCM, April 2009)
- Insurrection: To Believe is Human; to Doubt, Divine (Howard/Hodder and Stoughton, October 2011)
- The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (Howard/Hodder and Stoughton, January 2013)
- The Divine Magician: Christ and the Vanishing Act of God (Howard/Hodder and Stoughton, Forthcoming 2014)
- Rollins, Peter The Idolatry of God (Howard, 2012), p121
- Rollins, Peter The Idolatry of God (Howard, 2012)
- Caputo, John What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Baker Academic, 2007), pp129-134
- "Ikon NYC". Facebook. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "Pyrotheology". Pyrotheology. 2013-01-18. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- Higgins, Cathy Churches in Exile (Columbia Press, 2013), Loc 3011
- Rollins, Peter The Fidelity of Betrayal (Paraclete Press, 2008), pp173-176
- Caputo, John What Would Jesus Deconstruct (Baker Academic, 2007), p130
- Higgins, Cathy Churches in Exile (Columbia Press, 2013), Loc 2994
- "The Interview: Irish theologian Peter Rollins - Sunday Nights NLR". ABC. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "Explaining Emergent Churches - Inner Compass on Vimeo". Vimeo.com. 2009-01-07. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- How (Not) to Speak of God (Paraclete Press, 2006) Back cover
- Higgins, Cathy Churches in Exile (Columbia Press, 2013), Loc 109-292
- Higgins, Cathy Churches in Exile (Columbia Press, 2013), Loc 3010
- Higgins, Cathy Churches in Exile (Columbia Press, 2013), Loc 3037
- Rollins, Peter The Idolatry of God (Howard, 2012), p5; see also Marti and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church
- Rollins, Peter Insurrection (Howard, 2011), pp19-39
- Ibid. ppxi-xv
- Rollins, Peter The Idolatry of God (Howard, 2012), pp98-119
- Ibid. pp22-23
- Rollins, Peter Insurrection (Howard, 2011), pp164-171
- "Ikon presents: Pyro-theology". peterrollins.net. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "The only church that illuminates is a burning church – Opinion – ABC Religion & Ethics (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- Ibid. pxi-xii
- Ibid. pxiv-xv; see also Marti and Ganiel The Deconstructed Church
- Rollins, Peter The Idolatry of God (Howard, 2012), pp9-16
- Ibid. pp17-19
- Ibid. p22-24
- Ibid. pp56-58
- Ibid. p58
- Ibid. pp58-62
- Ibid. pp66-68
- Ibid. p72
- Ibid. p24
- "The Church is Fundamentalist on my Behalf". peterrollins.net. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- Rollins, Peter Insurrection (Howard, 2011), pp50-52
- Ibid. p56
- Ibid. pp72-76
- Rollins, Peter The Idolatry of God (Howard, 2012), p5
- Ibid. p86
- Ibid. pp136-140
- Ibid. pp157-158
- Ibid. pp159-161
- Ibid. p166
- Ibid. pp167-169
- "Theory". Pyrotheology. 2013-01-18. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "Beyond the colour of each other's eyes". peterrollins.net. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- "Suspended Space on Vimeo". Vimeo.com. 2011-07-14. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
- For instance he has worked extensively with poet and singer/songwriter Pádraig Ó Tuama and the artist Jonny McEwen
- Peter Rollins' Website
- Pyrotheology Website
- Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief
- The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales
- How Not to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging Church