The Peter Rollins Interview: Christian from a distant shore

PETER ROLLINS. Photo by Gavin Millar used by permission.IN THIS INTERVIEW, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm speaks with Peter Rollins, Belfast-born Irish writer, teacher, philosopher and theologian.
You’ll also want to read: Our Introduction to Peter Rollins’ work and recent books.

DAVID: How do you describe your religious affiliation?

PETER: I would definitely describe myself as Christian, but obviously in a different way than a lot of other people call themselves Christian.

If I had to give a three-minute introduction to the core of my work, I would say basically: My argument is that we’re all seeking certainty and satisfaction in our lives. We want something that makes us feel whole and that makes us feel right—and that assures us that the people on the other side of the river are wrong. We’re looking for certainty and satisfaction in a lot of questions we face in daily life: What car should we drive? Who should we marry? What beliefs are going to make us happiest? My argument is that the world has become like a huge vending machine and everybody’s trying to sell their products to satisfy these questions. The church has come along and has placed yet another product in a slot in the vending machine next to all the others. That big vending machine is really an idol. I’m arguing that religion isn’t in the business of holding up the sacred to be grasped like a product that pops out of a machine. Religion helps us see the depth and beauty of creation, even in our brokenness.

I often speak about faith in ways that sound like a psychoanalyst. I’m less interested in getting people to think a certain way. I’m much more interested in getting them to ask questions about why they believe things—and to explore how these beliefs function in their lives. Are their beliefs helping them to function as better human beings? Or are these beliefs actually crutches that prop them up in negative ways?

DAVID: In your newest book—The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction—you write repeatedly about the many ways “we are caught up in a relentless pursuit of certainty and satisfaction,” which was not Jesus’s original message nor was it the example of Jesus’s life. That’s the backbone of your argument. Now, it’s easy to see this critique targeting the prosperity preaching of a Joel Osteen or even the feel-good preaching in mega churches like Rick Warren’s place. But you’re actually talking about virtually all of organized Christianity, right?

PETER: It’s easy to attack the Joel Osteens and Rick Warrens. My argument is deeper than that. A prosperity gospel also is preached in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches. We experience this in the liturgies and the preaching. I’m arguing from a radical perspective that we need to break free from this. We need to open honest new ways to look at our own brokenness—and to welcome others into new collectives.

DAVID: This point is central to your new book—particularly this invitation to honestly welcoming “the other” to be a part of this new kind of relationship or community or collective that we might form. You’re not only talking about giving up our promises that faith will make us successful. You’re also talking about lowering our defenses and inviting people into our community who are quite different than we are. You write: “It is in this genuine encounter with the other that our own unseen issues begin to break down. In the other, we are brought to the place where we must question whether we can begin to see the shadow side of our beliefs.”

PETER: Absolutely.


CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: So, you spend a lot of time in the book explaining why you think most current approaches to interfaith or cross-cultural dialogue are bankrupt. You’re calling for something much more humbling in the way we approach other faiths, other cultures, other ways of living.

PETER: When we encounter someone who is different than ourselves, we generally have one of four responses. First, we find differences, but then we try to make these others like us. We try to fit what they are thinking into the way we think. We assume that we are right so we find a way to consume them.

DAVID: As you describe the process in your book—for the Star Trek fans reading this interview—you say that this first kind of dialogue is similar to the way the Borg try to force other cultures across the universe to become a part of their collective.

PETER: So, that’s the first kind of response. Then, if consuming the others doesn’t work, we may try to vomit them back out. We decide that they are just too bizarre, that they are not at all like us. So, we wind up making them an enemy, rather than trying to make them just like us. Or, third, we may tolerate them and, in the West, that mainly means we agree to let them practice whatever they want behind their closed doors—as long as they don’t expect to do it in the public square. So, in all three of those responses, we really are assuming that we are right and they are wrong. We just respond in different ways to their being wrong. Then, there is a fourth way in which a lot of people engage in interfaith dialogue today—by assuming that, underneath our different ways of expressing things, we’re all the same in some simplistic way. The first three ways assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. This fourth way assumes we’re all right.

But here is the problem: In all of those approaches to the other, we assume we’re right. We approach the others from a higher position. We are looking down on them, assuming that our own tradition is right. What I am calling for is something quite different: Placing ourselves beneath the other and listening in a different way. Normally, we miss most of what the other person is actually saying because we are mainly trying to fit what they are saying into our own value system and beliefs.

DAVID: Right here, for any readers who are puzzling over this point you’re making, I’ll urge that they think of Stephen Prothero’s book, God Is Not One, where he argues a similar line about the flaws in some approaches to cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue.


DAVID: But let’s take this a step further. In your book, you also give some very important advice concerning listening. I think this portion of your new book is one of the most valuable teachings you offer. You call your approach “literalistic listening” in the book. I’ve also heard this process called “critical listening” or even “neutral listening.” Over the years, I’ve taught seminars for journalists about reporting on religion, and I teach that they should conduct either a very long interview—or even more than one interview—to achieve real clarity with the person they are trying to interview. It’s far too easy to misunderstand people by filtering their language about faith through our own anticipated categories.

PETER: Yes, you’re describing that well. If we leave our interactions with the other in the first four categories we’ve just discussed—we always walk away assuming that we are right about everything. We use religion to protect us from others—not to challenge our own beliefs and assumptions. It’s only when we are honestly approaching the other from a position beneath, not looking down on the other, that we have a chance to realize that perhaps some things we believe or practice actually are pretty weird or even monstrous to the other person. This leads to the possibility of realizing that we may have a shadow side to others.

DAVID: As a journalist, I agree with you and commend this portion of your book to readers. But, I have to say: As someone who is popular among evangelical Christians, this is a pretty remarkable thing to find in the heart of your book. Most evangelicals I’ve encountered in interfaith dialogue are assuming that dialogue is worth undertaking because it may lead others to Christ. You’re saying something radically different: Good, honest, humble dialogue is likely to change us as well as the world.

Then, you take this idea back inside the church. If we are not humbly and honestly and carefully talking with and listening to the other—it’s because we’re not even honestly and clearly talking with each other inside the church. By and large, you argue, most church leaders—preachers and teachers in congregations—are trying to hand out the weekly dose of a satisfying God drug. They want people to feel better. You actually use that metaphor at one point in the book—the feel-good preacher as drug dealer.


PETER: My concern for clergy is that they’re caught in a trap like the Emperor’s new clothes. Behind closed doors, clergy doubt much of what they believe. Is God there? Is the Bible accurate? We all have doubts. But, when most clergy step up into the pulpit, none of that is expressed. The truth is that most people who come to church have lots of doubts themselves, but they cannot express their doubts, either, because the church has become this place where everyone is expected to be a stalwart of Christianity. The congregation finds itself caught in this game in which everyone is trying to hide from each other. The church can become like this crack house, where everyone wanders in to escape their suffering for an hour with their weekly hit from the church.

I’m not blaming people. I admit that I do this myself. It’s so tempting. But my argument is that we need our preachers and teachers to come out and say: “I am broken and full of doubt.” At first, people may be terrified, if they’ve never heard such honesty before. But the moment we say that from the pulpit, that allows those of us sitting in the pews to surface our own doubts and brokenness.

DAVID: And, as you argue in the conclusion of your book, it’s in that honest sharing that we truly become the church at its best—or, you like to use the word collectives. So, let me ask: Should we assume that these new collectives will be small? Jay Bakker’s radical Christian gatherings are small. Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove preach the value of downsizing. Is small better?


PETER: I don’t think our communities necessarily need to be small. Musicians have shown us that we can connect large numbers of people with this message of sharing our brokenness and humanity. Think of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison or Tom Waits. They come along and draw huge audiences together. So, I’m not saying that communities can’t grow. But most of the Christian collectives I’ve seen are small—35, 50 or 100 people. One reason is that these new kinds of collectives are trying to help people experience the beauty and sacred nature of all life—the purpose is not to grow the structure itself. So, people feel free to continually come and go over time.

DAVID: The message that runs through your books is strong stuff. Do you expect that it will catch on with lots of readers?

PETER: I’m not trying to convince everyone that they should embrace all of my ideas. I’m just saying: Let’s at least try to be honest with each other. Let’s start there. If we are willing to admit that we’re broken and we have doubts already, right now, then this new honesty will help a lot of people to find real freedom.

For me, this is a constant in every generation. I’m not trying to crush people. I’m trying to help people see the wisdom of honesty. I hope people will see that Christianity is an invitation. I don’t go out and tell people that it’s an invitation to life after death. I find that question boring, because I don’t think it’s the fundamental question we face. The fundamental question is not life after death, it’s this: Is life possible before we die? Can we truly live before we die. And, I’m hopeful that we can.

YOU’LL ALSO WANT TO READ: Our Introduction to Peter Rollins’ work and books.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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