Books: ‘How (not) to speak of God’, by Peter Rollins

I started this review over 3 years ago. Perhaps the length of time I’ve taken to complete it is an indication of how difficult it is to sum up this book in words… or perhaps it’s just a sign of my inability to stick at things. But probably it’s because if you read Rollins’ book you’ll realise where I’ve got half my best ideas from. 😉

I’ve said on this blog that if I had to choose only one Christian book to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be Mike Riddell’s Godzone. But if I couldn’t take any Christian books with me to a desert island, How (not) to speak of God is the Christian book I’d take. Which is exactly the kind of apparently meaningless paradoxical statement that underpins and permeates Rollins’ fascinating and sometimes frustrating book.

Changing how (not what) we believe

How (not) to speak of God is probably the best and most profound theological/ philosophical work to come out of the Emerging Church, setting forth the new perspectives on belief that are arising from that movement. (I’m sure most readers of this blog are fully aware of the Emerging Church movement, but if not you may well want to look into it further. In many ways, this blog is an ’emerging’ blog.)

Rollins’ book is deeply post-modern; post-Christian even in some senses (which is one reason why I could take it to a desert island where no ‘Christian’ books were allowed). Yet it is also deeply rooted in historical Christianity and in the ideas of medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart and the earlier Gregory of Nyssa.

How (not) to speak of God is a profound and paradigm-shifting book, and its ideas are almost impossible to put into words because they play with, invert and deconstruct our usual understandings of words. Rollins sets out a revolution of our understanding that changes not so much the content of our beliefs as the way in which we believe them.

In a series of deliberately paradoxical statements, Rollins turns established conceptions of theology, orthodoxy, even Christianity and faith on their heads. So instead of theology being our speaking (logos) about God (theo), it becomes the space in which God speaks, transforming our understanding. Instead of orthodoxy meaning right or correct (ortho) belief (doxy), it becomes believing in the right way – the way of love and of Christ. So what we believe (our specific doctrines) becomes less important than the way (of love) in which we believe.

Rollins even presents the idea of giving up our beliefs for the sake of our beliefs, using the illustration of a Christian priest in Nazi Germany renouncing his Christianity and becoming a Jew in order to share the sufferings of the Jews for the sake of Christ.

Revealing and concealing

The book’s founding premise is that “That which we cannot speak of [i.e. God] is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking”. Hence the paradox of the title. We cannot speak of God for he is always ineffable, beyond our words and thought and ability to conceive of him; yet at the same time we must speak of him and to him.

Rollins starts by re-presenting the idea of revelation not as the opposite of concealment but as the place where we meet the mystery of God; so revelation has concealment built into its very heart. He further rejects a naive opposition of (Christian) meaning and nihilistic meaninglessness for an understanding that, though we can speak of truth, we can never fully avoid filtering it through our own perceptions and preconceptions.

Like a work of art or a parable, revelation has multiple possible readings and meanings (though these are ‘transfinite’ rather than infinite – in other words, they are only infinite within the particular parameters permitted by the revelation; it’s not a case of anything goes). God is always greater than our theology.

Rollins then further deconstructs theology, for though we cannot help speaking of God, “this speech fails to define God”. Furthermore, “God is not the object of our thought, but the absolute subject before whom we are the object… we do not name God but God’s name names us.”

He goes on to talk of God as ‘hyper-present’ and ‘hypernonymous’ – that God is so present and so infinitely named that it is this, rather than his absence or anonymity, which renders him beyond our capacity to fully know (‘un/knowable’ in Rollins’ terminology, signifying simultaneous knowledge and inability to know).

God cannot be contained in the mind, and we have to affirm our faith as at the same time both theistic and atheistic, orthodox and heretical, acknowledging that our view of God is always inadequate and in need of revision; that our understanding of God is not actually God.

Surrendering certainties

Rollins upturns the usual view of doubt, presenting it as the very quality that enables us to have faith – for without doubt, our faith is mere certainty, which allows neither freedom nor risk.

Rollins calls us to surrender of our power discourses of evangelism, attempting to force people into faith by the use of logically watertight rational argument or else undeniable supernatural miracle. Rather he advocates what he calls a ‘powerless dis-course’ whereby we  simply create space in which people can (if they wish) seek God for themselves:

“So in a sense, when it comes to God, we have nothing to say to others and must not be ashamed of saying it. Our approach must be a powerless one which employs words as a way of saying that we have been left utterly breathless by a beauty that surpasses all words.”

He also turns the classic Pascalian idea of the ‘God-shaped hole’ on its head (and precisely articulates what I was trying to say in my recent post I still haven’t found what I’m looking for):

“The believer, far from having a God-shaped hole in his or her being that is now filled, is one who has a God-shaped hole formed in the aftermath of God, a hole which compels them to seek after that which they already have.” (Elsewhere, in one of his talks, he expresses it as “God is not the sticking plaster we put over our wound; God is our wound”.)

Finally he challenges our notions of truth: “the emphasis [of truth] is not on description but on transformation… Truth is the ungraspable Real that transforms the individual”. Furthermore, for a Christian, truth is ultimately only seen and known in love: “To be a Christian is to be born of love, transformed by love and committed to transforming the world with love… by letting go and opening up to the transformative power of God”.

Talking (non)sense

With Rollins you quite often have to read a sentence more than once before it starts to make any sense; and even then it often eludes capture. But in some ways it doesn’t matter if you’ve ‘got it’ – just let yourself get carried along in the heady rush of language, and see where it takes you. Rollins is challenging and deconstructing our normal meanings and understandings, and our normal ways of deriving meaning and understanding. Maybe at the end it doesn’t make sense, at least not in the usual sense; but that’s okay.

As well as a fascinating writer, Rollins is an engaging (and very funny) speaker, and even if you don’t read anything by him, you can get most of the same ideas through listening to his excellent Greenbelt festival talks (several of which are available to download for free). Rollins has the Irish gift of the gab, and at times he appears to be free-wheeling, carried away by his own ideas and by the sheer joy of language and theology.

Or if you prefer parables to theology, try The Orthodox Heretic, the title of which was part of the inspiration for The Evangelical Liberal. But for my money How (not) to speak of God is his best, and it’s changed the way I think. Whether it’s a Christian book, a post-Christian book, or even an anti-Christian book I’ll leave to you to decide…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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4 Responses to Books: ‘How (not) to speak of God’, by Peter Rollins

  1. Ooh that looks interesting – my husband and I have conversations about this sort of thing 🙂

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    • Great – hope you enjoy it if you do read it! I certainly don’t agree with everything Rollins says (not that I even understand everything he says!) – but then if you hear him speak he freely admits that he’s not always sure if he agrees with himself either 🙂

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  2. Noel says:

    Interesting book…. God is definitely incomprehensible. We attempt to use the mind the God gave us to understand God.

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    • Yes, absolutely – and given that we can’t even fully understand our own minds with our minds, how much less will we be able to understand God! Not that that means we should give up the attempt, but just that we have to acknowledge we’ll never fully get there.

      Of course, evangelicals will say that all we need to know is in God’s Word, but then no-one has a perfect interpretation of that except God… and charismatics will say that by being filled with the Spirit we have the mind of Christ, but again I’ve not met anyone who constantly and unfailingly demonstrates this kind of divine wisdom or perfect understanding…

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