How (Not) to Speak of God

How (Not) to Speak of God
By Peter Rollins
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006
Review by Carl McColman

Peter Rollins is a postmodern theorist and the founder and facilitator of Norther Ireland’s Ikon, a gathering of people who are re-visioning Christian community and worship within a postmodern/emerging church framework. How (Not) to Speak of God is a short book in which he sketches out a contemporary apophatic theological vision and then situates it in a practical sense by recounting ten of Ikon’s services, which come across like liturgical performance art happenings. It’s a short book, perhaps too short, with a mere 80 pages for the outlining of Rollins’ theology and another 60 pages devoted to describing the services. It left this reader hungry for more, which I suppose in itself is a good thing.

How (Not) to Speak of God will likely frustrate anyone who likes their theology safe, logical, and propositional. In other words, it wears its postmodern pedigree front and center, earnestly subverting old-fashioned God-talk in both obvious and subtle ways.

Rollins stands in the tradition of negative mysticism and the theology of unknowing, the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart, and The Cloud of Unknowing. As one of the central streams of Christian mysticism, this tradition highlights the ineffability, unknowability, and meta-rational transcendence of God. God is beyond knowing, beyond language and concept, beyond imagination, even beyond being. This is a stark, dark, imageless theology that in our time seems more akin to postmodern deconstructionism than to what passes for Christian spirituality in our play-it-safe church culture, although it is rooted squarely within the faith tradition. The genius of Rollin’s brief book is his effortless ability to evoke the apophatic lineage in a way that makes perfect sense here in the third millennium, thereby inviting secular philosophy and Christian mysticism to dance elegantly together. What emerges may not please the dogmatists in either the academic or ecclesial camps, but for anyone who dearly loves both the mystery of faith and the liberating promise of postmodern wisdom will find in Rollins’ crisp prose a heady teaser of the many possibilities that could unfold from a church unfettered by dogma or ideology.

The author plays with potentially explosive ideas, from examining the gift that atheism could bring to Christianity to recounting a fearless ritual that attempts to create unity out of the bitter partisanship that divides liberal and conservative Christians with divergent perspectives regarding gay and lesbian persons. What truly makes this book delightful is Rollin’s obvious spirit of goodwill and respect for contested opinions and conflicting beliefs, culminating in a sense of excitement and celebration that he brings to the question of how to form a discipleship community in a world with almost no shared values.

The book’s major flaw is found in its second half. Rollins recounts ten services from the Ikon community, providing a brief overview to situate the theme of the ceremony within the community’s larger mission of theological exploration; then he provides a narrative description of the event. These services typically combine poetry, music and song, visual imagery, liturgical drama, and the use of symbolic objects to weave together the event’s message. I realize that my experience of reading this is no doubt colored by my background in neopaganism, but given that perspective, I found this part of the book to be dull and unpersuasive, particularly after the excitement of the book’s first half. Although some of the services (particularly the one that explores divergent attitudes toward homosexuality) seemed beautifully written and were no doubt moving to experience, overall I found these rituals (yes, that’s a pagan term, but it really seems apropos) to be a muddy collision of liturgy and theater, and a nagging suspicion kept me questioning whether or not they might have been not fully successful as either. Pagan rituals all too often collapse into a sort of pop-therapeutic psychodrama wherein the symbols of magic are manipulated to evoke a particular experience. At first it’s great fun, but frankly the overstimulation of always-new ceremonial gets in its own way and becomes repetitive and tiresome. At least as far as I’m concerned, the soul can only be manipulated so much before it begins to resist, either consciously or unconsciously. This leads directly to what I see as the towering genius of the Divine Office, particularly as prayed in a monastic setting: with unadorned chant, repetitive use of scriptural prayer language and liberal amounts of silence, the liturgy of a monastery can seem supremely boring to the casual observer, and yet it teems with subtle, nuanced exposition of the mysteries for those who are patient enough to participate regularly, over time. In other words, the structured and practically anti-dramatic liturgy of a monastic community is, to my mind, far more sustainable and community-nourishing (and therefore truly subversive of our consumer culture) than improvisational ritual/theatre, invented anew every week or month, could ever be. Having said that, I suspect that Ikon attracts more people than an average 7 AM monastery mass ever will, and so perhaps I should simply stuff my temptation to criticize and give thanks to God that both structured/contemplative and improvisational/ecstatic forms of liturgy are available to Christians today. But I think that the emergent/postmodern folks might need at some point to acknowledge that ritual theatre is more of a doorway than a destination, and that the most deeply sustainable form of community liturgy might have a quieter and less self-conscious quality about it.

I think Rollins’ intentions are laudable enough: include rituals in his book to drive home the point that a postmodern theology is not just discourse in a book, but courses through people’s lives. I just don’t think he took it far enough. I’d rather read about fewer liturgies/rituals, and more narratives outside the space of ceremonial action: tell us how Ikon folks live out their faith and their a/theology, 24-7. And don’t segregate it in its own section of the book, but weave such stories throughout the more “theoretical” theological narrative. In other words, just as the services at Ikon have already done an admirable job of smashing the walls that separate liturgy from theater (a deconstructionist project neopagans have been undertaking for some time now), now I think Rollins needs to go about disassembling the walls that separate theory from practice as he continues to unpack his luminous dark theology.

But all this can wait for his future books. Even with its flaws, How (Not) to Speak of God is an essential book. I think anyone involved in ministry of worship planning will benefit from wrestling with the ideas and sample liturgies contained herein. But even those of us who simply are happy to be the faithful laity will find plenty of ideas to ponder in this slender volume of spiritual dynamite.

The Silences of the Lamb (of God)
Mainline Neo-Monasticism?
Three Wonderful New Julian of Norwich Books
Do Contemplatives Need Bible Software?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Mike Farley

    Superb post, Carl, not just for your review of what seems to be a book I’ll have read, but for your wonderfully penetrating comments about liturgy and ritual. As a Franciscan, I find so much – not just solace, but certainly that – real excitement and discovery and “subtle, nuanced exposition of… mysteries” within what could so easily seem to be the boring, repetitive commitment of my Community Obedience.

    Thank you so much