The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond
Dr Pete Rollins
interviewed by Ian Mobsby about his new book.
What made you write
this book? What question was a central motivation for it?
In many ways my reflective life has been consumed by a desire to
dig deep into a seemingly simple idea, to burrow into its consequences,
mine its depths and unearth its theoretical and practical wealth. This
idea can sound rather humble and insubstantial at first, but as one really
enters into its dark depths one realises that it leads to revolutionary
modes of thought and action. The idea can be expressed in many ways, here
I will pose it in terms of a question, "what if God is not to be found
directly in our beliefs and practices but rather indirectly as the name
we give to the source that generates our desire to form beliefs and practices".
If one believes that
we ought to take this question seriously then we are led to ask where
it leads. This is something that I began to explore in How (Not) to Speak
of God and that I have continued to investigate in The Fidelity of Betrayal.
If the last book involved exploring how such an idea leads to the embrace
of doubt, complexity and ambiguity then this new book investigates faith
as the outworking of a constant wrestling with our religion, a struggle
that involves being ready and willing to betray the very theological and
ecclesial structures that sustain us. In exploring this I wish to show
how betrayal, contrary to popular thought, can actually express the most
radical fidelity to the source that generates our desire to forge these
vast structures in the first place. In short, the book can be described
as a singular sustained reflection on what it means to be baptised into
the name "Israel", a name that describes one who grapples with God.
What do you think
your book says for those involved in the emerging church of different
In many respects I hope that this book discourages people from making
the deconstructive, apophatic leanings of various emergent groups into
some kind of new denomination or creedal affirmation. I hope that people
reading this book will realise that deconstructive approaches to faith
should never become 'deconstructionism', i.e. just another doctrinal system
which one has to believe in order to be 'in'. The point here is not so
much to create a new set of beliefs but rather to challenge the way that
we hold our beliefs. It is not about holding them lightly any more than
it is about holding them tightly. It is about interacting with them in
a different register entirely. I am constantly attempting to draw people
back to the idea that faith is about living in the aftermath of an event
that utterly transforms our mode of being in the world. Thus, while faith
operates within language (for we are language beings) the Event of faith
is never reducible to language.
I sometimes like to
think of emergent groups as analogous to the warning on the packets of
pills you get at a pharmacy. The label often reads something like, "these
tablets have many health benefits but may cause drowsiness, have laxative
effects and become addictive". For me the church is like the packet of
pills and emergent groups are saying, "the church has many health benefits
but it may cause drowsiness, have laxative effects and become addictive".
The community of faith is made up of the pills and the warning, the priest
and the prophet, the orthodox and the heretic, the religious and the irreligious.
This is why I argue that Christianity is an irreligious religion, that
faith is fundamentally ir/religious. It is also why I describe myself
as a non-Christian in the Christian sense of the term.
How does your book
impact the vision of emerging churches exploring contextual forms of worship
mission and community?
I suppose I
would have to say that it does this by questioning the very ideas of "Worship",
"Mission" and "Community". To take one example I think that emergent groups
ask really interesting questions about what it means to be community and
whether we should ever try to be a community. I mean the phrase, "whether
we should ever try to be a community" very precisely insomuch as I am
not saying that these groups won't end up being community, just that they
shouldn't necessarily try to be one. For instance, as soon a group begins
to identify itself as a community people begin to have pastoral expectations.
The result can be an unreasonable pressure on those who organise the meetings,
the slow formation of hierarchical leadership structures (in order to
meet those needs) and the danger that the group can become a psychological
crutch for many who attend. However, if a group refuses to offer pastoral
care and makes it clear that it is not a community, rather just a collective
of disparate people exploring faith and life, the fewer expectations are
generated among people. This direct denial of community can turn out to
be the most fertile soil for real community to develop indirectly. For
if there is no 'group' who cares about the person sitting beside me then
there is more need for me to care about that person. If there is no pastoral
support team in place then I need to be the pastoral support. The refusal
to offer pastoral support thus generates a potential place where pastoral
care is distributed among everyone. As Dovstoyesky once said, 'we are
all responsible for each other, but i am more responsible than all others'.
You say ‘the group
can become a psychological crutch for many who attend’ – may be so – but
is that necessarily wrong? Isn’t independence a modern individualistic
is that people do not begin to think of a religious collective as an entity
that can satisfy certain felt needs. Now a religious group will, of course,
coalesce into an entity of sorts, one with both implicit and explicit
expectations and norms. However I would argue that Christian groups must
seek to exist as a very special type of provisional entity. For me Christ
structurally privileges the outsider, the outcast, the persecuted. Basically
those people who are without a voice, who exist outside the given power
structures. As soon as a structure is created with a defined ‘inside’
and ‘outside’ then Christ will be found ministering to those on the outside.
Every entity creates an ‘inside/outside’ dichotomy to some extent and
this is fine. However the Christian can be thought of as the one, not
who serves the ‘inside’ but as the one who serves the ‘outside’. The result
is that the Christian is the one who systematically acts outside systems,
the one who seeks the lost sheep outside the pen rather than staying with
the ninty-nine within it.
One of the results
of this is that religious collectives should always be looking beyond
themselves toward the excluded other, and in living like this people find
healing and fulfillment. Religious collectives offer healing to those
who join not by offering direct satisfaction of some felt needs but by
offering a self transcending mode of living whereby one looks beyond oneself.
The idea is not then to find a way for me to love myself and then I can
love others but rather to provide a context for people to love others
and thus begin to love and accept themselves indirectly as a result. In
short, to get people to the point where they don’t need psychological
I worry that the modern
world causes us to focus in unnatural ways on our own personal 'needs'.
It causes us to exist as de-politiced individuals who seek personal happiness
in material possessions and fulfilling relationships. In other words it
would seem as if we can find happiness and fulfillment when we have a
certain level of physical comfort and can look into the eyes of our beloved
and block out the world. In Western Capitalism we are sold a romantic
myth alongside the myth that we have a variety of needs which can be met
through consumption. Both of these effectively stop us from engaging in
wider environmental-socio-political issues. In contrast I see community
being built, not as we meet each others eyes (needs) but as we look to
a common goal hand-in-hand. In a strange twist I would say that it is
in laying down the inward gaze to our own needs (as individuals and a
community) we will find our needs are fulfilled, because they will be
transcended (just as love fulfills the law, not by meeting it but by transcending
This is not then about
independence but rather a kind of asymmetrical interdependence in which
we find healing in encountering the outsider and they find healing encountering
I think I hear
what you are saying – but dumbing down on community – isn’t that just
selling out to liberal capitalism. What is wrong with caring for each
other? Where’s the love and gentleness in what is increasingly an impersonal
My desire is not to abolish community but rather to provide a context
for it to flourish. My concern however is that, in contrast to the idea
that we are living in a less gentle and more impersonal world we are living
in a world where everything is sugar coated and about the personal. What
I mean by this is the increase of a politically correct world where the
only fear is fear of the other's inappropriate views. A world where harassment
is an over-riding concern, which is nothing less than a fear of the over-proximity
of the (racist, sexist, etc.) other. Here we see the growth of the 'naked
public square' where we demand that we do not encounter potentially offense
views in the places we frequent. In short, we like others as long as they
are like us and thus not really Other. In addition to this but there are
numerous retreats, forms of therapy, new age health remedies etc. on offer
in the world that invite us to focus upon the self. For me Capitalism
has helped to create a world where we enshrine the protection of the individual
from the ‘pollution’ of the Other (contrary to the popular view that liberalism
celebrates Otherness) and where the consumers every need is taken care
of. I think Christianity offers a radical solution to this narcissistic
element of society. Here I am with the Late Bonheoffer who writes of the
possibility of a religionless Christianity. While this phrase needs unpacked
it does include the idea of a Christianity that is not obsessed with us
knowing the 'bad news' (our own inability to find happiness and fulfillment)
before the 'good news'. For this just makes Christianity into a self-interested
pursuit that parodies the world (like an advert which tells you that you
lack a good razor and then provides the answer). It has always struck
me as strange that some churches invite people into a life of selfless
love of others by getting them to join through targeting their most personal,
So what does leadership
look like in these collectives?
Facilitating this type of community without community is not easy and
it needs people whose job it is to resolutely refuse leadership and authority.
A job that I would argue helps to define the tru role of the leader. Another
way of describing this role would be in terms of the priestly rejection
of priesthood, an act that encourages what the bible calls a priesthood
of all believers. This does not at all mean that there is no role for
leaders, for the role of refusing leadership is one that needs to be filled.
No leaders but
still having a leading role? What do you really mean in practice?
Well in mundane terms I could use the example of someone starting a group
and then, at the point when people start to look to them for support and
answers, stepping back in order to create a void that will be filled by
others. Here the leader does not fill a void but rather forms it and then
stands back from it. To put it in different and more provocative language
one could say that movements mature when the founding figure is killed.
When the founding figure is rendered in some way absent in order to bring
what they created to its fruition.
It is a common feature
of religious life that we often seek a leader to tell us what to do. In
these situations I would argue that it is good to have a leader who refuses
to take on that role. Who, by doing so, forces the other to take responsibility
for themselves. This is somewhat analogous to a psychoanalytic session
where the analyst refuses to take on the position that the analysand wishes
them to inhabit. It is a popular misconception that the analyst takes
on some kind of paternal role in the session, providing interpretations
of the analysands experience. In most schools of psychoanalysis the analyst
refuses to take on the role that is assigned to them as subject-supposed-to-know.
The truth is that
many of us seek a particular kind of leader, namely one we can lead. What
this means is that we want someone to tell us what we want to hear, but
that we want them to take on the responsibility for our actions rather
than embrace that responsibility ourselves. The leader who refuses to
lead short-circuits this manipulative game and invites people into taking
on the responsibility for their own decisions.
What are the central
themes of your book (in summary)?
I guess the answer to that can be expressed in relation to the title.
Firstly, the title itself refers to the idea that, in order to remain
faithful to Christianity, we must be prepared to betray it. Secondly,
the sub-title of the book, Towards a Church Beyond Belief, refers to my
desire to help the reader envision the possibility of faith collectives
which exist, quite literally, beyond belief. In other words, radical collectives
that are unified at a deeper level than the mere acceptance of shared
doctrines and creeds. For so much of the church, and you see this throughout
the Christian blog-o-sphere, the vital issue relates to what you believe.
In this way what you intellectually affirm defines whether or not you
are orthodox or even Christian. I want to show that this is a deeply problematic
way of approaching the revolution that Christ was instigating. An approach
that misunderstands the earth-shattering message of the biblical text
Has writing the
book changed you in anyway?
Yes, totally. I guess that's part of the reason why I write. I know that
regardless of whether anyone else gets anything from what I put on paper
I do. Indeed I say at the beginning that this book has already reached
the person who was supposed to read it because that person is none other
than myself. Writing this book has not only helped to clarify my own thinking
but has challenged me personally.
Part of my argument
in the book is that the truth of faith cannot be approached by academic
reflection, that it cannot be grasped by books or in talks. The only thing
that a book like mine can do is remind the reader of this and invite them
to move beyond the words.
As such, in writing
this book, I was consciously trying to remind myself that my ability to
write about the truth of faith did not in any way mean that I was living
in that truth. It is all too easy to fool oneself into thinking that,
by writing about the truth of faith, you are actually living it. But just
as writing about climbing a mountain isn't climbing a mountain so writing
about faith does not mean you are living a life of faith.
So the book was a
challenge to me that faith must be lived, not merely reflected upon, and
that I must recall that sacred source that moved me to write in the first
place. For the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I would
become a 'professional believer', and in the process lose my faith.
believers losing their faith... Are you trying to tell me something?
We are both in a similar position here and so perhaps we have to wrestle
with the same danger, namely that of having our livelihood so bound up
in our religious convictions that we could end up affirming our religious
convictions because our livelihood depends on it (although both of us
would admit that what we make at times hardly counts as making a livelihood).
This will not necessarily take place, but I think it is a potential danger.
However, in saying
that I am in no way claiming is that we should avoid this danger or even
simply negotiate it as some kind of necessary evil. For it is in seeing
this danger, wrestling with it, and attempting to be honest with ourselves
and others about own motives that this danger is revealed as transformative.
As that which can bring about spiritual depth and maturity.
has this book raised for you - that need further reflection?
I guess the book leads to the question, 'how do we form these communities
beyond belief, what do they look like, what is leadership like etc.' While
I begin to ask these questions in The Fidelity of Betrayal I hope
to dedicate a book to the subject. Though I have just finished a book
of parables entitled The Orthodox Heretic and other Impossible Tales
that will come out before this.
Rollins Spends his time writing, lecturing and co-ordinating the experimental
collective Ikon. His primary philosophical interests lie in the area of
continental philosophy of religion, phenomenology and post-modernism and
helping to render these accessible to the church.
Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief.
is published by Paraclete/SPCK.