Is Peter Rollins a Universalist?

image Earlier this week, a commentator on this blog – Monty – posted a thoughtful and challenging response to one of my posts on the work of Peter Rollins.

Given that the comment appeared a few days after the post, and therefore may have been overlooked by readers, I’d like to bring this discussion back into the main body of the blog and consider some of his points.

Today I’ll consider Monty’s perspective on Rollins’ appropriation of Galatians 3:26-28, and whether this makes Rollins a universalist. First, I’ll quote from Monty’s response:

“I think the philosophical bankruptcy of Rollins’s deconstructionism can be seen most plainly in the quote below. Can someone explain to me how- at any level – the following makes sense?

“You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither … Christian nor non-Christian, for all are made one in Christ Jesus.”

Does the conditional nature of the first sentence not negate his second sentence? At one level this is warmed up classic universalism, at another level it is playing games with words- something Rollins is usually adamantly against.”

Yes, I can see how the conditional nature of the first sentence seems to negate the second sentence, which Monty does not reproduce in full, most likely because of its length. The full quote is here:

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither high church nor low church, Fox nor CNN, citizen nor alien, capitalist nor communist, gay nor straight, beautiful nor ugly, East nor West, theist nor atheist, Israel nor Palestine, hawk nor dove, American nor Iraqi, married nor divorced, uptown nor downtown, terrorist nor freedom fighter, paedophile nor loving parent, priest nor prophet, fame nor obscurity, Christian nor non-Christian, for all are made one in Christ Jesus.

The impact of what Rollins is trying to get across is more obvious in the full quote, where traditional ‘enemies’ are juxtaposed with each other in an effort to illustrate how Christ has broken down the dividing walls between them.

Rollins wrote this in the spirit of Galatians 3:28, which I think he is playing with. Ever the promoter of the parable, Rollins has built much of his work around playing with stories and words. So I disagree with Monty that Rollins is always against playing with words.

I think Rollins’ rewriting of Galatians 3:28 works primarily as a device to get Christians to think about our own prejudices against other groups and to ask ourselves if we are treating them as Christ would.

But Monty is most concerned with the ‘Christian nor non-Christian’ contrast, and quite rightly so, given the nature of Rollins’ appropriation of Galatians 3:26-17:

‘You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’

It does raise fundamental questions about Rollins’ use of this scripture, especially because the writer of Galatians specifically mentions ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ and being ‘baptized into Christ.’

So what does it mean when Rollins includes Christian and non-Christian in his list of former enemies?

  • To Monty, and certainly others, Rollins’ inclusion of non-Christian in this list just makes no sense. I can certainly understand this perspective.
  • To others, Rollins’ inclusion of non-Christian in this list may seem radically open and encouraging, a recommendation that the church itself should be open to those who directly and explicitly identify as ‘non-Christian.’ Rollins does seem to be implying that the church should not be trying to change non-Christians, it should not be trying to ‘convert’ them. Rather, he advocates welcoming all into a ‘suspended space’ where people can encounter each other beyond the social, political and religious categories we normally box each other into.
  • To still others, Rollins’ inclusion of non-Christian in this list may seem imperialistic. After all, why would non-Christians want to be included in this list? Isn’t it rather arrogant of a Christian writer to assume that they do?

I have sympathy for all three of the positions I have outlined above. It certainly would have made it easier to ‘explain’ this quote to Monty – and others – if Rollins had not included the quotation from Galatians 3:26-27. Just verse 28 on its own, even acknowledging that it was somewhat taken out of context for interpretative purposes, could have made his point effectively.

So why did Rollins quote Galatians 3:26-27, and then include Christian and non-Christian in the list?

The best explanation I can muster is that I suspect Rollins is indeed ‘playing games’ with this scripture, in an attempt to get us to ask ourselves how far we are willing to go in our inclusion of the ‘other’ in ourselves.

I don’t think this necessarily makes it ‘warmed up classic universalism’, as Rollins’ wider body of work does not support this position.

Monty raises some other points in his comment, which I hope to consider later in the week.

(Image: from Peter Rollins’ Insurrection Tour)

2 thoughts on “Is Peter Rollins a Universalist?”

  1. Thanks for this. As always you provide thoughtful reflections on my work and I thank you. Very quickly I thought I would try and answer why I use “Christian and non-Christian” in this reflection on Galatians. Basically I am putting it to work in our present context. I am saying that Paul referred to the six basic tribal groups of his day (2 political, 2 religious, 2 biological). These defined who you could talk to, when you could talk to them, what work you did, how you saw the world etc. etc.

    The point I am making is that Christianity, for Paul, was not a tribal identify but rather that which cut through tribal identities (remember his famous definition of Christians as trash – i.e. as that which is placed outside). But Christianity is now simply another tribal identity in the actually existing church (with its own worldview etc.).

    As a tribal identity Christianity itself now becomes a stumbling block to the non-identity of Christ (the Crucifixion being the loss of identity – political, religious and cultural)

    Finally all Christians have traditionally been, of course, universalists. This is so obvious as to be hardly worth commenting on. Usually this means either that the message of Christianity has a universal reach (it is for everyone) and thus is distinguished from particularistic religions like Islam and Judaism. Or the operative power covers everyone. Personally I am neither of these. Rather I am a universalist in the sense that I think Paul is saying that a universal characteristic of human being is that we transcend our identities. That we exist outside them while participating in them (a gentile while not being a gentile etc.). This creates a new inside and outside and I am all for that! what separates the people written about by Paul and others is that the former let go of their identity (holding it lightly) while others do not.

    Finally, in terms of what Monty says about his church and the academy I don’t want to say anything about his intelligence or that of his congregation (which he seems to think is low), but I spend most of my speaking time in church communities and relatively little in academic settings!

  2. Hey Gladys (and Pete)

    I guess it shows again how important it is to be clear about what we are saying. An ‘artistically provocative’ position is always attractive but only has its full worth realised when it is fully explained. Otherwise it just creates time consuming controversy which ‘vapourises’ the real message. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s song from his ‘christian phase’ – Slow Train Comin’ – part of which is….

    “I had a woman,
    Down in Alabama,
    She was a backwoods girl
    but she sure was realistic.
    She said,
    Boy without a doubt,
    Have to put your message straight now,
    You could die down here,
    Be just another accident statistic.

    And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend”.

    I am one person who wants to see ‘more power to your arm’ – not less because the messaged has been ‘pyroed’ by reactionaries.

    Cheers from Down Under

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