Is the Emerging Church Liberal? Peter Rollins on Atheism

I cringe when I hear the emerging church described as liberal. I’m an American from a conservative evangelical background, so maybe that’s because I got so used to hearing ‘liberal’ used as a term of derision when I was growing up.

Or maybe it’s because critics of the emerging church, especially in the United States, seem especially fond of tarring the movement with the ‘liberal’ brush.

This could be an effort to deride and discredit the emerging church. On the other hand, I can see where these critics are coming from. Many of the emerging church’s critics believe that we can discover an absolute truth here on this earth, and many involved with the emerging church doubt that we can. So by the critics’ definition, that makes the emergents ‘liberal.’

At any rate, I found myself cringing again when I came across this description of a YouTube clip (above) of Peter Rollins:

Peter Rollins is a (really!) liberal Christian theologian and church leader working in a seemingly negative-theology tradition. He does workshops where he for example tells Christians to be atheists.

Rollins – the Belfast-born philosopher now identified with the emerging church both in Ireland and in the US – is not just described as liberal but ‘really!’ liberal.

I don’t think that the person who wrote this description on YouTube is using ‘liberal’ here to mock Rollins. But even so, the fact that this is the first adjective they use to describe what they heard Rollins say is unsettling for emergents who don’t see themselves as part of the classical ‘liberal’ Christian tradition.

For example, in his book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, (2008, Jossey Bass) Toby Jones puts it this way:

‘Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality’ (p. 20).

That means that emergents are self-consciously articulating something they perceive to be different, a third way.

Crucial to that third way is their emphasis on living out their faith in the real world, rather than focusing on particular dogmas and beliefs. To boil it down, Christianity is how you live, not what you believe.

To push this further, as Rollins does, emergents might say that the feeble beliefs that we can articulate in words and creeds can’t really tell us enough about what God is like.

In the YouTube descriptor of Rollins’ talk above, the commentator writes: ‘He does workshops where he for example tells Christians to be atheists’.

Yes, Rollins ends the clip with one of his characteristically mind-bending claims, saying that Christians are atheists when they acknowledge that God is more wondrous than we could ever imagine.

But it’s a redefinition of atheism – not a recommendation to join the Richard Dawkins Fan Club.

Rollins says that every kind of atheism is a rejection of a particular theism. The insight of Christianity, then, is that Christians recognise that they cannot pin down a theism that tells us 100% what God is like.

So Rollins is saying that Christians do not and cannot make any claims about God that ultimately do him justice, therefore they are atheists (or a/theists, if you prefer).

The test of this theological snippet, of course, is whether this view of God inspires people to live graciously in the ‘real world’ – if that is what those involved with the emerging church are indeed calling the church back to do.

5 thoughts on “Is the Emerging Church Liberal? Peter Rollins on Atheism”

  1. Glayds,

    I appreciate the world liberal has many negative connotations – that is why I prefer the term ‘progressive’ christian. Either way I am happy to describe myself as either liberal or progressive as I am not embarassed by ihe terms or see them as an insult.

    Points 5 and 6 of the 8 point statement on liberal/progressive Christianity taken fom the PCN website states

    .5…..Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.

    6….. Find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, and in the questions than in the answers

    What P Rollins is saying is very similar to point 6 and your orthopraxis idea is reflected at point 5.

    There is a post-theistic or non-theistic group of of theologians under the broad umbrella term of liberal christianity including such writers as Spong, Cuppitt, Holloway and the Death of God theologians of the sixties. Can P Rollins recent work inspired by the materialist thought of Zizek not be located here?

  2. Hello Gladys,

    I hasten to add I believe in the reality of God independent of lanuage etc and thus would not fall into the non-theistic camp….I am a more moderate progreesive Christian.


    PS…..sorry for mispelling your name in earlier posts!

  3. I really, really like this clip but wonder whether it’s best seen as a creative contemporary riff on the ancient tradition of the via negativa – this is thou/this also is not thou. Taken too literally I suspect it might annoy ‘real’ atheists – why can’t they reject all and every concept of God rather than having to work their way through each one? – “big guy in the sky with a beard – nope, all-embracing spirit of motherhood – nope, ground of our being – nope…” as well as causing endless problems of nomenclature.

    Personally, I don’t have any difficulties at all with the word ‘liberal’ – I like its connotations of open-handed generosity as well as openness and freedom, but I guess that’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the word for those who do, as Gladys says, try to live graciously (in all its senses but the interior decoration one!) in the contemporary world.

  4. Rollins’s latest piece certainly is a mind-bender!

    It’s an interesting (re-)definition of “atheism” and probably points to views of God that many Christians – conservative, liberal, progressive, or undefined – would accept. I’m not sure if I would call myself an atheist on Rollins’s basis, but it’s an interesting challenge to the fundamentalist atheism proclaimed by the disciples of Dawkins.

    As for “liberal”, it’s a word with different definitions, which has also changed over time. Both in the political and moral sense, liberal is also defined differently in Europe as it is in the United States. I would describe myself as religiously “liberal” and I don’t have much of a problem with that, but although I belong to a liberal, non-credal denomination, I know some of my peers are reluctant to use that term to describe their movement in that way.

    Being “liberal” is often confused with being unconventional (which might better describe Rollins’s theology). Having unconventional views could still be very conservativ, or simply illiberal. Being morally or religiously liberal (as in tolerant or permissive) can also mean carrying an orthodox position in some circles.

    Applying “liberal” to a person’s beliefs or religious denomination also carries associations with political liberalism and Liberal parties, which to some may or may not be desirable!

  5. Hi Gladys

    I’m the guy who mirrored the above video from Rollins’ VIMEO channel ( If you wanted to know what I meant by “liberal”, you could have just asked in the comments section on YouTube. I’m from Europe myself and liberal has no real political connotations for me. I just meant to say that Rollins’ theology is very unorthodox or unconventional. That’s all.

    Regarding the workshops he does on atheism. He has a video on that too on his VIMEO channel. I believe it’s the one called “Atheism for Lent”. However, the atheism to which he exposes the participants in the “Atheism for Lent” workshop is so-called intellectual atheism, not the existential atheism he’s talking about in the above video.

    I’m an atheist, by the way. Orthodox or liberal, the “supernatural” is completely nonsensical (as in does not make sense) to me. It is not a “rejection of a particular theism”, it’s just part of a broader skeptical mindset that also makes me not believe in paranormal claims, homeopathic claims, Bigfoot claims, etc. However, if reasonable evidence is presented, I would be more than willing to change my mind.

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