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It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it: A response to Richard Beck

March 03, 2012

I have been asked in various quarters to respond to Richard Beck’s critique of Insurrection. Beck raises three primary concerns in his article,

1. That I am rejecting the idea of a personal being “out there”

2. That I claiming the act of undergoing the death of god leads to a life of love

3. That I am demanding the undergoing of an exististentially traumatic event when it is not necessary to get to where I want to go

I shall take each in turn


The idea that I reject the idea of a transcendent-transcendence arises from a basic misunderstanding of my project. This misunderstanding is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I have not published very much to date and have not systematically and explicitly addressed the theological/philosophical frame I deploy (something that I start to address in my forthcoming book). Having said this I would also say that it is still clearly discernable in my writing (as well as being seen through the influences I draw from) and I have spoken of the underlying frame in various talks, some of which are available on-line.

The point is that my critique of the religious God is no more a rejection of the idea that there is a being “out there” than it is an affirmation of that idea. My critique is not against the content of ones belief, it is fundamentally a critique of the function that belief plays. My primary critique is clearly working with Bonhoeffer’s rejection of the Deus ex Machina or, in more philosophical terms, Pascal’s assault on the god of the philosophers, Lacan’s exposure of the Big Other or Heidegger’s attack upon the onto-theo-logical first cause. In short it is a critique of the Cartesian god we see in so much of the church today (I would argue in the vast majority of the church today in either consciously affirmed or disavowed ways). This means I am not so interested in what you or I believe as in what role that belief is playing in our lives.

Lets take an example. Recently a well-known religionist gave a sermon in which he told people that God hated them. This caused quite a stir as witnessed by how many people jumped onto the internet to correct what they took to be incorrect teaching: “God doesn’t hate you, God loves you.”

The issue here is that, for someone who resonates with the idea that God hates them, the opposite message is unlikely to find a landing place. That message resonates with some people for a reason. The more interesting, astute and pastoral approach is to avoid trying to “correct” the belief and simply ask a person who relates to that message of divine hatred “why?”: in short, to work out why such an idea would hit home, and then work though the reasons with them.

The trick, obviously, is that this cuts both ways. If someone says, “I believe God loves me” we might be more likely not to ask them why they believe this simply because we think it is a more healthy view. But people can consciously believe things we think are healthy for the most unhealthy of reasons (for instance, the conscious belief “God loves me” might act as a means of you avoiding the fact that you are in a abusive marriage and doing something about it).

This means that if someone believes everything I believe I still have to ask “why?” I need to work out how the beliefs function for that person. Do they act as a security blanket preventing them from encountering the world, or do they function as a means of more fully entering into the world they inhabit (for any system, including my own, can act in that way as Katharine Moody insightfully pointed out).

Someone might believe very different things to me (in terms of mental assertions) yet not use them as a crutch (here we are at the level of mere disagreement), and another might totally agree with me on an intellectual level, yet the beliefs operate as a Big Other (something that can be seen if a person cannot engage in genuine critical dialogue, like the preacher I reference above).

As such Beck’s fundamentally non-dialectic claim that we should have “both/and” (God as an object that we love and God found in the act of love) rather than “my” either/or misses the point. I am not arguing for one view of God over another that both operate in the same register, I am arguing for the death of God as the garniture of certainty and satisfaction. My move is properly dialectic in that it starts from the affirmation (God as some-thing) enters the negation (God as no-thing) and unfolds a negation of negation (God as a some-no-thing or, in a Kierkegaardian sense, as radical subject found beyond the realm of thing-hood – in the affirmation of life).


As to Beck’s other claim that I am saying the idea of undergoing the “death of god” (a term signaling the death of God as garniture of certainty and satisfaction) leads to a life of love, I want to say unequivocally that this is incorrect. I am saying that it is the embrace of love that enables us to bear the weight of the death of God. In other words, if we agree with Camus that we must imagine Sisyphus happy the only way we can do that is to imagine Sisyphus in love. My point is that we need Christian community both in order to help us undergo this event and to help us bear the weight of it. This brings us to the role of contemplative practices that Beck thinks I might disregard (even though I spent the first nine years of my project developing a series of them via ikon). Let me say that I am fundamentally for contemplative practices, although he is right to say that I see them a little differently to Bonhoeffer. For me they are primarily 1. a way for us to enter into and undergo the death of god and 2. A means of sensitizing us the work of love. In my last post I offer one small example of what this might look like (in my new book I devote an entire section to this question).


Finally he thinks that I am “just asking” for people to be more loving and so why do we need to go through the event I describe. To be honest I can understand his concern here as I do not feel that I adequately outlined why the death of god is so central in that text (this is the subject of my forthcoming book The Idolatry of God). My point, which will become clear in my new book, is that self-consciousness necessarily leads us into a place where we grasp onto certainty and the desire for wholeness (can’t get into why here but check out this video for a brief overview of the reasons). I argue that the only way to exit this “old creation” and enter into a “new creation” is via a truly apocalyptic event (as opposed to the reactive ideas of apocalypse that we see in Hollywood cinema and fundamentalist books) in which our most basic way of relating to the world is reconfigured (embracing uncertainty and dissatisfaction). Jesus is not then the solution to our universal problem but the problem that problematises the entire problem/solution matrix. By employing the work of people like Lacan I am saying that we can do this only when we tear apart the curtain and expose the Big Other as a fiction (which I argue is described in the Crucifixion).

As to this last objection I am not saying that Beck misread Insurrection, as the points I am making here are in the next book rather than the last one. I hope that the new book clarifies exactly why I see this death of god as so central to Christianity.

In closing let me try to summarize what I take to be the most basic problem here, many people think that I am arguing about the type of belief we hold when I am actually concerned with exploring the power that various beliefs hold for us. A fetish object is an object that we know is not magic but treat as if it is. An object that protects us from encountering our own impotence in a direct way even though we may acknowledge it intellectually (for example a picture of someone we love who has died acts as a fetish object if it prevents us from experiencing the horror of their death, something that only happens if the picture is destroyed). So then my project can be summed up in the old saying, “It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it,” with one caveat: I am saying that the more magic the wand has the more dangerous and destructive it is.

21 Responses to It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it: A response to Richard Beck

  1. Richard Beck says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for the response. My hope, at the end of the day, is that people pick up your book and read it. Because it’s really good and I find myself very much in agreement. In fact, I think we are working on similar projects as my most recent book The Authenticity of Faith addresses Freud’s criticism that faith is a Deus ex Machina. (But my approach less philosophical and based more on empirical psychological research. But the data I present does back up your case in Insurrection.)

    I’d like to make one clarification about your post. In part three you say that I don’t think a death of God is necessary for a life of faith and a life of love. I actually do think it’s necessary. The point I was making in my critique was that Insurrection doesn’t say why the death is necessary. That is, Insurrection is more descriptive than explanatory. I’m not objecting to the conclusion as much as I’m asking for the connection to be more explicit. My recommendation in the comments of my post is that the work of Ernest Becker might be something that could fill the explanatory gap by connecting the Deus ex Machina to violence.

    Looking forward to your next book!

    • Peter Rollins says:

      Thanks. Appreciate the clarification. I think I can delete those bits and make it fit with what you are saying. Look forward to discussing in person some day!

      • tyler says:

        Alas Peter, if my emails and phonecalls had availed anything, you and Richard could have hashed this out in person!

        But I’m glad to get to read it. Good stuff… You still gotta connect with Beck et. al. out in Abilene TX…

  2. Will Simpson says:


    I love your work and enjoy listening to your lectures when I have the chance. However, it does seem that what you’re really saying would be much clearer without invocation of the word “God.” Clearly you’re not using the word in the way that most people would and do use it. You even state that you’re not addressing what most people would consider “the god question.” Aren’t you just speaking about healthy v. unhealthy psychological responses to the world, but in a poetic manner? That’s great, but I imagine it’s somewhat confusing for some people. Again, I enjoy your work. Please let me know if I’m missing the mark!


    • Peter Rollins says:


      I don’t usually respond to comments as I have said my bit already etc. But just to say a very small thing. The name “God” has always been changing (all language slips, moves and changes). For instance in the biblical text we see movements from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism to trinitarian monotheism to a/theism. Perhaps I need to be clearer that the role of the intellectual (al la Wittgenstein and others), is to show how many of our problems are problems with language (the other problems cannot be solved with philosophy, science is needed).

      The idea of philosophers exploring how language works, moulding, reforming etc. is relatively uncontroversial. The idea that the term “God” has been an unchanging linguistic edifice would be hard to defend and even if it were possible to show it the question would still be how to prove that that was right (rather than just an empirical observation).

      The important question is whether the new conceptions are an unfolding of the older ones or a complete departure. I would argue that I am doing the former, but that would take us beyond the scope of a comment.

      Not sure what you are saying. Is it that the idea of “God” doesn’t change over time or that its shouldn’t? Hope that makes sense

      • Will Simpson says:

        I wouldn’t attempt to say the concept of “God” hasn’t changed. It’s definitely different between Abraham and Moses, nevermind Paul Tillich or Einstein. I just wonder why/if utilizing the term is necessary for the message you’re articulating? Or if it’s confusing for some.

        The reason this seems relevant to me is that I live in the Southern U.S., where the word “God” has a very distinct usage (i.e., an anthropomorphic, interventionist creator deity with particular political and moral opinions). The things you’re saying seem very relevant and useful, but it seems like you’re recommending something like a humble disposition that hopefully leads to more prosocial behavior (dethroning our false certainty and thereby loving the “other” more).

        I know Christians who would certainly misread your work as espousing some version of supernatural theism. It seems that avoiding the word “god” might be useful in being clear, even if what you’re saying really is an “unfolding” of the older versions of the “god” concept. Or maybe I misunderstand and you’re purposefully trying to shift the use of the “god” term because you don’t see the common usage as healthy. I would completely understand that.

        I’m writing off the top of my head, so I’m not being as clear or concise as I would like. Hope this makes some sense. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


      • David James says:

        Curious if you have read any Gordon Kaufman. I see much of what he says in The Theological Imagination behind the scenes of Insurrection.

  3. Chris Finley says:

    I would venture to say, and Richard has said it in his Slavery of Death series, that the “death of God” takes place within the “death of self”; death of self being death to all that I think I am including my beliefs, my worldview, my god, my identity, my self-esteem, my purpose, my certainty, my security, my hopes and dreams…I’m sure the list goes on. Indeed, an apocalyptic event brought me there, my addiction to alcohol(And I’m not fully sure that it limited to one event, but instead an ongoing process of death to self). I look forward to your next installment Peter and appreciate putting words to my experience.

  4. Tobias says:

    Wow, thanks for this conversation. I very much enjoyed Insurrection and much of your recent talks. I stopped caring about weather it is “right” but rather look at how it affects and changes me. However, I found Richard’s comments very good as they pointed to things in Insurrection I was also wondering about. Peter, you can be very proud that you wrote a book that stirs a conversation like this. I think both of you should continue this conversation. You both seem to have a lot to give to each other.

  5. Solmidog says:

    I enjoyed reading all of this, but it made me realize that I am a very simple man….but I’m happy…I hope that’s OK.

  6. Chris B says:

    Thanks to Inssurection, I have been intensely discovering the truth in Beck’s comment “But utter desolation tempts us to commit suicide.” But I’m still here and very glad to have read this conversation!

    So, did you guys know that when a caterpillar can’t grow anymore it’s ready to become an adult? Its skin gets tough & thick and it goes inside to lose its identity….or some might say, to discover it. It is actually liquified down to its most basic cells and it basically eats itself from the inside out. What fascinates me is how this is its most vulnerable state because it can’t escape, but the brave little bugger follows its instincts and goes through it anyway. It’s almost as if the caterpillar knows he’s a butterfly and that somehow this is the only way its cells are ever going to be reconfigured.

    • Maim says:


      Rollins talks about how the professional mourners of old, today’s poets, song-writers, etc. enable others to release their emotions in a way that doesn’t bring them to despair and the “utter desolation” that you and Beck mention, but in a positive way that allows one to address the horrors of reality and so move on with life.

      He doesn’t say all this stuff just to deconstruct your faith and then leave you at that. As he would state, once you realize you are the brunt of a joke, you no longer become the brunt of a joke, and it loses its sting.

      In this case, the joke is that everything is dust and there is no meaning to the universe, and you realize that joke, then it no longer hurts. You realize life sucks, but then you have to power to deal with the pain and move on in a way that brings life into the world and those around you. It’s a tremendous philosophical application of Paul, “O death, where is your sting?”

      Everything I just said comes from Rollins. I hope that helps.


  7. Angela Romano says:

    Hi Peter,

    I’ve been reading some of your work by way of introduing seminary students to alternate concepts of church.

    I’d be interested in hearing your response to Will on the idea that you don’t need to use the word “god” because you’re really talking about “healthy v. unhealthy psychological responses to the world.” If that’s the case, the students would be better served if I handed you off to a professor of psychology.


  8. Angela Romano says:

    And while I agree that much is in the eye of the beholder, most of us aren’t apt to see sea urchins where others see volcanoes.


  9. Pingback: Peter Rollins responds to Richard Beck: It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it « roguebaptist.org

  10. fregas says:

    As an ex-christian agnostic who practices zen buddhism (say that three times), i find something useful in almost everything you say or write. However, i have a hard time understanding what it is you really believe. I can totally see how god is often used by the church as an idol to make them feel certain and right and sadly, often better than others. I think smashing this idol is a good thing. I think you are espousing good practices, socially, religiously, intellectually, socially.

    However, as others have mentioned, much of that idol smashing, accepting of the other, etc. seems simply like very secular, morally and socially uplifting practice. I have a hard time seeing if you believe in a real god beyond the false one, in real miracles or a real resurrection, beyond the individual’s psychological or spiritual one. Peter, what do you really believe? You have complained that the new atheists (and i suppose by association, agnostics like me) “don’t go far enough”? What is the next step then, besides simply to stop using god as a crutch and accepting people? Do we really need any beliefs about jesus and miracle to do these things? Are you merely an agnostic or atheist who likes Christian language and symbolism?

    Also, I know you have heard this before, but much of what you write about synchs with buddhism nicely.

  11. Debbie says:

    Only the moment of ‘death’ will SHOW somebody The Resurrection.

    I related to Peter because I have been at the place of losing everything and even my life and my unborn babies was ebbing away and I prayed to a God I wasn’t even sure was there. He was.

    It changed everything and then it changed nothing…very weird. My circumstance didn’t change but how I experienced it certainly did. Who would have thought that carpenter from Galillee is truly alive….those who have met Him.

    The people who are in the place of ‘humility’ before their own death are usually the people who know God yet they are also the poorest of the poor and don’t sprout their stories over the Internet or can even afford to write a book let alone sit around drinking coffee speculating.

    They see God though :) and it’s up to us to judge whether it’s real or just a psychological trick.

  12. Nes says:

    I think a lot of people’s confusion here stems from the fact that Peter is not thinking of “belief” as “an intellectual assent to a proposition”. Peter could care less about whether something is “true” or “false” because thinking in such a paradigm misses that real reality cannot be understood in binaries – we live out what we believe. Thus, our lives are reflections beliefs – not what we say we believe.

    Of course, as many people have noted, this poses serious problems. Peter’s famous, “Of course I deny the resurrection… I deny it every time I don’t feed the hungry etc.” is helpful in getting to the root of what it means to “believe” something in this context, but (I think) it unfortunately disregards physical events in history as either unknowable or non-essential. Whether or not Jesus actually came back from the dead, in his own (new) body, is an (meta)physical event that has either happened or not. When we do have faith in the resurrection, we are not only manifesting what it would “look like” if such an event did happen; we are acting because of our conviction that such a physical event occurred.

    @fregas – if you’re interested in understanding “just what Peter believes” I suggest you read anything by Slavoj Zizek. Rollin’s thought deeply indebted to, and in some cases a direct imitation of Zizekian thought. Zizek’s primary goal is to extract the “subversive kernel of Christianity”, namely, a kind of egalitarianism found in Paul’s “there is no Jew, Greek, male, female” and use the crucifixion of Christ as a analogue to illustrate that god as “other” has really and truly died. Similar kinds of thought (concerning the death of God) can be found by Tom Altizer. I often find myself wondering what Zizek, a non-apologetic atheist, would think of Rollin’s work and, moreover, his target audience – but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.

  13. David Raber says:

    Just an offhand reaction to you work, which I have just discovered and perused briefly. Seems to me what you’re driving at is available in the traditional spirituality and praxis of the Catholic Church–in particular in the exemplary lives of the saints, who have given up their lives in order to gain life. Also, generally, religion should be a consolation, and God does want us to have that peace which passes understanding. Insofar as doubt, frustration, worry, and all that are an unavoidable part of human life, the traditional Christian understanding of accepting suffering is available as a means of overcoming it. Not sure if you are reinventing the wheel unnecessarily or (perhaps necessarily)translating the tradition (and the gospel message) into modern or post-modern terms.

  14. Geeba says:

    The issue of right and wrong and true or false is real. Even unbelievers know that – even children do. If you don’t care about that, then what is your standard? What is the cutoff point between acceptable and unacceptable?
    And I assume when you refer to God, you’re meaning the Biblical one, the one who defines and uphold these standards; if not, then nevermind.

  15. Todd Erickson says:

    It seems that much of what Rollins is attempting with Insurrection and other works is to point out that modern church is, in essence, a cargo cult with varying mythological overlays.

    What Rollins and others like him are attempting to point out is the truth behind the cult, but their attempts lie so far outside of the false question that the religious community keeps asking themselves that there is a poor context for grasping and then acting upon it.

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