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The Confession of an Un/believer

March 03, 2009

(Compiled and read by Peter Rollins, music by Rothko)

=== Please listen to reflection before reading on ===

Let us make a distinction here between meganarrative and metanarrative. A meganarrative being that term which refers to the story that one lives while a metanarrative referring to the story that intellectually justifies and makes sense of our existence.

For so many, Christianity is thought of as comprising a very particular metanarrative. The result is that Christianity begins to resemble a Gnostic faith insomuch as it affirms a certain way of interpreting the world as a requirement for salvation. What can then happen is that we fall into the trap of theoretical belief and practical unbelief. In other words, we believe intellectually while living as though we didn’t in our grounded day-to-day life.

There are of course many who believe that Christianity offers a way of interpreting the world (that the scriptures give us a particular cosmology and anthropology) while also living their faith in terms of showing love to ones enemies and standing up for the oppressed. Thus affirming Christianity as a metanarrative while also living it as a meganarrative.

The question I wish to ask here however is whether Christianity requires the affirmation of a particular metanarrative. In other words, in the same way that the church once asked whether circumcision was required for salvation today I want to ask whether the metanarrative affirmed by contemporary evangelical churches is necessary for salvation.

The above words from Mother Theresa (harvested from various letters) offer a stark answer to this question. For Mother Theresa, the traditional metanarrative of Christianity was deeply questioned and often found wanting. Yet it did not stop her from living her faith in an uncompromising manner. Indeed it was her doubt at the level of metanarrative that made her faith even more awe-inspiring. For this faith was so much a part of her flesh and blood that her Garden of Gestheme experience did not rock her Christ-like devotion to those around her. It was obvious that she lived this way not because she beleived that she would be rewarded, or because it was what her beliefs demanded, but rather because she loved with a supernatural devotion that asked nothing in return.

She could embrace doubt and unknowing while expressing an unwavering commitment to the life of faith as expressed in caring for the oppressed and unwanted. There where many times when she was a theoretical unbeliever, but through it all she was a practical believer to the very end.

In my next post I will explore why this position may well bring us close to understanding how a healthy and dynamic Christianity will be expressed in the 21st century. In this way I will argue that Mother Theresa may well be on the short list for being the first patron saint of emergence Christianity.

16 Responses to The Confession of an Un/believer

  1. pastor chad says:

    The Orthodox claim that faith is not faith unless it is lived, sounds a lot like James. It makes me wonder about the distinction. I agree that we need to make room for doubt, we need to be more comfortable voicing and hearing these doubts.

    I also agree that there is no set cosmology or anthropology that we must subscribe to in order to become followers of Christ. I do think, however, that we need to find in Christ all the fullness of God. We need to find in him all the things that we so desperately long for.

    She was able to give her life in service, even though she doubted. That shows much stronger faith than those who claim to believe all the words, but live by a different meganarrative.

    thanks for this post.

  2. Neal says:

    “I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.” Rabia al-Adawiyya

    Not just Mother Theresa!
    Although Rabias assertion was a little earlier by about 1200 years and I’m not sure if Muslims are allowed to be saints.

  3. Brianmpei says:

    Just reading about the importance of being truth rather than believing truth. These questions are definitely “spot on” for me. There is so much that seems gnostic about evangelical and charismatic faith today. We’ve built up so much about heaven and hell being what this is all about when it was clearly NOT what Jesus taught or any of the NT writers. I think the meta is so suspect that it would be hard to defend the position that affirmation of a single meta-narrative, particularly the current evangelical one, is necessary in order to be in a relationship with Jesus that transforms us.

  4. Adam says:

    I’m still coming across people who we’re moved by that reading from Mother Teresa. Powerful stuff. The recording here is great to have.

  5. peter says:

    I am interesting to see how you develop this work. I, like the friends you describe, am someone who has found his plausibility structure around the basic christian doctrines altered over time. I have a hard time resonating the view of the world I receive from philsophy and social science with some of the belief structures I grew up with in Protestant/ Evangelical America. I am compelled by Charles Taylor’s discussions in A Secular Age on the cross-pressures of belief, where we are caught between positions (of belief and unbelief), and therefore look to create a third way. I look forward to see your approach to this third way… beyond our traditional categories of christianity as contingent on doctrinal belief.

  6. Drew Tatusko says:

    The problem with any metanarrative is that it tends toward the ideological and thus, towards the political in often exclusionary and oppressive ways.

    From a functional perspective, one can argue that a metanarrative in some sense is necessary for having any rational discourse about anything. However, the danger is that the metanarrative becomes reified into something that actually protects one from the disruptions that the presence of God evokes.

    I discussed this in terms of the political nature of orthodoxy this morning after reading the first line from your post on someone else’s blog. Strange how things come full circle sometimes. You might find the proposal intriguing. http://notes-from-offcenter.com/2009/03/27/orthodoxy-invites-protest/


  7. jon eades says:

    Great post Peter. I’ve read that Mother Teresa thing before but hearing it read out loud strikes an even deeper chord for me.

    As someone who doesn’t consider himself to be overly intellectual/theological/philosophical I was hoping you or anyone else reading this could outline or direct me to some resources that could outline the metanarrative ascribed to by most contemporary evangelical churches. And maybe it’s just that I don’t fully understand what a metanarrative is or encompasses.

    I’m wondering too though what role you see Christ playing in this whole meta-mega conversation, perhaps this is something that you’re planning on addressing more fully in upcoming posts. Thanks and God bless!

  8. Christy says:

    I’d be interested in seeing how you bring Jesus into this too. My experience has been that there is a significant difference in spiritual experience between a person who frames her faith as “following Jesus” and one who doesn’t. Both can be lovely, caring, moral, and altruistic people, but you’ve got to have Jesus in there somewhere, or it’s not Christianity. There’s a lot more wiggle room regarding Jesus than American evangelicalism would like to think, but still – “Christ” IS in the name of the religion, so he’s kind of hard to avoid.

    I’m all for loving your enemies (well, mostly) and standing up for the oppressed, but lots of non-Christians have done and do that – Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Elie Wiesel, etc. – and I don’t think of that as something particular to Christianity. If someone wants to work for justice and love their neighbor because of Jesus, fantastic, but if it’s Buddha or Mohammed or Bono or the neighborhood atheist that motivates them, that’s fine by me too. Christians most definitely do not have a corner on selflessness and love.

    I actually feel very sad for Mother Teresa when I read or hear about the darkness she experienced. I wish she had felt free to doubt in public while she was still alive, and to stop believing those parts of the Christian story that caused her such pain. I’m not terribly saintly, but I spent many years doing the tortured doubt thing, and it has been tremendously liberating to just let go of what I could never really believe, stop looking to Jesus for my redemption, and accept my spiritual experience for what it was, rather than what I was told it was supposed to be.

    All that is a very long way of saying that I (surprisingly) agree with Pastor Chad – Although I don’t think you need to believe in Jesus to be saved, I do think you need to believe in Jesus on some level to be a Christian (or at least be TRYING to believe in Jesus.) If you can’t accept the Christian (although not necessarily evangelical) meta-narrative on some level, doesn’t it make more sense to leave Christianity, rather than try to make it into something else? I’m just not sure that you can get rid of meta-narrative entirely – we all have to tell ourselves some kind of story about the world…..

  9. Dan Wilt says:

    Here’s my take on the idea of a metanarrative.

    The question you raise in the blog post is not whether or not we have a metanarrative. It’s whether or not evangelical ones of the 21st century are found wanting.

    Let’s be straight about our postmodern metanarrative talk – If there is no “metanarrative,” good or bad, helpful or unhelpful, satisfying or wanting, then jsut be a buddhist, or a hedonist, an agnostic or anything you’d prefer to be. If there is no framework, elusive or accessible, then let’s stop all this talk about Mother Theresa and a God who intervenes.

    Every Christian, upon saying they are a Christian, has a metanarrative.

    If you are a Christian, that commitment presupposes a metanarrative. Veiled and open to interpretation it may be, but to live without a metanarrative (anyone) may be (in my humble estimation) ultimately impossible.

  10. admin says:

    Hey Dan

    I really am not so sure. If we use the term ‘metanarrative’ in the way that Lyotard meant it then I think it is not the narrative that is a metanarrative but rather the way we hold it makes it into a metanarrative. I would want to argue that Christianity is best approached as a big story, but a story that arises out of lived experience (mega-narrative). That it is not a justificatory ahistorical, unchanging story that grounds our experience but rather one that is kinetic, and dynamic. A story we inhabit and wrestle with.

    As you mention, my point is not that Christianity has no large story. Rather my point is that we have come to hold the nature of this story in a way that robs it of its power.

    Hope that clarifies, I realise that small blog posts are not always helpful in communicating such ideas!

  11. Adam Steward says:

    It would be pretty difficult to disagree with the point that a faith that is only intellectual and not practical is not worth much to anyone (ahem…James!!). However, you seems to undercut your own position by swinging the pendulum completely from theory to praxis. On what grounds do you value a practiced faith over a theoretical faith? Why should we agree that Mother Theresa is a better exemplar of Christianity than, say, Jerry Falwell? The grounds, OF COURSE, are a metanarrative, “a way of interpreting the world” that allows us to value some things more than others. Your recommendation of dispensing with metanarrative is, in my opinion, a complete fake. You have one just like anyone else (which should be clear from the fact that you are writing to try to convince us to THINK about faith in a certain way!)–you’re pretending not to have one; and being blind to our ideologies does not make them any less controlling.

    I think we have to own up to the fact that we cannot make a strict dichotomy between thinking and acting. The way we think will always influence the actions we take, and the actions to which we are committed will influence the way we think. In other words, I don’t think the question is whether or not we will have an intellectual account of life (story formed or not)–everyone has one, and we have no choice in the matter. The question is whether that way of thinking will be subject to Christ.

  12. admin says:

    Hey Adam. Thanks for the comments. Perhaps I have not made my position clear enough and this has led to a certain misunderstanding. In my wider philosophical project I am not arguing that we do not have narratives that ground and legitimate our action. This, as you point out, would be a school boy error.

    My point is somewhat more complex. I am first of all personally interested in the multifarious ways that belief and action interact (my theoretical co-ordinates here are currently Hegel, Kierkegaard, Lacan and Zizek). However the point I am trying to make in posts like the above is that the singular moment of Christianity is a pre-hermeneutic kenotic one (that takes place, of course, within history) that gives birth to ideas that then coalesce into hegemonic, legitimating narratives.

    The point is to draw out that all theology is a grounded, historical discourse that needs to be judged in relation to its performative nature within a given context. In Lacanian terms: there is no Big Other (although this does not mean that we do not constantly create or rely on this Big Other).

    Hope that clarifies my position a little for you.

  13. Adam Steward says:

    Well, that’s very protestant of you, and I have a certain appreciation for that. Certainly the transformation of Christianity into a set of propositions was unfortunate. The negative tone with which you describe “hegemonic, legitimating narratives” is puzzling, though. It seems as though preclude outright the possibility of a tradition that could be open to criticism, that would not be a static self-legitimizing hermeneutic. Isn’t tradition that flows from Constantine also attended by that which flows from Polycarp, Antony, Francis, and Theresa?

    The Protestant tradition has worked very hard at forging a Christianity without tradition, but has always failed, because the singular event alters the fabric of reality, which before was known solely in terms of immanent possibility. The frame of interpretation to which the event gives rise, though, does not necessarily become hegemonic, though, when it occurs within a tradition that knows how to make itself subject to the inbreaking of the singularity of Christ. For instance, the Mennonites.

    It seems to me that the Bible continually portrays revelation in this sense, namely that the event of Christ (pre-hermeneutic would be a stretch, given Christ’s Jewishness) gives rise to the outpouring of the Spirit, which breaks us out of our kata sarka frame of reference, and opens our gaze onto the new creation that is unfolding in our midst. Or, in Paul’s words:

    For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

  14. admin says:

    Yeah, I have quite a protestant theoretical perspective. Though I would not say that I ignore or attempt to move outside tradition. I too am interested in how the singular event takes place within history and is re-inscribed within a historical context (whilst changing the context). I am not against tradition at all, I am against a certain type of tradition that attempts to raise itself above the human, all to human. I am a dialectic theologian and see theoretical concepts always changing in relation to the context.

    In terms of the ‘pre-hermeneutic’ I would want to go even further than this and claim the central moment of Christianity as articulated in metanoia ruptures our currently existing hermenutic, even if only for a moment… short-circuiting our interpretations of reality through the incoming of the Real.

    My project involves drawing out how Christian revelation has more in common with Eastern notions of Enlightenment than Western notions of The Enlightnement.

    This project does stand against a/the dominant strand of theology as developed through the middle-ages. I too advocate the Mennonites (and particularly Quakers) as sites of resistance to this.

  15. Matt McKimmy says:

    Is there any chance this audio file is still available? I’m getting a “404 – Not Found” error on it. Thanks!

  16. The Atheist Missionary says:

    I am curious to know whether you have read Christopher Hitchens’ “The Missionary Position” which provides a somewhat different snapshot of your emergent saint.

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