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Rollins bringing fiery philosophy to Colorado Springs

May 12, 2017 Updated: May 12, 2017 at 7:07 am
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Peter Rollins is fascinated by fire. His past is filled with flames. So is his theology.

"Fire can be destructive but also can clear a way for new things to arrive," Rollins says in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "Fire can burn down buildings or warm food. I believe in putting our beliefs to the fire to see what burns away and what is purified and comes to the surface. I believe in putting certainties to the fire."

A big slice of Christendom flees from uncertainty, instead seeking a faith full of conviction and empty of doubt.

Rollins dwells in a different slice. He revels in uncertainty and values questions more than answers. This realm of intense and focused wandering is where he finds his voice, his freedom and, of course, his fire.

He will speak at 7 p.m. Friday at Colorado College's Shove Chapel as part of the annual James W. White Lectures. His lecture is free and will be followed by classes on Saturday and sermons on Sunday at First Congregational Church, 20 E. St. Vrain St., on downtown's northern edge.

Rollins is not a traditional theologian. He's been described as a barroom philosopher, which he considers a compliment. In August, he will lead a "Theology Beer Camp" in downtown Denver, combining serious Bible and faith discussion with micro-brew consumption.

Rollins, 43, was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and educated at Queens College, where he earned a Ph.D. in post-structural thought. He speaks with the thick and lyrical accent of his homeland.

His focus on fire began long ago. On every 12th night of July, he watched the bonfires that encircled his city. The flames are part of a ritual begun in the late 17th century. In 1690, Protestants loyal to the English crown ignited beacons to proclaim Prince William of Orange had arrived to fight against Catholic King James II. Fires have marked 12th Night ever since in loyalist communities.

As a boy, Rollins watched the flames with deep fascination. For many, the night of fire was one big party, but he sensed a deeper meaning. The bonfires were carefully planned with some of the pyres rising to 13 stories and sending flames soaring into the Irish night.

"It was quite a powerful thing to watch," he says. "It was powerful to see people join together around a shared destruction."

Rollins believes destruction lives at the heart of a healthy walk with God. He wants to destroy - burn away - the falsehood that anyone ever arrives anywhere close to figuring it all out.

"We all want all the answers, religiously or politically," he says. "We want to know how the world works, why we're here and what we're doing here. We want the easy answers. All of us are looking for ways to escape life and its complexity.

"I want to get to the radical core, to help us enter into mystery and complexity and celebrate that, instead of thinking about religion as that which gives us all the answers.

"Basically, we feel we are unraveling when we start questioning things, and we want to find a way to stop that," he says. "I want us to celebrate unraveling, to revel in it, to enjoy it, to enjoy not knowing and not having the answers. That's where we're going to find real life and real joy."

Rollins, as he talks in his quiet car, has just departed the noise of his favored hangout, Deus Ex Machina, an Australian biker coffee shop a few blocks from Venice Beach. He's fascinated by Southern California, his new home, a destination filled with sunshine and strange beliefs.

L.A. residents, he says, are remarkably depressed. Many of his friends believe if they can just make enough money, find the right mix of friends and abolish those pesky and troubling questions from their mind, then, and only then, happiness will arrive.

Rollins offers a different plan.

"We can be free from the pursuit of happiness," he says.

Rollins is free from much knowledge about Colorado Springs. He's never visited our city.

"A friend just told me this morning that Colorado Springs is one of the American centers of conservative Christianity," he says. "Is that correct?"

Ah, yes, Peter. That would be correct.

"Very good, then," he says with a laugh as he prepares to ignite yet another fire.

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