Peter Rollins’ “Insurrection”
By Ryan Tinetti
Karl Barth famously said that one does not speak of God simply by speaking of man with a loud voice, and of Peter Rollins’s new book Insurrection we might say, in a similar vein, that one does not speak of the gospel simply by capitalizing our Existential Experience. Though Rollins effectively deconstructs the latent theology of glory that plagues many corners of Christianity, he undermines the only foundation that provides a true alternative.
The expressed purpose of Insurrection is to sketch the shape of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” engaging in what Rollins calls “pyro-theology” (alluding to a quotation he cites from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti: “The only church that illuminates is a burning one”). For some, such an aim may be immediate cause for suspicion but, its bombast notwithstanding, it need not necessarily be problematic. Even down to the familiar, if conventional, two-part structure of “Crucifixion” and “Resurrection,” Insurrection at first reads like something from Gerhard Forde’s canon (recognizing that Forde himself is not uniformly accepted among Lutherans). Rollins is a relentless critic of theology-as-therapy and Church-as-security-blanket; in other words, the theology of glory. This is where the book has the most to offer.
Rollins notes the contradiction among many Christians who consciously affirm the cross as central to their faith, yet promote a “Church structure” that “enables us to say that we embrace the reality of doubt and see the value of acknowledging the sense of God’s absence while actually protecting ourselves from the psychological impact of these experiences” (47). Religion, as Rollins uses the term in this book, epitomizes all our attempts to avoid the cross: “It is only as we are cut loose from religion in the very depth of our being–experiencing an existential loss of God, rather than some mere intellectual rejection–that we are free to discover a properly Christian expression of faith” (62).
Following from this, Rollins proposes that communities (presumably, though he does not say so, Christian congregations) “need to ritualize the full range of human emotions, bringing radical doubt, ambiguity, mystery, and complexity into the very heart of the liturgical structure itself” (73). This is salutary and necessary counsel. For pastors, Rollins challenges us to question whether we are making space–literally and metaphorically–for parishioners to express the doubts they no doubt have (pardon the pun); to have their experience of the cross affirmed rather than ignored. Fortunately, for those of us committed to making use of the rich repository of the liturgy and Christian calendar, we are outfitted with ample resources in this regard. I think, for instance, of the Litany (LSB, p. 288), which thrusts before our consciousness many of those things we would most prefer not to think about, and in just the right place to do so–namely, on our knees in prayer. Rollins is right to call for the Church to provide liturgical structures and spaces that faithfully accommodate and interpret the Christian’s experience.
But that experience, while it may mark the subjective shape of Christian faith, it is not its objective content–and here is where Insurrection is profoundly misled and misleading. Rollins routinely employs the weighty terms of the theological lexicon: Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and so on (invariably capitalized). What becomes apparent, however, is that he is almost exclusively employing these terms, not with their biblical and historical referents, but as shorthand for human existential experience.
Perhaps the most egregious casualty of this linguistic sleight-of-hand is that most venerable of capitalized signifiers: God. Associating any personal or “objective” conception of God with “religion,” Rollins writes, “God is the name we give to the way of living in which we experience the world as worthy of living for, fighting for, and dying for” (123). And again, “Is this not the properly theological understanding of God? Not a being we directly love, but rather the depth present in the very act of love itself” (122). One wants to respond to his ouk interrogative, if you will, with a protesting me construction.
“Resurrection” for Rollins is thus when–in spite of the experience of meaningless and forsakenness that he calls Crucifixion–”we continue to affirm God as we love the world” (129). Hence Rollins’s provocative (if not ironic) assertion that he denies the Resurrection: “For it is only when we are the site where Resurrection takes place that we truly affirm it. To believe in the Crucifixion and Resurrection means nothing less than enacting them” (180).
As one who follows in the tradition of Martin Luther–to say nothing of the Apostle Paul–I do not want to dismiss the existential aspect of cross and resurrection; this is a fundamental way that we conceptualize and, indeed, experience faith. But it is precisely because this existential experience is founded in and patterned by historical, time-and-space events, that those signifiers are at all meaningful–that they are true theological confession and not simply linguistic convenience. For if, in the end, “Resurrection” is not the God-forsaken One reconciling the world by conquering the grave, but (as Rollins would have it) the soul reconciling itself to the experience of God-forsakenness, then–far from providing strength to love in a loveless world–it is just another of those security blankets that needs to be stripped away. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”: that alone can take us where Rollins wants to go.
Rev. Ryan Tinetti is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Seaside, CA. He previously contributed to concordiatheology.org with a reflection on a near-perfect pitcher.