A couple months ago was a fun first, a note from a publisher offering to send a copy of Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection, in exchange for a review. I had just listened to Rollins sermon about pyro-theology and had found it one of the more interesting sermons I’d listened to in a while. And, of course, a free book couldn’t be passed up. Of course, with kids and all, the review is a little late in coming, but it’s also given me time to chew on the book for a while. My short review: it did indeed do a lot of valuable “insurrecting”—turning up the earth or burning down the sacred cows—but I’m less sure about what was re-constructed in the end.
Driving the first half of the book is the theme of needing to create a religionless Christianity, which he connects to Bonohoeffer’s criticism of religion being “a way of approaching God as the solution to problems such as fear, ignorance, or despair…. whose only job is to provide us with a psychological crutch” [xiv]. Indeed, this is an old theme, one that Bernard of Clairvaux talked about as “the four degrees of love” which progresses from loving only ourselves, to loving God for what God can do for us, to loving God for who God is, to loving oneself solely for God’s sake. And so Rollins endeavors to push a church largely stuck at stage two past the safety fence and off the cliff in hopes they will land at least in stage three.
To believe is human; to doubt divine encapsulates the first few chapters and it gave me pause as someone who’s often found atheism to be a tempting option. What Rollins means is that we naturally desire the care of “one who would forever cradle us and never forsake us…. We find great solace in the idea of someone presiding over the world who guarantees that our small and seemingly insignificant lives are being seen and cherished” (7). No doubt, the safety, comfort, and eternal happiness promised by an omnipotent and benevolent being sounds like a pretty good option—the opiate of the people to quote another critic of religion from a time ago. And so Rollins points out how the safety blanket of church, the continual optimism of our preachers and worship songs, even our cynicism about certainty or strident unbelief in God all “treat God as an object there to tell us it’s all going to be OK” (47) by shielding us from doubt, anger, and any sense of divine abandonment.
What does Rollins want, then, if not church or modern atheism? Crucifixion is the necessary medicine; the experience where God forsakes God. A true undergoing of crucifixion, of participating in it with Christ, is necessary to to strip away our various mythologies and comforts that are part and parcel of the religious view of God. To quote another mystic, the dark night of the Soul cannot be avoided as part of the spiritual journey. A quibble I have here, though, is that while Rollins might push us towards the dark night by exposing our religious practices as mere safety blankets he also appears to think it is a stage that can be voluntarily entered into. I’m not so sure about that—like most parts of the spiritual journey it seems to be something that comes upon you and when forced turns out to be a shadow of the real thing. I’m also not so sure how prevalent this “avoidance of death and meaninglessness” is. Maybe I’m out of touch, but most of the folks I know seem very aware of their own and the world’s shitload of suffering.
Moving on, the second half of the book, Rollins looks at what follows Crucifixion, Resurrection, and what that looks like. If the problem is a Christianity that protects us from doubt and anxiety and it is the true experience of Crucifixion that confronts us with the death and meaninglessness from which we hide, then Resurrection is a way of truly affirming life in the midst of that death (108). One of my favorite parts of the book is when he fleshes out this idea (maybe because it sounds so Mennonite):
[L]oving God directly becomes problematic…. [rather] God is loved through the work of love itself…. To approach God as a person we will meet in a future time, who is always avoiding us or whom we occasionally bump into, like some friend at a party, misses the properly theological insight that God is manifest only in our embrace and affirmation of the broken world…. And thus God is present where we love [others]. (118, 124-125)
As much as I like Rollins’ insistence on loving the other as the way in which we love God, this is also where I disagree as well. For in his insistence on finding God in the other comes a rejection of “thin spaces” (124) where God is also experienced. Yes we see, hear, and love God through others, but I want to leave room to also see, hear, and love God in nature, in prayer and meditation, in music, in solitude. Admittedly, these ways of experiencing God are often considered more “direct” and thus preferred and sought after and that should be avoided. But to say God is only found in loving another leaves out too much and could end up leaving us a God who is solely a social interaction, who is wholly immanent and in no way transcendent.
The “pyro” in Rollins’ pyro-theology is great, containing much that pushed me towards introspection and honesty about my doubts and tendency towards using God as a crutch. The “theology,” or re-constructing of it, was a little less convincing, and for that I’m more inclined to download the free copy of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God” which intrigued me with this line:
Sometimes a slave may do God’s work; but because he does not toil voluntarily, he remains in bondage. So a mercenary may serve God, but because he puts a price on his service, he is enchained by his own greediness. For where there is selfinterest there is isolation; and such isolation is like the dark corner of a room where dust and rust befoul.