Peter Rollins Insurrection - an early review, part 1

Saturday, August 13, 2011

I was asked to review the pre-release version of Peter Rollins' new book Insurrection - To Believe is Human, to Doubt Divine. There's a lot of good stuff in it, so I'm planning on covering it over a few posts. In this first post I want to deal with his theology of the cross, which is the core thesis of his book. Before I do though, I want to give a few caveats:

First, I'll be quoting from the pre-release version. Those quotes may change or be refined in the final version. Second, (and more importantly) I will be disagreeing with a lot of what Pete says. That does not mean that I don't like where he is coming from. I do. I consider this a friendly review/critique among common allies. As you will see, I strongly disagree with him on some major areas, but if you are at all familiar with Peter Rollins' thought, you'll know that he wants people to disagree, and not to just passively swallow all he says. As he writes in Insurrection, truth is found "in the ongoing testing and transformation of those claims through the fires of passionate, loving debate." So it is in that spirit that I offer this:

There are several "flavors" to the theology of the cross: Luther, Moltmann, John Douglas Hall, Bonhoeffer, etc. Rollins' theology of the cross is largely built off of Bonhoeffer's idea of becoming "religionless." Rollins refers to this as "a/theism" which he contrasts with the New Atheism of folks like Richard Dawkins which is a mere intellectual rejection of theism. Rollins' a/theism in contrast is about the emotional loss of God, the feeling of forsakenness and utter loss that Jesus felt on the cross when he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Compared to this, Dawkins' atheism is detached and cheap -- in the end New Atheism is just a type of fundamentalism with all the same intolerance and arrogant certainty. The emotional a/theism Rollins advocates in contrast rips away at that arrogant certainty.

Rollins wants to dismantle religious systems of comfort which lead us to mask over and ignore hurt and oppression. His theology of the cross therefore involves the striping way of these securities and comforts, resulting in the "trauma" of personally experiencing the absence of God where one is "crushed by a deep existential loss of certainty" and we "give up everything including God" (his emphasis). That is a very provocative statement, but if one can read on to the end of the book, we discover that what Rollins ultimately means here is the loss of the religious image of God, the loss of our immature picture of God as a sort of heavenly grandpa. This is the theology of the cross that Bonhoeffer wrote of from inside the German concentration camp before his execution. In the face of the Holocaust, Bonhoeffer knew we needed the God on the cross, the God who is there in the middle of our suffering, in the middle of an unjust and broken world.

The question is: In losing the God of religious comfort and certainty, do we also lose the God of hope? It is here that I think Rollins' theology goes astray because he mixes up the meaning of the Resurrection with the meaning of the Incarnation and Crucifixion. Rollins writes that to affirm the resurrection means "embracing the broken world." Resurrection life, he writes, is a way of "truly affirming life" in the midst of "the experience of death we find in the crucifixion." But that is not the meaning of the Resurrection, it is the meaning of the Incarnation. The meaning of the Resurrection is that, despite all the brokenness in our world, we have hope that there will one day be an end to sickness, death, and hurt. That is what the resurrection means. Rollins adamantly rejects the hope that “everything will work out in the end” as an immature illusion that he aims to strip away. In other words, his theology of the cross annuls the hope of the Resurrection. He writes, “In sharp contrast then to the idea that, at the heart of Christianity, we find the loving embrace of some Supreme Being; to participate in Christ’s Crucifixion involves experiencing the destruction of all cosmic security. Here, in this experience, radical doubt, unknowing, loss, desolation, and forsakenness are to be found.”

Rollins sees the Resurrection as “the state of being in which one is able to embrace the cold embrace of the cross.” Now, I fully agree that God embraces us in all of our ugliness and pain (that’s the meaning of the Incarnation), but I also hope Rollins would agree that God does not affirm abuse; God does not want us to be victimized by injustice, or by our own self-hatred; God does not want us to drown in our in despair and grief. God loves us in our hurt, but God does not love hurt, and neither should we. The cross, in embracing us in our ugliness, does not advocate oppression or hurt, rather it is a protest against it. As Moltmann says, the suffering God is the protesting God.

Rollins is all for protest I'm sure. (Heck, that's what "insurrection" means!) But in denying the meaning of the Resurrection, he pulls the rug out from under himself. It is a theology of the cross without a theology of the Resurrection, and therefore without Resurrection hope. So while I affirm all that Rollins affirms, my problem is with what he rejects. In the end, I think he throws the baby out with the bathwater. The gospel is more than that. I want a bigger insurrection. I want an insurrection rooted in the Resurrection.

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At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post! The resurrection reveals that the hurt cannot overcome Him. Without it, the cross means only that love is inferior to violence and hate. Even when we no longer feel the presence of God, love never fails. We are crooked souls trying to stay up straight, the shadow proves the sunshine.

At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Right on. Good quote from Switchfoot. They are my all time favorite band.

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Peter said...

I have been turned on to Peter Rollins' Insurrection through a friend, as a result of my experience of God as both lover and brute. Your commentary was helpful, and I will pursue this book.


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