Friend or Frenemy? A Review of Peter Rollins' "Insurrection"

This is an off-the-top-of-my-head review of Peter Rollins newest book "Insurrection", which I read this weekend. The book was incredibly good, in that I deeply enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a great deal to ponder and wrestle with. At the end of the day, I value Rollins' ideas about how to existentially live out our faith in Christ on a daily basis. However, I have serious concerns over Rollins' re-visioning and re-definition of key elements of the Christian tradition. As such, Rollins is a sort of "frenemy" who, on one hand is a very helpful friend in elucidating certain aspects of what it means to follow Jesus in our culture. On the other hand, he is an enemy of certain historic Christian affirmations about God and Christ.

As a "frenemy" of Christ, Rollins maintains a place for God, at the cost of flattening God into just a Name for the structure of human psychological experience. As such, his thought is helpful as a bridge to Christ, in the same way that pantheism, panentheism, psychoanalysis and even Marxism can be bridges to Christ, all of which offer various points of commonality and intersection with Christ while also displaying broad areas of discordance. Here are some of the theological moves that Rollins makes in the book:

His key theological code-words are God, Truth, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. He does not seem to mind if these ideas are given "historic" content as things that happened in space time and which are cognitively affirmed as such. But for Rollins this affirmation is irrelevant, usually distracting, and simply meaningless for the postmodern person. Rather, their true meaning and relevance comes from their identity as descriptions of human experience.

GOD: For Rollins, God is the undeconstructable, unconditional, unselfish Love which elicits our total decision to affirm and support "the other". In this schema, God is not some "Big Other" that can be loved as a person in an "I/Thou" relationship, but rather God is the very act of Loving which allows us to treat other humans as "Thou". God's transcendence is not as an entity outside of our historic existence, but rather is "transcendence-in-immanence" as the ever deepening immanence we find as we explore the un-ending depths of our beloved (whoever that may be). To say it in a way Rollins does not: God is no longer a self-subsistent noun beyond us, but solely an immanent verb which proceeds from us, and binds us together, as an epiphenomenon of our consciousness.

To put it into Jack Caputo's terms (who Rollins draws heavily on): God is that which is undeconstructable and which deconstructs all of our social constructs. Thus God can be seen as the Love which critiques all our personal relationships, or as the Justice which critiques all our social Laws and Institutions. God is therefore a "weak force" which is constantly at work in our conscience, evaluating and interpreting our experience. God is not, and never can be, a "strong force" which exerts coercive power as an entity outside of the human self (because there is no such thing as a personal entity outside of human selves!). Caputo also names this undeconstructable weak force as "The Event". What makes an historic activity or happening into an "Event" is simply the force of human interpretation and evaluation. Before becoming an Event, an historic happening is simply a collision of matter and energy at a specific time. But, in the process of being experienced and interpreted by humans, it is given significance and meaning as an "Event". This meaning-making process, imbued and shot through with undeconstructable Justice and Love, is the weak force of God. God is the process of conflict and evaluation we call "Event".

Although Rollins never mentions his name, I think that Immanuel Kant is sniffing around somewhere at the root of this idea of God as a structure of consciousness. For this God is a sort of absolute demand for absolute Love which operates as a continual weak force in our consciousness of events. This is very close indeed to Kant's concept of the "categorical imperative" which is both absolutely universalizable to all sentient beings, and which treats all sentient beings as ends and never as means (which is a very German, cold, categorical way to express the ethical force of "Love"). I think it would be fair to say that God, for Rollins, is The Categorical Imperative, but not as a cold-blooded mental calculation, rather as a hot-blooded angst-filled passionate embrace of the Other. And following Kant, Rollins is quite allergic to hypothesizing about any metaphysical realities beyond the physical, even to the point of rendering irrelevant certain questions of whether various historical events actually happened. Thus, with Kant, Rollins relegates all of his theologizing to the realm of phenomenal empirical experience, and leaves questions of noumenal realities unasked and unanswered.

Of course, it is easy to see why Rollins (and others) call this "a/theism". It affirms God while also not affirming God. It affirms God without affirming a personal "Big Other" with whom we must deal and to whom we are accountable. Does Rollins' God "judge" us? Yes. But only with the judgment we judge ourselves with, because God is in the end our own judgment. But isn't there something to Rollins' God that is unconditional and undeconstructable? Yes, but only insofar as we allow it to be undeconstructable to us. We can completely, and permanently, ignore the "weak force" of unconditional Love, if we wish. Rollins offers us God without God, in the same way he offers us "religion without religion" (a frequently quoted catch phrase from Derrida).

It is a refinement of 1960's "Death of God" theology using the scaffolding of deconstruction rather than existentialism (and deconstruction, by the way, is a better scaffolding for this view of God). It is not a God of pure immanence or historical process, like the God of Hegel's panentheism or Spinoza's pantheism. Rather, it is God as a re-naming for a universal structure of human consciousness. As such, Rollins' God it is rather akin to a Zen Buddhist rendering of "Nirvana", in which we reach the overcoming and superseding of human experience within the very process of human experience. This supercession is neither a person nor a power nor a place, but a negation of all of these in the very process of a whole hearted affirmation of life. To which the postmodern hipster can shrug and say "Sure, if that's what you mean by God then I can roll with it." This is not God in any realistic sense (in terms of their being real universals or entities outside of empirical experience). But I suppose it is a sort of stepping stone to a realistic affirmation of God for those who are unconvinced.

TRUTH: Once we see how Rollins un/defines God, everything else pretty much falls in line. Following the idea that God is another name for the psychological structure of a hot-blooded categorical imperative, Truth is simply the psychological structure of adapting one's experience to the absolute demands of this categorical imperative. For instance, we come into an encounter with "the other" with a whole series of learned behaviors, values, and assumptions. As "God" exerts the "weak force" of Love upon our consciousness, all of these behaviors, values, and assumptions are over-turned to make room for a deconstructed way of embracing "the Other". Truth is found for Rollins precisely in this process of overturning. Or as Rollins says it "Truth is conflict". Note that Truth is NOT the solution we reach on the other side of conflict (for this is bound to be deconstructed once again as we encounter ever-new "others" to Love). Rather, Truth is the process itself. Truth is conflict itself.

What this means is that Truth is not an entity to discover or uncover. Truth is not a body of facts to construct. Truth is not even the conformity of our inner Reality "in here" to external Reality "out there" (for I doubt Rollins holds that there is an "out there" out there, only our interpretations of "out there"). Truth has nothing objective, absolute or permanent to it. Truth is another name for the psychological process of conflict resolution.

INCARNATION: For Rollins, the Incarnation does not first and foremost refer to an Event in space-time by which a Reality called God enters into human existence as a person named Jesus. This could or could not have happened, and is fairly irrelevant either way. Rather, the records we have of Jesus are a kind of example of what it means to have a human life fully yielded to the psychological process of God. Rollins does not say that we could as easily pick another exemplar to base our discussion of "Incarnation" on, but it is easy to imply this. Yet, Jesus does offer a commonly agreed upon place to step off into the idea of a fully yielded human life, fully open and receptive to the absolute call of this weak force of Love within us all. This is what Incarnation is: The fully yielded life that sacrifices everything for the sake of the God of Love. For Rollins, this is also called the "sacrifice for religion", in which we give up everything FOR God (and remember, God here defined, not as a person, but as a process of Love). This is juxtaposed with the "sacrifice of religion" in which we give up everything INCLUDING God (which we will discuss below). The importance is to note that, once again, a key term in the lexicon of theology (Incarnation) has been all but drained of any particular content, and made into the name of a universal process.

Indeed, in one section of the book, Rollins details the theological idea of kenosis, which is the emptying of Godself to enter into human life as Jesus. Rollins quotes the main text for kenosis, the Pauline Christ hymn of Philippians 2, in which Paul writes that in Christ "God emptied himself and took on the nature of a slave, being found in human likeness…" The problem with this affirmation by Rollins is that, if God is the psychological structure that Rollins claims, there simply was nothing there to empty out in the first place. For if God has no transcendent reality outside of historical process or psychological experience, then there is no transcendence to empty out to become a specific human person. Jesus becomes simply a person who is supremely aware of the psychological structure of God/Love/Justice operative in him. Jesus then is not a non-contingent, eternal, transcendent person who leaves behind glory and power to become finite, temporal and contingent. Thus, the idea of the self-emptying, self-sacrificial Love of God manifest in us, which is one of the most important existential truths of Christianity- one which has supreme value for Rollins- is suddenly undercut. There is no longer an event in "the life of God" which corresponds to this genuine emptying if God is simply the psychological process Rollins claims.

CRUCIFIXION: This is, admittedly, the key stepping off point for the entire book, and the key concept which all the other concepts constantly reference back to. Rollins' concepts of God, Truth, Incarnation, and Resurrection all find their source in the concept of Crucifixion. In particular, this is the concept that is most grounded in the narrative of Jesus' Life, because the passion narrative is where we most clearly see this psychological process illustrated. Rollins' concept of crucifixion could stand on it's own without the Biblical narrative or any reference to Christian teachings (as could all of his key concepts). But he chooses not to. For me, this is the most powerful and persuasive concept in the book.

Rollins keys heavily on Jesus' experience of God-forsakenness in the Garden, Trial, and particularly in the Crucifixion where Jesus cries "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In addition, he adds powerful narrative testimony from Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom had long-lasting experiences of "God forsakenness". Rollins then launches into several chapters exploring how, for Jesus and many of the great saints, genuine spirituality has always included radical doubt, deep anxiety over guilt, death and meaninglessness, and a pervasive sense of longing for God in the absence of God. Rollins makes a case that this is not merely a problem to "get over", but rather an integral part of spirituality itself, not to be ignored, denied, or medicated. He also makes a case that in most of Christianity, this is precisely the function of our liturgies, sermons, and spiritual practices: We use them as a crutch, offering false certainty, quick solutions, and never make space to discover and explore these "dark areas" of spirituality.

This is powerful, and is worth reading the book in itself, despite any other defects. His analysis of the bankruptcy of Christian spirituality in this regard is both breathtaking and remarkably accurate. His analysis of the psychological and social mechanisms we use to avoid this "dark night of the soul" that Jesus experienced in Crucifixion is right on. And to most of the things associated with this theme, I say "Right on! Amen!"

However, again, the emphasis is ultimately not on the crucifixion as a space-time event, and it is certainly not upon God-in-Christ taking upon Godself the consequences for the brokenness of the world. For Rollins, I doubt if such an event is even thinkable, because God is not a Person to whom we can relate, but a process through which we interpret and choose. So, whatever happened to Jesus on the cross, it did not have some sort of universal effect on the world, but is rather a great illustration of a process we all go through: We all have doubt, anxiety, and a sense of divine absence. To explore these experiences fully is our participation in the crucifixion. In the crucifixion, we experience the "sacrifice of religion", in which we loose God Himself (just as Jesus shows us), and die to ourselves and religion. To deny these experiences and somehow hide from them is to deny the crucifixion.

RESURRECTION: Rollins is fond of using Bonhoeffer's phrase to describe resurrection life: It is to live without God while existing before God. It is to encounter the absence of God, radical doubt, and deep anxiety head on, and then, without blinking, to give oneself fully to a whole hearted affirmation of life anyway. For Rollins, there is no difference between an internal "self" which believes certain things and wants certain things, and an external life which never quite actualizes what we really want. Rather, what we do IS what we really believe AND who we really are.

We may tell ourselves stories that we are the type of person who wants to help the homeless, or be devoted to God, or stand for justice. But that is just a mask, just a fictional story we tell ourselves to feel better about ourselves, if we do not actually DO these things. We are what we believe, and if we want to see what we believe, we need to look at our acts in the world, not to the stories we tell ourselves or the beliefs we hold.

Thus, for Rollins, to deny the resurrection IS NOT to deny that a certain event happened in space and time to the dead body of Jesus, making him alive again. This is, again, fairly irrelevant to the true meaning of resurrection. Denying or affirming the resurrection has almost nothing to do with one's beliefs or stories. Rather, to deny the resurrection is to fail to actually live out the unconditional demands of Love and Justice. To affirm the resurrection is to accomplish Love and Justice to the best of our abilities. This new life of Love and Justice, despite all our doubts, anxieties and feelings, is the true definition of "eternal life". Eternal life is not something that happens beyond historical process. Like God, it is not transcendent in that way. Rather, like Rollins' God, eternal life is a "transcendence-in-immanence" that gives our lived experience infinite, eternal depth here and now.

Two problems arise from this concept: First, it does little justice to people who cannot actualize the values and beliefs they really feel. What about the elderly, handicapped, or psychologically damaged? These people do not have the linkage between mind and body that allows them to fully actualize themselves. What about those who have dependents looking to them for food, medical care, and shelter? These people cannot abandon those who need them, in order to pursue a search for an "authentic life". The truth is that Rollins' collapse of the inner and outer person works great if someone is a pretty healthy person of means, who can choose to do whatever they want, to be as authentic as they feel they need to be. But for the vast majority of the population who is not as young, healthy, educated, and un-attached as he is, it is substantially harder to live radically. Another way of saying it is this: Rollins' a/theology is great for unattached young hipsters who have time and leisure to sit around pubs discussing this stuff, but whether it would work for people with families and responsibilities is doubtful.

The other problem is simply that, in the words of Rollins' friend Rob Bell, it does not affirm that "Love Wins" in the end. And it does not affirm that Love Wins in the end, because it does not affirm that in the historic life of Jesus of Nazareth, Love won in his actual resurrection. Rollins claims that if we believe that there is some telos, goal, or purpose at the end of history, it deletes our motivation to create our own destiny right here and now. The argument could run like this: If God is going to make everything come out right in the end, why bother working at it right now? Thus, for Rollins, we have to live as if we have complete uncertainty about whether God's purposes will prevail at the end.

And for Rollins, this is not just an argument about some people going to heaven and others suffering in hell. Even if we assume (as I do) that God will reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to Godself through Christ (cf. Col. 1:15-20), and that NO ONE is ultimately left out of God's Love, it still robs us of motivation to live into the resurrection right now. For Rollins, to live into the resurrection is to create our own destiny as we live into complete uncertainty, and embrace life as it is, doubts and pain and all. To have any inkling of future certainty takes away from authentic life and responsibility now.

I think, in this, he is simply confusing the crucifixion life and the resurrection life. Yes, the crucified life- to which we are all called- is to tread a path of doubt, anxiety, and God-forsakenness with Christ. But the resurrection life is to hope against hopelessness, on the basis of God's victory over death in Christ, that God's Love wins in the end regardless of how dark things look right now. With Rollins, I believe it involves embracing life as it is, warts and all, and creating our own destinies through God's Love. But there is one important difference: I hope with an undying hope that God will take my attempts at living into the resurrection and weave them together with all the saints across time into a beautiful tapestry that will be revealed in the End. In this, God's telos is not some micro-managed, pre-determined blueprint of future affairs (which would in fact rob us of motivation to live authentically now). Rather, God's telos is a promise that however it happens, God will find a way to make sure Love wins in the end, and that all are brought this Love found in Christ. This open-ended telos frees us to embrace life fully, without fear of failure, to become who God made us to be, knowing that God can use both our successes and failures for future glory.

OTHER THEMES: Once we step outside of this train of themes I describe above, Rollins' work is very helpful in many other ways. His constant psychoanalysis and social analysis of the manifold ways we continually pull the wool over our own eyes is brilliant. It is a great adaptation of many of the themes one can find in Marx, Lacan, and Zizek (who combines both Marx and Lacan). In particular, I loved Rollins' use of the recent Batman movies as an illustration of how consumer capitalism masks the ways we are complicit in the misery of much of the world. While Rollins nowhere flies the Marxist flag, it is clear that there is a great deal of neo-marxist economic analysis behind his parables and observations. And this is a very good thing. Because in the Western world, the economic basis of society has shifted so far "right" that we have no real alternative to cutthroat global corporate consumer capitalism, and no real way of conceiving life outside of this God-less system. One of the themes I would have loved for Rollins to explore further is how our economic system functions as a surrogate "god" with all it's talk of the "invisible hand" and "omniscience of the market" and such. If ever there was a social case for divine absence, it is in our economic and marketing system. But I digress. The social and psychological insights of the book are well worth the read, and the challenge.

OF GODS AND MEN: It just so happened that, as I was finishing the book, I was invited to watch and discuss the 2010 French movie "Of Gods and Men". It details a true story about a small monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria, in 1996, during the Algerian civil war. Of the 9 monks that were there, 7 were martyred under mysterious circumstances. The movie explores their trials and discussions as they made the painful decision to stay rather than flee. A decision which cost most of them their lives.

Throughout the movie, these men wrestle with most of the issues raised by Rollins. They struggle with their own complicity in the sickness of the social system. They struggle with radical doubt, unknowing, and a profound sense of divine absence. They struggle with the absolute call to love their enemies, as well as the townspeople who depend on them, as well as themselves. And constantly, their discussions and struggles are rooted in their daily practice of the liturgy, and a careful consideration of what it means to follow the implications of the Incarnation. And not the Incarnation as merely a psychological category, but the Incarnation as an historic person. In addition, the ancient liturgy itself- contrary to Rollins' caricatures- was the site of their most profound wrestlings with doubt and divine absence. It was in the process of chanting the old songs and psalms, hearing the ancient writings, and doing the old rituals, that they found the materials they needed to wrestle deeply with their "dark night".

In this story I found- in accordance with the lives of the great saints and martyrs of the Church- that Rollins' critiques are best answered by a full and robust commitment to God, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection as historic events first and foremost, and only following this historic realism, do they become existential categories for human psychological and social action. And not only that, but a commitment to the ancient liturgical practice of the Church is the site and source for the formation of these truths into Christlikeness in the lives of the people who practice the liturgy. This liturgy is not the consumer-driven drivel that one finds in many American churches, but the rich, deep, boring, predictable, ancient, seasonal liturgies of the traditional churches and monastic orders. The truth is, as illustrated by the martyrdom of these monks, that the ancient beliefs and practices of the Church are the most effective and time-tested way to produce people who fully live into the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

This is, in fact, what one also finds in the lives of the saints that Rollins himself mentions- Teresa and Bonhoeffer- who both engaged in daily liturgy, and treated the story of Jesus Christ as historic, even when they did not FEEL the power of that affirmation for extended periods of time. In distinction to Rollins' ideas about how a "Divine telos" robs us of the motive to live into justice and love now, we find that those saints and martyrs who believed most that God would somehow use their feeble deeds to contribute to the ultimate victory of Love, are the very ones who stood most firmly for justice and love in this life.

In the end, Rollins could be called an expositor of a sort of Zen Buddhist Psychoanalytic Marxism, in which the relevant categories for human psycho-socio-economic experience are keyed to certain Christian terms, which have been reinterpreted and redefined, not as signposts pointing to space-time events with subjective existential impact, but as the very categories of human existence themselves, without referent to any space-time events other than what is immediately accessible to all people at all times. Thus, Rollins' a/theology is a sort of continuation of the modernist theological move to elevate universal form, structure, and method over any particular content. In this, Rollins is yet another heir- albeit a fairly Marxist heir- of the bourgeois theological modernism of Schleirmacher.

in fact, one of the things that bothered me most about reading Rollins is the same feeling I get from reading Schleirmacher or Kant. And that feeling is that, beneath all the beautiful words, I feel like a linguistic slight-of-hand has been pulled. The trick this time is that: "When we talk about God, we are really just talking about ourselves". Rollins represents yet another post/modernist triumph of the universal, therapeutic, psychoanalytic, and performative over the particular, historic, substantive, and real. And for all of his talk about deep love and respect for "The Other", it seems that Rollins is very allergic to allowing God to be a full participant in Otherness. God does not get to act on God's own, nor reveal Godself to humanity in an historic sense. Rather, God is strictly tied to us as an organ of our own experience, which collapses "The Other" into "Just folk like us". Rollins speaks a great deal of his pyro-theology as one of "subtraction" or "burning down". And this is true. For what we get is a deletion of many aspects of God's reality and our own. What we need instead is a theology that embraces all sides of the paradox of human and divine reality- immanence AND transcendence, particularity AND universality, history AND psychology, interpretation AND realism- and holds them in unresolvable creative tension. Rollins, like many others through the ages, simply alleviates certain tensions and paradoxes by cutting off or burning away the parts he feels least comfortable with.

The historic Christian faith, which treats Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection as first and foremost historical, can deliver everything Rollins' merely psychologized faith does. It can explain ongoing feelings of divine absence, how it functioned in Jesus' life, and how it functions today as a path to draw near to God through Christ, even when we do not feel it. It can explain the need to work for Justice and Love. It can give us a reason to live boldly into this life and create our destiny with God in Love. But not only can it do what Rollins' psychologized faith does, it can do more. It can posit an historic epicenter for the actual revelation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It can posit that God is not just the power of Love flowing through us, but also a Person to whom we can know and relate to, in Love, as "I/Thou". And it can posit a promised hope that, no matter how badly we fail, or how courageously we act, we can be assured that Love will in fact win in the end. To sum it up, the ancient, historic Christian faith offers all of the insights and benefits Rollins does and more, without leaving us bereft of a truly transcendent God who reaches into space and time to become one with us in an historic human life, death, and resurrection.

So here's my recommendation: Buy the book. Rollins is a much better writer than I am. Enjoy it. Wrestle through it. Take his implications on how to live the Christian life seriously. But beware of the underlying metaphysics which reduces theology to merely psychological processes.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.