This week bring us a new review of Peter Rollins’s Insurrection. Jason Clark offers an extended and thoughtful interaction with Pete’s work characterized by a pastoral heart. You can read about Pete and his work at his website. Clark is one of our contributors here at churchandpomo, and you can read his bio here.

Review of Peter Rollins’ Insurrection

Having contributed to a book with Pete Rollins,[1] collaborating in person on that work, and having worshipped with Pete, I find myself for the purposes of this review, in somewhat of a quandary.  Within that relationship, and knowing that Pete is reading and due to respond to my review, there is the temptation to simply offer praise due to a collegiate friendship, or to provide a critique as an alternative.  Instead I wish to provide an extended review, that seeks to understand Pete, his current work, and larger writing corpus.  This review has given me the opportunity to grapple with and seek to understand Pete’s work.  It also provides an opportunity to reflect on how Pete’s work impacts upon my own Christian faith, as most others reading it make their own personal assessments.

Pete’s latest book Insurrection invites us to understand and explore his work as one of ‘pyro-theology.[2]  For Pete ‘pyro-theology’ is to ask a question that ‘ruptures’ and ‘re-configures Christianity’[3] that also ‘overturns the Church as it presently stands’ in all its current forms.[4]  The hoped for outcome of this proposed theological method is a Church that is utterly different and yet is true to its previous incarnations.[5]

By way of method, Pete suggests that it is in a question from Bonhoeffer that we find not only an example of this ‘pyro-theological’ method, but the question we need to ask today.  This question is one where we ask whether religion is necessary to participate in the Christian life.  It is this question we must respond to, if we are to be true to Christianity, and engage in these reconfigurations and over-turnings.[6]  Pete wants to get us to Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’.  Pete would have us understand that the question by the early Church of whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised was an antecedent of his ‘pyro-theology’ theological method.[7]

And it is here that Pete’s theological method seems most immediately problematic.  For we might ask if the question of whether Christianity needs completely overhauling, and the Church replacing is valid for establishing his method.  Pete does not seem to give direct warrant to that claim, other than to make statements in his work couched in generalizations.  For example he talks of how ‘Church leaders believe on behalf of the community’ in the contemporary Church, thus denying all Christians the ability to experience the cross.

Many of us involved in Church life might take issue not just with such a premise and generalist claim, but the setting up of his work as an antidote to the whole and contemporary Church, in all its forms.  I am sure in his planned response to me on this blog, Pete will be able to affirm that not all Church leaders are oriented and established around a disposition to keep people from the cross, and the struggles of faith and belief.

And then for a work that aspires to be a theological method, it is rather more one of philosophical theology, and I suspect better read as such.  For Pete’s real focus strikes me as a philosophical reading of the nature of God, and the experience of faith within that.  Whilst Pete signposts his work with theological words, such as God, Cross, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, it is not the historic, confessional and traditional theological content of those terms that are his methodological horizon.  And it is not that Pete even wants to contest such horizons. Rather it is that his philosophical method means that belief in those things seems irrelevant to his task.  I was left wondering if for Pete those terms have their ‘true’ meaning solely as descriptions of the existential ‘events’ of Christian experience?

It is here that I think Pete leads us into an understanding of God, and an apprehension of Christian faith that Bonhoeffer would not have recognized, as ‘religionless Christianity’.  For whilst Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa may have navigated a ‘dark night of soul’, they did so with confessional faith, one with a deeply theological content, and their hope in a real historical resurrection.  The issue of circumcision was not simply the removal of an external religious practice that stopped people from embracing the cross, and the loss of God for their religious experience.  It was to a deeply somatic response, that relocated the nature of the experience of salvation into an even more intense and embodied experience; one where the heart that was now to be circumcised in regard to its desires and orientation.  That internal circumcision was to now bring our lives, in all their aspects, into an experience of the cross.  It was to bring the life we live in our bodies, into a very real experience of the God who was and is there in the cross, and into His body.

Here I suspect Pete and I argue for the same thing, but from different understandings of the cross.  And like Pete I would agree that it is better to experience the cross, rather than have some religious belief in it—something that actually stops us from encountering it. But I do think that Bonhoeffer’s apprehension of the cross within ‘religionless Christianity’ was something very different to Pete’s proposals.

For one cannot read Bonhoeffer’s confessional theology without reading that the experience of the cross was more than a psychological dynamic, and one that changes all that we are, even our bodies themselves.  In terms of how we apprehend the experience of the cross that Pete offers us, I am left wondering how ‘cerebral’ that psychological apprehension is, and how it requires a metaphysical locus that Bonhoeffer would have rejected.  For Bonhoeffer asserts that God is simultaneously (a la Barth) ‘wholly other’ whilst shockingly immanent and intimate. For Bonhoeffer writes:

God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion. For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. A scientist or physician who sets out to edify is a hybrid.  Anxious souls will ask what room there is left for God now; and as they know no answer to the question, they condemn the whole development that has brought them to such straits. I wrote to you before about the various emergency exits that have been contrived; and we ought to add to them the death-leap back into the Middle Ages. But this principle of the Middle Ages is heteronomy in the form of clericalism; a return to that can be a counsel of despair, but it would be at the cost of intellectual honesty[8]. …But all the time God still reigns in heaven… he remains the Lord of Earth, he preserves his church, constantly renewing our faith and not laying on us more than we can bear, gladdening us with his nearness and help, hearing our prayers[9].

Pete not only empties theological terms, those used by Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, the wider Church and ourselves of their content, he also presents them as universal processes and experiences.  And they are also deployed rather confusingly by him, at least in my reading.  For example, the resurrection appears to be subsumed into the crucifixion by Pete, as something that is merely an experience of the cross, or a means to experience the cross.[10]  So again I wonder if anyone reading Pete’s work for a theological method might, like me, be frustrated at his lack of attention to Christian theology, and wonder at his appropriation of Bonhoeffer.

As a further example, Pete spends some time reflecting on the Kenosis and Christology within Philippians 2, of the emptying of God himself.[11]  If I have understood Pete’s method, there is no God out ‘there’ in the first place, outside of our experience, to be emptied into the reality of and particularity of human experience; be that an experience that is somatic, psychological, emotional, spiritual, etc.  Pete voids and evacuates the theological term Kenosis of any theological content and meaning.  On reading Insurrection I was left with the anxiety that God is dead, there is no cross, just the idea of the cross, and that there is no place for God to be involved in my life at all.

Pete explicitly wants to remove the notion from us that loving Christ directly is possible. Rather, God is to be indirectly loved, as we participate in love generally.[12] In the whole of Pete’s work I then found this sentence the most startling, ‘in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, we discover that God is not something we encounter directly and thus is not something that we experience’.[13]  Not only does that leave me with no possibility of an experience of God as object and me as his subject, a sense of ‘otherness’, that I am his,  and he is mine, but it also seems to elevate the love of love itself, as the telos to any ordering in our relationship with God.  For Pete it is not enough to realize that we have desired the wrong objects in life, it is that we need to desire desire itself, as God is not an appropriate or possible object for our love.  I doubt how many humans can live in this mode of love, let alone whether it is even Christian.  And I do not make that statement lightly or casually.  If God is not the object of my love, and me his, then what is the purpose in Christianity at all?

Or at least such an apprehension is the best I can hope for as an experience of God.  And perhaps that is the intention of the book in any event.

The Jesus of Christianity as a real transcendent person, who becomes finite to us so that we might adventivally experience him, now seems lost to us as other theological terms are similarly emptied by Pete.  The theology of the cross that the Church holds historically, presently and which it confessionally experiences in much of its worship, is shorn of all biblical narratives and paradosis, with crucifixion reduced to psychological process.  I felt left with a Jesus who was only an exemplar of self-awareness of an existential experience.   If this is the case, then perhaps Pete’s work might be less about a ‘religionless Christianity’, and more about Christianity without an historical, immanent, and risen Jesus.

Not that this is all a bad thing, as long as we understand that this is what Pete presents us with.    And within that realization I find the most compelling element of Pete’s work, that there is a God-forsakenness intrinsic to the Christian faith, replete with doubt, mystery and question that is too often replaced with certainty to cover our fears.  And I agree with Pete that Bonhoeffer does call us to refuse to let our Christian religious constructions stop us from an experience of the cross.  Such experience is intrinsic to Christianity.  For Bonhoeffer ‘religionless Christianity’ was about the loss of all that keeps us from the cross.  Just as God despised the false religion that kept us from him, he seeks to bring us out from all religious life, even that set up within much that masquerades as Christianity, which is in fact something that keeps us from the cross.

I have already strayed too far into philosophical critique, which is not my natural domain, and with which I have no fluency or proficiency.  But I have stepped into that domain, in order to attempt to interact with Pete’s work on his terms, and by that I have no doubt done him a great disservice.

But I have also approached his text on my own terms, and however non-philosophical my bent, I am left wondering how a real theology, a theology of the cross attends more fully and more immediately, and would be apprehended more readily by others.  For the Church as it exists already carries within large segments of itself an understanding of the theologia crucis.  Luther clearly observed and questioned how Christians would rather go to Easter Sunday for an experience of the theologia gloriae, bypassing the need to experience the cross, and participate in its God-forsakenness.  Such theologies of the cross are readily available to us, are already part of much of contemporary church life, and are more akin to that which Bonhoeffer was building upon. Pete’s work would have been more compelling for me, if it at least gave greater nod to the Church’s theologies of the cross, especially those that attend to Bonhoeffer’s work, having invoked Bonhoeffer.  Or at least the philosophy within those theologies.  For there is a confessional Christian faith in which incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and parousia, are able to attend to the false comforts of religion, whilst allowing us the comfort of a real person to know and experience in Jesus.

If the idea of embracing doubt, mystery, and question are new to the faith of any of Pete’s readers, then his work may re-assure them (no pun intended) that such experience is deeply Christian.  But I am suggesting that they then turn to the larger Church, and explore how that experience has been readily available and reflected upon for our apprehension.  Such apprehension might be more easily retrieved from that location, than a complete overturning of the Church.  And by that I am not saying that much that passes as the Church and Christian doesn’t need overturning!

As I conclude, I find that Pete’s work has forced me to explore the philosophical dimension of some my own theologies, to be reminded (again) of the need to consider Bonhoeffer in my own ecclesial re-formulations, and the place of the cross at the centre of my Christian experience.  Thank you.

As I finished reading Insurrection, I wondered if Pete’s latest work reveals most of all, the nature of his work as his own autobiography; as do most authors in their writing—as I know I do.  Insurrection is perhaps best read as Pete’s escape from his own churched cages of Christian certitude and the theologia gloriae that bypassed the cross.  It might become yours too as you read it.

And it is there that I find myself, despite deeply different theological convictions to Pete, with much in common.  My own story of finding an experience of the cross, with my own apprehension of doubt, mystery, and question as central to my Christian life has taken and continues to take place. I have had and continue to have my own ‘dark night of the soul’.

Pete writes, ‘in crucifixion we are brought to a place in which we see the full weight of anxiety bearing down upon us without anything that would shield us’.[14]  I am wiling or at least wanting to reject all the ‘religion’ that would shield me from the experience of the cross of Christ.  Yet Pete’s writing left me with a feeling that he has replaced one theologia gloriae with another; of human reason and existential experience that takes the place of experiencing the Cross.

I wonder that when Pete and I talk about the cross (which we have in the real time and space of a worship service), that whilst I thought I was talking about Jesus, Pete thought I was only talking about myself.

[1] Church in the Present Tense, McKnight, Rollins, Corcoran, Clark, Baker Academic, 2011.

[2]Insurrection, xiii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., xiv.

[5] ibid.

[6] Ibid., xv.

[7] Ibid., xii.

[8] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 187.

[9] Ibid., p. 205.

[10] Insurrection, p 123.

[11] Ibid., p168.

[12] Ibid., p123.

[13] Ibid/, p123.

[14] Ibid., p112.