Faithful Doubt

Reading Peter Rollins‘ latest book, Insurrection, is kind of like watching someone dance on a high wire. I don’t say this often (if ever), but Rollins has provided a thrilling work of theology that, while brief, has volumes of implications for the way we think about Christian history, contemporary religious practices, and the future of the church.

In Insurrection, Rollins undertakes what he calls “pyro-theology” in an effort to burn away theological chaff and religion itself. He is introducing us to and calling us toward a post-religious Christian experience. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Rollins is not concerned with getting back to the “glory days” of the Christian faith (if indeed there ever were any). Rollins argues that the church should ever be in flux, responding in love to the time and place in which it finds itself. Attempts to re-enact the “early church,” for example, are flawed because that model was appropriate for that time and place. What Rollins desperately wants his audience to return to and ground their experiences of Christianity in are the two central elements of the Christian story, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.

Rollins bemoans the fact that the contemporary church, as most people know it, has de-scandalized the Crucifixion of Jesus and robbed it of one of its key messages. In the Crucifixion, Rollins argues, we have both the death of religion and the absence of God. These are earth-shattering and doubt inducing experiences that most Christians gloss over or rush past to bask in the (re)assurance of Jesus’ Resurrection. Rollins’ assumption of religion, which could certainly be up for debate, is that religion, by nature, cannot co-exist with doubt. As a result, most of our religious communities, in their lived expressions of faith (liturgy, rituals, etc.) do not make space for expressions of doubt, confusion, anger, fear, anxiety, and the like. Rollins boldly claims that the intellectual certainty that some expressions of religion require is antithetical to the message of the Crucifixion, which is itself a moment of doubt and fear. Rollins writes, “It is only when we see the Crucifixion as the moment where God loses everything that we begin to glimpse the true theological significance of the event. What we witness here is a form of atheism: not intellectual […] but a felt loss of God” (21). He continues, “[…A] properly Christological reflection should lead us to see the felt experience of God’s absence as the fundamental way of entering into the presence of God” (24).

Rollins claims that we cannot rightly understand the Crucifixion without the Resurrection, but at the same time, we cannot understand the latter without the former. As such, the Resurrection is not a white-washing of the Crucifixion or a means by which we simply overcome the fears and pains of life, but a means of living with them. The Resurrection is life- and world-affirming, an invitation to turn towards the world in love, not despite its blemishes but because of them. For it is in the act of loving, Rollins argues, that we experience God, who is not an object to be pursued and obtained but the very act of loving itself. The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus are events that took place over 2,000 years ago, however, they are also events that are present here and now. Rollins asserts that these are ways of being that we are to enact here and now if we are to experience the Kingdom of God and eternal life. Rollins writes, “[…The] New Testament writers are clear that they are not speaking of the prolonging of our present life but rather about our entry into an utterly new mode of life, one that starts right here, right now. Eternal life is thus fundamentally a transformation in the very way that we exist in the present” (111). Part of the beauty and hope of this message is that we are called and allowed to take responsibility for our own actions and for shaping our own destinies and the future of our world.

The parables that Rollins includes at the beginning of each chapter make his book accessible; however, his discussion and arguments require some deeper engagement on the part of the reader. Few books have had me leaning forward in anticipation of where the author was going quite like this one. Rollins moves back and forth between Scripture, Bonhoeffer, and Batman with graceful ease. Insurrection is something that every person of faith (or none at all) should read and re-read. I imagine that Rollins will have his “enemies,” like all prophets do. However, they will most likely come from the ranks of the religious professionals, those fundamentalists, be they liberal or conservative, who benefit from having a firm grasp on truth. Rollins seems to be calling out the liberal theological establishment when he writes about “a new kind of fundamentalism, one that is rarely noticed or talked about […], a fundamentalism that continues to operate in the very place where it is directly ridiculed and rejected” (51).

The implications for enacting Insurrection in our communities of faith are nearly endless because Rollins is not giving us a twelve-step checklist, but is rather calling us to use our imaginations…to think creatively and liberatingly about how we move through our world. He does claim that pastors should endeavor to express doubts, fears, and uncertainties from the pulpit and that churches should employ elements in music and liturgy that allow for expressions of those feelings. What Rollins understands about pop culture that so many churches and ministers fail to grasp is that it is so appealing to so many people because through film,s, television, music, etc., they see their own experiences played out before them. Lady Gaga, for example, is so threatening to the church because these are the spaces that she inhabits with her music.

There are countless questions that remain after reading Insurrection…as there should be. Chief among them would be where we go from here. Other questions center on Christian identity and the necessity of it. One thing is certain, enacting Insurrection is not easy and it will be painful. But for a fearful and broken world, it seems to be one of the most hopeful and healing ways forward.

Here’s a video of Rob Bell talking with Rollins about pyro-theology: