Existentialism and Christianity? Existentialism Against Christianty?: A Review of Insurrection by Peter Rollins for SpeakEasy Bloggers

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human, To Doubt Divine.

by Peter Rollins

185 pp.  Howard Books.  $16.00.

In 2009 I started a journey into existentialism, a body of philosophy and literature that I’d heard of in my college days, largely skirted through graduate school, and only returned to because my friend Michial Farmer (you might know him from the podcast) talked me into reading and discussing Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time with him as he prepared for his comprehensive exams.  Once we’d worked our way through that, I turned around and read most of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and (because a student of mine is using it in his senior research project), Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  Before 2009, for other reasons, I’d also read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov and several of Nietzsche’s books, which also usually get listed as influences on existentialism.  I did all that reading before 2009, and I taught Brothers Karamazov this spring.  So when I wrapped up Peter Rollins’s book Insurrection, I knew that I was looking at a popularization of existentialism for Christians, and I knew that Rollins has put together a pretty good treatment of the intellectual movement for non-specialists: coming away from this book, someone without the background in literature and philosophy that I happen to have will be able to say that there’s a strain in Christianity that emphasizes the felt absence of God as a valid part of the experience of confessing Christ; that the trappings of popular piety often serve as psychological defense mechanisms that keep people from having to confront unpleasant things in life; and that the crucifixion names not only a historical moment but also a way of relating to the world.

Rollins breaks down the “movements” of existentialism (though he does not call it that) into a movement that holds up God as the one who protects everything for the sake of the believer, a movement that gives up everything for the sake of God, and a movement that gives up everything, including  God (30).  Turning to Christ’s call on the cross, Eloi Eloi lama sabbachthani (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46) as his central text, Rollins spends the first half of the book articulating a psychological theology with the felt absence of God as its starting point.  The end result reminds me of Saint John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul (I refer to the longer version, the one I’ve spent the most time with) in its focus on the long periods of dryness in which the presence of God gives way to a sense of absence.  In Rollins’s vision, the experience of being-abandoned-by-God is not something that happens to some but not others but something that lies at the heart of Christianity, something that the cowardly can block by means of ideology (chapter 2) or by holding onto Church liturgy as a sort of security blanket (chapter 3) but which, for those Christians who choose honesty over self-deception, is the shape of most of the Christian life.  Such is the main focus of the book’s first part.

Before I move to the second part, I should note where I depart from Rollins’s sort of Christian existentialism.  Perhaps it’s because I work so regularly with college students and church congregations rather than with book publishers and conference audiences, but I found Rollins a bit tiresome as he reduced other people’s differences from his own ideology as satisfactions of “psychological need” and as he referred to those who differ from him as possessed of “infantile faith” (50) and as he took again and again the role of the Nietzschean psychologist, ignoring the content and substance of other people’s ideas in favor of swipes at other people’s inner states.  I point to these not as limitations of Rollins’s own intellect (he could very well have actual arguments published in other texts) but as shortcomings of this book: in the first part at least, Rollins tends towards grand suspicions of other people’s motivations and consciousness rather than self-examination in the face of difference.  The difference between my own existentialism and Rollins’s is not so much in the content as in the approach to difference, but it’s not unimportant: where his prose tends to treat those who differ as inferior, I’m far more inclined to think that the difference might distinguish different kinds of goodness rather than always between goodness and badness, and furthermore I’m far more suspicious of myself: after all, if there is a distinction to be made between better kinds of being-Christian and worse kinds, I always suspect that mine might be the worse.

Part two, labeled “Resurrection,” takes readers past the existential angst of “Eloi Eloi” and into a way of life that Rollins calls Resurrection life but which bears little resemblance to the traditional Christian doctrine of the same name.  Rather than turning to 1 Corinthians 15, which in my own thinking is the best starting place for thinking about Resurrection as a horizon, or to Romans 12, which is as fine a place as I can immediately imagine for thinking about how Resurrection informs life in the Saeculum, Rollins turns to Camus and Nietzsche as helps to say what Resurrection looks like.  Invoking a very Camus-flavored Sisyphus in the sixth chapter (128), Rollins calls Resurrection life an affirmation not of the hope of a life filled with goodness where this existence so often falls short but of life as already experienced (129).  Resurrection for Rollins is not a rejection of a Nietzchean sense of eternal recurrance but an embrace of the same, a yea-saying to life as it is, with all of life’s horrors rolled into it (130).  In short, nobody gets resurrected for Rollins: some just stop crying out for a life that makes human beings suffer.

Such an embrace of power as the core reality of existence rather than a corruption of the same logically leads, as far as I can tell, nowhere in particular: I’ve known Nietzscheans (and Foucaultians, the English department’s version of the same) who were right-wingers and Nietzscheans who were left-wingers.  After all, when there is no good life to which one might compare and by which one might judge this life, any difference is just more difference.  Or, if you can’t resist (as I can’t), it’s difference, difference, difference all the way down.  Rollins, when his coin got flipped, landed on the left, so the second half of the book early and often names typically New-Left causes as the true outgrowths of mature Christianity.  Rollins makes the typical and the unreflective move of equating racism, sexism and homophobia (140), sneering at people who volunteer at homeless shelters and hold down jobs that those homeless people cannot have (151-52), and even at one point going after Batman as someone who could use his money better for school improvement than for Batmobiles and Bat-Caves (142).  Rollins’s earlier embrace of Eternal Recurrance quickly enough falls away in this section as he holds forth the hope that the same stuff, with the proper social agitation, won’t happen to the next generation as it did to the current one (148), and by the end of the book, Rollins, in his fervor for New-Left protest, seems to make of that group of folks something like a cross between Hegel’s world-historic souls and Plato’s philosopher-kings (174).

None of this is to take away from the first half of the book, which even as it shows seeds of the later elitism, still does a good job of popularizing Christian existentialism.  But when Rollins ventures to step beyond Eloi Eloi, he becomes, for better or for worse, a fairly typical avant-garde New-Left liberal, one happy to fly from continent to continent speaking at conferences while decrying the “bourgeoisie” (the folks Marx would likely have called workers) and their clinging to superstition.  Because Eternal Recurrence has no content, has no telos against which to compare the recurring, Rollins easily enough turns his affirmation of “life” (a word which is always contested, even when a book pretends that it ain’t) into a programmatic progressivism and folks of his ilk, as they wander from conference to conference as the harbingers of “life.”

Those who have read more than one of my reviews know that I tend to be suspicious of the traveling consultant, much preferring the Benedictine stability of the parish preacher or the small-college professor to the grand ideas and finger-pointing from the guy-from-out-of-town.  So it goes.  But I still assert, and may those with ears to hear listen, that one tells trees apart by the fruit they bear.

2 thoughts on “Existentialism and Christianity? Existentialism Against Christianty?: A Review of Insurrection by Peter Rollins for SpeakEasy Bloggers

  1. To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Peter Rollins. Every attempt I’ve made to find out what he is really saying or believes seems to dash against the rocks of what *appears* to me to be a mountain of obscurantist language. (I don’t mean to be dismissive here; this probably has as much to do with my own lack of philosophical training than with his approach). I’m perfectly willing to accept that I’m simply not versed enough in the language of existentialist philosophy, but it sure seems to me that Rollins operates almost entirely in a world of lofty abstract concepts, and when he does come down from there, it sure seems like nothing more than window dressing for a liberal theology that (in the words of another reviewer of Rollins) “evacuates all meaning” from traditional theological concepts like the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and doesn’t even seem to need any grounding in reality of either event. And, this is coming from someone who believes we need more good philosophy and other intellectual endeavors in Christianity, not less. But at some point these adventures need to anchor themselves somewhere in what is happening “on the ground”, so to speak.

    But, all the above is just my initial reaction to some of what I’ve read of Rollins on his website and elsewhere. I have not read any books of his, so perhaps it would behoove me to actually do so before going too far with this assessment. I will say that I find apophatic theology in general quite interesting, and I do find some of what Rollins says helpful in regards to actually treating the cross and the separation from God that Jesus felt seriously, and not just short-circuiting the process and going right to Resurrection. I think this is a useful contribution to Christian discourse. Indeed, I believe there was something profound and mystical occurring during that moment when Jesus felt abandonment, and the gospel writers evidently thought it was important to include “Eloi Eloi”, so we should take it seriously and ponder it. I just think he could draw attention to this without making the “experiential atheism” of Jesus on the cross central to everything we think (or don’t think) about God.

  2. Thanks for the response, Dan. I have to admit that, having dealt with the so-called “New Atheists” (I’ll leave the umlaut to Michial) and their reheated Bertrand-Russell philosophy, I’ve become somewhat more sympathetic to what I call “honest atheists” lately. (In my book, atheists whose convictions arise from the Ivan Karamazov/Friedrich Nietzsche/Martin Heidegger stream of thought take their atheism more seriously than do those who assume that a good atheist who’s basically a decent liberal Protestant who doesn’t go to church.) I think Rollins’s project, in the first half of the book, is genuinely interesting in that it locates Ivan in the Christian tradition (as does Dostoevsky, of course, and Dostoevsky does it better, but who’s going to fault Rollins for not being Dostoevsky?) rather than somehow “outside” of that stream.

    I do have a couple reservations, though, one coming from my own Platonism (and Aristotelianism–this is a point where they agree) and one coming from my loose Thomism. The first is that Rollins seems to assume, in this book at least, that everyone should be capable of the same intellectual optimism that the philosopher can muster, that structures that help believers to believe are inherently bad. I tend more towards Plato’s conviction that rhetoric and politics (I’m thinking of the Phaedrus and the Republic here) are precisely those human arts by which the strong help the weak to live good lives, and that rings Pauline to me. The second objection is that, with only “nihilism” as a starting point, Rollins makes the same bad-faith move that the New Atheists do, assuming that such a starting point leads naturally and even necessarily into an ethos mainly resembling New-Left movements. I’m inclined to say that starting nowhere leads nowhere in particular, that extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing positions, along with the basically bourgeois libertarianism that Dawkins preaches, could just as well arise from nihilism.

    Or, as Michial has said it better, any given atheist might be moral according to the standards of a non-atheist moral philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that said atheist has any very good atheist reasons to be so.

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