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.