In the most recent post of my Slavery of Death series I used Peter Rollins's book Insurrection to help illustrate some of the important ideas of Ernest Becker from The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.
In the comments of that post some of you wanted me to say a few more things about Insurrection. Given that in my last post I pointed out things I liked about the book I figured I'd write another post about some of the problems I see in Insurrection.
The main criticism I have of Insurrection is this: It's a theological and psychological non sequitur.
What I mean is this. The core of Rollins's argument is that we need to undergo a "death of god" experience to truly experience the resurrection life of love, right here and right now. As Rollins writes:
In this very act of forsaking the religious God, along with all the psychological comfort that comes with it, we can find a way of fully affirming God--not in some belief we affirm but in the material practice of love. So then, as we turn away from the obsessive desire to find fulfillment, meaning, and acceptance, we come into direct contact with them. This is life before death; this is life in all its fullness.To get to love we have to undergo a "dark night of the soul" where we learn to live without God.
But here's my question, why should that be the case? What's the connection? Why does love follow from the death of god?
Rollins isn't particularly good in answering this question or in connecting those dots.
Reading through Insurrection I've looked for passages where Rollins tries to make the turn from "the death of god" to the practices of love. What, in his mind, connects the two? Logically, theologically, and psychologically?
It seems, and readers here can correct me if I'm wrong, that the critical chapter in making the transition from "crucifixion" (death of god) to "resurrection" (practice of love) occurs in Chapter 6 "We are Destiny." There Rollins discusses the contrast between God as an object of love versus God as love itself. This, it seems, is the critical connection. Rollins here making this case:
[W]e are introduced [here] to a radically different way of understanding God's presence in the Resurrection. Here we no longer approach God as an object that we love. Indeed, the idea of loving God directly becomes problematic. Instead, we learn that God is present in the very act of love itself. We do not find happiness by renouncing the world and pointing our desire toward the divine, but now we discover the divine in our very act of loving the world. God is loved through the work of love itself (Matthew 18:20, 1 John 4:20). It is in love that we find new meaning, joy, and fulfillment ...As best I can tell (again, correct me if you disagree), this is the critical passage connecting the "death of god" with love. The logic seems to go like this. If God is an object of love "out there" then our love becomes directed away from this world. Love, we might say, becomes "spiritualized," and not in a good way. By contrast, if God is love itself, we are thrust into the world.
When God is treated as an object that we love, then we always experience a distance between ourselves and the ultimate source of happiness and meaning. But when God is found to be love itself, then the very act of loving brings us into immediate relationship with the deepest truth of all. In love, the fragile, broken, temporal individual or cause that draws forth our desire becomes the very site where we find pleasure and peace. God no longer pulls on us as something "out there"; rather, God is a presence that is made manifest in our very midst. Here meaning is not found in turning away from the world but in fully embracing it through the act of love.
This notion should sound familiar to regular readers as Rollins is explicitly following Dietrich Bonhoeffer here. I've worked through Bonhoeffer's notion of living etsi deus non daretur ("as if there were no god") here and how this creates the immanent transcendence of the "religionless Christianity" here. Rollins's analysis in Insurrection is also unpacking these ideas.
Now I agree with all this, both with Rollins and Bonhoeffer. We need to resist the other-worldliness inherent in religious belief and practice. I'm a huge fan of this move.
That said, I'd like to raise three quibbles with Insurrection.
Quibble #1. While Rollins unpacks Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity and etsi deus non daretur he fails to go on to discuss Bonhoeffer's treatment of the "arcane" or "secret" discipline in the Letters and Papers from Prison. What is this discipline and why is it secret? In his letter from April 30, 1944 Bonhoeffer describes the discipline as "worship and prayer." These are religious rituals directed toward God as "object." But why are worship and prayer to be kept secret? Bonhoeffer's worry is that these explicitly religious rituals will prove distancing and off-putting to a religionless "world come of age." Thus, according to Bonhoeffer we should hide these practices, as far as the world is concerned Christians should look "religionless." Christians shouldn't practice worship and prayer in public. "Before God and with God we live without God in the world."
But here's the critical issue and the point where I think Rollins might have run off the rails. Specifically, Bonhoeffer isn't rejecting or denying the role of worship and prayer in sustaining the community of saints. Worship and prayer aren't eliminated. They are just secret. The religious, transcendent dimension isn't collapsed in a "death of god" move. The ritual is simply removed from public view as it is simply incomprehensible to the "world come of age." Worship and prayer are to be "words between friends." The best articulation of all this comes from a 1932 lecture Bonhoeffer gave in Berlin:
Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the "Discipline of the Secret" in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable...This is a very different view of religion than what we find in Insurrection. For Bonhoeffer there is an economy "between God and the community."
The primary confession of the Christan before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.
This brings me to Quibble #2. Rollins seems to be suggesting that we have to choose between "God as other-worldly object of love" versus "God as the act of love itself." This is framed as an either/or choice. But why? Why not both? Why can't be God be both immanent and transcendent? Can't both be endorsed?
Take, as a real world example, Dorothy Day. Here we have an exemplary Christan when it comes to living out the works of mercy. If anyone is an example of a loving insurrectionist it was Dorothy Day.
But here's the deal. Day was a devout Catholic who believed in God as an object of love. She attended Mass every day, sometimes twice a day. She prayed the Rosary constantly. God as object of love sustained Day's living love as God. Just as Bonhoeffer said the secret discipline would sustain us. And for Day it was "secret." Day didn't make the poor go to Mass with her. She didn't try to convert them. As far as the poor were concerned, Day was "religionless." God wasn't used by Day to create "enemies," injecting religion between herself and the poor. But let's be clear, religion sustained Day, week in and week out.
So how does someone like Dorothy Day fit in the scheme of Insurrection? She's living a life of love, radically so, but with God as an object of love. Does that make sense in light of Insurrection?
In short, why does Rollins insist we have to choose? Can't we, instead, be Christians like Bonhoeffer and Day? True, both Bonhoeffer and Day were extraordinarily concerned with how "religion" is a constant temptation, sucking love out of this world into the black hole of other-worldly spirituality. But that's a far cry from saying that we have to choose one over the other.
Which brings me to Quibble #3. If all Rollins is talking about is other-worldly spirituality, about how "God as object of love" pulls us away from "God as love," then it seems, given what we've just discussed, that his cure is disproportionate to the disease. He's demanding a root canal when a filling would do. He's hunting rabbits with atom bombs.
Recall, again, what Rollins is asking us to do. We are to undergo a death of god experience that shatters us. In the words of Rollins: "In this dark hour, when the very earth beneath us gives way, we experience utter desolation."
What is unclear here is why we have to experience "utter desolation" if Rollins is just asking us to be more loving. Why can't, say, a transcendent worship experience with a great praise band motivate me to be more loving? It happens. Why can't things like worship and prayer, as mentioned by Bonhoeffer, be the route to loving-kindness? This is what I'm talking about in saying there is a non sequitur in the middle of Insurrection. Rollins doesn't explicate the necessary connection between undergoing "utter desolation" and love. Nor does he explain why such a drastic experience is required when less extreme options are available.
True, religious ritual tempts us into other-worldliness. But "utter desolation" tempts us to commit suicide.
It's not like Rollins's route to love is risk free.
So why prefer it?