Micah Redding — faith in humanity's future

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Peter Rollins and the Death of Religion


I’m currently reading Peter Rollins’ brilliant and incisive book “Insurrection”. One of the primary ideas is that on the cross, Jesus lost everything including God himself, and that this experience of the loss of God is the central dynamic at the heart of Christianity.

That is, any religious person can believe in God. But a Christian who has gone through the crucifixion experience, who has lost all faith and all trust in God, has really and truly experienced what Jesus experienced, the consuming truth behind Christianity.

Rollins is careful to point out that many people attest to struggles with faith, and aknowledge a place for doubt in the religious life. But most of these people have not experienced that doubt and that loss, because their religious institutions provide them with safe places to express themselves, to deconstruct and reconstruct their faith.

Most people, I dare say, would suppose that is a good thing. But it is not the Christian thing. It is not what Jesus experienced on the cross.

Jesus, in contrast to the modern Christian struggling with doubts, had no recourse. He was naked and exposed to the world, rejected by his friends, his family, his country, his religion, and his God. There was nothing to protect him from pure existential horror.

For Rollins, religious institutions are safety blankets, which allow us to have all the doubts we want, to even become atheists if we so desire, and yet experience nothing of the horror of those doubts. And to him, this prevents us from coming face to face with the real Christian experience.

Up to this point, I haven’t questioned Rollins’ analysis. We can discuss whether there are any issues with it later. But this is a good point at which to link up with another discussion I’ve been having, as to whether Christianity should be understood as the anti-religion.

I think Rollins would go with this designation. He contrasts the religious mindset as offering security, while the truly Christian mindset rips it away. I’ve used the term in a slightly different way: I think religion offers authority structures and ritual, while Christianity originally rejected both of those things.

In contrast to the religious world around it, Christianity rejected temples of all kinds. It rejected religious teachers and leadership. It rejected rituals and rules.

Rollins see religious institutions as posing a problem: they believe on behalf of the one doubting, so that the doubter need not feel the true horror of that doubt. To fix this, he suggests that these institutions become institutions of doubt, where the worship leaders and the praise songs express the doubt, forcing the worshippers to confront it face-to-face.

He himself started his religious career as part of Ikon, a group that apparently does just that.

I think if anti-churches like this work, then that is great. But I am doubtful that religious institutions in general will reverse and do so. Even if they did, even if every expression of corporate life was a confrontation with doubt, I suspect that the nature of the structure itself would still provide the security blanket Rollins is trying to get away from.

Which is where I think Christianity’s rejection of organized religion comes into play.

The first Christians didn’t get together to sing songs of doubt and loss. They didn’t sing laments about their dark nights of the soul. What they did was to tear away everything that provided comfort to one raised in a religious environment. They abandoned everything but Christ, and (horrifically) him crucified.

They abandoned temples, synagogues, priests and religious intercessors. They abandoned teachers and benefactors and family. They abandoned rituals, ceremonies, and even the law itself. There was no worship service, no organized religion, no concrete system of ethics, to fall back on or provide identity.

We can see the true horror this posed to the ancient world. Baptism was a death in a deep, deep sense, because with it, one not only abandoned “their old life”, but truly everything they knew about life itself.

In this I think that Christianity was the institutional expression of exactly what Peter Rollins is arguing for. Christ had lost everything including God himself, and similarly, the first Christians joined a religion which eliminated every system or structure or comfort that religion had ever provided.

Next: Peter Rollins and Experiencing God


Elizabeth Hatchett:

Hello! A friend linked to your blog on Facebook so here I am reading your thoughtful words. One question nags me after reading though: aren't all religious founders in the camp of losing every structure or system or comfort religion had ever provided? Abraham left his home and his religion; Buddha did the same. But just like Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism became corporate and through that manifestation of religion we often loose the necessity the founders felt and experienced of struggling with the ramifications of faith and doubt and life directly, without structures of safety. I'm wondering how you see that as being uniquely Christian. Thanks for sharing your processing here.


Elizabeth, thanks for chiming in with some good questions. There are really two different questions here - what Peter Rollins thinks, and what I think. Obviously I'm connecting the two things, but they are distinct. From hearing him speak, I think Peter Rollins would say that it is Jesus who embodies and represents this loss at his core. Abraham sacrificed, but the loss he experienced is in some ways incidental to what he was pursuing. As for me, I agree that most religious movements start out organic, and become corporate over time. However, Jesus specifically forbids that from happening, in a way I don't think is present in other religious movements. Christianity, as I see it, didn't just start out non-structural, but specifically started out as the rejection of such structures. That seems unique. I do think that Buddhism and Judaism and all other religions lean towards these ideas. But I do see Christianity as being *about* these ideas. That said, this doesn't *have* to be the case. I'm quite happy for truth to be found in many different places. :)

Elizabeth Hatchett:

Thanks for your clarifications, Micah. Interesting things to ponder here....I think about your words of Jesus forbidding making the pursuit of him corporate and remember the mount of transfiguration...Someone wanted to build monument/churches at each spot and he refused to indulge that. But then I wonder about him giving the keys to the church of Peter. Isn't that establishing a hierarchy right there and therefore an organization/structure? And I also think of how Paul's letters functioned for the early church....what about that religious instruction/leadership? Honestly, I'm in a place where your description of Christianity rejecting hierarchy and structure (and, I'd love to add, dogma) feels more honest (for me) than the Christianity I understand.

Kit Johnson:

The only two religions I'm really interested in are the kind of Christianity that you are describing (which is a kind of anti-religion), and also Zen, which in a sense, is the same thing. (I'm not talking about the zen you see in popular culture, which is good in and of itself, but isn't really that closely linked to Zen as practiced by fearless meditators.) Behind the ceremony and religion of Zen is a fierce flame that seeks to actively strip us of the props we lean on. To cut away and cut away until we are left only with What Is. I think this stripping away, and Rollins' doubt project, are really important work. But I need a bit more than that, and so go for some of the 'fullness' things rather than 'emptiness' things. I think the reason Rollins seems so single-minded about doubt and cutting away is because there are so many thousands of people preaching about the positive aspects of faith that he really has no need to do so: he can focus on what he does best, which is pulling apart our usual way of thinking and showing us the reality of our spiritual poverty. And as I say, that's basically what (in my very limited experience) Zen is about: stripping away.


Elizabeth, there are a lot of questions to be posed, but I'll throw two thoughts into the ring. :) The interpretation of Jesus' statement to Peter is widely debated. I don't think you can be protestant and take a strong stance that this has to do with authority. I tend to lean towards the interpretation that Peter would be the first one to announce the gospel to the Jews (pentecost), and then later to the gentiles (Cornelius). As far as the role of Paul's letters, I find it remarkable just how humble Paul really is in his writing. He argues so extensively and so fervently precisely because he knows they may disagree with him. There are very few instances where he tries to pull apostolic rank, and even then, it's apologetically, trying to convince them he knows what he's talking about.


Kit, in my own thinking, I go through both tearing away and rebuilding. I look for a rebuilt confidence, one that emerges from new and vibrant places. I think Rollins may be helping us get to that place, despite (because of) his focus on tearing down. For me, I've long been about emptying the institutions of religion, so that we can fill our lives with real religion and real practices. In that, I'm very much into a confidence and trust, and that is the force that drives me to want to tear down modern idols. I'm only just interfacing with Rollins' ideas at a deep level, trying to find out how they fit, and how they help us transition to new mindsets.