Atheist For God’s Sake?

What if atheism were the most faithful response to the life and message of Jesus? What if, rather than an anomaly to be fixed or avoided, the felt experience of God’s absence were at the heart of the Christian faith? What if Jesus’ sense of abandonment by God on the cross were not merely a lamentable necessity en route to the resurrection, but rather a central part of what it means to live in the horrifying light of the gospel?
In his 2011 book, Insurrection, Peter Rollins argues that belief in an externalized, objectivized deity that “makes everything OK” is the path of religious escapism. Instead, he urges us to strip away the comforting veil that hides the naked truth from our eyes – the reality of pain, injustice and deep existential anxiety. To doubt, Rollins argues, is divine – because it is in the depths of despair that we can come into communion with the crucified Jesus who, as he hangs on the cross, cries out in desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This image of Jesus’ utter brokenness on the cross is one that Rollins returns to time and again as he drives home his message: There is a god of our imagination that comforts us and makes our lives more understandable, but this god is more fiction than reality. It is a false savior, a security blanket that covers over our deepest anxieties. This god that we create is a projection of our own need to be observed and cared for, to live an existence that is ordered and purposeful, to know that everything will be alright in the end.

Rollins breathlessly invites us to cast aside these god-shaped idols that we cling to in the name of religion. Rather than fleeing our moments of anxiety and groundlessness, what if we allowed ourselves to feel the radical abandonment by God that Jesus experienced on the cross? What would happen if we confessed – first to ourselves, then to others – that we do not understand the universe that we live in, that it does not make sense to us? Paradoxically, Rollins insists that the only way to truly encounter God is to fully experience the desolation of God’s absence.

Rollins urges us to strip away all the anti-depressants that we heap on top of the raw terror of human experience. Rather than wrapping ourselves ever more deeply in the security blankets of conventional religiosity, with its assurances of salvation “in the sky by and by,” a genuine encounter with the living God invites us to dwell in the Desert of the Real. It is in this encounter that we experience the unvarnished reality of our lives, uncushioned by hope of heaven, fear of hell or illusions about a “nanny god” who will make everything better soon. We stand most truly in the presence of Jesus when we embrace the fullness of his suffering and his love for the world as it is, not as the human imagination would have it be.

This is particularly challenging for those of us whom God calls to proclaim the gospel. What is the role of existential doubt, despair and a felt sense of abandonment by God in this proclamation? Surely, all of us have experienced this sense of groundlessness and loss in our own lives. A sense of God’s absence is certainly a regular part of my spiritual experience. Yet, it is not the whole of it.

The God of my own experience – and the God whom we encounter in Scripture – is one who is both near to us and far away. Here is a God who neither coddles us (depriving us of free will) nor abandons us forever (depriving us of hope). Peter Rollins has written a brilliant argument against the coddling, “safety blanket god.” How do I integrate this critique? What does it look like to fully embrace the reality of the cross while witnessing to the life of the Resurrection? How can I acknowledge my own experience of divine abandonment while at the same time lifting up the life that lies on the other side. The grain of wheat must die if it is to bear fruit – but there is a joyous harvest awaiting us!
Rollins would have us believe that the resurrection life is nothing more (or less) than loving one another, dwelling in the love that makes God’s reality present. It is unclear to me whether Rollins believes that God is an actor in history. For the most part, Rollins seems to view God as an impersonal force (agape love) that we humans can either choose to dwell in, or not. Because Rollins’ focus is so intensely on the abandonment that Jesus experienced on the cross, at times I wondered whether he considers the experience of God’s presence and guidance to be real. Or is all sense of security, groundedness and peace an illusion that separates us from real engagement with life as it really is?
If I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with Rollins, I feel confident that he would give me well-considered answers that demonstrate a balance between absolute despair and cheap theism that denies the cross. Yet, as the book stands, I wonder whether Rollins takes us a little too far from the reality of God’s loving presence – the divine personality and will that is not our own, yet fills our lives with purpose, compassion and the pursuit of justice.
While there are parts of Insurrectionthat strike me as unbalanced, that is to be expected. A prophet does not give a fair and balanced view of all sides of an issue. The hallmark of prophetic witness is that it hits us exactly where we need to be struck. It may not be fair, but it provides the slap across the face that we need to wake up. Peter Rollins is speaking to a decadent, self-satisfied Western Church that has wallowed for far too long in a cheap gospel that celebrates selfish joy and ignores the poor.
We have sung too many cloying praise songs and heard too many peppy sermons. We have whitewashed our own experience of spiritual emptiness too many times. A church that is unwilling to face its own insecurities and anxieties is incapable of truly embracing those on the margins. This kind of church must shun those who cannot hide their brokenness, because it cannot stand to see its own spiritual condition reflected back. Insurrectionurges us to look at ourselves in the mirror, perhaps for the first time. It is a reminder that we must face the reality of our own emptiness and anxiety. Another happy-clappy, “Jesus loves the little children,” cheap grace sermon will not get us to the resurrection.
It is only as we enter into the experience of emptiness, futility and death that we encounter the beckoning reality of the resurrection. Rather than sparing us from crucifixion, true resurrection is only to be found as we pass through death into a deeper, truer existence. Peter Rollins writes about this in a way that I find very compelling, observing that even the resurrected Jesus bears the marks of his torture on the cross.
Our relationship with God and our fellow human beings looks very different depending on which side of the cross we stand. Do we bear witness to a post-crucifixion resurrection – or do we want to skip the terror of the cross and dive straight into the after-party? Are we truly ready to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, taking on the suffering and despair of the world and offering our lives into the hands of a God who often seems absent? How do we bear the marks of the crucifixion in our own bodies, even as we proclaim the living joy and hope of the resurrection?