Guest editorial by Katharine Sarah Moody
from Modern Believing Vol 57:4 - October 2016

Pyrotheology: Living the Afterlife of the Death of Theology

Peter Rollins is a Belfast-born writer and speaker, now living in the United States, whose work is important for understanding how radical theology and radical community could shape future transformations of western Christianity. He is academically trained in continental philosophy and political theory but writes for non-academic audiences and often uses parables as a form of indirect communication (see Rollins 2009). He fuses an educational background in philosophy and political thought with interests in Christian mysticism, negative theology, existentialism, story-telling and psychoanalysis. Using G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, Paul Tillich, John D. Caputo, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek as principal interlocutors, Rollins offers readers a sketch of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called a ‘religionless Christianity’ (1971, p. 282).

Despite this theoretical inheritance, however, Rollins has said that he sees himself more as ‘a practitioner’ than a philosopher or theologian. When he founded the Ikon community in 2002, he says ‘my practices were much further evolved than my thinking’ (2016). He often talks, therefore, about ‘retroactive justification’, saying that ‘people started asking me why I was doing what I was doing, so I had to start making up reasons’ (2011a). Rollins was studying for a PhD from Queen’s University at this time, which enabled him to illuminate in retrospect what Ikon had been doing in practice, but he emphasises that Ikon were ‘doing it before I could conceptualize the doing of it’ (in Gallion 2012, p. 62). Rollins’ concepts of Pyrotheology, Transformance Art and Suspended Space – with which the contributors to this special issue of Modern Believing critically engage – emerged as he (and others) reflected on Ikon’s practices.

The term Pyrotheology was coined by Chris Fry, a psychotherapeutic psychoanalyst who was part of Ikon, for the title of an event that was performed both in Belfast and at Greenbelt Arts Festival in 2009, but it has become an umbrella term for Rollins’ project, which sets fire to ‘the layers of belief we put over reality to protect ourselves from reality’, thereby igniting ‘a sense of greater depth in life beyond the need for wholeness and certainty’ and inviting us ‘to fully embrace the reality of our brokenness and unknowing’. Influenced by the alternative worship movement, the practice of Transformance Art employs ‘a rich cocktail of music, poetry, prose, imagery, soundscapes, theatre, ritual and reflection’ (Rollins 2008a, p. 176). The term itself stems from a 2006 review article in the Student Christian Movement magazine Movement dealing with Rollins’ work, but it has been adopted to describe liturgical experiments in performance art that seek to create spaces in which subjective transformation can take place. Key to wider social transformation is what Rollins has termed Suspended Space, which aims at ‘placing into question our various religious and political interpretations of reality’ by encouraging those gathered to set aside (suspend) their beliefs and identities (2011b, p. 26). While these concepts emerged from the practice of Ikon, Rollins also wants to propose that these ideas can be ‘employed’ and ‘enacted’ by others (2006, p. 74; 2012, p. 140). To this end, Rollins provides some specific examples of practices that Ikon developed to ‘encourage individuals to question and rupture their belief system’ (2008a, p. 175): The Last Supper, The Evangelism Project, The Omega Course and Atheism for Lent (2008a, pp. 95-6; 2012, pp. 156-9).

The latter practice encourages participants to give up God for Lent, using this period in the church calendar to contemplate some of the most incisive atheist critiques of religion, from figures like Ludwig Feuerbach, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. Over the years, however, Rollins has developed the course beyond the strategic use of atheistic critiques of religion only insofar as they repeat the biblical critique of idols and in order to discover the God beyond religious idolatry and a faith beyond religious ideology, to encourage participants to existentially experience something of what Jesus felt on the Cross – where, Rollins suggests, doubt, disbelief and atheism become internal and integral to Christian faith as what Tillich called the ‘justified … reaction’ against the ‘theological theism’ of God as an object or being, even the highest Being (1952, pp. 184-5). This move from embracing intellectual doubt to experiencing what Rollins calls an ‘existential atheism’ can also be seen in the wider trajectory of his work. How (Not) to Speak of God (2006) is about conceptual idolatry and the status of our theological language, while The Fidelity of Betrayal (2008a) suggests that Judas’ betrayal of Christ, which led to the expansion of Jesus’ mission, might be mirrored by a betrayal of idolatrous beliefs and practices, leading to an expansion of the Body of Christ or the Kingdom of God beyond the markers of Christian community and identity. However, in Insurrection (2011c), Rollins’ concern with conceptual idolatry and intellectual uncertainty becomes more clearly that of an experiential doubt or existential atheism, taking more significant cue from political philosopher Slavoj Žižek. While many within the churches today might intellectually affirm that doubt and disbelief, and perhaps even a divine absence, agnosticism or atheism, are part of Christian faith, Rollins uses Žižek’s insight into the relationship between irony, belief and activity to raise the question of whether the churches’ activities, and individual and communal religious practices more generally, are an expression of lingering belief in certainty, satisfaction, presence and power.

For Žižek, belief can be both subjective and objective, both an inner conviction or ‘private obscene secret’ that cannot be admitted fully or publically and something that is externalised. Today, he writes, the form of belief ‘characteristic of our times’ is a ‘disavowed/displaced belief’ (2003, p. 7). What he calls ‘the true site’ of belief is to be found not in conscious beliefs but in the unconscious – meaning not that belief is even deeper within me but that it is ‘embodied in my practices, rituals, interactions’ (2009, p. 297). Belief is not interior, but exterior. While I might no longer believe as an inner conviction, belief is transferred onto others, other people, other things, that believe for me. For Rollins, the material practices of the churches reveal that belief persists in selected figures (clergy, saints, even Christ himself) and structures (liturgies, prayers, preaching, even the church buildings themselves) who ‘allow us the freedom to doubt’ precisely because they ‘believe on behalf of the community’ (2011c, p. 65). In other words, I do not know that I still believe despite my conscious disbelief, cynicism or irony. We can affirm the centrality of doubt, disbelief, even atheism, without undergoing the existential atheism that is central to the Christian’s participation in Christ’s death on the Cross – which ‘stripped’ him of ‘his grounding identities’ (2011c, p. 165) and signalled his exclusion ‘from all systems of meaning’ (2012, p. 91) – and the universal form of Resurrection Life that follows from our own imitation of the social and symbolic exclusion that crucifixion represented in the Roman Empire as a political instrument of imperial ideology when we, in turn, give up, lay down or suspend our own particular identities. For Rollins, Christianity therefore offers a form of communal life in which participants ‘celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath’ of this traumatic but transformative event (2008a, p. 161).

Despite his concerns about institutionalised religion, which are a strong thematic in his writing and especially brought out in his (2008b) contribution to an edited collection on Fresh Expressions, Rollins nonetheless remains committed to the development of intentional communities and collectives and stresses the importance of communal rituals, shared meals and other corporate activities. While Ikon appears to have significantly wound down its public expressions of community since Rollins’ relocation to the United States in 2009 and held what was possibly their last Transformance Art event, entitled The End, in 2013, Rollins has continued to run seminars and workshops aimed at enabling others to create and cultivate local expressions of community. But he has also initiated new collectives and networks himself. In 2012, for example, he organised ‘a one-year church experiment’ in New York called IkonNYC, who created regular monthly Transformance Art gatherings, ran an online iteration of Atheism for Lent and launched the website Pyrotheology.com and the Facebook group ‘What is Pyrotheology?’ Since 2013, Rollins has curated what he has variously called an annual retreat, conference or festival of ideas in Belfast, designed to enable participants to explore his work in the city where his theology and practice initially took shape, through lectures, workshops, music and art. Important connections and relationships have formed between geographically dispersed individuals, several of whom return to Belfast each year.

As Rollins noted in his first book, the ‘movement that is being initiated by those involved in the emerging conversation is not primarily an abstract one that has grown out of a university context, but is rather a movement concretely involved in sustaining and developing faith communities’ (2006, p. 73). While sociologists Gerardo Martí and Gladys Ganiel conclude that the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is a numerically marginal but sociologically significant religious orientation built around a deconstruction of established forms of Christianity, they also stress that the ECM is ‘an earnest attempt to fundamentally redefine the contemporary practice of Christianity … in and through congregations’ (Martí & Ganiel 2014, p. 56). Although they report that there is little evidence that the term ‘Pyrotheology’ is in regular use within the ECM (Ganiel & Martí 2014, p. 39), the significance of Rollins’ work – which, being more ‘radical’ both in its critique of existing Christianity and in its proposals for emerging Christianity, is therefore even more ‘marginal’ than that of the majority of ECM figures (2014, p. 32) – stems from the way it provokes this religious orientation to a fuller engagement with continental philosophy of religion ‘beyond superficial nods to post-modernism’ (2014, p. 45) in order to both retrospectively understand and further transform individual and collective practices. Rollins’ work therefore affords an opportunity to examine the relationships between the church and the academy, between contemporary philosophy, theology and actually existing faith communities, and between radical theology and radical community.

* * *

In Pyropolitics, Michael Marder stresses that fire is the element that ‘proves to be the sine qua non of politics’ today (2015, p. xiii). His starting point is the political theology of Carl Schmidtt, who conceptualised politics as a struggle between the elements of earth and water, between land and sea, geopolitics and maritime politics: ‘The world viewed from the standpoint of dry land was not the same as the one experienced from the perspective of the high seas’ (2015, p. 2). This, in turn, was not the same as the aerial perspective humanity gained through achieving flight. Today, however, things appear instead to be consumed by fire – inflammatory rhetoric and revolutionary passion; the burning of flags and effigies; the notion of holocaust (Greek holókauston, burnt offering) as applied to The Shoah or as in the idea of nuclear holocaust; self-immolation, suicide bombing and aerial bombardment as the sacrifice of self and/or others for an idea, cause or God; and the burning of fossil fuels that ‘makes of the entire planet a burnt sacrificial offering to the gods of progress’ (2015, p. xvii) – and the world looks different as a result. While Schmidtt presents these elemental politics as a linear destabilisation of the relative solidity of a politics of the earth, Marder suggests instead a non-successive ordering in which to live in ‘the age dominated by pyropolitics’ is both to ‘live the death of the nomos [Greek nómos, law] of the earth’ and to live its survival or ‘afterlife’ (2015, p. 9).

Marder characterises pyropolitics as simultaneously living the death and the afterlife of geopolitics. Might Peter Rollins’ Pyrotheology be usefully characterised for readers as similarly having to live both a death and a survival? Might we say that a Theology of Fire haunts ‘the ruins’ of theologies built on more stable and solid ground? Or that it lives the death of a theological foundationalism whose ‘fault lines, coordinates of order and orientation, and nomoi survive’ long after the destruction of the religious worlds in which they originally found meaning (2015, p. 10)? If we continue to find that political theory and practice oscillates between geopolitics as the nomos of the Earth and pyropolitics as ‘a certain experience of anomie’ (2015, p. xv), do we also find today that religious belief and practice similarly oscillates between the law of theological foundationalisms that describe and prescribe what constitutes ‘a correct, acceptable, or rightly structured system of beliefs’ (Grenz & Franke 2001, p. 31) and a certain pyrotheological experience of lawlessness? Does religion today only live between the constructedness of constructive (Geo)theologies and a deconstructive Pyrotheology?

This special issue of Modern Believing invited critical evaluations of Pyrotheology in light of its contested relationships with both established and emerging theological fields and foundations, including Evangelical Theology, Liberal Theology, Practical Theology and Radical Theology. The articles gathered here approach Pyrotheology from a variety of academic disciplines and perspectives, including Religious Studies, Feminist Theology, Political Theory and Psychoanalysis. The authors – Xochitl Alvizo, John D. Caputo, Tad DeLay, Katharine Sarah Moody, and Keegan Osinki – are all familiar with Rollins’ work, having engaged with Rollins’ work previously in a range of forums, including the Subverting the Norm conference series, which brings academics and church practitioners together to examine so-called post-modern theologies and religious practices. I therefore want to close this short introduction to Pyrotheology by turning to Marder’s reflections on pyropolitics in order to also raise one final question about Pyrotheology, concerning the relationship between theory and practice.

Marder emphasises that the two qualities of fire are light and heat. While in antiquity the sun was understood to have both a generative and an illuminative capacity, emitting both light by which to see and know and warmth by which to live and be, Enlightenment heliotropism – the turn towards the sun in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European thought and western philosophy more generally – ‘untethers the two powers of fire from one another’ and ‘fetishizes light without heat in the form of dispassionate rationality, or the ideal of objectivity’ (2015, p. 24). In doing so, it believed it had eradicated the risk of heat without light, which ‘burns without illuminating, without clarifying anything’ (2015, p. 13) and, thereby, ‘minimised the risk of passionate flare-ups … the dangers of “nonrational” political engagement’ (2015, p. 27). But light without heat thereby became ‘an ostensibly disengaged “pure” theory and speculation’ detached from practice (2015, p. 26), which Marder links to what he calls the ‘motivational deficit’ of modern political democracies (2015, p. xvi).

We can reformulate the questions about the relationship between theory and practice in Pyrotheology that several of the contributors to this special issue also ask thus: Does Pyrotheology represent a form of light without heat, a theological illumination of philosophical and psychoanalytic theory that exposes the idea of a religionless Christianity without impassioning the depths of being to galvanise subjective and social transformation in practice, or does it burn with a desire for change that can enkindle truly revolutionary ardour and activity? In other words, can Pyrotheology (re-)integrate light and heat in its theological fire?


References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (1971). Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Touchstone.

Gallion, Matthew J. (2012). ‘Ecclesiology After God: Materialism and Doubt in the Emerging Church Movement’. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Missouri State University.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí. (2014). ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Grenz, Stanley, and John R. Franke. (2001). Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Marder, Michael. (2015). Pyropolitics: When the World is Ablaze. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel. (2014). The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rollins, Peter.

  • (2006). How (Not) to Speak of God. London: SPCK.
  • (2008a). The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. Brewster: Paraclete Press.
  • (2008b). ‘Biting the Hand that Feeds: An Apology for Encouraging Tension Between the Established Church and Emerging Collectives’. In: Louise Nelstrop and Martyn Percy, eds. Evaluating Fresh Expressions: Explorations in Emerging Church. Norwich: Canterbury Press, pp. 71-84.
  • (2009). The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
  • (2011a). ‘Retroactive Justification’. [online]. Available from: peterrollins.net/2011/03/retroactive-justification/ [accessed June 26th 2016].
  • (2011b). ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’. In: Kevin Corcoran, ed. Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging. Michigan: Brazos Press, pp. 23-36.
  • (2011c). Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine. New York: Howard Books.
  • (2012). The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • (2016). Unpublished interview with William Crawley. Redeemer Central, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Tillich, Paul. (1952[2000]). The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Slavoj Žižek.

  • (2003). The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • (2009). The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, with John Milbank, ed. Creston Davis. Cambridge: MIT Press.

A note from the Editor

This issue includes book reviews from the dean, three canons and the bishop of Worcester, as well as by cathedral clergy from Derby, St Edmundsbury and Chelmsford. As we reflect on the radical challenges of emerging church theology and liturgy, it is worth remembering the theologically fertile ground still provided by cathedral life.

One fruit of this is a book of essays co-edited by our reviews editor Michael Brierley and Georgina Byrne, which will include work by a significant number of Worcester cathedral staff. Entitled Life After Tragedy, the collection will explore neglected theological responses to the trauma of the First World War. It will be published by Cascade next year and promises to be a major contribution to the theology of tragedy.