Belfast-born Peter Rollins has developed a reputation as a provocative and challenging theologian and philosopher, taking an irreverent look at modern Christianity and what it means in the 21st century. With his latest book, The Divine Magician, he argues for an approach that deconstructs many of the secular and religious assumptions and practices, offering a fresh way of thinking about and living a Christianity for the 21st century.
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What was your aim in writing The Divine Magician?
One thing that both the critics of religion and its defenders seem to agree on concerns what Christianity actually is. To paint with broad brushstrokes, they agree that it involves a belief in God, the idea that we can reconnect with this God, and the notion that this reconnection will re-establish a lost harmony. The former attacks these ideas, the latter defends them.
In contrast, The Divine Magician presents a radically different reading of Christianity. One unconcerned with what people believe, that is not about reconnecting with some ultimate source, and that is most certainly not caught up in re-establishing a lost harmony. What people will find within the pages of this book is an unapologetically this-worldly reading of Christianity, one that views the subversive heart of the gospels as nothing less than an insurrectionary invitation to become a cultural dissident who challenges the status-quo, embraces the world and has the audacity to embrace freedom.
To use a somewhat old-fashioned expression, it is an existentialist approach to Christianity that finds itself at odds with both the religious authorities and their cultured despisers. This book is the culmination of a project I’ve been working on for some time. It is a book that signals my clearest and most forthright attempt to articulate the good news of Christianity in its properly irreligious form.
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Is it important, in your view, to establish the roots of Christianity as an historic event?
I approach the early writings of Christianity in much the same way as a psychoanalyst approaches a dream. The analyst takes the dream of their analysand (the one in analysis) literally; to the letter. In this way I am a type of fundamentalist.
For an analyst, the dream of the analysand is a type of portal into the Real of the dreamer, and thus offers a way of uncovering the deep, disturbing, and potentially enlightening truth of the subject. The analyst doesn’t concern herself with matching the dream with actual events, but works hard to excavate the reasons why various events impressed themselves upon the dreamer. Ascertaining whether or not something in a dream resembles an objective happening in the world isn’t important for the analyst. Indeed the analyst doesn’t even have the means to decide such things anyway. Rather the analyst is there to bear witness to what is spoken, to let the dream unearth a hidden desire, to break open dry and brittle ground. For me, the role of the theologian proper – not what passes under that name today – is to help their community encounter something of their truth through a careful analytic listening of their text.
What place is there in your proposition for the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans? It seems from your opening chapter that you would discount the idea of God as ineffable; is this a fair conclusion?
While I briefly wrote in the register of the apophatic, and maintain some sympathy with its more marginal figures, my work ultimately offers a critique of mysticism.
As I touched on in the first question, Christianity as we understand it today is related to the idea of re-establishing connection with a lost wholeness, an original blessing. This is either described in terms of bridging a separation (God is a being who we are distant from) or overcoming an estrangement (God as the Ground of Being which we are alienated from). But either Christianity takes the lacking, finite, desirous subject and (in this life or the next) plugs them back into an originary source of plenitude.
For me mysticism ultimately offers the vision of a return to God as the Ground of Being. While there are some notable exceptions, the theory and technology of mysticism is thus largely caught up in the idea of a sacred-object that promises wholeness. My work is purposed with the task of critiquing this sacred-object. Rather I’m arguing for a materialist reading of Christianity that invites an individual into an acceptance of lack and a warm embrace of the incomplete. This is not a solemn theology of the heavens (which, I argue, always ends up in hell); it is a celebratory theology of the earth.
You talk of Churches needing to do more than simply accept ‘scapegoated’ groups (e.g. Women, LGBT etc), but to move beyond the idea of the ‘other’ that threatens them. How could this be achieved?
In the book I try to show how the scapegoat mechanism is inherently linked to the idea that there is something that brings wholeness and fulfillment. When these are not attained the temptation is to blame something; to make something carry the failure. The scapegoat mechanism is what results from not being able to bare our own longings, fears and anxieties. This is the hell that sticks indissolubly to all heavenly visions.
I see the answer to this problem nestled in the insight that the poor will always be among us. There is a lack, a poverty that marks us as humans, a poverty that we either learn to own, or place on other people’s shoulders.
In The Divine Magician I paint a picture of a community living this personal/communal ownership out. A community that has forged tools that help people confront, and tarry with, their darkness. Under the banner of Transformance Art I explore how comedy, song, poetry, prayer, preaching, and parable can help in this difficult work.
Is there a place left for the creeds as a statement of faith?
Perhaps a good way to approach an answer would involve considering how we think about and enact love. Every society has different ways of expressing what love looks like. Indeed, even within a single society, there are numerous subcultures that express love in ways that diverge from the norm. Communities will collect their different ways of understanding love in forms of communication like poetry, painting and song. Yet the love itself is not captured in these concrete reflections. One can recite the poetry or sing the songs without knowing the love that conceived inspired their creation. Without the concrete expressions we would have no way of speaking the love, but the love is not spoken in the expressions.
In The Divine Magician I write about how faith represents a way of experiencing the world. One in which we feel the surface infused with infinite depth. I am careful to point out that this is an experience that does not relate to ones intellectual beliefs. Different communities will have different ways of verbalizing what living with this sense of infinite depth actually looks like, and those verbalizations could be seen as that communities creeds. But these creeds are temporary shelters, contingent resting places, not eternal citadels. The creeds of a given community are an expression of the way that that community conceptualizes a life they feel caught up in. That concrete expression is always deconstructable but, to borrow a turn of phrase from the philosopher Derrida, what inspires it is undeconstructable.
How do the ideas in the book translate into a practical approach for preachers, priests and lay-members?
While I’m deeply interested in the theory of what I call pyrotheology, my passion is in the technology that arises from it. The technology being the various practices that result. As such my primary interest is in exploring what might be called “microsocieties of resistance,” small subcultures that embody a different type of life to the one expressed by contemporary society. Microsocieties marked by the fact that they aren’t caught up in the frenetic pursuit of some sacred-object.
For me the actual existing church often resembles a type of nightclub where people go to get high, listen to escapist music and find respite from their troubles. In the same way many churches help people get high in the uplifting music, prayers and sermons. The problem however is that the problems that are briefly repressed don’t go away, they return once the high has worn off, so one has to keep going back.
In contrast I encourage church leaders to create spaces that more closely resemble the type of bar found in small Irish towns. A welcoming place where an atmosphere is created that encourages people to have a drink and actually chat with their friends about their week, with all of its joys and woes. Instead of deafening music designed to block out too much reflection, you’ll find some musicians in the corner singing beautiful traditional folk songs reflecting the full range of human emotions.
Songs about love and loss, life and death, sad endings and new beginnings.
Songs that somehow help you confront your own personal issues in a way that makes the burden lighter, easier to carry.
My point in using this analogy is to show that the opposite of creating a space that encourages you to run from your suffering isn’t the construction of some dure, melancholic cell. But rather the creation of a rich, fun, communal space where people can genuinely encounter others, feel less alone and gain strength for their trials.
What do you hope people will take away from The Divine Magician?
I believe that this is my clearest attempt yet at articulating a radically different type of Christianity to the religious one we are bombarded with today. An understanding that blurs the lines between theists and atheists, that is not concerned with the embrace of a particular worldview, and that doesn’t demand allegiance to some single cultural, political or religious identity. This is a Christianity that embraces the grit and grime of the world, that says “yes” to doubt, complexity and ambiguity, and that proclaims a loud “amen” to life.
I want this book to give words to those who are already wonderfully lost in this alternative, irreligious Christianity. I want it to encourage them that they are not alone in their pilgrimage.
The path that The Divine Magician describes is not an easy one to walk, and I’ve known many who’ve lost friends, jobs and more as a result of taking it. Hence I feel a little hesitant about recommending it. But it also attempts to reflect a path that I passionately believe is enriching, life affirming and transformative.
To finish with one last analogy, we are like haunted houses, each and every one of us, full of ghosts that we’d rather not face. Authorities in both the sacred and secular camps offer us all manner of distractions to help us avoid confronting our ghosts. But whatever we do during the day, the specters come out at night. In this book I encourage the reader to face their ghosts rather than turn from them, not so that they might die of fright, but so that they might learn from them, be transformed by them and perhaps even be freed from a few of them.
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