That was one of the fundamental questions raised by Peter Rollins in a lecture on Sunday afternoon, ‘God is Undead: The Religion of New Atheism,’ in the Seedhead Arts’ Faculty Lecture series in the Black Box in Belfast.
Rollins is probably best known around these parts for his role in the ikon community, a Belfast-based group which described itself as a ‘transformance art’ collective. A philosopher and a theologian, Rollins has since become a prominent voice in the international ‘emerging church’ conversation. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
The lecture built on Rollins’ previous work and whetted the appetites of those already in the city for his sold-out ‘Tricks of the Light’ festival, which runs Tuesday-Friday. Fringe passes are still available for the evening events.
Tonight’s Fringe kicks off with the book launch of It Spooks, an illustrated essay by philosopher John D. Caputo, in the crypt of St Anne’s Cathedral, followed by a conversation between Caputo and the BBC’s William Crawley. (More information here.)
Sunday’s lecture incorporated Rollins’ unique blend of storytelling, audience interaction, philosophy and psychoanalysis. In our book about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), The Deconstructed Church, Gerardo Marti and I described Rollins’ style as that of the religious provocateur (p. 116):
The provocateur in the ECM is not comfortable being the functional representative of the faith on behalf of the faithful, but sees him- or herself as the point of instigation to mobilize others into taking a stand somewhere. The provocateur, what V.I. Lenin defined as “the agitator,” moves away from easing anxieties to raising them, from a comforting tone to removing a too easy smugness, and from giving assurance to urging individual initiative and risk-taking. The enemy for these provocateurs is rarely “the world” (which is treated sympathetically), but rather the capital “C” Church which has ruined the way of Jesus, pursued power over servant-hood, caused pain more than pleasure, and exploited rather than inspired the masses. The preaching by the provocateur is an act of justice to restore that which was lost, to proclaim evil present in the seemingly holy, and to re-define a path of godliness that denies the name godliness because of its sanctimonious, distancing, and (from their point of view) ultimately destructive connotations.
While the lecture was billed as a critique of New Atheism, Rollins barely mentioned this movement or any of its most prominent prophets, such as Richard Dawkins. But his opening foray, where he asked those in the audience who considered themselves atheists or secularists if they would be willing to read aloud a Satanic curse over their children, was designed to playfully probe if any atheists/secularists would be willing to curse their children – even if they didn’t believe that the curse had any power.
Rollins’ point here was to expose that even if we think we don’t believe in god or the supernatural, we sometimes continue to act as if we do. And that can be the basis for a wider critique of New Atheism: that it is so excessively driven by a god it doesn’t believe in, that this ‘god’ really controls it.
The bulk of the talk was based on Lacanian psycho-analytic theory, and how it can be applied at an individual level. This is seen in the way an unconscious ‘other’ may drive individuals’ actions. In this process, it is the little Freudian ‘slips’ that reveal what we really believe, not necessarily what we think or say we believe in the conscious moments of our lives.
So what’s important is becoming aware of how we may continue to be haunted by whatever it is we don’t think we believe in. For some, this may be a traditional Christian god. For others, this may be pleasing parents or other people.
To illustrate, Rollins told a story about a friend who drinks alcohol, knowing that her parents do not approve. So when her parents visit, she hides the alcohol. Rollins said he asked her why she does this, because her parents know that she drinks. She told him that her parents instructed her to hide the alcohol themselves. In this way, conflict is avoided and the family does not have to confront the crisis, it is simply covered over.
So, once we become aware of how gods or people or events from our past continue to affect our present lives, this gives us the power to overcome them and to live with more freedom in the world – freedom to love others, to work for justice, and so on.
Throughout his talk, Rollins most often spoke of that which haunts us as ‘God.’ During the question and response period, someone asked Rollins why he had to call this ‘God’ at all. Rollins said that he didn’t, although he pointed out he was drawing on a wider intellectual and philosophical tradition that uses the term ‘God’ in this manner. As some of the examples I have chosen already demonstrate, the other in our unconscious or subconscious does not need to be a concept of God. We can be driven by anything that we (mistakenly) think will fill the ‘lack’ in our lives. Some examples Rollins’ gives in his latest book, The Divine Magician, are ‘money, health, a relationship, or religious practice’ (p. 13).
But I would wager that for many people, God remains a useful term to use in this way. As Gerardo Marti and I explored in The Deconstructed Church, the Christian God of Emerging Christianity is pretty different from the judgemental, ‘heavenly father’ that many of the former Protestant evangelicals of the ECM grew up with.
Emerging Christians tend to focus more on Jesus (an embodied Christ getting his hands and feet dirty in the real world) and the Holy Spirit rather than the Father. But Rollins might say that doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes act like a rather scary God the Father continues to dominate their lives.
Another person in the audience asked Rollins how far he could go with this individual, psychoanalytical approach without addressing how the ‘structures’ of big systems like capitalism rule our lives in ways that we are often only dimly aware of.
Rollins did touch on this briefly throughout the lecture, pointing out how many socially-conscious people will critique capitalism – but they can’t unplug themselves from the system. Indeed, some capitalist systems will allow for small reforms (minimum wages, limited working hours, laws against child labour). But it can be these minimal reforms that actually keep the system going, acting as safety valves against really transforming the system so that it is fundamentally more just.
Rollins added that it is these socio-political aspects that he is really most interested in, and which he tries to address in his theological work, in contrast to the psychoanalytic aspect of his work that he was describing that day.
In The Deconstructed Church, one of the Emerging Christians we interviewed talked about ‘Following Jesus in the real world’ – that is, moving beyond theory to making a difference in others’ lives. Our key finding is that this is really a challenge – and Emerging Christians are very limited in what they can actually do (Chapter 6). I remain unsure whether Emerging Christians are doing a ‘better job’ at this than other religious or secular groups, no matter how earnest they may be about it.
We might not hear Rollins use the language of ‘following Jesus.’ But does the test he has set his ‘pyrotheology’ project lie in how close it can get to making a difference in the nitty-gritty of the real world?
 Lenin, What is to be Done? (1940).
Photo by Brian O’Neill