As recounted in previous blog posts, in April I spoke at Peter Rollins’ Holy Ghosts event in Belfast. The title of my talk was “Questions that Haunt Emerging Christianity.” It was based in part on my new book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti and published in May, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford University Press).
My talk also explored themes featured in an article written by myself and Gerardo and published in May in the new Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, “Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement – Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective.”
My previous blog posts based on my talk have focused on:
In my post about Ikon, I acknowledged that it sees itself as outside the emerging church. But I argued that its practices offer compelling challenges to that wider conversation.
When it comes to Rollins, a founder of Ikon who has become a prominent author and speaker, particularly in the US, there’s no doubt that he is in conversation with the ECM.
The word “pyrotheology” was first coined by Chris Fry, a member of Ikon, in 2009 for an event they ran at the Greenbelt Festival in the UK… Through a rich blend of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, ritual, interrogative practices, discussion and personal reflection, the theory and practice of pyrotheology aims to help free people from the twin tyrannies of seeking certainty and satisfaction. Helping participants celebrate unknowing without anxiety and embrace the traumas of life without fear.
There’s not much evidence that the term pyrotheology has gained momentum in the wider ECM conversation. But I spoke of four main areas in which Rollins’ work pushes the boundaries of the ECM, forcing it to ask more challenging questions:
The Limits of Language
Moreso than public figures associated with the ECM in North America, Rollins exhorts people to embrace ambiguous ways of speaking about God, to recognise that there is much we do not know about God, and to acknowledge that what we may think we know, our language is inadequate to express. For Rollins, deliberate ambiguity (though frustrating to his critics!) is the most appropriate way to exploit the limits and limitlessness of language, and to communicate about Christian experience.
Rollins takes an anti-conversionist approach to mission, best exemplified by Ikon’s Evangelism Project, in which Ikon invites others to evangelize them. Anti-conversionism attempts to give up the position of power usually assumed by missionaries, and to break down boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Here, Rollins departs quite far from the wider ECM in North America, particularly from Emerging Christians who conceive of their congregations as ‘missional’ and see mission as including converting others to their own or a similar Christian community.
For Rollins, embracing doubt is what enables Christians to live as if God does not exist, which should result in a life of love lived fully in the here and now. Unlike most involved in the emerging conversation, Rollins does not want people to see doubts as things that come and go. Rather doubt is required if Christians are to live authentically, or as Rollins puts it, a/theistically. Because it occupies such a central place in his development of a/theism (explained below), doubt is much more important for Rollins’ ideas about how to live like a Christian than it is for Emerging Christians in North America.
Rollins’ conception of a/theism has changed over the years, from a relatively tame articulation in his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God, where he described it as a ‘questioning of our understanding of God.’ But in The Fidelity of Betrayal, he urges readers to seek the transformative event of God rather than to worry about making a case for the existence of God. In Insurrection and The Idolatry of God, he emphasizes the felt absence of God, arguing that to live authentically as Christians means to live as if God does not exist. Now, it seems, Rollins’ conception of a/theism is dependent on his definitions of crucifixion (experiencing and embracing doubt) and resurrection (an authentic mode of living, as if God does not exist). The way Rollins describes a/theism asks Christians to push what they think about God and what it means to live like a Christian further than most public figures in the ECM in North America have been willing to go.
In the discussion after the event, amongst other points, Rollins challenged my characterization of his work as ‘anti-conversionist’. He admitted that he is:
Still preaching a type of salvation … A salvation from salvation. That there is a message of hope to all of us who are driven to find certainty and satisfaction. That we can find ways of embracing our lack and unknowing. In this way there is a message being preached, albeit a very different one.
Rollins also likened the Emerging Church Movement to a ‘gateway drug’ that helped introduce people to the more radical theological ideas he advocates. I agree with Rollins’ assessment that he pushes the emerging conversation further than many are willing to go – but I remain doubtful that the vast majority of those in the movement are willing to follow such ideas to their logical conclusions.