Building with Contradiction in the Void left to us after the Death of God
August 4, 2023
Building with Contradiction in the Void left to us after the Death of God Cadell Last 4 August 2023 Introduction Peter Rollins is a philosopher influenced by the Žižekian tradition which combines Hegelian and Lacanian theory. He is also a story-teller and a pioneer of a practice that he calls pyrotheology. First a historical background: Peter Rollins was not raised religious. In fact, he claims to have grown up as a “natural atheist” against the background of parents who were so silent about their faith that he didn’t know they were religious until his 30s. However, after contingently encountering charismatic evangelical preachers on the street, and getting involved for a few years with the church, he had a mystical or religious experience which he describes as follows (from our conversation: The Orthodox Heretic ): “it was not an experience of something but an experience of that which changes your experience of everything. It was not like I had an experience of 100 things in the world and then I had another one, 101st thing. It was rather that I experienced a de-centering that caused me to experience everything in a different way. The primary experience was of subtraction. I didn’t start to believe in God or a new set of ideas and doctrines, that came afterwards. The actual religious experience was a sense of all identities dissolving away.” This mystical/religious experience, he suggests, made him both susceptible to a type of religious indoctrination, i.e. sets of ideas and doctrines to give body or stability to his experience of mystical emptying, but also opened him to philosophy. He attended university in a philosophy department where he quickly developed an aversion to the dryness of analytic philosophy, and an affinity for the weird ambiguities of continental philosophy. However, within the continental tradition, he notes that his training was deeply anti-structuralist, pointing toward various negative or deconstructive theologies. These traditions also had a tendency to create straw-man arguments against some of the great structuralist and dialectical thinkers, like G.W.F. Hegel, as grand totalisers (“conceptual monsters”). This training suggested that Hegel had been long surpassed and overcome by thinkers more attuned to the real of experience and life, as opposed to someone who had been buried alive under layers of misinterpretation covering over the structural and dialectical importance of the logic of contradiction for speculative cognition. Rollins suggests that it was only after his doctoral training that he returned to this importance, and even centrality, of the logic of contradiction, derived in the real of his religious practice. From this practice he also saw the importance of Lacan and the central focus on the unconscious as social and linguistic, which was also supported by his studies of Žižek’s theories of ideology. At the same time, Rollins took a different path than most Hegelian or Lacanian theorists in the sense that he was still deeply involved and embedded in the theological tradition of the Church. He started to see himself as a practitioner over a theorist, but also not a practitioner of the clinic (the route most Lacanian practitioners follow), but a practitioner of more “Church-like” activities. He developed groups where the religious spirit and experience could be enacted through art, music, and spoken word. This is the theoretical background for what has become his idea for a “Church of the Contradiction.” From Mysticism to Fundamentalism to the Self-Divided God In order to conceptualise the Church of the Contradiction, to get a feel for its connection and import to both philosophy and theology, Rollins tells a story of three men who die and go to heaven: a mystic, an evangelical pastor and a fundamentalist preacher. Before entering heaven, the three men have to have a 30 minute interview with Jesus. They sit together in a waiting room before being introduced to the interview room with Jesus by St. Paul: The mystic goes in and comes out 30 minutes later, laughing and saying to himself: “I knew I was wrong” and walks into heaven. The pastor goes in and comes out an hour later, screaming to himself: “How could I have been so wrong?!” and walks into heaven. The fundamentalist goes in for hours and hours, until finally, Jesus comes out, frustrated: “How could I have been so wrong??!!” The meaning of this story can be best summarised in philosophical terms at the extremes of the mystic and the fundamentalist: The mystic presupposes that they are barred from access to knowledge of the real in-itself (the real in-itself is ineffable, unknowable, etc.), so when he has the opportunity to actually speak with Jesus and enter heaven, he is overwhelmed by how wrong his identity was in the Earthly world. The fundamentalist presupposes that not only do they have access to knowledge of the real in-itself, but also that the real in-itself is complete and consistent with itself (that the center holds, absolutely), so when he has the opportunity to actually speak with Jesus and enter heaven, Jesus himself is overwhelmed by the dogmatism of the fundamentalist. The difference which separates the mystic from the fundamentalist, in philosophical terms, is the difference which separates the Kantian and the Hegelian. Whereas the Kantian believes that his rational knowledge is limited and contradictory (reduced to the “antinomies of reason”), while the absolute being is infinite and complete, yet unknowable; the Hegelian believes that not only is his rational knowledge limited and contradictory, but the absolute being is itself limited and contradictory ( and thus the antinomies of reason are already our infinite access to the thing-in-itself ). In other words, the center is not a complete consistent being, but a limited contradictory (or better: incomplete) being. This knowing is, paradoxically, the becoming of the Absolute Spirit. In Peter Rollins' language, what happens in the story is that the fundamentalist encounters a God that is self-divided in a joke that moves from “epistemological unknowing” to “ontological unknowing.” In other words, unknowing is moved to the heart of reality itself, where we find an absolute that is, fundamentally: asymmetrical, indeterminate, and contradictory all the way down. For Rollins, this coincidence of knowing and unknowing coincides with the Lacanian cure related to the division within the big Other: the way in which the big Other does not exist in a particular way, offering us the grounds for a “Church of the Contradiction.” Towards a Church Affirming the Death of God? Rollins suggests that the tension that exists between modern atheism and theology operates on a non-Hegelian/non-dialectical logic of A=A. For the modern atheist, God does not exist; for the modern theologian, God exists. Thus, for both positions, the idea of the “Death of God,” is nonsensical, it does not compute. For the atheist, how can God die if God doesn’t exist in the first place? For the theist, how can God die if God is the eternal being without beginning or end? This is why Rollins seeks to break this A=A logic with A=B logic, which may help us to think the unique paradox of Death of God theology internal to the Christian tradition. In order to do this he seeks to trace a “genealogy” of the Death of God, which runs through figures like Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Hegel, and Nietzsche. For Rollins: Apostle Paul recognises that there is something significant about the idea of “Christ crucified” which is not reflected in other religious traditions (even if he cannot fully think its historical consequences for theology), for Martin Luther, there is an actual theological embrace of Christ crucified in the body of the Church itself, which is central for the critical historical break between Catholicism and Protestantism for Hegel the crucifixion rises to the dignity of philosophical cognition capable of helping think the modern subject which is not only divided from its substance but also reflexively aware of this division, and for Nietzsche this death is grounded in existentialist terms capable of speaking to the actual life of the modern subject, which must grapple with the very real political consequences of the lack of/in God. However, it is here, for Rollins, that we reach a specific impasse: why after the theological (Martin Luther), philosophical (G.W.F. Hegel) and existentialist (Nietzschean) recognition of the Death of God does nothing effectively change? In other words, why are we still confronted with new forms of conservatism and religious fundamentalism which clings to pre-modern conceptions of God? In short: why is there a radical repression of this absolute knowledge? Here Rollins proposes that this is where we must recognise the importance of Freud and Lacan. Freud and Lacan provide the “psychotechnology” to embrace the Death of God with the structural support of clinical work that focuses on the unconscious mind, the part of the mind that “believes” even when we (our conscious mind) professes non-belief. In other words, psychoanalysis helps us to confront the logic of the joke in the aforementioned story about the mystic and the fundamentalist, where we recognise that the absolute itself is de-centered from itself. Radical or Pyrotheology In short, if modern atheism suggests that God does not exist (a type of A=A logic), then Rollins form of “Radical Christianity” is something which has sublated both Hegelian philosophy and Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis with the idea that God must realise that God does not exist . Consider the well-known Freudian idea that, after the Death of the real Father, the symbolic Father can remain more alive after death, in rituals and totemic figures. Perhaps this is an explanation for phenomenon like the modern rise of conservatism and fundamentalism: after the Death of God (the Father), God and the Father return in “hyper-real” symbolic forms that haunt us from within, as a result of not recognising that it is not enough for the conscious ego to lose faith in salvation, if our unconscious will believe it for us (especially when confronting the possibility of technological apocalypse). Here Rollins focuses on the Hegelo-Lacanian idea of alienation. The secular communitarian replacement for Christianity in the political-economic sphere, Marxism, may still linger too much — in its materialist reversal of Hegel and pre-psychoanalytic theorisation — on the idea of overcoming alienation. In contrast, for the Hegelo-Lacanian tradition, alienation is radicalised and woven into everything. Alienation is where we in fact gain our orientation and even our enjoyment (or jouissance). Here the only “cure” for alienation can be found in our capacity to signify our alienation, something which Rollins thinks separates radical theology (or Christianity) from both its conservative and progressive variants. Whereas conservative theology centers belief: you must believe in God!; progressive theology centers doubt: you don’t have to believe in anything (because belief is already embedded in the liturgical structure itself, the social unconscious). Here Rollins radical theology radicalises this social unconscious and situates doubt within the liturgical structure itself (mirroring the aforementioned philosophical move from epistemological to ontological unknowing). Thus, radical theology is in many ways what happens when a fundamentalist carries their certainty or non-doubt in God to its logical consequence, i.e. they annoy and torment everyone and everything in existence with their pious belief in salvation until they reach the center and realise that the center itself does not hold. Another way of saying this is coming to recognise the Kantian imperative that “if we just did everything ‘right’ everything would be ‘wonderful’,” is not just wrong, but inane and dangerous. What is actually called for at this moment is a type of radical theology which brings us to confront the division, lack, and unknowing woven into the structure of the Church itself: the Church of the Contradiction. For Rollins, he approaches this idea concretely with some help from his experience in Lacanian analysis. He recalls a story of his analysis where he was pleading with the analyst to tell him, at a crucial juncture in his life, that everything was going to be alright. The analyst, true to his craft and method, resisted any temptation to mirror back to the subject his wants and desires for a guaranteed positive result. The analyst instead embodied the real of silence, the emptiness of Das Ding. Here the subject must confront the abyssal dimension where it is left screaming, not only on the level of his or her unknowing, but on the level of the unknowing inherent to reality itself (like Jesus confronting the horror of the fundamentalists self-certainty). Here Rollins makes the important point that we should focus our critique on contemporary progressive society (which mirrors the patterns of the progressive Church), where conscious belief is disavowed but embodied externally as a childish support or crutch (i.e. in the social unconscious). Recall the story that Žižek often tells of the parents who might not believe in Santa Claus consciously, but who get the belief through the belief that their children believe. Here when the child finally recognises the gap/lack in the Other (Santa Claus is not real), the parents themselves are often more devastated than the children, since they are left to feel the full weight of the existential anxiety they had projected and protected themselves from, in the child. The Church of the Contradiction Rollins points us towards the practical importance of all these philosophical ideas and traditions in a way that helps us to radically rethink religious life. He points us towards a real, different from both conservative and progressive theological traditions, where liturgy itself touches the real in poetry, words, music, and rituals. In other words, where the liturgy itself embraces the nothing as positive . Here he makes a crucial distinction between community , which is a social organisation built around shared beliefs, identities, and enemies; and communion , which is a social organisation built around a shared castration or loss: the Death of God. For Rollins, this (quoting him directly) “very very important.” Rollins ultimately has a very special idea for what this might look like as a transformative art event. He wants the first Church of the Contradiction event to consist in grounding an enormous void in a derelict building, just a hole that people will have to walk on, confronting them directly with a gaze into the abyss, where the abyss will gaze back. After this shared experience, which is literally grounding a shared castration, we have a communion around this void. And here is the brilliant Žižekian twist: our communion is with a Kinder surprise toy where the toy itself is missing. This is an example of a liturgy which reflects a truth that God is alienated from himself: a self-divided God. Furthermore, for Rollins, this is the good news: alienation is redoubled in the alienation of the absolute from itself, which signals at once the truth and the real of our freedom as historical subjects. What is this supposed to lead to? The post-experience of pyrotheology, for Rollins, is to help bring people from an external to an internal understanding of Christ crucified: the feeling of “My God, why have you forsaken me?” After the event is complete, you leave with an “integrated lack.” As a true scientist of logic, Rollins hypothesises that this experience as communion will be powerful because it presents us with a unique and perhaps unprecedented religious opportunity: to confront together the zero state of grace. Grace for Rollins is a space of pure acceptance from others, a recognition that, since we are all castrated, we can in turn accept and embody our castration. This is not a guarantee that everything will be alright, on the contrary, it is a guarantee that you can live with and work with what you really are. In psychoanalytic terms, we could think about it as the acceptance of one’s symptoms, as opposed to living in a symptomatic state of denial and repression of the truth of the unconscious. To be more specific, in Lacanian terms, this could be understood as acceptance which allows one to enjoy one’s symptoms. However, if we were to think about all of this on a theological level, Rollins points us towards the possibility of interpreting the Church of the Contradiction as embodying what Lacan means with the idea that “God is Unconscious.” From our early infancy to adulthood, our unconscious desire revolves around the truth of the Other’s desire: who am I to the Other? What is the mystery of this enigmatic dimension of the Other, Das Ding? This dimension of desire is simultaneously attractive and fascinating, as well as terrifyingly abyssal. Rollins emphasises that desire is like a social spreading chain in which we are all influenced by each other, and all of our desires are abyssal interpretations of what the other desires (undermining the liberalist individualist notion that I can personally own my true desires). If we follow this spreading chain of the social unconscious, we find that all of these desires are sustained and generated by something insubstantial, a lack: the other doesn’t know what they desire . In Žižekian terms: there is no big Other qua God, we are alone. What God mercifully leaves us with, in our freedom, is the heart of contradiction at heart of reality itself. Again, the Lacanian cure here is a recognition of self-division intrinsic to the unconscious, where the symptom becomes sinthome, or can be enjoyed. Peter Rollins will be teaching in the fourth Philosophy Portal course focused on Lacan’s Ecrits, which starts September 3rd. To find out more, or to register, visit: Philosophy Portal .