Burned by Pyrotheology

(This post was actually written in around November 2016, but for some reason, probably because I wanted to polish it, not published at the time.)

I’ve engaged with Peter Rollins characterisation of what he describes as the “oceanic” experience which is a fundamental feature of mystical experience as a feature of psychosis before, but have just listened to him talk about this again, in which (describing his “Pyrotheology”) he describes the ontological and ontic lack as “original sin”, and have some further thoughts.

The first of these is that he is maybe not a million miles from my own characterisation of original sin, which I wrote about in “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin”, and “Falling Further”. We are both, it seems to me, talking about “original sin” as something formative of the self (or, in his words, the subject). Where we differ is that I see specifically self-consciousness as being the issue, whereas he sees lack as being the issue. I am actually unconvinced by Lacan’s identification of the dawn of self-awareness as equivalent to losing the “oceanic” sense of oneness with the “other”; I think, for instance, that most higher animals are well aware of their individuality without possessing (in at least the majority of cases) a real sense of themselves as a subject of scrutiny; there is no real feedback loop going on there, whereas there is in the case of humans, and it is that sense of self-as-subject which I identify as the source of “original sin” – the discrepancy between the actual self and the self-image we have of ourselves.

However, we both view this as something positive rather than something negative.

I do see him as being unduly dismissive of the mystical/oceanic experience of ultimate oneness as being merely transitory and, perhaps, nice while it lasts but ultimately of no real importance beside what he sees as the vital task of coping with the awful fact that we are separate from the world around us. Being a mystic (and impacted by the self-verifying character of mystical experience) I have little option but to see the experience of oneness with all, the dissolution of the boundaries which constitute us as a “self” or “subject” as being in some way “more true” than the experience of us as separate; at the very least, as equally true. Becauser I am at root a mystic, I value religious traditions first and foremost for their mystical traditions and their technologies of promoting mystical experience; Pete’s conception of radical theology is that it ignores this and concentrates on the complete absence of such experience, which he clearly regards as “more true”, and indeed seems to me to denigrate any attempt by religion to offer mystical oneness as something to be desired.

I think that is a mistake, and abandons a very large amount of what makes religion worthwhile. In particular, there is nothing in his version of radical theology which specifically promotes compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself”. To use the terminology of AA (of which Pete is fond, in general terms) and the other 12 step programmes, while Pyrotheology is big on Step 1 (“we admitted that we were powerless over X and that our lives had become unmanageable”) it is not particularly conducive to Step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could relieve our insanity”) or Step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”); in terms of the Serenity Prayer, it maybe covers “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change” without addressing “And the power to change the things we can”.

It is very difficult not to love your neighbour as yourself when the boundary of what is your neighbour and what is yourself is nonexistent (in the fullblown mystical experience) or, to say the least, fuzzy (in the case of the partial consciousness of oneness which can be cultivated as a day-to-day and near constant experience by mystical practice). Some mystics, I confess, do seem to achieve this lack of concern for neighbour – I was a little horrified to hear, some years ago in a TV programme, a Hindu sage refuse to teach a westerner because it might damage their own consciousness of oneness with God (in that case, the unity of Atman and Brahman). It is not uncommon, as well, to find mystics separating themselves from humanity (as, for instance, monks or hermits) in order more fully to pursue mystical experience, I suspect partly because the overwhelming sense of compassion produced when in contact with other human beings, coupled with a limited or nonexistent ability to do anything much about it, is too distracting or too painful. Most modern mystics, however, seem to find a balance in which they can and do express love of neighbour, sometimes profusely – and if there is any message which stresses love of neighbour to the eventual exclusion of self-preservation, it is that of Jesus (“greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”).

Of course the complete removal of any sense of division between the self and the rest of existence is not something which can be pursued except for very limited periods – it is completely impossible to function normally in the world with no such sense; as I tend to say, this results in you walking into lamp posts. It is, as Pete says, both wonderful and extremely scary (the end point has to be the complete extinguishing of the self). You have to return to the normal existence of distinguishing yourself from, for instance, the lamp post which you are, in the throes of a peak mystical experience, about to walk in to, or at least you do if you want to continue functioning as an individual in the world at large.

This brings to mind the fact that, to me, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of human thinking is the distinguishing of one thing from another. Thinking back to my school days, titles starting “compare and contrast” were perhaps the most common essays ever asked for. We define our political leanings, I find, more by what we are not than by what we are (in the recent US election, I could not under any circumstances have voted for Trump, therefore I would probably have had to vote for Hilary, despite her espousal of neoliberalism and closeness to banks and big business). A key saying in the development of Rabbinic Judaism was the phrase “not as the gentiles” when considering what being Jewish was about; Christianity in its turn moved rapidly away from Judaism having decided that Judaism was one thing which it “was not” (alongside paganism, inter alia).

The trouble with distinguishing the one from the other is that it inevitably sets up a binary opposition – both “contrast” and “compare” involve, unless we are very careful, value judgments as to which is preferable. Even if we are very careful, we run the risk of being accused of moral equivalence. We lose sight of the fact that (as the Taoist logo of two interlocked tadpole shapes, one black and one white, but each with an “eye” of the other colour) drives home, that each of a pair of “opposites” depends on and to some extent includes its opposite, and we fail to appreciate “excluded middle” fallacies. We also, in going binary (i.e. digital), lose the ability to “think analog”, i.e. appreciate that a massive amount of what we perceive is more spectral than divided; one thing shades into another without any clear division between the two.

Some strains of radical theology and the continental philosophy from which much of it stems do this to excess – not a million miles from Pete’s train of thought are thinkers who say that there is a fundamental rift in the structure of existence. This, to me, is the language of conflict, of opposition, and not of love and inclusion.

Opposition to such binaries is something which was picked up in a talk I recently heard by Richard Rohr (this link is to an interview with similar content). He sees the Trinity as an opportunity to break this binary thinking via the concept of perichoresis, which is something like “mutual indwelling” (analagous to the Taoist symbol); he sees Trinity as indicating that relationship is fundamental, rather than distinction. Rohr is, of course, a mystic, and I generally find it difficult to argue much with mystics. On this occasion, however, while I think that if you already have a concept of Trinity as fundamental to your understanding of God, Rohr’s meditation is a very good one, I do not think that a trinitarian concept is necessary to get away from the binaries and the “either/or” mentality. I also think that it leads to all sorts of conceptual problems, not to mention about half the heresies ever identified by the Church!

But I do think that mystical practice gets away from binary opposition. The essence of much mystical writing is “both/and”; the distinction of self and other is real, but so is the identity of self and other – and while it may be impossible to conceive both at the same time rationally (digitally), the mystic is forced to feel that both are simultaneously correct.

But it isn’t psychosis. Sorry, Pete!


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