Thirst is our only light (or ‘on almost agreeing with Peter Rollins’)

Is anybody out there in the theological blogosphere as frustrated as I am at the way in which the internet seems to have stoked the fires of what can only be described as rabies theologorum (theo-abuse)? On one hand the web is indisputably a wonderful tool for the propagation of theological ideas at a tempo unthought-of even fifteen years ago, which has brought myriad voices into the public square that would previously have been excluded from debates reserved for a professiorial or clerical elite. Indeed, I would now say that much of the most stimulating reflection on the current state of theology is no longer to be found in academic publications but on rapidly-evolving and collaborative blogs such as Patheos, Homebrewed Christianity or The Other Journal. On the other hand, I think I am probably not the only one to cringe at the frequent colonization of such sites by those interested not so much in an honest search for truth as in the strident proclamation of religious propaganda of various sorts and the ferocious denunciation of all who may disagree.

In this context it is therefore extremely encouraging to read the constructive and generally respectful dialogue that seems to have been elicited by a recent book which makes no bones about its own claim to be incendiary, Insurrection by the Irish pioneer of what he terms ‘pyro-theology’, Peter Rollins. Drawing particularly on the lives and words of the late Bonhoeffer (hence the interest for this blog, named as it is after a line from the German martyr’s poem Jona) and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Insurrection is a passionate – although at times also hilariously funny – denunciation of the ways in which Christianity so often degenerates into ‘religion’ in the worst sense, the projection of our own fantasies of power and security onto the object of our worship which effectively becomes an idol. Not least because the idol functions in such a way as to provide us with a means of convenient escape from facing the Way of the Cross.

Peter-Rollins-Insurrection-coverInsurrection is certainly nothing if not controversial, and I have voiced a number of reservations about it in a review (for which I take sole responsibility and which should not be seen as necessarily representing the opinions of Soli Deo Gloria) which you can read by clicking here. However, for anyone unafraid of being made uncomfortable by difficult questions and the ‘refiner’s fire’ constituted by an engagement with contemporary philosophical debate, this is essential (and highly accessible) reading which contains a great deal of insight and truth, at least to my mind. Much of what Rollins has to say can be traced back to the time-honoured via negativa, the tradition of ‘negative’ theology which is perhaps most succinctly expressed by St Augustine’s famous phrase ‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’ ( ‘If you understand it, it ain’t God’).

Rollins is reflecting a recurring theme of much recent writing in what is normally categorized as Continental Philosophy of Religion (beginning with Emmanuel Lévinas and the later Jacques Derrida, then continued by figures such as Jean-Luc Marion, Gianni Vattimo, John D. Caputo and the ‘academic rock star’ Slavoj Zizek). These writers are of course not unanimous in their views on religion and have on occasion disagreed with each other in spectacular fashion, but one thing they have in common is the conviction that dogmatic certainties are inherently idolatrous and need unmasking as human constructs. If we are to talk about ‘God’ at all (which some of these authors are highly reluctant to do), then it can neither be the despotic, monolithic God of imperial religion (Caesar writ large), nor the abstract metaphysical deity of the philosophers denounced by Pascal or Heidegger. Instead, all these thinkers find themselves drawn to yet also wrestling with the ‘weakness of God’ and the figure of the self-emptying, crucified Christ. In setting out his agenda Rollins refers to the celebrated lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned in his prison cell in Tegel shortly before the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 in which he was involved and for which he would be excuted in Flossenbürg in the final days of World War II:

‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deux ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.’[1]

How Bonhoeffer might have developed his programme for a ‘religionless Christianity’ sketched in Letters and Papers from Prison had he lived remains as much matter of debate now as in the 1960s, when first Bishop John Robinson (in Honest to God) and then the ‘Death of God’ theologians such as William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer notoriously claimed Bonhoeffer’s legacy in the name of a radical revision, if not outright jettisoning of Christian doctrine. The scholarly consensus would now seem to be that this was indeed ‘creative misuse’ of Bonhoeffer[2], and that a careful reading of the writings of his final period reveals a a questioning of ‘religion’ that is certainly radical, but is always held in tension with a rather traditional Lutheran personal piety. The latter, centred around the notion of union with Christ and a mysticism of the Cross exemplified by the 17th century hymns of Paul Gerhardt which Bonhoeffer so loved, is perhaps best expressed in his poems such as the famous Stations on the Road to Freedom and Powers of Good. There is in Bonhoeffer a constant dialectic between a desire for worldly engagement and what he termed Arkandisziplin, the life of worship, prayer and silence.

Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-1939-188x300

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1939

This tension can be summarized as ‘Struggle and Contemplation’, the English title of one of the diary collections of Roger Schütz (1915-2005), better known as Brother Roger of Taizé, to whom Peter Rollins does not refer in Insurrection, but who could well have merited a place, if only by virtue of having co-authored the books Mary, Mother of Reconciliations and Seeking the Heart of God with Mother Teresa. Consideration of Brother Roger in his study might well have contextualized Rollins’ thoughts on Mother Teresa and shown that it is possible to subscribe to precisely the type of ‘weak theology’ that Rollins, Caputo and others are advocating without necessarily leaving an orthodox Christian framework behind in a way that seems to be taken as a given by much postmodern thought.

The village of Taizé in Burgundy is of course now known throughout the world as a place of pilgrimage for the young and not-so-young where thousands gather to participate in the life of the ecumenical monastic community based there, which now numbers around 100 brothers, many of them living in ‘fraternities’ located in the slums of the developing world. What is perhaps less well-known is that this was not at all the result of a long-range ‘ministry plan’, but rather the unplanned-for result of the decision of a young Swiss Reformed pastor cycling through Eastern France at the outset of World War II to live in a quasi-abandoned hamlet of seven houses on the strength of a conversation with an old woman who asked him to join the villagers in their solitude. At the outset he pursued his dream of founding a monastic community of a handful of brothers in virtually complete obscurity, accompanied only by his sister Geneviève, a cow, two goats and the (lifelong) conviction that God was to be found ‘in the midst’ (in Rollins’ terms) in the poorest of the poor. A remark concerning a chance encounter during his early years in Taizé with an impoverished stranger encapsulates Brother Roger’s thought:

‘Since then, I have sometimes found myself asking: whom did I meet that day? Today I think I know. In that stranger, Christ was as present as can be. And he is the one whom, together with my brothers, we continue to meet in the most abandoned human beings.'[3]

For many, the word Taizé is synonymous with a highly distinctive style of meditative sung prayer, the majority of the best-known songs used by the community being penned by the self-effacing French organist and composer Jacques Berthier (1923-1994), who must rank as one of the great liturgical composers of the twentieth century. One which Brother Roger especially loved was De noche iremos, a setting of words by the Spanish poet Luis Rosales (1910-1992) but inspired by St John of the Cross, one of the most radical of all exponents of the via negativa: ‘De noche iremos, de noche, que para encontrar la fuente. Solo la sed nos alumbra.’ [sung translation: ‘By night, we hasten, in darkness, to seek for the living water, only our thirst lights us onward’]

Rosales’ astonishing final line (which I used in 1989 in the suite for organ Aunque es de Noche, one of my first compositions to be performed professionally) continues to make as strong an impression on me now as when I first sang it back in 1986, not least as the music at this point has a haunting Phrygian coloration of the type associated with the magical Spanish words duende and cante jondo (deep song).  The song’s impact was reinforced on reading Brother Roger’s Letter to a young Spaniard (1977), written somewhat in the idiom of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystics, where the link between the thirst for God and for justice, as in the spirit of the Beatitudes, is made plain:

‘You live in Spanish lands, lands that have always been burning with the passion of a Love, thirsting for the tenderness of God, ravaged by the violence of men, and refreshed at the living waters of the Risen Christ; you were able to cross the deserts, you knew the silences of God, you went right to the tomb, and that empty tomb did not frighten you […] To take the risk of the Gospel today, will you stand beside the Risen Christ, who is in agony for every human being? You sustain the hope of those who are thirsting for justice: will you radiate the bright light of his communion.[4]

Brother-Roger-Mother-Teresa-173x300Reading Peter Rollins’ Insurrection, De noche iremos rang through my mind, as it seems to express the notion of spiritual desire in a way that relates very closely to what much ‘deconstructive’ postmodern philosophy is trying to articulate in its search for what cannot be deconstructed. A quote from John Caputo’s Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida illustrates this striking structural proximity:

‘the undeconstructible is not knowable or foreseeable or forehavable but hangs on by a prayer, “Come.”
Everything in deconstruction is driven by the undeconstructible, fired and inspired, inflamed and impassioned, set into motion by what is not deconstructible.[…] What is undeconstructible – justice, the gift, hospitality, the tout autre, l’àvenir [sic] – is neither real nor ideal, neither present nor future-present, neither existent nor idealizable, which is how and why it incites our “desire,” driving and impassioning deconstruction.'[5]

However, there is a crucial difference between Rosales as read by Brother Roger and Caputo’s ‘theo-poetics’, despite their commonality. In the case of the latter, the ‘arrival’ of justice is formally impossible, a contradiction in terms; its coming would in effect destroy the very passionate thirst that ‘lights us onward’ and constitutes the motivating force of meaningful human activity. For Brother Roger, the living waters of the Spirit of the Risen Christ serve as the ‘future-present’ that Caputo’s poetics cannot easily accommodate, a foretaste of a future reality that does not annul but rather impels practical, this-worldly action. Whose of these two narratives of desire you find more convincing is not primarily a matter of logical analysis.

Taizé-prayer-300x225

I vividly recall two of the many occasions on which I have sung De noche iremos in the company of the brothers of the Taizé community. The first was in Notre-Dame de Paris at the end of 1988 (with Jacques Berthier himself at the organ), in a cathedral where the seating had been removed and where 10,000 people were praying seated on the floor, creating an atmosphere that I have never experienced before or since. The second was in Taizé itself just a few days after Brother Roger was fatally stabbed during an evening prayer service in August 2005 by a mentally disturbed young woman known to the community. I had made the trip down to Burgundy to pay my final respects to Taizé’s founder after hearing of his death and found the brothers (some of whom were just arriving from other continents) in a state of total shock and disbelief. In this context, with Brother Roger’s dead body lying exposed in the Eglise de la Réconciliation, De noche iremos seemed to express the inexpressible – the palpable feeling of entering, in a sense that can only be described as mystical, into the incomprehensibility of the brokenness and suffering of this world. Fundamental to Roger Schütz’s spirituality was the notion that Christ has united himself irrevocably with that brokenness, and in a way that cannot be grasped by reasoned argument, his violent death was, like that of Bonhoeffer before him, somehow a participation in that unfathomable mystery.

What struck me more than anything about that surreal day was the fact that, in their distress and disarray in the face of apparent absurdity and meaninglessness, the first thoughts and prayers of the brothers were to express their sympathy with the family of Brother Roger’s killer. As a form of testimony to the transforming power of faith, that alone carries a weight of authenticity that pure philosophy – if such a thing exists – cannot know. Strange though it may seem, Roger Schütz might well have agreed with Peter Rollins’ provocative catchphrase for his ‘pyro-theological’ programme, taken from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, that ‘the only church that illuminates is a burning one’, with one important proviso: the flame is none other than that of the living presence of the Paraclete. As the Letter to a young Spaniard puts it:

‘Breath of Christ’s loving, fire of his Spirit, kindle the deserts of the heart.'[6]


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, abridged edition (London : SCM, 2001), 134.

[2] The case against an ‘atheistic’ interpretation of the late Bonhoeffer was first argued at length by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s relative and correspondent Eberhard Bethge in his classic biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer (London: Collins, 1977, 757-795). See also Martin Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: a Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), ch.5.

[3] Choisir d’aimer: Frère Roger de Taizé 1915-2005 (Taizé: Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, 2006), 33. Translation mine.

[4] Brother Roger of Taizé, And Your Deserts Shall Flower: Journal 1977-1979 (Oxford: Mowbray, 1984), 19.

[5] Deconstruction in a Nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida, edited and with a commentary by John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 128.

[6] Brother Roger of Taizé, And Your Deserts Shall Flower, 19.

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