Pyrotheology is a project spearheaded by Peter Rollins that attempts to deconstruct belief-based Christianity and make the tradition relevant to people who feel attracted to it but who are unable to assent in good faith to its creeds and doctrines. On the question of God’s existence, Pyrotheology is agnostic. Instead, it poses a different question: what is our lack that we have tried to fill with belief?
Rollins’ notion of lack is derived from the theories of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In Rollins’ work, lack becomes a metaphysic of human nature. The lack is birthed in us in infancy as a trauma of separation when we first come to understand that we exist as individuals, separate from our mothers. In adulthood, lack exists as the separation between who we are and who we would like to be. It is the gap between what we have and what we think we need to be happy.
The lack is felt in our lives as anxiety. To relieve the anxiety, we try to fill the lack in various ways: as simple as overeating or drinking too much, or as involved as the pursuit of wealth, the persecution of minorities and the conquest of nations.
Our need to fill the lack tends to put us in conflict with others, and we come to see these others as obstacles to our happiness. On a group level, this leads to scapegoating, when people blame immigrants or other races for their problems. In traditional Christian terms, our craving to fill the lack is the source of human sinfulness.
One way people try to fill the lack and rid ourselves of anxiety is by attempting to give ourselves certainty through belief in a real and powerful God. This certainty, however, also brings us into conflict with others, as it leads us to to view our moral positions as absolute truths that we can righteously impose on others.
Whatever we pursue to try to fill the lack is called by Rollins our “sacred object,” that thing we believe can bridge the gap and bring us happiness. Rollins argues that the truth in Christianity is found by understanding that we already have access to happiness, and that the satisfaction we think the sacred object can bring us is illusory and not lasting. He suggests we can enjoy the uncertainty created by our own lack. Recognizing the lack in others, we respond with love.
Wittingly or not, Rollins’ work has parallels to Buddhist teachings about the nature of the self. Buddhists speak not of lack, but of emptiness: the understanding that what we call our self, or ego, is not real but is an illusion arising from an interplay of emotions, physical sensations, memories, thoughts, drives and relationships. The self feels real, but we can at times — as via meditation — glimpse that it is not. Understanding this — if we don’t forget it, as we tend to do — can help free us from the need to try to fill our every craving in ways that don’t bring lasting satisfaction. We learn we can find happiness as we are.
A possible critique of Pyrotheology is that Rollins replaces one metaphysic — God — with its inverse, lack, in an attempt to give ourselves certainty. But in Pyrotheology, as in the best of Christianity and other traditions, the work is inward, and does not require us to acquire things, convert new followers or conquer external obstacles to get what we crave. We should ask ourselves, when we feel resentful or jealous or like drinking too much: what is my lack? What am I trying to fill?