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Pyrotheology and the political

December 12, 2013


Being born and raised in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, my work developed from the context of The Troubles. “The Troubles” refers to the systematic violence that began in the late 60’s and ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. During that time 3,500 people lost their lives, which, considering the population of Northern Ireland, ensured that everyone was directly impacted by the devastation. On top of that, businesses were destroyed, people maimed, bombs thrown and riots became something of a constant backdrop to daily life. During this period around 25 peace walls were erected, spanning over 20 miles of land (with another 75 or so installed after the Good Friday Agreement), and many areas became enclaves where the police couldn’t enter without military support.

The Troubles itself involved an explosive cocktail of religion, politics, class issues and questions concerning ethnic identity. But rather than thinking of this as a conflict perhaps it is better to think of it as the refusal to have conflict.

The Troubles, like all wars, was partly the result of a failure to embrace conflict. By this I mean that wars are generally started by those who wish to attempt to destroy their enemy rather than enter into the difficulty of real engagement with them. We’d rather destroy the other than really listen to what they have to say and do the difficult work of sitting in the same room, hashing out the relevant issues. War can then be seen as the failure of politics, which is the arena in which true conflict should play out.

While my work was partly a response to all this, it was also connected to the way that The Troubles themselves became a type of reflection of my own inner troubles. At a personal level the same walls I witnessed all around my city also reflected my more personal ones. The projection I saw happening so explicitly at a social level seemed to speak of a reality that I tried to deny was within me. Belfast thus became a type of psychic landscape, revealing to me my own more subtle struggles. The personal and the political thus began reflect each other for me. They spoke to each other and started to appear intimately intertwined.

It is partly because of this that I came to believe the work some of us were engaged in there would be able to speak beyond Belfast. If a doctor is training students to identify cancer, she must first show the students extreme forms so that they might be able to identify less extreme, less developed forms. In this way, they learn what to look out for before the tumor gets out of control. In the same way the work of pyrotheology might be able to identify less extreme forms of religious/political/cultural exclusion and violence because it grew out of a context were they were so overt.

The aim of pyrotheology is not to avoid conflict, but rather to create a space for it. There are real and serious issues to be addressed in every culture, and the strategies of hawk-like war mongers or neo-liberals, who would seek to avoid all conflict, are rarely the answer. Rather gritty, dirty salons are required where drinks can be slammed onto tables, obscenities shouted and tears shed. Spaces where the only real non-negotiable is a commitment to returning again and again to the same space and the same people. To hash things out, to be challenged and to perhaps discover that the other has a perspective that might change you.

The point of embracing unknowing, interrogating assumptions and facing personal issues (the bread and butter of pyrotheology) is to facilitate a better form of life that is not only more enjoyable and enriching at a personal level, but also one that provides the basis of more healthy and effective political engagement.

Pyrotheology, baptized as it was in a world full of violence, has always had a political edge and outworking. But it isn’t one that falls along the usual political lines. It is one that comes from seeing first-hand a city go through, come out of, and still struggle with, a world of deep antagonism. It is one that has learned first hand from unsung peace makers. And it is one that embraces the messiness that comes from true engagement with the other.

It’s my hope that some of those involved with exploring, developing and critically engaging with this thinking might be able to help bring some of these elements to the surface in the coming years.

13 Responses to Pyrotheology and the political

  1. Marika says:

    Pete, it’s sort of confusing to me that you suggest pyrotheology as an alternative to liberalism: isn’t the the idea that all conflicts could be resolved if people sat down together in a room to thrash out their disagreements pretty much the definition of political liberalism? What is new or different about this politics of pyrotheology?

    • Peter Rollins says:

      Hey. I affirm Chantal Mouffe’s approach of agonistic politics (if I remember right, it has been a while since I read her). In other words, the point of political discourse isn’t to create non-antagonistic consensus, but to create a new field for the ongoing conflict to play out. My main interest at the moment however (when it comes to politics) is how the work of Girard can be used in political theory.

  2. Frederick says:

    But of course all fields of conflict always create more never-ending fields of conflict. Chaos “theory” in action. Fractal patterns spontaneously emerging from invisible seeds thus planted, and multiplying in all directions.

    It seems to me that the most prophetic words in the Bible are: the wages of sin are death.

    Which is to say that if you begin with the presumption of sin, you will inevitably create a world which is saturated with sin, or the “culture” of death.

    Read the “news” and you will see that the entire world is now saturated with a “culture” of death. The inevitable collective karma or wages of centuries of collective sin dramatized on to the world stage as never-ending murder and mayhem.

    Sin is the presumption of separation from the Living Divine Reality.

    Sin is the worst cancer in the universe. It is the worst sickness. It is the most horrific disease. Its implications cover the entirety of everyone’s life. The world is filled with its symptoms and reeks with its torments and potentials, coming from all directions, most of which people cannot even see.

    The fiction of separateness, and the denial of the universal characteristic of prior unity, is a mind based illusion, a lie, a terribly deluding force, and a profoundly and darkly negative act.
    The individual and collective denial, and active refusal of the Universal Condition and Intrinsic Law of prior unity is the root and substance of a perpetual and self-perpetuating universal crime against humanity, performed by every one and all of humankind itself.

    What then of your “pyrotheology”?

    I much prefer the world-work done by Arnold Mindell as explained in his book Sitting In The Fire, and in his other books too.

    • Peter Rollins says:


      My own theological work is interested in many of the same concerns you have (though without the metaphysics/religious element). My most recent book explores these issues. My own reading of separation is based largely on a Lacanian frame.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I am enjoying reading this thread….. Very interesting discussion. May I ask…… Can a person be a fundamentalist crazy Christian and also a pyro person . Or does 1 exclude the other? Also is Pyrotheology a new religion? Or is it a science ?
    Look forward to your replies! V

  4. Jonas says:

    Hey, thanks for this. (: I’m the idiot kid who, way back in July or August this year, tweeted some questions at you and you were extremely gracious enough to answer (and kind of made my day).
    But I enjoy your writing immensely and since I’m an 18 year old high schooler in the US who follows your writing and the “discussion” of your ideas on Twitter, I have a quick question: generally, then, could any conflict one has a personal/vested interest in (rather, are affected by) provide a “psychic landscape” for ones own soul/mind and struggles? Whether that conflict be large scale like the Troubles or maybe, say, some personal dilemma?

    Thanks for the work you are doing! I’d critique if I could..but I’m 18 and still working through all of the interwoven ideas that lie behind yours and others work. :)

  5. Jonathan McRay says:

    Thanks for sharing this awesome reflection. Reading your work and Caputo (as well as Wendell Berry and other radically reflective practitioners) in Palestine made for some potent cross-pollination. I also appreciate your musings of conflict, which resonate with my experiences in Israel/Palestine and childhood in Appalachia, as well as my training in conflict transformation, community building/organizing, and nonviolent social movements.

    Your comments reminded me of Daniel Kemmis’ description of politics: “Not the set of procedures, not the set of laws or rules or regulations, but the set of practices which enables a common inhabiting of a common place . . . Procedures and rules arrive at the common by abstracting from the particular; practices arrive at the common through the particular, through a shared way of arranging and relating to the actual, physical world—‘our world’ . . .”

  6. Stephen Hall says:

    Hi Peter. In case you are interested. Much of my work, for over thirty years has had a deep connection with our troubles in Belfast. You may find my work very relevant to your experience. It takes the form of art, illustration, humour, poetry, writing, music and storytelling.

    Poem. “THE GATE IN THE FIELD” to be found amongst the “HUGH MIDDEN SPEAKS” collection, on Sound Cloud.
    Here is a link to a poem. https://soundcloud.com/hugh-midden-speaks/the-gate-in-the-field-6-5-1 Good Luck. Stephen

  7. William says:

    Hi Pete,

    Just wondering how immersed you were in the Troubles. Of course those of us who grew up in NI were affected by our context, but how was the impact on your life actually wrought about – by context or involvement? I say this as the son of a Loyalist paramilitary and as one who was saved out of a truly ‘involved’ background, with convictions for sectarian offences in my own life. The reason I ask is because perception is a doorway to permission, permission to speak as one who was involved, when really in truth that involvement may have been nothing more than a communal watching of UTV newsreels. Your idea of pyrotheology would not work with my old pals still very much entrenched in their ‘active units’. They would certainly shout within that context, but would go a lot further in their ‘engagement’ with the other side, as history has proven. What is necessary is not pyrotheology, but basic redemptive theology. It has helped rescue me and has brought personal (and therefore a seed for community) peace to my own life but also to countless others who were truly involved in the Troubles. To me, it’s the better option. Pyrotheology does not have the will to overcome the political issues, but redemptive theology certainly does. As has been proven.

  8. Sharon peters says:

    Reality for me is being aware of where I am and who is around me every moment. also where do my thoughts take me? I am haunted by agressive paranoid fantasy and find i can only live in peace w/ myself if I can recognize it, bargain w/ it, accept it as the way it has to be for me for now. I assume that most people have this and are at one stage or other on a continuum. Because we are all being colonized I can feel compassion and kinship on the way we all are suffering the oppression of colonization. The enemy w/in and w/out is looking for scapegoats. I do. I know everyone does who lives in a war zone. The most vulnerable people are easiest to target. I have no way to defend myself that is why I have the richest form of faith.

  9. Margaret says:

    Your experience in Northern Ireland interests me because I live in a country where differences between groups are perceived as huge. I find that either one has the choice of “them and us” ghettoes, or by attempting to talk (and talk and talk and talk) and listen (ditto) we find ourselves in a position where we are constantly translating – we are hearing others through our inborn filters, and they are hearing us through theirs. In the long run, we realise that we have all lost our own languages and are speaking a rather inadequate something which is partly understood by no one but does the job in keeping the wheels of daily living going round. Humour often comes to our rescue, and through taking our own viewpoint less seriously and laughing at ourselves and at the “other” whoever that happens to be, understanding begins to seem possible.

  10. Pingback: War: Not Realistic but Simplistic | TURRI

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