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Peter Rollins is a radical theologian
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Peter Rollins is a radical theologian
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Conversations
28 May 2018

Peter Rollins is a radical theologian

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Photography by Atsushi Nishijima

Mele-Ane Havea on Peter Rollins

Every so often, you hear or read something that speaks such truth it stops you in your tracks. That’s what it was like when I heard philosopher Peter Rollins interviewed on Pete Holmes’ “You Made it Weird” podcast a few years back. He was talking about how our family systems are like haunted houses and that those things-we-all-know-but-couldn’t-possibly-say are the ghosts that haunt us.

Listening to the interview, my brother and I—who that very morning had been discussing one such family ghost—stopped and looked at each other. “No way,” we exclaimed. “We could never talk about that!” At first it seemed impossible, but the more I listened to Peter’s rationale, the more I felt the significance. “We imagine,” Peter said, “that we couldn’t possibly bring those things to light, lest everything breaks. But it’s broken anyway.” Somehow, with his gift for storytelling, depth of thought and lilting Irish accent, Peter made that uncomfortable truth palatable—beautiful even.

In many ways, speaking uncomfortable truths is a hallmark of Peter’s work. Encouraging people to make peace with their ghosts and break down the walls within them and each other, he is constantly reminding us that satisfaction is illusory, life is difficult, and we must accept there is so much we don’t know.

Peter’s background is in academia, having studied philosophy and political theory at Queens University, Belfast. Though still philosophical in nature, he is also greatly influenced by psychology and theology, bringing these perspectives together in an effort to challenge traditional notions of religion and the church. He has written a number of books—including The Divine Magician and Insurrection—and also puts his words into action, building communities such as “ikon” that encourage a kind of backwards evangelism where people get into into the headspace of the “other” to see how the “other” sees them.

I have listened so many times to that podcast with Peter that it was surreal, and a little nerve-wracking, to be sitting with him in person in our offices in Melbourne—not to mention on my birthday. My nerves quickly settled, however, as he started telling stories—some that were simple yet so profound I often had nothing to say in response. I was moved by his humility and willingness to connect, and by the almost hesitant manner in which he shared his insights—indicative, I thought, that the words he speaks are alive in him.

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

MELE-ANE HAVEA: I’d really like our readers to get a sense of your work. But first, I’d love to hear about where you grew up. I understand it was during the Troubles?

PETER ROLLINS: That’s right. So yeah I’m from Belfast in Northern Ireland and I grew up during the Troubles, which was a conflict about whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, or be integrated into the rest of Ireland. And it was a conflict that mixed religion with the politics. But to be honest, the conflict was largely fuelled by people who were underemployed, unemployed, suffering, had no prospects for the future. People who were downtrodden. And they were being told that the people on the other side of this wall or that road were the enemy, and the reason for their suffering.

They were the “other.”

The “other,” yeah. We’re living in a time in which Islam is put in the position of the dangerous other. People link Islam with terrorism. I grew up in a place where Christianity was implicated in terrorism. People across the world used Northern Ireland to make the case that Christianity was an inherently violent religion. The “other” in Northern Ireland wasn’t someone from another religion, or someone whose skin colour was different. It was a Catholic or a Protestant.

And do you remember much of it? How old were you during this?

I grew up right through it. The Good Friday Agreement marked the end of the violence. And that was in 1998. I grew up in a militarised world in a city that sometimes looked more like a war zone than a place of commerce. The army was found on almost every corner, and bomb scares were a common occurrence. But you can normalise all that very quickly. I remember going to Scotland for the first time, walking into a shop and standing there at the entrance. And my friend’s asking me why. And it’s like, “Well someone has to search me.” Cause every shop you went into in Belfast, you were body-searched. It was what you expected. I was in England once as a teenager and there was a bomb scare and everyone freaked out, and I was like, “What is going on? Why is everybody so worried?” [Laughs]. “The chances are you’ll be fine!”

And so how do you think that upbringing has influenced your work now?

Yeah, well, on a very basic level it became a study on how we deal with difference, how we process suffering and the scapegoat mechanism. I saw first hand the way violence begets violence, war begets war and hatred begets hatred. In my work,

I’m interested in what we do with violence and how we turn it outwards on other people, or inwards, towards ourselves. How we build walls between people, and within ourselves.

And that really connects with Belfast ’cause we have peace walls everywhere. There’s even a wall that divides a park so Catholics can play on one and Protestants on the other.

And you talk about this relationship between violence and walls, not only externally but internally too. Which is very interesting.

Yeah, Simone Weil, who’s someone I’ve been reading recently, talks about gravity and grace. She says the world of gravity is the world of physical laws—why things fall to the ground, why planets revolve around planets—but it’s also the world of internal laws, psychological laws, the law in which we repay violence with violence, suffering with suffering, war with war, fire with fire. And then she talks about grace. For Weil, it’s very natural whenever someone hurts us to either turn that hatred inward or throw it onto somebody else. That’s the world of gravity. That is the natural law really. She was interested in how we cultivate grace.

Grace is the little sparks, the little explosions within the world of gravity that invite us to repay war with peace, fire with water, hatred with love.

So that’s what I mean with the inner and outer walls. Either we are building walls within ourselves and turning our violence inward. Or, as I say, we project our suffering onto supposed enemy and we blame them.

And how does Simone Weil suggest that we cultivate grace? And then how do you do that for yourself?

It’s difficult. I think in daily life we are tempted to live in a kind of one dimensional way. And we do our thing. We buy our products. We…

Drink our alcohol.

That’s right. We self-medicate. It takes a lot of energy just to live. If you randomly picked someone on the street and asked about their life, you would realise they were fighting epic personal battles. Everyone, in different ways, has fought battles and confronted traumas of various kinds. Even people whose lives have been relatively peaceful have struggled and suffered. It’s amazing that we can get anything done when we realise that.

So I’m a big believer in spaces that help cultivate a sensitivity to grace, that cultivate a sense of depth in life. I call them “deserts in the oasis” ’cause they’re dry, quiet spaces where we, for a moment, escape the noise of life. We enter a type of void-like space. And there we encounter our ghosts. I’m a big believer in ghosts. I believe that we’re all haunted houses. We all are spooked  by the ghosts of people we’ve hurt and who’ve hurt us, people we’ve loved and lost. A ghost is the presence of someone who is absent. Many people who are absent remain in spectral form.

We don’t really realise it, but then we have an outburst of anger for no reason, we burst into tears over some stupid film on television. Or we have migraines, bad backs, fatigue. We go to the doctor’s thinking it’s just a bad back! “Can you fix me?” But they can’t find anything wrong, because sometimes your bad back is telling you something else. It’s telling you that you’re not looking at something, that you’re running from something. That you’re not wrestling with your ghosts and making peace with them.

This is the idea of a symptom as a solution to a problem?

That’s right, bad backs, migraines, unprovoked outbursts of anger or tears can all be symptoms. And while we think the symptom is the problem, it’s actually the solution to a problem. It’s your body’s way of surviving. The hard work lies in listening to our symptoms, asking ourselves what they are telling us. Maybe we’re haunted by a problem in our relationship with our mother, father, children or job. You might have a bad back and tell yourself, “If I get a good enough massage everything will be great.” But, if it’s a symptom speaking of your ghosts, all the knots will keep coming back until you learn to listen to the symptom.

And so, tell me about the spaces of grace in your own life.

Oh wow. Yeah. I mean I suppose these are little moments that catch you off guard. They say that the devil’s in the details. But sometimes you could say it’s the divine who dwells in the details. Life can be overbearing, but then you are caught off guard by the beauty of a sunset. Or someone calls you out of the blue to see if you’re okay. Some tiny gesture. A child comes up and gives you a picture they drew. And in that little, very significant moment, you find yourself melting. Those little moments of grace, thankfully, happen in all of our lives.

And I’ve been very lucky to have had more than my fair share. I’m a big believer in creating communities where we can help to cultivate a sensitivity to these moments. Where we experience the infinite call of the other. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas beautifully said that the face of the other cries, “Do not murder me.” He says that the people around us—those who serve us coffee, those who sit across from us in the train, those asking for help on the street—are always whispering, “Don’t kill me. Don’t damage me. Don’t treat me like an object. Don’t use me or abuse me.” Emmanuel Levinas actually offers a very interesting definition of atheism and theism that is deeply rooted to a tradition in Judaism. He defines atheism, not in terms of some rejection of a belief in God. Nor does he define theism as belief in God. He defines atheism as the closing oneself off from the cry of the other’s subjectivity. While theism reflects an individual, regardless of belief, who cultivates a sensitivity to the call of the other’s subjectivity.

And so it’s quite a beautiful reflection, he said it doesn’t matter whether you believe in God or not. If you hear the cry of your neighbour, you are in line with the great prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. But if you close yourself off from the cry of the neighbour, it doesn’t matter what you say, what you believe or don’t believe, you do not stand in line with that great tradition, you stand apart from the great saints.

It’s beautiful.

I also believe faith is the courageous stance in which someone accepts their responsibility to respond to that call. No one can tell you exactly how to respond. You’re left having to make that decision. And that’s terrifying. That’s why Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We are condemned to freedom.” What he meant is, “You have to take responsibility for what you do or don’t do. And no one will tell you exactly what the best way is to respond to your neighbour. You do it in fear and trembling.”

'Cause none of us—whether we go to our religious tradition or to a fortune teller or tarot cards or a horoscope—can escape the responsibility for what we do.

“Should I break up with this person or should I stay with them?” We’re not sure what we should do and we often long for someone to take the responsibility of acting without certainty away from us. So these “deserts in the oasis” that I talk about have two primary goals. To cultivate a sensitivity to the subjectivity of the other and to help us find the courage to take responsibility for what we do in light of this sensitivity.

And how to connect to the fact that as I’m experiencing this, so are you. You know? And so is everyone around us. We are all the subjects of our own universe!

That’s right. Levinas responds to this by saying, “Everyone is responsible for everybody, but I am more responsible than everybody else.” He has this interesting sense in which everybody should feel the demand infinitely in their being. There are some problems with this that we can’t get into here, but there is a sense that, if we all felt responsible to others, we might create healthier communities.

And the communities that you’ve built. Can you talk to me a bit about those?

Yeah. So I was part of a community in Belfast called “ikon.” We ran for about 14 years, once a month. And we created what we call “transformance art” gatherings. Like performance art, but we used the term “transformance” to emphasise the desire to create spaces that re-formed us. We employed comedy, poetry, music, art and more to try to cultivate the sensitivity and  responsibility we’ve been talking about. Part of that involved helping people to confront their ghosts, their doubts and fears. In daily life we have all kinds of necessary defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from encountering our shadows. These defences are important. But, if we don’t also have spaces where we lower them and confront what they hide, they can become worse than what they are protecting us against.

Do you think defence mechanisms are the walls that you talk about internally?

Yes, I think that’s a beautiful way of describing it: our defences are the walls that we build to protect ourselves from ourselves. So if I break up with somebody I might make them the enemy. They’re awful, they were so bad to me and I’m innocent and pure. You split the world into good and bad. And that’s totally fine, that’s a wall you’re building to protect yourself from the influx of pain. However if that wall isn’t chipped away over time, eventually it will cause more damage than it protects you from. You’ll not be able to move on in other relationships, you’ll not be able to forgive. You’ll become bitter and isolated and alone. And so a good friend waits for a point where they feel that they can speak into that and maybe say, “Listen, I think you’re just hurt.” And then if you’re able to admit that to yourself you can start to go, “Yes, and you know what? It wasn’t all her fault. I was also partly to blame.” Mind you, sometimes it might mostly be the other’s fault!

[Laughs].

But in most relationships there’s enough blame to go around. And so our walls need to be chipped down occasionally to let healing happen. And that’s what we tried to do in ikon— lower those defences, chip away at the walls. It can sound really depressing at first: having to face our pain, our doubts, our fears. But it’s actually anything but depressing. It’s what we do to battle against depression! The idea is that actually not facing them makes us much more miserable. You’re roaming around life with heart palpitations or you can’t sleep.

During the day you’re fine but then at night you cannot get to sleep unless you listen to something because you can’t be alone with your thoughts for more than five minutes. Your ghosts keep threatening to come up to the surface. Sometimes you might even lie in bed thinking there’s a ghost in the house, not realising that the ghost is in you. Like a child who thinks there’s a monster under the bed, unable to see that the monster is a part of them. So ikon provided a place where we could confront our monsters, make peace with our ghosts, and open up real opportunities for joy and new life.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what you said before, the role of friends in this, how sometimes in friendships and relationships you can have an insight that you know would really alleviate the suffering or whatever they’re experiencing. But you have a sense they’re not ready to hear it. Or that in telling them you’d further isolate them or make it worse. And I’ve just been really trying to sit with people who are not necessarily wanting to talk about things, or confront ghosts. And I think it’s a really wonderful thing to cultivate, that patience. And maybe it’s grace.

Yeah. And I think the more you are aware of your own defences and struggles, the more patience you have for other people because you realise how difficult it is to face those things. And we’re all a bit stubborn. We hide from ourselves all the time, and often this is exposed in the way we use conscious beliefs to protect ourselves from confronting what we really believe. One of the insights of psychoanalysis, which is one of the disciplines I am influenced by, is that we don’t really know what we believe, that we try to avoid this knowledge at all costs.

I’ll give you one example, my housemate. He’s a great guy, and recently he asked to meet me at this coffee shop. And the coffee shop was an hour and a half away. And I’m like, “Why does he want me to go to this coffee shop an hour and a half away?” And so I go there, I park, and then I buy food. And I spend like 20 dollars. And as soon as I spend the money it suddenly dawns on me. “I wonder if there’s another coffee shop with the same name that’s actually closer to where we live?” So I look on my phone and  realise, yes, there’s a coffee shop five minutes away. Then I had to ask myself, “Why is it that I didn’t work that out until I’d gone to the coffee shop and bought the food? Is there something in our friendship that’s not working at the moment? Is there a reason I want to avoid seeing him?” And I start thinking about it, “Yeah actually, there is.” I realised that maybe unconsciously I didn’t want to see him. So I made a stupid mistake to avoid him. But I wasn’t even aware of it myself. I had to listen to the symptom.

Fascinating. And so I understand this is kind of what your next book is about, the idea of personal transformation and then how it’s linked to political transformation?

Yeah. I mean I often start with the personal. Partly because I’m interested in that, but also partly for strategic reasons. People can relate to the personal dimension of these ideas. But I do want to build on the personal and make important connections with the political. I want to explore how, say, in the same way individuals can engage in the defence of splitting—where they reduce the world to good and evil— so too can a group. A society might say, “We are pure, we are good, we are a city on a hill.” While simultaneously painting others as evil. The purer they make themselves, the more they project their problems onto others. We are angels and they are demons.

We can see an example of this in some phobias. A person might have an anxiety that speaks of an internal issue. But instead of wrestling with that issue and working it through, they turn the anxiety into a concrete fear of something external, like a moth or a mouse. Of course moths and mice are not scary at all, but they become a type of scapegoat. Societal anxiety can easily be put on some concrete group like Jews or Muslims or Christians. They are seen as the problem, rather than as a group we have picked to avoid confronting a problem within our society.

And the way that we break this down, chip away at our defence mechanisms as individuals is through friendships, talking, but also therapy and psychoanalysis and other methods of working on ourselves. How do you think we can do it as a society?

That’s a big question. One thing that is important is to have good politicians who do not give simple answers. There’s always a temptation for a politician to give a simple scapegoat. The scapegoat being that thing that takes on the lack of the community. In the Jewish tradition, the scapegoat was sent out into the desert to die. So the anxieties, the fears, the angers of the community were all put onto a goat which was sent to die. And that allowed everybody to unify for a time. The problem, of course, is that it never really tackled the issues, and so a new scapegoat was always needed. A politician can create a scapegoat and say “that community is the problem.” In Soviet Russia it was the kulaks, in Nazi Germany it was the Jews. In Northern Ireland it was the Catholics or the Protestants. But that never works. It only temporarily brings unity. And so

I’m a big believer in trying to create communities of resistance that break the scapegoat mechanism, that model a different way of being together that doesn’t require the phobic object.

In ikon we developed a series of “de-centring practices” to help do this. One of these was the Evangelism Project where we went to be evangelised by other people. Often people scapegoated by society. We would, for example, listen to the Islamic community and what they had to say. But technically the evangelism didn’t happen then. The evangelism happened when we asked the community, “What do we look like to you? What does the Christian community look like from your perspective?” And then we saw ourselves through  the other person’s eyes and we saw things that we’d rather not see. And that’s where the evangelism happened—we were being evangelised to be better people within our own tradition. So in some respects we need the other person’s eyes in order to see ourselves. Instead of blaming the “other,” whoever that is, we encounter that other and try to see what they might reveal about ourselves. In doing this, the scapegoat mechanism begins to weaken, and can occasionally be overcome.

I love the psychoanalytic lens over your work as a philosopher, but then I’ve also heard you described as a theologian. Can we talk maybe about how those intersect?

Yeah, I’d love to. One of the reasons I’m interested in theology is that it’s a very immersive discipline. To do theology is to be within the tradition that you’re exploring. A theologian is taken up in some way by the question they ask. By definition, they are thinking as an immersed subject. A scientist’s attempt to speak from a distance, as it were, but a theologian is involved. They are interconnected with questions of the ultimate. I also find that theology has interesting things to say about nothingness. As we already know, we are beings that are moving towards nothingness. What do we do with that? There is obviously a type of nothingness that we emerge from, a nothingness that represents a time before we existed. But we don’t worry about that.

We got through that [laughs].

We’re past that! But there’s this other nothingness that’s coming and we’re a bit worried about that! But existentialism is interesting because existentialism says, “That’s not the only type of death there is.” Imagine that I could touch you on the forehead and you would live forever. I had this spiritual gift. But if you couldn’t enjoy the depth of your life, I wouldn’t be a god, I’d be a devil. Because in a sense longevity doesn’t make life meaningful any more than brevity makes it meaningless. If I could extend life, and by the way, technology might one day be able to do that.

Which scares the shit out of me.

It’s terrifying! But regardless, the theological question concerns the death that inhabits life rather than that which lies at the end of life. So from when you’re young you have this experience of being fed at your mother’s breast. And then you’re not. Right? So you create this difference between what you have, which is hunger and what you’d like to have, which is sustenance. And as we grow this space between what we have and what we’d like to have continues. We have what Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst, calls the creation of our double lives—the life we live and the life we would like to live. And we live in-between those.

If I’m having a relationship with you, I don’t just have a relationship with your lived life. I also have a relationship with your unlived life. Because that affects you in terms of frustration or depression or whatever. Maybe you’re single and you’re out travelling the world, but you have this unlived life of having a family. So we live between those two. But also we live between who we are and who we would like to be. And so a lot of my work explores the problems and potentials of living in these gaps. Of how we deal with this sense that we’re lacking something.

My work is about taking the frustrations of life and learning to see them as fuel.

To take the lack that we feel in the core of our being, what theology calls “sin,” and rob it of its sting. That’s fundamentally a theological question for me. The French philosopher Camus called this ability to enjoy our lack and be fuelled  by it “the position of the rebel.” The rebel is the one who enjoys living in this space of the in-between.

Marlon Brando in The Wild One represents the ultimate rebel. When asked, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” he nonchalantly relies, “Whaddaya got?” In other words, to be authentically human is to be in a position of ongoing rebellion, to be committed to the ongoing transformation of the world. The rebel is different from the revolutionary.

The revolutionary is fed by the idea that there is a utopia that we can create. The rebel replies, “No, what we’ve got is an ongoing desire for change.” Bettering society, transforming it, but it never ends. And don’t be frightened of that. It means ’til the day we die we fight for a better world that is always still to come.” This is what the Buddhists mean, I think, when they say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” ’Cause it’s not the Buddha. The Buddha is always something you cannot quite grasp, the Buddha is always still to arrive. In the same way, if anybody ever says, “I have freedom, justice and liberty right here, in my community,” they don’t. They might have something that looks great. But the moment they think they’ve landed on it, they’ve actually crashed.

There’s something about the greatest ideas—like democracy, freedom, liberty, love—that is always calling us forward. Calling us into something new. Just beyond the horizon, seducing us forward.

And the rebel realises that and says, “I’m going to give myself over to the ongoing struggle.”

Yeah, that’s awesome. Okay, so I want to go back to your own upbringing. You were raised a Protestant?

A Protestant yes, but I didn’t grow up in an overly religious family. It was at the age of about 17 that I got involved in Christianity. After a powerful personal experience I briefly got caught up in a form of religious conservatism and dogmatic belief.

Oh!

Yeah, I had a strong religious experience. But a religious experience for me is not an experience of anything. It’s what transforms your experience of everything. The way I describe that now is hearing the infinite subjectivity of the other, experiencing the depth and density of existence. It’s experiencing the sacred not as an object but as the depth dimension of objects. It was a type of fundamental rebooting that unfortunately left me susceptible to religious dogma [laughs].

You were still at school?

No, I’d left school. I left school at 16 with no qualifications. I hated school and had no interest in learning, reading or thinking seriously.

How did we get here then? [Laughs].

It was only when I was in my late teens that I began to think critically. And at first I did the usual thing. I tried to find evidence to back up what I already believed. I assumed I was right about pretty much everything and just wanted evidence to prove it. So I started reading books that justified what I thought. But thankfully I started to read really brilliant people who challenged me and helped expand my horizons.

And the religious experience, did that happen within the church?

Outside it actually, I wasn’t involved in any religious institution at the time. I met some people from a church when I was coming out of a cinema one night. I got talking to them and something shifted in me. A week later I was getting ready to go to this party and I burst into tears for no apparent reason. And I ran to the church they were part of. The door was open and so I went in and found a little prayer meeting. Turns out they were praying for me. It’s a crazy story actually, a kind of bizarre coincidence. But I remember that these people listened to me. Probably ’cause they wanted me to join the church! [Laughs]. But they still listened to me, intently. And I think the fact that they listened allowed some things to weaken within me. Some hardened parts of my life began to crack. It’s hard to find words that are up to the task of describing what happened. I mean, I literally went home to my parents and said, “I’m no longer your son.” I then got rid of all of all my possessions. I think what I meant when I said I was no longer their son, was that all the values I’d been brought up with, good as many of them were, no longer had power in my life. Like I felt freed from all of the values of Northern Ireland. And all the stuff that I owned was just aspirational. It told you what I valued. And for this moment I just didn’t value any of it any more. It was like, “I don’t care about this stuff.”

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You were outside the paradigm.

Yes. And by the way, that could be seen as the theological meaning of the crucifixion. To be crucified meant that you were no longer a political citizen. You were cursed of God so you were no longer within the religious system. And you were crucified naked and outside the city as a nothing and nobody, so you’re outside the cultural system. So to identify with the cross was in a sense to identify with the loss of your position in the religious, political and cultural world.

I’ve always come back to that idea that actually Christianity at its core is not a religious identity. It’s identifying with the loss of religious, political and cultural identities. Of finding oneself on the outside of power systems. So politically speaking, to identify with the cross means to identify with people who are symbolically dead within our world. They’re the ones who make our phones and household products, who make our clothes. And they’re the silent majority who we don’t know exist and yet we couldn’t eat our breakfast in the morning without them. They’re utterly invisible and yet required by our system in order to function.

There’s an incredible piece by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” It describes a utopian society where there’s justice and fairness and love. Community. But the one catch is that when people come of age in this society they have to go down into a basement where there’s a small child who’s tortured and locked up. And every adult in Omelas must go down and see this child. And then it describes the reaction that people have, and the fact that some people walk away from Omelas. And you don’t know where they walk to and you don’t know what happens to the people who choose to stay. But I think it really beautifully describes what you’re talking about now, which is that the “nothings” are intrinsically necessary.

Wow, that’s powerful. Yeah. We benefit from those who suffer out of sight. The political challenge for us is to walk away from this and find other ways to live. The alternative isn’t some utopia, because that always involves someone left in the basement. The alternative is a society that can work with its own conflicts and turn them to the ongoing transformation of that society. A society of rebels.

What is the place of hope in all this?

That’s a good question. There are two types of hope for me. There’s the type of hope that one day, in this life or the next, everything will be better. This type of hope encourages passivity. We sit back and hope for the best. But then there’s a type of hope that requires our involvement. Take the example of someone who wants their kid to one day go to university. That’s a hope that demands action. That’s a hope that demands you save money, that you read to your child, that you help instil the importance of learning. So there’s a hope that stops you from acting and there’s a hope that draws you into action. It’s the latter type of hope that we need to develop. A hope invites us to engage actively with the world. A hope that requires courage—to act, to look at things we’d rather not look at. I have hope that we can transform our individual, family and political-social lives, but only if we’re prepared to put our shoulder to the wheel of history, and push.

It’s beautiful. And in a lot of your work you refer to Freud and Lacan to understand the self and the society. And I’ve been reading and getting a lot out of their contemporary, Carl Jung, particularly his idea of our feminine and masculine sides, and integration as a path to wholeness. And that as a woman you might connect to the masculine part of yourself, and as a man to the feminine. And I know it’s problematic when people have so many other ways of identifying outside of just male and female. But I’m curious about femininity in how you conceptualise and think of the word.

Yeah, that’s a big and interesting topic. Lacan has some interesting things to say about this. He thinks that the feminine is actually that which ruptures the masculine totalising logic. He fundamentally critiques the idea that the feminine and masculine come together to create a whole. Rather, the feminine is that which breaks everything open. When he famously says that there is no sexual rapport, he is saying that the masculine and feminine interact in an antagonising way. But an antagonism that is productive. It’s like Simone Weil’s gravity and grace. Gravity, for Lacan, would be like the masculine. That’s the closed world. And grace is what opens that up, it opens up the possibilities. So they’re not like two sides of the same coin. It’s like the masculine is this desire to conceive and understand. And lots of good stuff comes out of that. But it also closes things down.

The feminine, structurally speaking, becomes that part of ourselves that breaks the totalising system open.

I’m a novice in my reading of philosophy but from what I see of the Western tradition, it was written mostly by men. And generally white men. Sometimes I can strongly feel the lack of the feminine in the worldview, but there’s something in your work that feels quite whole to me. And in a way quite embracing of both masculine and feminine. And I wondered if that was a conscious thing for you?

One thing that drew me to psychoanalysis was the critique of this desire to understand, to totalise, that we have in the western European attitude of…

“This is how it is!”

“This is how it is.” And it’s sometimes intoxicating to read because some of these guys are writing really insightful stuff. But there’s also something being missed, something that Freud called the unconscious. He showed how there are lots of things going on all the time that we’re not aware of at all. For example, if you forget your keys every time you’re going to your mum’s house, well maybe you don’t want to go to your mum’s house. In other words, the forgetfulness is telling you something. Nobody really studied that before Freud. Freud basically exposed a whole ocean of phenomena not being grasped in the tradition of European philosophy. While most people studied what we could see, Freud turned our attention to the unseen.

I wanted to finish by telling you that there’s some synchronicity in me talking to you today, on my birthday. A few years ago I heard a podcast interview you gave with Pete Holmes. At the time my family was going through some challenges and we found what you said incredibly helpful. The situation resolved itself on my birthday last year, so it feels like a bizarre twist of fate, I don’t know if you’d call it a miracle, that I’m having this conversation with you now, a year later. But what do you think?

That’s amazing to hear. And it reminds me, I was reading Paul Tillich a while back. And I think what he says about miracles is interesting, he says a miracle has three elements. It involves some weird event that is very unlikely—that’s the first thing. It is not an everyday occurrence. The second element is that it has to mean something to you subjectively. It touches you in some way. And the third thing is it has to break open new worlds and new possibilities. It ruptures your everyday world. When those three things come together that’s what we call a miracle. You might believe that there’s something supernatural involved or not, but it doesn’t really matter. If it has those three elements—objective, subjective and eventual—it deserves the name. They don’t happen often, but whether you’re an atheist or a theist or whatever you call yourself, I think we can all affirm that miracles happen.

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.

 

Photography by Atsushi Nishijima

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