The following is drawn from a message delivered in ESR Worship on September 20 by Matt Hisrich:
ESR alum Micah Bales wrote a post not too long ago on his blog in which he raised the question of what it might look like to take hold of a form of fiery positive destruction and burn our meetinghouses down to the ground.
He called us to venture, in his words, “out from the safety of the meetinghouse - all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends.
“The community that arises from the ashes of the meetinghouse will have the clear-eyed aspect of a person who has given up everything to fully invest in the present moment, walking in faith with our ever-present Guide.
“Burning down the meetinghouse,” says Micah, “is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.”
As you might imagine, Micah’s words were not universally praised. In fact, while he received some affirmation, he also received much stern eldering for even the metaphorical call to cast aside tradition in favor of action.
Among the things that I found interesting about the whole incident are not only the facts of his leading to share such a powerful perspective or the powerful backlash against it, but also the fact that Micah’s message seemed to align so well with other voices I was coming across at roughly the same time. He seemed to be sharing a message that had been smoldering in at least some of hearts.
Let me give you just one example. A number of ESR students, faculty, and others have been meeting recently on campus for book studies over lunch. The book that started us gathering was Peter Rollins’s Insurrection.
Rollins, for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, started a church in a bar in Dublin, Ireland, and has written several books and spoken widely about his ideas.
In Insurrection, Rollins introduces us to one of these ideas, a concept he calls “pyro-theology.” The term was inspired by Spanish Anarchist Buenaventura Durruti who said that “The only church that illuminates is a burning one.” But while Durruti may have wanted to consume all of church in flames, what Rollins urges us toward is to burn away the chaff - what holds us back rather than drawing us forward. I think this is what Micah was trying to get us to think about with his post, too. But just as the vivid imagery of fire can tempt and attract, it can also cause us to retreat and recoil. Not unlike how Elton Trueblood describes Christ, fire can be accepted or rejected, but it cannot be reasonably ignored.
Just what does Rollins mean by the term pyro-theology? As he explains it, “Decrying the popular view of God as a type of product that will render us complete, remove our suffering and reveal the answers, pyrotheology offers the blueprint for an incendiary faith that courageously embraces brokenness, resolutely faces up to unknowing and joyfully accepts the difficulties of existence.”
In other words, we as Christians have failed to the extent that we offer up false smiles and stale certainties in the face real and genuine pain and ambiguity. We fail others and we fail ourselves, and he calls us to burn down what is not working.
But if we are to engage in positive destruction how do avoid veering into less than positive destruction, and if we’re going to move in the direction of any kind of destruction how do we avoid backlash or worse? This is the lesson of Prometheus, after all: fire can be a great gift, but there can be a cost to those who come bearing it.
I think this may be where Trueblood’s idea of an incendiary fellowship comes in. In his book The People Called Quakers he says, “No fires burn unless someone gathers the sticks and does the enkindling, as well as the replenishing. But the persons who perform this necessary function in this incendiary fellowship can be those who are personally humble… [We] can look upon [ourselves], not as those who have a monopoly on the ministry, but rather as [those] who, in one sense, share a ministry with all Christians. The pastor, in the New Testament sense of the word, is not the minister, but one of many ministers, whose joy it is to liberate and nurture the powers of…fellow ministers.”
How can we be about the business of forming pockets or cells, as Rollins calls them, of supportive and encouraging firestarters who can also help each other engage in discernment and whose joy it is to liberate and nurture the powers of…fellow ministers?
I believe the world needs such a gathering of firestarters and firekeepers. Let your life be incendiary. For “No fires burn unless someone gathers the sticks and does the enkindling, as well as the replenishing.”
Start something together that illuminates. Start something that as it burns draws others together out of the cold and the dark.
Matt Hisrich is a graduate of ESR and serves as the School's Director of Recruitment and Admissions.