Nodding in eager agreement during one of initial planning sessions, we listen attentively to Peter Rollins tell us about the importance of feeling. Pete is the primus inter pares of the New York-area iteration of Ikon, a collective “on the outer edges of religious life” that “offer[s] anarchic experiments in transformance art […] [c]hallenging the distinction between theist and atheist, faith and no faith”. For several minutes, he extols the virtues of feeling, the necessity of feeling. It all sounds very good. And then he looks at us funny and asks, “are yous guys getting what I mean when I say feeling?”
We weren’t. We mistook a lesson on failing for one on feeling because of his Belfast brogue. The mistake was supremely apt. If my fellow IkonNYC organizers and planners were anything like me, we went into the project of a ‘one year church’ or a new incarnation of Ikon with the understanding that it would be an experience geared toward our own transformation. We were going to delve into the depths of doubt and faith and experience surefire pretested spiritual practices whose success in Belfast we’d heard so much about. I had come to feel in as far as feeling refers to passive experience. I was a little thrown, then, when I learned that we were all taking an active role in planning events and carrying out practices aimed at getting others to find a liminal space in which to engage with their Christian faith and their Christian doubts. What could I, still trying to claim that space for myself, offer to others?
Despite my misgivings, I was on board. As often as my schedule has allowed, I’ve attended the weekly meetings where we plan our monthly transformance art events and participated in one way or another in most of them. I also became one of the coordinators of the Evangelism Project which consists of monthly visits to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples whose practitioners’ beliefs and practices help us see our own differently.
This process was one of moving from feeling to failing. After a half-year of excitement and build-up, I missed the inaugural transformance art event as well as the next one responding to the vagaries of the job market and trying to make sound decisions about my next steps. And, over the course of the following six months, IkonNYC failed and succeed in various ways and I with it. Pete already having a following was a boon to our first several events. A combination of factors—figuring out exactly what transformance art meant to a planning group with dozens of voices and scores of ideas, perhaps pricing, a lack of marketing prowess, etc.—quickly shrank the number of attendees. At the same time, some of us found our voices and the increased intimacy of a group consisting of those executing the event and a cluster of reliable friends was important for that. So far we’ve learned practical lessons and spiritual ones, we’ve learned about each other. We’ve built strong friendships that’ve enhanced our lives.
When several members of IkonNYC traveled to the second Subverting the Norm conference, a subset of us participated in a panel discussion moderated by our friend Krista Dalton. I was overwhelmed by the positive responses and many questions we received about how to replicate what we were up to. Was our audience really interested in our modest and failure-ridden attempts?
On the heels of the conference, one of the attendees, Stephen Keating, used his inaugural post at An und für sich to criticize “transformance art collectives” of which IkonNYC is not only one, but perhaps the most susceptible to the critiques he levels. And while initially I felt very defensive as did a lot of people in and connected to Ikon, IkonNYC, and VOID, it did make me think about how I was conceiving of failure, which is after all one of the coordinates for Ikon. Did the concern with marketing and numbers some of us had or the emphasis on branding and replicability represent a failure more than the lack of marketing and the low numbers themselves? How did the questions about diversity and political engagement and awareness of power structures and prevailing ideologies apply to us?
These are questions we’d asked of ourselves and one another, these are questions we continue to ask. In fact, you can join IkonNYC tomorrow (Sunday, 19 May) at Prospect Park where we’ll be discussing issues like these in lieu of our monthly transformance art event. Whatever answers and solutions come up, no doubt they’ll be imperfect, but what’s important is that we keep failing. We must move from feeling, a process of recognition that is necessary, to failing which entails reacting constructively to our experiences with the knowledge and expectation that we’ll get it wrong, at least in part. Without risking getting it wrong though, we will get it categorically wrong. Failing well means acting thoughtfully and with self-awareness, resisting the paralysis that comes with fearing failure.
Feeling like a bewildered apostle during the uncertain interval between Jesus’s death and resurrection, I’ve left Springfield, Missouri and returned to real life, wondering about the salvific potential of radical theology. Subverting the Norm 2 convened academics and practitioners, big names and dilettantes at Drury University for a couple of days to engage with, among others, the question of whether “postmodern theology can live in the Churches”.
Phil Snider, one of the organizers, has offered his thoughts on the conference and provided an important defense of deconstruction as a life-affirming approach to theology and faith. It appears to respond at least in part to Tony Jones who nailed his 13 theses to a keynote by Jack Caputo that addressed the central question of the conference. Perhaps because he didn’t have Jack’s speech provided to him in advance, Tony’s response seemed like more of a critique of Pete Rollins, process theology, etc. Katharine Sarah Moody pondered on her blog whether it was Derridean move while Christena Cleveland plans an upcoming response that promises to include some amens, but also some observations about how it clashes with the realities of some faith communities of color.
This robust and ongoing exchange exemplifies how productive this conference has been at least in terms of getting people talking. Jack advocated for the devil and spoke of spooks and specters. A couple in particular seemed to haunt these conversations. The first was the individual correlate to the question of whether postmodern or radical (the latter term being preferred by Caputo) theology can live in the church: ‘how can we apply this in our lives’? Katharine, for example, talked about “philosophy as an art of living”, something explored by Philip Goodchild in Intensities. The most striking attempt to put this into practice was a radical liturgy enacted by Jonathan Perrodin and Adam Moore with help from Matthew Lyon and Keegan Osinski. Perrodin’s post mortem asserts
that one can have an event based on Radical Theology and it not just be depressing death & decay, but that one can draw people together and truly touch & inspire each other without pulling any punches.
He also links to resources in his blog post to help others experiment with radical liturgy but fails to mention that his vulnerability in sharing an intensely personal story was the linchpin in drawing those of us in attendance into our own humanity. For Jonathan and the other radical liturgists, lived philosophy meant learning “how to be human”.
For Bo Eberle and Jeremy Fackenthal, living radical theology means a focus on political theology. Bo specifically criticized what William Connolly calls the “Evangelical-Capitalist resonance machine“, though he didn’t offer us any concrete steps to take to spark the revolution.
This question of how to apply faith and convictions is something I wrestle with daily. It’s so easy to think deeply and act shallowly, becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed when faced with taking the risk to live as we believe. I hope to come back to this when I’ve had some more time to reflect and maybe also more courage to act.
A second haunting question was that of diversity. Phil and the other organizers took great care to invite speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds, but inevitably the demographics at the conference skewed white, male, and straight. This was something I’d winced at when I saw a list of “75 reasons to attend the conference” (speakers and featured break-out session participants). Tirelessly committed, Phil included several keynotes and break-out sessions sponsored by Springfield’s Center for Diversity and Reconciliation. He wanted these to be open to the greater CDR-community, so they ended up being on sort of a separate track from the rest of the conference which was great, but meant that many people there for the conference didn’t take advantage of the CDR offerings. When Phil talked about the question of diversity again on the second and last day of the conference, I realized that the CDR roundtable and the closing Subverting the Norm roundtable were happening concurrently. It seemed like this logistical arrangement reinforced a norm that we were trying to subvert. I was really happy, then, when Phil and a few others of us were able to talk about it and he and the roundtable participants were able to make it so that the two roundtables happened in the same place, one right after the other. Rather than being wholly separate, they were in conversation with one another.
Namsoon Kang had already won me over with her talk about “Jesus-community” and hospitality that resonated with my interest in (im)migration, but her remarks after being introduced on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast “Is God Dead?” panel also spoke to the question of diversity. She pointed out that her identity as a Korean woman had been highlighted while Jack Caputo wasn’t designated as a male of European descent. And later, during the closing roundtables, her voice complemented Christena’s in shining a light on the blindspots that we all have in one form or another. She warned against tokenism and against defining ourselves or others by any one identity. “We are many.” Jes and Jim Kast-Keat together with Krista Dalton touched on all this today on PodKastKeat.
So after my lengthy journalistic account of the conference’s greatest hits, I know you’re dying to know more about what I actually thought. Can radical theology live in the churches? Absolutely. As Phil said, “deconstruction actually has more to do with affirmation than destruction”. Living lives where we attempt to look at things radically in the best etymological sense of the word – seeing all the way down to the root, understanding the big stuff in its context, allows us to more honestly choose faith. The question shifts away from the unfalsifiable ‘is there a God’ to, what does it mean to live as if life is truly meaningful – something that Tony got at when he was talking about wanting to engage with radical theologians who “want there to be a God”. And I don’t mean to throw my lot in with the language Tony uses there or to somehow construe my own understanding of faith as a belief in God, but I do endorse faith in the goodness and rightness of the project of creating meaning by how we live.
And as for diversity, I am heartened that people are trying and open. I was and continue to be quick to point out the ways I find the craft beer-swilling straight-white-dude demographic that predominates to be missing the mark, but at the same time there needs to be grace. Above all, everyone I met was willing to learn from one another and ask tough questions not only of others but of themselves. Through continued dialogue, I truly believe we’ll get closer to where we want to be. I think Christena’s entreaty to read more widely, to seek out authors we’re less familiar with who can disturb and provoke and help us reframe things is very valuable. Where I plan to start with this is by reading more from people of color. For others who attended, it might checking out something coming from a feminist or queer perspective. And inevitably, focusing on gender, sexual orientation, and race means we’re missing other kinds of diversity too. No one even brought up disability, for example, in any of the lectures or break-out sessions I attended.
So I’m hoping to live the resurrection of my faith, transfigured. I have my doubts and reservations, but glimpsing what a community committed to radical theology looks like, a community that overlaps with other communities who may not believe the same way, I am encouraged.