For My Latest Trick… Religion as Illusion [1]

by , under Church, Philosophy, Theology

Religion as Illusion [2]

Pete Rollins posted something on ethics over on his blog yesterday, in which he made argued that churches should not be ‘teaching’ ethics, and nor should people be trying ‘hold’ ethical principles:

So what is the alternative to attempting to hold ethical principles? The answer is creating a space of grace in which we are invited to bring our darkness to the surface, to speak of it in an environment in which we will not be condemned or made to feel guilty, a community that will let us speak our anxieties and darkness without asking us to change. In short, a place where we can confront our humanity rather than running from it.

The trick is to create an atmosphere of love, grace and acceptance where people are not told what to do. Where people learn that heresy which claims that, while not everything is beneficial, everything is permissible. In other words, while there are destructive things we do, they can be brought to the light without fear of condemnation. In such an environment ethical acts will emanate from the body just as heat emanates from light. One will not have to be taught that they should look after their neighbour as if it were something that we need to be told, they will simply be more inclined to do so.

In the comments on that post I took Pete up on his use of the word ‘trick’, and I wanted to expand a little on that here.

The word ‘trick’ is an interesting term, which is itself a tricky and slippery little bugger – which is why I was interested in how consciously (or subconsciously) Pete used it. The root of the word has links both to the word ‘track’ – with its ideas of movement, of shifting – and treachery.

I want to consider the parallels that might exist between attending a magic show, and attending church, and how the magician might in fact be one of the best models of pastor that we have.

When we come to a magic show, we don’t go expecting to see something supernatural. We don’t go there actually believing in magic. Yet nor do we go there to poo-poo the whole thing and try to find an explanation for everything we see – that would be to destroy the illusion (another great word).

No, when we go to a magic show, it’s not that we suspend our belief in the natural, rather we suspend our unbelief in the supernatural. We give ourselves knowingly to the ‘trick’ in order to receive a gift from its particular world. To try to explain each thing would rob us, and those around us, of these gifts.

To use the other word: we give ourselves to the illusion, and enter fully into it. Not because we are deluded, not because we are taken in, but because we take it in. And we have to take it in if we are to benefit from its world.

In my second year of University I was responsible for booking various acts for our hall bar. People would come find me and ask if they could play or perform. I remember one guy coming round who was an ‘illusionist’ and hypnotist. He looked the part too, in a sort of Victorian magician way. Being a good fundamentalist, his ‘magic’ scared the be-Jesus out of me – I didn’t want people being opened up to weird spirits (though I was convinced he’d never successfully be able to hypnotise me). So I let him give me his number in my Filofax (recently rediscovered – see pic above!), and never called him. His name was Derren Brown – or Darren, as he called himself then.

Those in the US may not know him, but Derren Brown is probably the UK’s foremost magician. What’s interesting about his work is that, while he doesn’t explain his tricks, he works hard to help people understand that what he is doing is an illusion. His problem is this: he comes across a surfeit of belief. People believe in magic too much – and he wants to return them to a proper understanding of magic as suspension of unbelief.

In this way, I want to propose Derren Brown as the model of the perfect pastor. Moving from the magic show to the church, I think the acceptance of the level of illusion is misunderstood. In many ways there is a similar surfeit of belief: people actually believe… while the magician clearly does not. So the role of the pastor is not to foster greater belief, but to bring people into a better understanding of the illusion: to suspend their unbelief so that they might enter into the gifts that are available.

And I think it’s within a community where this occurs that Pete’s move beyond ethics is possible. It’s here that an atmosphere of genuine care can be created, because people are enjoying the illusion. They are not burdened by the pressures of actual belief, but released by the freedom of their suspension of unbelief.

To draw in a different metaphor, they come to the theatre, and play their roles and add all they can to the grand masquerade, but it is paradoxically within this fictional space that the greatest truth is played out. This is why I love the theatre (and find it interesting both that Pete has just written a play and I’m still more drawn to fiction): we can bask gloriously in its truths without having to get tied up in arguments about whether it is actually ‘true.’

‘Religion,’ as Zizek has recently put it, ‘is a fiction that we should take extremely seriously.’

As I noted on Pete’s post, this is why I think Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists needs a companion volume: Religion for Theists. What the church needs is a guide to getting the most out of the illusion… not in a smash and grab raid on the nice bits of church architecture or ritual, but an encouragement in the practice of suspended unbelief in the supernatural – in order that the very natural acts of love and support can flourish, without the painful codification and the weight of it being ‘true.’

In the next post, I want to look at what light the film The Prestige might shed on this too: Religion as Illusion [2]


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  1. Steve Priest

    I suppose this is like watching a horror film, if you convince yourself that it’s not ‘real’ and it’s just a bunch of actors then your ‘enjoyment’ is seriously diminished. In order to fully appreciate it you have to immerse yourself in it.

    I feel very much the same about Coronation St., you have to get to know these ‘people’ in a very ‘real’ sense to get the story lines and their significance for the characters but more importantly, what they might tell us about the human condition.

    Good stuff.

  2. Nick Jackson

    This reminds me of a performance art piece I recently watched. The artist was performing a monologue about peace and the buddha while practicing yoga. A few times he would ask us to pay attention to our breathing, but most of the time we were paying attention to him; his deliberate smooth gestures, his perfect deep calm breathing, and serenity in his voice.

    Afterwards some people were saying it felt like being in a meditation class. I disagreed. In a meditation class you are the one trying to meditate, and you are likely going to fail many times early on. You are going to try, and want, and desire, and these are in complete conflict with the release of your desires required to achieve nirvana. Instead we were watching him and he made us believe that that release of desire is possible. Watching him we believed that nirvana is a reality that can be experienced. And this is regardless of whether or not he believed it and attained it. His performance of it made us believe it.

    It was a really inspiring performance that said so much about art and spirituality. At the same time I don’t think we can stop there. From there the teacher needs to inspire the disciple to believe that a new reality is possible, but then walk with them through practicing life in this new way. And when the disciple does fail the teacher needs to reassure the student that the new reality exists now and that s/he can move forward in spite of what can be seen as failure.