C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our fallen race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them” (Lewis, 1961). Does Peter Rollins have an excessive and unhealthy interest in his concept of lack? Does Rollins’ ontology of lack veer into a “paradigm of sickness” (Caputo/Rollins, FB, July 07, 2015)? Is Rollins’ lack, a lackluster term? Does Rollins’ proposed origin of lack, lack any evidence? Is there a better way to frame lack? Are there other ontologies that should be in conversation with Rollins’ lack?
Before I move into my ramblings, I want to share that I have been deeply enriched, provoked, and wonderfully challenged, by Peter Rollins and his work. Although I don’t agree with everything he writes, there is plenty of material in his books that I resonate with. His books, such as, How (Not) to Speak of God (2006), Fidelity of Betrayal (2009), Idolatry of God (2013), The Divine Magician (2015), and others, have shaped me into becoming more honest, less defensive, more compassionate towards others and overall more dis/contented as a wounded Christian on journey. Although some conservative Christians might deem him a heretic, I think he is both profoundly prophetic and pastoral. He is prophetic in the sense that he helps communities keep it real, helping them burn away idols of comfort, safety, and hypocrisy. He also has a compassionate and pastoral heart. He is in touch with his brokenness, admits to his propensity towards idols/sacred-objects, attempts to meet people where they are, yet pushes them towards anxiety producing stimuli (provocative thoughts and transformative practices), towards beneficial change. I have spoken with him a couple of times in person and found him wonderfully present and engaging. It is my respect for him, and his work, that has stirred me to engage with his notion of lack.
Rollins’ Four-Components Surrounding Lack
Rollins has a wide array of influences, including Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist (1901-1981). Rollins takes his cue from Lacan for his notion of lack. Building on Lacan, Rollins believes there are four components that surround lack (Rollins, Vanishing Act of God: A Five Week On—Line Course on the Divine Magician, Class 2, 2015).
1. Ontological– Rollins believes that lack is built into the nature of being. Rollins typically uses the words “lack” and “gap” interchangeably. The origin of lack occurs during the “mirror stage,” which is Lacan’s phrase for a stage where the child’s subjectivity is birthed (ideal-ego), and in turn, becomes a terrifying event with life-long consequences. In the mirror stage, between six and eighteen months, the child sees him or herself in a mirror (or mother’s gaze) and finds a perfect and beautiful subject (imaginary). The problem is that the child’s image of perfection does not coincide with his fumbling and bumbling lived experience. Thus, the lack is birthed, and a great chasm erupts within the child, which can never be fixed or filled.
As a therapist who has worked with people attempting to heal from trauma, I want to distinguish between a lack or deficit due to childhood abuse or neglect, and Rollins’ notion of lack. Rollins’ lack precedes, and, therefore, should not be synonymous with, the lack that could be birthed because of “mommy and daddy” wounds, such as being abandoned by one’s parents, or even abuse. Although teasing them out can be tricky, there is a distinct difference between the two.
2. Existential– Due to the loss of oneness and encounter with the lack in the mirror stage, we as children are terrified and become deeply conflicted in the core of our being. We feel a sense of alienation and existential lack that stays with us for the rest of our lives. We are forever cursed (paradoxically, it is a potential blessing in disguise). Even when we get what we think will make us happy, we still feel the ache and emptiness, precisely because the lack is ontological and can never be filled. Rollins writes, “One of the fundamental experiences that arises from this second birth is a profound and disturbing sense of loss, for as soon as we experience our inner world, we encounter for the first time an outer world. All this changes as the child gains a sense of selfhood, for at this point, the world is experienced as “out there.” With the advent of the “I,” there is an experience of that which is “not I.” The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation. This means that one of our most basic and primal experiences of the world involves a sense of loss” (Idolatry of God, p.13). The existential loss and experience of lack remain forever.
3. Ontic– All of us are on an endless journey to fill this gap/lack. Because we experience the lack and loss of, something we know not what, we attempt to unconsciously attach to particular persons, places, things, ideologies, gods, etc., that we think will fill in the lack/gap. This endeavor to fill the lack is ultimately futile and is what constitutes the fundamental aspect of sin. Rollins creatively writes, “The idea of sin thus is not related to a particular act that one commits, whether ethical or unethical, but rather to the way in which a particular act functions in the life of the one doing it. If someone engages in an activity as a means of fleeing the difficulties of life, pursuing wholeness, and extinguishing doubt, then that act can be described, theologically speaking, as sinful. In other words, sinful acts are those things we do for the ultimate payoff, a payoff that we never get” (The Divine Magician, p.81).
Sadly the words creativity and potential are absent from Rollins’ writings in regards to the lack. Perhaps I have been reading too much Mari Ruti, who does an exquisite job writing about the dark side and bright side of the Lacanian lack. Although Rollins does not suggest creativity as a category, I think it should be a subcategory or a main category by itself. For now, it seems fitting under the ontic category. The lack is precisely what births desire and inspires people to use their imagination to create beautiful architecture, poetry, film, music and other valuable gifts that society gets to partake of. Though there are many creatives who use their gifting to fill their lack we have all benefited from their work. Mari Ruti, in her book, The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living (2013), writes about the lack, “if we felt entirely fulfilled, we would quickly lose our motivation for invention and discovery; our self-sufficiency would kill our curiosity about the world. Consequently, although we may fantasize about the possibility of absolute happiness, about a seamless fit between us and the world, the fact that we are unable to achieve this fantasy is the source of a great deal of magnificence (p.45).
4. Ethical- In our frantic and fantastical pursuit of trying to cover up our loss/lack/gap, we can potentially harm or oppress ourselves, others, and creation. For example, the ethical domain can be demonstrated by the story of a minister that I knew who for the last three years was desperately looking for more congregants, more accolades, more money, and a bigger platform, as a means to cover up his lack. The minister paid a price in the end, and so did his family. His marriage fell apart and he lost the intimate connection he once had with his children. There is always a cost when one mindlessly and anxiously attempts to fill and cover up the lack. Rollins also writes about the possibility of groups projecting their lack on to other people, “The projection of lack occurs whenever a group seeks solidarity by sharing a hatred of some external group that is directly blamed for a sense of dissatisfaction (The Divine Magician, p.46). The above is clearly illustrated by the Nazis and their unethical and monstrous actions towards the Jewish people, and could very well be shown in our contemporary context with particular groups towards Muslims.
Lacan & Original Loss/Lack
I think Lacan, and thus Rollins, has a tendency to go back in time and impute deeply complex philosophical psychobabble into the brains of infants (admittedly other models are guilty of this as well). Can you imagine an infant, with an itty bitty brain, and with very little reasoning skills, one day walking in front of a mirror and saying to his or herself, “Oh my, you are stunning, fabulous, absolutely perfect,” and then a short time later inwardly experience their frail and fumbling self (misrecognition), and in sheer terror say, “I am undone, I am terrified. I want to go back to original unity with the image in the mirror (or essential unity with my mother).” Simply put, children do not have the capacity to engage in such existential and enormously complex thinking at that age and there is no evidence to suggest this is their experience. Additionally, how can a non-subject, or a non-self, recognize a self in the mirror in the first place?
I know Lacan’s work is a million times more complex. But that is part of the problem. Lynch (2008), writing about Lacan’s mirror stage, writes, “because of the complexity and internal coherence of Lacan’s account as well as the volume and difficulty of the texts in which this view is elaborated, a critic faces a seemingly insurmountable task if she or he would directly challenge Lacan’s analysis”. Some might argue that the same claim can be made of any difficult subject matter. For example, who the heck understands intricate equations surrounding quantum mechanics? I argue that the difference is well-trained analysts and psychologists, who are professionals in his own field, consider his work to be esoteric gibberish, and claim his writings are intentionally written to confuse people. Despite the fact that Lacan’s work is so dense that most people I know learn his ideas from secondary sources, I do not doubt there is much to un/learn from his writings.
What I find interesting is that Lacan also writes about language and how it is culturally constructed, and contributes to the gap/lack. In my opinion, he writes in such a way that immensely broadens the subjective experience of the gap. By creating new words, symbols and an overall esoteric framework in which to understand human beings and their plight, it has the effect of stirring people to endlessly search his texts for meaning. They seek to fill both the gaps in their understanding of his ideas, and no doubt their lives. But do they ever succeed? Perhaps, Lacan meant his work to be a MacGuffin—generating the obsessive desire to understand and fill in the gaps surrounding the meaning of his work but knowing that it would be a futile endeavor (this would create a stunning symbolic enactment of his core concept of lack).
Lacan is brilliant but he is not the only theorist in town. There are other child development theorists like D. W. Winnicott, whose model, although still rather complex, offers a much-needed grounding to Lacan’s terror-filled, loss/lack model. Bollas (2010), compares Winnicott’s separation-individuation process and Lacan’s mirror stage, and believes that the process of becoming a self does not need to be as horrific as Lacan claims. Bollas suggests “by offering through the image of the good-enough mother (loving, caring, attuned– my addition), a figure who could match the inner self with the self’s image, Winnicott’s theory does indeed mitigate the severity of the rift proposed by Lacan. For if the mother does reflect the infant then the inner self and the represented self will feel more harmonious with one another.” The above is attested by countless, contemporary research, surrounding attachment theory, which is based on John Bowlby’s work.
“Good enough parenting” can go a long way in mitigating the difficulties in becoming a self and foster what attachment researchers call a “secure attachment style.” The research shows those who have a secure attachment style are much less prone to addictions, have less mental health issues, have more satisfying relationships and feel more competent in the world (Obegi, 2009). Bollas also makes the point that one does not become a self over night. It is not an event but more of a process and continues throughout the infancy stage. Although individuation can be a difficult stage to navigate for children, there is not a “one-time shock event” of the birth of the ego, and it certainly does not have to be filled with trauma or terror.
I agree, children can experience the lack and loss between six to eighteen months in a profound way. I also think they feel the sting of the lack much sooner (precisely because the origin of the lack precedes the mirror stage). I believe that the evidence of the lack is found by looking at babies even before they are born. Research has now shown through video-recorded ultrasound images that babies can cry in the womb. Crying is a sure sign that something is lacking, that something is amiss, and not the way it is supposed to be. Although babies in the womb clearly do not have even close to a developed prefrontal cortex, they have a subcortical limbic system, which can store memories in the body. The limbic brain remembers the lack, well before an “I” comes into the picture.
So what is the big deal? Who cares where the origin of lack comes from? I hope to make a case that it does matter, even if slightly. I think that Rollins’ can do without Lacan’s origin story. By placing the origin of the lack from the beginning of time, as opposed to a time in early childhood, it makes it a universal struggle that all creation experiences, and thus might reduce the negative valence surrounding this mysterious concept of lack. Or, at least widen the lens to see the neutral, negative and positive potential. If nothing else, I hope to show lack from a different vantage point for conversation sake. First, we have to deal with Rollins’ term lack.
The Term Lack is Lackluster
I am not a fan of Rollins terms lack/loss. John Caputo, a hero, and mentor of Rollins, is not a fan either. Caputo writes, “We do not “lack” anything, which means we are missing something we are supposed to have at this point; we have not “lost” something we were originally given. These myths of fall and loss don’t ring true to me. They’re just too downbeat but more importantly they reflect a misunderstanding of temporality…The whole schema—of loss and completeness—is a fantasy (FB, July 07 2015).
I agree with Caputo, lack/loss has too much of a negative connotation and certainly should not be considered a fundamental ontology (I will say more about this in a moment). Even though Lacan and Rollins could define lack very broadly, I argue that both in its etymology, and current usage of the term, is negative and erroneous, and therefore should be discarded.
Noun- 1. The state of being without or not having enough of something.
- Something missing or needed
Verb– be without or deficient in.
Etymology– Middle English: corresponding to, and perhaps partly from, Middle Dutch and Middle Low German lak ‘deficiency’, Middle Dutch laken ‘lack, blame’.
The above is why I am not a fan of the word lack? Inherent in the word lack is something negative. “Not having enough,” “being deficient in,” and “blame,” are statements, which have negative connotations. Why does Rollins use the term?
In the online class, The Vanishing Act of God, Class 1, (2015), he admits that Caputo is right and there is a negative connotation to lack, but it is because our first experience of the loss and lack is negative. He stated, “he (Caputo) is right, it doesn’t need to have a negative connotation at all. But that is really our first experience of it. The experience of separation is quite traumatic. It is not that you have this experience of nothingness. Your separated from the primary caregiver and you want back. The child is crying out in a sense. Your suddenly thrown out into the world. Paul Tillich calls it “ontic shock”. It is like “oh my goodness, I am a being in the world” and this could terrify, ‘put me back in the womb’”.
While children can have a difficult time adjusting to becoming a subject, I don’t think the individuation/separation period is as traumatic as he makes it sound, and it is certainly not a one-time event. Additionally, I am not a fan of Rollins’ origin story. I think the origin story should begin much earlier and include the rest of creation, therefore a better term might be fitting.
The Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality (OSEP)
The universe, including ourselves, is riddled with empty spaces, gaps, and holes. For example, there is the “synaptic gap” (the space between the synapses where energy and information flow), the “God-shaped hole” in the human heart (anecdotally it exists but I am not sure it is quantifiable), space between quarks (quarks are particles of matter), space between planets etc,. Gaps, spaces, and holes exist throughout ourselves and the entire fabric of the multiverse. The multiverse is also full of savage energy, which is neither created nor can be destroyed. It moves in wildly different forms, constantly thrusting life forward—moving and pulsating with potentiality.
I believe it is the Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality (OSEP), that has existed from eternity, that gives rise to Rollins’ existential, ontic, and ethical components, as opposed to an ontology of lack. I am sure a cosmologist and quantum physicist could be more precise, and I am not a fan of the phrase’s lack of simplicity, nevertheless, it rings true. It is the holes/gaps/spaces located within/throughout the fabric of all of reality, and energy swirling within the spacetime continuum, that allows for potential events to occur. The OSEP opens up the possibility of phenomena such as growth, decay, movement, and creaturely experiences of choice, joy, despair, connection and disconnection, to occur. The OSEP assures that nothing remains the same, and everything is fluid. A world created without OSEP would be a non-existent one or the very least, a world that would lack life. It would be a one-dimensional world full of static impassable forms without growth, movement or fluidity. It would be likened to a beautifully dull, yet immortal and never-aging painting that forever sits in a dingy, forgotten attic. It exists, but it is static and lifeless.
I think the phenomena of loss that Rollins refers to, does not have its roots in a time in early childhood, but is due to the eternal OSEP. While the child in the mirror stage might experience a trauma and larger loss then ever before, there were losses experienced even in the womb due to the nature of OSEP. In other words, because we are temporal, energetic beings, located in a spacetime continuum, we are always being pushed forward towards future potentialities; therefore, every moment feels like a loss. Time never stands still. Moments of connection, beauty and joy never last because time pushes us forward. Paradoxically, every moment is a loss and every moment is a gain. We are not facing one major loss that has occurred during early childhood but we are facing hundreds of thousands of losses and many that might need to be grieved. Experiences are but memories and loss is intrinsic to human subjectivity.
I agree with the essence of what Rollins is referring to, I am just changing the term and widening the lens. I am placing the origin story in eternity, and I am including all creation in the mix, as opposed to starting the story with the child and making it solely a human dilemma. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). There is no fall, however imaginary, that happened inside us when we were younger that birthed this lack. We were born into it, including all of creation. Creation struggles with finitude and temporality just like we do. There is no lack (deficiency, blame etc), there is just existence—and creation, as well as ourselves, have a right to groan about it on occasion.
My conceptualization offers a valueless ontology as opposed to Rollins’ lack, which is laden with a negative valence. The OSEP is neither lacking, deficient, terrible, bad or good. It just is. The OSEP has always been, and it is precisely what allows for paradoxical possibilities and a vast array of potentialities that can chaotically collide with each other creating randomly ordered events, which are subjectively felt as either good, bad or both. Caputo, pushing back on Rollins’ ontology of lack, writes, “We are originally, and originarily, temporal beings, and that while decidedly finite is nothing to wring our hands over. Time is our first and last chance. To be born is find oneself in a nascent state, neither sinful nor sick, but in a state of beginnings, of natality (Hannah Arendt), in an originary open-endedness to what is to-come, for better or for worse” (Caputo/Rollins, FB, July 07, 2015).
The OSEP makes room for the perhaps, and for various kinds of events, which can be terrific for some and terrifying for others. I admit, many people feel an existential lack due to the OSEP, but I don’t think everyone does. There are many ways people relate to the reality of being temporal beings in a world with infinite possibility. For example, just as God used the playpen of nothingness (ex nihilo), to create the multiverse and everything in it, there are some who see spaciousness and nothingness with excitement, imagining new creative possibilities. There are also those who grew up with the Eastern tradition of Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, and are less apt to be terrified at the OSEP. They understand, on a much deeper level, that impermanence is the nature of all things, and are less prone to being attached to the illusion of Western notions of happiness and completeness.
OSEP, Lack & Salvation
At the end of the day, whatever we are calling our fundamental ontology around this topic, the effect is the same. Whether one calls it the Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality, or the Ontology of Lack, they have similar implications ontically, existentially, and ethically, as well as a similar path to salvation (in the broad sense).
People cannot tolerate the openness and vastness of the OSEP and its aftereffects of fluidity, ambiguity, chaos, temporality, paradox and potentiality. In order to cope, people try to fill the OSEP with the cement of pleasure, power, prestige, possessions, and any thing else they could make sacred objects out of— those persons, people, places, things they think will make them whole and complete. The unconscious fantasy is to feel a state of bliss and freeze that moment in time so they will not have to face the impermanent nature of reality and the full gamut of the human experience. Unfortunately, the ethical consequences of such endeavors can be great. Rollins’ path to breaking free from our constant idol-making, and its aftermath of vast ethical consequences, is one of his finest theological threads.
Rollins proposes that embracing Christ’s offer of forgiveness of sins is one way we can break free from our futile pursuits from our sacred-objects/idols. It is not the common evangelical notion of forgiveness, whereby Christ’s blood washes away our sins to pay a debt that is owed to a wrath-filled God. According to Rollins, forgiveness of sins is the removal, or wiping out, of the obsessive need to fill in the gap/lack. In The Divine Magician, Rollins calls this the Christological Turn. It is an event that awakens us to the obsessive pursuit of chasing the illusory dream of wholeness and frees us from that pursuit. Rollins strikingly writes:
“In contrast to the religious reading of forgiveness as a payment of some debt, forgiveness actually refers to a clearing of the slate: a removal of debt. A debt represents something owed, a lack. An IOU note is a piece of paper that stands in for a type of gap, a place where money should be. To forgive a debt does not mean that the debt is paid back, but rather that it is rendered void. To pay a debt involves filling the void that the debt represents. But forgiving a debt means saying that the void is voided, that it has no more insistent power, that nothing needs to be paid. Forgiving a debt is the very opposite of paying a debt. If someone forgives a debt, they do not ask for the money, and no one else is required to step in and pay it. Rather, the indebtedness is canceled. The evidence of “forgiveness of sin” is not found in a profession of belief, but in a life freed from self-destructive pursuits, scapegoating, and violence” (The Divine Magician, p.83-84).
For Rollins, in order to obtain a “more grounded and deep happiness… a true joy” (Idolatry of God, p.83), in order to celebrate a “life that is more authentic, enriching, and healing than anything we might find through membership to some special club” (The Divine Magician, p.11), and in order to experience “Salvation— as that which takes place within life” (The Divine Magician, p.78), we have to receive, or rather experience, the forgiveness of sins, which breaks us free from the manufacturing of sinful sacred objects/idols (which includes God as the big Other). Salvation is found in living a life that embraces lack, ambiguity, brokenness, fluidity and loss of both identity and absolute meaning. Anything else is wishful thinking and fighting for the impossible—wholeness, completeness, and certainty.
For Rollins, lack is both the problem and the solution. The lack is what people are desperately trying to fill, and ironically, it is when people fully embrace the lack, it loses its sting and becomes the site of salvation. I couldn’t agree more. Half of my work as a therapist is helping clients face reality with all of its guts and glory. Instead of “peace” or “wholeness” as an aim, I prefer helping clients build up their inner capacity to embrace the Ontology of Spatial Energetic Potentiality and their existential feelings due to that reality. I help clients grow their equanimity muscles to encounter the horrid and holy that are inevitable throughout the lifespan. I also help them live according to their personal values, despite their lack and suffering.
The above is done in the context of a dangerously safe relationship. The clients trust me to go with them to the dangerous depths of those shame-infested and pain-filled places of their soul they have desperately avoided and which they could not have traveled to by themselves. This brings up an important ontology that I think is missing from the conversation surrounding Rollins lack—an ontology of relationality.
Ontology of Relationality
There is a reason those who are in close friendships and happy marriages live more than a decade longer than those who do not (Berkman & Syme, 1979). There is a reason a recent study of more than 300,000 people who were followed for 7.5 years showed that those in close relationships had a 50% greater chance of being alive and being happier than others who did not have close relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2010). There is a reason John Cacioppo, one of the leading researchers in the world on loneliness, says that loneliness increases suicide, lowers a person’s immune system, so they get sick more easily, decreases the quality of sleep, and is associated with increased negative views about themselves and the people around them. There is a reason George Valiant, after the conclusion of his 75 year-old-study looking at Harvard male undergraduates throughout their lifespan, stated, “ The study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships” (Valliant, 2012). It is because we were created (or wired for my non-religious peeps), to connect. Connecting with others is built into our brain and physiology. Relationships are as important as air, water and food. The above is why I think our ontology of relationality should be in direct conversation with Rollins’ ontology of lack.
The root of human idol-making, and its oppressive consequences on self and others, is not due solely to an ontology of lack, or my preferred OGSEP. The root also stems from people trying to fill the lack in the wrong way. They are trying to solve the problem of lack with the wrong solution, thereby creating a larger void within. Shepherd (2010) writes, ’I relate; therefore I am’ has as its corollary ‘I partially relate; therefore, I partially am.’ By deliberately stunting our capacity for relationship, we stunt our very Being. We choke it. The more we withdraw into the privacy of our world, the more we constrict it. That is the nature of our self-made hell” (p 151). Neglecting our ontology of relationality will create a wider subjective experience of the gap within us and propel us to fill it, or cope with it, through all kinds of addictions/idols/sacred-objects. The gap is already there and we don’t need to make it bigger by creating a self-made hell through isolation and the neglect of vital relationships.
While Rollins does emphasize community, I don’t think he makes explicit that a lack of trusting, loving and compassionately subversive relationships can create a further impulse to fill the ontological lack. Neglecting to place our ontology of lack in conversation with our ontology of relationality (as well as other important ontologies), makes for an anemic understanding of the human condition and therefore, an anemic solution.
Obsessively trying to fill the OSEP, or lack in the Rollinian sense, is closely related to addiction. My proposal is that addiction, or sacred object making/clinging, is not just the result of an ontological lack, but it is the result of a lack of loving others in our lives. It is my contention that embracing the lack, or my preferred term, the OSEP, in all of its beauty and horrors, is just as important as embracing our ontology of relationality. I will go as far as to say, to the extent that one does not have intimate, emotionally connective and beautifully dangerous relationships, with whom a person can share their lack with, is probably to the extent that they have an abundance of sacred objects in their lives. Flores (2004) writes:
“Addiction, therefore, can be viewed as an attachment disorder: Since it is biologically impossible to regulate our own affect for any extended period of time, individuals who have difficulty establishing emotionally regulating attachments are more inclined to substitute drugs and alcohol for their deficiency in intimacy. Because of a person’s difficulty maintaining emotional closeness with others, certain vulnerable individuals are more likely to substitute a vast array of obsessive-compulsive behaviors (e.g., sex, food, drugs, alcohol, work, gambling, computer games, etc.) that serve as a distraction from the gnawing emptiness and internal discomfort that threatens to overtake them” (p.6-7).
Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who specializes in the treatment of addiction, and author of, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2010), writes, “People who cannot find or receive love need to find substitutes—and that’s where addictions come in” (p.242). Rollins is right to say that we should embrace our lack. Where he falls short, at least in my opinion, is not encouraging the elevation and embrace of our ontology of relationality. We are wired to connect from birth to earth and from the womb to tomb. Many people stuck in cycles of addiction, do not have just a lack issue, they also have a love issue.
I understand the argument that relationships can be used to fill in the gap and cover over the terror and trauma of the lack. The above is why Lacan did not agree with ego or relational psychology. I agree, there is a risk for people to use other people as sacred objects/idols, but there is also the risk of neglecting our innate and wired-in ontology of relationality, and thus creating bigger problems. There is a way of being that embraces the ontology of spatial and energetic potentiality, embraces our brokenness, embraces the reality that no human being can ever make us whole, and still experience the beauty and wonder of connection, however imperfect and fleeting. Plenty of contemporary research demonstrates that relationships can catapult us into the world with a greater sense of vitality, creativity and longevity.
Rollins suggests that, to the extent we can embrace our lack, we can then truly experience love with another. I am suggesting the opposite is also true—to the extent that we allow ourselves to be loved by another, we can embrace our lack more fully. Connections with those we trust allow us to embrace mystery, ambiguity, the loss of meaning, identity and everything else Rollins’ encourages for healthier and happier communities, at a much deeper level. Some people do that through a Lacanian analyst, paying them $250 an hour. Some do it through a few trusted friends, some through an entire community of rag-tag misfits, rebels, and revolutionaries, others through a relationship with God. One thing is for sure, those who lack love will fall deeper into the pursuit of sacred-objects to fill their lack.
Rollins’ use of the word lack is lackluster and does not correspond to an ontological reality, specifically where loss and deficiency is a necessary correlate. What Rollins’ calls ontology of lack, I am calling the Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality (OSEP), which is neither good nor bad, it just is. While many people experience the OSEP as difficult reality to embrace, not everyone experiences it in the same way. Rather than emphasizing a “gap at the core of our being” (Idolatry of God, p.19), I am emphasizing the OSEP, which is certainly within us, but also throughout the entire universe and has existed since the beginning of time. Widening the scope of the OSEP (what Rollins calls lack), reduces the tendency to focus solely on the human predicament, where something is lacking solely in us, and expands the ontology to all of existence, potentially reducing the Calvinistic-esque and pathological flair surrounding Rollins focus, which is just on the human predicament. Lastly, if part of Rollins’ telos for his work is to raise consciousness within radical subversive communities, that are more authentic, healthier, happier, and are catalysts for real transformation in society (The Vanishing Act of God, Class 4, 2015), then transformance art and shocking experiences devised to deconstruct people’s psyches will not be enough. It is my belief that his ontology of lack should be in direct conversation with our ontology of relationality more explicitly, which would make for a more robust and holistic message. Learning to love, and how to be loved, in practical ways, within those radical communities will be paramount, and could be the most daring and dangerous thing people learn how to do.
The core message of Rollins notion of lack, and his approach to a more fulfilling life by fully embracing it, is not new. If you are interested in Rollins core message in regards to lack, without the Christian entanglement, then Mari Ruti’s, “A World of Fragile Things: Psychoanalysis and the Art of Living (2009),” is the book for you. If you want to read a non-lacanian based, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy version of learning how to embrace the lack, you might find Russ Harris’, The Happiness Trap (2008), interesting. There are Buddhist writings that have been saying much of this stuff for eons. “Life is suffering,” Life is impermanent,” “Attachment to things you think will make you whole is part of the problem,” “Embrace reality in all of its mystery, beauty and misery, and there you can find freedom.” Etc., I understand Rollins’ work is more nuanced than that, but there are definite similarities. For a full discussion of the interconnectedness between Zen Buddhism and Lacanian thought, you can read Moncayo’s, The Signifier Pointing at the Moon: Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism (2012).
Where Rollins’ work stands apart is his ability to masterfully wrap/integrate Christian symbols and Christian theological motifs, around mainly, Lacanian, Zizekian and Caputoian insights. Additionally, Rollins is inspiring new radical collectives around the world, where transformance art, suspended spaces and decentering practices are the norm. Every Christian, especially pastors and leaders, should wrestle with/through his work, preferably in a community, and in touch with the Spirit.
I am enormously grateful for Peter Rollins’ work. Below is the core of what I have learned through wrestling with/through, primarily, Rollins’ lack. It is not his wording per say, it is his material on lack, filtered through my odd brain:
Because we are sentient energetic beings who exist within a spacetime continuum, we have two alternatives:
1. Unconsciously and obsessively try to fill in the space/gap which realistically can never be filled and thus increase our own and others suffering (including creation). 2. Become conscious of the ontological givenness of spatial and energetic potentiality, grieve our experience of it if necessary (i.e, I feel terrified, angry or sad, that I can never be fully whole, complete, satisfied), embrace our temporality and vast potentiality, live a creative and value-based life in relationship with others, when possible, help others unplug from the Maddening Matrix of Sacred-objects.
Here is a four-step process called ACE- Acknowledge, Confide, Embrace, that I thought could be beneficial:
1. Acknowledge & Ask– We live in a perfectionistic culture that does not like to admit weakness, brokenness or lack. Many people’s Facebook status’ are a testament to that truth. It is even harder when you are part of a religious community that encourages the perpetual Sunday smile, leaves songs of lament and protest out of their worship sets (how did we reduce worship to singing songs in the first place?), and whose charismatic preachers pretend they are devoid of the void. It takes courage to acknowledge that OSEP exists, as well as our existential anxiety, fear, loss, etc., because of it. It also takes courage to come into contact with your failed attempts to cover over the lack, which has possibly hurt yourself and others in the process.
Take some time out of your schedule and record the questions and statements below with an interval of 2:00 minutes between each question. Sit in the dark as a symbol of both nothingness and potentiality and play them back. Reflect on them and notice what feelings, thoughts and body sensations come up for you:
Do I believe that the OSEP exists (substitute lack if you want to)? And how do I feel about it?
You will never be fully whole and complete in this life.
Have I lived for the OSEP instead of living out of it? In other words, have I attempted to fill the OSEP with idols/sacred objects as opposed to acknowledging it, embracing it, and creatively live out of it?
In what ways have I hurt those around me in my attempts at filling or covering over the OSEP?
Have I projected my existential lack onto other people?
In my attempt at filling the OSEP, have I internalized others desires (parents, pastors, teachers, etc), and have no idea who I am, and what I want for, and through, my life?
2. Confide– Many of us have more defenses then the Pentagon and can often deceive ourselves when asking deep questions about our life. Try asking a friend, loved one or someone you trust to answer some of those questions from their perspective concerning you. It is a beautifully dangerous task.
If you have asked yourself the above questions and have come to a deeper awareness of yourself, then I encourage you to share it with a couple of people you trust. Profound healing can take place when we vulnerably share our lack with others, which inevitably robs the lack of its sting, and diminishes the hold that sacred objects/idols have in our life.
3. Embrace– Suffering = Pain X Resistance. Our ability to embrace the OSEP and existential lack (in ourselves and others), loss or difficult motions that become triggered because of it, can help you learn to live intimately, with both the holy and the horror, that is inevitable during our time here on earth. The OSEP is what opens the door to possibilities, both devilish and divine. The OSEP creates the possibility for human choice to exist. This step has the potential to energize us, enlarging our capacity for equanimity and creativity.
(Lather, Rinse, Repeat, till Death Due Us Part)
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If you would like a PDF of this post, email me at MarkGKarris@gmail.com