Friday, June 5, 2009

Haunted by God

Let me begin this post by telling a story told in Mark Yaconelli's book "Contemplative Youth Ministry," (page 188). At one point, Mark was a youth pastor in Portland, Oregon, and befriended several girls who would regularly cut school to smoke on a downtown corner. Most of the girls had been abused and abandoned. They were also open about how they didn't believe in God. One day, Mark asked them to try an experiment - reflect, take in the sights of the street corner, and just for a moment suspend disbelief and believe in God. He asked them, where would God be in this moment?

One said that God would be in the sleeping drunk across the street, waiting for a place to sleep. Another mentioned the birds singing, unnoticed by the busy pedestrians. The last one Mark mentions is also the most powerful. The girl said "If God exists, he would be in the seeds of the grass that are still waiting for the sunlight, waiting to grow, underneath the pavement and cement," (189).

I remember reading this passage for the first time and stopping dead in my tracks. The story still stops me every time I consider it. God is within tragedy. God is not redemption of suffering, the sanctification of tragedy, nor even the salvation from our pain. God is impossible possibilities, the fragile (in)actualizable potential before us, the grass trapped beneath cold cement. "Waiting to grow..." Beauty on the brink. Tragedy for what is lost. God is a ghost.

I've spent a lot of time storytelling about potential. Potential is not being or non-being. Potential doesn't exist-as-such, nor does it not-exist. Potential is in relationship with existence and non-existence, is dependent on our locality, but it is not our locality. Potential is a ghost.

I have also mentioned several times the possibilities of overlap between potential-language and god-language. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is to come, God is messianic, God is before us. God does not exist for us, in the moment, as an "entity," as other "objects" like chairs, tables, etc. God is potential. God is a dream. God is a ghost.

Allow me to tell another story. Once upon a time, within our culture, God existed. Meaning and Value had grounds. Our paradigm of knowledge was different. Givens were allowable. And one given was God. But then came a paradigm shift. The Enlightenment.

Givens were no longer allowable. Justification was necessary. So, starting with Descartes, the (in)famous tradition of foundational justifications began. Can we start with nothing and prove our foundations? Can we discover ground beneath our feet? God had no grounds, so the existence of God flickered out. God could not fit within our scientific paradigm. So, as Nietzsche infamously put it, God died. And contra normal-belief, Nietzsche was in a state of mourning about that fact.

Of course, the story becomes more complicated. Because the Enlightenment was a wolf with an insatiable appetite, a wolf that began to devour itself. Even science had groundless foundations. And so, the wolf devoured itself.

However, while the ground might have been revealed to be no ground at all, the buildings were already built upon it. The structures already had form. And so, without support, the structures were in free-fall.

The problem, of course, is quite insidious. For any attempt to build a new foundation is doomed to fail from the outset in our paradigm. After all, if you are in a structure in free-fall, building downwards isn't going to help. Structurally, the building was built with God beneath it. And now, God is dead. We cannot escape our foundationless structures.

But the signs of God are drawn all over the structures. For the structures were built upon God. And, by that, I don't mean that God built the structure. Rather, I mean we built it upon God. God's writing is all over the world because we put it there.

We cannot build a new foundation because we remain haunted by God. For while God is dead, we have failed time and time again to exorcise the ghost of God. We have failed to exorcise the ghost of God, because the ghost is a ghost of the house, of our house in free-fall. Remember, God's writing is all over the house. And tragedy is omnipresent. The only way to exorcise God would be to destroy the building (and the builders, i.e. ourselves). The only way to exorcise God is to step into the void. Otherwise, God will continue to haunt us. The world is full of potential whether we like it or not.

This is a dangerous story. It is precariously close to a myth of disintegration. The difference, is that unlike a myth of disintegration, this story does not pretend that the past is a guide to our future, at least in the traditional sense. The past is a context, is a provider of our locality, but it is not a solution, the past is not potential. This is where I break with the many traditionalists in our world today. We live in a predicament of our own making, of our own moment. The past will not save us.

That said, I do not present this story as a history, but rather, as a story of our moment. I don't pretend to claim that certainty was a thing of the past. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that God, too, was a ghost for the ghosts of the past. The point of this story is not to say something about what happened in the past. The point of this story is to say something about God. God is dead. But there is hope. For God is also a ghost.

Many would have us believe that there are only two sides to the debate about God. On one hand, there are those that are convinced that God is dead. The tomb of God is undisturbed. God cannot haunt us, because God is not even before us, as our dreams, as our potential. Death of God theology (Altizer) was famous (briefly) in the 60s and 70s for claiming that theology was possible in the wake of the death of God. I agree. Altizer was wrong, however, in his belief that God was dead for good. God is to come as a ghost. We live in a haunted age.

On other hand, there are theologians who are convinced that the death of God has corrupted everything. One of my theologian friends, Dan Peterson, told me once that nearly every recent theology is merely an expression of Death of God theology. I took Dan to mean this as an insult. Dan decries that God is contingent today, that the transcendence of God has been lost. I won't disagree. God is dead. But resurrecting God is not in our ability. The foundation is lost. We can no longer build downwards. We cannot make God an entity once again. We can and should mourn. But we cannot walk backwards. Instead, we should be open to our haunting. We should let our silent ghost, our God(s), speak. With the help of ghost(s) we can still create, we can still build, even upon our foundationless home in free-fall.

There was a heresy that was condemned in the ancient church called Patripassionism. The heresy was the belief that God (the Father) died on the cross. For three days, the world was without God. For three days, there was no resurrection. There was no atonement. No redemption. Just God, dead, on a cross. We are in those three days. We cannot escape them. Can we live in the wake of the cross? With tragedy before and behind us, embodied on the cross, God is a ghost. Can we live within the haunting?

God is "in the seeds of the grass that are still waiting for the sunlight, waiting to grow, underneath the pavement and cement." God is a ghost, the potential that speaks of what could be in a silent voice, a voice under concrete. Such fragile potential. Within that fragility is tragedy. Mark continues his story. Years later, he inquired about the girl who spoke of God as the seeds of grass under concrete. He found out she had become addicted to heroin, contracted AIDS, and disappeared. The girl became a ghost. There is no redemption in such loss. But perhaps we can find the strength to live within our haunting. Perhaps we can listen to ghosts. And perhaps, we can start pulling up pavement.


Joy said...

It seems to me that if we inhabit buildings that are in free-fall, then it is madness to stay inside them. We do, of course, because we have the illusion of safety provided by familiar furniture. But what is really called for is a leap of faith -- a violent one -- from those tumbling buildings into the void. You write "the only way to exorcise God is to step into the void." But it is also the only way to embrace him. Staying in the house is suicide.

Wildflower said...


I enjoyed the contrast you painted between embracing God and exorcising God at the same time (by stepping outside the house and into the void). I definitely agree with you that walking into the void is an option. Depending on how you interpret the void, some existentialists have advocated exactly that. Generally, however, it is the confrontation with the void - the anxiety of the void - that turns us back to the world. Confronting the void is a necessary action. However, at least how I intended the metaphor, stepping into the void is not an action I would advocate - for the void is nihilism, the void is suicide.

It is certainly madness to live in a haunted house. The question I pose is whether we have any other options at this current moment. And you know, it isn't complete madness - for even though our house may be in free-fall, it would only be complete madness if we could see the rapidly approaching ground beneath us, a ground we would be crushed against. However, that is exactly the problem - there are no stable grounds. Ironically, we can take comfort in the fact that while we are in free-fall, our free-fall will continue for some time.

You are quite right that what is required, what we are called to, is a leap of faith (and I agree that it must be violent). However, the leap of faith is a leap within the house - a leap toward our ghosts rather than away from them. It takes courage to remain in a haunted house.

And you know, even if we leap out of the haunted house(s) we live in, we cannot escape one final haunted dwelling - ourselves. That is exactly why every act of exorcism must fail - for our life intrinsically is a life of haunting. Just as we live in dwellings of ghosts, we, too, are dwellings for ghosts.

You are quite right that we take (false) comfort in our familiar furniture. That comfort, however, is a comfort of presence, it is a comfort that we gain from hiding from our ghosts in objects. Perhaps by moving around our furniture we can be more aware of our ghosts. And if we absolutely must, instead of jumping into the void, perhaps we should throw our furniture out instead. After all, it is the concrete objects that gets in the way of ghostly seedlings (not the other way around).

Perhaps living in a haunted house is unsustainable. Perhaps living with our ghosts is simply too painful. However, I cannot separate life and ghosts. Life is not something I can give up on. And so, I cannot give up on ghosts.