The Importance of Spectres: What is Hauntotheology?

In most Christian traditions, there is an immense focus on the concept of presence. The doctrine of God is always already preoccupied and predicated on who God is, what God is like. Questions about God seek to answer (or at least wonder) about the ontological aspects of God. After reading through some of the works of Jacques Derrida, I’ve grown skeptical of these ontological questions. Specifically, I’m skeptical about the hierarchy of presence over absence, about metaphysics, and to what extent humans can understand God’s being-ness (if God has any being-ness at all). As a result, I’m interested in what happens when I pay attention to the spectres of theology, of theologians, and of philosophy and its philosophers.

For this first post, I will walk through the idea of hauntotheology and offer some implications for why I think reading with “ghosts” is an important task for all of us. But first, I want to discuss the genealogy of hauntotheology.

In Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida introduced the idea of hauntology, a portmanteau of the words “haunting” and “ontology.” The term highlights the complex relationship between presence and absence, between being and non-being. Hauntology points to the liminality between presence and absence: “the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” As much as most folks desire the presence of something or someone, there is often an acute recognition of the absence, the distance, the space that never quite disappears even if that thing or that person is “present.” For the past two years, “hauntology” has haunted me throughout my studies as a biblical scholar, as a theologian, as someone involved in the events of the United States and of the world.

So, how did I get from “hauntology” to “hauntotheology”? Though Immanuel Kant coined the term “ontotheology” (which might be called “the ontology of God” or the “theology of being”), it was Martin Heidegger who discussed the term (in his later work) as a critique of Western metaphysics. Recently, as I was reading Heidegger (“metaphysics is onto-theo-logy” in Identity and Difference), I realized that there is a haunting quality to the concept (and critique) of ontotheology.

In other words, the ontology of God is haunted by the theologies that attempt to understand it.

This brings me to a question: why hauntotheology? Why not simply ask questions about the ontology of God without rocking the epistemological boat of theological discourse? Why destabilize the ideas of God, ontology, and theology all at once?
After all of the studying I’ve done over the past eight years, one recurring theme has always bothered me: certainty.
Questions about the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible are questions of certainty.
Questions about the nature of God are rooted in certainty.
The project of faith, even as a gift, is predicated on a type of certainty.
There is an unshaking foundation upon which so many theologies have planted their flag and its name is Certainty.
And this bothers me.
It bothers me because the God of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament never assures us that God is a stable being – God changes God’s mind, God responds, God reacts.
It bothers me because God is often shrouded in darkness; God has a tendency to hide.
It bothers me because the Holy Spirit is typified by movement.
What bothers me the most, however, is that questions of certainty are questions of security.
As Dorothee Soelle writes in The Window of Vulnerability: A Political Spirituality:

“Security” is hope reduced to middle-class terms, yearning on a small scale, a kind of self-limitation that already amounts to mutilation.
— Dorothee Soelle

Soelle is writing from her position in the peace movement of the 1970s and 1980s but her words still have currency in this conversation, especially the idea that security functions as a self-limitation that (always) already amounts to mutilation of that “hope.” As others have said, certainty/security (since these two concepts are inseparable) represents a type of isolation, a stagnation, a “kind of death” (Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie). But the idea of a haunting theology/ontology – a hauntotheology – refuses isolation, refuses to be permanently grounded, and is neither “living” nor “dead.”
Hauntotheology is a spectral reading with the ghosts of theologians and philosophers in both their presence and their absence. In other words, hauntotheology is a destabilized theology of movement, a never-at-home theology of deferral. This is critically important because so many theologies attempt to box in the idea of God, to demarcate the lines of the “orthodox” sandbox, to calm the fears of uncertainty with the façade of an unmoving foundation in the form of rigid doctrines.

That said, what are the implications of hauntotheology?

  • First, hauntotheology must take seriously the “inheritance” that Derrida talks about in Spectres of Marx in order to closely read the “text.” Now, “text” can refer to anything, but here I’m referring to what are typically known as texts – books, articles, words inscribed on paper and screen. Why is it important to closely read a text? Because meaning is never settled. Meaning is always already contextual, defined by the associations and the ways in which one meaning is tied to others, by the reader(s) who encounter(s) the words in their location. You might disagree, thinking that meaning is assumed to be understood in the same way by other people if there is a shared language. But let’s do a quick thought experiment. For example, imagine it’s raining outside. Imagine the sounds, the temperature outside, the sensation of rain drops. Though you and I could talk about the experience of “wet” and “cool” and “refreshing” rain, even if we assume we share a language of understanding in terms of the definitions of those words, “cool rain” will not mean exactly the same thing for me as it means for you.
  • Second, hauntotheology recognizes that the understanding gained from reading theo-philosophical/philo-theological texts and concepts are tenuous at best. I take my cue from Theodor Adorno that it’s best to “not be at home in one’s home” (Minima Moralia) if “home” here can mean a type of theology or theological reading or theological tradition. Hauntotheology ought to seek to move from a “home” as soon as that home becomes too familiar.
  • Third, and perhaps most important, hauntotheology should affirmatively seek justice-for-each. When ideas are fixed into a place, when (usually) men in power decide what folks should believe, there exists forms of epistemic (from “epistemology” which I’ll define as the aspect of philosophy that addresses the theory of knowledge) and material violence. I have met so many people who have been wounded by theologies of hostility and theologies of exclusion – theologies that mention poverty without addressing the systemic exploitation inherent in a capitalistic system, theologies that pit the worth of a stranger from another country against the “rights” of the nation, theologies that erode the dignity and value of folks who do not adhere to norms created by the dominant culture. These folks have a yearning for a theology that enables them to survive and thrive. While hauntotheology may not perform that function, it is my hope that this destabilizing mode of reading can help disrupt those theologies of hostility and exclusion, to disable their power.

Though it is difficult to pin down exactly how I see hauntotheology functioning, it is about close reading, it is a rejection of certainty, and it will ask questions about the ontological security of theological discourses.
It is an affirmation of the movement inherent in theological and philosophical questions.
I hope you’ll continue to join me as I closely read some familiar concepts and beliefs in the Christian tradition.

(The header image for this post is by Patrick Tomasso.)