A Hauntological Imagination for the Theological: On god-Talk, Ghosts, and the Goddamned One(s)
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.
—Elie Wiesel, Night
This thesis is only a beginning. Already, I’ve read and discovered further insights that would sharpen, adjust, and clarify the things I’m trying to say here. Thus I figure a humble orientation to this work might be helpful before you wander through what can seem like a mess of thoughts. First, I use capitalization intentionally in places to signal when I’m referring to narratives that assume an extreme transcendent and totalizing power. Second, my metaphors don’t always align or fit. This indicates the difficulty I’ve ran into trying to navigate the many resources of ontological becoming that I’m seeking to name. Third, I’ve tried to use the pronoun “their” instead of pronouns like “he” or “she” in order to frustrate the gender binary reinforced in English grammar. I understand that this move isn’t typically grammatically correct but I’m fine with that. And finally, most all of the thesis, in fact three quarters of it, is in anticipation of the final section.
This arrangement makes it appear that I’m leaving a lot of questions unanswered and perhaps I am, but the driving force of chapters 1-3 are setting up my way of reading Jesus in the final section. That’s all I’m writing for in this thesis. So, for example, chapter one opens up a way of understanding being and knowing outside the dominant monotheistic God narrative that has powerfully influenced me. The next chapter explores the previous chapter’s discoveries further and plays around with understanding ontology, ethics, and theology in a world of becoming, one not bound to a presumed immanent/transcendent dichotomy and is sensitive to other sources of ontological perception. The third chapter identifies a possible alternative ontological sensitivity that can facilitate an ethic outside of expected modes of knowing. And finally, I employ these disruptions to the ontological logic I’ve used in my life for understanding my relationship to Christianity and re-imagine a different way of engaging life as Christian.
As I said, this work is only a beginning that I trust will always keep beginning. I admit to needing a lot more work with a host of scholars that I was unable to spend the needed time with. And I need introduced to new theological and philosophical artists. But I have no qualms with admitting this weakness in my thesis. Nothing finishes. It only begins and evolves and becomes over and over again. In that sense, and for personal reasons, I’ve found this thesis an invaluable part of my own becoming and learning to live responsibly and carefully in a world of becoming with a fresh imagination for negotiating the role Jesus plays in this journey.
My hope is that people who care to read this thesis through to the end will finish with further questions and the desire to go back and read it again as a conversation partner. I would like to see it disruptive enough to expand the borders of imagination. I’m under no illusions that this work might impact the broader academic community. I do know that friends will read it (because they have to) and that some of my colleagues will take the time to browse my ideas out of mere curiosity and professional obligation. So if it makes our lives richer with the hope of conversation then I’m satisfied with my efforts. With that, I look forward to our future discussions on god-talk, ghosts, and the Goddamned one(s).
Oh, but before you begin, I’ve got some people to thank. Only an arrogant ass thinks that work of any value flourishes because of their exclusive efforts. In this case, were it not for the privilege of my studies at Phillips Theological Seminary I would have never unearthed the kernel of thought that grew into this thesis. I owe the seminary more gratitude than I could ever offer. From that community a group of people surrounded me with encouragement and life-giving conversation. Whatever positive impact comes from this thesis, it’s in large part because of the support, influence and insights of these people, some of the smartest people I know as well as some of my dearest friends: Jared Vasquez, Mary Ann Morris, Dan Kovaly, KaraKay Kovaly, Anna Hubbard, Travis Smith McKee, Richard Mize, Perry Brake, Kelley Becker, and Sandy Shappoval. I need to say a special word about Geoff Brewster and Malisa Pierce, who I never had the opportunity to share a class with at Phillips but do have the pleasure of working beside at the seminary. These two have never failed to listen to me and encourage me as I slogged along whining about finishing this thing. And I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge their hella good theological wisdom that I often gleaned into my work without their permission.
I can’t say enough about the precision and deftness with which the seminary professors teach their discipline. But it’s so much more than that when it comes to these folks. Dr. Mindy McGarrah Sharp challenged me to write a paper that eventually fomented into the driving questions that framed this thesis. And her obvious concern and care for my life and work has pushed me to put my best stuff on the pages I write. Her stories and theological/ethical perspectives cleared the debris covering new paths, which would lead me to unexpected landscapes of thought. Dr. Lisa Davison did more than anyone to improve my reasoning through writing. In her classes, she fiercely picked to pieces my shitty first drafts and offered constructive ways to continue toward a better paper. If I write well at all, it’s because of her. If I don’t, it’s because I haven’t yet embraced her guidance. Two professors have had the most direct influence on this work, however: my thesis advisor, Dr. Sarah Morice Brubaker, and my academic advisor and thesis reader, Dr. Joe Bessler. Sarah gave me the needed space to sort through this stuff and always steered me toward those voices that could improve my argument. She encouraged me to write in my voice and helped me see that I did, indeed, have one to offer. Joe affirmed my work in the most memorable ways. I don’t remember a discussion we had about this thesis where he didn’t somehow let me know that his own research was being influenced by it. I can’t say enough how much this kept me going. These two, in a uniquely weird and wonderfully strange tandem, handled my questions and searching masterfully and helped me weave them into some semblance of a quality theological patchwork. And if there are any weaknesses, and trust me there are plenty, I am to blame. I could go on and on with thanks, but it wouldn’t be enough and I’m assuming there are some reasonable word-count restrictions for this section.
Finally, I have to express the deepest appreciation to Ashley and my children, Jarret, Avery, and Jaxon. This adventure has been one I launched on my own, in essence just dragging them with me. And they let me. It’s not the way to go about this sort of work, but we’ve managed. That’s due to their unconditional love and support. I feel like I’ve gotten away with so much. I got tired of myself before they got tired of me. Without them there, none of this would be here.
Much love, Josh.