Hauntology – Ghost-Hunting in the Church


Almost thirty years ago, French philosopher Jacques Derrida minted a peculiar term that has come to have an ambivalent value as a currency: Hauntology.  Derrida introduced the word in his 1993 book, Spectres of Marx.  Hauntology was his portmanteau term (i.e., haunting and ontology) referring to the return or persistence of elements from the past, as in the manner of a ghost. Derrida wrote his book after the collapse of communism, and his term was meant to refer to the atemporal nature of Marxism – and chiefly its propensity and to be able to “haunt Western society from beyond the grave”.

Like most theologians, I take at least some interest in ontological claims.  They often surface in relation to ordination, baptism and other sacraments.  The church means by this term, at its simplest, ordinary elements, people and things, that of their nature, are not special.  But by virtue of their consecration, become holy, reserved, set apart – a means of blessing and a conduit of grace. In Derridian terms, something temporal or disposable becomes atemporal and permanent. Furthermore, anything that is said or claimed to be ontological will have its presence vested in “deferred non-origin” – it will, at some level, always have existed, and so will continue to surface, and disrupt and delimit. 

Institutions are haunted by ghosts. The simplest kind of institution to which we are all exposed, to some extent, is the family. Specifically, our family: the one we were raised in. “Family values” will rarely be taught explicitly.  They are, rather, imbued into the way daily life is patterned, roles defined, freedoms enabled or constrained, and the forbidden and the approved laid out in the form of stories, codes and manners, ideal notions of conduct and civility.  It is in such places that we learn to relate, and also learn to locate and identify ourselves.

All families will live with several spectres.  These are present as templates for the present but can only be referred as paradigms from a distant past.  Their constant capacity to enter and re-enter family life does not require a settled or a disrupted state of affairs.  Spectres come and go across time and space, But their haunting prevalence presses each generation backwards – looking over its shoulder, so to speak – and the hidden hand of history and habit that, seemingly from nowhere, suddenly taps that same shoulder.  We see through a glass darkly, always.

The spectres that continue to haunt the church have been around for more than two centuries.  The emerging globalisation of the early Victorian period spawned, directly, the missional movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Advances in communication led many denominations to believe in a new dawn: a world in which all could or would be converted. The resurgent capitalism of the 20th century produced an inevitable variety of ecclesial paradigms, centred on production, industry and growth. 

Our churches are still haunted by these spectres. And rather like the proverbial haunted house, some of the spectres seem to be more friendly than others.  Institutions are easy prey for the recurrent spectre-like rhetoric of growth, organisation, vision, aims, objectives and outcomes – the disciplining of rationalisation that seems to ‘make sense’ to previous, current and future generations.  Other spectres that intrude into institutional life might be vested in values (i.e., “we’ve always believed this, and so it has always been like that…”), and so prevent change, even when it is obviously needed and necessary.  In this strange haunted house – all denominations have their ghosts – spectres of sacredness argue with spectres of secularism, aesthetics with practicality, pastoral with productivity, and more besides.

The ghosts in the machine – if we can refer to the church like this for a moment – are not about to be exorcised anytime soon.  They are, in fact, part of the family structure.  The question for the churches is how to live with the ghosts, and what to make of them. And also to ponder the elements, values, patterns of behaviour – spectres – that from the past, continue to disrupt the present time in a way that is actually constructive and valuable for the healthfulness of the institution.

Let me give an example here.  In My Sweet Little Village (Director: Jiri Menzel), a Czech film comedy from 1985, before the Berlin Wall came down (1989), and Marxism wasstill alive (sort of) we are introduced to a handful of folk in a ramshackle village several hours from Prague. The film is beautifully poised. For years the overbearing Pavek has endured Otik, quite literally the ‘village idiot’ sharing his meals and the front seat of their dump truck. But Otik is such a sweet-natured fool that Pavek, exasperated as he becomes, always relents on his threats to find another partner.

I have long-admired the film for the touching way in which it affirms local knowledge (always better than what town and city folk think is best); resilience (keeping the town and city folk out of their lives, and absolutely not buying up their property); fortitude (the economy in the village is richer with less, and riches of the town and city folkways not much cared for); morality (high thresholds of toleration for indiscretions, which can usually be resolved over a few beers, and the odd fist fight if absolutely necessary – no-one ever really gets hurt); medicine and mortality (the local doctor and nurse are best described as ‘pragmatic’, and have a rather winsome attitude to life and death – some illnesses are not worth the trouble: you are going to die anyway); and finally communism, commerce, government and civic order (which are all suitably subverted by local knowledge at every juncture – so much so, you wonder why Stalin ever bothered).

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, (1926-2011) proposed the study of cultural systems as texts, or acted documents, to be studied by building up the details of cultural life as thick description, a methodology of doing ethnography.  Geertz criticized what he called Levi-Strauss’s “cerebral savages” and his “cryptological” approach that analysed symbols as closed structures rather than texts built out of social materials.  In his 1966 article, “Religion as a Cultural System”, Geertz defined religion as a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting formulations and conceptions of a general order of existence, and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that innovations and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

When patterns of behaviour and ideology become relatively discrete, enduring, and autonomous, we call these patterns institutions.  The most extreme form of institutions of these are those which Erving Goffman called the ‘total institutions’: the military, prisons, boarding schools, communes, cults, psychiatric hospitals, and so on.  These are organizations that govern virtually all facets of their members’ lives.  Individuals are typically stripped of previous social identities: their heads may be shaved, their cloths are replaced with uniforms, they lose access to many of their personal possessions, their everyday behaviour is strictly regulated, and they are subject to the absolute authority of their immediate superiors.  A church or theological college can fit be a kind of ‘total institution’.

If you study religious cults and new religious movements, as I have done, you quickly realise that it in this highly suggestive state that followers learn the institution’s unique way of doing, thinking, and feeling that may not necessarily be shared by the society at large.  They are drawn into the ‘discipline’ of the ‘bounded life’ in other words. This experience is transformative, and years after leaving such an institution it can continue to play a profound role in the individual’s thoughts and feelings.  The extreme degree of control and rigid patterning of behaviour total institutions create can often produce morally extreme results; from our monastics living a life of holiness to the suffering inflicted upon the inmates of a concentration camp. 

The choice before the churches is in some ways a simple one.  What are the values and stories that we should encourage to continue haunting us?  Some of these spectres fill us with fear and guilt.  I suggest we note which ones these are and befriend them. But then leave them alone.  We cannot stop them moving around the house, and occasionally scaring the pants off us. But it is best not to be afraid of them: they are only ghosts.

There are other spectres that I am rather keener on, and these ones, although they live in the house and do their fair share of haunting, they are not here to frighten us or cause us to freak out. They live and move in our better nature, and appeal to the good things, the virtues and aspects of institutional life that make the house a happy and welcoming place to live in and invite others to come and be within.

Our forebears used to talk about the Holy Ghost.  Yet there is a sub-pneumatology to develop in our ecclesial senses.  Who, what and where are the good ghosts that we would welcome now, to haunt our churches and denominations, and hallow them afresh for their purpose and potential? And who is hiring ‘Renta-Ghosts’ to spook the church into action? We still see too much of them, in mission and managerialism – the dead hands of long-past-it ideas, tips and strategies that (literally) gave up the ghost many decades ago in secular spheres. Ah, but they are given a new lease of life – here to haunt again – on the stage of Diocesan Synods, clergy conferences, Mission Action Plans, new drives and initiatives for growth – the church is haunted by these spectres, and easy prey to the fear they evoke.

My advice on this? Ignore the ghosts. They can do nothing to harm you, and they serve no good purpose either, so cannot help you. Just leave them be. They’ll most likely go away and try and spook others somewhere else. If they persist, there is always exorcism – and you should get your bishop involved in that, and help him or her to understand why evil spirits need casting out and driving away. That takes effort. The trouble is, most bishops I know have befriended such spirits. Your safest best is to ignore them all.

Ghost-hunting in the church is an easy pastime.  Developing a proper hauntology, however, requires us to discern the spirits of the age, and sift them. Some will set us well for the future.  Others, if we are less discerning, can only set our teeth on edge, in fear and chattering. Being haunted by the past in the present is inevitable. But let us be more discriminating about which ghosts and spectres are permitted to spook the church into living well and being good for others. That means not living our institutional life out of fear and loathing. It means living out of fortitude and faith, knowing that the communion of saints lives on in our house, and still calls us to make our place a home for all.  A home, in fact, where good ghosts still inspire us with their lives and example.