Haunted Houses, Spooky Rituals, and Practicing Perhaps


This essay was originally printed in the book It Spooks, a volume of essays and other artwork in response to a piece by John Caputo. I definitely recommend purchasing a copy! There’s a lot of great work in there.

 Walking into church is like walking into a haunted house.

It’s a voluntary encounter with an expected unexpected.

You know the house is haunted. Or at least that’s what you’ve heard. Its reputation precedes it. The murmurs and rumors are as unique and numerous as the town’s residents. Each has his or her own testimony.

“I felt a cool breeze.”

“I heard footsteps.”

“It’s all bullshit.”

So you know what you’re getting into when you show up, but also you don’t.

Even the pros, the veterans, the ghost hunters who’ve coordinated stakeouts regularly for years get a bristle of gooseflesh upon entry—what will happen this time?

Joining in the liturgies of the church is a way of entering the house and facing the possibilities there. That is, as we engage in the performance of preaching and hearing the Gospel, of repeating well-worn collects and creeds, of administering and receiving the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, we expose ourselves to the possibilities of the spectral non-presence of a non-existent, insisting God.[1]

Liturgy—particularly that of the Eucharist—is the playing-out of the risk of hoping for Jubilee. The risk of hoping that perhaps now we will see the year of the Lord’s favor, perhaps now we will see God’s kingdom come (while recognizing also that perhaps we will not). Practicing this risk, this hope, in the liturgies teaches us lessons that extend to our politics, our relationships, and beyond. The process of opening ourselves to the unknown, of really facing risk, takes practice. It’s never not hard, but in practicing it we can become brave.

Participating in the liturgy is a way of practicing perhaps. In the liturgy we learn to expect the prospect of the Jubilee. We learn Derrida’s unconditional hospitality, a hospitality open to perhaps—perhaps friend, perhaps foe—which entails a certain surprise, a certain unexpectedness of the guest. But, again, it is an expected unexpected. You are still expecting (hoping, looking for) the arrival of the guest. And to be truly hospitable, you must be prepared to greet the unexpected guest, whoever or whatever they may be. You must set the table for this unexpected one, and be prepared to eat and drink with whomever may appear. By returning and repeating, we make a habit of setting the table, of being ready for an event that may or may not happen, that may be joyful or tragic. The point is that we show up. This hospitality can be an attitude or an outlook, able to be practiced anywhere, but we are bodies, inhabiting space, welcoming a God whose body we constitute, whose insistence we make extant in our bodies, as one body, through the body we receive at the altar. Caputo says that “the disembodied spectrality of the call must be incarnated in the world of flesh and blood,” and the flesh and blood of bread and wine in the Eucharistic liturgy embodies this response. Perhaps the ritual is not a requirement, not the exclusive Way, but it is a way—a unique avenue of meeting (maybe) this insisting God, of looking forward and practicing the perhaps of Jubilee.

Caputo says that “preaching should be a call to make the name of God come true,” and further, “the name (of) ‘God’ is the name of a call to which we are supposed to be the response,” and “the call is heard only in the response.” The response to preaching, in a typical liturgy, is to gather at the table for Eucharist—consuming the body and blood of Christ and becoming the body of Christ as the church. This spooky ritual, where the presence of Christ is substantiated by his absence, where the bodies of the gathered become one body through a shared meal, is a response to that unheard call. The call that says “Taste and see,” “ eat this, all of you,” “do this in remembrance of me.”

God is this call, God is this response—the response is God’s body, broken and poured out, the bread and wine consumed, also by God’s body, God’s people. The call is only embodied in the response—and the response is the flesh and blood. The flesh and blood of people gathering, the flesh and blood of bread and wine. The sacrament is a response to this call—an “I hear you,” a “Here am I.” We simply show up, perhaps cynical, skeptical, perhaps frightened, perplexed. We come to the table, hold out our hands, receive what is given to us. Kierkegaard says that “if you do not hear [Christ’s] voice, then you go in vain to Holy Communion.”[2] He’s very clear that the Eucharistic liturgy is a response to a unique call from God-in-Christ. It’s something that inexplicably draws people to participate But often this call is actually unheard—an insisting intuition, not in the whirlwind, in the earthquake or in the fire. It is the in the response that we ultimately may experience the call. So it is not vanity to respond to the unheard call. It is faith.

This call that haunts is, perhaps, a “desire beyond desire,” which may be “sparked by the eventive energy” of the insisting God.[3] The call does not demand an ethic or an orthodoxy[4], providing schemata. But it insists, commanding the shape, though not the sequence, of our response. Caputo quotes Derrida’s saying that “Emancipation is a promise not a program.”[5] This insistence does not make demands, and yet somehow a response is required, if not by the caller than by something within the hearer. Caputo says that radical theology points out the maybe-about-to-happen event within that which is happening.[6] That which is happening is liturgy, but there is something else haunting every service.

The absence is an integral piece of the haunting. In the scariest horror movies, you never actually see the monster, and it’s the absence of the presence that has the potency. Caputo uses the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 to illustrate this seeing without seeing. Those on the right fed and visited and clothed the Son of Man, and yet they ask “Lord, when did we see you?” They were only able to do these things because they did not see. Caputo says that “everything in the story depends upon the invisibility of God, the inexistence of God, the spectrality of God.” This is also true in considering Eucharist. Take another example: When Jesus meets the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explains the Scriptures to them, it is only possible because they do not recognize him. When he breaks bread with them—shares the sacrament—he vanishes. The moment in which we’ve come to expect the presence of Christ is met with his absence. Like a ghost, he disappears. The real meeting with meaning occurs in its inexistence—the revelation of absence, the negative theophany.

The experience of this specter, the unidentifiable longing for we-know-not-what, may not arise ex nihilo, but may be encountered and developed through a formation of Christian identity via the liturgy—the practicing of perhaps. In the liturgy of Eucharist we cry “Viens!” to the impossible. We welcome the (im)possibility of the absent presence of an insisting God, of a crucified Christ, who has promised—impossibly so!—that the elements we receive are indeed his body, and that he is there with us, in us, as us, as we consume this bread and wine.

Truly, the Eucharist is the spooky ritual of a creepy cult. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Jesus said. “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:54-55). And even when the horror and awkwardness of cannibalism is explained away by a facile symbolism, the fact remains: Jesus told his disciples: This is my body. This is my blood. And we return to it every week. Martin Luther rejected both the answer of simple signification and the metaphysical confabulation of transubstantiation, opting instead to lean into the spookiness, retain and revel in the mystery. This is the body of Christ. The body of Christ happens here. We know not how, but we know it calls to us from within the ritual. The spectrality of God incarnated in flesh and blood. When we receive the body, when we become the body, we bear witness to that call.

It’s not magic, though. The spirit cannot be contained or predicted.  No priest-medium can summon forth this ghost on command. The ritual itself does not cause the event. And the event—as its capricious nature dictates—may not even happen. May not ever happen. There may just be an open window or a creaky floorboard. You may leave a skeptic. But there will always be the question: What if you try again?

The repetition, the re-entry, re-expresses old ghosts and reveals new ones, who add their infinitely differing facets to the ever-nuancing call, to which we must continue to respond but may never fully answer.

Walter Benjamin says that “every moment is a door through which the Messiah could enter.” This is why we must return, repeat, re-check each door. The spooky things, the real things, become apparent in the repetition. Initially, everything is foreign, everything may be startling. But to return again and again to the liturgy until it becomes familiar reveals the difference in the same. Repetition of the same liturgies brings out the differences in each manifestation. Even seemingly identical services are never truly identical. There is différance in the ritual. 

Repetition of the ritual is what opens you up to the possibility of the impossible. The ritual repeatedly exposes you to what might happen—is it the fiftieth year now? Now? What about now? You never know, and so you must keep trying. And it is a repetition that is fraught with risk, for you may always hope but you may never know. Nothing is certain, even when so much is expected.

The cliché is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. And that’s kind of what we do in the liturgy. We might say it belongs in Kierkegaard’s category of “higher madness,” which he calls “the most concrete of all categories, the fullest, since it is closest to life and does not have its truth in a beyond, the supraterrestrial, but in a subterranean below.”[7] This is a concrete madness that manifests in bodies—bodies who return to a building and receive bread and wine and chew it and swallow it and then come back next week, believing this bodily ritual is the response that fleshes out the insistent call.

It’s some crazy combination of despair and hope and insanity and promise that keeps you coming back. And for some people, the despair is too much—they’ve been let down too many times. For some, the insanity is too futile—How long, Lord?  And that’s understandable. The foolishness of the spooky ritual, the silliness of returning to the haunted house after so many fruitless visits is apparent. But still, always that question. What if? A kind of madness, certainly.

This is why we need not demolish the haunted house. The specters may follow you home anyway. They may be encountered in a closet or under a bed, but you can almost always count on their concentrated non-presence in the haunted house. Returning there reaffirms your commitment to hearing the call, to engaging the specters rather than fleeing.

While they may find you and haunt you anywhere, it takes a certain kind of courage to face them on their home turf.

The specter of the insisting God calls silently to us in myriad places and forms. Yet in the haunted houses of churches and cathedrals it hides in plain sight. Church may be exactly where you would expect to find God. But when the veil is torn, you find you are standing in an empty room, and yet you may still hear whispers, still feel a chill. Here in this room, with others who have been drawn to this spooky place, you may come to embody the response to that unheard call in the liturgies and sacraments.

So as you hear the benediction and go in peace—or pieces—you take with you this habit-forming practice of perhaps, which will continue to spook you into looking forward, into preparing a table, into asking What if? Perhaps all is for naught, but perhaps it is not, perhaps we are, as always, just on the cusp of Jubilee.

[1] “In a theology of ‘perhaps,’ God does not exist; God insists, and it is our responsibility to bring about something that exists.” Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. P 49

[2] Kierkegaard, Søren. Discourses at the Communion on Fridays. Translated by Sylvia Walsh. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

[3] Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. P 84.

[4] Francois Lyotard talks about “the Thing, that which preoccupies art and writing,” and says that it “asks nothing of you. But there is this persistence of dread.” This sounds like the “haunting” call of which Caputo speaks. It’s something that commands, though it does not demand, a response. See Lyotard, Jean-Francois, "Anamnesis: Of the Visible," Theory, Culture & Society 21, no. 1 (2004): 107-119, 108.

[5] Caputo, Insistence.

[6] Caputo, Insistence.

[7] Llewelyn, John. Margins of Religion: Between Kierkegaard and Derrida. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. P 10.