The Ghost of Grace: A Christmas Carol, Tillich, Caputo

Scrooge’s haunting is spooky, but it’s also a grace” – Tripp Fuller.

The remark was made in the final session of Peter Rollins’ Vanishing Act of God course, when Tripp was reflecting on Pete’s substitution of “lack” for “death” in (1 Cor 15:55).  The comment grabbed my attention since recently reading John Caputo’s fireside essay in the book, It Spooks, my mind is attune to Scrooge and all things spooky. Caputo’s essay, which I will spend scarce time on today, investigates the spectral life of God, the spookiness of the call, the haunting of being (and non-being) by insistence, the spooking of God, the unknown and uncontained ghosts that haunt us in words like love, justice, God. Spectres that provoke, disturb, awaken.

Scrooge is awoken by three such spectres. Three ghosts of varying temporal planes. In A Christmas Carol, miserly Scrooge receives three visitations across one Christmas Eve, as punishment for his greed and inconsiderate heart. Or is it a punishment? What I contend, what I believe Tripp was getting at, is that these visitations, these ghosts, this spooking is meant to provoke an awakening in Scrooge. They are the sting of grace; the painful blast of ice-y water that is meant to leave you rejuvenated (or so my winter surfing friends would have me believe). As agents of grace, they are coming to awaken so that grace can do what it does, overcome! As Tillich would say (and will say later in this piece) grace overcomes at the moment of our deepest separation. For Scrooge that will be around the tick of midnight.

“There is something triumphant in the word grace”, I could quote Tillich’s You Are Accepted all day long. Tillich says this, because for him, grace is not simply something that sits, grace overcomes – it occurs in spite of something. Grace responds to the separation that marks our life (the separation we feel within ourselves, between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and God, perhaps – as Caputo might say) by overcoming said separation, by hosting a big ol’ high school reunion between us and all that is estranged – but, like, a good, fun reunion, without the name tags and the awkward small talk that comes from the age of facebook where all mystery in the way of ‘what have you been doing’ is gone. I’ve sidetracked, grace overcomes. But in order to overcome our separation, we must know that we are separated, we must feel it – ‘know thou enemy’, and that’s something someone said, right?

Scrooge has to become aware of the separation rife in his own life, the lack, as Rollins would say. Retiring for the evening after orgasmically tallying the gold in his account he is rather blissfully (a kind of gruff bliss) unaware of the estrangement between he and his fellows, he and his self, he and the unconditional. This is why grace needs its sting. This is why grace spooks. The ghosts are no punishment, unless grace is ignored – in which case there’s a good nights sleep he’ll never get back. The ghosts awaken; their provocation, their haunting is the groundwork for grace’s overcoming. They draw Scrooge into awareness of the depth of his separation, and in that moment, whoosh – the triumph of grace.

As Tillich writes so beautifully:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted”

Is this not Scrooge’s evening? Is this not the sting of grace, the sting which haunts us, illuminating the existential crisis which grace overcomes? For Tillich, grace strikes, yes, I say, yes to that – but first, grace spooks.

Now, saying that grace spooks, should not equate grace with the “it” of Caputo’s spooking. Caputo likens that ‘it’ to the ‘it’ in the phrase, “it’s raining” – and last I checked grace doesn’t have the cache` to make it rain… it trades in subtler and darker arts than elemental forces. It works in Christmas ghosts, in existential yearning, in the ‘wait, why did I do that?’ and it works, on rare occasion, in blinding light.

In the event on the road to Damascus, was Saul not visited by a kind of ghost? His own Christmas ghost (or better yet, an Easter ghost)? Saul was spooked by a moment of grace, which struck him blind (– that led to his great awakening and the overcoming of his deepest separation –) and haunted him for the rest of his life. Grace struck Saul like an apocalypse rupturing his existence, separating old order from new life. But grace stuck around, as ghosts are prone to do, so that the haunting might remain. So that Paul would not be content to revert to Saul. Grace remained to spook Paul when he would not do the good he desired, but the evil he did not desire (Rom 7:19).

So too the ghost of grace haunts us – spooking our hearts and minds when we turn from the one in need, when we abandon the other and the outsider to the cold systems of the world. Awaking us from our comfortable and content sleep, haunting our apathy and disingenuousness with the call beyond ourselves. Grace lurks in the shadows of ignored possibilities, luring us to the best in others and ourselves; drawing us into the world, drawing us out in love. Scrooge awoke from his haunted sleep, overcome by grace, and forsook his detached individualism and joined a man, a family, previously separated from him, for a Christmas lunch and the sharing of much generosity of spirit.

The ghost of grace is a pesky poltergeist, it will not let us rest easy – there is too much work to be done.