Cloud of the Impossible
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Cloud of the Impossible

Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement

Catherine Keller

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eBook - ePub

Cloud of the Impossible

Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement

Catherine Keller

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About This Book

The experience of the impossible churns up in our epoch whenever a collective dream turns to trauma: politically, sexually, economically, and with a certain ultimacy, ecologically. Out of an ancient theological lineage, the figure of the cloud comes to convey possibility in the face of the impossible. An old mystical nonknowing of God now hosts a current knowledge of uncertainty, of indeterminate and interdependent outcomes, possibly catastrophic. Yet the connectivity and collectivity of social movements, of the fragile, unlikely webs of an alternative notion of existence, keep materializing--a haunting hope, densely entangled, suggesting a more convivial, relational world.

Catherine Keller brings process, feminist, and ecopolitical theologies into transdisciplinary conversation with continental philosophy, the quantum entanglements of a "participatory universe," and the writings of Nicholas of Cusa, Walt Whitman, A. N. Whitehead, Gilles Deleuze, and Judith Butler, to develop a "theopoetics of nonseparable difference." Global movements, personal embroilments, religious diversity, the inextricable relations of humans and nonhumans--these phenomena, in their unsettling togetherness, are exceeding our capacity to know and manage. By staging a series of encounters between the nonseparable and the nonknowable, Keller shows what can be born from our cloudiest entanglement.

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one
Complications
one
The Dark Nuance of Beginning
And everybody here is a cloud
And everybody here will evaporate
Cause you came up from the ground
From a million little pieces
—Cloud Cult, “Everybody Here is a Cloud”
I am going to come to you in a dense cloud.
—Exodus 19:9
IF THIS IS a book of theology, we’ve got a problem. Not only is theos a questionable notion, with the impressive tradition of “the death of God” to shadow it/him/her. The very artifact of “book,” biblios, the old bearer of the logos and its filial-ologies, seems to be dying—as I write or you read—into a cloud of virtual text.1 The clouds accumulate. Storm front of an apocalypse? One might celebrate such presumptive deaths; one might lament them; one might ignore them. I mind them. I wonder. I feel the loss of a certainty I never knew. And I notice a more subtle cloud.
Indefinite, it drifts around or through all the defining dramas of “the End.” It requires a prolonged attention. For under cover of its opacity there sometimes comes to light an unlikely possibility.
Such a possibility may present as the impossible: as when some crisis of uncertainty amplifies contradiction toward catastrophe; or as the possible clings softly, subtly, to the actual losses knotted round every terrestrial event. So in its very nuance (from the French nuage, cloud) this possibility billows into dense ecologies, personal, political, planetary. These materializations shiver with their own endings and rumors of endings. They will not reduce to theory or to fact. They do not finally dissolve. Yet they also shimmer with life, with difference, with relation. Here, it seems, the uncertainty that could not be solved shades into variegations of enigma.
This peculiar cloud shapes, as this book will suggest, a certain kind of theological space. In what questionable sense, however, does this book confess to being theology? It does speak God, the word. So do the theologians who render their authoritative word on the Word of God. But the word logos signified a speaking, a plea, an expectation, a reason. Theos-logos here makes a plea for a theory of theos as a word, a speaking therefore of—something else, or more than the word God. In its living contexts the practice of theology is always more and other than speech. So its theory has offered contemplative sanctuary in the face of the most dire uncertainties: a chance to regroup before the impossible, to practice an alternative possibility, to prepare for—no matter what. It works, when it works, to prepare its public, across manifold, shifting tongues and times, to confront suffering and death, injustice, catastrophe.
Theology in the Abrahamic register has however often answered trauma by ramping up certainty. Promises of truth, salvation, and eternal life thus morph into guarantees conditioned on acceptance of the operative premises. Such certitude surely offers solace in the face of the unendurable. And its political legacy of righteous unquestionability has wrought not only reaction but revolution. However, the cloud of the impossible—a book, a citation, a meditation—emits the antique promise and unrealized possibility of a different theological atmosphere.
Far from disappearing, the uncertainty that confronts us at every bend and scale is along this way granted its moments of speechlessness—whether of trauma remembered or prophesied, of tender curiosity, or of “strange wonder.”2 For along this path uncertainty gets edged by a contemplative silence, a pause, of knowingly not-knowing. It bears no resemblance to ignorance, mystification, or repression. Those systemic simplifications are just the shadow side of certainty: they operate the apparatus of the unquestionable—religious or secular.3 The apparatus encloses knowledge in simulacra of certainty, in truth-closures providing salvation from unwonted complexity. God either exists or He [sic] does not: let us get on with it.
But the present contemplation practices an alternative answerability; it remains insistently question-able. It draws upon strategies of theory, affect, critique, and poetics that will not add up to knowledge, at least not to knowledge straightup. Nor do they keep quiet, but yield instead an experimental alter-knowledge that keeps verbal faith with its silence. And that offers no easy grace: “Silence is all we dread / There’s Ransom in a Voice / But Silence is Infinity” (Emily Dickinson).4
In the pause that this book enacts, the alternative to mere knowledge and mere ignorance finds enfolded in itself the ancient theological ancestry of the brilliant darkness. This cloudy luminosity, already articulated in a fourth-century Cappadocian exegesis of Moses’ mountaintop theophany, unleashed the current of what is called negative theology—the way of negating in speech that which can be said of an excess, the infinity that escapes speech. The negation—a hopelessly misleading term, as it imports an affect of contrariness or lack—is nothing but the negation of a reification, a false positive, an ontotheological idol. As the Syrian writer known as the Pseudo-Dionysius said, just a bit later, of none other than God: “Not some kind of being. No.”5 These mystical negations do not, contrary to a standard reading, simply bow to an ineffable and transcendent absolute, absolved of all relation. If they did, the mystic would have . . . nothing to say. Exceeding language in language, negative theology positively glows with relation. Even at its most Neoplatonic early pitch, the divinity “is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things.”6 These relations exceed their world even as they reconstitute it. But they could never quite materialize as an explicated relational ontology within the classical terms of substance metaphysics.
The present argument depends upon a certain hinge or fold of Western intellectual history, where the apophatic alternative comes into its own, comes into materialization, in the transition between medieval and modern Europe. It takes the form of a fifteenth-cosmology, that of Nicholas of Cusa’s docta ignorantia, the “knowing ignorance” that negates the certainty of any theological, human, and so finite perspective. By this procedure he affirms the infinite complication of God and of the cosmos in theos. By way of this nonknowing knowledge leaps ahead: we will see him, for example, negate the geocentrism of the universe a century before Copernicus; indeed he negates any fixed center of the universe. Yet this theory, this entire genre of alter-knowing, was soon repressed theologically, and then scientifically, by the early modern conditions, coercive as well as constitutive, of power/knowledge.
Under much more recent conditions, in the aftemath of the modern, the poststructuralist fascination with the apophatic has precipitated startlingly fresh engagements of theology. For the most part, however, it plies only the negative epistemology, not the relational cosmology, of the apophatic. Indeed it has little truck with the Cusanic legacy, which like all relationalism would tangle theory in some version of ontology, even metaphysics. And despite the rich philosophical and historical examinations of so-called negative theology, surprisingly little actual theology does more than gesture at its cloud.
This book may collapse into the infinity of silence. The ransom may be insufficient. But it means to draw its sources into a constructively theological contemplation. Something is experimentally building up, rickety still, knowing itself to be ever in construction, in process of collaboration, experiment, and wrenching selection. The apophatic is not a wrecking ball. But of course theology as an apophatic construction recognizes itself as a possible oxymoron: one more impossibility, one more last gasp, of theology itself? Or might this very tension of affirmative construction and deconstructive negation count as a late and never symmetrical activation of that indeterminate third space Cusa dubbed the coincidentia oppositorum—where prior truths undo each other? A space of cloudy (de) construction. “Hence, I experience how necessary it is for me to enter into the cloud . . . and to seek there the truth where impossibility confronts me.”7
IN A MIRROR, AN ENIGMA
The cloud of the impossible, at least as this present text, does not propose a return to the truth of any prior mysticism. Its deep loops of repetition unfold now and uncertainly, in an intertextual indeterminacy mindful of its own history of Christian overdetermination. If an abyss gapes open—not a void, for on the contrary, its theological space may be too crowded—I hope it does so with some pleasure of amorous expectation. For the cloud does suggest an enigmatic embrace, an enfolding of the uncertainty of whatever it is that matters most. To you, now. In other words something about this historical moment (but which moment is it that has not already passed, surpassed this, any, “book”?) pleads for a fresh practice of the mindful unknowing. Such a practice at times repeats, and will never be the same as, prior stretches of the via negativa and of its Christian theism. It also touches base, and does not identify, with an atheology that negates all mystical negation, West and East, as not negative enough. The current alternative performs instead a disciplined uncertainty, its docta ignorantia continuously productive of learning potentially in any register at all, not just traditionally associated with theology. But there are few disciplines with which theology has not come into association.
If over a couple of centuries theology has come into a suspense compounded by every manner of legitimate or allergic suspicion, so much the better. Theology is invited to enter the cloud of its own impossibility. Losing control, it may keep faith. Paul Tillich, for instance, no stranger to the mystical abyss, unfolded in the face of postwar nihilism a faith that is the opposite not of doubt but of certainty. Faith, however, returns to its Sunday school every time it nails its language into positive propositions about just what it has faith in. For, in the cloud, in its darkness and its necessity, what we find ourselves in—“an unknown that does not terrify us”8—may be just what is coming unsaid in the saying. Perhaps it is after all not surprising that few theologians (conservative or liberal) practice such terms, that apophasis still plays a minor role in contemporary theology. Bad for business? And indeed because so much theology has practiced such an unquestionable orthodoxy those of us who question it from within do have so much, beyond mere critique, to say. Besides, when the religio-economico-political certitudes of the right menace the very possibility of that other and material world, that more convivial heaven and earth—how shall we take time for yet another round of mystery, uncertainty, ambiguity, poetry?9 We who would counter the anthropogenic apocalypses must muster relentless clarity of fact and value, no?
No doubt. We want to muster a trusty solidarity of activating con-sciousness that will ripple through the relations comprising our world. But we will need to mean it. Which may be different from benign propaganda for ailing liberal churches, fragile seminaries, and aging social movements—and which may release new resonances among those and vastly more and different theologically curious publics.
Let us dip for a moment into the supreme speculum of Christian theology. The phrase, “in a mirror darkly” in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians translates literally “in a mirror, an enigma.”10 But how does the doubling of an image in a mirror yield an enigma? Mirroring suggests clear representation. Is the effect of obscurity here not produced by the bouncing of light off a surface with which, far from revealing its other, alter, as a discrete object seen transparently, my own image interferes? The very reflection turns to diffraction. Here it beclouds—crowds—vision (all the more so in the ancient world, where a mirror was a speculum made not of glass but of polished brass—a cloudier surface). There is someone, some other, before me. But I and the other alter each other. My perspective constructs what I see before me—before I see it. As William James put it, you cannot “turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”11 Yet more darkly: does what I observe observe me observing it? (The allusion to quantum relationality, indeed to physicist and philosopher Karen Barad’s “intra-activity,” will come to the fore in chapter 4.) The enigma suggests the puzzle of perception, language, or knowledge in the face of that which eludes it. But does it encode here a simple void of knowledge—or rather the entanglement of the knower in the known?
The immediate context of the text is that of the seductive Corinthian entanglement, greater than faith or hope: “though I speak with the tongues of men or of angels, if I have not love . . .”12 And the image of the speculum follows directly upon “putting aside childish things,” as in, presumably, the literalism that mistakes its God-word for a God-entity. My own perspective implicates itself, mirrors itself back to me—differently. Enigmatically. What happens is not solipsistic self-reference but self-implication, a relation to relation itself. Faith can never mean certainty but only con-fides, faith-with, the socially explicated trust, troth, that love demands.
Nothing in other words is known outside of relation—whether of terror, tedium, or love. Nothing knowable comes ...

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