Reflecting in the Dark on the Cloud of the Impossible-Apophatic Entanglement and Adoption

This is guest post from Carolyn Roncolato. She holds a Ph.D. in Theology, Ethics, and the Human Sciences from Chicago Theological Seminary.

In Cloud of the Impossible Catherine Keller asks, “How shall we think the relation between the nonseparability encoded in entanglement and the nonknowing minded by apophasis?” (7). Not surprisingly, the response that unfolds throughout this text is neither simple nor linear but rather an exploration of the many layers of what Keller calls “apophatic entanglement.” Using theories, reflections, musings, and theologies of nonknowing, Keller sheds new light (or better said, new darkness) on relationality, a theme that has been central to her theology since the beginning.

This text’s invitation to explore non-knowing, luminous darkness, and planetary entanglement comes to me at a most welcome moment. My partner and I have been waiting to adopt for six months; we have been waiting for a child for six years. Theoretically affirming the unknown is one thing, living it is quite another. As such, I take this opportunity to examine these concepts in light of my own embodied reality with the hope that Keller’s insights can help make meaning of the experience and the experience can help give flesh to the text.

Keller’s term “apophatic entanglement” describes with shocking precision my experience of waiting for a child in general and waiting to adopt in particular. I am in a deep, complicated and messy relationship with a person I do not know. My partner and I are making physical and emotional space for a child, carving out time and imagining a new life. In this process of waiting and Cloud of the Impossiblepreparing, we have been changed by and have become entangled with not only the future unknown child but the lives and stories of her birth parents and with the cultural, familial, and personal histories that have brought them to a moment in which they choose to place a child for adoption.

The insights of Cloud of the Impossible suggest that “unknown” may not be the best way to describe this child for whom we wait. I know that I do not know which means that the child is not entirely unknown. To know that you do not know requires knowing. As such, this is not non-knowing but different knowing. Keller invites me to imagine this different knowing not as lack but rather as revelatory and perhaps critical for healthy relationship. She argues that apophatic entanglement “signifies the perspective of a possibility and the possibility of a perspective that comes to light in the dark zones of relation itself. This is not the darkness of evil, but of the deep variegations of non-knowing that it may do ill to ignore or to manipulate” (7). The ways that one does not know another are not limitations or failures but rather gifts that bring with them a new perspective.

Being in darkness does not necessarily mean one does not know but rather that one must learn in a different way. In the dark one must use senses that are not dependent on light. This offers an opportunity to know differently, to know darkly. I have learned important things through the use of different senses in this process of waiting in the dark. I have deconstructed and seen the under side of the normative narratives about birth, reproduction, mothering, and connection between parent and child. Through this dark learning, this unknown child is teaching me how to know differently and in turn how to love differently.

I do not know from where or whom this child will come. This unknowing is just the beginning. It is a signpost to or reminder of all the other ways that I do not and will not know my child. Drawing upon Whiteheadian metaphysics, Keller reminds us that each being constantly changes and grows from the very first moments of life (and insofar as we are not created ex nihilo but rather made out of other people and relationships, the growth and change starts long before conception). As such, it will be forever impossible to know our child completely. As Buber, Bonhoeffer, Irigaray, and others have brilliantly argued, only surface relationality and objectifying knowing presumes to know one in all their fullness.

Keller writes, “Learned ignorance, or mindful unknowing, sanctions not the cancellation of difference but its intensification ….therefore this unknowing never lessens or reduces knowledge, but makes new knowledge possible” (23). This unknowing that begins our relationship with the future child is not a detriment but a strength. It encourages us to honor their wholeness as their own person, unique and forming in their own right. This is a non-normative way to conceive of parenting. It challenges the dominant narrative and presumption that children are the same as or an extension of their genetic parents. Though this insight applies to all types of parent child relationships, without the experience of adoption I may not have become so aware of it so early on. The unknownness of adoption gives me new perspective on parenting in general, a perspective that as Keller said, would have been harmful to ignore.

Waiting for adoption is a moment of illumination that shows that this type of unknown relationality is not unique. Keller’s point, and Whitehead’s before her, is that we all are deeply apophatically entangled; only in rare instances are we privileged enough to understand or see it. As part of the exploration of this type of relationship, Keller turns to Whitehead’s non-substance based metaphysic. I have long argued the importance of this concept in Whiteheadian thought. It makes possible the deep relationality of his system and is the shifting ground upon which later process theology is built. I have renewed enthusiasm for his insubstantial reality in light of adoption. Whitehead argues that the basic unity of reality is not substance but rather the actual occasion, a moment in time and space. In each moment, the actual occasion takes into itself all of its relationships (to self, to other, to God) from the past (both distant and immediate). Reality is made up moment-to-moment of these actual occasions. This means that the self is not a continual substance traveling through linear time and concrete space but rather is made up instance to instance by relationships. The greater the influence of the relationship, determined both by proximity and by intensity, the deeper the connection. This means that our degree of relatedness to another person is based not on physical genetics but on proximity, influence, and mutual love. Our closeness is determined by how much we are changed by the other and change them in return.

This understanding of reality can be employed to counter the primacy our culture places on genetic relations. It challenges the presumption that blood and DNA are what ensure attachment or closeness; that our bodies have to be made of the same substance or look alike in order to be deeply entangled in love and care. In Whitehead’s system the fluidity of our bodies and the entanglement of relation mean that my child’s body will still come from mine and mine from hers. In this process of adoption my partner and I are searching out and creating space for the relationship and that act is what will make us family, not genetics.

The child that I am waiting for is coming from darkness in many ways. Insofar as darkness is different knowing, she comes from a dark narrative, a story that requires alternative senses to construct and imagine. Insofar as darkness is creativity yet to be manifest, she comes from the dark realm of infinite possibility with myriad folds of particularity. Insofar as she will most likely be a child of color, she demands that we attend to the complexity and wisdom of darkness in the face of a light supremacist society. This child of the darkness has gifted me already with new love. As our entanglement unfolds and refolds in the coming years, I look expectantly for the apophatic wisdom yet to be revealed.

One Response to “Reflecting in the Dark on the Cloud of the Impossible-Apophatic Entanglement and Adoption”

  1. dirk Says:

    how (if at all) does this differ from the ethos (“toward a felicitous non-essentialism”) of not-knowing that Jack Caputo proposed back in More Radical Hermeneutics?


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