Un-reconciled Relation: atonement, attunement, and fumbling the notes – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

This is a guest post from Karen Bray. She is a PhD student in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University.

The other day at that most holy of New York City rituals, Sunday brunch, a friend from a wealthy Episcopalian Church was discussing her frustration over the small turn-out for a Justice and Reconciliation service planned in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. We shared stories of struggles we’d experienced working on issues of privilege and justice within majority white and wealthy congregations (hers Episcopalian, mine Unitarian Universalist). Quickly we came to an issue larger than turnout: why reconciliation? Why Justice and Reconciliation instead of Justice then Reconciliation? Further whom exactly was being reconciled? And with whom? And by whom? While my brunch-mate’s responses contained many more references to Jesus than my own, we both agreed that now seemed like an awkward time to be speaking of reconciliation, as though there was a conciliatory or agreed upon togetherness to which we could return. Further, who had told any of us, those of us in primarily White congregations, that it was with us whom they wanted to be reconciled? As though being in good relation was a gift we had to offer and which they wanted to receive. Perhaps, and this was so for my friend, Justice and Reconciliation meant in part that only through works of justice would one become reconciled with one’s God. Still God was not enough of an answer. We finished our eggs before coming to be reconciled with reconciliation.

In the wake of reading Catherine Keller’s The Cloud of the Impossible at this time of great and necessary unrest I am left wondering if we can think relation without reconciliation. And if we can, whether apophatic entanglement, when viewed not as an ethical end-point, but rather as a theo-ethical method (what Keller might call our way of “doing God”), will help us to do so. Indeed, might apophatic entanglement as method help us to read Keller against Keller? By reading Cloud through such a relational unknowing we might resist Keller’s tendencies to side with connection over disconnection and to hope over fear in our attunement to our entanglement. In other words we might uncover from within the Cloud those tangles that offer a more radical form of relation as non-relation, as disruption, and as resistance to what we might call the totalitarianism of togetherness.

While reading the final two chapters of Cloud on my flight to this year’s American Academy of Religion I found myself humming the Lynda Ronstadt tune, “When Will I Be Loved?” Along with the head shakin’ and toe-tappin’ beat I was softly singing (to the frustration of the elderly SBL member seated beside me), “I’ve been cheated. Been mistreated. When will I—I be loved?/I’ve been put down, I’ve been pushed ‘round, When will I—I be loved?/I’ve been made blue, I’ve been lied to, When will I—I be loved?” (Is this too much knowing and not enough personal non-knowing, already for this academic blog post? A kataphatic view into the psyche of someone that fits into what queer theorist Michael Cobb names as “the pathetic category of the premarried” that unenviable temporal condition of being out of step with relation, a condition from which one must actively work to flee?) Is it only from one who is precariously pre-caritas that Keller’s book brings to mind such an odd tune? Perhaps. But it is the sort of tune Keller is accustomed to me singing in her ear. While Austin Roberts looked into the cloud to see if he could find a more kataphatic God, I’ve been seeking out a more apophatic stance toward relation. “You’re putting too much faith in the goodness of relation,” became my constant lament. An attunement to our entanglements, I argued, would not necessarily lead to atonement for the abuse of such connectivity. This is an assertion, Keller, who is far better at holding seeming opposites together than I, has indeed affirmed many times. This affirmation of the negative affects and effects of relation can be found throughout the text. For instance in her chapter “In Questionable Love,” she writes, “The relations in which it implicates me may be toxic. Or they may be antidote” (287). And yet, after reading Cloud I am left with the sense that indeed it is our relations, and in particular relations imbued with Eros that will save us. Indeed I am left with the sense that if we have any hope of fulfilling that impossible dream of healing in the face of crises brought on by Climate Change and Imperialism it will be in the coming to be attuned to our entanglements. In other words, the more awake we are to our material relations the more undone is our certainty that we need not be responsible for the suffering of those to whom we are related.

In many ways Cloud is about atonement through attunement, and it greatly succeeds at arguing for the undoing of those whom for too long have believed themselves unaffected by and un-responsible to the drama of the non-human, of the Earth, of the human-other, and of God. Attunement to the fallacy of this certainty, to the fallacy of our separation, to the fallacy of our superiority, becomes an atonement that can lead us to collective redemption. Yet, in its valiant and successful call to those of us in need of attunement and atoning what Keller may have left too implicit or under-theologized is the question of power-relations, relations that have granted certain people the choice to tune-out in the first place. What remains to be asked is how does the non-human, the Earth, the human Other, she who has been pushed ‘round and made blue come to be attuned? Are the goodness of relation and the positive power of love ever fully apophatically undone by the material experiences of those whom remain out of tune? Those whom needn’t be atoning, but rather for whom debts need to be paid? A call to recognize how we are inescapably entangled with one another, is not that needed by those whom already have been subject to the dangers of entanglements formed against their will. Keller, I believe, is not writing for those already too saturated with relation. Nor perhaps should she be. She is making a prophetic call for those caught in a dream of certainty and separation to awake to their responsibility. And yet she can help us to go a step further to talk about the ways in which relationality has been used to close off possibility, to nurture in one loneliness, unhappiness, and resentment, and so can be a tool of control wielded by a society that wants its terms of relation to remain unquestioned. In other words if those with the power to ignore relations, to rest in the complacency of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, are to have their certainty ethically shaken by their material entanglement, what of those whom have all along been unable to escape the snarls of relation—the snarls of particular and historical power relations?

An answer to this question begins to take shape when Keller offers the following understanding of how apophatic entanglement works:

The ethical implications become explicit—unfold mindfully—in concrete events of particular self-implication. Implicating yourself in the others before you, your differences ceases (as in process theology God has ceased) to be the exception. You become exemplification. You mind your implication in all the ethically questionable systemic powers. You ply collective resonances with more affect and more effect, energizing ripples, the fractals. You are not just you singular; you are not just you plural; you are plurisingularly you. Networks of resistance emerge across greater distances. The folds of past are unfolded and refolded in relation to the possibilities of future. This does not expunge any entanglement. But it unsnarls the knots that render entanglement a captivity and relationship a trap. (287)

Here Keller concedes that entanglement can be captivity. For instance, to be in “good” relation with a White supremacist society would be to follow the rules of White supremacy, and so this entanglement becomes for those who are not White indeed a trap. But she sees here in the apophatic nature of entanglement, in the processes of folding and unfolding ways of untying and retying knots of relation so that we might come to be with one another differently. I believe this possibility is indeed nurtured when we find from within relation uncertainty (and this is the crux of Keller’s work—a needed return to the material world that in its very materiality continues to undo and redo the world). And yet the terms on which these knots have been tied, and will be untied, are dictated by a history of power relations that beg for the apophatic untangling of the terms of relation and love on offer by Keller.

In his essay Lonely Michael Cobb engages Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which Arendt proposes loneliness as a common ground for terror. Cobb argues that the salve of “being together” is a totalitarian logic that actually accelerates feelings of alienation and dislocation to the point where, “The loneliest of us are not necessarily those who are actually alone but rather those of us trying our hardest not to be alone.”[1] In other words, one feels most alone when crowded out by those who are not alone. One is most aware of their failures at relations when one is intimately knowledgeable about the successful relations of others. One is most aware of being out of tune with society, when others have found a common pitch. As Sara Ahmed has noted in her recent work Willful Subjects attunement shares etymological roots with atonement, suggesting that to attune might also mean to “make one” or to make that which was separate, now a part (50). She assigns to processes of attunement words like, harmony, reconciliation, and a sense of peace. We see this sense of attune/atonement in Keller’s call for those whom have believed themselves separate to unfold from this oneness more mindfully, to acknowledge and respond to the one before you with whom you are implicated. This is perhaps a concept of oneness with which we can get on board, a tune we would be willing to hum. But with Ahmed, we would also be reminded that “The problem with attunement is not that it does not happen (it most certainly does) but that it can easily become not just a description of experience but also an ideal: as if the aim is harmony, to be willing in time with others. When attunement becomes an aim, those who are not in tune or who are out of tune become the obstacles; they become the ‘non’ attuned whose clumsiness registers as the loss of a possibility” (51). Ahmed sees in the non-attuned not the loss of a possibility, but the keeping open of another way. Can we be attuned to our relations without carrying the tune? Can we choose to remain out of the fold?

Keller might resist a sense of remaining out of the fold, but she certainly would acknowledge the need for a new kind of folding, and for the resistance to a cheap peace and unquestioned harmony. Instead of fleeing from the fold altogether (an ontological impossibility) she might propose unfolding and enfolding in novel ways, changing the terms of crease and fan. Indeed, in turning toward an ethic of love as key for any theo-ethic of apophatic entanglement she argues, “The most oppressed, of course, may not need the love motive for exodus; those called to answer for them do” (297). She seems here to recognize the power differential between those called to atone and those whom Ahmed would keep non-attuned. And yet immediately following these lines Keller notes, “But all—at least the 99 percent—will need to be ‘built up’ against the onslaught of impossibility. One can dangle eschatological threats and promises; but love has the fragile advantage of being its own reward. If it surpasses knowledge, is it passing into the cloud (another kind of puffy)—and through it into actualizations? Into actions of intercarnation?” (297). Fleeing is on offer, but is it only so if it is a fleeing toward the actualization of love, toward our intercarnal relations? I would beg of Keller here another moment of apophasis. To say if it is not the impulse of love that the oppressed need in order to flee old tunes for new, then perhaps it is not the love of those they are fleeing for which they seek. Perhaps we need to rest longer in the abyssal crease between the unfolding of exodus and the reconciliations found in an enfolding of loving intercarnation. Perhaps we need to let the very impossibility of being built up linger a little longer. Let our out-of-tune-ness, our out-of-love-ness, our non-relation hang heavy in the cloud, drenching us with discomfort. Perhaps we need to rethink the terms of love, fold, and relation, and so rethink the power that goes into defining such terms. No running toward the enfolding which Keller reframes as the embrace, but rather a bracing of self against demands to relate.

Keller’s method does indeed allow for this discomfort, for a way of bracing against toxic relations, even as we are uncertain which types would serve as antidote. She begins Cloud out of tune. In the opening pages she tells the story of fumbling the high C note while playing the French horn in a high school production of The Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream” (1). For Keller this fumbling marked an “early resistance to the whole drama of ‘the impossible’—and an inability to let it go” (1). But what if we more forcefully acknowledged that in fact the fumbling itself is that which opens up the very possibility of the impossible? Remaining out of tune is that which reminds us there is another way–never being so fully enfolded that one loses one’s plurisingular note, a note that can change the song all together. Keller embraces this type of material uncertainty; the whole book is about this. And it is easy to forget just how rare such a theological embrace of uncertainty, let alone one that refuses to be divorced from the material, truly is. Yet, without asking ardently enough why to fumble was a problem, and interrogating who gets to compose the notes of love and relation for which we seek, we (Keller and all of us committed to relational theologies) have not yet fully embraced our own apophasis. We have not shaken up the concreteness of our fidelity to relation. We have not yet fully addressed the differential of possibilities faced by all those implicated by the “Impossible Dream.” We have not yet made enough room for the kataphatic tunes of those rejecting the gifts of relation and reconciliation we have on offer. And we have not yet let our entanglement with these disharmonies lead us into a greater place of our own unknowing. But the method of apophatic entanglement, a commitment to doing God and World in this way, can remind us exactly of this not-yet, of the unceasing need to fumble even what we have conceived as our most radical of tunes. Indeed if we do God and World apophatically entangled perhaps we might stop asking to be reconciled. We might quit singing “When will I be loved?” In favor of asking, “What’s love got to do with it, anyway?”

[1] Michael Cobb, “Lonely,” in Affect Sex? On Writing Since Queer Theory, eds. Janet Halley and Andrew Parker, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 211.

One Response to “Un-reconciled Relation: atonement, attunement, and fumbling the notes – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event”

  1. Beatrice Marovich Says:

    Thanks for this, Karen. I appreciated a number of things about this, but I especially wanted to highlight the point you made about audience:

    “Keller, I believe, is not writing for those already too saturated with relation … She is making a prophetic call for those caught in a dream of certainty and separation to awake to their responsibility.”

    Questions of audience are never irrelevant, but I think you’re helping to draw our attention to how this might be relevant to some of the conversations about the book that have been developing on the blog. You make the point, here, that the willingness to not eviscerate uncertainty is still a rare thing, in theology. And I think you’re also subtly making the point (or I’m reading the point into this) that in some ways the emphasis on the irreducibility of relation is perhaps more aimed to particular (powerful) echelons of the theological establishment, or Christian communities. This isn’t a book of radical theology, or radical thought. In some ways, it’s seeking to be in conversation with thinkers who might not ever deign to read radical theology. But it’s also published under the Insurrections imprint at Columbia, and there are certainly other ways in which the book does seek to be in conversation with people who occupy another extreme on the ideological spectrum. There are obvious risks in positions like this: much as there might be productive connections on both ends of the spectrum, there will inevitably be clear and present failures to connect, as well. I appreciate the way you’re trying to re-think entanglement with/against Keller as a way of potentially disrupting or disorganizing the kinds of alliances the original patterns of thought, themselves, might make.


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