Cloud Precipitates – Response from Catherine Keller

Cloud of the ImpossibleFor An und Für Sich

Sunday 2.8.15
Cloud Precipitates

Let me announce, not without celebration, that this is my first time to participate in this sort of virtual book conversation. Thank you Stephen, for initiating this exchange on if not in the Cloud—and Amaryah, Carolyn, Kate, Austin, Karen, Marika and Beatrice for offering such serious responses. I’m glad for the chance to offer a brief response—somehow—to all of you, all at once. I’ll riff a bit on my general sense of the joint challenge your responses offer, the trouble you together make, and perhaps offer a few more specific elucidations.

The most recurrent concern that comes across—in very different ways—is not surprisingly that of my commitment to relationality as the site of theological thinking. Relationality an und für sich! And worse—I seem to lay out an ontological interconnectivity as the site of anything that is. No getting around it: I admit it, I don’t think there is any salvation from a boundlessly entangled universe, or from the supreme entanglement we sometimes awkwardly nickname God. S/he/it doesn’t escape either. Though my language may be peculiar, that thought is hardly original, as Cloud is at pains to show along a (really long) western lineage. But it has been and remains a marginal thought, rarely tolerated among academic and cultural elites. Read the rest of this entry »

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Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation – Cloud of the Impossible Event

During my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took a poetry workshop with Thylias Moss. I’ve only had a few teachers whose classes I anticipated—typically in secret—in a I want to learn to think like her kind of way. Back then, I was super practical and wanted to be a poet (I hadn’t even begun to dream about theology, yet). Moss was one of those teachers. Her work was powerful, formally formidable, elegant, and ultimately inimitable. On one level, of course, I knew I was never going to think just like her. Race is inextricably a part of her poetry, illuminating a world of things that I only understood from a different orientation. But—though not unrelated to this—her poems are also (to use a category I wouldn’t necessarily defend) “nature” poems. Her poems have birds, and dogs—and not just as filler. They also have exposed optic nerves. There is a nature there, but its proximity is at turns amicable, benign, and damning. People are animals, which is a problem (for both people and animals), yet also something incandescent. Her poetry used language to world the world in a particular way: it did things that I knew (in theory) a poem was supposed to do, but often (in many poems) failed to. Her poems had their own optic nerves that made these strange and pulsing sub-visual connections between things that were apparently alien to one another. I didn’t have expectations about what the course would be like. But I admit that I was surprised to get to the campus bookstore and find a short stack of texts—for her class—on fractals.

Fractal art—in the form of digital graphics, or macro photography—wasn’t entirely new at the time. But I don’t think anyone besides Thylias Moss was fractalizing their poetry. Ultimately, for her, this was taking her further outside of that poetic tradition of the page—one that she existed in a degree of tension with—and into something else (like this, “The Glory Prelude”). Looking at some of her newer work, I get the sense that she’s been reading up on entanglement, the multiverse. But, back then, what she brought to us were fractals: those fragile, yet still powerful, highly abstract, yet deeply embedded, infinite patterns within things. She would have inhabited the stuffy tradition of poetry-on-the-page with a difference, with or without fractals. That’s how she worked as a poet. But the fractals helped. Injecting a discussion about them into our conversations about language, about the way we were each using language, changed the way I think and write. There was a kind of sci-fi adventurousness to it that made poetics both far stranger, and far more accessible, than it had been before. I still wrote poems about the same boring things: content pulled mostly from the small world I knew how to access. But I used language in a totally new way, I learned how to make fire from new materials.

When I chose to study with Catherine Keller, for the PhD, there may have been some residual expectations on my part—that I would find a similar kind of sci-fi adventurousness in the study of theology. I was drawn to the chaosmos in Face of the Deep, the way it made theology both more alien and yet also more accessible. In some ways those hopes for sci-fi weirdness were foiled. I was doing a PhD, after all. The bureaucratic patterns of academic life don’t take well to sci-fi. And Catherine’s work, too, resists sci-fi. The most prominent literary interlocutor in Cloud of the Impossible is, after all, Walt Whitman. Catherine has worked very hard to absorb scientific literature on entanglement, and I sense that sci-fi may be too unserious for her. Perhaps sci-fi (to use a figure Marika roused in her recent response) is a little too witchy. Theology is also, of course, risky in ways that poetry is not. The establishment has a long history of violence. Its relationship to power and politics are more structurally intimate. I mention Thylias Moss in this discussion of Catherine’s work, however, because I do think that, over time, I’ve come to see certain resonances between the way they do poiesis—the ways they world the world into language. Studying with each of them, I do feel like I’ve been encouraged to find those sub-material optic nerves, and to experiment with arranging them in new ways, to create differently organized filters through which to view the world. I think both of them have granted full reality to the relations between things—pliable, but difficult to render representationally—and taught me to work with this raw material. And I think, in each of their cases, using tools that are emerging in interdisciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities has helped to rupture the staid and stolid fields they work in. On a good day, this ruptured and ruffled sort of theology can almost be like the drag queen of the sciences. But only when it’s really put together. Something to aim for, at any rate. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cloud of Unknowing and the Stone of Stumbling – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

We thought we had successfully disenchanted the world, had exorcised the last sprite and fairy, thrown away our spellbooks and our alchemical paraphernalia, given up on the quest for the true language and the philosopher’s stone, and gotten past our dependence on priests. And barely had theology begun the work of mourning for this lost cosmos than it began to transpire that a strange new magic had crept into the world. Instead of miracles, we have keyhole surgery and 3D printed body parts; instead of witch’s brooms, increasingly mysterious automobiles; instead of covens, we have twitter mobs. Instead of the hocus pocus of hoc est corpus, we have the curious grace by which our words of desire can be transfigured into digits and back again so that, separated almost as far as the heavens are from the earth, the lover can render her beloved faint with love: this is my body, sexted to you. No wonder that, despite the best efforts of theologians, God is not (yet) dead.

In Cloud of the Impossible Keller reworks the myth of Moses’ ascent up Mount Zion, so beloved by mystical theologians, for this strange new era of materialist magic. No longer are we to separate ourselves from the crowds and leave behind the accoutrements of vulgar materialist religion as we ascend the holy mountain to meet with God. What we move away from are not concrete things but ‘abstractions mistaken for the concrete (an individual through time, countable economic units, etc.)’ which ‘conceal the constituent relationality’ (262). What we discover on the mountaintop is that, despite appearances, the move from the solid ground to the dazzling darkness – from Newtonian to quantum physics, from the ordinary solidity and stability of the bodies we touch to the paradoxical nothingness of subatomic structures – is not a move away from matter but a move towards it. We are not to abandon our relationships with others for a solitary mystical encounter with God but to enter instead into a mysterious cloud in which we discover ourselves to be constituted precisely by our relationships with all manner of others. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kataphatic Drift of Keller’s “Cloud” – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

As a second year doctoral student at Drew University, I have the privilege of studying theology with Catherine Keller. Probably like a few other bloggers at AUFS who have also been Keller’s students, I cannot pretend to lack a bias in favor of her work – perhaps especially in the case of her Cloud of the Impossible. But I do hope that my perspective as one of her students enables me to make a worthwhile contribution to this discussion. For this post, I would therefore like to share my sense of the way that Keller’s Cloud panentheism seemed to evolve over the last year of the book’s composition. Hopefully this consideration of her philosophical theology will stimulate some discussion for those interested in such themes.

During my first semester at Drew, I enrolled in Keller’s course on apophatic theology in which we read a draft of her Cloud. Although my overall response to it was positive, this early manuscript also caused me to question what she really meant by “God.” In my reading, she was extremely cautious in making any affirmative statements about the divine. While this is partly understandable for a book on negative theology, apophatic and kataphatic theology go together (as Keller often points out). Without a kataphatic moment or two, apophasis would seem to function as a mere wrecking ball. I also wondered if constructive God-talk had become a distraction from her seemingly more urgent interests, such as climate change. Does she really affirm panentheism – and if so, why? Is it on purely pragmatic grounds to provide support for her ethical and political concerns? Might she be persuaded by some contemporary argument for the existence of God? Could it be her fidelity to Whitehead’s philosophy, which includes a “divine element” that performs crucial metaphysical functions? Or would she affirm God because of certain mystical experiences that she couldn’t explain away? Read the rest of this entry »

Clouded Judgement – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

This is a guest post from Catherine Tomas. She is finishing her Dphil in theology at Oxford University.

Catherine Keller’s book opened up a multiplicity of thoughts for me. And ‘The multiplicities come attached systemically, perspectivally, with interest conflicting’ (216). The project of writing any form of theology is daunting. Perhaps because when one attempts to put onto paper a collection of thoughts, feelings and ways of knowing, writing itself can never seem an adequate medium. Cloud of the ImpossibleWhen one is writing a theology, or theology, one is attempting to pin down some type of amorphous being, a ‘cloud of impossibility’ as Keller has it, onto and through a type of form. I am acutely aware of this struggle and Cloud of the Impossibile is clearly an attempt to wrestle, or perhaps, charm, this essentially free moving and liberating entity or energy, into something that can be printed and re-printed and read.

As theologians, or (as someone not comfortable to call themselves a theologian) as those whose work it is to offer new theologies or ways of understanding the theology we have inherited, we have a responsibility to do this job in a way that is liberating, and reduces suffering. When engaging with the Christian tradition; a tradition permanently stained by an horrific history of abuse, suffering, oppression and violence – and by this I mean a tradition which has caused the abuse, suffering, oppression and violence – we have a particular responsibility to write theology that does not continue this tradition. There is no doubt this is what Keller is attempting to do. And I want to ally myself with this project. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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