Friday, January 23, 2015

Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement

Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. By Catherine Keller. Columbia University Press, 2014.  Pp. 394, paper.  

Let's start with one of the more important considerations. Of all the authors writing theology in English today, Catherine Keller must be ranked as perhaps the best and most innovative prose stylist. Her command of the language is incredible, and to such a degree that it might be said that Keller's contribution to constructive theology is as much in her use of language as it is in her proposal of concepts or analysis of the tradition.

For this reason, if for no other (and there are plenty of other great reasons), I recommend you read this book, then delve back into Keller's earlier works, especially her work on Revelation (Apocalypse Now and Then), and her most recent work on process theology (On the Mystery and The Face of the Deep).

Keller is patently a process theologian, deeply influenced by Whitehead, but what makes her unique among process theologians is the creative and grounded approach she takes to such theology, engaging, as she does in this wonderful book, contemporary physics, transcendentalist poetry, medieval theology, and contemporary philosophical work in relational theology.

Just listing these entanglements gives some indication of the breadth and depth of the work, but it is never inaccessible. Cloud of the Impossible expects much of its readers, but it is far from "impossible" to read.

If nothing else, one take away from the book is the extent to which the "cloud" itself stands as a symbol and image in Christian tradition. I certainly had not considered it as intentionally as other dominant motifs in Scripture like temple, Torah, body, baptism, or meal, and yet the more one looks at the breadth of the tradition, from the cloud that went before the Israelites, to the famous anonymous spiritual work Cloud of Unknowing, it becomes apparent that clouds are not a minor motif in Christian thought, but rather a dominant motif frequently overlooked.

Dig a bit deeper, and one discovers that clouds played a central role in the theology of such eminent theologians as Clement of Alexandra, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Gregory of Nyssa. For some reason, our vision of clouds has been clouded. Part of Keller's task in this work is simply to draw our attention to what had always already been there.

Additionally, because climate change is a core ethical issue in Keller's theology, the entangled relationship between clouds and climate comes forward. Clouds and climate change permeate the book. Towards this end, Keller makes frequent epigraphic use of lyrics from the enigmatic environmental indie band Cloud Cult--and to good effect. The epigraphs in the book sent me to Spotify for a re-listen to the albums, and they are splendid explorations in musical form of the theology developed in Keller's work.

Keller herself does an excellent job of describing the book's overall agenda. "The task before us will be to stage a series of encounters between the relational and the apophatic, or, to paraphrase, between the nonseparable and the nonknowable. Many of these encounters will take place as readings of nontheistic texts, requing little God-talk. But the series will nonetheless unfold chapter by chapter as the pulses and queries of a theology constructing itself even now" (6). This sentence lines out the agenda. Another sentence, nearby, illustrates her prose: "The Cloud of the Impossible hopes to demonstrate, billowingly, that these relations that materialize as selves and as collectives, the relations that crowd, that differ and matter, come also apophatically entangled in and as theology. For at a certain point the darkness--just where it turns theological, beyond all light supremacism--begins to glow: 'in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence'" (8).

The book begins at Sinai, with a consideration of Shekinah, God's presence as cloud and dwelling. Keller emphasizes that the unnameable name of God draws out the basic oscillation she is seeking to enact between enfolding and unfolding, saying and unsaying, possibilizing and making impossible.

Part 2 of the books shifts from Nicholas of Cusa and the Shekinah to a look at scientific, philosophical, and poetic explications of ontological entanglement. She makes splendid use of the quantum phenomenon described by Einstein as "spooky action at a distance." She also engages the philosopher most responsible for bringing Whiteheadian philosophy into complicated conversation with post-structuralist philosophy and psychoanalysis--Deleuze.

After a brief and wonderful journey through Walt Whitman, Keller then proceeds to outline a theopolitical mutual implicating of planetary entanglement in our ecological crisis with a constructive apophatic theology of love. This is a fascinating concluding proposal, because what it implies is that possibility itself, posse ipsum, may be precisely what love is, what Keller then terms an amorous cosmopolitics.

If I have one quibble with the book, it is her use of Nicholas of Cusa. As a constructive theologian, she seems to have built Cusa into that which she already needs to propose what she is proposing, rather than taking Cusa for what and who he is. But this is nothing that ultimately takes away from her theological proposal. In some senses, it will strengthen future readings of Cusa, because theologians of Cusa will have to, as Keller proposes, say and unsay in order to say more clearly how his theology differs from her interpretation of it.

What remains is what Keller has become known for, surprising sentences that knock the top of the head. Here is one, worth the price of the book: "After all, still, the God question. With one last gasp of theological authority, let me therefore say unto you--that for which God is a nickname cares not whether you believe in God. Doesn't give a damn. Isn't in the damning business. What matters, what might matter endlessly, is what we earth-dwellers now together embody. Not what we say about God but how we do God" (306). That'll preach, if you dare, but you'll get entangled in it, literally. Which is the point.

[Forthcoming as a review in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry]

Monday, January 19, 2015

Best Reads for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

This past year, I have become convinced that the reconciliation paradigm for race relations in the United States is a faulty approach, and plays into many of the white racist biases of our culture. Because the experience of various races in the United States is incommensurable, a paradigm based on parallelism of experience simply perpetuates the power dynamics intrinsic to racism as embodied in contemporary North American culture.

A couple of recent books have especially convinced me of this. The first was James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree
  which illustrates that even white liberal Protestants of the 20th century failed to connect the horrendous lynchings in the south to the crucifixion of Jesus, even while they attempted to address racism theologically.

A second book, Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity)
makes the most compelling argument I have ever read for reparations as the essential paradigm for race relations, over against reconciliation. It is really a must read.

Of course, the recent movie Selma is also convicting, because it illustrates the degree to which the Civil Rights movements was a Black Church movement, and how infrequently the white church participated in the movement.

Some recent excellent essays on Selma include:

Why the Oscars' Omission of 'Selma' Matters

What went wrong with the Oscar hopes for 'Selma'?

What the hell happened to 'Selma'?

Selma and Clergy

Then there is perhaps the most important book ever written in English on race and theology, J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account

He and some colleagues have written an essential post today that is worth the time on King's faith as driving his activism.

Finally, this brief post from Huffington Post on MLK Jr.'s name change, includes a podcast with Paul Rauschenbush that is totally worth a listen:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cursive Contains the Cosmos (or something like that)

Earlier this week 5 News was outside Butterfield Trail Elementary asking parents their views on proposed legislation requiring cursive be taught in Arkansas elementary classrooms. The reporter looked cold and was slow in getting takers, and my daughter seemed thrilled to watch the proceedings, so I agreed to talk. Here are the results:

I was ill-prepared to answer the question as thoughtfully as I'd like. Honestly, I think like quite a lot of us, I hadn't given cursive much thought. Everybody has their personal history with hand-writing. Mine is not a glory story. I promptly stopped using cursive some time in middle school and reverted to print, which I've used ever since, except on signatures and checks. My hand-writing is terrible. I much prefer to type.

Having given the question more thought, I've decided there is a more interesting question, one worth pondering. Rather than discuss: Should cursive be required? I'd like to ask: What is cursive, after all?

So, first of all cursive is joined-up writing (the way most other English-speakers title it) or in some places, simply "handwriting." Print writing, the type I use most of the time, is non-continuous, block letters, like the type of this blog post.

Qur'an in classical Arabic cursive
Joined-up writing, or continuous writing, has some advantages of speed in writing, but the most important technology introduced with cursive is simple: You lift the pen from the page less frequently. This was especially important when people wrote with quills, because they were fragile, splattered if not properly used, and broke easily. Joined-up writing reduces considerably the lifting of the quill from the page.

The origins of our cursive are in Arabic. The long flowing script of Arabic manuscripts inspired Medieval Latin cursive, which inspired our modern cursive. I didn't know this until I started researching this post, but a ton of languages have cursive, including languages I've studied but never seen the cursive equivalents, like Greek. Even languages very distant from Geek and Latinate employ cursive, including Bengali, and Chinese, which employs joined-up writing more within individual characters rather than between the words (likely because Chinese is written in a radically different way than left-to-write continuous).

So that's cursive. This leaves us with a couple of questions then. First, is cursive advantageous yet today for writing with speed? To this question, I'd answer no. If you really want write fast in the modern era, learn to type. Typing is our speedwriting technology. I think we will also shift quickly to voice-to-text technologies, so the next wave of speedwriting might be those who learn how to use voice-to-text tools efficiently. Handwriting of any type is on its way out, and not coming back, at least where speed is concerned.

As an example, see this fascinating essay by Richard Powers, a wonderful novelist who dictates virtually all his writing:

A more compelling argument can be made for cursive, however, and this is the argument from beauty. Certain types of handwriting are clearly more beautiful than others. This is also true of print, block letters, it's why we download and use various fonts. It's why some books are more pleasant to read than others, more pleasing to the eye. Print matters.

So too does handwriting. Honestly, I wish I had better handwriting. I'd like people to be able to read my handwriting with ease, and pleasure.

Lindsfarne Gospel, c. 700
Now, if you google calligraphy on, well, Google, one of the top hits is Shindig Paperie, a small business right here in Fayetteville that teaches it. I probably should sign up for a class. The point of calligraphy, its beauty, is its expansion of cursive. It is writing with long continuous strokes, as opposed to built up lettering which, although also beautiful, draws letters non-continuously by lifting the pen or quill.

Calligraphy is also the space in which writing truly passes back into the religious. Handwriting has always been focused at least to a degree on the maintaining and passing on of religious texts. In ancient periods, there were probably two primary groups who learned to write: those in power, who needed to keep political and economic records, and those in religion, who were tasked with copying religious texts. Think of the scribes mentioned frequently in Scripture.

Some calligraphic practices became high art. Pictured above, for example, is the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. Calligraphy in Arabic became especially elaborate, because of the injunction against graven images, so the text itself became the basis for much art.

But many traditions have, over time, turned handwriting and script into art. One of the most enduring is Nasta-liq, Persian calligraphy. Another is the calligraphy of Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty, China.

An example of anemic writing, by Zhang Xu
Interestingly, cursive has even drifted at times into non-meaning, abstract forms. Asemic writing, which was employed especially in avant garde artistic movements, actually has its origins with Zhang Xu of the Tang Dynasty (c 800 CE) who wrote in "crazy" calligraphy.

St. John's Bible, 2 Kings 2
I guess one might consider these types of writing the equivalent of speaking in tongues, in script. I find it fascinating that in a way commensurate to the transcendence of specific spoken languages by speaking in tongues (or Vonlenska), certain authors and calligraphers have transcended handwriting itself, either through artistic expansion or a drift a way to script of any specific sense.

That being said, a majority of calligraphy is still written for the beauty of it. One of the most famous recent examples is the St. John's Bible ( It is the first hand-written, illuminated manuscript written in the modern era. Like ancient manuscripts of almost any era, it was commissioned by a monastic community, Benedictines, but in this case it is illuminating a manuscript in a contemporary translation, the New Revised Standard Version.

Perhaps the problem with requiring cursive as a simple lesson to be learned in elementary school is this: It focuses primarily on the functionality (you need to learn cursive to be able to sign your checks... but in that case let's all just shift to fingerprints) rather than the art and beauty of it. If cursive is about beauty, it would better be taught in art classes. So let's have more art. Let's do calligraphy. Let's illuminate our homework, and create a next generation of young people who, through a variety of means, transcend the written word itself into something that takes wings, in whatever medium, so that art and language and voice and text all meet in a cacophony of gorgeous transcendence.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ezra & Nehemiah: Mission from the Rubble of Empire

Of all the texts of Scripture, Ezra & Nehemiah seem to get considerably less press than the rest. It is not entirely clear why. Perhaps new construction is always more appealing than reconstruction. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. Ezra's focus is the rebuilding of the Temple. Nehemiah records the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Both also recount the restoration of Torah observance and other ritual and religious practices of the returning exiles.
It's fair to say that David and Solomon, the kings responsible for the original construction of the Temple, centralizing political and religious life in Jerusalem, were sexy, attractive men, wealthy and successful and strong. They built structures worth celebrating. Ezra & Nehemiah are restorers, recoverers of what was lost. And they restore not on their own terms, but proceeding from the magnanimity of Cyrus the Great, the only other person (and a Gentile at that!) besides Jesus Christ himself who is called in Scripture Messiah (Isaiah 44:24; 45:1-6).
In an increasingly secularizing world with millions of refugees the world over, and increasingly diverse migrant communities inhabiting the many cities of the world, I believe Ezra and Nehemiah should interest us more. They are a biblical record of a time not unlike our own. They give witness to faith in the midst of flux, hope in the middle of rubble, new life between the shadows of first life and resurrected life.

The books are written mostly in Hebrew, but also in Aramaic. This illustrates the changing linguistic situation in the era (circa 450 to 400 BCE). 

Politics were also in flux. The Babylonians took people into captivity when they over ran them. The Persians had a different practice, allowing exiles to return home and rebuild, even allowing them to reconstruct their religious and political institutions. This was a wonderfully ecumenical practice, but it did meet resistance in the locales where exiles returned. Imagine if the land on which you lived were suddenly restored to the people you had displaced. It might be the right thing to do, but it wouldn't be popular, and you wouldn't want to move.

Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded, under the protection of King Darius and King Artaxarxes, in rebuilding the temple, what historically is termed the Second Temple. Some form of this temple remained in place until the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD.

Jesus spoke of the temple, and Christian theology has often emphasized that Jesus Christ in his body lived out the temple narrative. His temple was destroyed, and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). The most direct way to describe a Christian understanding of temple is to say that what was then centered in an actual temple in Jerusalem has shifted to the body of Jesus Christ, present in and among his people throughout the world. Similarly Torah observance, centered in Jerusalem, had already shifted in the exilic period to synagogues, so wherever a minion gathered around Scripture, there was Torah observance. The Christian faith with integrity continued this practice, so that Christianity no longer has a geographical "center" per se but is instead wherever the people of God gather and the word is proclaimed and the sacraments administered.

We live today as a church in anxious times. We wonder if we are headed into exile in our own places, in our own culture and era. The church has declined in many places where it once was established. It has not been taken forcefully into exile in the painful military manner of the Babylonian captivity, but it has suffered loss, and seems to be in a long slow decline, which some perceive as a direct attack.

We wonder what it means to rebuild. The church, whether it is re-rooting in communities it had once abandoned, or is seeking to maintain a remnant in places abandoned by empire, can learn much from the experience of Ezra and Nehemiah, even if the particulars of their cultic and political restoration are decidedly different from those today.

In particular, we can wrestle with the portion of Nehemiah that makes most contemporary readers uncomfortable. Nehemiah emphasizes the purity of Israel, the building up of walls to protect Jerusalem, and the purification (including putting an end to intermarriage and more), because he knew in a foreign land, the only way to maintain the identity of this people was through walls.

Christians yet today wrestle with this. Some come to the conclusion that "walls do make Christians." I think here of that famous work of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, and really any argument (of which there are many) that Christians are to be, in some form or another, a peculiar people.

The only way to make yourself peculiar is to have proper boundaries. Even if the boundaries are intentionally porous, the boundaries still matter.

Self-differentiation is, for Ezra and Nehemiah, a holy practice for a holy people. It's the only way to restore.

So we ask ourselves today, in the many forms of secularity we inhabit (and that inhabit us): What can we learn about secularity and a global refugee crisis, what we can we learn about a world of migrants and people on the way, from the restoration of the temple and Torah in Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah?

Even more importantly, what is it about this story of Ezra and Nehemiah that makes us avoid it? Why won't we stare it down, but instead mostly avert our eyes and look away? Is it an indication of how stuck we are in our current faithful engagement with secularity that we are unwilling to give these books the attention they deserve?

Another way of saying it might be, to be radical: Does neoliberalism have such a strangle hold on us that we are blind to portions of Scripture most essential to us today?