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]

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