Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement is one of those rare books with a counter-intuitive thesis that, once one is looking for it, can be seen in unexpected places. Traditionally, negative theology has been understood as a purely epistemological enterprise, the nullification of positive statements about God. Keller’s innovation is to read apophatics as a prophetic praxis that calls us to respond to the urgent sufferings of the world. In preparing this post to introduce the book event, I discovered a prequel in Keller’s earlier, groundbreaking opus The Face of the Deep: her interpretation of the “comi-cosmic epiphany” of Job.
Keller reads Job as a theological parody that subverts a perpetually dominant logic of justice that blames victims. After tragedy befalls him, Job’s friends prefigure this common Christian, and now secularized piety: telling those who are suffering that they got what they deserved. Job protests his friends’ interpretations, but they insist. Finally, there is a dramatic moment in the story when God speaks out of the whirlwind and addresses the sufferings of his servant “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I made the clouds the earth’s garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band?” God’s speech continues with a bombastic litany of cosmological and zoological figures. In other words, God becomes a theologian whose negation of propositions entails a mindfulness of relations. Keller states “To the raging question of theodicy (How could a good and all-powerful God permit such injustice) the voice from the whilwind replies: Look at the wild things.” Countering the interpretation of the Joban narrative as an affirmation of God’s sovereignty, she instead finds an ancient call to relate to God and world, not through knowing, but unknowing: “The limits of our knowing, like the limits of our lives, trap us with an often tragic finality. Yet here shadows of ignorance begint to suggest the bottomless mystery not only of death but of life.” The non-knowing of God thrusts Job into a mindful relationality to cosmos and creatures. “The whirldwind rhapsodizes astronomical bodies, weather and wild animals because these resist human dominance.”
Keller’s queer marriage of deconstruction and social ontology moves to the forefront in Cloud. This impressive text is truly interdisciplinary, deftly moving between the early centuries of Christian theology, contemporary physics, Deleuzian metaphysics, Whitman’s poetry, and Butler’s queer ethics. Special importance is given to Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century polymath, and Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher of process. Keller revels in uncovering ways that they were thinkers ahead of their time. Throughout, the figure of the cloud connects discourses of nonknowing and nonseperability. Keller expounds what she terms ‘apophatic entanglement’: “the perspective of a possibility and the possibility of a perspective that come[s] to light in the dark zones of relation itself…The perspective of apophatic entanglement springs open just there where knowledge, which happens only in and as relation, exposes its own knowable uncertainty. Epistemology here folds in and out of ontology.”
I’m excited about the contributors that we have lined up for this event and the conversations that will follow. This page will stay updated with links to new posts.
• Friday, Jan 16 – Amaryah Armstrong – Participation and Imposition: A Question for Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible
• Monday, Jan 19 – Carolyn Roncolato – Reflecting in the Dark on the Cloud of the Impossible-Apophatic Entanglement and Adoption
• Wednesday, Jan 21 – Kate Tomas – Clouded Judgement
• Friday, Jan 23 – Austin Roberts – The Kataphatic Drift of Keller’s “Cloud”
• Wednesday, Jan 28 – Karen Bray – Un-reconciled Relation: atonement, attunement, and fumbling the notes
• Friday, Jan 30 – Marika Rose – The Cloud of Unknowing and the Stone of Stumbling
• Tuesday, Feb 3 – Beatrice Marovich – Entanglement, Speculation & the Future of Relation
• Monday, Feb 9 – Catherine Keller – Cloud Precipitates