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.

But, this is not what Keller actually does. And from here on, I found myself unable to ally myself with the project. The problem I have with Cloud of the Impossibile is not that it asks: how do we engage with others? What role does the Other play in our self-understanding, and the creation of our understanding of the nature of God? But that in the asking and answering of those questions, particular problematic tropes are repeated, and bad, unequal and oppressive ways of relating are seemingly eternally regressed.

Darkness is a theme that runs throughout the book, and darkness is intrumentalized as a vehicle for Keller to reach and contact God. But this ‘darkness’ is not engaged with in a way any different to the way in which ‘darkness’ as a theme and ‘problem’ has been engaged with, used and utilized by white theologians, since they started writing theology. I’m not even sure that Keller herself recognises this. Because surely if she did, she would see that it is problematic.

One of the most striking examples of this is at the beginning of Chapter Seven. Here is an anecdote about Keller’s engagement with a ‘disabled and dark and homeless’ man who sits outside her yoga studio, begging for money. Keller says ‘He never lets go without a Godblessyoubaby that works.’ (216). For Keller, this other – the ‘disabled and dark and homeless’ – is a vehicle for God. The blessing this dark other gives her ‘works’. When this dark other instructs or petitions God to bless her, He does. But at what cost? And to whom? Why is Lee’s darkness intrumentalized as a vehicle for Keller’s encounter with God, in a way that reproduces a certain set of relations?

The same chapter opens with a quotation from Butler: ‘Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.’ (215) This is true and important to notice, but it is equally important to acknowledge we are not all undone by each other equally. Keller’s undoing ‘by’ Lee subtlety reinforces her privileged position– she may be confronted by his suffering, but one might wonder whether she is also being offered, albeit unwittingly, the opportunity to buy an indulgence.

For the cost of a dollar and a mention in a book, Keller can reflect on her confrontation with suffering, and distil her reflections into a powerful theological voice. Yet one might question whether this encounter with suffering, and its place within the book, simply evaporates the much-needed discussion of how such suffering is sustained. As concrete realities drift heavenwards, carried on complex sentences and poetic ambition, one has to ask whether certain concepts of God contribute to such suffering and the oppression on which it rests. Lee is a messenger from God; he occupies the position poor people, ‘dark’ people, and mad people have been assigned for thousands of years; if one is lucky enough not to simply be lynched, burnt, or enslaved. One wonders whether Keller has done enough to insulate her theological voice from repeating these tropes. I don’t think she has.

Christianity, and Christian theologians have a long and shameful history of appropriating the suffering of those ‘Others’ to support a fundamentally oppressive system of beliefs. Even those theologies that attempt to actively engage with the suffering and oppression of those which the Christian tradition has put into those positions, are guilty of maintaining this (analogous to sex-worker and trans*-excluding feminism). One way this is done is by fetishizing poverty and suffering as somehow being close to God. The efficaciousness of Lee’s blessing – his speech that ‘works’ – sits within this marginalising historical tradition.

Although others will disagree, I am not sure that Keller has distanced Cloud of the Impossibile from the long line of texts, by (well-meaning) white Christian theologians, that serve as apologetics for a racist and oppressive tradition. Perhaps this is impossible when one is deeply invested in retaining a great white male God.

I finished the book wanting to know, and yet not knowing – perhaps appropriately considering the book’s title – what role God plays for Keller, other than allowing her to maintain a broadly Christian practice and belief framework. A reader who is broadly sympathetic to Keller’s project may remain unsure how to bring the impossible cloud down to earth; how to turn vapour into vital water.

My reactions to the book can condensate into a question: What does this book offer people who are the others that Keller writes about, as a way of writing about herself? Sadly I think that answer is: not very much. Where is the engagement with those theologians who are not white, or cis-gendered? I only find them as token quotations; a scattering of epigraphs. A single reference to James Cone also serves as the single reference to racism in a three hundred and ninety four page book, ostensibly on the Christian tradition.

One cannot hold a cloud in one’s hand. Although one can grasp this book, Keller’s writing remains obfuscating and I would argue, elitist in its murkiness. The accusation of elitism in writing style is, as I am acutely aware, a controversial one. I am professionally trained in reading texts considered ‘obscurating’, ‘opaque’, ‘elitist’ and ‘impenetrable’. Very often these accusations are misplaced, or unfair. I do not think that all philosophical writing should have the same style; I’m not arguing for a ‘dumbing-down’ of philosophical language. However, there are ethical implications to the choice, whether conscious or otherwise, to push one’s prose to the limits of what is lyrically possible when it is not contributing to the expression of meaning. There is a kind of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome within philosophy, perhaps specifically in this crossover of theology and philosophy broadly from the Continental tradition, whereby people are afraid to admit that actually, they don’t understand what someone is saying. Well, I am not afraid to be considered stupid – It was often not clear to me what Keller was really, actually saying.

I’m aware that the response I have offered here is pretty negative, and I was not expecting for it be so. I was excited about this book, and I am sympathetic to Catherine Keller’s work more generally. But I found the text not sufficiently anchored in the world it sought to address. Theology ought to draw on a range of influences, and theologians must push at boundaries and -it seems to me – these efforts have to be constrained by a clear recognition of the various dangers and oppressions such theorising can inadvertently entrench.

I am also acutely aware that this response may be read as overtly hostile – that I’m attacking someone who is trying to fight the good fight, and therefore does not deserve to be criticised in the robust way I have. This is not an attack. But those of us with relative privilege – white (or in my case passing as white), in the academy (even if one is teetering on the edge) have a duty to do the best we can, and hold each other up to high standards. I hope someone would do the same for me.

5 thoughts on “Clouded Judgement – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

  1. Per the request of certain people on twitter I’m commenting. I’m not sure what precisely I plan to comment. I’m mostly doing this with some thoughts and to appease the masses.

    In the twitter thread that Anthony mentioned above the discussion came up about distancing from Christianity(s) and whether it can be done. And I don’t actually get some of the comments (snark mixed with twitter and intelligent people and multiple people is a mess). And it seems odd, to me at least, to talk of attempting to distance oneself from Christianity since it pervades basically everything in the West. So, I’m not sure distancing is the goal, or is really possible. Plus, I’m wondering if it’s meaningful.

    A lot of this gets pushed back against, I feel (and if my reading of this post isn’t shit), by Kate regarding theologies and oppressions and the Other. So, for me I think true/meaningful/whatever dialogue with the Other will in some ways ensure that one does distance themselves from Christianity, at least a Christianity that is a metonym and hegemony.

  2. Tying in with Amaryah’s reply to comments in the thread on her own post and in the need to synthesise my thoughts on Catherine’s, I guess what I want to say is that where Amaryah doesn’t want to oppose participation and fugitivity, I guess I don’t mind going in this direction—from the little I get of these concepts—and that Catherine has given thoughts as to why. (This is hopefully not now taken as an attempt to oppose Amaryah and Catherine!)

    Relating this to questions raised on Twitter (about Keller’s Christianity and whether there is a manner in which to be Christian I can get behind), the parts above that registered most with me, and prior conversations around participation; I want to throw it out there that I’m inclined to think that—insofar as Christianity has historically become deeply embedded with a white, male discourse—the terms for extending that discourse and being caught in its cloud are almost unavoidable. Catherine, in perhaps seeing just how interested Keller is in rehabilitating Christianity, and what this gives to the white, male God and the history surrounding it, seems to make this more easily observed. There are certain questions and assumptions that move through this lineage and tradition, even as one tries to test their limits.

    I’m not a Christian—or, I’m trying my best to not be (uninteresting part done)—but I guess and sense that I’m not against those who want to own the name, not least because this owning of it appears to eschew what may be said to be white, male questions (specifically regarding ontology). Certain points or bases for critique appear to function in ways that break the terms of whiteness, sexuality/gender, economics that sit within the dominant white, patriarchal lineage. This critique is seemingly central and said not to rehabilitate or fix something but to emphasise the realness of the dominant mode of making the world and seeing/living its end. I’m interested in that, especially given the place their points of criticism occupy.

    Hope this was of some use, and was able to adequately synthesise where I’m coming from.

  3. Part of the reason I’m sympathetic to Keller’s attempts to reconstruct Christianity in these participatory and relational-ethical, apophatically entangled ways, is because I don’t know what else you do with the fact that you are still compelled by things about Christianity. Not everyone can ignore it, reject it, excise it. For some of us, and I’m speaking particularly as someone raised in black Christian churches, Christianity and church spaces are how we came to a radicalized consciousness.

    Now, in a lot of ways, this is a Christianity that comes to be a warring against itself, but to me the work of being an antagonistic presence in Christianity is how I think I am most useful in stopping Christianity from being an oppressive imposition of itself on the world.

    I take Keller to not so much be doing apologetics for white men and a male God as seriously trying to deal with what it means that we are all entangled in the way we are. I don’t always agree with where she lands or how she articulates her project (I think Kate is right to be concerned about whether a fetishization of darkness is happening that ends up displacing actual engagement with dark peoples), but I think it is something folks who are involved Christianity in the way Christian theologians are have to address.

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