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. When 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.