The Cloud of Unknowing and the Stone of Stumbling – Cloud of the Impossible Book Event

We thought we had successfully disenchanted the world, had exorcised the last sprite and fairy, thrown away our spellbooks and our alchemical paraphernalia, given up on the quest for the true language and the philosopher’s stone, and gotten past our dependence on priests. And barely had theology begun the work of mourning for this lost cosmos than it began to transpire that a strange new magic had crept into the world. Instead of miracles, we have keyhole surgery and 3D printed body parts; instead of witch’s brooms, increasingly mysterious automobiles; instead of covens, we have twitter mobs. Instead of the hocus pocus of hoc est corpus, we have the curious grace by which our words of desire can be transfigured into digits and back again so that, separated almost as far as the heavens are from the earth, the lover can render her beloved faint with love: this is my body, sexted to you. No wonder that, despite the best efforts of theologians, God is not (yet) dead.

In Cloud of the Impossible Keller reworks the myth of Moses’ ascent up Mount Zion, so beloved by mystical theologians, for this strange new era of materialist magic. No longer are we to separate ourselves from the crowds and leave behind the accoutrements of vulgar materialist religion as we ascend the holy mountain to meet with God. What we move away from are not concrete things but ‘abstractions mistaken for the concrete (an individual through time, countable economic units, etc.)’ which ‘conceal the constituent relationality’ (262). What we discover on the mountaintop is that, despite appearances, the move from the solid ground to the dazzling darkness – from Newtonian to quantum physics, from the ordinary solidity and stability of the bodies we touch to the paradoxical nothingness of subatomic structures – is not a move away from matter but a move towards it. We are not to abandon our relationships with others for a solitary mystical encounter with God but to enter instead into a mysterious cloud in which we discover ourselves to be constituted precisely by our relationships with all manner of others.

In some ways this is a reversal, then, an upending of the classical mystical schema in which the move upwards towards the cloud was a move away from particularity and materiality, and a move towards the purely spiritual. Yet we still move, for Keller, from the vulgarity of our commonsense ideas about the world to the more esoteric truths which can be revealed to us only by highly trained experts, the high-priestly figures of Einstein, Bohr and Stapp. We must still seek after the insight which comes only through contemplation, that what is most real is not that which is most immediately available to our senses.

And there is a danger here, in the heady thin air of the cloud which rests on the mountain’s peak. Keller folds into one another two elements of Dionysius’ mystical theology – the cloudy language which locates everything that is in God, and the apophatic insistence that, nonetheless, God is not those things – until they become almost indistinguishable. In the brilliant darkness it is hard to tell where the mountain ends and the clouds begin. But what is definitely excluded is the rabble who wait at the bottom of the mountain: the vulgar and doctrinaire materialists whose language is not only cataphatic but crude. We are to leave behind the coarse individualism of Cartesianism; the clumsy commonsensical notion that things are separate; the uncouth faith in the solidity of the doctrines, the identities, the universalisms that we cling to. What we have at the top of the mountain will not necessarily save us: the relationality of Christian love remains ambiguous (300); entanglement is the fuel of global capitalism as well as our best hope for the liberation of the world (263). But it is here, at the top of the mountain, that we must seek to precipitate a better future.

Dionysius the Areopagite was not one to shy away from the summit, yet he knew also the risks of speaking about God in the words most appropriate for the divine nature. Even the highest names for God are inadequate, and yet their seeming appropriateness is all too likely to make us think that we have grasped the divine nature. Better, then, to speak of God not only in high philosophical terms that seem appropriate but also in images that are wildly inappropriate, grotesquely inadequate to the divine nature, so as to disrupt the very discourses which come closest to speaking truthfully about God. For Dionysius this means that were are to speak of God as though the divine itself were uncouth – God is drunk, hungover, God swears and curses, God falls asleep and wakes up – but also as though God were best described with the names of the coarsest stuff of nature – God is, let’s say, a rock.

Keller cites Dussel’s argument that the ego cogito, the rational subject of Descartes, is ultimately reliant on the ego conquiro, the colonising subject. It is tempting to supplement this notion with Sylvia Federici’s account of the disenchantment of the world as the necessary condition of the primitive accumulation and machinic transformation of work which made early capitalism possible. As long as the world was magically entangled and its transformation mysterious, human beings could not be compelled to behave like the automata required by the Newtonian machines of the Industrial era. And so the superstitions and magical practices of women, the working classes, and the Indigenous peoples of the new European colonies were violently swept away, along with the Indigenous ontologies which bear such striking and yet largely unacknowledged resemblance to the new materialisms on which Keller’s work draws.

If the world is once again becoming magical, entangled, we might then ask whose interests this transformation serves. Why do we understand scientists as more akin to priests than to witches? In this new world, the cloud of Big Data in which we all live and move and have our being is the pillar by which government, the military and the police seek to find their way through the desert to the promised lands of peace, security, and global economic growth (what is the promised land, after all, but the space opened up by genocide?).

Perhaps then we might find room after all for the vulgar-materialist claim: God is a rock. Queer theology can be the apophatic polyamory that Keller detects in Walt Whitman; but it can also be, as for Marcella Althaus-Reid, ‘a stone on the road to force theologians to stop, fall down’. As Keller herself points out, the vineyard metaphors of John’s gospel speak both of fertile entanglement and also of the cut. To say that God is black is to say that God is not white. To say that God is the liberator of the oppressed is to say that God is the judge of the oppressors. To say that God is a rock is to insist that this particular truth is, however coarse, however rough, however lacking in philosophical niceties, a name for God that is so high we can’t get over it, so wide we can’t get round it, so low we can’t get under it; so that instead we must choose whether to be offended at it, to stumble over this vulgar materialism, or to make it the cornerstone on which we choose to build, on which we will stake our hopes even as the rains come down and the floods come up and the cloud of unknowing envelops us.

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