Symposium Introduction

As seems appropriate for a theologian so fluent in and influenced by process philosophy and theology, Catherine Keller has already given us a series of stunningly creative and constructive theological reflections on broken and mended webs; the fires and passions of apocalypses now and then; the face, darkness, and promise of the deep; and current configurations of God, politics, and power. Keller’s latest theological achievement, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, enfolds negative theology and embodied relation.

More fully stated, Keller cross-fertilizes and complicates negative theology with a cosmology, ontology, ecology, and ethics of relation. The style of negative theology offered and performed here is inspired more by the early modern Nicholas of Cusa than by negative theology’s more hierarchical or reductive practitioners. The multiplicity and dizzying complications of relation are borne out by forays into David Bohm’s astonishment at a universe gone relative and quantum; a mutually enriching encounter between Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze; a reading of the poetry of Walt Whitman; an examination of the ethics of Judith Butler; a look at crusades and the flow of capital past and current; an analysis of whether an ‘apophatic ecology’ might be possible or even desirable; and finally a recommendation of ‘question-able love’, in line with elements of the Jesus of the gospels or the Paul of the epistles, as an appropriate way to greet and accept the unknown. The heterogeneity of these forays shows just how sweeping and arduous the task of thinking through embodied relation is. All the more impressive, then, is the way in which Keller continually keeps alive the question of the presence and diffusion of God amongst, in, and beyond these embodied relations.

Cloud of the Impossible is an impressive and astonishing work, and it is so because its author seems so clearly impressed and astonished by that great cloud of relations which only grows and complicates ever faster as we attempt to take its measure. The cloud also grows and complicates further as our panelists participate in its diffusion. Laurel C. Schneider, reflecting on the difference between taking part and taking apart, helpfully reminds us that at times ‘relations’ often seem and are experienced more as ‘tangles’. Jeff Keuss wonders if the variegated cloud may obscure and hamper what it envelops and poses to a work so concerned with matter and with what matters a question regarding materialism. Mary Jane Rubenstein offers a sprightly and clear account of the book’s task and raises two questions: what difference does God make for Keller’s cloud, and what types of difference may appear when thinking through embodied relation and the divine. Finally, using examples pulled from microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology, Karmen McKendrick interrogates further the form of relating which is vulnerability. Keller has given to us a suggestive and productive work, and each contribution to this symposium suggests ways in which the book continues to produce.



Laurel Schneider

Jeff Keuss

Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Karmen MacKendrick

About the Author

Catherine Keller is professor of constructive theology at Drew University. Her work interweaves process relationalism and poststructuralist philosophy with an evolving feminist cosmopolitics. At once constructive and deconstructive in approach, it engages questions of ecological, social, and spiritual practice amidst an irreducible indeterminacy. Among her many books are Apocalypse Now & Then;God and Power; and The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming.

Laurel Schneider


The Productive Vitality of Fog

DIVINITY TAKES PART. What might be called God exists in the stuff of everyday existence, the impossible infinity and necessary limitations of embodied relations. Divine names matter, but only if they help us better to recognize these embodied infinities and limitations. Only if they help us to better understand our taking part in them. Catherine Keller turns the apophatic requirement for expressing divine existence on its head: rather than the abstract inevitabilities of “not that” and “greater than” that characterize the via negativa, divinity here participates in the infinity of worldly embodiment, in the inexpressible multiplicity of real, fleshy, and limited relations. It is the very kataphatic claim of worldly entanglement that requires apophasis. Because God exists in the stuff of everyday existence, the impossible infinity and necessary limitations of embodied relations. Divine names matter, but only if they help us better to recognize these embodied infinities and limitations. Only if they help us to better understand God’s (and our) taking part in them.

Out of many lines that grab me in Cloud of the Impossible, there is one that I want to take up here. She writes, “The work of apophatic entanglement would be nothing but spiritual frivolity if it did not face us, in the end, with this: the possibly impossible chance of getting back in touch” (268). In touch is a phrase with many trite lives. But Keller is dead serious, and she means us to take “in touch” variously and complexly, of course, and it is this “possible impossibility” that provokes me to further thought.

Wislawa Szymborska’s poem “Conversation with a Stone” is a dialogue between a narrator who asks at the start of each stanza to be allowed into the stone. The stone’s refusals come back each time to the narrator’s missing capacity (emphasis mine):

“You shall not enter,” says the stone.
“You lack the sense of taking part.
No other sense can make up for your missing sense of 
             taking part. 
Even sight heightened to become all-seeing
Will do you no good without a sense of taking part.
You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that
             sense should be,
only its seed, imagination.”

Following Keller we can say that “taking-part” is what we are at a most foundational, ontological level—each is part of “it all” (whatever story of all you like to tell). Each of us is therefore only partly ourselves, never complete, always also entangled and partly other. But this does not mean we are only a swamp of indistinction. In this deeply, abyssal, apophatically possible relational concept we (in whose compass I include every sort of human and other-than-human “I”) are both part and yet not subsumed, part and apart.

Participation—at once ontological interrelation and image of democratic action is a “metaphor of relation” at the heart of this project (ch. 8). But ontological interrelation is difficult to articulate in positive terms in the shadows of Kant. If only relations can be fully parsed, come out of the cloud into view like strands of DNA. The error we’ve so often made, of course, is assuming that what can be brought into view (a DNA strand, say) completes relation, inheritance, provenance, future. That’s Keller’s point. Hence the “cloud.”

So I agree with Keller that participation is a metaphor of relation and a key to our “doing otherwise,” but also with Szymborska that having a sense of it is essential to un-doing the crusader complex, to Islamophobic, gaiaphobic conquest. Had we any sense of taking part to begin with, perhaps what follows from that sense would have been the sense that when you smash a stone (a people, a culture) to enter it, you just have rubble, you remain outside.

But do we have a sense of taking part? Or is the stone right, and all we have is a vague sense of that sense? Are we (post)moderns, unlike the stone, unlike all of the other parts of everything, somehow lacking the impossibly simple capacity, appendage, or skill that is the sense of taking part? Must we make do with the second-order sense, namely imagination? I suspect that, given the evidence of human history, we must.

In tracing the genealogy of Islamophobia Keller contextualizes this apparent incapacity we [humans? Westerners?] have. Via Gaia’s loss of the human child on the Pergamon Gate she calls it “broken touch” or having lost touch—which is, by the way, a brilliant reflection on the possibility that we might have once had a sense of touch, have been in touch—with Gaia, with worldness (Glissant). This is touch/sense riven by war and rumors of war, by greed, conquest and the elimination of every sense but that of separation. Which means we “take part” regardless of our sense of it. But because we do not, really, possess the sense of taking part, we end up always it seems, taking things apart, instead of sensing how we take part . . .

I am not just playing word games here. Taking part and taking apart are the result of different affective sensibilities—taking apart parodically displaces taking part. Does understanding come from breaking things apart? Is relation established by various forms of genetic or historic dissection? In part, yes. But Szymborska adds something here, refusing us a sense of participation and I imagine that in desperation over that missing sense we madly take things apart, including our own selves, to find the point of connection, the sense where we do, actually take part. And sense it. The irony of Szymborska’s poem is, of course, the intuition that if we had this sense of taking part, we’d already be there—in the stone, the leaf, the drop of water. The sensing it does not enable or disable the participation because as Keller argues we always already participate. But without the sense of or for it, we settle for, then pursue, then need, separation as conquest and so needlessly, catastrophically—take ourselves, and the world, apart.

I dwell on Szymborska’s image of the stone refusing us entry into itself as a result of our own missing organ of sense because it helps me to think about what is so significant in Keller’s project here. She is—I suggest—imagining a sense of taking part, locating us in irreducible tangles rather than clear strains of relation. The cloud is metaphor and harbinger, opacity and irreducibility its grammar of expression. This is a deft reframing of relationality into a whole new realm of imagination (imagination being the seed of the sense of taking part, as the stone reminds us) that requires cloudy imprecision, a light touch, like fog. Can we learn to talk about relation in ways far more complex than the usual linearity of family trees (that are not trees, but maps of simplification)?

Although Keller is undertaking a self-avowed apophatic exercise here, we could see it’s result as a kind of queer failure of apophasis—queer failures, of course, being queer successes at failing the norm in productive, if dissenting ways. We are in a density of relations that only disappear when taken apart. They depend on being present, in the way that clouds are present. Relations in this sense demand a new kind of theorization because of their irreducible thereness, lost when squeezed, like clouds. Dissatisfied with the aporia of ontological affirmation and with our cognitive tendencies toward negation when faced with relations (even to stones), Keller is leading us toward a smarter, more careful and intellectually complex affirmation that reveals apophasis, in her hands at least, to be the affirmation of what is im/possibly there. Of course classical apophasis is rooted in the effort to say what is impossible to say about what exists beyond saying, but there seems to be a difference here. Cloud ventures a kind of ontological accounting of complexity and wholeness that brings us closer to the prosaic everydayness that we are. It confounds all static, reductive ontologies by its constitutive motion and its insistence on finding—doing—God in the tangled impasses and endless unfoldings that life/existence is. Its apophatic affirmations do not result in the usual, flat not-thats or greater-thans but in a more sensible and poetic affirmation of what can be experienced of the world without mistaking that experience, ever, for the whole story. Whole stories are marvelously multiple and so must be held lightly, told carefully, attentive to the new stories that they invariably produce in the telling.

In other words, Keller is knitting together all of the skeptical exceptions and reversals that postmodern feminist, postcolonial, postcapitalist, queer, and eco/planetary criticisms have wrought in the possibility of thinking theologically as a mode of invoking divinity. Speaking of God, she tells us in the end-that-isn’t, is not the point. Doing God may be. This is an apophasis that isn’t, a recognition that the God indicated by “not-that” isn’t.

So, if Cloud is the most sophisticated and comprehensive argument to date for our sense of taking part as a means of thinking ontologically, politically and theologically in ways that defuse rather than reinscribe the conquest-complex, then it seems to me that it succeeds philosophically in guiding us toward a new way of thinking that is tied to—entangled with—a need to feel our way back to touch. Being enfolded in an endlessly changing and dimensionally multiple web of relations confounds the reductive rules of argument that rely on logics of linearity, simplicity, and closure.

Where theology tries to encompass or clarify it runs the risk of reifying, once again, crusader capitalism instead of the sense of taking part. The work of theology—of “doing rather than saying God” therefore suggests a methodological shift that might be described by the directive to “get back in touch, don’t go back.” Touch the earth. Touch the body. Begin to feel. Get some sense, even if it isn’t quite up to the stone’s snuff. By this I mean that theology cannot afford to explain itself without some mucky feeling for the world. In challenging us to go beyond saying God to doing God Keller is suggesting that is the theologian’s job to notice where God is being done; which takes feeling. Touch.

But, finally, what if the poet is right? What if the most we can do is sense our lack of sense of taking part and only imagine that sense? Perhaps this is so, or perhaps the lack is merely an atrophied muscle. The sense of taking part requires a change of genre, of theological and religious expectation. So—if the sense that feels the relation, the entanglement, has gone missing in the human animal but remains abundant in stones—and other non-human persons with whom we are complexly entangled—the question becomes how do we recover, recapitulate, feel again without going back? For getting back in touch, Keller argues, should not be a going back. There is no pure origin from which we fell. There is everything that we are, and “doing God” is a homeopathic way into our missing sense of taking part.

I have spooled out some threads here to see what fertile tangles they get us theologians into. Could the im/possibility of a chance of getting back in touch be is as simple and as infinitely complicated as feeling the thoughts we think? Could it be giving greater value to imagination—that seed of the sense of taking part? Imagine taking part. Imagine feeling it. Think theology from that feeling, that sensitivity. Accept an apophatic posture that, far from establishing exception, embeds divinity in the present and in presence.

So—imagine your sense of taking part, keep imagining it, keep making sense. Be affected in your reading, your writing, your thinking. Clarity is not the clearing of the mist or the disappearance of opacity. It is not the complete argument, doctrine, or revelation. Clarity is becoming conscious of the persistently swirling cloud of relations, of inheritances that we cannot go back and undo. Clarity is knowing the productive vitality of fog. Sensing the part we take in all of it, theologians can bring that sense, sometimes, to words.

  • Catherine Keller

    Catherine Keller


    The Stone and the Cloud: Response to Laurel Schneider

    “Taking part and taking apart are the result of different affective sensibilities—taking apart parodically displaces taking part.” I will be happy just to meditate on this sentence of Laurel Schneider, which, in the act of responding, has stirred up a whole new vibrancy of responsiveness itself. It wouldn’t be the first time! Calling so effectively upon an affective sensibility that she isn’t sure we have, or that we have anymore, or that we have access to—do we already begin to feel it?

    Not merely taking apart our impressive capacity to take apart (not just to destroy first of all but to analyze, to criticize) she captures its inadvertent parody of the connections it means to analyze. If it kills to dissect, it no doubt really did mean to understand. If it conquers to love, it surely did want to break through an obstruction. Without the sense of participation, the affectivity that motivates engagement to start with, “we settle for, then pursue, then need, separation as conquest and so needlessly, catastrophically—take ourselves, and the world, apart.” Insensibility to the relations does not make them go away, does not extract us from the participation in them that composes us. It makes them fester in fragility or denial, in trivialization or antagonism. It undermines a responsiveness—an intimate and infinite responsibility—that might yet be possible.

    She captures the problem precisely: “The error we’ve so often made, of course, is assuming that what can be brought into view (a DNA strand, say) completes relation, inheritance, provenance, future.” One might riff here on the appropriation of relation by for instance heteronormativity, with its reproductive norm for the inheritance of the future. In the rendering transparently visible, fully present, oculocentrism meets heterosexism! And the broader point, which she rightly locates in my Cloud, is that the self-deception of such epistemic certitudes, may actually be taking apart any viable future.

    So Laurel Schneider is interpreting with such grace the connectivity that crowds Cloud of the Impossible that one no longer has to remind the reader that relations are not safe, that connectivity is not total, that knowledge is not undervalued, that God is not settled. All those negations that have run through my attempt to reread negative theology are vibrating there in that parody. Schneider is capturing (ok, taking part in) the heart of this experiment in an apophatic entanglement that runs on a chiasmic loop between the nonknowing and the nonseparability, between the ancient discipline to unsay God theologically and the contemporary pressure to theologize multiplicity. The dark cloud of unknowing that hosts or menaces ultimacy now embraces bodied multiplicity—indeed kin to Schneider’s Beyond Monotheism, it divinely undoes the logic of the One and unfolds “in and as multiplicity” (Cusa). And then it would not be a matter of merely knowing our ignorance and so humbly owning our limitation: but of thereby cultivating “the sense of taking part.”

    If Schneider’s approach here stirs that sense, it is because she has entered through the striking poem of Wisława Szymborska. And here it is ironically the rock—perennial symbol of the insentient—that refuses entrance, that prophetically accuses us: “you lack the sense of taking part.” This is a fabulous turn-about from the vantage point of the cluster of thinkers who have insisted upon the affective aliveness of all creatures. Whitehead’s notion of prehension—the feeling of the other that constitutes the first phase of any becoming, which is to say of any creaturely existence, animal, vegetable, mineral—does this early, and is picked up by the Deleuzian “fold.” Bennett’s Vibrant Matter features an assemblage of stones on its cover, preparing the way for her analysis (sans “vitalism” proper) of “a life of metal.” Mel Chen’s Animacies likewise, and with the spunk of a combined sensibility of queerness, race and disability, renders the animacy of metals. Such theories are bringing to light what does not have to be brought to life—but what needs now, with perhaps unprecedented urgency, to be protected from our civilization’s deadening effect.

    But Szymborska’s poem does grant us at least the seed of the lacking sense, “imagination.” And Schneider suspects this may be the most we can expect from ourselves—a second-order imagination (like these speculative projects). She takes this opportunity to call us to it: “Imagine taking part. Imagine feeling it. Think theology from that feeling . . .” I just want to say amen. And that nonetheless I suspect that we don’t bother with that imagination unless there is a germ within the germ: the affect barely conscious but no more absent than is the participation itself. Merely numbed into such muteness that it gives us no guidance. Until we do that work of the imagination. Theology and all?

    Yes, Schneider would have us “accept an apophatic posture that, far from establishing exception, embeds divinity in the present and in presence.” I cannot here engage what she signals here, as it would pull us into a huge discussion of political theology. Suffice it to say (and I have been writing this here and there) the notion of divine omnipotence as the model of political sovereignty rests always on the presumption of “power in the exception.” So if the answer to sovereignty is not mere anti-theism then it is a counter-theism that is precisely a God so ubiquitously embodied as to be (borrowing Whitehead again) not the supreme exception but the supreme exemplification. Yes, in the present—not as a metaphysics of substantial presence, but in the concrescences and evanescences of now.

    I appreciate that Schneider is reaching with generosity to grant me my apophatic language, with its ancient neoplatonic baggage. She is leery of all of the old “flat not-thats or greater-thans.” As am I, when they settle into a kind of mystical piety of the incomprehensible; this generates a mere fog, discouraging of thought—or at least in its degraded forms, distant from the genius of the actual apophatic thinkers (which I hope I have shown in chapters 2 and 3), readily dissolves into a disembodied indifference to the world. And it easily gets appropriated by “take this on faith: you cannot understand it.” She thus stresses with good reason that I have turned negative theology “on its head” in order to get it “in touch,” in order to turn it into a means and a practice of touch: touch as the most embodied feeling of taking part. Schneider flatters me by accusing me of a failure: “Although Keller is undertaking a self-avowed apophatic exercise here, we could see it’s result as a kind of queer failure of apophasisqueer failures, of course, being queer successes at failing the norm in productive, if dissenting ways.” If I read her correctly, she is channeling J. Halberstam’s queer art of failure not only to affirm my transmogrification of apophatic theology but also my iterations of it—inasmuch as it is in its ancient and medieval contexts a series of insistent resistances to all, really all, successful God-talk. It radically avows failures, not with a posture we can retro-name queer, quite, but with a premodern autodeconstructiveness that allows ancestral resonances to register in the current cloud.

    What more cunning irony for testing the capacity of the cloud to host its limitless crowds than to encourage experiment by way of failure. If I have failed well, then the sense of taking part now demands the solidarity of impossible reaches of relation. But to this solidarity Schneider has added the solidarity of Szymborska’s stone: impossible, this solidarity of the cloud and the stone!

Jeff Keuss


Solid as a Cloud

The Haunting Question of Totalization and Immanence in Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible

“IS THIS HOW ‘PURE IMMANENCE’ is to be achieved after all—by acts of allergic simplification?” In chapter 5, “The Fold in Process,” Catherine Keller (to engage one of her favorite homonyms in Cloud of the Impossible) plies with origami precision many distinct yet strangely unified topics in this singular reflection relating to Gilles Deleuze’s late work The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Keller’s latest tour de force is deceptively complex in its multivalent attention to the vast theopoetic legacy that is Negative Theology and its antecedents. I say “deceptively complex” in no way to im(ply) that what bursts forth could (or should) be more simply rendered in some flattened or direct dogmatic discourse. Rather, akin to the central motif of clouds that morph, gather, dissipate and break forth into unexpected storms or silently break faith with the sky above allowing a Heideggarian clarity (aletheia) to arise between that which transcends and that which falls earthward on failed waxen wings. It is a destabilizing text in the tradition of early Mark C. Taylor and his attempts to heed the muse—in Taylor’s case the scholarly and poetic implications of deconstruction after Derrida—and allow the form of the text align with the implications of the subject. Where Erring, Hiding, and Tears were Taylor’s attempts to unwrite the essentialist academic monograph in the 1980s, Keller’s Cloud in a similar fashion floats and speaks forth at its own pace and offers little analog to other scholarly tomes addressing such rich and diverse conversation partners. and ultimately requires a calm repose akin lie with our backs to the earth, watching the sky in silence, and taking in the fullness of what comes forth come rain or come shine.

Many of the scholarly threads that constitute the tapestry that is Cloud of the Impossible will be familiar to anyone au fait with conversations in the book hall of the American Academy of Religion in recent years: the renewed cause célèbre of Nicholas of Cusa, the continued interplay of quantum theory with theological method, Process thought reimagined and reframed as hermeneutic intertext with Denys the Areopagite and the deep undercurrent of various iterations of Death of God theology that continues to break upon the theological shoreline wave upon wave upon since the 1960s. Yet in her aside mentioned earlier relating to Deleuze—“Is this how ‘pure immanence’ is to be achieved after all—by acts of allergic simplification?”—there are two themes that I would welcome further commentary and seem to continually billow the many clouds Keller brings to foreground: that of the unending search in scholarship for a grand unifying Theory of Everything and the “spooky distance” in theological discourse after modernity in regard to materialism.

As Keller rightly acknowledges, “Theology, in its temptation to a Theory of Everything (TOE), is mirrored back to itself in the certainties and teleologies of Western civilization.” As she continues Keller offers the following as counterpoint: “Yet there appears in cloud perspective no lack of purpose, but rather a myriad of purposes, often cross-purposes, including the purpose to counter teleological presumption. Such purposeful multiplicity offers no omega point, closure, final eschaton” (166). Keller’s beautifully rendered appeal to “cloud perspective” in the threefold movements of the complications implicit in the cloudy motif of YHWH found in Judeo-Christian scriptures, David Bohm’s revolutionary explications with his turn in quantum physics toward atomic particles as “best regarded as a poorly defined cloud” (139) and the deeply embodied self-implications of the Christographics of the cloud which calls us to an ethics of radical love (which Keller acknowledges is “just as wastefully overnamed as it most solemn metonym, God”) which still seems to reach out for that elusive forbidden fruit that is a Theory of Everything that this time is rendered as a cloud by day rather than a tree in the garden. In this sense Keller goes a bit steam punk Victorian in her sensibilities in framing a wildly multidisciplinary work circling a grand motif that puts her in good company with George Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Darwin. In the introduction to The Foundations of a Creed George Henry Lewes makes the prophetic comment in regard to the Victorian period: “The great desire of this [Victorian] age is for a Doctrine which may serve to condense our knowledge, guide our researches, and shape our lives, so that Conduct may really be the consequence of Belief.”1 Such a statement would be a good summation of Cloud of the Impossible if Lewes were to leave an review today.

Of those who heard these words and responded to the challenge of Lewes in the nineteenth century, none was so close in ideological proximity than Lewes’ partner, Marian Evans, known widely by this time through her nom de plume as George Eliot. Like Keller, whose interests range broadly from the humanities to the sciences, Eliot is well documented as reading widely among the scientific theories of the day as well. She refers in her letters to Herbert Spencer, whose 1857 essay, “Progress: Its Law and Its Cause,” argued that “the law of organic development from homogeneity to heterogeneity governed all the spheres of natural and social science from physiology through to astronomy, anthropology, and philology.”2 Geologist Sir Charles Lyell, mentor to Darwin and author of Principles of Geology (1830–33), proved intriguing to Eliot with his theory of uniformitarianism which is an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface by reference to causes present to observation. As Lyell states, “the history of the earth’s surface can be accounted for using the same forces we see around us now—erosion, uplift, sedimentation, volcanic phenomena, etc. Operating at similar rates and intensities.”3 In short, one need only observe the here and now of a river’s course, a lake’s stillness, a tree’s seasonal changes, or even the form of the smallest pebble and one can see the same forces at work that have been at work since the beginning of the world. This age is the same that has been and the same that will be to come. Essentially, things throughout nature are as they are and in the process, ever so slowly, of further becoming that which they will always be. Similarly, the trend is picked up by Keller in seeking a natural motif by which to frame, understand and perhaps release us from the confusion that overt reason can provoke. Yet as George Eliot mused in relation to Darwin, there is still a “mystery beneath the processes” that will escape such metaphors and motifs.

It is abundantly clear that Keller has no interest in creating a “key to all mythologies” akin to Eliot’s Rev. Dr. Causabon in Middlemarch who was so consumed with finding a grand Theory of Everything that he neglected the very real suffering of the people in his parish in order to hide himself in his many books. Yet the grand attempt of Cloud of the Impossible to draw such complex and disparate intellectual, cultural and political concerns under a unifying motif—as amorphous and free floating as the cloud may be while even acknowledging its limits—leaves me wondering if we will ever escape the temptation of the search for a Theory of Everything and lose the “mystery beneath the processes” along the way. It is here that I turn my attention to the many clouds that pass in and out of Keller’s book and wonder if all the earnestness to free us to float with the clouds only grounds us evermore. “Thank goodness we ply theology here,” Keller muses, “and need not rehearse the whole onto-epistemological journey from Plato to Kant, from Hegel to . . . whomever floats our method. Our vessels in this century are less stately but no less dependent upon philosophy. This one is built for the waters of chaos” (169). Again and again we come back to the lashing together of vessels to weather the waters of chaos and yet . . . and yet. Isn’t the very calling of the deep crying out to deep one of finally releasing our grasp from a dominant motif—be it cloud by day or fire by night or the temptation for yet another unifying metaphor that is ultimately yet another “Key to All Mythologies”—and kenotically relinquishing ourselves to the waves, the thunder, and the possibility (the Posse ipsum of Nicholas of Cusa’s final work) that there is no ultimate motif and no grand metaphor beyond this moment of awakening so why seek one? I doubt publishers will embrace a monograph without some central thesis, some “this is what is tying it all together” and therein lies the reality of the ever-expanding book hall at the American Academy of Religion, which sadly looks more and more like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark with each passing year: endless rows upon rows of monographs grasping for that one unifying motif only to lose the Divine as it is codified, boxed up and filed away never to be truly unearthed as the credits roll on. What Keller’s poetry, grace and profound grasp of manifold disciplines offers is a choir of so many beautiful and engaging voices. I fear that the central motif that threads through the work perhaps “clouds out” and totalizes these distinct voices in ways that are only necessary for marketing a book and not fully realizing a polytonal community of truth.

Second, I was intrigued by Keller’s acknowledgement that there is more to say on the topic of materialism and was hoping that it would have been teased out a bit more. “Theology, especially Protestant,” states Keller, “cut off its own cosmological potentiality early on and inspired materialism of the capitalist sort. So we need something like the new materialism” (121). I wholeheartedly agree. Early in Cloud of the Impossible Keller pulls in Slavoj Žižek, albeit all too briefly, as a conversation partner. True, giving Žižek the microphone is risking quite a bit but I do think given the question that is only partially raised in regard to materialism that he is worth bringing on stage for a bit longer. Much of what Keller draws forth in her work has been chronicling the coming-of-age narrative of Theology after the secular/sacred wall has collapsed after the fall of modernity and allowing for “love [to fold] the distance of its transcendence into intimacy” (76) and what the ramifications might mean across disciplinary, racial, cultural and economic division. As she notes in relation to Nicholas of Cusa, “the divine boundlessness, in other words, belies the boundary formed by classical theo-logic: of mover versus moved, active versus passive, aseity versus affect” (99). Yet what this seems to announce and has been sounded loudly by Terry Eagleton and Žižek are the implications for a revised material reality in the twenty-first century. As Žižek has offered, similar to Keller, there is before us a radical call toward encountering the multivalent aspects of the real in particularity and imminence—what Žižek eludes to as the “the perverse core of Christianity” which is the subtitle to his first extended reflection on Christianity in 2003, entitled The Puppet and the Dwarf. This “perverse core” is the preservation of universality and surplus of meaning in the particularity of materialism—what post-Marxist critique has termed “dialectical materialism”—and when coupled with the person and ministry of Jesus Christ what I have written about as “dynamic incarnationalism.”4 As Keller weaves in and out of her reflections I remained concerned that too often the discourse was seeking more of a transcendence in its poetics rather than immanent grounding. Perhaps this is due to materialism having come under fire recently as seen in the article by Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goertz in the spring 2008 issue of Christian Scholars Review, arguing against Christian materialism by supporting dualism, stating that (referring to articles by Kevin Corcoran and Peter Van Inwagen) “‘most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists… [and] God has allowed dualism to dominate Christian anthropology for two millennia.’ Hence, it is relevant to make clear that while contemporary Christian materialists advocate going materialistic, [Taliaferro and Goertz] support remaining dualistic.”[foonote]See Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goertz, “The Prospect of Christian Materialism,” Christian Scholars Review 37.3 (2008) 307.[/footnote] I don’t have time to go into the argument set forth by Taliaferro and Goertz, but suffice it to say that the call to dualism is spurious to an incarnational understanding of personhood and ultimately a heresy of the church.

On the notion of Christian universality of meaning found in the particular and material, Žižek seeks a via media through the dominant modes of contemporary understandings of spirituality found in New Age Gnosticism that permeates much of the postmodern rhetoric on the one hand and the thoroughly deconstructionist turn of some continental theorists on the other. In his most overt critical engagements with Christianity (On Belief; The Fragile Absolute; The Puppet and the Dwarf; The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory) Žižek aligns himself with Alain Badiou5 in seeing the heart of the Christian gospel as a deep instantiation of authentic subjectivity that is neither based essentially on the strictures of Judaic Law nor the disembodied conventions of a Greek Logos that strives to be freedom from embodiment akin to the Gnostic aphorism “the body is ultimately a tomb.” As Žižek states in The Parallax View:

The accusation against Saint Paul’s universalism misses the true site of universality: the universal dimension he opened up is not the “neither Greek nor Jew but all Christians,” which implicitly excludes non-Christians; it is, rather, the difference Christians/non-Christians itself which, as a difference, is universal, that is to say, cuts across the entire social body, splitting, dividing from within every substantial ethnic, etc., identity—Greeks are divided into Christians and non-Christians, as well as Jews. The standard accusation thus, in a way, knocks on an open door: the whole point of the Pauline notion of struggling universality is that true universality and partiality do not exclude each other, but universal Truth is accessible only from a partial engaged subjective position.6

Rather, Žižek places the relationship we have of and with others squarely between the Symbolic and the Real best articulated in his three modalities of the Real:7 The “symbolic real” where the signifier is reduced to a meaningless formula; the “real real” where the Real becomes a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror as manifested in contemporary horror genre; and the “imaginary real” which for Žižek is “an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime.” Again, Cloud of the Impossible floats across so many eras, traditions and voices that to take up such a deep dive such as more discourse on materialism is perhaps for another volume. But holding the book in my hand, turning the pages, seeing and hearing the racial unrest that continues to break forth in our urban centers, connecting the economic and social implications of “how the cloud surrounding what we say about ‘God’ here enfolds the entire crowd of our relations” (5) with the strong reminder that “love carries the divine outside itself” and “folds the distance of its transcendence into intimacy” (76) yet still left wanting to put hands and feet to this intimacy. I believe that the call to theopoetics in the final chapter is a grounding material step but we need more than “every now and then a powwow in the cloud.” The racial and economic demands of this decade alone required a truly embodied response that will surely benefit from the critical challenge that Catherine Keller offers yet will not tolerate our heads remaining in the clouds for too long.

  1. G. H. Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind, 2 vols. (London, 1874–75), 1:2.

  2. Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 13.

  3. Jonathan Smith, Fact and Feeling: Baconian Science and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 95.

  4. My use of “dynamic incarnationalism” builds on the dialectical materialism found in post-Marxist critique. Dialectical materialism is essentially a Marxist commentary (from Engels’ Dialectics of Human Nature and Marx’s Das Kaptial through to Feuerbach’s Essense of Christianity) upon Hegel’s dialectic project. The notion looks at explaining the growth and development of human history and sees truth (aletheia) as the product of immanent history passing through various epochs, including the moment of error —error, or also negativity, is part of the development of truth. Marx’s dialectical materialism considers, against Hegel’s idealism, that history is not the product of the Spirit (Geist or also Zeitgeist) in exclusive priority to the material world; rather the Spirit is immersed in and with the material. Granted, this is a challenge to overtly Calvinist views of the Divine as “wholly other” to the created order—and this is something Žižek deals with and the Gospel of John provides some commentary. For Žižek, the turn toward dialectical materialism asserts that: (1) The universe is not a disconnected mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral whole, with the result that things are interdependent; (2) Nature—the natural world or cosmos—is in a state of constant motion (“All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change.” Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature); (3) Development is a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes. The latter occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, in the form of a leap from one state to another—think of Acts 22 and Paul’s testimony of the Damascus Road. This is a catalytic rather than gradual view of change. An example from the physical world might be the heating of water: a one-degree increase in temperature is a quantitative change, but at 100 degrees there is a qualitative change—water to steam (“Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1.); and (4) All things contain within themselves internal dialectical contradictions, which are the primary cause of motion, change, and development in the world.

  5. See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism (Stanford: SUP, 2003).

  6. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 35.

  7. Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory.

  • Catherine Keller

    Catherine Keller


    From a Steam-Punk Victorian Cloud-Head: Response to Jeff Keuss

    My thanks to Jeff Keuss for such a well-tuned critique of Cloud of the Impossible. He takes such care to characterize the project of this book sensitively, appreciatively, that I am rendered all the more vulnerable to his dissatisfactions. As Cloud hosts a rather shifting panoply of engagements, it tends to break up its self-satisfactions anyway. And so it would be my hope, but by no means my assumption, that his worries about totalization and transcendence are met within the nubilous reaches of the autodeconstruction that this exercise demands. It is an exercise that is perhaps most consistently self-summarized as apophatic entanglement. So it means to make hospitable space for such constructive agonisms—so different from antagonisms (to borrow William Connolly’s potent political distinction)—not by obscuring the sharpness of a difference but by recognizing in advance that the differences will come entangled in that from which they are differing. This is not however precisely a matter of a permanent Derridean deferral of presence: shadowed presences and shifting alliances materialize all along the way. Of course a book seems to come to its own end, doesn’t it. It can only ply its endlessness, its infinitude, from a relentlessly finite perspective. It may be an angle that denies finality, but here comes the “fin” nonetheless. And “solid as a cloud” may be a good accusation of this book in particular—at once too solid to live up (oh dear, up up up) to its Sinaitic cloud mysticism, too broadly explicated for its negative implications; and too, well, misty to assure any solidifications of the solidarity it promises.

    So to the question whether “we will ever escape the temptation of the search for a Theory of Everything” let me say right away—he got me there. No. I don’t think we will, I don’t think we should, I don’t think Jeff Keuss escapes it either. So he has wisely used the rhetorical “we” to frame his suspicion. I think the only way the temptation can be avoided is to package our thinking in the most convenient late capitalist mode of specialized commodification, appropriate to the new corporatized academies: and just be done with premodern and postmodern experiments in radical interconnectivity. Settle for a little bounded zone of mastery—and call your knowledge “humble” in its indifference to the buzzing multiplication of voices, discourses and practices that demand transdisciplinary accountability. Then there is no more temptation to what Deleuze lovingly called the “omnitudo.” Keuss doesn’t for a moment land in such a bordered specialization (moving between philosophical, theological and literary hermeneutics, writing expertly on youth culture, etc.) But he may be far more effective in limiting the particular projects to a comprehensible and useful scale.

    Once one opens one’s thought to a multiplicity of disciplines and an urgency of practices (I could say, once one does “theology,” which was from the start such a mélange) there is no limiting the lateral entanglements in what always exceeds what one can epistemically master. And if one is doing this thought in the mode of theology, of course “the mystery beneath the processes” (Keuss, quoting G. Eliot) has already made itself known in its murky seepage into the knowable. So of course one is thinking about everything, one is trying to find a way to theorize how everything gets into anything, while all the time knowing with the one certainty that is possible is that one will never know most things, let alone everything. But “everything” does not thereby become empty of meaning—though it certainly can be called a kenotic signifier. It becomes so full of meanings that it empties out any sovereign knower, any solid known. But it does so by calling upon a solidarity of thinkers who do wonder about everything: be it in the language of the creation, of the source of the creation, of materiality, of sociality, of economics, of ecology, of cosmology. . . . And of course (sigh) having listed them, all of the above, not to mention race, and sex, . . . (Butler’s embarrassed) etc. I just seek to demonstrate the folly in thinking that one can avoid the temptation to a theory of everything. But one may recognize the temptation and—with disciplined ascesis or sheer relief—NOT succumb to it. I would hope that my Cloud confesses to its temptation rather openly (owning up to such pomo sins as “relational ontology,” “metaphysics” and even Cusa’s divine complicatio!). I am confident that I do not try to pull off a toe, let alone succeed in producing one! If, that is, we mean by such a theory one that claims on principle—of course not in the details, to the devil with them—to Know It All. Indeed I even reinforce the apophatics of a version of physics that has obstructed the actual toe for nearly a century.

    Of course, yes, there I am reaching out to quantum physics, and to Karen Barad’s reading of it as relational ontology, and making the link to Whitehead by way of Deleuze and in the same book to the problem of Islamophobia and of climate change . . . etc. . . . Getting. Embarrassed. Again.

    So the temptation keeps coming as does the resistance to any single theory of everything that Knows It All. Indeed let me confess to a further depth of sinful everythingness: I was the other day meditating on the rather lovely rose window in our library, with the languorous Theologia at the center, queening queerly as ever, and Philosophia and Scientia as ever. And instead of my normal repulsion at the totalizing circle, I saw it differently: a great kaleidoscope of colored glass bits so complex as to make impossible any God’s-eye view, any all-knowing: in a sense everything is all there all at once, but in such variegated, colorful and darkened complication as to make sure you know that you only know a bit of it at a time. I am perhaps yielding to greater sympathy for a Medieval aesthetic! Cusa’s early modern meditation on an icon—of seeing the seer see the seeing itself as what is seen, and therefore knowing against all orthodoxy God to be moved and not merely moving—may have prepared me for this further backslide! But artists were always opening alternatives.

    And so I am glad of Keuss’s elegant readings of Eliot and some of her fellow Victorians—and of his charming accusation of me of going “a bit steam punk Victorian” (that at least makes me post-medieval). The artists were ever closer to the affects and materializations of life; and if the art were any good it never could long abstract from the bodied relationships, the multicolored entanglements, deformed or creative, tragic or joyous. Also it is evident that I am perpetually in debt to another marvelous Victorian, Alfred North Whitehead, whose cosmological essay sketches from its “metaphors mutely appealing for an intuitive leap” an ontology of everything—as an open process of the becoming of particular bodies, each enfolded in all that succeeds them and enfolding all that precedes them. Its presuppositions of radically interdependent indeterminacy of course aimed directly to thwart the determinist form of science that would aspire to the TOC in the first place. Totalism? Or, in Levinas’s distinction, the opposite, infinity? If infinity means the not-finished, the process of becoming without any final fin—though lots of micro-finishes, known as concrescences, the finite embodiments of the larger world of relations—then what I draw from Whitehead, intensified by Deleuze, is an everything that cannot settle into just One. There are only the plurisingularities of becoming—Elohim or electron. Bodies all. And altogether.

    However, I do not locate any of this process thinking outside of the temptation to think it all together, to thread a “central motif” through a book. And I would not claim to have been “fully realizing a polytonal community of truth.” Would Keuss claim this for himself?

    Moreover I am suspecting that his “dynamic incarnationalism” will in its linkage with the new materialism not be able to avoid his own version of the same temptation—since new materialists like Jane Bennett and William Connolly are increasingly engaging Whiteheadian models of the vibrancy of all matter (yes, all); and Barad is guilty of locating the mattering of matter in an unabashed “relational ontology.” These thinkers are close to my recent work [I suggest checking out the Drew TTC volumes on Common Good/s, edited by Melanie Johnson-DeBaufire et al., and Entangled Worlds, with Mary Jane Rubenstein, forthcoming.] Indeed inasmuch as Keuss appeals heavily to Zizek’s dialectical materialism and its particular sense of “universal Truth,” there will be no shortage of temptations to another range of totalitarian passions. Keuss is right that I nonetheless do not embrace “materialism” tout court: that signifier still massively and clumsily refers to forms of materialism I find inimical with the newness blossoming in the new materialism: precisely the mechanistic, determinist materialism of subjects extrinsic to their objects that funds modern science in its Newtonianism, that Marx only partly evaded, and that in the most vulgar and world-dominating manner is invested in consumer capitalism.

    So even while coediting a book engaging and celebrating the new materialisms, I cannot embrace materialism “tout court.” Materialization, yes. And precisely for the sake of those “racial and economic demands of this decade” that will not go away. But that also will now let us escape the impossible cloud altogether: for of course these issues do not trump nor are they trumped by such a demand as that of climate change. The point of Cloud, as surely such a good reader as Keuss realizes, was never to remain “in the clouds for too long.” The point is not to evade them for too long. I titled the book with no hope that I would evade that accusation! (Someone who has titled a book Blur may not altogether evade it either). Without the contemplative moment our activism hasn’t a chance. But I suspect the difference between dynamic incarnationalism and apophatic entanglement imposes no zero-sum game. I hope the very difference contributes to the becoming possible of what by way of incarnation might otherwise not.

    • Jeff Keuss

      Jeff Keuss


      Turning from clouds to the waves – hat tip to Keller on the notion of the Impossible rather than inconceivable

      Let me begin with some contextual reflection: I first picked up Cloud of the Impossible at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego in 2014. My hotel – the Hilton Bayfront – was gorgeously situated on the Pacific Ocean and even in November the weather was warm enough that religion scholars committed what is perhaps the unpardonable sin of sitting at pool side in bathing suits exposing flesh to sunlight in what for some was perhaps the first time since Copernicus looked upon our sun in a revolutionary way. As I watched the water move in the harbor there was not a cloud in the sky and light danced on the waves that November in ways that truly shimmered with glory. At one point I looked up from the book and saw another scholar holding Cloud of the Impossible and looking out at the waves in a similar manner. I came back to this context upon reading Catherine’s response to my comments in that what makes for good scholarship is that which turns our attention to the world beyond itself and hopefully into a space of wonder. As I hopefully underscored in my initial reflections on Cloud of the Impossible I believe it succeeds in lifting our eyes and provokes wonder in some interesting and thoughtful ways. I turned my gaze from the book not out of boredom nor frustration (as is common with many academic texts these days) but in the spirit of exploration and hope that others take this book up in such a spirit.

      As to be expected, Catherine Keller’s response to my comments model the embodied, erudite and soulful nature of her scholarship. As one who has long cared for and curated conversations that draw from the riches of the human sciences for the sake of human flourishing, Keller reminds me again in this short exchange of that which frames the call to the church at Philippi to remember that “whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Cloud of the Impossible is a reminder to not only ‘think’ in the Cartesian sense but to embody all that gives rise to the fullness that is a human completely
      and utterly freed for love. Unlike Vizzini’s etymological stuttering in The Princess Bride attempting to wrap all human existence under the despairing banner of “inconceivable”, Keller’s “Impossible” in the title as well as thematically drawn throughout the text is open and hospitable and always aware of her limits as well as the limits of our drive for a Theory of Everything (TOE). I tip my hat to her in reminding me that perhaps I am guilty as charged for committing the same ‘sin’ as she puts it in relation to my work and to this point fully admit to stubbing my TOE again and again and again. My query in relation to the project of Cloud of the Impossible on this point relating to the stiff cloudiness of the central metaphor – that perhaps it was delimiting rather than freeing the choir of voices Keller invites to sing – was perhaps too rash. I fully see the movement of Cloud now rather than the fixity of a text and cede to that rebuttal. How did I come to this? Being in dialogue with Catherine in this (albeit virtual) exchange that Syndicate Theology is modeling in both form and content. It is my hope and sincere prayer that more theological reflection finds its way
      out of texts and into such conversations that turn our eyes to the rolling sunlit seas of humble wonder that is all around us this Advent whether the day be cloudy or clear.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein


I Feel the Sky Tumbling Down


Someone has finally plunged into the cloud of contradiction that enshrouds so much of what we write and teach. By “we,” I mean those of us who work and play in and around Christian orthodoxies, polydoxies, heresies, and deconstructions, entranced as we are by the apophatic on the one hand and the relational on the other hand and musing, as we do, “someone at some point should really think these things together.”

Seriously, it’s been a big problem. Almost without exception, whether we are process people, liberals, liberationists, neo-medievalists, or death-of-godders, we all love negative theology. And with even fewer exceptions, whether we are Arians or Athanasians, Scotists or Thomists, Nietzscheans or Hegelians, Whiteheadians or Butlerians, Harawayans or Baradians, we all love relation. Our love of relation has become so exceptionless, in fact, that those of us who seek to defend it often find ourselves having to invent enemies to defend it against (“down with that burgeoning throng of Cartesians!”).

Trouble is, our relationalism is not all that hospitable to the apophatic, tending either:

  • to reject it outright (recall Deleuze on Spinoza’s “positive theology” of “pure affirmation”), or
  • to prefer its kataphatic twin (think of those effusive litanies of intra-active networks, systems, and organisms in complexity theories and new materialisms), or

3)   simply to have no time for it, preferring to get on with the work of making life livable for those intercarnate earth-creatures increasingly threatened by toxic entanglements of racism and global capital.

To put it frankly, whether it’s ontologies, biologies, wind-farms, or prison abolition movements we’re building, what use is indeterminacy? Or worse yet, uncertainty?

Conversely, apophasis seems inimical to relation. The mystical journey as we tend to encapsulate it is one of progressive detachment—from material goods, familial ties, sensual pleasures, intellectual aids, spiritual benefits, and finally one’s own self—along with the One for whom it conducted the journey in the first place. Marguerite, Angela, Teresa, John (one could go on): each of them drawn up the ladder of detachment only to be abandoned by God Godself. And even if this abandonment does give way to union (it may not; you might just be abandoned) it is a union of a subjective not-I with a divine abyss, which is to say, with Eckhart, of nothingness to nothingness. What kind of relation is that? And how could it possibly care about universal healthcare or the minimum wage?

In many of these examples, apophatic antirelationality might be said to be politically useless; in others, it becomes politically disastrous. As Clement of Alexandria reminds us, Moses has to separate himself from the crowd in order to climb the mountain; no illumination for the dark multitudes (Keller, 57). The works of Pseudo-Dionysius are riddled with warnings that none of his teachings should come within earshot of “the uninitiated” or “the hoi polloi.” This sustained ochlophobia finds its crescendo in the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which charges deacons with the task of purging the church of those who are: possessed, uninitiated, incompletely initiated, previously-initiated-but-now-degenerate, intemperate, intemperate-yet-resolved-not-to-be-intemperate, and finally, “those who . . . are neither completely unblemished nor completely unstained” (–b). Get the masses out of the Mass. Can’t have them profaning the holy mysteries, clouding the ascent of the adept.

What Catherine Keller intuits, however, is that such crowd-hatred is not inherent to the apophatic—that it may even sabotage the unknowing it so regularly attends. Elitism and surreptitious certainty: these, at the end of the day, prompted Derrida’s real concern with “negative theology,” his sense that it wasn’t negative enough. Somewhere behind all those unsayings, he kept saying, negative theology knows where it’s going . . . and who’s invited. What Keller’s Cloud allows us to glimpse is that these failures of negativity are dual functions of the same thing: in short, negative theology in its classical form has a cosmology problem.

Classical cosmology puts the earth at the heart of the universe, with concentric rings of water, air, fire-and-sometimes-aither around it. Divinity lies beyond this cosmic nesting-doll, binding its finitude with infinite power, cognition, benevolence, and/or beatitude, depending on the divinity in question. The way to God, then, follows a straight line out of the universe: from material (earth and water-y) things to conceptual (air and fire-y) things to the no-thingness that creates and eludes them. Hence the strict order of naming and unnaming in Dionysius: the affirmations proceed from the godliest things (goodness, wisdom) to the ungodliest things (drunkard, stone), and the negations work their way back up—which is to say out. And yes, the Celestial Hierarchy does say that it might be more appropriate to call God a worm than, say, a man, since our minds will be unlikely thereby to think they have truly named God. But even this logical tortion depends on a straightforward ontology: men are nearer to God than worms (and women, and nut-trees, and stones); this is the reason anthropomorphic names can deceive us into thinking we’ve got Him [sic].

To be sure, classical apophaticism does not ignore or reject relation. But one might argue that it instrumentalizes relations, ordering them hierarchically in order to transcend them. Relations are necessary but penultimate, leading the soul beyond them into nonrelational identity with The Great Neither-This-Nor-That. One might argue the opposite, as well (in fact, one has) but the task is just so strenuous. The author needs to do constant theological gymnastics to invert or tangle up the Great Chain that keeps rattling alongside the apophatic voyage. And yet there are those who find the energy, because something about the via negativa keeps promising to unsettle the structure of the via; something about the cloud seems like it ought to entangle us with the crowd—and it is here that Keller’s diagnostic powers are so acute: the problem is cosmic. Get rid of the nesting-dolls and the apophatic will actually be able to do the work of unworking, unknowing, disrupting, and remaking we keep wanting from it.

Insofar as it will require nothing short of a cosmological revolution, Keller explains that “the chiasmus of crowd and cloud will depend upon a Cusan crossing” (48). It was Cusa, she reminds us, who first and most radically shattered the antique universe, taking the earth out of the center and replacing it with nothing—or anything, depending on your perspective. As the unfolding of God Godself, the Cusan universe is necessarily boundless—and neither earth nor sun nor anything else can occupy the “center” of boundlessness. That said, if nothing is the center, then anything can be: “It always appears to every observer, whether on the earth, the sun, or another star, that one is . . . at an immovable center of things and that all else is being moved” (Cusa, De docta ignorantia, 2.12.162). So start from any cosmic body, he suggests, and the visible area around it is what we call a world. The moon’s world will overlap to some extent with the sun’s world, which will overlap to some extent with the world of the North Star . . . and in a boundless universe, these overlapping worlds will extend forever, each of them centered on any point in the centerless universe.

With nothing/anything at rest in the middle of the universe, no element or creature is closer to divinity than any other. Rather, God suffuses the cosmos at equal intensities everywhere, inhering as much in vegetality as animality, as much in minerality as intelligence. This is what Keller calls “the breaking up of the face of God across an endless cosmic surface of faces” (113). With faces pan-carnationally distributed, there is no static order to creation, which is to say no single path beyond it to God. Rather, as Keller illustrates with Cusa’s “all-seeing image” (87) and as Nicholas will say of nut trees and mustard seeds (De visione dei, 7.24, De quaerendo deum, 3.44), anything in the universe can transport the learner to God, not by carrying him (still him) outside the universe, but rather by delivering him more fully into it, where God dwells everywhere equally, and where all things dwell in God.

Already, then, Cusan apophatics makes two radical departures from Neoplatonic negativity: (1) it follows not one but an endless number of indeterminate paths, and (2) these lead to a God within the world rather than a God beyond it. Of course, God remains beyond the world—as Keller points out, Cusa manages to evade even the stingiest charges of pantheism (94)—but here divine transcendence is inseparable from cosmic enfolding and unfolding. In other words, it is a transcendence that secures relation without capitulating to Thomist analogy, with its tireless relinkings of the old Great Chain.

It is a transcendence, moreover, that unsettles relation’s verticality, fragmenting it out across all imaginable vectors. And this, I think, is what Keller finds most exciting about Cusa: if God is in all things and all things are in God, then we can only conclude that “all are in all and each is in each” (Cusa, in Keller, 114). Incarnation is pan-carnation (118) and pan-carnation is inter-carnation (308); put less tidily, God’s unfolding all things means that all things holographically infold God and one another. Here, then, finally: the coincidentia of the apophatic and the relational, of cloud and crowd, of beyond and between.

Two big questions, then, for the author (hello, Catherine!), both predictable, I fear, and both concerning difference.

The first is what difference God makes. To me, Cusa feels so precariously perched between the medieval and modern worlds: push him in one direction and he tumbles into scholasticism, push him in another and he pitches into pantheism. The latter, of course, was Bruno’s downfall: if the universe is the boundless explication of God, he reasoned, and if God is present to all things “as if by mediation of the universe,” then it seems like the universe is what traditional theology would call the second person of the Trinity. Interestingly, we could stop right here—with the universe as both logos and site of in(ter)carnation, and while we would have a disaster from an orthodox Christological perspective, I’m not sure we’d quite have pantheism (or maybe we’d have a pantheism whose identity is also a difference). After all, God and creation would, along this heretical line of hypostatic thinking, be really distinct, but also “of one substance.” So here, I suppose, is the question: what difference does the difference between God and world make?

To be sure, there’s no apophasis or relation without difference. But I wonder whether difference isn’t already built into Cusa’s concept of identity. When, for example, he says that all things are in all things, he is proclaiming a kind of pancosmic identity à la Lauryn Hill: “everything is everything.” But this isn’t, I don’t think, to say there’s no such thing as difference; a nut tree is not a mustard seed, even though each of them incarnates God and the whole universe, including one another. This, then is the second question, which will hopefully lend clarity and texture to the first: in what sense is any thing different from any thing else, insofar as all are in all and each is in each? And does this principle of differentiation obtain at the level of God and world, or is the difference between God and world different from differences among creatures (an especially complicated question, given that in each creature, God is the creature!)? In the ancient and medieval cosmos, the answer was simple: there’s an ontological (vertical) difference between God and creatures and an ontic (horizontal) difference among creatures. But what happens to difference as such when God is enfolded into every point of an infinite unfolding of God? This may simply be to ask: what is the apophatic counter-movement of the kataphatic “all things in all things”?

I’m thrilled to be part of this conversation and excited to see what comes of it!

  • Catherine Keller

    Catherine Keller


    The Cosmological Difference: Response to Mary-Jane Rubenstein

    “What difference does the difference of God and world make?” And if that world is made of creatures “each in each and all in all” (quoth old Cusa), is everything—just everything? How are creatures different from each other, and do they differ in a way that differs from the difference of God and world . . . ? If I hear her correctly, the author of Strange Wonder is—not strangely—making me wonder about the strangeness of this whole apophatic entanglement. Is it strange enough to accommodate the strangeness of difference itself?

    These are questions that will not go away, that will haunt, indeed becloud, both poles of my project, those poles or extremities that Mary-Jane Rubenstein rightly notes are (almost) never poles of the same project. It is important that the questions persist! Both apophasis and relationality independently of each other rightly set off the alarm bell of difference: is it being blurred, diminished, washed or fogged out, sucked hierarchically up into the glorious cloudburst of divine unity, or, at the other end, blended into a lower mass where “everything is everything” leaving nothing to be anything in particular? Difference must always protect itself from ye olde Same. Or perhaps that puts the point too generically (the generalization itself abstracts from all differences so as to make a totally unifying claim about difference itself . . . what is shared by all differences, under the same name difference).

    I admit that the question of difference is not and cannot be finally answered in a text that (enfin) insists on translating answerability into questionability. In the ability to question—difference bursts into voice, in theology always, and with such agonizing historical effects—sometimes suffered by the apophatic heterodoxy, suspected always of some form of pantheism, or of somehow unsaying the difference between Creator and creature. If to keep oneself questionable is to make oneself answerable, one finds in the endlessness of the chiasmus—not a static chasm! —between unsaying and saying again no excuse to evade this particular question of difference. Which is indeed why I cannot help but love it, as it arises, in the MJR difference here and now, indeed indulge in it happily (and I hope not too kataphatically—this is a word-limiting genre!).

    Cloud advances an argument for an apophatically entangled difference, that I often summarize as just: entangled difference. Especially for discursive contexts in which the aim is more directly: how to motivate action on behalf of particular bodies of the earth endangered by their very difference—their blackness, for example. Or their queerness. Or their nonhumanity. I am finding entangled difference a usefully strange paraphrase of long-standing womanist notions of simultaneity (Combahee Woman’s Collective) and intersectionality (Kimberle Crenshaw). In the timing of simultaneity and the spacing of intersections our particular differences, the ones that matter now, that bear our materiality, come entangled in each other. My race can be distinguished from my gender, from my sexuality, and my class, my ability, my species . . . but only separated by way of an abstraction. And Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness obtains: if I think my difference, my particular becoming, reduces to any sociological abstraction, I lose that concreteness whereby I am not the racialized stereotype but a resistance to it.

    Of course difference has become the holy name for—whichever difference marks the urgency of the moment. Its—unspeakable and so in an orthographic sense apophatic—misspelling as différance has for a couple of generations marked the messianic gift or possibility of the impossible. That impossibility marks my Cloud indelibly, Derrideanly. Not far from where Strange Wonder blows through it on a more Kierkegaardian wind. However I wonder if in the wider appeal to difference there is not a risk of the misplacement of our concreteness by an abstraction going on in the very name of difference. For it is not difference that saves, or even that in a particular case we want to save. The racist is just as different as her victim. Difference must itself be always differentiated. And what happens then? It breaks into the innumerable complications that make it up. And this make-up (of the racist or of the racialized other), of what is it constructed? In other words what is exposed in its deconstruction? Not some solid subject-thing or object-thing, but the twists and tangles, determinations and indeterminisms, relevancies and trivialities, of relation. Of the relations that make up those apparent things.

    And the whole claim of my Cloud, to repeat it (differently) depends upon this: difference is relation. It is almost a tautology: if A not in relation to B, A cannot be compared to B: and there is therefore no difference. Without relation difference may as well be sameness. Therefore difference indifferent to relationality reduces it after all to identity. Of course relation as the gang of avowed relationalists use it signifies not merely formal or external but constituent relation.

    Difference is endless, and so we are endlessly—infinitely—tangled in it. Constituted of it, through our decisions, our cuts, amidst it. We can only know, understand, a fraction of it all, even as it concerns me intimately (Who are you really, and how trustworthy. . . . What prior nexus of normativities has already deformed you, despite your best efforts? And me, despite mine?).

    Yet the question of difference as MJR poses it emerges in embracing a broad nexus of difference irreducible to any identity politics, and at the same time resistant in her thinking to any erasure of identities (especially ones forged as acts of resistance).

    The smug norm of a self-sufficient difference has worried me for decades in the spillover of Continental philosophy into US struggles to name and unname identities, to do and undo politics. But it has worried me more in theology, which perennially—especially in its Protestant forms—emphasizes the difference of God and world. I sometimes also do. The worry is that, again, the mere assertion of difference somehow protects the glory, the truth and the very existence of the absolute Other, the transcendence that is God (who can thereby protect us, at least from death’s sting). It protects us from—the ever-looming threat of pantheism! Why is pantheism, which no single percentage of the population ever avowed, such a threat? Because we are told it denies difference. And the guys of absolute difference are usually talking not about any difference but about ontological separation. Such separation signifies transcendence, but transcendence not of the mystical and apophatic variety that twists into immanence at its outer edges, or rather at the failure to reach the outer edges. (We will all learn much more from MJR about why “pantheism” has been such a good enemy to have, for instance how pan, that goaty god, was such an animalistic insult to Christian purity.) I don’t mean to lessen the difference between God and creature, infinity and its finite bodies. I just identify difference as relation, and “God” as the name not of a subject or object thing among things but of a differential relation to all that is. Will this free up a certain panentheism from the knee-jerk opposition to pantheism?

    The Cloud suggests with Cusa’s help—which really I did not solicit, quite the reverse—that the coincidentia oppositorum of God and creation cannot be extricated from the co-incidings of creatures with creatures. As none are to be known in separation from the others, so we do not finally know any. For each is related to all the others, through an endless cosmic contiguity through time crisscrossed by the stunning simultaneities of the nonlocal. How does this help in practice? I answered this in many ways in the book, I hope—as with the help of Butler’s ruminations on the relational ontology that appears in grief. When I lose you I come apart, I realize that I so took part in you that I no longer make sense to myself apart from you (see the current exchange with Laurel Schneider on “the sense of taking part”). But to put the practicality more bluntly: it is a hedge against the false certainties that run the right and that ruin the left. Religiously and politically.

    MJR is not thinking bluntly, however. She asks with concluding grace: “What is the apophatic countermovement of the kataphatic ‘all things in all things’”? Ha, I wonder: would it be “no things actually in any other things?” That would mean a return to good sturdy substance metaphysics. Surely not. So: no things in no things? Does the very notion of a “thing,” despite the best of the new materialism, begin to falter—if, that is, it does not cling to the same old matter being positively and drearily repeated? The fragility of things turns ontological, turns indeed cosmological even in its most politically fine-tuned theory (Connolly). For the things are talking back, they are refusing to lie back as extrinsic and opaque and deadened substances. Why now? Perhaps because the networks of perilous terrestrial interdependence are under such threat at the hands, the invisible hands, of the neoliberal marketplace. And the answer, which attempts to be final, to all ecological protest is: your climate science is full of uncertainties.

    So I hope I have with emphatic kataphatics pronounced the importance of the apophatic countermovement to any denial of uncertainty, theological or eco-political; and at the same time articulated the value of the apophatic countermovement of the all things in all things. For it is precisely this angled, perspectival, kaleidoscopic all-in-all which discloses the multiplicities in which we make and unmake ourselves, our worlds. Apophatically such a theology smudges each determinate thing with the indeterminacy of its own becoming. And that indeterminacy is the opening in which the multiplicity of relations gets composed at each moment. In the immanent excess of those relations, amidst their unspeakabilities of scale, of vulnerability, the enfolding apophasis of the cloud offers hospitality. Perhaps it only asks in return the occasional glance at the dark unknowability of it all. Pan.

    Yes, MJR (hi!) it sure is about cosmology, landing Theologia rather classically between Philosophia and Scientia. If things are not mere things, they break up into energy or events or micro-clouds, they dizzyingly proliferate into multiplicities that might according to a certain author be read along the multiple vectors of multiverse cosmology.

    Perhaps the dark entanglement of it all requires more than a universe: perhaps it requires the sort of multiverse that unfolds in MJR’s Worlds Without End—particularly the sort that leaves traces of its entanglement between universes. If for MJR the God-question cannot be reasonably expelled any longer from the cosmological picture, neither does she undertake any sort of theological kataphasis: will her cosmology remain apophatically and therefore knowingly entangled in theology itself?

    • Mary-Jane Rubenstein

      Mary-Jane Rubenstein


      On Entangled Difference

      Just a quick paper airplane launched from this intercarnate complex of blue books, waxy menorahs, and tangled tiny lights to thank Catherine for her reminder about the danger of difference—not as such, of course, but as “smug norm,” which is to say as an abstract rallying cry that risks, at best, saying nothing, and at worst, drowning out particular, differently different demands for justice. I am grateful also for Catherine’s persistent refusal to reinscribe in a relational key the old Ontological Distinction that channels all difference into two camps: the God-aligned over here with light and reason and truth and the world-aligned over there in the dark with all those bodies and opinions. It is clear that the two won’t do, differentially, and yet they remain remarkably persistent, even among some panentheisms.


      I am thinking most recently of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, which excoriates anthropocentric dominionism, affirms the significance of all creatures in their own right (rather than as instruments of humanity’s economic or eschatological glorification), and reminds us that “we ourselves are dust of the earth” that we poison and exploit (paragraph 2). The encyclical even goes so far as to affirm with the 1992 National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil that “nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of his presence. The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship with him” (paragraph 88). God in all things, among all things, each relationally exceeding itself and drawing the humble into a burst of Franciscan cosmic gratitude: “Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars…” (“Canticle of the Creatures,” cited in paragraph 87; emphasis added).


      But the Franciscan “through” isn’t quite the Cusan “as.” God may show up all over the universe, but “this is not to forget,” Francis reminds us, lest we’ve forgotten, “that there is an infinite distance between God and the things of this world, which do not possess his fullness” (paragraph 88). So back in the same breath come absolute transcendence and maleness, bounding our universal hymn with the godly Him. Now Francis’s double-movement is, strictly speaking, panentheism—God is both everywhere within and utterly beyond the world—but it hangs on to precisely the two that such complex relationality purportedly disrupts. Warding off any processy, humanist, or post-humanist tendencies, Francis warns that “a spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot” (paragraph 75). So we’d better disentangle our difference.


      Well, at least we can all agree on the problem. Playing God: bad. Trampling creation: also bad. But it seems we disagree on the root of the problem, and therefore on the (theological, at least) solution. For many feminist, intersectional, polydox, and process theologies, the tendency to play God and trample creation stems from the concept of God as omnitrampling landowner, who endows certain humans with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. So the solution is to change our understanding of what divinity means in the first place (mutuality, embodiment, multiplicity, entanglement), and live into that, instead. For the orthodox—even the panentheistically so—the tendency to play God and trample creation stems not from divine omnipotence itself, but from our human refusal to abase ourselves before it. So the solution is to turn up the volume on classical transcendence: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place,” Francis concludes, “putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world” (paragraph 75). Remember you are but dust…and the one who made you is not.


      What is so remarkable about the work under consideration, then, is its resistance to the collapse of “difference” on the one hand and its predetermination on the other hand. Rather than “saving” difference by installing it unilaterally between God and creation (and their respectively embodied groomsmen and bridesmaids, arranged in two rows), the panentheism mobilized here is continually refracted through the mani-fold, intradetermined, and un-line-up-able differences of race, gender, class, species, mobility, affect, and history coursing among and within creatures. As such, Cloud gives us a way to think beyond the Logic of the One (Schneider) and the tyranny of the two…and even, perhaps, the sturdy triangular three. Yet at the same time, it does not capitulate to the nonrelational atomism of, say, speculative realism’s squid-inky objects, or even of Derrida’s tout autre comme tout autre. In fact, it intensifies the apophatics of each of these, by reminding us, as Catherine reiterates in her effulgent response, that “difference is relation,” and that “God” would be “the name not of a subject or object thing among things but of a differential relation to all that is.” To say that nothing is finally knowable is to say that something of God per- and insists in everything that is, rendering all things more and less than “things,” and God, I think, both more or less than “God.”

    • Catherine Keller

      Catherine Keller


      No Excuse Not to Keep Sorting

      As the day curls into its solstice minimalism, one tiny last remark insists itself—a grateful side effect of MJR’s paper airplane. Really I just want to quote its landing sentence: “To say that nothing is finally knowable is to say that something of God per- and insists in everything that is, rendering all things more and less than ‘things,’ and God, I think, both more or less than “‘God'”

      This God-talking in other words will keep poking fun at all of our talking, refusing to shut up and shut down. Even among of those of us who laugh and sigh at the puffed up overbeliefs and the tacky electric creches. The public effects, the personal affects, of God, “God” will not sort themselves out neatly into good and bad, live and dead. And all that theosocial entanglement is no excuse not to keep sorting.

      So of course—and not only because it is she—I agree with all the critiques of MJR (and her students) of il papa Francisco. Those same worst lines popped out at me as I read the Encyclical in joy at its potential effects. They surprised me less, as perhaps I am frequently in communication and solidarity with various Catholic feminists, and so already expecting to be disappointed by papal positions on gender, sex, family. And anyway I would not read him or teach the text as constructive theology or companionable theory but as event of global agency. By the time the Encyclical was released the residues of patriarchy were not what could surprise me. What stunned me and stuns me still is the power—yes, the magesterial force!—by which “the cry of the poor, the cry of the poor” has been channelled and amplified for all, really all, to hear. I do not expect anyone to get all the issues right: and at this point in history—not how I felt in the ’80’s—there is no issue of comparable importance to preventing run-away climate change. If we go on over 2 degrees C warming, gender, sex, race justice won’t have much of a chance any more: mass climate immigration amidst dwindling food sources will bring out the worst of our species. (And of course, some of the best, in an apocalyptic modality.)

      So here is the unthinkable thing—apophasis may not save me!—I need to admit: I am glad that the (proportionately minimal) traces of the orthopatriarchal theology remain. For if the pope were any more radical in his ecosocial justice politics than he is already, he would have had no chance of reaching masses of those who do not already agree on climate change and economics. As it is, it seems he does change minds statistically not able to be changed. I by contrast (or MJR) are rarely able in our books to reach any one who is not already singing in our good progressive choir. But indeed a certain unknowability about God does allow one to respect serious differences of theology (that is, some conservativism, which is much harder than it is to enjoy differences between religions, or relations to lovely Nietzschean atheists). Not for the sake of a pluralism of indifference, but perhaps after all of entangled difference—that we gather for something, indeed for the chance of viable planetary becoming. So I can affirm Francis for letting stand some orthodoxy that carries his primary call to responsibility for the earth, whereas I cannot build alliance with Benedict, who was an environmentalist concerned with poverty too, but whose overriding thrust and work was reactionary. But formulating how we decide which differences can be tolerated because of which common aims—that is a bigger question than this no longer minimal enough comment can investigate. Let me suggest folk check out the 60 essays (many of them with critiques) that was published in response to the Encyclical and before Francis’ visit to the US: For Our Common Home, edited by John Cobb and Ignacio Castuera. And I attach here my own essay in case it may be of use. What may be of use—well, that remains I fear as unknowable as God. And gives us no more excuse to avoid trying. Getting no less entangled as we sort, prioritize, and resort to theology, to theorize . . . how to make a difference, amidst our alluring and alarming differences.

      Thank theo—pan, panen, or deadpan—for the chance to tangle in the sort of conversation that Syndicate hosts.


Karmen MacKendrick


Collectives Within Collectives

FITTINGLY ENOUGH, CATHERINE KELLER’S Cloud of the Impossible is entangled everywhere with possibility. It is, in fact, a text that opens possibilities, many of them, in many directions. I’d like to trace out just one, though with plenty of tangles of its own, to ask about the strange things that happen to bodily boundaries when we take entanglement seriously.

The first thought in that line is about bodily resurrection. There is a marvelous late ancient and medieval Christian preoccupation with the very material problem of resurrection and body parts. Upon resurrection, what becomes of parts that are not with the body just at that moment—the toenail clippings and cut hair, the weight gained or lost? Do we all become enormous, having regathered our bits? What becomes of our wounds and openings, our losses and damage? If we cannibalize one another, who finally gets the flesh? It’s easy to miss, in the sheer weirdness of these ideas from a contemporary perspective, the stubborn refusal to devalue matter, against those who found flesh so nasty that they insisted that spirits must rise cleanly, alone. These two kinds of thoughts—on the extreme difficulty of sorting out bodily bits and on the infinite value of materiality—might come together in a quite new way if we rethink them in light of the deeper, complex, mobile interconnections that Catherine brings out. There might then be neither a singular body nor a single time of resurrection, but rather a constant, transcorporate, and fragile process of rebirth. I offer this thought with the realization that there might not be much more to say about it, but hopefully, nonetheless, as a way to repurpose a strangely lovely doctrine, not least to return us to that insistence on the value of matter.

In these openings of possibility, I also wonder about the possibilities for openings. In this work of folds, it might be fascinating also to think about breaks; about breaking-through, and cutting open. In this regard, Catherine cites a particularly fascinating statement from Nicholas of Cusa, a central figure in her text: “You, Lord . . . are moved with all that are moved and stand with all that stand” (97). As Catherine notes, “This apparently innocent theologoumenon releases the discursive turbulence of something which ‘seems wholly inaccessible and impossible.’ It will require, beyond any calm unsaying (let alone any placid feminist acquiescence), ‘courage to do violence to myself’” (98). That this is an ethical version of violence is clear. Yet given the utter, all-the-way-down interconnectedness that this text unfolds, how can it be; how can one ethically do violence to oneself, without doing violence to others?

Nicholas does not offer us language that would let us wiggle out of this by suggesting, as philosophers sometimes do, that particular sorts of benign violence—the usual example is surgery—are ethically allowable. Nor is his violence that of ascetic self-mortification; Nicholas is no flagellant, as Catherine reminds us.

Perhaps this self-violation is the sort of breaking-through favored by Meister Eckhart, whose work Nicholas knew well, in which we break through our individualized selfhood to realize our inseparability from God. From possessions, Eckhart advocates detachment (gelazenheit, and perhaps it is good that there is no time to go wandering off into Heidegger here). But this detachment is not separation either. To treat what is as if it could be possessed is precisely to separate oneself out from the rest of creation and to position oneself as owner, the rest as owned, in a hierarchy that does not move. Like The Cloud of the Impossible, Eckhart’s texts resist approaching the natural world through carelessness, ownership, and consumption.

In Eckhart’s wonderfully odd version of emanationism, breaking through is the “return” to God, which is greater than the going-out by which seeming-individuality becomes. What must be broken is a kind of illusion, the temporal appearance of separation that applies as much to God as to any other. What is wounded, broken open, is a false integrity. The breakthrough is a breaking out of self—but it is more, too. “In the breakthrough . . . I am above all created kind and am neither God nor creature. Rather, I am what I was and what I shall remain now and forever.”1 The breaks, here as in Catherine’s cloud, seem to be out of false separation—though I think that she must have more room for difference than Eckhart does, and I would love to hear more about that. For her, we are “plurisingular,” not monstrously absorbing others, but becoming, in our interactions with them, something of them: “The ethical implications become explicit . . . in concrete events of particular self-implication. Implicating yourself in the others before you, your difference ceases . . . to be the exception. You become exemplification. You mind your implication in all the ethically questionable systemic powers. You ply collective resonances with more affect and more effect, energizing the ripples, the fractals. You are not just you singular; you are not just you plural; you are plurisingularly you. . . . It keeps self and other in question and so unfolding” (288).

Is Nicholas’s violence like Eckhart’s, not only for the sake of some sort of metaphysical accuracy, but for an ethical and theological overcoming of the illusory wholeness essential to disconnection and indifference? Could this help us, if we move a little further, to think about the possibilities of distinguishing ethical violence, as the kind of boundary-breaking movement that shifts our modes of wholeness to vulnerable connection?

Modes of violence, as Catherine rethinks them, rearrange and alter our sense of the vulnerable, too. Entanglement requires us to reconsider not only what it is to be vulnerable, but what it is to protect, and why. The book emphasizes several aspects of vulnerability. There is the importance of attention to the most vulnerable—to the “multiple jeopardy” of the vulnerable subjects of liberation (32; cf. 37, 227, 301), to the vulnerability of all flesh, ours (53) and the world’s (207). There is the vulnerability particularly pronounced in affection—“the vulnerability of love” (271) or “of hope” (282). And there is, most centrally, the mutuality of vulnerability. We are vulnerable to one another, but unequally—“the separation of the over-resourced few from the vulnerable rest of us cannot hold” (282). The planet is vulnerable, not least to us, who foolishly imagine ourselves invulnerable to the rest of it (e.g., 269, 277). And the divine itself is vulnerable; process theology, particularly, offers us “a contingent and vulnerable deity” (260).

Here too are echoes of Nicholas, for whom “seeing ‘coincides with being seen, hearing with being heard, tasting with being tasted, touching with being touched . . .’ This series comprises a disclosure of divine passivities, each correlated to an activity. And each is ‘impossible,’ forbidden by the Aristotelian logic ‘guarded by the angel stationed at the entrance of paradise.’ But Cusa, in this thinking, this sensing, this writing that hurts, is resisting the angel of actus purus” (102).

Vulnerability undoes the binary purities of action and passion, actual and possible, because it is an ability to a passivity, the capacity to undergo a wounding violence. A wound may open from without to expose or to harm the within, but this text reminds us that inside and out are also uneasy limits—“at any moment that Other ‘within us’ may turn impatiently imperious—and rip right out of all the tangles” (4). This is not the salutary violence that intends to break artificial boundaries, to remind us of our unspeakable shared-ness. It is rather the sort of reaction that is labeled “autoimmune.”

The most influential philosophical understanding of autoimmunity comes form Jacques Derrida, who tells us that its effect is that “repression in both its psychoanalytical sense and its political sense—whether it be through the police, the military, or the economy—ends up producing, reproducing, and regenerating the very thing it seeks to disarm.”2 This understanding depends upon a sense of immunity that maintains clear distinctions, even when it gets them wrong. At its heart is a strong differentiation between that which is to be tolerated and that which is to be annihilated. The body (politic or person) is vulnerable to danger. The immune system does violence to those dangers by engaging in battle; it recognizes the body’s isolationist desires and acts aggressively against what is not-self, to kill it or to contain it within protective boundaries—to imprison it.3 It is said to “tolerate” self. Autoimmunity happens when the system mis-takes itself for an enemy.4 With these as the metaphors for protection, small wonder we create such disasters, trying to maintain an artificial purity that would “erase the chaos” (186).

We want, in very common metaphors, to have well-armed immune systems to fight off illness, to win the battle against disease. When the disease “wins,” we may nonetheless say that the “loser” “fought valiantly” in a “long battle.” Yet the boundaries between persons (and things) are not the only ones that we realize are far more fluid and strange than we’d thought. “Each” of us, each permeable being in a veil of skin, is a colony. I have read repeatedly that we are far more inhuman than not, meaning that our bodies host astonishing quantities of bacteria and virus, but the claim seems odd to me, as if “we” hosted a “not-us.” Perhaps this is a trace of the ancient fear that Catherine calls “ecophobia” (268). “Neither the minimal microorganisms nor the maximum planetary organism map onto any traditional sense of the body,” she rightly notes (175). We as human are far more multiple than we thought, collectives within collectives.

And in keeping with this collectivism, medical researches are now speculating that we don’t need your war machines, after all. What we need are better gardens. Immunity may be a matter not so much of killing off as of living further—cultivating not warriors, but tiny horticulturists and abundant flora. In “Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden,” Carl Zimmer writes, “Rather than conducting indiscriminate slaughter, Dr. [Julie] Segre and like-minded scientists [at the National Human Genome Research Institute] want to be microbial wildlife managers.”5 As in other ecosystems, some elements of “the” body must be nurtured to prevent radical, even fatal systemic imbalances. Gratifyingly for our metaphors, this nurturing approach has shown promise not only in responses to “invasive” bacteria, but to obesity, antibiotic induced ailments such as those caused by Clostridium difficile (highly treatable by the slightly infamous fecal transplant), and perhaps even disorders such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis—precisely those autoimmunities so central to the Derridean analysis.6 In fact, some researchers hypothesize, “Autoimmune diseases are more likely passed in families because of the inheritance of a familial microbiome, rather than Mendelian inheritance of genetic abnormalities.”7

“The boundary between inside and out is never more than an abstraction imposed—whether for care, for convenience, or for conquest” (165), Catherine reminds us. Rather than thinking the body politic in terms of repression and tolerance, we may remind ourselves that protection of the vulnerable is protection of us all. That there are no fully closed systems. A military force always prone to mutiny and self-destruction might be rethought both as a semiotic error—as misreading of a sign that was not “danger!” after all—and as a need for ecological cultivation. This is not to argue that Derrida is wrong in his implication that what seeks violently to eradicate violence will turn against itself. But it is to suggest that we shift metaphors, and in so doing, our focus; in that, our practices, to emphasize the kinds of deep implication that Catherine develops.

Nor is theology less implicated. “Even at the scale of the teeny tiny quantum,” Catherine points out, “we witness how the material effects of common belief and presumptive knowledge tangle with our ethics. Does that tissue structure or quantum field of infinitesimal relations begin to take on the feel of an infinite body” (129)? An infinite body, as the most macro of microbiomes, requires infinite care—requires, and gives.

Perhaps it infinitely rises again, refolds, regroups. And Catherine’s clarification from the introduction to the text takes on a still greater resonance in this way of thinking bodies: “If the boundary marking difference shows itself also as fold, membrane, or connection, alterity requires an alter-knowing of its others, an altered state of radical interlinkage: what you do to the least of these you do also to me” (23). The least—the virus, the microbe, the self as multiple other in “the ecologies of an unbounded relationalism” (24). Catherine Keller does not deny that there are dangers. But not every risk is an evil, and perhaps our tendency to over-identify them thus is entangled in the vigilant violence of our response. Maybe some serpents speak Wisdom, after all. And perhaps we can surpass some of our fear of the possible, which has kept us shut outside of our own gardens.

  1. Meister Eckhart, sermon 52, “Beati pauperes spiritu,” in Reiner Schürmann, Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy (Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne, 2001), 210–15, at 215.

  2. Jacques Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 99.

  3. Wilfried Allaerts, “The Biological Function Paradigm Applied to the Immunological Self-Non-Self Discrimination: Critique of Tauber’s Phenomenological Analysis,” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 30.1 (1999) 155–71, at 158. Allaerts cites Alfred Tauber, The Immune Self: Theory or Metaphor? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 141: “The Self has emerged in the 20th century as an operative metaphor for orienting immunity in terms of both the source of its activity and the object of its function. (. . .) The term Self is borrowed from the philosophical discourse to denote concerns about the source of immune activity, that is the identity problem.”

  4. See Polly Matzinger, “The Danger Model: A Renewed Sense of Self,” Science 296 (2002) 301–5, at 301.

  5. Carl Zimmer, “Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden,” New York Times (Science), June 18, 2012, http:/C:/dev/www/

  6. Ibid.

  7. Proal, Albert, and Marshall. For a highly readable explanation of the microbiome, see Jose U. Scher and Steven B. Abramson, “The Microbiome: A Voyage to (Our Inner) Lilliput,” Rheumatologist, November 1, 2011, n.p., http:/C:/dev/www/ See also Amy G. Proal et al., “The Human Microbiome and Autoimmunity,” Current Opinion in Rheumatology 25.2 (2013) 234–40.

  • Catherine Keller

    Catherine Keller


    A Hurt Worth Risking: Response to Karmen MacKendrick

    Not surprisingly the author of Word Made Skin enters through the body, indeed a body rendered dizzyingly material precisely in its multi-corporate resurrection! While the Cloud qua book does not take up the question of that intriguing, sidelined Christian preoccupation with body, ultimate body untrumped in the end by discarnate spirit, I imagine all those body parts hospitably reconfiguring in the really misty reaches of the cloud! I can even picture them as shifting infinite members in a body of God that includes the history of the universe. . . . And a kaleidoscopically and queerly assembled body it would be, in what Karmen MacKendrick calls the “constant, transcorporate, and fragile process of rebirth.”

    I appreciate this unlikely route of return “to that insistence on the value of matter” that rightly preoccupies us in a time of terrestrial fragility. Karmen beautifully puts this ancient speculation together with the ecologies of unbounded relationalism that she finds sympathetic in my attempt to think the bodies of our endless entanglement. She does this by way of the recent biology of the microbiome. This science of our internal “microbial wildlife” displays a virtually unthinkable, if not apophatic, multiplicity of the bodies that make us up. I had in this book used the example of the quantum microcosm to get at the minimal scale of the boundless collectives that we are. But these cloudsy crowds of biological creatures crucial to our constitution and needing to be kept well gardened and balanced—rather than slaughtered as menacing aliens—pertain also to research as I understand it stemming from Lynn Margulis’s model of symbiogenesis. A deep collaborative dynamism is gradually coming to light at the base of things, neither trumped by Darwinian competition nor erasing it, but embedding it in a far more complicating ecology. But she is getting particularly at new understandings of autoimmune diseases, where the model is shifting from the image of an immune system armed and fighting intruders to a far subtler sense of what and who we are: what is us, what is not-us, she asks?

    Karmen implicates this example wonderfully in her reflection on Derrida’s political and religious notion of the “autoimmune.” In Acts of Religion Derrida writes of the “auto-immunity of religion” whereby faith turns against its own populations, defending against the others within itself, especially in the family of Abraham, that “spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound” (89). One thinks of the Thirty-Years’ war, of the Holocaust. And he adds the market-driven science and technology spreading a new “globolatinization”—Anglobalization surely!—whereby the attempt to pacify and unify again turns rapacious: “It makes violence of itself, does violence to itself and keeps itself from the other” (100).

    If I am here taking the opportunity to amplify Karmen’s linkage of Derrida to the new understanding of autoimmune disease, it is to make clear the importance of her insight for the work of theology: we are trying on every war-worn front, we are trying like crazy, like madwomen, to find evidence for a credible alternative to our species’ distinctive belligerence against itself. There isn’t space for it anymore: the individual bodies live within the heightening planetary imbalance. I don’t know if the proliferation of collectives within the collectives within which we collect and recollect ourselves, will help, as we find language for them. It is a way of minding the entangled differences which betray us as often as they nourish us. Of minding, really noticing and being bothered by, those differences—as they multiply into the haze of the apophatic. And so fade from vision into a cloudy too muchness. It is the hope that such mindfulness will allow for some “better gardens.” Hey, rather literal botanical ones, too. Do “some serpents speak Wisdom, after all”? If we got evicted from one garden due to some serpentine know-it-allness, we may reread the horticultural options outside of paradise only with the help of another mood of snake: be wise as snakes, said one who was not known for risk-aversion!

    So Karmen was wondering about the trope of doing violence to oneself in Cusa, as he enters—indeed as he confers the name—the cloud of the impossible. Even if we might (as I do) alter its predictable reading with a gesture toward Karmen’s own experiments in the artful cutting, the tattooing, of skin—she wonders if we do violence to others by doing it to ourselves. Given the entanglement, after all. Surely so! But the violence Cusa fleetingly names signifies an assault on the given orthodoxy (in this case, precisely of the notion of a God who moves but is not moved, who acts but is not acted upon). Indeed as I hope I demonstrated in chapter 3 he even goes through the cloud to argue that it is truer to say that God is created than is creator (even while unsaying both claims). This is at least as radical as Whitehead’s “it is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God” (Process & Reality).

    So yes it hurts to challenge normalized presumptions, even those of an unquestionable medieval truth—but it is a hurt worth risking, no? A denormalization worth undergoing. It may leave wounds, vulnus, but these may be the vulnerabilities that Karmen more than perhaps any philosophers writes through to the most delicate, risky and revealing touch. Which is to touch and be touched.

    Here springs the impossibility which characterizes desire for Karmen. To give her the last word, only signaling here to the link between unmaking and unsaying, as between making and poiesis, theology and theopoetics: “in infinite desire we go on making and unmaking ourselves” (173).

Catherine Keller



One Feminist Theological Response

Usually a catastrophe has at least the capacity to shake folk into fast action and cooperation. This climate crisis approaches with a more treacherous temporality: it is too fast and too slow. Too fast to prevent irreversible destruction; too slow to make it a top priority even of those who do not deny it.

Just a few days after the release of the Encyclical I happened to be wandering in Glacier National Park. I was delighted finally to see these glaciers and enjoy perfect weather for the hike. The ancient icefields were nestled glistening in the Rockies, emanating a gorgeous foreverness. They sit there in their icy stillness, melting at rates that keep shocking the USGS team—scientists tuned to geological time—who measure them.1 Only by reading just afterward did I realize that they are simply doomed: the remaining 25 of the original 160 glaciers will be gone in two decades. Forever. The Himalayas, upon which depend not only tourist joy but the water and therefore food supply of much of India and China, has a bit more time, and so a bit more opportunity to be rescued.

The weird slowfast time of the planetary catastrophe—of fire and ice, of water and soil, of atmosphere and all who breathe—is not readable as “global warming” except by way of mind-melting abstractions like the annual global average temperature shift of less than a degree. And this subtle catastrophic pace only shows itself as “climate change” in and as the space of an entire planet. Nor does the space read as “ours” except when “we” are the species. But to be a species demands a sense of collectivity, even of universality, that cuts against the more vivid sense of human difference and disparity—for much of the right or of the left. So to parlay this crisis into the needed mass response seems much harder than other more than national crises, like, say, a World War. This maddeningly abstract slowfast planetarity demands of us a new sense of global public.

And this is why we need theology. There is perhaps no more comparably vivid, global vocabulary for thinking about—all times and places, all at once. For thinking, first of all, about us as creatures of an integral earth, for thinking about obligations that no national or local or group ethos can trump, for facing oncoming planetary catastrophe—apocalypse—and for proclaiming the chance, in the face of it, of a new earth.2 At least, there is outside of theology no more planetarily extended vocabulary that retains at the same time ancient currency, profound ancestral resonances, and ongoing symbolic force. That has a globally audiable moral voice. That therefore might just have the capacity, mainly through various still living and often traditional Christian communities, institutions, and cultures, to change enough minds and to impact enough choices.

For the most part, however, the conservative majority of churches remains untouched by or actively reactionary toward the emergent networks of ecologically-minded Christians. Ecotheological traditions have their own deep ancestry and planetary networks, but they remain fragile minorities, affiliated with feminist, liberation, process, and other dissident traditions, and are prone to drift discouraged or disenchanted from the exhausted oldline institutions that support or tolerate them. The asymmetrical schism runs right through some old denominations, most manifestly through Roman Catholicism. Theology in its various ecological and interreligious registers keeps trying but has not been equal to the challenge.

This is why we need the Pope.

The genius of Laudato Si’ will be studied—recycled, encycled—for generations (if we have them). More importantly, it will, it must, exceed the first news cycle to make its impact felt now, and the intensive interest of non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics in it, or I should say, the affirmative interest, displays its nonparochial reach. If I had to summarize its strength, I would say something like this: Pope Francis enfolds social justice and ecological viability into a document, simultaneously persuasive in its climate science and its socio-economic analysis, with biblical and creedal theology; therefore, his “integral ecology” can reach at once a global public, of any religion or lack thereof, while most specifically targeting the Christian, and particularly Catholic, constituency that is answerable to him. But what makes all this matter, now, is that Laudato Si’ answers to the slowfast time of climate catastrophe.

The Roman Catholic tradition changes through time at, well, glacial speed. And now its icy stability has been brought to bear—with the cadenced processional of statements from Papal precedent never distracting from the ecosocial momentum of the argument—upon the immediacy of the crisis. Often it plays upon the dual temporality: in one paragraph. For instance, it “shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution.” And yet: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” And so there is the need at once for a contemplative slow-down and an urgent acceleration.

Otherwise our actions will be dispersed in fragmented virtuous efforts that do not collect the momentum, that do not produce the collective movement, “the bold cultural revolution,” which alone can make the difference. And without that revolutionary collectivity, the urgency is dissipated through the smooth functioning of “the alliance between the economy and technology,” which “ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently, the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” This is relentlessly nuanced rhetoric, exposing the ruses, the green-washing, the dismissive realisms that slow climate awareness down to its current international failure.

And so we must “slow down and look a different way” if we are to see it, and to see through the high-speed distractions that are slowing down the needed change.

The pope is calling for a new sense of planetary consciousness, dependent upon his radical ecumenism—that is, his call to all human beings, in their endless diversities. It is not a matter of reducing the difference, which means ultimately indifference. It is about gathering differences into alliance. He puts it precisely: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”

Of course when a Pope calls down the metaphor of the family, we feminists run for the exits. Not without reason, as I will consider later. But in this millennium I have found that I must keep my own feminism—with its fast reactions—from sidelining the other major issues, particularly of global economics and its ethnic implications, that can now only be addressed in the context of climate change. Yes, then, to think ourselves as a species within the evolutionary tree of life means something very like recognizing our family resemblances. This is not a declaration that we are all “one,” nor that we might now embrace each other in a great family reunification. The family of our species remains not only endlessly variegated in its differences but fundamentally dysfunctional in its legacy of collective abuse, exploitation, patriarchy, racism, classism, etc. And no less, therefore, a family: but all the more disturbingly so. Yes, sinfully. There is no exit from our “common home.”

El Papa Francisco is calling for an immense reflective process in which we may think together in new ways and with multiple metaphors about this very togetherness. “Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical, and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network, which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.”

He has with brilliant precision implicated the method of a fragmentation of knowledge in the breaking apart of planetary life. The newness of the answer requires a slowfast thinking—not new at all for process thinkers, Whiteheadian or Teilhardian, for ecofeminists, or for followers of Saint Francis—of radical material interdependence, gathered into the “integral ecology.” Attention to the “cry of the poor and the cry of the earth” will prevent the vaporization of the vision into a merely abstract connectivity. And attention to its edges of unknowability—“which we will never fully explore and understand”—is not only a matter of rigorous scientific openness but of a mystical nonknowing. “We believe in the dimension of ‘not-knowing,’” wrote Ivone Gebara years ago, “that makes us humble and at the same time more combative in order to gain respect for differences and the possibility of building an interdependent society.”3 Ecofeminism would be a pale thing without this Roman Catholic sister.

Speaking of sisters, I am struck by the parallelism of the Pope’s call to slow down and think the connectivity of the common home with another voice of ecological prophecy. In her crucial new text This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes that “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much larger . . . process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect.”4 She is an activist tuned to the “bad timing” of the slow surface and the alarming speed of climate change. And in her sense of urgency she remains clear that activism will fail without a shift of “worldview.” For capitalism in its global development has depended upon the defeat of the idea of the common. And the academic left, sadly, has colluded whenever it pits the notion of “difference” against the collective or “particularity” against the communal. What is needed is the recuperation of the collective as the dwelling place of difference. Interdependence means neither dependence nor independence but a complex family of divergent particulars.

Klein places her hope neither in a sovereign state nor in greener techno-economies, but in the new movement she calls Blockadia—unprecedented alliances forming recently of indigenous groups, local farmers, eco-activists, citizen groups. (It has been especially active in the Pacific Northwest and Australia in blocking the shipment of coal.) And she makes no references to religious movements against capitalism, like liberation theology, or to eco-theological alliances. Her voice is purely secular.5 So I find extraordinary the fact that her sense of hope in the face of inevitable climate disaster and mounting capitalist depredation anticipates the key papal move precisely. This can be briefly demonstrated: “The double jeopardy of social injustice and global warming should not discourage us. Climate change, with its rising flood waters—“could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well . . . It is a matter of collectively using “the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now.”6 In other words—in the face of the one-two punch of capitalism and climate, the catastrophe itself can be the catalyst.

And hear the parallel answer of the Pope: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.” The economic enemy of the common home is unambiguous. It was interesting to watch powerful Catholic Republicans reacting to the encyclical, like Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, who normally love church hierarchy, scramble to restrict papal authority to private faith, stripped of political and of scientific meaning. Just like secular humanism does.

Indeed I would consider the encyclical a rare reason for real hope: not just the hope that it proclaims for a cultural revolution, but the hope generated by the fact that this voice—with more moral authority than any other single voice on the planet—is channeling the double cry of the double jeopardy of the poor and of the earth. And so it amplifies the double possibility of a systemic alternative. This hope is not the same as optimism. The pope’s own hope is not optimistic: “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.” As Bruno Latour, facing global warming, paraphrases Dante at the gates of hell: “Abandon hype all ye who enter here.”7

Does hope itself then double or does it divide when one considers the radical difference of its sources? A set of movements is forging new alliances for the sake of climate justice, from the bottom up. And on the other, simultaneously, there resounds the voice from the very top, from the top of the top—with angelic fanfare—right down to the misery and filth of the planet. But certainly top-down. And to most ears, theist or atheist, the gesture of a power from above that may descend, or condescend, to help us is just what one would expect from theology, Catholic or otherwise. In this context I can only whisper in such ears that process and feminist theologies have for half a century worked, often in tandem with biblical exegesis, to deconstruct from the deep within of faith itself the divinization of top-down power, its hierarchy, its patriarchy . . .

Oh dear. There is no way around a certain papal patriarchalism, is there. And it does run all the way up to its paternalist Heaven. At a certain point well into the encyclical, one encounters paragraph 75:

A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.

This is that omnipotent Creator whom process theology has from His [sic] origins recognized as incoherent in the face of creaturely suffering. Why not the call, the lure of God, that sin ignores and betrays—rather than a coercive force that will surely step in and save the planet for us if it is in His Plan? This incoherence may only get compounded by the idealization of the patriarchy of ownership: God the Father as proprietor of the world. Of course, these properties are being lifted up, as they not infrequently are by well-meaning theologians, to take down the human delusions of grandeur, the arrogance and greed that funds every oppression and also drives climate change. Paragraph 75 reads to me as something added not just to reassure but to mobilize a constituency, perhaps the crucial constituency of this document, that is not yet on board with the earth and the poor—but might yet swing. It does make me wince, though, having read 74 paragraphs in almost uninterrupted companionability with el Papa.

This must be noted, then, before our feminism turns us icy: that paragraph is the worst of the theo-patriarchalism of the document, and it is itself embedded in a capacious eco-theological reflection that is astute in its biblical interpretation. It has taken on the problem of the Gen 1 “dominion” passage, beloved of every anti-environmentalist and climate denialist organization. He locates it within his larger theological analysis of the triune sin against our “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.”

The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).

Here is an invaluable move, one that I missed despite having written a book focused mainly on Genesis 1! I always argue that in this text touting the divine delight in every creature (“God saw that it was good,” over and over) there is no way that you can read the “have dominion” as “have your way with it—use, use up, demean, ignore, destroy, and exterminate the species.” Dominion does not mean domination but responsibility. Not to mention that the culminating reward of the dominion is Gen 1:29f: you get to be vegans, like all the others who breathe! But Francis splendidly couples and several times repeats the linkage of “have dominion” with “till it and keep it” from Gen. 2, and clarifies that “keeping” “means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” He persists (at much greater length than the patriarchal paragraph is afforded) to lay out numerous ecological mandates of the biblical text.

Therefore, I certainly intend to teach this text to the very students to whom I am—at the same time—introducing the alternative metaphors of a God whose power is not classically omnipotent but lovingly omnipotential, requiring us to actualize it responsibly and creatively. A God Jesus addressed—a novelty then—as “Father,” a radicalization of intimate relation, whom we now for the same reason refer to as Love, Mother, Father-Mother, Poet of the Universe, Friend, the Enfolding, or just—mysterious Infinity beyond names and beyond knowing. The endless nameability and unnameability of the divine is as sister Elizabeth Johnson made dauntlessly clear key to the work of feminist theology.8 And it allows me to include citations of many ancient texts and some recent ones that use paternal language.


No, complicity. Indeed, a very protest/ant feminist complicity with this pope whose mission has defined itself as one great protest on behalf of the poor and the earth. Great, and not infallible. And in this case I admit to recognizing that even the bit of the encyclical I disagree with is needed: if he omitted it, or indeed if he spoke (in the tongues of angels) the language I long to hear, beyond paternity, possession, omnipotence, beyond the constrictions of women’s choices and callings, his encyclical would not have a chance of making the difference it might just make, not just preaching to the eco-choir, but to traditionally Roman Catholic populations.

We must not wait to agree on all our namings, not even on all our burning issues. There isn’t time. At stake is the future of livable life for us all. The whole dysfunctional family. And in the meantime the most vulnerable among us, often women, will be thrown by droughts and meltings and fires, collapsing coastlines and islands, agricultures and cultures, into rapidly intensifying jeopardy. Might we then all consider joining—in our acute differences—this com-plicity: folding-together in collective mindfulness of the complications of our wondrously fragile and complex earth system? It isn’t a matter of putting off our issues of gender and sex and race and ability, let alone class, but of colluding in the spirit of the grassroots movements and their dynamic entanglements. Then we can keep talking, arguing, contesting particular priorities—amidst difference there are always shifting deferrals—without delaying commitment to earth-keeping. As Klein puts it, “the environmental crisis—if conceived sufficiently broadly—neither trumps nor distracts from our pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.”9

Under planetary pressure, and with a little help from the Pope, we just may form an alliance in the name of the universe and its source. In their complication they extend endlessly beyond our comprehension—but they give us timely clues. And in the fastslow temporalities of this encyclical, appealing to old texts and to possible futures, the movement down from above forms a vortex with the movements interlinking us and all our social contexts from below. Catastrophe, etymologically, comes from kata-strophe, a “turning down.” Might we let the catastrophe we face turn us down, not in a great terminal meltdown, but in a turning down to earth? Where we already are, earthlings dwelling in the context of all our contexts. Then catastrophe becomes catalyst for the cultural revolution we need.

Early in the encyclical, after just two paragraphs, the human gets a magisterial clue as to our widest context. It comes with a single italicized sentence: “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.” This is neither traditional Catholic teaching nor natural science. It sounds more like process thought or the new materialism, with a vibrant materiality composed of responsive interdependencies that entangle any observer and anything observed. But not indifferent?

Really, what do the glaciers as they melt care for us, or indeed the ancient strata of the stony earth upon which they reside? Right, they don’t care, they don’t have conscious concern. And neither do most of us, for almost all the rest of us, most of the time. We are too vastly limited to care for the rest, except—on principle. And in faith. But this need not render us indifferent to any.

In particular moments the vibrant interplay of our differences shines through—a stranger’s grin, an owl’s glare, a glacier’s sparkle. And then we recognize difference as the precise opposite of indifference. Difference does not separate but relates. If indifference occludes difference itself—it is because the world is wrought of entangled differences. And these differences matter—in their interdependencies across every stratum of geology, chemistry, biology. Indifference is the opposite of difference. It conveys a world of separables and exploitables and expendables, blind and wasteful of the ways, willy nilly, we recycle each other endlessly. But there is no room for “the globalization of indifference” in this house of many mansions, this complex homeostatic system, Gaia, sister-mother, our body of bodies, this momentously encycled earth-home.

Laudato si’.


  1. Christopher White, The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s VanishingGlaciers. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 2013.

  2. Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: a Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon), 1996; cf my update of apocalyptic theopolitics in God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress), 2005.

  3. Ivone Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2002), 132. For an exploration of the tradition of mystical unsaying (the apophatic or “negative theology”) with reference to ecopolitics, see my Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (New York: Columbia U. Press) 2015.

  4. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) 460.

  5. See Naomi Klein’s response to the Encyclical, New Yorker July 11, 2015, which concludes: “The most powerful example of this capacity for change may well be Pope Francis’s Vatican. And it is a model not for the Church alone. Because if one of the oldest and most tradition-bound institutions in the world can change its teachings and practices as radically, and as rapidly, as Francis is attempting, then surely all kinds of newer and more elastic institutions can change as well.

    And if that happens—if transformation is as contagious as it seems to be here—well, we might just stand a chance of tackling climate change.”

  6. Klein, This Changes, 7.

  7. Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Six lectures on the political theology of nature. Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, Edinburgh, 18th-28th of February 2013.

  8. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse (Crossroads: 2002).

  9. Klein, 153.