Catherine Keller. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement

J. Tyler Campbell

The Conrad Grebel Review 34, no. 2 (Spring 2016)

Catherine Keller. Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Catherine Keller is a pre-eminent voice in negative theology and process thought. Her reputation has been solidified by popular works such as Face of the Deep (2002) and On the Mystery (2008). In Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, she unites various voices in a transdisciplinary conversation that highlights how theology is always political, ecological, and diverse. Keller aims to stage a series of encounters between the relational and the apophatic, rooted in her understanding of both theological and nontheistic texts. Through bringing these voices together, she creates an account of humanity’s interpersonal entanglement in light of a God who is impossible to identify.

Part I, Complications, begins in the Old Testament, with Keller looking at how history has portrayed a God who appears in scripture as a “dense cloud” (Exodus 19:9). She accounts for patristic elucidations of this theme from theologians such as Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa, who helped show that a negation in speech can portray characteristics of the Divine.

For the author, this understanding of “apophasis” acts as literary groundwork, seen most clearly in the final chapter of Part I. Here she brings together Nicholas of Cusa and the defining voice of process philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead, to track how knowing and unknowing contribute to both the relational and that which supersedes relation. Acknowledging that although human beings have the capacity to be in relation with each other and with God, the nature of both humanity and God consists of aspects beyond our ability to comprehend.  Negative theology can function as a relational cosmology, in which the absence of understanding works to unite humanity (120). 

Part II, Explications, further investigates ontological entanglement through scientific, philosophical, and poetic perspectives. Keller looks at quantum mechanics to show the important roles that mystery and indeterminacy play in what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” Although science is often portrayed as a discipline of objective truths, it remains reliant on the same strands of apophasis as theology.

The author then turns to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who also deployed the work of Whitehead into his mixture of post-structuralist philosophy and psychoanalysis. In Deleuze, Keller draws Whitehead into a language of apophatic entanglement to describe a “learned unknowing” that is not a reduction in knowledge but a gateway to new knowledge. She uses Deleuze to show how apophatic entanglement emerges from both physical and literary bodies. These bodies, although different, are folded together in order to show that accepted unknowing creates space for unlimited possibility. This acknowledgement is pushed further by traversing through the canon of Walt Whitman, for whom a body exists both as a part of a community and as a singular entity. Such depictions of the body reveal how apophasis highlights and conceals multiple meanings for objects.

In Part III, Implications, Keller engages theopolitics and how our political system and globalized economy impact our ability to be interconnected. She considers the current ecological predicament and proposes a turn to an apophatic theology rooted in Cusa’s consideration of God as posse ipsum, or possibility itself, suggesting that God exists as the source of infinite possibilities both seen and unseen. For the author, this functions as an appropriate definition of love. Her ultimate theological proposal does not require process or relationality in order to achieve its aims. Instead, it is rooted in love, which exists as possibility itself. Keller reminds the reader that God does not need relationships with creation, or humanity’s full comprehension, in order to exist. Human unknowing of the Divine is beautiful, and indicative of God’s love for humanity, which exists infinitely and without limits.   

Cloud of the Impossible is dense, and while at times Keller’s theology is challenging, it is never inaccessible. The author has a knack not only for eloquently explaining multifaceted concepts from theology and continental philosophy but for rooting them in illustrations from popular literature, her travels, or intellectuals outside theology. The book’s difficulty is one of its greatest assets, as the reader feels a sense of reward in tying together its complex themes. This feeling is compounded by the way voices such as those of Cusa, Whitehead, and Deleuze, as well as those of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Judith Butler, and John Cobb, frequently appear within the text. This volume offers a detailed account of human entanglement within negative theology, and flawlessly exemplifies how the study of theology can extend into other academic disciplines.

J. Tyler Campbell, Ph.D. student in Theology, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio