Catherine Keller: The Cosmopolitical Entanglements of Process-Relational Theology

In what follows, I offer some reflections on the feminist process theologian Catherine Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (2015). Keller poetically folds her refreshingly open theological orientation into an array of important planetary topics,—including the ethical implications of quantum entanglement (chapter 4), the poststructuralist dissolution of substance (chapter 5) and of rigid gender binaries (chapter 7), the history of the Christian crusades and their relation to the rise of colonial modernity and global capitalism (chapter 8), the retrieval of Gaia as a more adequate name for God than “father” or “king” (chapter 9),—and unfolds from their implications possible sources of hope for our imperiled planet. She traverses these topoi with radical epistemological uncertainty while reiterating their, and our, ontological inseparability with every step.

Self-confident secularists may protest that turning to a theological mode of discourse like Keller’s in the face of our species’ present social, political, and ecological problems is only to regress into the very source of our problems! Why rehash the religious myths of the past if we modern, rational people now have the precision instruments of scientific knowledge, machines, and the capitalist market to guide us into a better future?

First of all, myth is not a childish embellishment upon sociopolitical reality, but the divine ground of individual and collective life. We don’t grow out of myth, we grow out of one myth and into another. Without myth, psyche and polis would have no way of attuning to cosmos. With no attunement to the cosmos, Thomas Berry would remind us that we will find no functional relationship with the ecosystems of the planet.1 Modernity’s rituals of certain knowledge, technological excess, and “progress” are themselves zealously drenched in mythic manna. As Latour taught us, we have never been modern.

Second of all, Keller’s theopoetics are not the divine fiats of Pope Urban II or the violent repressions of evangelical Christian capitalists. She talks God otherwise. She is a process theologian who learned her God-talk from Whitehead: God is “the poet of the world,” a “fellow-sufferer who understands” seeking “with tender care that nothing be lost” by luring the universe from utter loss toward complete love.2 Though in Cloud of the Impossible Keller draws heavily on “ancestral Christian sources” like Nicholaus of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, she explicates from them not the “militant ghosts of premodern omnipotence,”3 but a relational pluralism wherein God is the Supreme Complication, the dark Cloud wherein each is inseparably implicated in All. God is the “Non-Aliud” or non-Other whose name is infinite and so ineffable, and for this very reason enfolding infinitely many names. In Cusa’s terms:

“All the names are unfoldings of the enfolding one, ineffable name, and as this proper name is infinite, so it enfolds an infinite number of such names of particular perfections. Although there could be many such unfoldings, they are never so many or so great that there could not be more.”4

God has many names: Yahweh, Christ, Man, Machine, Capital. All more or less imperfectly convey the divine mystery. Keller performs her pluralism theologically not because she seeks to violently settle a diverse society on a new peace-instilling divine name, but because our “modern” scientific and political perspectives are “inexplicable apart from medieval theological presumptions of a creation good and open to reason.”5 We (the inheritors of European Christendom) can think God otherwise, but we cannot think without God.

In this lecture from a course on pluralism and political theory, I explored Plato’s ploy in the Republic to examine the soul by expanding it to the size of a city; in chapter 4, “The Physics of Nonseparability,” Keller invites us to examine the ethical entanglements of psyche and polis by way of a “contraction to the quantum point of view.”6 But why examine ethics by way of physics? What could be more irrelevant to untangling the ethical significance of human action than the strangely knotted world of quantum entanglement? Keller turns to the surprising and refreshing work of feminist philosopher Karen Barad to lure standard interpretations of quantum theory beyond their anthropocentric conceits. Barad reinterprets Neil Bohr’s more Kantian quantum transcendentalism (i.e., physics doesn’t tell us what Nature is, it only tells us what we can say about Nature) such that it becomes a new relational ontology. She makes no mention of Whitehead in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), but their projects are clearly convergent. Rather than understanding Bohr’s principle of complementarity as a reflection of the limitations of our knowledge of quantum phenomena, Barad asserts that the undecidability of the pre-observed nature of quantum events is in fact a constitutive feature of quantum reality. Einstein was unhappy with Bohr’s quantum universe, as it’s apparent indeterminacy stood in stark contrast to the strict determinism of his relativistic universe. Einstein went so far as to joke that he’d rather give up physics to become a shoe-maker or a poker dealer than accept that electrons had free will.7 During an evening walk with a close colleague of Bohr’s, Einstein once asked: “Do you really believe the Moon is not there if nobody looks?” From Barad’s perspective, it isn’t that the Moon isn’t there when we aren’t looking, it’s that when we do look, a new Moon, and a new me, emerge in the encounter. It turns out that the idea of separability itself was only ever a convenient fiction, whether we are talking about the level of protons or persons. The very notion of a isolated “thing” (a classical particle or body-bound observer) has been undone by Barad’s “agential realism,” wherein the final realities are “intra-active” agencies rather than isolable entities. These agencies or creatures (to use Whitehead’s favored term) are not dissolved into their relational intra-actions, “rather, the creature emerges within the creative field that it differentiates [such that] the attributes that make one creature different from another [are] acts of differentiation [and not] inherent properties of a discrete substance.”8 Acts or performances of differentiation are what individuate us moment by moment; our identities are always established through intra-active relationship.

Keller blames the instrumentalist Zeitgeist of the post-War US for keeping physicists from pursuing the full import of the quantum enigmas unveiled by Einstein, Bohr, and others. “Shut up and calculate” was the mantra.9 More recently, thanks to physicist-philosophers like John Bell, David Bohm, and Whitehead, the paradigm-shattering implications of quantum entanglement are now more widely acknowledged.10 In Keller’s words, “science…inherited from theology the metaphysics of separate substance, supernatural and natural.”11 But quantum physics has exposed “in broad scientific daylight [that] the minimum unit of the universe [is] a place of active relationship,” and that “each particularity is a distinct recomposition of its world.”12

In chapter 5, “The Fold in Process,” Keller folds together (but not without remainder) the work of Gilles Deleuze and Whitehead, who each in their own ways creatively unsaid the metaphysics of substance to instead celebrate the differential connectivity of the world. Deleuze, like Whitehead, was influenced by William James’ pluralistic and pragmatic orientation to philosophy. “In the Deleuzean work,” writes Keller,

“concepts themselves are multiplied and mobilized. They do not reflect, mirror, or subserve the real; they participate in its becoming. They do not cut the world into abstractions. They ply the world; they apply themselves to its practices.”13

In other words, rather than construing philosophy as a search for the true concepts that would accurately represent or mirror the nature of mind-independent reality, Deleuze engaged philosophy as the creation of new concepts capable of transforming reality, irrespective of any imagined boundaries supposedly separating mental from physical realities. Novel concepts resonate in the world, shaking up its settled order; or old concepts repeat endlessly, shoring up settled natural and social habits. Concepts are not mere mirrors, reflectively uninvolved in the workings of the world. Their value is derived from what they do or make it possible to do.

Keller skillfully unpacks the resonances and differences between Deleuze’s Spinozist pantheism and Whitehead’s thoroughly reformed process-relational panentheism. She wonders if the former’s insistence on pure immanence is the best way to overcome the separative transcendence so characteristic of traditional theology. Whitehead’s theology rejects the tendency so prevalent in the ontotheological traditions of the West to pay metaphysical compliments to God (all-knowing, all- good, all-powerful, etc.). His process-relational God is not the all-powerful exception to but the prime exemplification of creative flux. Whitehead’s God is described as a creature of Creativity. God a creature?: it would be hard to imagine a more heretical statement from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, Jewish, or Islamic theologian. Nonetheless, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison the divine function entirely, whereas Deleuze celebrates the death of God with Nietzschean zeal.

In chapter 7, “Unsaying and Undoing,” Keller enters into conversation with the Kant of Queer Theory, Judith Butler. She differentiates the 20th century social constructionist Butler, who brilliantly deconstructed falsely naturalized gender norms using the tools of poststructuralism, from the 21st century social ontologist Butler, who after exposure to Whitehead overcame her earlier ethical anthropocentrism by articulating a relational ontology that queered reality itself. Keller writes:

“Whitehead, attending to the exclusions wrought by closed systems, hearkens to the nonhuman universe, alive and participant in all our finite human decisions [“We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe”14]. An attention to the not yet known of the entire creaturely plenum, nurtured by his mathematical involvement in the natural sciences and his love of the romantic poets of his region, now carries the force of ancestral prophecy. The ethical anthropocentrism of Butler’s philosophy, even after the end of the last millennium, counts in this one way as the more traditional.”15

Keller celebrates Butler’s late turn to the queerness of a relational ontology. She criticizes poststructuralism’s prior tendency to over-focus on the way we are constructed by language, culture, and society, while downplaying or ignoring our relations to nonhumans. Poststructural approaches follow the relations and ruptures of linguistic signs with other signs in systems of signification with great precision and insight. Such an approach can and has called out oppressive social structures that shape culture by disguising it as Nature, thus opening pathways toward more ethical human relations. But what about our relations to such nonhuman diversities as fireflies, microchips, polar bears, influenza, plate tectonics, and starlight?

In addition to her encounter with Whitehead, Butler was motivated to undertake her ontological insurrection by way of a meditation on loss, precarity, and mourning. Mourning reveals to us what was always already the case before the loss of a loved one, that our selves are incomplete due to their constitutive relationality. “It is not,” Butler writes,

“as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am…Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do.”16

Just as with the entangled intra-actions of physical quanta, human souls are stitched together from the inside-out by threads of precarious and promiscuous influence. “Let’s face it,” writes Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”17 Keller links Butler’s still human-focused ethics of relationality to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology: “loss belongs to the ecology of becoming,” as all our relations are composed of prehensions of “perishing others as they pass into us.”18 By dying into one another, we create one another. This process of decomposition and recomposition is occurring at every scale of Nature, human and non-, and reiterates endlessly “to the crack of doom.”19 It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.20 It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”21

Butler, speaking directly to Whiteheadians eager to overcome anthropocentrism, warns of the risks of overlooking the profound singularity of loss. Keller amplifies Butler’s concerns: “celebrations of the cycles of life and death may not support the human ethic that suffers individual losses and honors grief…the human difference needs protecting from reductive indifference.”22 We ought to stay as close as possible to such concerns to attend radically to that which is not human. My hope is that it is precisely through recovering a sense of ethical relation with the nonhuman realms that our true humanness will become most apparent. Perhaps it is the very search for some supernatural identity apart from the planet of our birth that has so degraded our humanity.

In chapter 8, “Crusade, Capital, and Cosmopolis,” Keller traces the way the medieval Christian West overcame its internal divisions and discovered a unifying sense of identity through centuries of crusading against Islam. Western self-identity is thus constitutively Islamaphobic. “Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.”23 Such was Pope Urban II’s rallying cry in 1095, on the eve of the first crusade to push back the Turks and retake the Holy Land.

Several centuries of crusading later, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Nicholas of Cusa, a Catholic cardinal, called for a conference of faiths instead of yet another religious war. In place of forced conversion to Christianity or to Islam, Cusa imagined a conversation among representatives of many faiths who, with help from the Logos, might come to agree that though there are many religious or cultural rites the world over (among them Christianity and Islam), there is only one infinite and thus ineffable God. Cusa articulates what could be Christendom’s earliest doctrine of inclusivism. To the Logos, he says: “rivalry [among faiths] exists for the sake of You, whom alone they revere in everything that all seem to worship.”24 While Cusa’s mystical inclusivism may fall short of the radical pluralism I’d prefer, in its time and place at the sunrise of Modernity, it, too, was radical. Perhaps even today, the two biggest religions Christianity and Islam still have much to learn from an inclusivist theology like Cusa’s, since both remain for the most part dead set on exclusivist interpretations of the truth of their own doctrines. Keller’s hope is that a relational pluralism might help exclusivists begin to feel what they share with other faiths: namely, a love of God—Cusa’s “Infinite Complication”—which enfolds all the world’s religious expressions.

Keller goes on to enter into dialogue with Enrique Dussel’s thesis on the origins of Modernity, not in northern Germany with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation (as Hegel argued), but in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. From Dussel’s perspective, Descartes’ ego cogito was preceded and sustained by an ego conquiro: “if the ego cogito doubts the world around him, the ego conquiro doubts the very humanity of conquered others.”25

In our hypermodern age, the crusader complex has taken the form of global capitalism, “in which oil —and therefore Islam—figures prominently.”26 Keller quotes political analyst Thomas Frank, who in his book One Market Under God argued that sometime in the 90s people came to believe that “there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets.”27 What a strange litany of adjectives! The global capitalist market is entirely natural, a consequence of biological evolution, and yet at the same time it is also divine, the only source of human salvation? And “democratic”? Keller admits that capitalism’s “flexible interactivity captures something of the ontological process of entanglement,” and that attempted solutions to our planetary problems via top-down State imposition are doomed to failure.28 And yet, contemporary neoliberal capitalism does not advertise the pluriverse’s participatory matrix of “each-in-each”; rather, it asserts an ontology of isolable individuals counted “ego-by-ego,” pushing a new ruse of separability that stays ‘connected.’”29

From Keller’s process theological perspective, any effective resistance to the God of the global capitalist market must be a religious form resistance. She introduces the political theology of Carl Schmitt, who argued that all supposedly modern political theories of the state were really just secularized theological concepts. Schmitt’s approach led him to a theory of the State wherein political order is achieved through the exceptional right of an all-powerful sovereign. Keller asks instead if we “can have some transmodern rendition of political theology that does not take its cues from the militant ghosts of this premodern omnipotence?”30 She offers Whitehead’s panentheism as a truly democratic alternative to Schmitt’s totalitarian theism. For Whitehead, God is not the supreme exception, but the supreme example, the fellow-sufferer who understands.

In chapter 9, “Broken Touch: The Ecology of the Impossible,” Keller elucidates the hidden meaning of the Pergamon Altar depicting a groaning Gaia reaching out for one of her stricken children beneath a victorious Athena. She reads the scene as a metaphor for the origins of the polis or perhaps even civilization as such: “It would seem that we have to do here with an ancient complex… relation to the earth-home is sacrificed on the altar of civilization—driven into the civilizational unconscious…Might we recognize here a Gaia complex? It lends a face to the more ancient and diffuse fear of the nonhuman universe from which the human is inseparable: call it ecophobia.”31 Keller turns to the climate scientist James Lovelock to exemplify the way a new story of Gaia is being brought forth in our ecologically imperiled age. Lovelock has grown increasingly skeptical of humanity’s chances of averting the worst of climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The time to wake up and take responsibility for the destabilizing effects of human industry on the planet has passed. “I fear,” Lovelock writes, “that we still dream on and, rather than waking, we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.”32

What is still possible now that civilization has gone so far past the tipping point of planetary catastrophe? Humanity stands face to face with Gaia, and we are dumbstruck. “The entanglement of the human in the crowding nonhumanity of the species and elements of the earth…endlessly [overwhelms] speech—with wonder or horror.”33 Might a renewed attempt at ecotheology help shepherd our species through the coming evolutionary bottleneck? Might we–“we” earthlings, our collectivity delicately composed by our shared planetary fate—find in the face of Gaia a source of numinous meaning powerful enough to heal the ecophobic repression at the root of our civilization? Keller wonders aloud: “how on earth is the earth itself, Gaia, inclusive of all of us, a less apt God- name than the name of a mere bit of the earth, like a ‘father’ or a ‘king’?”34


1 Berry, The Great Work, 84: “ecology is functional cosmology.”

2 Whitehead, Process and R eality, Part 5.

3 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.

4 Cusa, De docta ignorantia, in N icolas of Cusa: S elected S piritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Paulist, 1997), 124-125.

5 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.

6 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 132.

7 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 134.

8 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 139.

9 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 154.

10 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 155.

11 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.

12 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 128, 142.

13 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 174.

14 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 111.

15 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 232.

16 Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004), 22.

17 Butler quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 215.

18 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 225-226.

19 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.

20 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.

21 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.

22 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 235.

23 M edieval Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. Roberta Anderson and Dominic Aidan Belenger (New York: Routledge, 2003), 90.

24 Cusa, On Interreligious H armony: Text, Concordance, and Translation of DePace Fidei, ed. James E. Biechler and H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 6.

25 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 257; Dussel and Barber, The Invention of theAmericas, 245.

26 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 253.

27 Quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.

28 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 255.

29 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.

30 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.

31 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 267-268.

32 Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 29.

33 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 269.

34 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 281.

3 thoughts on “Catherine Keller: The Cosmopolitical Entanglements of Process-Relational Theology

  1. Thank you, Matt.
    I am currently reading Catherine Keller’s earlier book, “On the Mystery. Discerning Divinity in Process.” It is a challenging but absolutely magnificent book. She makes a painstaking effort to differentiate between the ‘relativity’ of relationality in process where context is the ‘third’ mediating element that must be recognized as influential, and the relativism that is feared as the posture of an ‘anything goes’ radical break from what CS Peirce called the rigidity and ‘clash’ of necessitarianism–the condition under which mediation is not possible and ‘vagueness’ is viewed as an evil subterfuge. It is time to move forward from what the late John Deely called the ‘Age of Ideas’ corresponding to Jean Gebser’s ‘Mental Consciousness’ and into the new ‘Age of Signs’ corresponding to Jean Gebser’s ‘Integral Consciousness’ (for more detail, see John Deely’s Magnum Opus, ‘The Four Ages of Understanding’… )

    Looking forward to completing “On the Mystery” and moving on to “Cloud of the Impossible”. One thing to remember is the connection between ‘negative theology’ and what I would call the ‘Apophatic Path to Reality’ via triadic semiotics that makes the claim that ‘generals’ are real and that Nominalism leads to an illusory and incomplete understanding of reality in which only the actual is recognized as real and ‘analyzable’. If, in fact, possibilia are real and knowledge is, in fact, contextual (rather than absolute), relational (rather than substantial), modal (rather than determined), and synthetic (rather than analytic), and that we can only know relationally through signs, then a new integral and pragmatic perspective is opened up. This is a very different and significantly expanded approach to the understanding of reality than that offered through the limited ‘Way of Ideas’ which now handcuffs us and, worse, leads us to wanton destruction of the natural world of which we are a deeply integrated and dependent part. What we learn from Catherine Keller is not only theology and a means of discerning Divinity–it is a pragmatic formula for survival. A formula that will depend on the development of a research program based on the integral concept of ‘Synechism’ put forward by CS Peirce.

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