Questions concerning the place of imagination in cosmology… (while reading Ed Casey and Catherine Keller)

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead

Four of us met a few days back to discuss the first 75 pages of Ed Casey’s The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (1998). I’ve heard there will be more of us next time. We talked about several ancient texts: the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Plato’s Timaeus, and Aristotle’s Physics.

We discussed the potential efficacy of ancient place-making rituals, such as that of the Australian Achilpa tribe (Fate of Place, 5). Can a single staff really found entire worlds? If a society’s world-staff were to break, would the people of that society’s world end? Would they all fall to the ground and die?

What is the modern scientific equivalent of a place-making staff stuck into the center of an aboriginal nomadic campsite? Perhaps it is geometry, the mathesis of points, lines, and planes used to draw the modern map of the globe? But what then is calculative science to make of the incalculable?: of perfect circles, infinite curves, and evolving spirals?; of real black holes and spiral galaxies?; of living organisms?

The modern scientific earth-measuring staff, the Cartesian coordinate grid, was meant to raise the human animal beyond erotic imagination into the heights of disinterested reason. But this staff has broken and can now only be used for firewood. Once turned to ash it should be scattered in a plurality of places. Chaos is the place-maker (not the place-made or the place-less), and its unruliness now and forever rules upon the earth beneath the sky. Chaos is the generative source of each and every topocosm, the place from which all order emerges.

Plato notwithstanding, the demiurge’s perfect forms of geometrical reflection have proven themselves unable to supplant geology and astrology as the philosophical foundations of cosmology. The volcanic instability of the earth and the angelic stability of the sky forbid our human pretenses to cosmic wisdom. We can only love wisdom and follow her; we cannot measure her. She is too deep.

The outer motions of earth and sky always already shape the inner emotions of humanity. We learn the God-poet’s ways first of all from Gaia and Ouranos. All other happenings are their child. We cannot invent geometry inside our heads ex nihilo, measuring the earth in some invented pseudo-space or Void, until we have first marked out our territory in the dirt and built a hut to block out the stars overhead. Only then can we place such heavy concentration on such airy abstractions.

Geometry need not lead to misplaced concreteness, of course. We need only remember that the staffs we plant in the sand can never stand the test of infinite time. Staff planting is a creative gesture, but every such planting already assumes sunlight and warm soil to feed the hand who hammers it. Staff planting is never ex nihilo.

Catherine Keller’s The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003) is a great example of how one might try to weave the living Word into place without getting tied in the literalistic knots of monolithic meaning. When speaking of angels, for example, we can follow her in drawing upon the rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics who turn to angelology in order to refute ex nihilo creation theories. Keller dwells rhapsodically upon the meaning of Elohim (Face of the Deep, 173-182), which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.” Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Angelic/Elohimic plurisingularity:

Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).

Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase that begins the Biblical book of Genesistohu vabohu, to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder.

The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller, like Casey, reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating. The God-poet, no matter how genius, always sings with a chorus, remaining forever placed in the chora, located in cosmic imagination. No creative act is ever from nothing.

Rudolf Steiner and the Angelic Hierarchies

In a recently posted essay on Christian Ecosophy, I referred repeatedly to angels. Though they are as prevalent in today’s popular imagination as they ever were in the past, the secular intelligentsia tend to dismiss them as relics of our pre-scientific childhood. I think it is important that lines of communication be opened between secular materialists and esoteric spiritualists (for lack of a better term), and by mentioning angels I don’t mean to alienate those with an otherly enchanted worldview. However, the outright dismissal of the intelligence behind the powers that assist in the creation, maintenance, and renewal of our universe is an unjustified form of chronological snobbery. Modern cosmology prefers to speak the precise language of mathematics, but what is to prevent us from understanding the equations of physics as abstract representations of the otherwise supersensible activity of spiritual beings? What, in other words, is to prevent us from linking that which is intelligible in the universe to that which is itself intelligent?

Modern science, influenced by Cartesian dualism, tends to restrict intelligence to the human soul alone, denying its operation in the surrounding cosmos, which is thought of as merely intelligible (because designed by a transcendent God; or, in secularized form of Cartesianism, because constructed according to transcendent Laws) and not itself intelligent.

Angels are divine instruments of creation, the supersensible organs of God at play in and as the manifest world. Jewish traditions dating back to Philo and later elaborated in Kabbalah, and Neo-Platonic traditions dating back to Pseudo-Dionysius, suggest that angels are organized hierarchically according to a series of emanations. Building on this tradition, the 20th century philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner suggested that the angelic hierarchies consist of 3 levels with 3 beings each, and a final, incomplete level consisting of two beings. All of the levels ultimately come forth out of the unifying Trinity. Steiner says that one can begin to understand these beings by analogy to the human I’s relationship to the limbs of the body. When all goes well, the I is able to direct the body to carry out its will by accomplishing activity in the world. The I cannot work without the body, just as God cannot work without the hierarchies.

The first hierarchy consists of the Seraphim/Spirits of Love, the Cherubim/Spirits of Harmony, and the Thrones/Spirits of Will. Steiner describes how space, time, and matter (originally a subtler form of light) are brought forth by these especially powerful beings (see Occult Science). The second hierarchy consists of the Dominions/Spirits of Wisdom, the Mights/Spirits of Movement, and the Powers/Spirits of Form. These beings awaken the material substance generated by the first hierarchy, allowing it to take on living form and organization. Yahweh and the Elohim, the central gods of the Old Testament, are said by Steiner to be Powers. Yahweh’s placement in the second hierarchy reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s remark that “the only thing wrong with Yahweh is that he thinks he’s God.” The third hierarchy consists of Archai/Spirits of Time, Archangels/Spirits of Fire, and Angels/Sons of Life. These are the celestial beings closest to the souls of earthly humanity. The Archai influence the character of whole historical ages (i.e., the Zeitgeist). The Archangels form the various folk-souls/nations that comprise the diverse human species (not the same as race, since people of different races can belong to the same folk-soul). Angels shepherd individual human lives, aiding our conscience in its quest toward things divine. The fourth and final level of the hierarchies is composed of the Spirit of Freedom and the Spirit of Love, both of which await their full realization by human beings on earth.

This way of thinking about the universe and humanity requires stretching the imagination beyond its predominantly materialistic habits of thought. It would be inappropriate to simply take Steiner’s (and others’) declarations as true without having perceived their meaning for oneself. Christianity, for Steiner, is not a path rooted in belief, but in knowledge. His epistemology (see Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path) emerged after a careful study of Goethe’s method of natural science and rests upon the cultivation of normally dormant organs of perception. These higher organs of perception, namely Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, allow the knower to participate in realities deeper than ordinary sensory perception of the surfaces of physical objects. No groundbreaking scientific discovery has been made without the assistance of such supersensible faculties. When we engage the world according to Steiner’s spiritual scientific method, we do so in search of divine messengers.

God and the Chaosmos: Thinking with Catherine Keller

Several months ago, a discussion erupted across the SR/OOO blogosphere concerning the implications of various forms of nihilistic and theistic realism. Some of my critiques have since ended up in a Wikipedia article. In one of my responses to Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, I toyed with the idea of Whitehead’s panentheism as a kind of “wilderness theology.” A quick google search reveals that theologians have been playing with this idea for some time. Just recently, I’ve been reading Catherine Keller’s exquisitely written Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003). The book is a meditation on the first few verses of Genesis, specifically the meaning of the phrase “tohu vabohu” in the second verse. Keller disputes long established interpretations by some Church fathers who claimed that these verses depict an omnipotent God’s free creation of the universe from absolutely nothing. Creatio ex nihilo. She argues that there is no biblical basis for the ex nihilo doctrine, that Genesis in fact describes a far messier, polytonal, and co-creative event. Creatio Cooperationis.

The first two verses of Genesis are usually translated as:

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Keller cites the 11th century French-Jewish grammarian Rashi, whose translation of bereshit preserves its literal meaning as written without an article (not “in the beginning,” but “in beginning,” implying that God’s “beginning” is not an absolute start, but a “beginning again”). He also preserves the plural noun Elohim, usually translated by nervous monotheists into the singular God. Further, Rashi’s hermeneutical care leads him to suggest that the first verse is not a complete sentence, but a dependent clause, making the second verse a parenthetic clause and the third the independent clause (114). The first three verses, then, should read:

¹When Elohim began to create heaven and earth²–at which time the earth was tohu vabohu, darkness was on the face of the deep and the ruach was moving upon the face of the waters–³then God said, “Let there be light…”

Keller dwells rhapsodically (173-182) upon the meaning of Elohim, which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Indeed, there is a rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics that draw upon angelology to refute the ex nihilo doctrine. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as a persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Elohimic plurisingularity:

Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).

Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase tohu vabohu to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder. The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating.

These exegetic exercises, I hope, help further the cause of a wilderness theology. In my own recent effort to bring forth a creation imaginary in service of wildness (Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy), I argued that some form of theological realism will be necessary in order to counter the nihilistic myth of the market. Theology, though marred by the “light supremacism” of its patriarchal past, must be resuscitated, less the chthonic waters of the unhinged psyche continue bubble up and reap havoc upon the earth. Theology of the traditional sort may be impossible, but theology of some sort remains indispensable. Theology, without denying its scientific aim, must also become poetic. It is crucial for anthropoiesis, for humanity’s ongoing political struggle to compose a cosmos, a collective dissipative structure, between the infinity above and the entropy below. Following Keller (and other feminist theologians like Luce Irigaray), we need not merely dress theology in drag, but rather simply queer its (te)homophobic roots, such that they bring forth blossoms of an earthier hue.

And the sea can shed shimmering scales indefinitely. Her depths peel off into innumerable thin, shinning layers…And with no end in sight. -Irigaray