The Cloud of the Impossible
Feminist Theology, Cosmology and Cusa
Catherine Keller—for Harvard March 22, 2007
I’m grateful to Marty Cohen for including me in this mysterious conversation he’s been hosting on the negative capability. Odd, the passionate feeling of recognition stimulated by a single subordinate clause, set off by casual dashes in a letter dashed off to a brother: I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. The very offhandedness, the indirection of the thought and the humility of its medium: an informal letter, not even a poem. Yet the citation only works because the poet happens to be a great one, reflecting unselfconsciously on what makes great poetry. And we pass it around feeling like he is also our brother in this capability. This series unfurls in an epoch of undiminished irritability. Of course the reach after fact and reason--themselves quite different, indeed often opposed, modes of thought, as Whitehead in Science and the Modern World makes clear. Empiricism had to fight free of reason, in the form of the rationalism of medieval theology. Yet both were grasping after certainties; and these days an irritable atheism lays claim to reason over and against the doubt-free claim of fundamentalism to facts. Irritation, unlike true anger, stops conversation, expressing annoyance at something that is not even worth my attention, something beneath contempt, not worthy of debate. Irritation is a persistent infection of intimacy, isn’t it: those we would take for granted annoy us when they manifest inconvenient differences. In a quite bodily way, irritation nips potential contradictions in the bud.
But the irritations most intimate to my own interests would not lie in the mirror play of atheism and fundamentalism. The forms of certainty of progressive and particularly feminist theology have been crucial to our progress--and productive of inflamed zones of irritation, when the contradictions develop--between prior patriarchal certainties of belief and emerging prophetic Christianities, for instance, and then between the feminist agendas and the bifurcating movement of women resisting our white straight US middle class feminist’s brittle certainties. And so forth. Perhaps it is this particular irritation, as much my own as anyone else’s, that finds immediate relief in the negative capability. But the form in which I want to reflect on this capability tonight emanates from the much earlier tradition of negative theology. You have no doubt considered in this series whether any form of theology, even that of apophasis, of unsaying, could properly be said to abide in uncertainties and doubts, even as it invokes mysteries. I want to focus more specifically on the apophatic discourse as exemplified in the renaissance cardinal Cusa and his epistemological key to the infinite, the docta ignorantia, or knowing ignorance. One could translate this into what the postcolonial feminist and filmmaker Trinh Min Ha calls a critical non-knowingness. I have been recently finding in Cusa, almost irrisistibly, a balm for theological irritations. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) is a musty old source for the development of the negative capability of theology for the third millennium. This would be a constructive theology, but one already assisted by the uncertainty, indeed the aporetic undecidability, of deconstruction. That undecidability, which does not relieve anyone of the need to decide, has already helped to interpret the irrititabilities of identity politics. And it has provided endless irritations of its own. But the constructive theological work I am interested in would abide in uncertainty with a shimmer of confidence, a spiritual courage or a faith that is not a belief. It would abide not in an abyss but in a body. The ecological and feminist and counterimperial theology that I usually engage in, where theopolitical and theopoetics unfold each other in a kind of fractal amplification, is about embodiment. It belongs to the genre of theologies that matter. And with this preoccupation with the body, with a process of materialization that will always precede and exceed any particular body or set of bodies, we find ourselves in the world of cosmology. But so did Cusa. Indeed the coinciding of the finitudes of bodies and the infinity in which they unfold may be precisely what is encoded in his other famous key, that of the coincidentia oppositorum, to which we will return.
But surely the negative way does not traditionally lead to the body, to bodies in their multiplicity of fragile finitudes. It leads, as it does relentlessly in Cusa’s neoplatonic vision, to the simple oneness of the invisible and unspeakable infinite. By contrast, theologies that privilege embodiment are so recent and raw, so confrontive in their worldliness, that not only their visions but their passions appear foreign to the moods and motives of apophatic mysticism. To paraphrase a familiar rhetoric: is it an accident that just as certain groups traditionally marked as bodies, long silenced for their bodily difference, begin to find voice within theological institutions-- a mysticism of transcendent silence becomes trendy?
Of course the theologies that unfold within contemporary sites of embodiment are not normally preoccupied with the flesh as such, so much as with the systems, the social and ecclesial bodies, that enmesh everybody in networks of power, giving some bodies speech while withholding it from others. “I” for instance would have no theological voice or way apart from these identity-movements. They call attention to the needs, the desires, the contexts of our constructed materialities; to the humiliations that distribute crucifixions more freely than any eucharist. As theologies they remain indelibly plural, stubborn in their differences, forming an inharmonious chorus that has too few or too many proper names: liberation, Black, feminist, womanist, mujerista, gay and lesbian theologies; if those identities become constricting, inhospitable to coalition, new names appear: contextual, queer, ecological, postcolonial, counter-imperial theologies, a bit abstracted from the originary movements and infected by poststructuralism, yet bent on social change. The clumsiness of trying to name this moving spectrum of identities might already signal the need for a certain apophasis.
As for feminism, it was in Boston that the difficulty of unsaying the idols of divine masculinity may have first surfaced a feminist apophasis: the impossibility of getting “Beyond God the Father” already had Mary Daly noting a feminist affinity with negative theology. Beth Johnson would build this affinity into a profoundly Catholic feminist systematics.1 But consider also the aporias of “the body” itself. As feminist thought outgrows a callow “My Body, Myself” materialism, or the victim-identification of its rightful indignation, or the youthful narcissism of its erotic affirmation, or the skin-encapsulated anthropocentrism of its politics—the body gets a bit vague. Disseminated in its multiplicity of movements, dissipated by the suspected linguistic idealism of poststructuralism, any residues of an unproblematized, fixed Nature break up: “What about the materiality of the body, Judy?”2 When “woman” becomes Butler’s “permanent site of contest,” we are on the aporetic way, with no relief from the necessity of decision.3 What makes bodies matter after all? As these body-complicating contestations slow into the discourse of theology, might we recognize an inescapable uncertainty? A bodily apophasis after all? A tension at the vulnerable edges of our finitudes? Or does the apophatic gesture sweep the incarnational possibility into a chilly infinity of silence? At such an apparent impasse, Nicholas of Cusa would have us plunge not into an empty chasm but into what he calls “the cloud of impossibility.” For it is there, where we acknowledge whichever aporia besets us, where we face our doubt, our incapacity and indecision, that the holy might appear. It is where we find ourselves up against the wall: at a place “girded about by the coincidence of contradictories.” It is this coincidentia oppositorum, Cusa’s key contribution to European thought, that appears in its impossibility as both the impassible wall and the passage through it.
“Therefore I thank you, he writes, intimately addressing the infinite, …because you make clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me. “4
I do not read him as referring to the merely theological impossibility of knowing God: but rather to any impossibility that matters, that confronts and obstructs me --as the site of theological breakthrough. For as he writes, in his persistently serene voice, “the more that cloud of impossibility is recognized as obscure and impossible, the more truly the necessity shines forth….” Richard Kearney finds great promise for his own God Who May Be in the Cusan sense of the possible, possest; and would rightly warn against the ontotheological baggage of that necessity. Its being maystill leech the adventure out of the adventof the possible. But for the moment I am reading the necessary not as the opposite of possibility or freedom, but of the expandable. The necessity that shines forth when the impossible yields its shining possibility, its posse, would be that which matters.
I find myself at the wall with this current project, which could be nicknamed “apophatic bodies.” Where does the negativity of the coincidentia coincide with the tasks of an ipso facto affirmative theology of embodiment? If the becoming-theologies of embodiment are to fulfill their own promise, I sense that a dose of negative theology laced with deconstruction may tender a needed tonic. Far from silencing the outbursts of historically oppressed bodies, it might help us--in the words of a long dead friend and mother of feminist theology: to “hear each other to our own speech” (Nelle Morton). Conversely, an earthier embrace of our diversely bodied and often clouded creatureliness might help the mystical radiance come out from under its bushel.
2 .In De Visione Dei, Cusa pores over the aporia of the impossible. “Hence I experience how necessary it is for me to enter into the cloud and to admit the coincidence of opposites, above all capacity of reason, and to seek there the truth where impossibility confronts me.” This truth does not lie there waiting to be had, to be known, believed. It is rather to be somehow cloudily entered. This truth might take place in what Caputo characterizes as“the haze of indefiniteness with which decision must daily cope.” 5 He was thinking of Derrida not Cusa. But Derrida’s sense of the impossible swerves close, if asymptoticall, to the Cusan way of obstruction, or obstructed way. “What would a path be without aporia? Would there be a way (voie) without what clears the way there where the way is not opened…? Would there be a way without the necessity of deciding there where the decision seems impossible?6
The necessity of entering the “cloud of impossibility” is an all too familiar experience. Oppositions between commitments, constituencies, strategies, when both contraries matter acutely to me, when both make a legitimate claim (as, say, yesterday in my intro to sys theo classroom, between a African American evangelical Protestantism pushing for economic and race justice; and a youthful feminist furor barely containable in any church.)
If we face our contradictions, if we do not cling to a certainty whose oppositional purity we doubt anyway, we may enter the cloud. If we enter willingly, we may find ourselves able to relinquish the binary structure of the impasse itself. We might glimpse here a third way, a passage: “Lord you who are the food of the mature, have given me the courage to do violence to myself, for impossibility coincides with necessity and I have discovered that the place where you are found unveiled is girded about with the coincidence of contradictories.” 7 So we are called to feed on God by doing violence to myself. How inviting is that? My feminist irritability rises. Not that Cusa is ever speaking of mortifying the flesh. Then I recall Karmen MacKendrick musing: “communication occurs in bodies and in words too, in speaking and in the contact that requires an impossible intersection of impenetrable surfaces—that requires that we be cut open.” Poststructuralism makes commonplace reference to cutting, wounding, laceration. Yet “it is hard to conventionalize what is always, definitionally, displacing and fragmenting, from which some measure of violence seems inextricable.” A reading may be a rending, and “each rendition a violent tear in the stability, the solid fixed stolidity of language.”8 My courage bolstered, I return to Cusa. For an “impossible intersection” seems to confront us within the porous cloud; where the impenetrable wall of contradictions looms before us.
Cusa however is storming “the wall of paradise,” seeking truth, the unveiling, a mental apocalypsis. But isn’t that the sort of truth that deconstruction deconstructs? So how could Cusa considers obstruction amount to “the solid fixed stolidity of language”? It might, if by that fixity we mean what in his day was “reason.” “The wall’s gate is guarded by the highest spirit of reason, and unless it is overpowered, the way in will not lie open.” So the violence that is the gift of a mature spirituality signifies the “overpowering” of our own entrenched logic; of the sociolinguistic constructions that form our selves and write our bodies.9 The wall may then anachronistically suggest the deconstruction of whichever otherwise useful binaries currently immure our thinking—of cloud and wall, apophasis and bodies, impossibility and the possible, deconstruction and theology. In other words, it suggests their recognition as constructions. Cusa’s wall morphs, in that moment where conventional oppositions are recognized as constructions, into the “wall of paradise.” In this way the coincidentia oppositorum –at once wall and opening—is always already self-deconstructing. 10 Within the cloud, the opening reveals the closure, the revelation of the closure is the opening. Thus the coincidentia might be read as an apophatic marker, in Michael Sell’s sense, emitting the “performative intensity” that he attributes to “apophatic discourse.”11 If Cusa lacks the poetry of Silesius or the provocative pith of Eckhart, the discursive effect is no less radical.
The coincidentia loses its radical edge, however, if it gets dislodged from Cusa’s negative theology. “This cloud, mist, darkness or ignorance into which whoever seeks your face enter when one leaps beyond every knowledge and concept.” With this chain of apophatic metonyms, Cusa links the De visione dei back to the great engine of his earlier work, De docta ignorantia (1440). The “learned ignorance” comprises the epistemological register of the coincidence of opposites, and surely one of the best definitions of negative theology:
Therefore the theology of negation is so necessary to the theology of affirmation that without it God would not be worshiped as the infinite God but as creature; and such worship is idolatry, for it gives to an image that which belongs only to truth itself…12
De Docta Ignorantia encodes the radicality of the apophatic gesture: the critique of idols is directed against Christianity. Cusa’s mimicry of the syntax of “give to Caesar” hints at the power-dynamics and truth regime of the idolatry which would most concern him, as a successful cardinal and reformer high in the ecclesial hierarchy. I would not now call this negativity iconoclasm—for the problem lies not with images themselves, let alone icons.13 But should it be called deconstruction?
The relation of deconstruction and negative theology has from Kevin Hart on been so much discussed that I make only a misty summation.14 Decontruction is not negative theology but has been irreversibly drawn into its cloud; whereas apophasis may be said to perform deconstruction avant la lettre. 15 It is preoccupied with the Dieu avant Dieu, after and between the letters, the God before truth, freed from the literalism of every God-speak.16 Freed, however, to speak afresh: of God. Rosenzweig puts the paradox precisely: “Of God we know nothing; but this ignorance is ignorance of God.”17 The apophatic gesture always releases something more than negation, ‘more’ that may (or may not) hyperousiologically inflate the very ontotheological absolutes of changeless Truth that deconstruction deconstructs. 18 Perhaps we could agree to this coincidentia: If a (deconstructive) apophasis calls into question its own saying of God, so an (apophatic) deconstruction will question its own unsaying of God.
For Cusa the intensity of apophatic discourse takes place as learned ignorance, on a learning curve as infinite as its object. As the infinite, that ‘object’ autodeconstructs, possesses no predicates, cannot be possessed even as truth: “nothing other than infinity is found in God. Consequently negative theology holds that God is unknowable either in this world or in the world to come…” The infinite is a purely negative concept—nothing other than the not-finite is found in it. This negation never erases, it merely relativizes, the traditional affirmations.19 Saving God from the positivism of faith, it would save orthodoxy from its own closure.20 Casting all the personal names of God on the waters of unknowing, it receives them back manifold. For this infinite exceeds its own impersonality: “I see that you are infinity itself.” Cusa often shifts into the second person appellative —a “you” rather than an it or a he.
“She,” needless to say, didn’t need to be unsaid. Here I note that the genius of Johnson’s She Who Is springs from its feminist deployment of the negative tradition. Exposing as idolatry not masculine images of God but their use as “literal, exclusive or oppressive,” she insists on the divine mysteyr. Johnson’s interest has been to move beyond negation (either feminist or mystical) into the eminent way of alternative affirmations: Spirit Sophia, Mother Sophia, Jesus Sophia. The ability to denounce theological idolatry in deeply Christian terms is the sine qua non of the feminist and other earth-bound incarnationalisms. This is not to say that any feminist kataphatics can leap full grown from the mystical traditions. Even such splendid hints as the beguine Minne or Lady Love, the promisingly queer language of erotic mysticism, as well as the impersonal or transpersonal tropes of Cusa and the Dionysian heritage, or the divinely feminine Sophia of Boehme ,will require risky feats of transcontextuality.
So perhaps the channel between the apophatic asceticism and the becoming theologies of embodiment would not be deconstruction as such, but something more capacious. David Wood’s recent translation of deconstruction into Keats’ aesthetic insight widens the passageway: “ambiguity, incompleteness, contingency describe “negative sounding conditions or operations” that would otherwise appear in simple “positivity.” This naturalized positivity “gets disturbed when it is pointed out that things need not be the way they are, which make visible the possibilities of transformation, whether through art or revolution. Such an imaginative illumination relies on our ‘negating’—setting aside, imagining otherwise—the way things actually are.””21 .22 The negative capability, when it remains as open to mystery as it is critical of mystification, becomes invaluable to the theologies of embodiment-- both for their systemic critique of power, in which our irritable certainties continue to backfire; and in the construction of theologies that we can inhabit with a more sustaining honesty, i.e., in truth.
We? Everybody? Wouldn’t that suggest another overblown positivity, another defeat of the negative capability? I’m thinking however that theology must indeed honor the space in which all bodies mysteriously materialize, without attempting to script a narrative to which everybody should assent. Wood moves deconstruction in the direction of the earth,indeed of an econstruction. To think that space and that procedure theologically means finding the passage from the negative capability as an epistemological practice to its capaciousness as cosmos.
3. The Foldout God
Piercing the wall of contraries—at least for the passing moment of a “vision of God” free of anthropomorphic portraiture--Cusa proceeds to violate the principal boundary of classical theism, that between creator and creation. To pick up where we left him off: “…I see that you are infinity itself. Therefore there is nothing that is other than or different from or opposite you.” Here God appears so other from every creature as to be non aliud, not-other, from every creature.23 Aha, one might mutter, whether with inquisitorial or conspiratorial glee: pantheism after all. But the apophatic engine is roaring, with a rather formidable logic of its own. “Infinity is incompatible with otherness; for since it is infinity, nothing exists outside it…infinity…exists and enfolds [implicare] all things and nothing is able to exist outside it. .”
In other words once you grant the altogether orthodox proposition of the divine infinity you might choose to skirt around its implications by radically despatializing it. Or you might like Cusa explicate a universe. His turns on the concept of the implicatio, the enfolding of all things—all creatures, all bodies, the universe of bodies—in the divine infinity. “God, therefore is the enfolding (implicatio) of all in the sense that all are in God, and God is the unfolding (explicatio) of all in the sense that God is in all.” 24 Cusa’s implicatio/explicatio order comprises the heart of his doctrine of creation, or theo-cosmology; its semantic oscillation of enfolding/unfolding seems at once to reflect and to enact the assymmetrical fluctuation of affirmation/negation. The dynamism of folds is Cusa’s riff on Plato’s metexis/participatio. 25
God then is not all things, God is not the universe, except in this restricted sense: when something is in God, it participates in God, and so it is part of God. For God in the received ontology remains always simple, one, noncomposite. As “in a stone all things are stone...in hearing all are hearing, in reason all reason...and in God all are God. And now you see how the unity of things, or the universe, exists in plurality, and conversely, how plurality exists in unity.” The universe as unfolded, is not-God; but as enfolded in God is God, whose participants cannot comprise a composition of separable parts. In other words: the slippage of language toward pantheism is ironically necessitated by the orthodox convention of God’s noncomposite nature.
The classical Christian apparatus of divine as opposed to other “natures” rests on the metaphysics of substance. Cusa can deconstruct—via the coincidentia-- but only partially “overwhelm” the presumption of the indivisible unity of a changeless essence.26 The boundary of creator and creature comprises not just a nonnegotiable premise of classical orthodoxy but, trickily, a resistance of orthodoxy to its own platonism. Derrida, contemplating Silesius, senses this tension: “but isn’t it more difficult to replatonize or rehellenize creationism?” Remarking that “creationism” “belongs to the logical structure of a good many apophatic discourses,” he notes the images of God’s pouring forth “in creation” (ins Geschoepf). He then wonders if this might signify, “in place of being a creationist dogma, that creation means expropriating production and that everywhere there is ex-appropriation there is creation?” On that rather opaque note he pivots into a meditation on the n’importe quoi, “it doesn’t matter,” of Eckhart’s Gelazenheit. The aporia of creation in the apophatic heritage is passed over; cosmology doesn’t matter in deconstruction. 27
Hoping, ultimately, for an econstruction: what if we were to linger over the aporia of the infinite and the creation as though it does matter.For Cusa all things matter all-together. “For the being of creation cannot be other than a resplendence, but not a resplendence positively received in something other, but one which is contingently different.” 28 The “contingent difference” signifies Cusa’s attempt to keep the difference of creator/creature, of the infinite and its bodies, without reifying it and getting what Hegel would call a bad infinite. “every creature is, he writes, a finite infinity or a created god, so that it exists in the way in which it could best be.”29
Lo: bodies appear on the stage of apophasis. Perhaps it is to my un-Cusan preoccupation with the current status of bodies that is reverberating: of bodies humiliated as female or disabled, gay or dark; bodies human and nonhuman threatened with mass extinction. All of them, every body, all creatures, in an ontological equality amidst difference, appear “as much like God as possible.” These finite infinities, all embodied in one another and in God, comprise the universe. God—as “the absolutely maximum” is ”negatively infinite.” By contrast the universe “embraces all the things that are not God,” so it “cannot be negatively infinite, although it is boundless …, and in this respect neither finite nor infinite.” The question of the infinity of the universe hereby confronts Christian “creationism.”
The potential for an apophatic resymbolization of materiality shows up historically in relation to natural science. Over a century after the cardinal died peacefully, Bruno would burn for the claim of the universe’s infinity, derived in part from Cusa.30 “Our bodily eye findeth never an end, but is vanquished by the immensity of space…There is in the universe neither center nor circumference.”31 Our prosthetic eye still finds never an end. Cusa had already proposed precisely this radical decentering of the universe: “..the world machine will have, one might say, its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere...32 Recall that Copernicus and Galileo had not decentered the universe; they had claimed that the sun rather than the earth is the center, not only of the solar system but of the universe. Cusa leaps (rather literally) lightyears ahead in his vision of a centerless cosmos. Of course it is Cusa’s mysticism as much as his math that allows him to wrap his mind around this boundless and centerless cosmos: “for its circumference and center is God, who is everywhere and nowhere.” Cusa’s claim is subtler than Bruno’s absolute identification of the world with the divine infinity. It is Cusa’s folds that distinguish his theology from the true pantheism of Bruno. Moreover the Cusan boundlessness of a contingent or “contracted” infinity turns out to be more in keeping with the conundrums of cosmic immensity characteristic of contemporary astrophysics, with its speculations on the inflationary universe, the possible multiverse, the mind-busting quantities that comprise various relative infinities.
If it exercised little influence on the course of modern science, Cusa’s theo-cosmology may be all the more suggestive now, as science explores the edges of its own comprehensibility.33 encountering mystery; All the while the Punch and Judy show of scientific vs. fideistic positivisms intensifies. The passageway from the negative infinity to the boundlessness of the universe can help us take theological stock of our runaway multibillion galaxy universe. It may also support the delicate work, needed for the rescue both of democracy and ecology, of translation between science and religion.
The coincidentia oppositorum suggests a discipline of suspended certainty, in which the space of the cosmological imagination may reopen.34 It calls into the cloud the reductionism of mere bodies in a void, to be exploited, pampered or ignored; and on the other hand, the inflationism of disembodied minds rising to the Eternal. Still, a theology of embodiment (irritably): How does the enfolding of the universe in God and the unfolding of God in the universe, cultivate a greater inter-creaturely solidarity? In this way: Cusa recognizes “that all are in all and each is in each.” 35 This vision of the radical interdependence of all creatures as entailed by the God/world relation—and vice versa-- comprises a possibly unprecedented logic:
The universe is in things only in a contracted way, and every actually existing thing contracts all things so that they are actually that which it is.36 But everything that actually exists is in God, for God is the actuality of all things. Actuality is the perfection and the end of potentiality. Since the universe is contracted in each actually existing thing, it is obvious that God, who is in the universe, is in each thing and each actually existing thing is immediately in God, as is the universe. Therefore, to say that ‘each thing is in each thing’ is not other than to say that ‘through all things God is in all things’ and that ‘through all things all are in God.’
Cusa has in this passage put apophatic bodies into language. Busting through the wall of the impossible, into the coincidentia of implication and explication, Cusa opens at the same time a complication, a multiplex spatiality of folds. Everybody is in every body; but no one body is the same as any other, nor “could each thing be actually all things…you also understand that for this reason there is a diversity and a connection of things.”  How rarely has this diversity and this connection mattered in theology, let alone materialized in and of God. “That all are in all and each is in each” is not a new thought for ecotheology of course, especially where it draws on panentheism, on the metaphor of the universe as God’s body, or the wider Whiteheadian cosmology. 37 Yet one the whole the theologies of embodiment remain as impatient of cosmology as of apophasis, and tend to presume the unproblematized background nature of modernity. Can the vision of God translate into a dazzling pan-ecology that turns us back, like Job beholding the wild universe of the divine whirlwind—“now my eye sees you”-- to see this world with new eyes? 38 “…You have led me to that place in which I see your absolute face to be the natural face of all nature.”39
All and all and each in each: this vision perhaps only comes into its exoteric own now that we see it all too physically, in a de/faced negativity. Our species has so aggressively lodged itself “in each thing” that every molecule in the earth’s atmosphere is affected by our CO2 emissions. We are folding into each thing with violence, and all things are unfolding back into us with menace. The willful ignorance that cuts down rather than the learned ignorance that cuts open, ignores, whether in Christian or secular certainty, the sacred fold of the infinite, as it creases every finite body..40
4 Freedom of Explication
I do not imagine that speculation about the infinite and finite will solve the aporias of our vulnerable, wasteful species. The coincidentia oppositorum may just unveil a gilded bit of postmodern retro-renaissance. But it may offer some of us —so diverse and so connected—a monastic moment, from which we may more freely confront the impossibilities of the unfolding present.
“And when I …rest in the silence of contemplation” Cusa writes, he realizes that the divine “waits for me to choose to be my own. “ In other words the necessity God lays upon us is: be free? This sounds like feminist propaganda for getting a self before giving it away! So what about sin, etc? “You allow us to depart and to squander our liberty and our best substance…yet you do not wholly forsake us but you are present continually urging us. And you speak within us and call us back to return…”41 42 The “urging” of this divine presence signifies an absence of coercive power; he indicates no control of the outcome.43 If we prodigal kids will squander both the freedom and the “best substance,” the great gifts of the creation, the grace does not cease its calling. We will unfold the divine in our bodies, our selves—but how we embody it, whether we make our decisions with or against the grain of that “urging”… 44 That depends on us. Precisely not as autonomous egoes but as creatures participating at every moment in each other. Unfolding divine Possibility.
God for Cusa will become, a bit later, Posse Ipsum, possibility itself--more adventurously, perhaps, than the possest. But I leave that discernment to Richard Kearney. 45 We can say that the impossibility of apophasis opens into the affirmation of pure possibility. But possibility here requires our freedom for its actualization; our freedom as the freedom that is inseparable from and yet irreducible to the freedom of God. As the freedom of everybody on this planet is inextricable from my own, as from my own becoming.
The explicatio/implicatio pattern: is it not a process of foldings rather than a set of eternally ironed and prefolded creases? “To say that ‘each thing is in each thing’”—in a universe where all things all things move, is this not to say that each thing passes into each thing? Once we cut through the impasse of ontotheology—then the “is in” itself shifts into motion: if “everything is in a certain sense everywhere,” as Whitehead put it, reflecting on quantum theory, anticipating the entangled universe and David Bohm’s “implicate order” with its “rheomode,” it is not as a static containment, like Chinese boxes, but a ceaseless flowing of events in relation. In such porosity of pan-participation, each thing is prehended by each thing, in-fluencing, minimally or maximally, delicately or turbulently. 46The folds enfold an open and unpredictable universe; they unfold spontaneously, differently and dangerously. For their effects may amplify in the fractal folds of ‘each thing in each thing.’
I unfold in the moment of decision, saturated by the influences I enfold. My passages matter. They materialize in you-all. We-all, all of us bodies, actualize, we ‘explicate,’ possibility itself. In the explication of a non aliud that becomes freely other, in the inseparable difference of boundless diversity, then, at the other edge of the moment, we fold back into—infinity.
5. Aporia & Porosity
Still, what is the alternative to an aporia? How does the impossible coincide with posse ipsum? At the edge of language-- I turn to the OED: the opposite of the aporia is the pore. perhaps the passageway through the aporia is not arbitrary freedom, not a will in a void, but the porous. 47 Passages blocked in the moment of doubt clear and open like pores. The tiny opening in the skin, the leaf or the rock through which the world passes, the passages of breath, of air, of food. We are made this way, alarmingly porous, vulnerable in our flesh and in our hearts of flesh, dependent in every breath on—the ruach that connects us all. Everybody is coming in and out of us. Our thoughts, if they take flesh, barely hold form and body, so porous are they to the thoughts of others, the feelings, the obstructions, the distractions, the refractions of: everybody. Moisture, nutrients, air and light coming through the holey boundaries of our materialization. These metonyms of body are matter for theology. To “pore” over something, to contemplate, comes from the same root of “going, passage.” 48
The folds are pores, passages in and out of becoming creatures that have no substantial boundaries, but endless layers of porous surface; faces of the deep. We might say quasi-cusanically: the divine is unfolded as posse ipsum, pure possibility, the power that makes possible, but does not unilaterally make—everybody. Each of which is enfolded in and as the body of tehom. The deep. There would be something in it for God, too, something gloriously uncontrolled, like the most extreme creativity, like surprise, vulnerability, adventure. Like love out of bounds. “From the power to love infinitely and the power to be loved infinitely arises an infinite bond of love…” Cusa explicates that bond as the holy spirit of connection. Our creative interporosity will not materialize--for theology anyway--without the feminist unsaying of a phallic transcendence rendered immanent only in the closed body of Christ. But a female symbolic of porous, interfluent, spirited bodies is only one opening in the wall of paradise. It will take all the negative capabilities of our most affirmative practices to actualize our little earthly bit of interconnectivity. In love of this little finite world of ours, porous to the infinite--we might find the power, the posse, that every body needs.
1 Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: the Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (NY: Crossroads), 1992; also most recently, Beverly J. Lanzetta, Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology(Minn: Fortress), 2005
2 Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter. (NY:Routledge, 1997), ix
3 A branching way, with for ex. Luce Irigaray, exploring the openings and envelopes of a “sensible transcendental,” already in Speculum engaging the female mystics, later claiming without disembodying a spiritualized, even yogic, flesh.
4 Nicholas of Cusa, De Visione Dei 1453. In Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings. Translated H. Lawrence Bond. (Mahwah: Paulist, 1997); 252
5 Caputo could have been alluding to Cusa’s cloud, or the older Cloud of Unknowing: “Undecidability and substitutability do not form a bottomless pit down which every decision is dropped never to be heard from again. They constitute rather the haze of indefiniteness...the gluey, glassy glas which conditions very ordinary decisions, in which the urgency and passion of decision are nourished.” John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion(Indiana: 1997), 63. The Derridean/Caputan path of the impossible/impassible winds through the present essay.
6 Jacques Derrida, On the Name, 83
7 Visione, 251
8 Karmen Mackendrick, Word Made Skin: Figuring Language at the Surface of Flesh. (Fordham, 2004). 140;150 Like Cusa, she is never far from an Eckhartan apophasis.
9 [Cusa’s mocking allusion to Michael at the gate of paradise invokes a spirit still high indeed on the Aristotelian, Platonic, Catholic confidence of its Renaissance premodernism, a spirit he embodied famously.
For us the fixed stolidities may not be as high, may indeed cave rather quickly under the pressure of poststructuralism
, which may by now have produced some stable, even tenured, guardian spirits of its own. ]
10 Not to be mistaken for a unifying Hegelian sublation. Hegel does however reflect upon Bruno’s account of the coincidentia oppositorum, oddly not noting its origin in Cusa(Hist of Phil, C).
11 In contrast to “apophatic theory.” Apophatic discourse turns back upon itself, upon the naming used in its own (aporetic) affirmations of ineffability. Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying. (Chicago: 1994), 3
12 Cusa, 126 Cusa’s definition, spiraling back to the “brilliant darkness” of Pseudo-Dionysius,of negative theology continues: ”…the precise truth shines forth incomprehensibly in the darkness of our ignorance. “De Doc, Cusa 127. Of this passage J.L.Marion: “this infinity does not revert to affirmation after passing through negation, but lays bare and circumscribes the divine truth as the experience of incomprehension.” “In the Name,” in Caputo/Scanlon, God, the Gift and Postmodernism, 25. For Cusa’s darkness read through the lens of the “darkness on the face of tehom,” see my Face of the Deep (London: Routledge, 2003) ,200-209.
13 Indeed Cusa sent a (literal) icon along in the parcel with De Visione Dei, the better to illustrate to the monks for whom he prepared the manuscript, a certain point about the divine gaze.
14 Cf David Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign, as well as much of Caputo’s oeuvre, also J.L. Marion in God Without Being, etc.
15 The “truth itself”—does this language subserves the power-drives of the apopophatic theologian himself? Caputo gently warns that “in one of its voices, its most authoritative,” “negative theology crowns the representations of metaphysics with the jewel of pure presence..” Cardinal Cusa would never attain to the authority, of say, an angelic doctor. In the next breath, Caputo reassures us that this far-from-deconstructive aspect “does not have the effect of leveling or razing negative theology,” but rather of liberating it from the Greek metaphysics of presence in which it is enmeshed and forcing it to come up with a better story about itself than the hyperousiological one that it has inherited not from the Bible but from Neoplatonism.” Prayers, 11. One might not so much force as permit this truth to do its own deconstructive work.
16 “Pagan: Is God truth? Christian: No, but God precedes all truth. P: Is God other than truth? Xn: No. For otherness cannot correspond to God. But God is infinitely excellently prior to everything we conceive and name as ‘truth.’ P: Do you not name God “God”? Xn: We do. P: Are you saying something true or something false? Xn: Neither the one nor the other nor both…” Dialogue on the Hidden God. 1444/5. Cusa 212f. Cusa has a grand time socratically bullying his inner pagan.
17 Franz Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, tr.William Hallow (NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970),23.
18 Elliot R. Wolfson, addressing a different but parallel tradition, puts this beautifully: “Traditional kabbalists (in line with the apophaticism of Neoplatonic speculation) assume there is a reality beyond language
, a superessentiality that transcends the finite categories of reason and speech, but this reality is accessible phenomenologically only through language. Silence, therefore, is not to be set in binary opposition to language, but is rather the margin that demarcates its center…”Language, Eros, Being.
(NY: Fordham, 2005), 289
19 For example: in the next paragraph the learned ignorance lets us “draw near the maximum and triune God of infinite goodness, acc to the degree of our learning of ignorance, so that with all our strength we may always praise God for showing Godself to us as incomprehensible, who is over all things, blessed forever.”
20 Negative theology however cannot be described as atheism in disguise, for atheism lacks the learned ignorance as surely as does orthodoxy. Even to address the positivisms of modernity, apophasis might need the partnership of deconstruction, which can always “pass for atheism” and thus burrow economically through the modernisms.
21 In Wood’s revival of the “negative capability,” David Wood, The Step Back: Ethics and Politics after Deconstruction. (SUNY 2004), 4
22 “Mystery” for Sells names the tentative positive language that might possibly name “the event.” 216
23Compare Derrida’s koan: Tout autre est tout autre. Cf Caputo on Derrida on Levinas on the problem of rendering the infinite merely Other. Prayers, 20ff
24 The second book of De Docta, following the negative theology of the first. Cusa 135.
25 Cusa’s thought is “dominated by this fundamental idea: The bottomless gulf between the infinite and the finite is bridged by the idea that the finite participates in the infinite..”Thus Karl Jaspers in Anselm and Nicholas of Cusa. Ed by Hannah Arendt. (NY: Harvest, 1957/64), 87
26 If we on the other hand were to relax that ancient requirement of simplicity (which always sat so poorly with christology and trinity anyway) we might draw a slightly different inference—less vulnerable to the ongoing inquisition against “pantheism”; but undertaking the risk of complexity, movement and becoming in Godself. Just ahead…
27 The taste for cosmology, respect for the illiterate nonhumans, the difference between ground and foundation, between ecology and “Nature”; it is not a legitimate deferral of “God” as such that poses the aporia between poststructuralism and ecological bodies; “econstruction” names another possibility, or a decision taking place in the face of a conceptual impossibility, and the topic of last year’s TTC at Drew. Cf Ecospirit: Theology, Philosophy, and Religious Practice, ed Kearns and Keller (Fordham, forthcoming)
28 “God as the form of being but not intermixed with creation? [Cusa de doc
133]”For a composite…who ..can understand how the one, infinite form is participated differently by different creatures? As if a work of art were to have no other being than that of dependency
, for it would be totally dependent on the idea of the artist.” “God’s creating
,” worries Cusa “seems to be no different than God’s being
all things. If, therefore, God is all things and if this means creating
, how can one understand the creation not to be eternal…?” He will reject that (impossible) outcome but not easily, engaging “Socrates and Plato” on the idea of participation.
29 “It is as if the Creator had spoken: ‘Let it be made,’ and because God, who is eternity itself, could not be made, that was made which could be made, which would be much like God as possible. The inference, therefore, is that every created thing as such is perfect, even if by comparison to others it seems less perfect…”
30 Cusa’s cosmology, like Bruno’s, is sheerly speculative. But his long friendship with the mathematician and physician Paolo del Pozzo Toscanelli supported this polymath’s theology of nature, and his inspiration of Bruno. For instance in his book the "", Bruno says: "if the matter be considered physically, mathematically and morally, one sees that that philosopher who has arrived at the theory of the "coincidence of contraries" has not found out little". The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 90
31 Bruno On the Infinite Universe and Worlds: Fifth Dialogue 1584 In Kenneth Davis 55
32 “Aided only by learned ignorance, you come to see that the world and its motion and shape cannot be grasped, for it will appear as a wheel in a wheel and a sphere in a sphere, nowhere having a center or a circumference..”Cusa160f. He also precociously argues that the earth is not a true sphere, has no proper center, yet is nonetheless noble in form.
33 Current astrophysical ruminations on the shape of the universe resemble Cusa’s more than Copernicus’ or Bruno’s. Calculations of the accelerating expansion of the universe have it growing out in all directions from whichever point one is measuring. The big bang marks no center. “If the universe is spatially infinite, there was already an infinite spatial expanse at the moment of the big bang
…In this setting, the big bang did not take place at one point; instead, the big bang eruption took place everywhere on the infinite expanse.” Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. (Vintage: 2004) italics his; 249
34 The potentiality of this passageway is far from exhausted, as the work of quantum physicist David Bohm, signals: he moves through the epistemological wall of the quantum wave/particle complementarity by translating it into “the implicate and the explicate orders.” The implicate order is “undivided wholeness in flowing motion.” David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Ark: 1980)11; cf also Bohm &B.J.Hiley, The Undivided Universe (London: Routledge,1993), 350ff.
35 In Book One, on negative theology, “it was shown that God is in all things in such a way that all things are in God;” but now “it is evident that God is in all things, as if by mediation of the universe.” This is Cusa’s key replacement of the platonic mediation by an abstract multiplicity of forms by the folding relation—cf ch9. It is not that God is a substance who folds in and out of world. God is the folding: “…God is the enfolding and unfolding of all things…”De Doc, 137
36 Contraction is the actualization of possibility which makes a finite thing what it is, distinct from the infinite; it is perhaps the fold itself.
37 Here I want only to suggest that process theology, an insistently kataphatic activity, benefits from an occasional unsaying. It provides the (often unnamed) depth-resource for a range of activist theologies whose future may depend upon a certain mystical honesty, beyond or beneath the strategic rhetoric of doctrine and politics. Roland Faber, Gott der Poet der Welt, outlines a negative process theology. He is currently developing a Deleuzian-Whiteheadian theopoetics of the manifold, with deep engagement of the apophatic tradition.
38 Ck on Job ch 7 “Job’s Comi-Cosmic Epiphany.” Face of Deep.
39 De Visione 246
40 So here let me note that this cosmological radicalism remains foreign both to deconstruction and to pre-ecological theologies of embodiment, both of which exhaust their messianicity in an anthropocentric hope for justice. The ecotheologies by contrast move toward the panentheistic proposal, but with still little patience for the aporias of apophasis. And negative theology has a minimal grade of messianic interest in the future of the earth. What we may be able to construct for our own context is a theology that lets our negative capability work for us; doubts and uncertainties—whether about God or about our shared creaturely future—may then be respected as aporetic devices; as moments in the cloud of the impossible, to which we must ever return, and in which the logic of the contraries that overwhelm us may once again itself be overwhelmed.
41 Visione 247.248
42 In a related register, “The presence of God in grace is not the violence of the moment—but the unfolding of the divine maintenance and sustenance of the world.” If this sustenance, this feeding, be relieved of the doctrinal pressure of omnipotence, then yes: “Taking the incarnation seriously is not being translated out of the world into immediate contact with God
; it is recognising the movement of God in what has been gifted for us in the world.” Graham Ward, “Language and Silence,” which involves a rhythmic Derridean reading of the Sabbath, the silence or space for breathing, in Silence and the Word.
43 The continual urge sounds like what Whitehead’s “initial aim”; that “divine lure” Cobb worked through Wesley into a quite Protestant notion of the initiating, inspiring grace.
44 Hence the earlier thought of the relative perfection of each creature, by which “it prefers that which it itself holds, as if a divine gift,”.. De Doc 134
45 cf also Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be. (2001); John Panteliemon Manoussakis After God (2006)
46 Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. . (cf Ch 6 on Whitehead, “What is an Event?”(U of Minnesota, 1993).) On the relation of Deleuze and Whitehead cf essays by Keller and Roland Faber in Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, ed C. Keller and Anne Daniell, Albany: SUNY, 2002.
47 Pore (n) from Gk poros, lit ‘passage, way’; 1387L ‘porus’, pore; from PIE base por- ‘going, passage’
48 Perein, to pierce, run through.