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Chaosmos: Does religious ritual have to preserve humanity from chaos and entropy?

Recently I came across a theological post that struck me with fascination but one that, I concluded, was ultimately erroneous (the original article can be found here). The argument purports that the practice of liturgy is necessary to preserve humanity from the onrush of chaos. More specifically, the author David Gelernter notes that the second law of thermodynamics “helps to write a commentary on religion”. He claims additionally, more boldly this time, given the Second Law, science must therefore sit “at the feet of religion”. Although this statement is obscurely unclear, he implies that religion must defy the “onrush of chaos”, the propensity of the universe to run down. Or again, the entropy of the universe naturally moves towards chaos, disorder, and “mixed-upness”. To be sanctified then, according to Gelernter, is to separate “the forward-tumbling chaos of ordinary time” from the rest of existence.

Although the argument is provocative, if not at least interesting, there is plenty of scientific evidence and theoretical speculation that is pointing in a divergent direction. The claim presented here, as follows, argues that order or cosmos presupposes chaos, what we can describe as chaosmology, to use a Joycean phrase. A brief theological interpretation is attempted here in response to the aforementioned post, but the present argument will go much further in elaborating the distinct contribution of systems theory and the idea that systems, structures or existent entities in general require some degree of unsystematic, unstructured or unrepresentable substance as their necessary condition of possibility. (For what I consider a more persuasive account of theological ‘becoming’ see Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, or related posts here and here).

A central axiom of dynamic systems theory is the notion that order emerges from and even presupposes chaos. In fact, even once constituted, chaos continues to circulate within identifiable and ordered entities as a vital force to the continuation of those very identities. Indeed, it is the very lifeblood or life-force of existent individuals. To be desiccated of these ‘crowned anarchies’ or ‘nomadic distributions’, to employ the terminology of Deleuze, identifiable entities would in effect – metaphorically – bleed out and die, or as Deleuze puts it, collapse into the immobile fascist body.

To use an example of Deleuze’s, the becoming of sedimentary rock is a process that involves the transformation of heterogeneous sedimentary particles through a filtering process into consistent, homogeneous layers. In other words, the identifiable entity of sedimentary rock is recognized through a process of differentiation and differenciation in which the ‘unstructured’ flows of sediment are strained and condensed to form a critical density mass. Indeed, the formalized and structured entity of sedimentary rock presupposes as its own condition of possibility the fluid and chaotic-like substance of sedimentary particles.

This process can again be reversed, as Deleuze notes in the opening of Difference and Repetition: “The constants of one law are in turn variables of a more general law, just as the hardest rocks become soft and fluid matter on the geological scale of millions of years. So at each level, it is in relation to large, permanent natural objects that the subject of a law experiences its own powerlessness…” (p. 2). Although the case cannot be seen as readily in rocks as in living organisms, “a dynamic system involves stability, slowness, and stratified elements, while also requiring the flexibility to adapt, transform, and destabilize these very elements” (Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 221). Put simply, the synthesis and cementation of heterogeneous elements into a homogeneous, self-consistent strata can always in turn collapse back into its disparate parts.

The point is, for Deleuze and Guattari, as follows: the differentiation of unstructured, indeterminate ‘anarchic’ flows is the necessary facilitation for the possibility of various new stable and consistent forms to emerge in the cosmos. Of course, this process does not guarantee success, but no new states or determinate substances can emerge without this condition. Or to repeat Nietzsche’s claim, one must have chaos in one’s self to give birth to a dancing star.

This peculiar tendency of stable objects emerging from ostensible chaos is lucidly described in detail in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, a passage worth quoting at considerable length:

A guiding question of recent work in dynamic systems is how order – that is, the sophisticated, stable patters which are readily apparent – are able to emerge despite the second law of thermodynamics, which states that order tends to move to chaos, or that systems in disequilibrium tend to move to equilibrium.[…] To take a frequently cited example, oil, when heated, will suddenly exhibit convection rolls and vortices as it is heated and before it boils. Before the oil is heated, the oil is in an equilibrium state in which entropy is at a maximum; in other words, the oil molecules are randomly scattered throughout the container such that no order or consistency is present. One section of the container would be indistinguishable from another. We thus have chaos, or a random set of points with no identifiable order, what is called ‘equilibrium thermal chaos.’ When heated, however, the oil moves away from equilibrium, and it is under these conditions that the convection rolls and vortices appear. Once the oil is in a full boil, chaos reappears, or ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos,’ and subsequently one section of the boiling oil is indistinguishable from any other. Dynamic systems and chaos theorists will pay particular attention to far-from-equilibrium conditions, and more precisely to the order which emerges at the critical threshold between equilibrium and non-equilibrium chaos.

The far-from-equilibrium conditions which give rise to spontaneous order most often occur during what is called phase transition. A phase transition is a transition between two steady and stable equilibrium states, such as liquid and gas, or liquid and solid. As these systems approach a phase transition, they enter a far-from-equilibrium state wherein self-organized patterns tend to emerge, and at a critical point (e.g., of temperature), there is a discontinuous jump to the new phase. Related to these phase transitions, and also occurring in far-from-equilibrium conditions, is the phenomenon of bifurcations. As Ilya Priogogine and Isabelle Stengers discuss bifurcations in their well-known book Order out of Chaos, a bifurcation point arises at a critical point where a system is poised to transition and when not just one stable state but, rather, ‘two new stable solutions emerge.’ For example, at the critical point where the stable solution of a convection roll appears in the heated oil the rolling motion may assume either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction – both solutions are possible. Which solution, or which branch of the bifurcation the system will ‘choose,’ is impossible to predict: ‘How will the system choose between left and right? There is an irreducible random element; the macroscopic equation cannot predict the path the system will take … We are faced with the chance events very similar to the fall of dice.’ As the oil is heated, further bifurcations appear, rolls within rolls, in what is called a process of ‘cascading bifurcations,’ which then leads to turbulent chaos. A bifurcation diagram of such a process between ‘equilibrium thermal chaos’ and ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos’ is surprisingly ordered, or ‘order or coherence is sandwiched between thermal chaos and non-equilibrium turbulent chaos’ (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, pp. 200-201)

Creatio ex profundis, part II

Beginnings are always taking place. Beginnings do not mark a definitive newness. There is no single origin, just an infinite amount of creations. The cosmos is ‘beginningless’. Creation takes place in media res, in process.

The logic of creatio ex nihilo, on the other hand, “has reigned largely uncontested in the language of the church since the third century ACE” (Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, p. 4). Biblical chaos is treated as nothing; God created the cosmos not out of something but out of nihil. However, as Keller writes, the Genesis account of creation does not support this view. By her account, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is utterly ‘flimsy’. For theologians of this idiom, creation was zapped into being from nothing: the origin is not ambivalent but absolute. As deconstruction shows, on the contrary, the demolition of this founding certainty trembles and destabilizes itself ‘from the inside’. That is to say, ‘hermeneutical multiplicity’ is always already integral to orthodoxy.

As the second verse of Genesis shows, the narrative of creation is densely packed with a ‘mysterious tremor’ that unsettles our ‘ceremonious triumph’ of order, master and control: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Or, what is the same, chaos is always already there. From the perspective of the ‘colonizing episteme’, disorder and darkness is synonymous with disorder and anarchy. These are the ‘sins of darkness’ or ‘marks of chaos’ that the dominant discourse continues to repress.

For (male) theologians, chaos erodes meaning. In this way, the doctrine of creation that is ‘preceded by absolutely nothing’ ensures the ‘pure and simple presence of God the Creator’ without any monstrous remainder. But as Keller points out, this attempt to establish a ‘true origin’ is doomed from the start: in the beginning was ‘bottomlessness’, difference and multidimensionality. In other words, there is always already primal chaos, or, in the tradition of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, ‘thick darkness’:

The felicitous tehoms of Joycean language itself reveal…not nonsense but an excess of sense, in which every word of the book, like every unit of the universe, comes webbed in unpredictable, multiply allusive, interfluencies (p. 12)

All of this suggests that the primordial creation alluded to in the second verse of Genesis is nonpatriarchal. Rather than promoting dominology, lording over the world, or reaffirming gender stereotypes that men transcendentally create while women are the immanent passive procreators, the doctrine of creation from formless, preexistent salty stuff more than suggests a sexual economy of creation, a ‘chaosmos’ out of chaos and cosmos.

As mentioned above, scripture only knows “a formation of something new from something—else, something yet unthinged, unformed, some sort of marine chaos not identical with the literal sea but not separable from it” (p. 25). Augustine, in his Confessions, even admits to the hermeneutical complexity at the opening of Genesis. In fact, the flux and flood of Genesis splotches the whole landscape of scripture. The oceanic chaos of Genesis is depicted in monstrous sea terms elsewhere in the Bible, namely with Leviathan. The immense waters and monstrous sea-creature is typically considered evil, but there are certain psalms that praise Leviathan: “How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there” (Psalm 104:24-26). Keller furthermore notes,

To love the sea monster and their chaos-matrix is consonant with affirming their “goodness” within the context of the whole. It doesn’t make them safe of cute. They also get poetically “rebuked,” i.e. bounded, held back, so that the orders of creation may emerge; so that any creative work may be wrested, as it must be in all our creations, from chaos. But this tradition cannot be reconciled with the identification of chaos and its wild creatures as evil (p. 28).

Stated differently, creation and creativity emerges out of chaos and complexity. In contrast to the mythic lineage of Babylonian, Ugaritic and Caananite sources, creation emerges from procreation, not slaughter. More specifically, in contrast to the matricide of Babylon, the ‘oceanic all-mother’ of the Hebrew Bible denotes that to love is to bear with the chaos, the dark and the sea. Western civilization, on the other side, demonizes the deep and energizes myths of ‘mastering chaos’. But opposing this misogynist horizon of Western thought, reclaiming the creativity and beauty of feminine iconography has bolstered the resistance of women to the ideologies and images of male-centered history.

According to this ‘feminist’ tradition, order is generated not in opposition to the chaos but upon the face of an originary indeterminacy. However, it would be erroneous to conceive of this trajectory of ‘feminist’ thought as a ‘new tradition’. Rather, as Keller notes, “The proposed tehomism necessarily implicates us anew in ‘the tradition,’ that is, in the iteration of texts in which ‘she’ left hardly a trace” (p. 35). In this sense, the differences and multiplicities in interpretations, that is, the multidimensionality and ‘multilateral matrix of meaning’, is to be considered a gift rather than a heresy for the church. But as Keller correctly asserts, the church “has rarely learned to bear with its own chaos” (p. 39).

The Speech and Practice of Christianity, Part II

E-mail Correspondence with Catherine Keller (April 1, 2009)

Cullen-Meyer: I recently finished your book Face of the Deep and appreciated it greatly. I was wondering if you might elucidate for me your approach to ecclesiology and theodicy. As for the first, even though the book is of a different topic, I had trouble mustering a reason to go to church. The church in my experience is rarely politically provocative or creative but conservative and patriarchal. Do you believe the church holds the possibility to begin again in a tehomic plethora of possibilities and transgress dominant discourses as well as Western social orders? Secondly, I sense that a theology of becoming is pregnant with an alternative response to suffering and evil that goes beyond the common responses given by standard philosophy of religion courses that explain evil away and make us indifferent to material suffering. For one, process theology ostensibly does not fix a binary oppositionalism between Creator and created. The point being,  individual agency is therefore not in competition with God. Furthermore, suffering caused by nature and suffering caused by civilization do not seem to be as isolated as typically viewed. Our world can also not be said to be the best of all possible worlds within a tehomic framework it seems to me. From my perspective a theology of becoming at the very least does not get God or ourselves off the hook in wrestling with particular horrendous evils. That is about as far as I get. I would love your help in wrestling with some of these questions or point me in a good direction. Since this is the only book of yours I have read, and granting that I may have missed things in Face of the Deep, forgive me if my questions have already been answered by you here or elsewhere.

Keller: Thank you for such an intelligent response. And of course a searching one—as the churches are pretty much as you say. But I find many exceptional congregations (often Episcopalian or UCC, occasionally even my denom of UMC), and they are real centers of community and activism. As to the questions of suffering, evil and what is called theodicy—I draw deeply from process theology. On this matter  (and a bit on the church) I think you will find my more readable recent book On the Mystery quite germane. And the references in it to process theologians  (Cobb, Griffin, their joint book; also Griffin’s God, Power, and Evil, technical but thorough; both drawing on AN Whitehead) may also be key.
Blessings of the Deep in your search!

Cullen-Meyer: Thank you for the help. I will definitely check out the references you mentioned. I had not yet read your chapter on Job when I sent the email but finished it today. That was helpful in itself. Would you say a good ‘pastoral’ response to particular sufferings would be to ‘change the subject’ due to the limits of answering theodicy theologically? In other words, would a good response be to expose our theologies of control in favor of a doxological respect for creation? As you put it, the answer to Job’s question still seems to be blowin’ in the wind.

Keller: A doxological respect, amen! Inasmuch as it inspires action on behalf of the earth and its vulnearble critters!
I do think On Mystery will be friendly for you.

Creatio ex profundis

Creatio ex nihilo, the account of creation that says creation came from nothing, has reigned in Christian orthodoxy ever since the third century ACE, but it remains a flimsy doctrine and the book of Genesis does not support it according to Catherine Keller in her Face of the Deep . The alternative account of creation that she describes, equally based—if not more so—on exegetical scholarship, is creatio ex profundis. As the name implies, creation arises from out of the boundless and expanding depths of the chaosmos rather than being zapped into being from nothing. “The Beginning” does not mark a single absolute origin but a “beginning-in-process” that is both “unoriginated and endless.” Beginnings are always taking place and do not mark a definitive newness. Infinite creations open out from the formlessness, undifferentiated and bottomless abyss of primordial chaos. There is great depth and darkness to life, in other words, but we intentionally try to avoid recognizing this nonlinear, endless opening because we are trained to fear lack of closure. This fear has its beginnings in the doctrine of creation which western theology has taught us to “shun the depths of the creation” in favor of understanding it ex nihilo. The darksome deep is an ambivalent origin in contrast to a creation under the mechanism of control and mastery that ex nihilo offers. In the beginning, according to this alternative account of creatio ex profundis, is not no-thing or even no-thing-as-something but difference and multidimensionality. In the beginning is formless, primal chaos.

This account of creation, despite how it may at first appear to be iconoclastic, is fully supported by Christian scripture. The oceanic chaos of the Bible located in Genesis 1.2 is depicted in monstrous sea terms—Leviathan. These immense waters are generally considered evil, particularly in the lineage of Babylonian, Ugaritic and Caananite sources, but we find throughout the Bible that the watery depths are affirmed as part of creation, not in spite of it. Furthermore, in contrast to the background of Babylonian matricide of the oceanic female Genesis depicts creation by procreation. If anything, God merely shapes the preexistent dark, unformed murky depths into the order we know today.

This much can be asserted: Genesis 1 betrays no fear of the dark, no demonization of the deep, of the sea, its she and its dragons. No trace of divine warrior or cultural misogyny appears on the face of the text of the first chapter. Does the contrast to the Babylonian epic, which we read as mythological intertext of Genesis 1.2, not begin to appear dramatic, deliberate, almost parodic? (pp. 30-1)

In fact, the marine chaos of the second verse of Genesis echoes throughout the whole Biblical narrative, especially in certain psalms that praise Leviathan (see here for how it appears again in Job).This particularly stands in contrast to the myths of the ancient world that intoned ceremonious triumph in mastering chaos rather than bearing with it. “Scripture…knows only a formation of something new from something—else, something yet unthinged, unformed, some sort of marine chaos not identical with the literal sea but not separable from it” (p. 25). Even Augustine in his Confessions admits that the flux and flood in the opening of Genesis does not grant a singular interpretation. What Keller discovers is that “Augustine exegetes tehom as God’s first creation, the creation of that matter from which both the heaven and earth would be then secondarily created” (p. 36). However, Augustine oscillates on what this might fully mean. From early on the church had a difficult time tolerating the sort of constraint that an unformed primal chaos would have on the imagery of a masterful and dominating lordship. The result is that Augustine began to understand chaos and complexity as an outcome of sin and a lack of order. So while Augustine may have been a potential advocate of tehomic theology at one point he ends up retreating “into a tidy neo-classicism.” Instead of affirming a theologically indeterminate origin that would understand order as coming from something unformed Augustine comes to think of an “unchanging order” as the only way to “save us from a chaotic nihil of meaning” (p. 38). In his early years he considered the multidimensional deep as a gift but later focused on single meanings to combat heresy. His influence on Radical Orthodoxy is undeniable.

To offer clarity between the distinctive theologies of creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex profundis allow me to post a couple quotes that summarize this dramatic shift from the first to the latter.

Theologies have tried to draw the line at “God,” to say that, whenever the creation starts, it is preceded by absolutely nothing—nothing but the pure and simple presence of God the Creator. Certainly this “nothing but” of a nonnegotiable starting-line lends a useful sense of foundation… Admittedly that tehomic alterity which has been relegated to the outer darkness threatens to flow back monstrously: the flux, repressed, returns as the flood. I am arguing that the genuine threat that chaos poses is no better reason to patch up the failing foundations, than to tear them down with nihilistic abandon. (p. 10)

Until the late second century, Jewish and Christian interpreters seem to have assumed that the Creator formed the creation from some depersonalized version of this primordial stuff… What Christianity first presumed was the idea not of the ex nihilo but of a Creator effecting “in the beginning” irreducibly new and contingent reality. The idea of a creation from nothing rather than a formation from formlessness [preexistent material] only gradually ensconced itself in Christian common sense. Along with it settled the dogmas of omnipotence: not just of the biblical lord of great if somewhat unpredictable power, but an immutable, unilateral All-Power clothed in the attributes of a single male Person (or two; or…) (pp. 15-6)

Chaos erodes meaning; therefore, it is ubiquitously sublimated and suppressed in Christian theology. Radical Orthodoxy for one has gone to great lengths in distinguishing the nihil from the ex nihilo. The fear is that without this stable foundation chaos, flux, “nothing” and atheism will erode the solidity of order and meaning. Rabbinic midrash has always affirmed the “multiplicity of meanings” but theologies in the tradition of the ex nihilo doctrine rarely learn to bear with chaos.

These doctrines of creation also have some practical implications. The order of creation that is upheld in Eurocentric theologies is not similarly received in a positive tone in Latin America because it tends to mask hierarchy, domination and oppression. From the colonizing perspective, evil is synonymous with disorder rather than injustice. Chaos is treated as darkness and the voices of hermeneutical complexity are muted by the dominant discourse of order. After all, the colonizer relies on powerful interventions and what better model to follow than God’s singular act of an instantaneous and permanent creation. In addition to a tehomic theology benefiting the struggle of postcolonial resistance to the colonizing episteme a doctrine of creatio ex profundis also aids in the deconstructionist’s task of destabilizing and protesting “founding certainties” by way of illuminating the deep flux beneath all of reality. In other words, complexity and chaos always arise from within rather than from without. Therefore, the transcendent-in-the-immanent will always shatter our finite and fixed meanings. Perhaps in this case we would be wise to borrow the tehomic ethic: “to love is to bear with chaos.”

From here I think I can address Matt Martin’s comments more thoroughly. Doubtless, turning a “no-thing” into a “something as nothing” is a shifty move. Perhaps Badiou, Deleuze and Žižek pull this stunt–I cannot say–but in my estimation they come closer to this creatio ex profundis ideal type than they do to a bogus nihilism. A chief motive of Keller’s, after all, is to provide ample evidence in support of a third position beyond the dualism between nihilism and ex nihilo–she specifically references Radical Orthodoxy. In an email correspondence with Peter Hallward back in November I posed this question to him in relation to this topic. His response follows.

…instead of creatio ex nihilo would it be possible to substitute instead creatio ex profundis if we are to remain faithful to Badiou? It appears as though inconsistent multiplicity parallels a plural foundation of becoming–as you identify in the closing chapters–rather than an empty void qua nihil.

Up to a point I’d go along with this, with a caveat. True, ‘void’ isn’t just ‘nothing’, no more than zero is.  (There’s a difference between e.g. ‘scoring’ zero goals in a soccer match, and there not being a match at all; void is always what counts for nothing according to a situation, e.g. here a situation that counts goals). But Badiou’s whole effort is to avoid any neo-Romantic reference to depth, and to insist instead on the fully rational analysis of presentation, which in its most generic sense, equates ‘that which is presented’ with presenting in the zero degree, so to speak.  This is an important question, I hope you pursue it more.  I tried to deal with it a little more here, but there’s still a lot more to done with it.

To add a little more to this discussion let me put another quote from Keller past the reader to illuminate a position that is concurrent with at least Deleuze in my opinion.

All theological interpretation (at least that which recognizes itself as interpretation rather than revelation) today exposes itself to an incalculable multiplicity of influences–movements, powers, protests, doubts, cultures, desperations, expectations. One pursues hermeneutical complexity. But one always risks chaos (p. 5)

The reason I added this to the mix is to find an affinity with actor-network theory. (I haven’t read any texts on it myself so a wik article must suffice). The point is to show that truth–call it a new objectivism–is an “incalculable multiplicity.” I hardly take this as a no-thing-as-some-thing.

Job's comi-cosmic epiphany

ckellerIn one of the more creative approaches to theodicy I have recently viewed appears in Catherine Keller’s chapter “Recesses of the Deep” in her book Face of the Deep. A key tool to her reading of Job seems to involve the literary genre of comedy (specifically found in folk culture) delineated by Bakhtin; strategies including parody, irony and satire. In this light Job is the ‘fool’ who defies God by employing humor, specifically mockery while putting God ‘on trial’. Job challenges creation. He calls upon chaos to defeat order. God answers by giving Job what he asks for, the chaos of life. Rather than give Job a direct answer, “God changes the subject” through demonstrations of chaotic whirlwinds. In a twist of tragedy, the joke is on Job.

But what is YHWH’s point? “You are ignorant and mortal, human, so shut up”? Or rather: “Be still and see all this!”? To me they should like the fulminations of an artist whose morals have been questioned while her creations get ignored

In other words, it’s not a show of omnipotent bully power to put Job in his right place (how it has been favorably interpreted by imperialists). Rather, God is asking Job to take a second look at all of creation and move beyond his theological anthropomorophism that ignores nonhuman nature. In fact, Job is inundated with reference to animals that have typically been ignored and erased by theologians attending to the text of Job. To this Keller asks, “Might our indifference [to animals] reflect the cultivated distaste for the chaos of creation?” Perhaps, Keller suggests, the presence of animals in the text of Job are there to resist human dominance and control of creation. This does not set well on the conscious of those who have come to understand the task of God’s human creatures to ‘subdue’ the earth. But Keller points back to that passage in Genesis and takes us one verse further in order to disclose what it is that we have dominion over: frankly, ‘vegetarian domination’. In other words, “we are given what the rest of the animals get.”

Like Moby Dick Leviathan makes a mockery of the whaling industry… But in this deft parody of the ancient work trade and business class, the windy vortex mocks teh powers of global commericalization; it puts in question the assumption of the exploitability of the wild life of the world – the “subdue and have dominion” project. The chaos monster does not seek vengeance but respect for its domain

While Keller admits that the answer to Job’s question “is still bowin’ in the wind” she nonetheless directs us to the interconnectivity and value of all creation. Our human status implies a responsibility in caring for the earth, not abusing it. Perhaps Keller’s most insightful point from Job is,

It is not up to God to right our moral wrongs, to fix our injustices and correct our oppressions. That doesn’t happen. To depend on God to intervene, to justify “himself,” to operate as the just patriarch is to abdicate our own moral responsibility on earth