Catherine Keller. Image source: Vancouver School of Theology
A couple of days ago there appeared, at Religion Dispatches, an interview with theologian Catherine Keller. I read some of Keller’s stuff as a seminary student and found her to be extremely challenging. She reads not unlike poetry. Over time, though, I began (I like to think) to understand her language and what she was getting at. And it’s pretty exciting, because often she draws together two of my favorite subjects: science and apophatic theology.
The interview starts off with a short discussion of Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th-century German cardinal and all-out polymath. His theological work concentrated on the infinity of God and all the problems that brings up. As Keller says, “The fundamental contradiction that haunts [Nicholas] throughout all of his work — and attracts him as well — is that we are utterly finite creatures who don’t have the capacity to grasp the infinite, which is God.” He was taken by the contradiction, and made good use of it.
Keller uses Cusanus’ work to point out the omnipresence of contradictions in our lives: “the contradictions between our life calling and a relationship to a loved one, or the contradiction between our ecological awareness and our economic practice.” The question is, What to do with these contradictions?
In good apophatic style she says that, in straining to resolve them, we may approach a limit. In mentioning the uncertainty principle and other quantum oddities, she hints that this may a fundamental limit, that ignorance may be as basic to human nature as knowledge. But this is not a conceptual ignorance, this is not merely an empty spot on the map, this is not “I don’t know how the eye evolved.” It is a fundamental, background kind of ignorance that sits quietly and patiently beneath everything that goes by the name of knowledge.
This ignorance is not self-evident, but may be apprehended by honestly confronting the contradictions of life. It is therefore called learned ignorance by Nicholas. Keller (and maybe Socrates) suggests that its discovery is the best product of learning, and the worst thing is to be unaware of it, because without it all you can ever have is “little bits of knowledge parading as certainty.”
It is ignorance, to be sure. But it is not a problem to be solved. “The problem is not our ignorance. That’s unavoidable. But if we realize the shape of our ignorance, then we can learn a lot more.”
Here’s to a beautiful fall weekend for all Beloved Readers.