Worlds Without End

Catherine Keller

When it came to reading Mary Jane Rubenstein’s Pantheologies, I had faith that I would be gripped sentence by sentence–and that if she thinks pantheism is so important, I need to know why.

But facing this book, differently from Strange Wonder and Worlds Without End, my theologian-persona felt a bit defensive. I have found panentheism an instrument of liberation in the struggle against Christian exceptionalism and its White Guy in the Sky. When introducing a constructive alternative to the dispassionate omnipotence and classical theism of Him–panentheism helps me lower Christian defenses. That en performs a distinction without which I would for instance instantly lose about half of my MDiv students, who come knowing nothing about pantheism but that it is Wrong. But upon reading Pantheologies my strategy of inviting students into a third space, neither classical-theist nor pantheist but panentheist, suddenly seemed to locate me among those whom Rubenstein finds otherwise adventurous in their theologies, but in this strategy disappointingly reticent.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters. New York: Columbia University Press. 320 pp. $35.00

Of course panentheism is never just a pedagogical strategy. For my own theological thinking, however, I have sometimes called it a darkened or smudged panentheism. For the little en is not a wall or a moat between God and All.  So I will argue that if one allows for the en-smudge,  Mary Jane Rubenstein’s pantheology can be characterized as panentheist no less than as pantheist.

The smudged en marks a between-space that situated not externally to but precisely en, in, both the theos and the pan: it signifies the space of their internal relatedness. In its blur, the en signifies a relation of radical difference-of difference at once irreducible to the same and inseparable from the other. This relation of inseparable difference forms a kind of cloud.   An apophatic cloud, a “cloud of the impossible”—to cite the clearest explicator of panentheism avant le mot, Nicholas of Cusa. That 15th century theologian finds God, the Infinite, unfolded (explicatio) “in and as all things” even as all things fold together (complicatio) in the one infinity of God. And as infinity  as such has no boundaries (no fin), nothing exists outside of it. Rubenstein recognizes Cusa and his apophatically enabled cosmology as an important ancestor of the multiverse of her Worlds Without End.

Pantheologies features the deeply Cusanic Giordano Bruno, the martyred monk writing in the next century.

It was her reading of  Bruno that crashed through my defenses—setting off an inner explosion of OMG’s (not an infrequent effect of reading Rubenstein).  For her reading of this heretical genius exposes the antipantheist fury for what it always was and continues to be: a theologically coded debasement of to pan itself. That All signifies what is female, what is dark, what is earth. It reads as mere matter posturing as divine: the ultimate monstrosity.

Rubenstein discovers in Bruno’s character Polinio the spokesman for orthodoxy. He goes on an anti-pan rant naming “ the female sex” as  (to quote her quoting him almost in full)  “that sex, I mean, which is intractable, frail, capricious, cowardly, feeble, vile, ignoble, base, despicable ,slovenly, unworthy, deceitful…cold ..barren, vain, confused..lazy, fetic, foul..unfinished, deficient..sickness, death…’”  At this moment of her intertextuality we are given to realize that will have to choose between pantheism and “mantheism” (a term that waited centuries for her to coin it.)  She shows that for the proto-feminist Bruno  ‘all is one’ means “‘there is unity in the multiplicity and multiplicity in the unity…being is multi-modal and multi-unitary’ and, as…Or as Teofilo [Bruno’s persona in the conversation] puts it, ‘multiform and multifigured.’”So to read God (with and beyond Cusa, in Bruno and Spinoza)  as “all things”  does not  render God a cosmic “compendium of all things-some massively aggregated All.”  She reads Spinoza rather to mean  that the all,the all things that make up the All,  “are expressions and modifications of an essentially dynamic…  divinity; that all things both reflect and compose the God-or-nature  [deus sive natura] that expresses, enfolds and inhabits all things.” There is no simply undifferentiated unity in play: either of all things with each other, or of one or all of them with God.

The enfolding into the divine One of an All that does not thereby lose its differential multiplicity, a One which then unfolds in and as the multiplicity: Cusa had already crystallized that theologem.  And it anticipates, without directly influencing, the panentheism one must attribute to Whiteheadian, or process, theology, For Whitehead the “principle of the ultimate” is a many folding into and as, i.e.  “becoming,”  every one. The ever prevenient multiplicity is thus ever multiplied. Whitehead had early called that first principle “substantial activity” as a signal of his Spinozism.  Each ‘actual occasion’, or creature, counted for Whitehead as a version of a Spinozan “mode.” Whitehead later changed substantial activity to ‘creativity,’   to avoid not pantheism but substance metaphysics. And mediating—not single causing– this process is his di-polar nature of God, who primordially folds an erotic lure into each becoming, which materializes in the indeterminacy of  an  event of becoming and which is then enfolded into the so-called consequent nature, which is God as a process of all-feeling incompletion. His student Charles Hartshorne is the one who with his counter-Thomist argument for a Most Moved Mover, launched the metaphor of the world as God’s body. He didn’t worry that endowing God with a body was precisely the charge levelled against Spinoza. And it is Hartshorne, not Whitehead, who framed process theology as panentheism.

The theos of process panentheism is depicted as having no other experience than that of the universe: that of the infinitely unfolding process, the complicatio, of all becomings altogether.  It was in The Fold, where Gilles Deleuze startlingly praises Whitehead’s God as “pure process,” that I found with a citation of Bruno a footnote that drew me down the Cusan rabbit hole.  And Deleuze soon thereafter writes that “Nothing is passive, but everything is interaction, even gravity. This” he says “was the definition Spinoza gave of ‘affectio’ and ‘affectus’ for bodies grasped within a state of affairs, and that Whitehead rediscovered when he made each thing a ‘prehension’ of other things and the passage from one prehension to another a positive or negative ‘feeling.’ Interaction becomes communication.” Surely a key moment for the renewed consideration of affect, matter, and thereby of panentheism and pantheism together.

Rubenstein’s salvaging of pantheism releases the potentiality of its wayward network, Bruno, Spinoza, Deleuze, Jane Bennett (a recent Whitehead reader), Karen Barad and other new materialists, to strengthen a coalition around what now matters most of all.  That is nonhysterically unfolded in Pantheologies by way of Lynn Margulis, co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis, who reads all human and nonhuman symbionts, all of us, as  “walking communities.” Rubenstein  relieves a radical socioecology of earthlings from the ready caricatures of mother Earth.  She is decolonizing the “sexed and raced categories of “feminism and animism.”  This means—here pantheology and panentheism can also work in synergy—resisting not just an old heresy-hunting theism, but modern scientism, where it practices its (old) lifeless materialism.  As she nails the problem perfectly: “the heretics of the medieval and early modern periods ascribed materiality to divinity, whereas the heretics of the contemporary world ascribe divinity to materiality.”

To join in Rubenstein’s heresy, her heresy, means to resist participation in the sovereign We of the political theology of white mantheism.  Before it destroys They of darkly feminized earthlife that is the ground of our mattering lives. With a consistent precision Rubenstein  keeps visible the vectors of race and gender carried in the anti-pantheism of the West. She draws here on Danowski and Viveiros de Castro, who note that “for the native people of the Americas…the end of the world already happened-5 centuries ago.  95% were massacred…So ‘indigenous people have something to teach us when it comes to apocalypses.”  So does   Pantheologies. Its holographic solidarity with those oppressively raced and gendered lets current Earth apocalypse reveal–disclose, not close down–worlds. Without end.

For the sake of this multiplicitous solidarity, I will still sometimes push panentheism.  But not at the expense of pantheism.   I can do this in (incompletable) solidarity with pantheologies, because that neologism includes but does not reduce to pantheism. It emphasizes a multiperspectival hospitality that undeniably includes theology.  And it hosts it within a conceptual ecology that can also attract intellectual leaders of the ‘spiritual not religious’ crowd now so key to coalitional motivation.

Let me  leap to the last sentence of Pantheologies. It offers its own careful smudge between theos and all things; but thereby also—and with no need to state it– between panentheism  and pantheism:

“For if God can be found in and named by all things, then anything short of everything will certainly miss its infinite marks.”

Again: God is there found in all things, not simply as them. And at the same time that in curates each thing as enfolding its world of other things, not simply being one among them.  In her brilliant world-markings, Rubenstein always, without exception, resists any identity of, as well as any walls between, us/them, God/world, in/out, mind/matter.  And I will add, my defenses down, between pantheism/panentheism.  “Named by all things”—a certain panonymity marks the nameless infinity also with the imaginary of Pan the goat god.

Delighting in its pagan indigeneity, Rubenstein lifts up the embodied imaginary of Pan, and so a playful animality animating All that is. This adds resonance to the theologically ignored gesture whereby Cusa took from Plato the notion of universe as “an animal.” But what really matters here and now is that  in the face of the mattering mind of Mary Jane Rubenstein  the white mantheist schematism–the all of it– loses intellectual  credibility. Its defense against the seductive monstrosity of matter reveals itself as the fearful denialism that has backed us All into a dangerous corner.  Perhaps “this most monstrous hypothesis”  can now lend its animating force to the struggle for the vulnerable multitudes of the Earth.

Catherine Keller practices theology as a relation between ancient hints of ultimacy and current matters of urgency. As the George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology in the Theological School and Graduate Division of Religion of Drew University, she teaches courses in process, political, and ecological theology. Within and beyond Christian conversation, she has all along mobilized the transdisciplinary potential of feminist, philosophical, and pluralist intersections with religion. Her most recent books invite at once contemplative and social embodiments of our entangled difference: Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances(forthcoming April 2021).