Catherine Keller & a theology of chaos, Part 1

‘Genesis 1.1-3’ by Pepper.

I’ve learned a new word recently. Or rather, I’ve been attempting to get in with a family of words. The root is the Hebrew word* for chaos: tehom. The context for this new word has been the work of Catherine Keller, professor of Constructive Theology at Drew University. The idea of being a professor of Constructive theology is mildly intriguing, especially because my general assumption is that all professors/lecturers in theology are indeed constructing theology as a part of their life’s work and lecturing to that effect. This may not be the sense in which Constructive is meant, and if any readers have illuminating clues to this mystery, please feel free to share them. **

Job descriptions aside, Keller’s Face of the Deep has been my introduction to chaos – at least in terms of Torah and theology. Genesis 1:1-2 constitute her starting point and indeed her ending point as well; ‘When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was tohu va bohu (formless and void), darkness was upon the face of tehom (the chaos/deep), and the ruach elohim (breath of God) was vibrating upon the face of the waters.’ Those of you who are familiar with my intrigue surrounding the concept of time won’t be surprised that I dig the idea of endings and beginnings overlapping, especially when their overlapping creates such a rich current in which to do Christian theology.

Interestingly, as I write this post I am sitting in a coffeeshop which (I hear tell) has something to do with Christians *** and in the corner in which I sit, I am surrounded by not fewer than ten moderately abstract paintings of waves / the sea. It seems that as a source of inspiration for artists and/or Christians, the sea is not likely to lose its allure. Nor should it, says Keller, not when the first two verses of Genesis, the grounding for Jewish and Christian cosmology establish ‘the chaotic depths’ as that place in which the spirit of God is not just present but generative. Constructive, even.

Keller advocates a ‘tehomophilic’ or chaos-loving theology for those who would exist honestly and consistently within a ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition.  Running away from a way of thinking and speaking about God which values chaos, darkness or the unknown, she argues, not only conflicts fundamentally with this rich and cherished origin story, it works to  undermine its far-reaching transformative hope for creation (expressed in the most ‘orthodox’ of Christian theologies today).

I see a couple fantastically important points in Keller’s work thus far (still working my way through it) and a couple bones of contention. I’ll deal below with the points of agreement and the contentious bits in a future post.

Firstly, I love that a tehomic / tehomophilic theology affirms presence and absence. With all her emphasis on darkness and unknowing, digging around in the creation myths of the ancient near east, and validation of chaos (by definition that which can’t be predicted), you might think that her work is just a wordy way of doing apophatic (‘negative’) theology. Held dearly by the contemplative tradition, apophatic theology sees the importance of nothing; of approaching that scary, dark place where one simply cannot see God, where doubts have been laid bare, questions asked and it is up to God to answer them. And usually, apophatic theology reflects, God’s answers are neither immediate nor readily apparent.

Though I’m sure Keller would go along with most of the above, her theology comes at the problem of God’s presence/absence from another angle. She argues against a creation ‘ex nihilo’ or ‘from nothing’ in the classical Christian sense, contending that such a doctrine cripples God & alienates God from creation (both the act of creating and the material of creation), and that we “owe the invention of the creatio ex nihilo to a strong form of gnostic monism.” For those of you not geekily ensconced in theology – this is a REALLY IMPORTANT POINT. Keller and other important feminist and ecological theologians writing today are always being shouted at for being ‘gnostic heretics’ because, their opponents argue, God needs must be Separate and Apart and Holy and Complete. If God suddenly becomes too much ‘about’ creation, then aren’t we just making God & creation one and the same.

What proponents of creatio ex nihilo have overlooked is that such an idea makes God into an intellectual creator, rather than a material creator. If God simply thinks up creation and voila! there it is, there is no place for the ruach (breath or spirit) of God; there is no place for Jesus unless Jesus is also an ‘idea’ of God. Creation becomes an unreality. But a God who tangoes with chaos in creating – that God is both present in all the material of creation (because it’s always being created and God as creator has to be there) and absent, because of the unpredictable unknownness of chaos. God’s spirit is the actress in that always-creation (what evangelical Christians might choose to refer to as ‘transformation’) and Jesus, by his life and death and resurrection, is its midwife.

Which brings me to my second point of agreement with Keller: (2) A tehomic / tehomophilic theology is feminine as well as masculine. Keller works hard to identify and validate the repressed divine feminine in various ancient creation myths with which, any mature Christian theologian mustrecognize, the Genesis account shares its imagery, metaphors and worldview. What is important to see here is that it’s not just the Genesis / Judeo-Christian account which fundamentally fears the feminine, demonizing it alongside sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. I won’t fully overturn this kettle of fish here.§ If you want to read more, contact me & I can give you some good places to start. But it is vital to realize that the ‘editing out’ of the feminine seemed to be a universal tendency in the ancient world.

Was this about power? Partially. The slippery, uncertain darkness of femininity doesn’t bode well for warrior gods (or their peoples) attempting to establish territory, no matter how eager they are to beat their swords into ploughshares. But I choose a slightly less Marxist reading and say that the power dynamics are one part of larger psychological, sexual and ecological struggles that early religions were having, and those which I, as a Christian theologian in the company of all Christians, struggle with today. In an ancient context, the natural world was utterly terrifying – nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is this more poetically expressed than in Job, §§ in God’s response to Job’s ‘why oh why was I ever created, a curse upon meeeee!’ moanings. It is fantastic to me that in a collection of books in which God is overrepresented by male images and certainly referred to with exclusively male pronouns, that this book, in a display of sheer force, God inhabits, extends and validates the tehom, the deep: a highly sexualized and unmistakably female miasma of images and language.

So was nature so scary because it lent itself more readily to female imagery? Yes, partly. Also, it was scary because it was scary! It was (and is) unpredictable. In a word, chaotic.  This is why a theology which starts and ends with God’s spirit swirling within the depths of the sea is so important. Psychologically, it helps to bring us face-to-face with the paradox of God being familiar and other, and provides a mechanism for encountering these paradoxical angles of God’s nature in general. This includes God’s transcendence and immanence with regards to sex – the relative femininity (and masculinity) of which we ignore at our peril (not God’s). Finally, a creator God whom we can encounter with genuine contentedness as both our mother and father will help to reeducate us in our language around the creation as a whole.  How do we live in a world filled worrying ecological behavior (or apathy with regard to ecology), including our own? So long as people of faith are spiritually and psychologically trained to abhor the feminine, our gynophobia §§§ will bleed into our ecology and become in many cases, a phobia of creation. Christians can either be afraid of (or neglectful of) creation because we are opposed to ‘paganism and mother earth,’ or we can treasure the feminised ways in which creation has been spoken of because we don’t fear speaking of God as female. This doesn’t mean that God and the earth are one and the same. Indeed, I would content that Jesus’ maleness offers and interesting if controversial corrective to the almost solely female language for creation / the earth…but that’s a topic for another day.

So that’s where I get along with Catherine Keller and her concept of tehom. I wish I were better versed in chaos theory (a la physics, not theology) and could reflect scientifically on her work. If this post hasn’t put you to sleep, I’d love your comments. Stay tuned for some critiques in the days to come.


* Yeah, I’m studying theology. Roll your eyes all you want. And yes, technically it’s the “ancient/biblical  Hebrew,” but I think the context gives that away.

** Keller’s own notes on the matter: “This becoming theology continues a deconstruction of the paradigm and presumption of linear time: the bottom line of origin, the straight line of salvation history, the violent end of the line of time itself…this theology continues and attempt, necessarily from the inside of the biblical tradition, to heal that desiccating hope. As constructive work the present archaeology of ‘the deep’ becomes a tehomic theology.’ (Face of the Deep, xvii)

*** though they are curiously elusive, which I feel I should be gratified by but tend to find frustrating.

§ Read A.S. Byatt’s Possession carefully for women as the fish in said kettles, or perhaps leviathans. But do so drinking something nice like a big happy pot of tea or you might just get really depressed.

§§ Yes, even better than in the Psalms. I’m tired of Christians and their love affair with the Psalms. They’re like Weetabix. You have to give your stomach more than just Weetabix or you’ll either die of boredom or scurvy. Or maybe beriberi.

§§§ Keller would say ‘tehomophobia’ – fear of the chaos which is so often characterised as female, and “is never far from homophobia.” (Face of the Deep, 33).


3 thoughts on “Catherine Keller & a theology of chaos, Part 1

  1. Hmmm, I’ve been ruminating of late on God as both existing and non-existing at the same ‘time’; that is to say a God of creation/presence and a no-God of nothing/non-presence. There is a God, There is a no-God because they would be the same. My tangent runs more along the line of thinking more atheistically about God rather than about the feminine but there are some interesting crossovers here with Keller’s thoughts on tehom.

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