Last night J. Kameron Carter spoke at Notre Dame on W.E.B. DuBois, Karl Barth, and the rhetoric of the nation state. It was an exciting night. He spoke with passion and confidence in a way that (miraculously) made me excited to return to the task of studying for my comprehensive exams. This morning, as a follow-up to his lecture he met with a group of graduate students (mostly Ph.D. candidates) to talk informally about our research and answer any of our questions. It was a very rich conversation concentrated heavily on the relationship between the language defining the “purity” of the ecclesial community and the “purity” of the nation state. His words were incredibly challenging and I’ll continue to think about what he had to say, I’m sure, for the rest of this week and beyond.
The most powerful part of our conversation, however, came at the very end. We had already run a few minutes over time, but he asked us to be patient with him for another minute because he had something that he felt was important to say. He wanted to share some advice given to him as a Ph.D. student at University of Virginia. As he moved into the phase of independent research, his advisor, noticing that Carter’s desire “to get it right” tended to paralyze him, explained that the most important task of a theologian is to settle into his own voice. It is absolutely necessary to be able to look in the mirror, see your own face, and know: this is the face of a theologian. If you are obsessed about interpreting Augustine correctly, or Barth correctly (or whomever..) you aren’t taking the time to interrogate the meaning of “correct” theology to begin with. What do you think is correct theology for us, for now, from the wisdom that you have and the training that you have received? Surely, theologians must research responsibly and carefully, but you cannot be afraid to do your thing. Using a metaphor of a jazz player, he explained, “If you are so worried about sounding just like Miles Davis, you’re never going to get on stage. You’ve got to first be worried about feeling comfortable holding the horn. If you aren’t comfortable holding the horn, you’re just going to jack Miles Davis up!” The greatest gift that Carter’s advisor gave him was the freedom to be a theologian, the freedom to think of himself as having a voice that deserves to speak and be heard.
We’ve been talking about starting this blog for a while, but have been slow to start. We all thought it would be a great idea to contribute collectively to a blog about feminist theology. And, the composition of this particular group—all female Christian theologians with varying degrees of feminist commitments—seemed just the right combination of homogeneity (to make the blog coherent) and diversity (to make the blog interesting). So, why so slow? I’m sure it is partly because we are all so busy and have a lot of other responsibilities, so it is difficult to make the time to write. But, I’m also sure that partly we’ve been slow to start because of the high standards we want to set for ourselves, and a fear that we won’t live up to them. I know for myself, I’ve thought of more than one potential blog posting, but never got around to writing it because I didn’t think it would turn out “right”. I’m hopeful that this blog can be a place, however, where we can try out our ideas before we think of them as “perfect”, where we can feel free to take some risk, and where we can be open to receiving support as well as constructive criticism. I’m hopeful that this can be a space where we can practice settling into our own voices, and encourage others thinking about feminism and theology to do the same. So, here’s to holding the horn!
Amen! Let’s begin!
I will be writing this week!
Beautiful reflection! It’s not even for academics alone: I feel this acutely trying to talk to high school students, as if everything depended on my ability to say things just right. The Spirit works through us in ways that our perfectionism will never let us acknowledge. Thank you, Julia!
I really enjoyed this reflection. I think that for young scholars (current PhD students, non-tenured professors), blogs are becoming an increasingly more popular way to “find one’s voice” before committing to a position in a more scholarly venue. Blogs are a wonderful way to try out an idea, test an argument, and converse with friends and strangers on a global scale without having to worry about “getting it perfect” or having the last word. I can’t wait for more posts from WIT.