This past winter break I read a couple memoirs of scholars of religion and theology and I’m very struck by the similarities between them, despite working in vastly different areas and different approaches to the study of religion. Additionally, I’m very struck by the way in which both emphasize the importance of a historical understanding of religion, though neither one explicitly is arguing for my field—historical theology.
First, I read Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? A Personal Story (HarperCollins, 2018) which I received as a gift from my father, who had gone to an event with Pagels and had her sign the copy for me—“for Elissa Cutter, a kindred spirit!” I found her story very inspiring and the book is very engaging. I literally sat down to read it after we opened presents on Christmas morning and spent the whole day finishing the book. She dealt with so much loss in her life, her son and husband within a short period of time, and has still managed to be a prolific scholar of religion, in part by truly engaging herself and her life with her area of study. For example, what struck me is how different events in her life led her to the research that she did. Although a scholar of religion and not a theologian, she allowed the events of her life and her personal concerns direct her research to a certain extent. For example, in chapter 6, “Life after Death,” she describes the process by which, after the accidental death of her husband, she turned her research to the book of Job and the idea of Satan in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ultimately leading to her book, The Origin of Satan. She often found that her research spoke to her own experience, to the point that she says that she was critiqued by a fellow scholar for moving beyond the history of religion in that way. But she notes that studying the Gnostic texts and trying “to understand them in their own linguistic, cultural, and historical context” is “necessary and valuable” but “offers only limited understanding” (Pagels, 177).
She also emphasizes in her work the way in which historical and social context matter for the understanding of religious ideas (ahem, historical theology). She explains how part of this understanding came out of a conference that she was invited to participate in at Barnard College to speak on women in early Christianity. At the time, she had initially thought that there wasn’t much to speak about because she had learned nothing about women in Christianity in her doctoral education at Harvard. However, she noticed, when thinking about her work on Gnostic texts, that these use feminine images for God and highlight the roles of women, in contrast to the canonical gospels and New Testament sources. So, she agreed to speak at this conference and her participation in it led her to an important conclusion: “At Harvard, we’d been told that controversies over heresy were arguments over conflicting ideas. But now that I’d seen how issues of sexuality and gender—or of any ideas that matter—are inextricably interwoven with how we live, what we choose, and how we set up a society, the history of ideas opened up, so to speak, into three dimensions” (Pagels, 46). This idea of the connection between ideas and social or historical contexts is an important concern for the historical theologian. It is important to understand how our expression of theological truths is affected by the contexts in which we live. Pagels, of course, also emphasizes the way in which our expression of theological truths shapes the society in which we live, which is the theological role of the historical theologian. In my current research, for example, I am tracing the understanding of what makes someone a theologian in the seventeenth century. I argue that a better understanding of the development of the discipline of theology—and whose voices “count” in the theological discipline—can help us better make arguments for the inclusion of marginal voices today. My research, which centers on the Port-Royal nuns, focuses on women’s voices, but the arguments I am making can apply more broadly.
The other person who emphasized the importance of having a “historical consciousness” for theology in his memoir was Charles Curran. “Santa” brought me a copy of his Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian (Georgetown Univ. Press, 2006), which I had been interested in since I met him in person at last summer’s CTSA convention. I found myself similarly engaged in his story and his description of how his understanding of the methods of moral theology developed over time. This one took me a bit longer to finish than Pagels’s memoir—it took me about four days over New Year’s to finish. I confess that as a historical theologian I haven’t had much opportunity to read a lot of Curran’s writings, other than a few things in relation to Catholic social teaching. But, knowing Curran’s significance in the history of American Catholicism was part of my training as a historical theologian, so I also confess to being completely in awe when I met him on the shuttle between the airport and the hotel before the conference.
Curran notes early in his story that when studying in Rome, he learned from Bernard Lonergan “the importance of historical consciousness and its effects on all of theology” (Curran, 10). He explains, as he talks about the early development of his methodology, that studying history had helped him understand the reality of historical development in theology (Curran, 18). I personally find it very sad that many Catholic theology departments do not have specialists in historical theology—that is, those whose approach to teaching and research emphasizes this idea of development—which makes the historical approach seem less important in the discipline of theology. In this context, how are students to come to this realization that Curran came to while doing his doctoral work in Rome? Reading this memoir made me regret not making more of the opportunity I had to speak to Curran when I met him last summer. For example, he states, “The principal aspects of my developing methodology were the importance of historical consciousness, the recognition of historical development in many teachings and the influence of outmoded biological understandings of human sexuality, the need for a critical evaluation of the experience of Christian people, and the problematic aspects of the neoscholastic understanding of natural law” (Curran, 72). Clearly, he developed his methodology in a specific context, especially in relation to questions of sexual ethics, which is different from the context in which I work. However, the key terms that stand out in that description also overlap with my methodological concerns as a historical theologian: historical consciousness, historical development, and experience. Additionally, the controversy around Curran’s theology also raised similar questions to those I explore through women’s experience—namely, the nature of theology and the role of the theologian (Curran, 117)—and in this memoir Curran states that he also is concerned with the role of women in the Catholic Church (Curran, 257).
What is interesting also about Curran’s story, and how it compares in some ways to Pagels’s story, is that he emphasizes a lack of agency in many of the decisions in his life. For example, his decision to pursue a doctorate was not his decision, but that of the auxiliary bishop of Rochester. Curran admits that he did not have a calling to teach, which is in part why he decided to become a diocesan priest. But this was the process of the pre-Vatican II church. As he writes, “I did not choose what was to become my life’s work; I simply obeyed an order” (Curran, 11). He says something similar about the way in which he later focused his attention on the question of academic freedom in the context of the Catholic university, a topic he turned to because of his firing from CUA in 1967, without their following the correct procedures, and the faculty strike that followed. Again, he writes that “considerations other than my own personal choice strongly influenced the directions and interests in my life” (Curran, 41). And later, in discussing the association of himself with the idea of dissent in the Catholic Church, because of the aftermath of Humanae vitae, he asserts, “I would never have been involved in these events if not for circumstances completely beyond my control, but in these circumstances I tried to act responsibly and in the best interest of the church” (Curran, 68). Similarly, in an experience that anyone who has been on the academic job market understands, he describes his choice to take a non-tenure-track position at Auburn University in Alabama—amid controversy over his job offer—as beyond his control. “From a practical standpoint, there was little or nothing I could do” (Curran, 170). These are just a few examples of the way in which Curran describes the events in his life as being directed by something beyond his individual choice.
Where I compare this to Pagels is that in her story a lot of the research that she did was directed by the events in her life. Her story, however, indicates more of her agency in the process. Her research came from the events in her life, but it flowed naturally from what happened and she actively directed her research in that way. Curran’s story seems more directed by something external to himself. One of the theological concepts that I am currently researching in relation to the Port-Royal nuns is divine providence, which appears prominently in the writings of the nuns, especially in how they react to persecution (I asserted previously that this theology might offer us something today in the context of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church). Perhaps my current work with that concept colored my reading of these memoirs, but both of them seem to indicate that there is some external force that guides the path of their lives. Although neither of them name this directly as the idea of providence, that seems an apt name for this experience.