I'm sitting in the garden with the dog, feeling the heat and thinking about how I really need a shower before going to our counseling session tonight, wishing that this morning's blog post had given me the answer to my question about what to write, and reading Thirty-three Teeth, the second of Colin Cotterill's delightful mystery series set in the 1970s People's Democratic Republic (a.k.a. communist state) of Laos. If you haven't read them yet, you should. The main character is Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old former revolutionary reluctantly-turned coroner and even more reluctantly-identified shaman, who spends a good deal of his time, when he is not doing autopsies and receiving dreams from the spirit world, drinking with his old friends and (as in Thirty-three Teeth) sometimes his (former) enemies and coming to terms with the fact that the new government for which they fought so long is well on its way to becoming just as corrupt at the old. (In Thirty-three Teeth, one of his drinking buddies is the ousted king.) It's rather what I feel like doing at the moment, minus the rice whiskey and heat.

Okay, so I'm hardly 72, but it's been a long 24 years since I entered graduate school and decided to devote my life to the study of medieval Christianity. In many ways, my field is thriving as never before, thanks in large part to the work of my very own mentor, Caroline. Whereas, when she started graduate school back in the 1960s, the study of religion was very much a minority field, even in medieval studies, now it is difficult to find anybody in the field who doesn't study religion. Okay, I exaggerate. There are still political historians and economic historians and social historians who concern themselves primarily with more secular matters, like kingship and crop rotation and family structure. But even they tend to find themselves sucked into the fold, with questions about the basis of authority (always in part divine) and ecclesiastical land-development (gotta love those Cistercians) and siblings who became bishops (see my colleague Jonathan's forthcoming book). It's hardly as if the field needs me in order to survive.

But I do wonder sometimes about all of my new colleagues coming into the field. Do they care about religion in the same way that I do? Or are they just jumping on the bandwagon now that it's clearly the best ride in town? 'Cause, you know, it wasn't easy all those years with only Caroline to back us up. I can't tell you how many times (okay, maybe three, no, six, but they stung) colleagues in my department said something along the lines of, "You can't possibly believe all that stuff that you study, can you?" Typically with that sniff of superiority that only social scientists know how to achieve. "Well, yes, actually," I really should have responded, "including all that 'nonsense' about the Virgin Birth." But, no, I would shrug and cave and say something about exegesis as a way of studying theories of language or narrative as a way of thinking about motivation and time. I even spent a whole summer reading up on metaphor, not to mention the year I spent as a "student" in psychology.

'Cause I'm a chicken. I could be a theologian, but then that would involve being open about what I actually believe. So I hide here in history, pretending a sophistication I never actually achieve. No, that's not it. I do think like an historian, at least with respect to the facts. But I also, as a Christian, believe in the mystery that no facts can prove or disprove. And (she creeps closer to saying what's really on her mind) what I would like most is to find some way to make this mystery real here and now, not just as an exercise in imagining the past as it seems most of my colleagues prefer. I'm losing credibility here, I know it. It is much better in my field (or so it feels) to be either an atheist or (if you are studying Christian belief and practice explicitly) almost anything other than a believing Christian, say, a Buddhist or a Jew. How, after all, as a believing Christian, can you ever hope to maintain the necessary scholarly irony with respect to your subject? Heaven forbid if you don't. You might even cross the line into (gasp!) proselytizing if you so much as hint that what you study might actually be (double gasp!) true in anything other than the most culturally-relative sense.

So why not have done with it and write explicitly for other Christians? Embarrassingly enough, because like it or not, I share some of the prejudices of my colleagues. Plus, I am afraid of being ghettoized and left preaching only to the choir. Not that what I write even now is likely to convince anybody who isn't already to a certain extent sympathetic with religion, but I do fantasize about creating that mythical bridge between skepticism and belief. If only, I fantasize, I could find a way to describe medieval Christianity in all its devotional, theological, aesthetic and philosophical richness, then my readers would see that there is nothing to fear in belief. Rather, that belief opens up a whole new world of experience, more marvelous than anything they have previously imagined. But they won't listen to me if they are already convinced that the Church is an agent of repression or that Christians are close-minded spoilsports set to force everyone to a restricted understanding of God. It is so very easy to be spiritually secular in these days and so very hard to be liberal yet orthodox.

If only I were a convert, then there would be a story to tell. But I've always been Christian, if Christian of various sorts (Presbyterian, now practicing Anglican/Episcopalian). I could easily be accused of lacking perspective, not having tested my faith by trying on anything else (other than the usual New Age mishmash so beloved of my social class of Americans). But what excites people is change: intellectual-turned-mystic (like Thomas Merton) or author of erotic thrillers-turned-biographer of Jesus (like Anne Rice). "Lifelong anxious seeker-turned-lifelong anxious seeker" just doesn't have the same ring to it. Besides, everybody I know is a "seeker" (shorthand for "not going to make any clear statement about what I might or might not believe lest I risk alienating my audience"). Okay, not everybody: there are a few self-professed, honest-to-God Christians out there, but in the scholarly environment in which I live, they are few and far between. And those I envy because they don't seem to have to wrestle with any of this; they just get on with their scholarship, almost as if, yes, they have been inspired by God.

I'm exaggerating. I realize I actually do know quite a few Christians who will admit as much. If only I could write with the certainty in my faith that they do. It's embarrassing, being so unrelievedly wishy-washy. Wanting to be able to be simultaneously ironic (i.e. disinvested) and sincere. Much like Dr. Siri Paiboun and his spirits: he doesn't believe in them, but they show up anyway, by the by giving him clues about what his autopsies mean. Nor does Siri actually believe in communism as such; his beloved wife Boua did, but she killed herself in despair when she saw how the revolution was going to be betrayed. Perhaps my wishy-washiness is a way of trying to protect myself from despair. What would happen, after all, if one day one of those Eastertide announcements so beloved of the mainstream press about the truth behind the historical Jesus actually came true? "Jesus's Tomb Discovered, Body Still Inside." How would I feel then? Here I would have been fighting (cautiously, hiding in the bushes) all these years for the truth of something I could not prove, only to have "science" (here, archeology) leap in and shred my "truth" to tatters. I might as well throw myself, like Boua, on a grenade.

Siri keeps himself safe(r) from such despair by focusing on his love for Boua and what she meant for his life, but love my husband as I do, I'm not sure I want to put him through that. But what, then, do I believe in? My career? My field? I've already proved to myself that I am incapable of writing anything simply for the sake of promotion; nor do I think it realistic to expect myself to write in service strictly to my field. I'd love to be writing for God, but He doesn't seem to need me. Or does He? I really can't tell. Maybe his Mother does, but she likewise seems well-served at the moment by others (read, I'm jealous). I want to feel needed, which is quite a tall order considering who we're talking about here.

I could go on, but my husband just came home, and I need to spend some time talking with him. As always, to be continued...


  1. Maybe it's less problematic because I'm in an English department (with a joint appointment in a religion department), and so there is perhaps somewhat less focus on facts and detachment than in history departments (my dad is a retired history professor, and we have had numerous good-natured wrangles about disciplinary expectations!). However, I write about medieval and early modern female spirituality, and I have always been quite open about my own practice of Christianity. I actually DO believe many of the things that the women about which I write believed. I even thank my pastors and church families in the acknowledgments of my books.

    Now, I suspect, though nothing has ever been said to me directly, that some of my English department colleagues find my being an "out" practicing Christian odd, quaint, or even bizarre. But I have never encountered a review of my published work that took issue with that works' credibility based on anything connected to my being a Christian myself writing about Christianity.

  2. To be sure, such comments as I have received come up more in conversation than in written critiques, but it is difficult not to shake the sense that, yes, as you put it, my history colleagues who are not themselves practicing Christians (an ambiguous lot!) find me at best quaint, at worst worrisome, but happily none have actually questioned my scholarly integrity (interesting term that we use, "wholeness") on these grounds.

  3. I wonder if "Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion" helps to pattern an approach to religious scholarship that takes faith seriously without mandating religious belief. It certainly means less scare quotes and more imaginative leaps (if not leaps of faith).

  4. @millinerd: Thanks, I'll take a look!

  5. Etienne Gilson in his later life seemed to become disillusioned with the possibility of writing Christian philosophy without himself becoming a theologian. The reconciliation of reason and faith is a task that even Aquinas hardly achieved. Great authors, or shall I say great human beings, are usually caught in such dilemma. I am obsessed with the emotional depth of their internal struggles even heroic failures, and habitually distrust any seeming psychological/spiritual tranquility in an author. A historian might face problems when he/she possesses gifts of an altogether different order from the majority in this profession. Or, this person might have chosen an extremely difficult path that few could possibly follow and thus is destined to be lonely. I am very curious about how historians have received Karl Morrison's works and how they will receive David Nirenberg's forthcoming books Actually, I have a story about how one of the professional audience posed the question "where is history?" to your colleague after his lecture (-_-). I tend to be windy again...


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