the wrong job

Days like today, I feel like I am in the wrong job. Academics, I think, argue for things that matter in a scholarly way. So, for example, the point I am trying to make about liberation theology and theological reflection on intellectual disability matters because it contributes some clever new thing to the way we think about ethics or doctrine.

It might. It probably does. But that isn’t where my arguments naturally run. Left to their own devices (they’re incredibly resistant to my control), the arguments I tend to make all end up at the same place. Whatever it is that I am arguing for, in the end, matters because it shapes our discipleship. That is, it contributes to our understanding of what following Jesus entails.

This never seems very satisfying, when I am faced with the prospect of presenting my research in a resolutely academic setting. (And British universities are resolutely academic.) Because, you see, if you think that I am right…if I my argument has convinced you, you should not just say, ‘Oh, I see. Interesting–I never saw it quite that way before.’ Nope. If I am right, then you don’t just need to change the way you think, if you’re a Christian, you need to change the way you live. (Unless you happen to be Jean Vanier or you live with the poor already, in the case of the paper I am writing now.)

How do I say that the intersection of theological reflection on intellectual disability and liberation theology puts the preferential option for the poor squarely at the heart of what it means to be Christians–in an academic way? It always ends up sounding more hortatory than conclusive. If I try to say it in that ‘and so we see that…’ academic way, it also sounds pretty arrogant.

But what I have found in my exploration of the intersection of these two discourses, through the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez and Jean Vanier, is just that: the preferential option for the poor is not vital only for the poor in Latin America or in L’Arche communities. The poor are those to whom the good news is announced, not to those of us who help the poor (or argue that we really ought to do x or y with respect to the poor). It means that we are not actually hearing the good news properly unless we are hearing it with the ears of the poor. See? That’s not an academic conclusion, that’s a call to change your life.

It isn’t as impossible as it seems, though. If you have children, you have the poor with you always. Read what Jesus says about children: the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Hear the good news with the ears of your child. I have four children, and I find this incredibly challenging.

Or, if you’re me, you stay in the wrong job. Remaining in the academic world keeps me perpetually poor in spirit, as I worry and wonder whether I am actually suited to this world. I doubt anyone really thinks I have anything much to say. But I stay, and keep confusing exhortation for academic argument, flubbing my lines, and loitering on the margins of the academic world, hoping that from here I can overhear at least a word or two of what the Lord is saying to the poor.


between a rock and a hard place

Last year, I read the book Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, since I had been one of the millions of people who were grabbed by her Atlantic article, ‘Why women (still) can’t have it all.’ Millions of women, maybe. Not that men wouldn’t be interested, exactly. But part of the problem that Slaughter identifies is that care is a women’s issue. Again, not that men are not or cannot be caring, involved parents–even ‘lead’ parents, if we can call it that. It’s complicated.

So I’ll bring it home. In my life, it looks like this: when I was 5, I had two big goals in life. One was to go to Harvard Medical School and become a neurosurgeon; the other was to get married and have a family. The awesome thing about being 5 is that those two goals seem perfectly compatible, not like a superhuman juggling act that’s only really possible if you don’t need sleep. By the time I was in high school, I realised the whole neurosurgeon thing wasn’t going to happen. Yet I clung to the idea of having a career, nurtured graduate school ambitions, and definitely still wanted the marriage-and-kids option. Still, the idea that those two things might be on a collision course never really occurred to me.

Now my life mostly looks like the train wreck I never expected. Not that the house is a mess. It is, of course. One only needs to step one foot in the door to realize that I am in way over my head. Eventually I might find someone to clean, though, and I’d still be sitting in a train wreck. Because I did get that PhD, somewhat later than I maybe anticipated. And I did get that marriage-with-kids, also somewhat later than I had hoped. At the same time, actually. But even the collision of these two major undertakings–motherhood and the academic career–did not produce the wreck that surrounds me.

No. The wreck is this: that I find myself, as a 40-something woman, constantly worried that I should be doing something else. It doesn’t matter what I am doing, usually. (By child #4, I’ve finally settled into the idea that unless someone is bleeding or the house is on fire, if the little ones ask me to read a book, there’s nothing else I should be doing. But that’s about it.) Whatever it is I am doing, I have the nagging feeling that there is something else I should be doing, for my children or my career, that’s more important than my current activity. Like now, for example. I’m writing a blog post. What is this accomplishing? (Nothing, probably, but it does help to keep me from going completely insane.)

At the heart of the problem is the sense that I should be secure in some sort of employment, or employable at the very least; I should have some measure of independence. I should make money. My half time lecturing job (which of course is not anything like half time) pays embarrassingly badly. If suddenly I had to support my four children (and my husband is under-insured, so that’s not going to solve it–but is there a good way to nag about that, really?), I couldn’t do it. And I feel like a failure.

But why? Why should I feel like a failure because I haven’t managed to do what so many women seem to have done? Every family is different. Our family life has unfolded in the way it has because I was a grad student and my husband already a professor when we met and married. It’s because our first child has Down Syndrome–she had two heart surgeries before her second birthday. It’s because we were worse than completely broke when we got married. It’s because…the list goes on. It’s the strange set of events and circumstances that have shaped our available choices, and we’ve muddled through, probably making the wrong choices as often as not.

Somehow, though, the struggles all settle on my head: there’s the train wreck. If only I had done something better, spent some time more constructively, I would not be 40-something, wondering whether I will ever ‘amount to anything’. I can’t look around me and see four children who know that I love them, and think I’ve amounted to anything. I can’t see the book I wrote as an achievement. Hell, everyone I know has written a book or two–that’s just what people in this line of work do. I’ve no idea how I did it, either, so I am finding writing another (maybe that will be an achievement) somewhat daunting.

I didn’t want this to be a rant. I didn’t want to complain. The thing is, I am glad that I have had the opportunities to study, to write, to teach. When I am not in collision mode, I love what I do. I LOVE it. And I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without being a mother, oddly. I never would have been able to give myself fully to the work if I believed that I was choosing it over having a family. But some days I do think that there is some elusive ‘all’ out there, and I could have it, if I could just work harder…or something.

But the truth is, being a full-time mother and a part-time career woman (as if one could have a career part-time; maybe that’s my big mistake) will always feel like being between a rock and a hard place. Because as a mom, I am (psychologically) ‘surrounded’ by all the moms who devote themselves fully to the work of motherhood, and I wonder why I can’t be like that. And as an academic I am constantly being compared to a variety of other academics who have totally different outside-of-work lives, and who work full-time. Whichever direction I look, I don’t measure up. Not remotely.

I still don’t have any answers. Tomorrow, I will get up and start again.


No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.

fifteen minutes

If I have any time at all–to do reading and writing related to my academic work, that is–it seems to come in increments of 5 to 15 minutes. Usually it takes that long to decide which of the various projects I have going commands my attention just then. A couple of days ago, I spent a while thinking about despair (in the abstract, not while suffering from it, thankfully) after reading a comment by Evagrius on Psalm 41[42]: 6 and looking at Psalm 37, for example, but had to leave it in order to attend to some indispensable daily task or other.

Yesterday, my youngest child decided she needed a nap, and took herself off to bed. I thought she was playing awfully quietly… My older son was outside, happily tossing a football around. I thought I had about fifteen minutes to do a little work, maybe post about some of the things I have been working on lately. So I poked my head out to check on my son before I settled down to the computer for a bit.

“Will you come out and throw the football with me?” he called up. Since his dad is British, and not a fan of American football (and since I grew up with a dad who taught me to throw one), I am the designated player when it comes to that oddly-shaped brown ball. The friend my son usually plays with that afternoon was ill, and I knew he was disappointed. So, “yes,” I said, “all right, but just for a little bit.” Twenty minutes later, we were still playing.

Whatever it was that I thought I needed to do those “fifteen” minutes–I never got round to deciding finally what I’d do–will happen eventually. But what I did do accomplished something more, I think, than any bit of work I might have chosen. And it will stay with me. At least until my arm isn’t sore any more.

fallow year

Tonight I had most of an evening off from the ordinary duties of mothering. But it wasn’t an evening out with friends or even a quiet night at home. I am grateful to our friend Ian Markham, Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, for an opportunity to talk about my intellectual project. 

For a while there, I’d nearly forgotten I had one. Homeschooling our 11-year-old and running the others back and forth to school keeps me pretty well occupied. But tonight, as I had some space to reflect on what I am doing, I gave this year a new name: a fallow year.  Without teaching and administrative duties, or any work-related obligations, I’ve committed to a year of rest–of a sort. The “land” on which my research and writing usually take place is not being cultivated, not really. This academic year I’ve given myself to another sort of work, work I find much more difficult: the work of being a patient and kind mother to my children.

It’s difficult, and yet necessary. Because I hadn’t spent much time lately talking to grown-ups, I was more jittery than usual in anticipation of the event. As I paced around, I realized that I had my priorities all wrong. Being the person “up front” makes me vulnerable to the temptation to be the expert, to try to be the cleverest person in the room. I’m pretty sure that I am never the cleverest person in any room I enter (really: my kids are cleverer than I am; I’ve just got more experience of the world), hence I feel nervous at the thought of people listening to me and asking questions.

In the quiet (for which I thank Lewis: the children were driving him mad this evening) I realized (again) that I was mistaken. The object of the game, for me, is not to be the cleverest one. That’s not a game I am ever going to win, nor is it a game worth playing. I’m a theologian and a mother. Both of those occupations require patience and kindness, humility and generosity. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the clever, for they shall win all the arguments,” but “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The clever do win arguments, it’s true. And I lose them, often. But I would much, much rather inherit the earth.

Common (intellectual) politeness

The reality is that Lewis is never going to post to this blog. But part of the reason I created it was to talk about some of the theological topics that we have discussed (sometimes at great length and with considerable intensity) over the years. Theological methodology has been one of those broad areas of conversation. Within that more general subject is the question of one’s mode of engagement with sources in constructive theology. I can remember being asked in graduate school, when I dared to wonder about whether John Milbank could possibly have interpreted every single one of his interlocutors with historical accuracy, why it mattered, if the constructive proposal was good. Then, I was surprised by the question, and didn’t have a good answer. Of course it matters, I thought. But can I say WHY? I think my short answer to the question now would be that it’s a matter of common scholarly politeness, which is far more important than it seems. Lewis has rather more to say on the subject, and posted the following to Facebook:

There’s a symposium on Catherine Pickstock’s new book on one of those trendy theology websites. One of the respondents goes on at great lengths to say that her book is a) written in incredibly dense English; b) doesn’t engage with much of the scholarship on the topics she considers. Catherine’s response is basically “well, you are right, I am sort of going where Kierkegaard’s Climacus says I should… but he hardly writes in clear prose or packs himself out with footnotes.” She adds to this “especially when I disagree with all that stuff” (I should say her reviewer wants her to read some “process” stuff; and I agree with her when she says “ain’t wasting my time on that”). Now, I think Catherine is really smart and deeply insightful, but her reviewer has a point. I was just disappointed that he offered no articulation of WHY the things she doesn’t do matter. I am not going to post a comment to that website – it is way too trendy – but I can’t contain myself and will say that there are 5 reasons why Catherine’s reviewer is on the right track:

1) Two of these reasons are simple philosophical ones. striving for clarity in expression is always a good. I still remember Maurice Wiles explaining to me that if I wanted to do Patristics I had to write for those for whom English was a second language. This was a VERY thinly veiled criticism of something he read of mine. He was right. Some ideas certainly require very complex expression, but it is far fewer than most of us who write imagine! We should certainly be ready to see genuine insight in very complex writing, especially that of the genuine genius (and even in writing without footnotes!), but we should not go around imagining that we are in that category. It ain’t good for our clarity of thought.

2) Honing one’s ideas through careful exploration of those who have gone before us on the same tracks is always a good. Often before we do this we simply repeat and/or miss giving our own insights true precision. If everyone before us has read a text differently it is a good to justify our own reading against all those predecessors. This is not the same as simply engaging with existing scholarship; learning to discern what matters and what not is itself something honed through such engagement. (and in this particular case Catherine’s reviewer thinks we need always to interrogate “continental” philosophy with a good dose of “analytical” – I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement and that’s a different point from mine).

3) BUT, there are also 2 good theological reasons why that which Catherine does not do is important. The first is to do with our own attentiveness as Christian readers. Attentiveness is pretty close to being a virtue. And in Christian academic writing attentiveness is in part appropriately performed via care in expression, knowledge of scholarly traditions, and well-formed footnotes!

4) In the same vein, not only is it the case that we should worry about our own formation, but we should worry about ourselves as readers within a community. Especially in the case where we, as Christian writers engage those who are also Christian writers, attentiveness should surely be seen as a virtue for Christian academics.

5) The last reason is a more complex one. I think that serious engagement with modern historical consciousness in its many forms is necessary for Christian intellectuals (see my draft paper on and we are not here talking only about contingent academic performance, but also how to find modes of exploration and expression that reflect a new attention to the complexities of tradition, to the history through which God (in part) speaks.

I am not saying I am any good at this, but I do think this is what we should do and I do occasionally try to do this.

I won’t pretend to be able to sum that up. If I could, I wouldn’t have quoted the whole thing (which Lewis posted under the caveat: ‘my longest Facebook post EVER’). But I will go so far as to say that I think good manners count for a lot. Christian faithfulness, for academics, includes the kind of attention Lewis describes as “a virtue for Christian academics.” Whether an ‘official’ virtue or not, it exhibits patience, kindness, gentleness, and (a form of) self-control–gifts of the Spirit. What we say in print and from the lectern and how we interact with students and colleagues and interlocutors are not somehow separate from our spirituality or devotion. Maybe those folks we think undeserving of our attention, for whatever reason, are ‘the least of these.’ And we know how to behave toward them.