Interview: Janet Martin Soskice, theologian

04 March 2016

‘It was as if I’d fallen secretly in love, which perhaps I had’

My main interests are the doctrine of creation, the names and the naming of God, for example, Being, Good, Mercy. . . Is the name of God “Mercy”, as the Pope says? Also, ontology and ethics: what is constant, and what changes? Interfaith relations, and growth and changes in theology and religion.

 

Right now, I’ve two heavy administrative posts: chair of the divinity faculty at Cambridge, and President of my college, Jesus, which is like being shop-steward to the Fellows. I’m trying to finish a book on naming God, and writing various other small things. I like all the things I do, but wish I had more time to do them.

 

I’m astonished at how much I enjoy being head of faculty. It’s a terrific time of growth: we’re thinking strategically, not just about next year but five, ten years ahead. Where is my department going? Where is my subject going? It’s one of the older and larger faculties of theology and religious studies in the country, so we need to keep historic strengths, in biblical studies, patristics, and so on, while growing fields in, for instance, Late Antique and Byzantine studies, and the origins of Islam.

 

New things and historical strength in scholarship can go together. For instance, we’ve just co-operated, through the Cambridge Interfaith Programme, with the British Museum’s exhibition Faith after the Pharaohs. This involved our experts on New Testament, Septuagint, and Rabbinics. We’re working on a new joint degree with Social Anthropology, and new M.Phil modules in Buddhism, science and theology, and religion and literature.

 

Theology’s place in the university is strong, and growing stronger. When I first came to Cambridge, few of the classicists were interested in late antiquity. But Peter Brown has changed all that, as has, of course, the focus on Islam and its origins. Another growth area is World Christianity, which has transformed the history of Missions. Now the focus is not our going out to them, but on strong, well-established Christian communities around the world. We’ve a truly excellent M.Phil stream in African Christianity, which is jointly run with history and African studies.

 

Anthropologists are now increasingly interested in Christianity. It was barely a field 25 years ago. We have exciting links to Dante studies, religion and literature, and religion and the arts, as well as science and religion. Comparative religion, always a bit dubious to my mind, is now replaced by something much more based in actual faith communities — Hindu and Jewish practitioners thinking about, for instance, what conversion means.

 

I had an experience of God at the age of 20, quite out of the blue, without any connection with the Church. It was as if I’d fallen secretly in love, which perhaps I had. I was simply aware that the world was profoundly ordered to the Good. I know now that this is an almost universal religious experience. I knew it then in my blood and bones — and for this reason, I’ve never taken Cartesian dualism seriously.

 

Faith is now richer, deeper, steadier, and more regular than the dizzy days of falling in love with God, but much the same in substance. Like Augustine, I believe that the Christian God speaks to us in many ways: through scripture, preaching, friends, political crises. . .

 

That I’m a Catholic Christian suffuses my life. It affects you all the way down, at some level. Being a Roman Catholic isn’t the only way to be a Catholic Christian: I have colleagues who share my interest in things like the Fathers, and sacramental theology. But for me, the Catholic Church’s anchorage over the centuries, all over the world, is important. When I joined, I didn’t know where I’d be spending the rest of my life; and there were obvious disadvantages — not everything made sense to me. But it seemed the right place to be.

 

For me, it is a joy to spend my time reading such Christian thinkers as Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Gertrude of Helfta, and Julian of Norwich, not to mention a myriad of others, including Jewish writers. Faith has always, in some way, directed my research as a Christian philosophical theologian, even when I’m engaged with Christian-Muslim dialogue.

 

When I started theology, and especially my doctoral work in Oxford, it was the tail-end of “death of God theology” (never interesting or convincing to me), and the heyday in Britain of the Myth of God Incarnate. As a recent convert to Christianity, but also as a philosopher and a philosopher of language, I found this implausible. My doctorate, which became the book Metaphor and Religious Language, hinged on that. This work done by my generation means that Christian theology and apologetics are now robust and interesting for a modern world.

 

Questions of social justice are still under-addressed, though much good work is going on, and with new topics, such as environmental ethics, gender, and sexuality.

 

There are taxing issues that need great care: ecumenism; church governance; how to respond through the Holy Spirit but not bulldoze those who don’t agree with you on many issues; in the Catholic Church, the ordination of married men, and of women. . . And they’re getting there, but solutions don’t come overnight. There’s a lot of talk about sex, but little of it truly constructive.

 

Theology has, in some sense, been wholly transformed because there are women doing first-class work in church history, patristics, biblical studies, world Christianity — all the subdivisions. And although they are not all doing work labelled “feminist”, they are writing as modern women. Feminist theology per se is prone to a number of critical dead-ends and ideological entanglements. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Sally Haslanger’s recent book Resisting Reality: Social construction and social critique is a jargon-free breath of fresh air, informed by both analytical philosophy and critical theory, but alive to the difficulties of both.

 

I’ve always thought that, basically, God loves women, and we need to hear their voices. We’re crippled without them. But I want a constructive (and not merely critical) voice here. I tried this in The Kindness of God. We need more experimentation with different genres of theological writing. The theologians of the Early Church provide great templates.

 

Novels and biography allow lived religious faith to be displayed — in the case of my book The Sisters of Sinai, that of some fairly conservative, Bible-believing and certainly Bible-loving Scottish Presbyterian ladies, and not a few Greek Orthodox monks, and Muslim guides. Faithful people are far more flexible in their lives than credal formulations would suggest.

 

I’ve always been interested in language, since my first degree in English and philosophy, and tried to impress upon students that form and content can’t be separated in theological writing. They should know this when, for instance, they read the Confessions of St Augustine, Nyssen’s Life of Moses, or Schleiermacher’s Christmas Eve, as well as in their own writing.

 

I grew up in a small ski resort in western Canada. It had been a boom town in the gold rush. My parents had been next-door neighbours. I thought, as a young teenager, that I’d be happy with anything life held in store for me, as long as I could always ski; but I’ve ended up living in the Fens and not, I must say, skiing much. It was a happy childhood, but overshadowed by my father’s increasingly debilitating alcoholism, and my mother’s depressive illness. Still, both my parents were funny and smart, when they weren’t ill.

 

Probably the greatest influence on me was my maternal grandmother. She never spoke to me of her faith (High Church Anglican) but somehow communicated presence, joy, and gratitude, in what was often a difficult life. I knew that she spoke to her God. I don’t know how I knew this.

 

There are different kinds of happiness. I was in an ecstasy when I first took my daughters skiing. It brought back my childhood, and opened their young lives before me. I’m flooded with gratitude many times by moments with friends, dinner with family. In the quotidian way, I’m happy when the dog greets me in the morning as though it was the best thing ever; or when, after a really demanding day, I can go to my Zumba class and fling myself around with a bunch of other women of all ages and nationalities. Or with a nice bunch of flowers, or a beautiful piece of pottery on a table.

 

The best sound? My husband saying: “Here’s your tea,” first thing in the morning.

 

What made me angry last must have been something so trivial I’ve forgotten it. Probably a stupid claim in the papers about Christianity or faith schools.

 

I pray the prayers of the Church. I use an app for this. I pray for people when they ask me to, and when they don’t. I pray for my children. For the savage issues of our time.

 

Herbert McCabe said you should pray only for what you want; but of course, the unfolding of “what you want” is key here. I pray to love God with all my heart, and love my neighbour as myself. Augustine said that that was what it was all about, and I tend to agree. But, again, the unfolding: that’s a life’s discipline.

 

If I was locked in a church, I’d choose St Augustine to be my companion. He lived life so fully: he thought so much about love, knew so many different kinds of love. I’d ask him about Christianity in North Africa then, and I’d love to meet his mother, too. Depending on what kind of mood he was in, and whether he is, post-resurrection, happy to speak with women, I think you could have a deep conversation about music, philosophy, how much he cared about his writings and his sermons, how he wanted to reach people, how he dealt with dissent. I’ve been an interpreter of his work, so it would be scary to ask him if I’d got it wrong.

 

Janet Martin Soskice, Professor of Philosophical Theology, University of Cambridge, was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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