Take a listen to our interview with Dr. Peter Casarella (Professor of Theology). He shares a thoughtful conversation with Rev. Maberry about how his Colombian and Italian American background informed his upbringing, how voices from marginalized and indigenous communities bring him closer to the Biblical world, ecumenicism and Christian unity, and the pleasures of el cotidiano or the everyday.
This interview was recorded separately due to the physical distancing required during the summer of 2020.
You can learn more about the Duke Divinity School Library, mentioned at the end of the episode, on their website: https://library.divinity.duke.edu/
Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.
Divcast Series 1 Episode Peter Casarella Transcript
Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast, the podcast that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School community.
I am Todd Maberry, your host for this episode, as well as a 2006 M.Div. grad and current senior director of admissions, recruitment, and student finance. This episode is a part of a series called Essential Questions with Divinity Faculty. And this one is with Dr. Peter Casarella, professor of theology, who joined the Duke Divinity faculty in fall of 2020. Dr. Casarella has an incredible career, including serving as a professor of systematic theology at Notre Dame, heading multiple organizations that nurture the religious life of Latinx Catholic theologians, and publishing many notable books, such as Word as Bread, and The Whole Is Greater Than Its Parts.
Up next, is my conversation with Peter Casarella.
Dr. Casarella, I really appreciate you taking time to join with me and have this conversation. I've really been looking forward to getting to know you a little better, and I'm really glad that you're a part of the faculty at Duke Divinity School.
Dr. Peter Casarella: Thank you, Todd. I enjoy being here and I'm glad to be here too.
TM: Well, you are an accomplished and renowned scholar, highly prolific. You've published more than 91 essays and scholarly journals. You've got multiple books. You're clearly an authority in your area of scholarship. And none of us get where we are in life on our own. So you've had people along the way to help you out. So I'm curious, who is the person that is most responsible for you being where you are today, or maybe who are the people that are most responsible for you getting to where you are as a renowned faculty member?
PC: Sure. How many hours do we have? No, let me just begin with a couple of insights, stories, really. And, I have to begin with my family. My father was an academic and obviously I owe a lot to him. But I want to say something about my mother was from Bogotá in Colombia, and that's where my Hispanic heritage comes from. And even though she was just a housewife, as we said then, I think her witness to the serving people in need and also the background she had coming from Columbia, which even had a history of violence in the time when she left, which was in 1950s and still has one, and the search for peace and reconciliation. Columbia is really an outgrowth of having grown up in a family that welcomed, that was hospitable to principally two of my cousins from Columbia who lived with us in our home in suburban Washington, DC. So that was a pivotal influence.
The second thing I would mention would be the many mentors that I had during my undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale University. Certainly the interest I had in question about Christian spiritual origins and the origins of the modern self-conscious came out of my work with Professor Louis Dupre. But also the long time spent with the, what people call today, the Yale school, George Lindbeck and Hans Frei, thinking about the plain sense of scripture and how that structures one's life.
And the third influence I would mention would be not anybody famous or published, but just all the members of the Hispanic community whom I've served and with whom I've served. Back when I was teaching in Washington, D.C., where I taught for 14 years, we had a summer program working with lay people. And interestingly, one of the biggest groups came from Raleigh Durham of lay people, Mexican migrants, were working in tobacco fields. And we served them and I learned from them. And then when I was at Notre Dame, most recently, I got to train a cohort of 11 Hispanic, permanent deacons over a period of three years and learned a great deal from them. So I can go on, but those are some of the influences that have gotten me where I am today.
TM: That's wonderful. Tell me the name of your parents.
PC: My mother's name was Sara Dessy Rojas Casarella. And my father is Mario Casarella. So half Colombian, half Italian American. My wife has also half Colombian and half, well, Protestant American. So between the two of us, there's a whole Colombian.
TM: And you mentioned your dad is academic, what was his area of scholarship?
PC: Slightly divergent, mechanical engineering. But, he was very dedicated to his role teaching mentoring students, and of course doing scholarship at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
TM: Wonderful. Well, my understanding is that you have deep roots in Catholicism. And I'm curious if there has been a moment or moments in your life for you overwhelmingly experienced the presence of God. Have you ever had a moment like that?
PC: It's a good question. Because I studied the mystics and I studied the blinding light of God and all kinds of metaphors of unspeakable union. But, I've never had such an experience to be totally blunt and upfront. But I think there has been, I would talk about a gradual conversion to the person of Christ that I've experienced in many different points in my life. And, about the need to have a progressive and gradual and ongoing commitment. So one specific example, going back to my Colombian roots, back when I was 17, my mother thought it would be good idea to send me to Cali, city in Columbia, where I had many cousins. And I went with my cousins that summer to a Pentecostal camp, because my cousins are in fact Pentecostal in Columbia. And it wasn't my cup of tea, to be honest, but learning about basically North American proselytism and the context of the rural regions of Cali, the Cauca Valley of Columbia, was a wake up experience. I had to come to grips with my own Catholicism, my own faith, my own life in a way like I never had to do before.
TM: Wow. And yeah, I grew up going to camps like that. And it's interesting to look back on them now, having the benefit of hindsight. Your scholarship is in systematic theology, as well as world religions and the world church. If you had to explain your scholarship to a person without theological training in a couple of minutes, how would you do that?
PC: I would start with the basic experience of trying to understand the contours of Christian faith and the experience of God, and even this experience of witnessing to Christ and ongoing conversion in terms of those who are most marginalized. And so at the center of my current work, I'm trying to right now write a book on Latino theology of God, and without getting into the details of that. I mean, at the center of my current work, I'm trying to understand how in the Latino community being on the margins, both in terms of socioeconomic, distress being alternatively documented the challenge of language, whether it's a bilingual or by cultural environment, or whether there's openness, or a close attitude towards those realities, how that shapes makes possible a new relationship to Christ, a new relationship about... Or how that can seem like a closed door with respect to God and with respect to the wider Christian community and with respect to the world.
So, I find that the voices of the marginalized bring me closer to the biblical world and bring me closer to the world where Christ himself was preaching and extending his message of a coming kingdom. And I learned a lot from that and I try to convey that message and all that I do as a teacher and as a Scholar.
TM: I found a blog post where you talk about your vocation as a Catholic lay person and the scholar and how it's puts you on a meandering journey. Your scholarship has taken you to Germany, New Haven, you already mentioned your connection with Yale, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and you're coming to us from Notre Dame. So I'm curious to hear the story of how you came to Duke. How did you end up as a faculty member at Duke Divinity School?
PC: Well, I got a call from Greg Jones, and he's a hard guy to turn down. Seriously. No, I mean, I guess over the years, I'd always had a lot of contact with Duke graduates. For example, let's give a specific example. When I was at DePaul University, we hired a recent graduate of Duke, Sheryl Overmeyer. And then also, even before that, I brought into the Center, which I founded there, it was called the Center for World Catholicism, Intercultural Theology. A very esteemed colleague, and graduated the PhD program at Duke, William T. Kavanaugh. And there's others too. Michael Budde, who's kind of has a proximity to Duke. And Michael Baxter and John Berkman. And these are people that I had worked with from Duke... Miguel Romero, now at Salve Regina is another very close friend and someone comes out of the world of Duke and who taught me about Duke and helped me get closer to the world of Duke.
So, I guess, to be a more succinct, the theology of Duke had been not something that I'd focused on in any kind of direct or conscious way, but the friends that I had who were nurturing for me as a person and nurturing for my work also blotted me to do and made it easier to accept the very generous invitation from Greg Jones and the faculty of Duke to come and teach Latino theology too.
TM: Someone with a Catholic background, was it a difficult choice to make? To move from a Catholic institution to a school that... The Divinity School identifies as Methodist, which is Protestant?
PC: Well, we could go on about the convergences between Methodism and Catholicism. I see that in the work of my colleague Edgardo Colón-Emeric, for example. But, I think the more pertinent point would just be that it's different. It's not difficult. It also creates new opportunities, because even when I was at Notre Dame, I had been active on the work of the Pontifical Council for Promotion of Christian Unity, the Vatican's ecumenical office. And I'd been involved with Curtis Freeman on the Baptist World Alliance Dialogue. And I'm involved with reform scholars on that international dialogue. And other contexts had been thinking about ecumenical theology and the challenge to promote Christian unity in our world today. And the way that intersects with other challenges, the intercultural challenge, the challenge of global religions and the challenge for peace and democracy in the world. So coming to Duke just ramps it off, right. Just allows me to do this ecumenical urge, this ecumenical vision, and a much more concrete and deliberate way. So I'm excited about that, but it's obviously, as you said, very different from the environment I was in before.
TM: Now, that you're a part of the community, and as long as I've been a part of it, Duke has always had a, I think, a profound respect for the Catholic Church. And I would say in a sense of admiration. Important, professor for me was Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, who was at the heart of Methodist-Catholic dialogue and he had a profound influence on me.
I'm curious to hear more about your time in the past as a teacher and a scholar, was there a time when you, when you felt alive, when you felt really good about the work that you were doing?
PC: That's a good question. I like to think that I'm always feeling good about the work that I'm doing, I'm not just churning out things for whatever reason for a claim or to be a gerbil on the mill. But I think what excites me and my work is, well, let's start with the demographics. The fact that the Christian community writ large in the world, some say is 50% Spanish speaking. Or the fact that if you look at the Catholic community in the US under the age of 18, it's two thirds Hispanic. I did a podcast with Faith and Leadership maybe 10 or 15 years ago on this point and talked about how the new interest in Latinos and Latinx theology is just a sign of things to come. I mean, it's not exactly a fait accompli that the church will be more and the churches will be more Hispanic in the future. Because it's up to us to make the commitment to Christ and to life. And the Christian community is inviting to Hispanics. But I think that's what gets me excited is, that I can make a contribution to that very challenging task.
And then also to voice the voices of the marginalized, the voice of the most impressed in a world, which is really crying out for justice and a transformation of society.
TM: Excellent. Along the way, we all have moments of struggle. And I'm curious if you remember any moments where you wanted to quit or when you wanted to do something else?
PC: Always. There's never a point in which it seems clear to me. I mean, I'm a lay theologian and in the Catholic Church, that's kind of a new thing to be in, quite honest. There's not a slot carved out for that. So I don't feel there's a blueprint or a path. I mean, I've had to define my own way. And coming to Duke is certainly a part of that. If anything gets me discouraged, it's the fact that there are some very clear indications of where the church and the churches should be heading in terms of commitment to the Hispanic community. But not everyone is on board with that. And I can go back to say a 1995 statement of the US Catholic bishops on the important role of the Hispanics and the evangelization of the US church and how, at that point, what 25 years ago, they were had this breakthrough insight that was going to change everything. And yet things still seem to be the same.
So I do get discouraged, and sometimes want to give up when I see that it's one step forward, two steps back. But being at Duke, having a community, myself and Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Nina Balmaceda, Alma Tinoco Ruiz, and Maria Theresa Gaston. So, I'm not alone. I'm not like a solo flyer. And having a group to work together with this and not to mention all the other great theologians and the support of our wonderful Dean, I feel that this work can really progress, can really move forward.
TM: I'd love for you to say more about what you were just articulating there. What is your vision for how the church should be moving in this present moment?
PC: Well, I'm just one person. I don't speak to the whole church and certainly not in a complex world that we're in and a very diverse ecumenical community like Duke. But I think that the two things that I've been emphasized so forth so far, being in solidarity with the marginalized, listening to their concerns, and then also at the same time, listening to the traditions that have been handed on to us, not just the great theologians, the Augustans, the Aquinas, the Luther, the Wesley, the Ignatius of Loyola, but also the spiritual traditions. And what we learned from Latino theology is the theology starts in the kitchen. Theology starts in everyday, in el cotidiano, in the everyday. And so I think that's a game changer and that could be also a catalyst for doing something different and making a difference in theological education.
I don't know if that gets to your question.
TM: Yeah, it does. And building off of that, what are some of the hopes that you would have for students that you have at Duke, Duke represents 55 different denominations or streams of the Christian tradition that are going to go on to a variety of different contexts. What would be some of the hopes that you would have for students that would be in your class after they leave?
PC: Well, in the first instance, the hope is that I can learn from them from the 55 different groups. And I can be stretched and my horizons can be broadened. So I think that's really the immediate test. Beyond that, I think that Hispanic theology or Latinx theology is a form of integration. It's a form of integration that extends not just to ecumenical and inter-religious questions, but it's a form of integration that extends to the relationship between systematic theology and pastoral theology as a form of integration that is also going to extend into the different faculties, departments, and professional schools at Duke. Duke has a long history of engagement in Latin America, dealing with problems of de-colonial epistemology, and the voices of the indigenous. Really interested in getting involved with some of those areas. The Kenan Institute for Ethics. All kinds of questions about agriculture and environment, questions about racism are very much on people's radar screen now at Duke. I'm very much looking forward to engaging all those questions.
So, I'm very hopeful. And I think that there's a way in which you start with something that at first glance seems small and particular, the faith life of Latinos at the margins, and you can see how that has a ripple effect in our University and the triangle, and ultimately in the church and in the world.
TM: Oh, good. Thank you for sharing all that. And definitely laying out the robust environment that we have to be able to learn and move together.
As we wrap this up, I want to end by doing a lightning round. This is where I'll just throw a few things out there. And I'm just looking for very short answers. I'll start with, do you consider yourself an early bird or a night owl?
PC: Oh, I'm an early bird.
TM: Yeah. Early to rise.
What's a good book that you've read recently?
PC: I'm reading a book called Amerigo by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. And it's a history of Amerigo Vespucci, the man who lent his name to America.
TM: Does your family have dogs or cats or neither?
PC: We have a German shepherd who rules the home.
TM: What's the last movie that you saw?
PC: It was Jurassic Park III, because I only watch movies with my kids these days.
TM: You have five children, correct?
TM: Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, or you don't really care about either?
PC: So I'm going to give... this is not a lightening answer. But a Duke graduate told me that when she was accepted in Duke graduate school, Duke Divinity School, her brother said that she was the best sister ever because she could get tickets for both Duke basketball and Notre Dame football.
TM: What's some music that you've recently heard?
PC: We have a very eclectic house. So I mean there's people listening to the Beatles. My wife is a singer who specializes in Spanish boleros. I like medieval polyphony. We cover the gamut.
TM: Last one here. What's a simple thing in which you find great pleasure?
TM: Well, Dr. Casarella, once again, I'm so glad that you're a part of the Duke Divinity community. I do think that with your presence on the faculty and the others that we have, that we've named in this podcast, that Duke will be a center for Latinx theology. And I'm just, I'm so glad for that. So thank you for being a part of our community.
PC: Thank you Todd. It's been a great pleasure talking to you.
TM: Thanks for joining us on the Divcast. A full transcript of this episode can be found on our Divcast website. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can send us feedback and questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix. Sound design is by Brandon Holmes. Special thanks to Evelyn Archer and Leah Reed, both M.Div. 2021, for working on the foundation of this podcast and providing research help. Our music is from Christian DaPonte, M.Div. 2021. We will always end with a ‘Div Did you know’, which is an interesting factor aspect about Duke Divinity School that you may or may not know. Did you know that the Duke Divinity School library holds 400,000 volumes in the fields of religion and related disciplines and subscribes to over 700 religious periodicals? I hope you will join us again on the Divcast.