Dr. Janet Martin Soskice serves as the William K. Warren Distinguished Research Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School. Her scholarship epitomizes interdisciplinary curiosity, exploring a range of topics from theology, to philosophy of religion, religious language, gender and religion, science and religion, and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. She shares a companionable conversation with Rev. Maberry as they discuss how a theologian is like a vintage of wine, the power of conversion experiences, the importance of metaphor when talking about God, and what you can find when you travel by camel.
You can learn more about the Duke Chapel Memorial Chapel, mentioned in this episode, at the Duke Chapel website: https://chapel.duke.edu/about-chapel/history-architecture#Spaces
This interview was recorded separately due to the physical distancing required during the fall of 2020.
Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.
Divcast Series 1 Episode Janet Martin Soskice Transcript
Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast, the podcast that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School Community. I'm Todd Maberry, your host for this episode, as well as the 2006 M.Div. grad and current senior director of admissions recruitment and student finance. Today, we are continuing our series called essential questions with divinity faculty. Our conversation today is with Dr. Janet Martin Soskice, who is the William K. Warren distinguished research professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School. She was born in Western Canada and studied in the UK at Cornell and Sheffield, prior to doing a doctorate in the philosophy of religion at Oxford University.
Dr. Soskice's work lies at the intersection of Christian theology and philosophy. Her research interest include; topics such as religious language and naming God, gender and religion, science and religion, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim relations. Please enjoy this conversation with Dr. Janet Soskice.
Dr. Soskice, I appreciate you joining me for this conversation. You've been a part of Duke Divinity for a little while, but are now joining our faculty full-time as the Warren Catholic chair, as someone who has been a theologian, I'm curious if there are people in your life that have helped you to get to this point where you're a Duke Divinity Faculty. I'm wondering who are some of the people that are important to you?
Dr. Janet Martin Soskice: I find it a really odd question in a way, like it's not as though I'm the CEO of IBM. Who brought you to where you are today? What brings you to where you are today? Is a whole life, is a whole life of people like my mother, and as I said, my children, people I've read where I am today. I've spent the morning reading a French Protestant theologian called Paul Ricoeur. He has brought me where I am right now today, it depends... Okay, ask a philosopher a question, you get a philosopher's answer, but all of us are made up of these complexities.
I think it'd be sort of odd to single out a single individual or a single person when so many people have been involved at various stages, or perhaps some people simply have had a mentor or supervisor and they could point finger and say, "That person." But specifically to do, I would say that I've had long friendships with Duke. Our friendship with Stanley Horace is going back for many years and over 30 years and always known people at Duke. And specifically in recent years, it was Norman Wirzba with his Anthropocene project on the place of the human being in the Anthropocene age that got me back involved with Duke and precipitated the invitation that's led to me being fortunate enough to be offered this chair and delighted to accept it.
TM: Wonderful. Well, what do you mean when you say theologian as a whole person?
JMS: Well, I think that this is profoundly so everything goes in into the mix of what you are as a theologian, and sometimes that's been occluded you could say, or perhaps disguised as though the theologian is writing from nowhere, but a theologian is never writing from nowhere. They're writing at a particular place, at particular time with a kind of formation, nor is a philosopher anyone. And I think particularly for me as a theologian of my age and my denomination, I've been very effected by the fact that I'm a convert to Catholicism, and post-Vatican II. That I'm female. I'm becoming a woman theologian when there were very few female theologians at all, and almost fewer female philosophers of religion. That happily has changed now, but 30 or 40 years when I was getting going, it was unusual. And of course, then the whole experience in my case of pregnancy, childbirth, having children that profoundly affected my theology in ways that are not always at the top, but they're always there.
I can remember once reading something by another Catholic theologian, Dennis Turner. And he said, "Well, there are some universals, like the skin is the outside of our body, unless the human condition changes that will always be the same for everyone." And I thought, well not when you're pregnant, the outside of your body is inside your body. It's the outside of someone else's body. And that's a small thing, I don't want to go into some essentialism, but each one of us is made up of these things. And I think it's rather like. I remember writing and I was writing a piece in honor of someone who'd had a long life. A woman theologian, a Benedictine nun. And it occurred to me that a theologian is maybe like a wine, hopefully a good wine, but maybe sometimes the bad one, that it depends on which grapes they were and what stuff they grew in and how the air and light and sand and salt was that year. And then what grapes were blended and how the wine was aged and so on.
And that makes into the uniqueness of the thing, which is, of course the thing that needs to be said is ‘what's the definition of a theologian?’ And I remember reading an Orthodox theologians saying, ‘a theologian is someone who prays, anyone who prays’. So in that case, we're all theologians and all of us have this distinctive formation of so many people. We've got it right in scripture, a cloud of witnesses who've brought us to the place where we are today. I hope I haven't appeared to neatly jump your question, but I think it's very difficult to... Unhelpful to extract the theologian from the whole of their space and time and place and so on.
TM: Yeah. No, you're not avoiding the question, you're giving a lot of insights into who you are by how you're answering that. You mentioned children, how many children do you have?
JMS: Two and they aren't children really, they're young women in their 30s now. But they were children, although they always remain your children. You always remain their mother. Yes.
TM: What are their names?
JMS: Catherine and Isabelle.
TM: Catherine and Isabelle, wonderful. As I've explore your scholarship, it seems like, at least part of it is around finding God in the ordinary. And I read a fascinating article where you talked about a moment of conversion and the quotidian act of taking a shower. So I'm wondering if you have moments in your life where you've experienced the presence of God and if you remember any in particular.
JMS: Well, that was something... I didn't find God, I feel God found me. I had a rather embarrassing one of these dramatic religious experiences. Now that I'm a sophisticated philosopher, I'm not supposed to believe in such things, but it happened to me and it's unassailable. And it really was the beginning of my quest that led me to faith quite quickly. Although initially I was only aware of this presence of love, this overwhelming presence of love, but also that I could address this presence of love to say something like God, if you exist, please let me know. And a series of quite amazing feelings and shapings that happened after that. I didn't talk about that for a long time, but a few years back, I was asked to contribute an essay on religious experience, edited by a philosopher who was himself a Buddhist.
And he asked us all to write out of something of our own experience. And I must say that I was the only one or one of the very few, the others were mostly men. I have to say, who did write out a personal experience in that way. And it was picked up by a journalist. And so I'm afraid this finding God in the shower is something that will remain with me forever. But yes, I do.
I don't think for a moment, I was always aware that there was no particular reason why this happened to me. And I was always aware that many faithful and wonderful Christians never have that experience, certainly they've grown up in Christian faith and it's grown and matured. Although I think every Christian has a period at some time when their faith, deepens and becomes their own maybe it's a succession of such deepening moments. And I hope so too, I hope I've always attracted by Gregory of Nyssa talking about growing and growing into the image of God that this Christian life is a never ending progression into the love of God that even Gregory thought would continue after we're dead into God's infinite love.
TM: Yeah. But as you've been alluding, your scholarship is at this intersection of Christian theology and philosophy. So if you had to explain your scholarship to someone without a philosophical or theological background in a couple of minutes, what would you say?
JMS: Well, I would perhaps say that having been in my own case, overwhelmed by the love and goodness of God, I wanted intently to follow that. I became God intoxicated, as someone once said that. I wanted to know it does that make me sound my terribly pious, going around a cloud of holiness all the time, that's not true. But I deeply wanted to know and to understand my faith. And I was very much aware at the time when I was doing philosophy, it was dominated by and still to some extent is very cynical voices, the dismal existentialists on the French side, analytic philosophers on the other side, whose said that, belief in God is coherent, is rationally incoherent and I simply knew that couldn't be so.
And, I became very interested because at my first degree I had started studying English and I changed to philosophy and I was interested in philosophy of language and I was writing already as an undergraduate on metaphor and symbolic language and the regnant, the dogma around is well metaphor. If you can't say something literally, you can't something straightforwardly, then there's no truth in it at all. If you can't sing it, you can't whistle it either. But I knew this, if so, this would be absolutely terrible for talk about God, because all our talk about God is figurative. It doesn't mean it's not true, but we say, Jesus is the lamb of God. God is the father. These are figuration that embodied truth.
And, it must be that we use language, figurative language to speak out in this way. So that began the path which resulted in what became my doctorate and where I worked with a philosopher of science who was interested in the same thing as it were in metaphors and models in scientific theory, construction. When again, you're trying to think about what you... The reality you understand is there, you have some understanding about what you want to indicate that your understanding is sometimes conditional and it's formed and it's couched in language that's figurative. I probably would've lost my audience by that time. But that might be the way I try to explain it to them, this intersection between faith and philosophy and theology.
TM: Yeah. And I love the idea of being God intoxicated and just having to follow that. And it seems like it's taking you a long way.
JMS: Well, I remember once when I was teaching a Sunday school class and I suppose I was fairly... This is when I was living in Vancouver. I was fairly new in the glow of my faith. And I had a class for some reason of ten-year-old boys. I don't know why they were all boys or why they were all thin, and I was going on and saying, "Well, someday you might have this experience and you might just know it was God." And I was in full weight and I looked around at this little, about 10 of them, cynical faces. And one of them said, "How would you know, you know?" I thought, Oh no, I'm going to have to study, do a doctorate in philosophy.
TM: That's a great story. Has there been any moments or times when you felt alive as a scholar teacher, when you felt like it just all worked out or a moment of affirmation in your work?
JMS: Oh, lots of them, lots of them and all the time. I really liked classroom teaching. And one reason I'm delighted to the coming to Duke, and I was very pleased to be a visiting professor last term, is I was really glad to be back in classroom teaching again. I had taught at Cambridge University for many years and I'm retired from there. We've got compulsory retirement to Cambridge, unlike the States. And I am happy with that, but it was interesting when I was at Duke, I realized how much I liked classroom teaching and what a privilege it is to be teaching people that roughly in the age group where it can be anything from 23 to 43 or even older at Duke, but a privilege to people thinking through these things. I mean, my last years at Cambridge was involved as often things with heavily administrative.
So, it was a delight to be back in teaching. And then you're getting moments, these Epiphanies all the time. I think that in academic life, in your research and in the teaching and talking to colleagues, I feel very lucky to have in the sense of a strong vocation. I obviously don't have a vocation to the priesthood in the Catholic Church or if I do, it's not one that is recognizable.
I do feel that I have a vocation as a teacher and a theologian. And so, yes, there's lots of affirmation because a lot of it happens as with anything because of all the work you've put in. A painter may have a real moment of glory. I think Whistler said this about when I'm being asked, how long this painting took. And he said to someone, he said, "Madam, one week and 40 years," or something like that. It's a whole lifetime that goes into acquire that. And that is something I hope is true of a theologian. Obviously, you hope that you saturate a little bit with age and you perhaps acquire more diverse experiences to bring and share with your students
TM: On the opposite end of that. We all have moments of struggle. Did you ever have moments when you wanted to quit? You mentioned administrative work. Did that do it to you?
JMS: No, actually I like that. I'm just glad I didn't discover it earlier because I might've gone down that track. I liked that. I like working with people. I found at Cambridge the main thing, no one ever told anyone they were any good. I suppose everyone always assumed they knew they were good, but you know everyone needs to be told. So, no, I quite like that, but a diet of just one thing doesn't matter. Everyone has their highs and lows in life. And I've had a few of those that sometimes they're related to the job and tensions of the job and sometimes they're related to other things like the menopause, for instance, you've been spared that, but I get the other side of it. And I think early on, I was lucky in my Christian life that early on, I did suffer a bit of a depression after this exhilarating experience.
And, I never felt God was far from me at that time. And I did feel that there were things I needed to learn my Christianity, that it just wasn't a magic wand to wave over everything and everything was suddenly good. And that was in retrospect and important lesson to learn when I was quite young in Christian life, that you could feel very low and very deeply saddened, even, almost, I don't know if I was clinically depressed, but I was very low and still know that God was with you and that somehow in ways you couldn't see you'd come through the other side. So that's been real for me too.
TM: Yeah. And then as a pastor, I can definitely resonate with that seeing many people over my ministry who get really excited early on in the early days of Christianity and knew faith and then realize that it doesn't make your life magically better. It just is the promise that God is with you no matter what happens.
JMS: That's it.
TM: You mentioned earlier that you had a friendship or relationship with Dr. Hauerwas, and then more recently with Dr. Wirzba. I would love to just hear a little bit more about the story of how you became a part of the Duke Divinity faculty. How did all that happen?
JMS: It just seems gradual, they've always been quite strong links between Duke and Cambridge, between various academics. And coincidentally, I think Stanley Hauerwas must've read my first book which was on metaphor and I think Geoffrey Wainwright did. And I met them around that time when I was still, I think, teaching at an Anglican, that is an Episcopal, seminary at Oxford. And there was the possibility, in fact, I think I was offered a job at Duke at that time, but I was offered the job at Cambridge at the same time. And my husband who's English had an elderly mother who couldn't travel, and it seemed that Cambridge was the right thing for me.
So, but as things worked out, I've had a second chance bite at the apple here. And so I've always roughly, it's not like I've been emailing Stanley every other day or anything, but I always followed him and known what he was up to and various other people that I've known through conferences and work. Susan Eastman, for instance, she and I have been involved in Muslim Christian relations together over the years, and she's stayed with me in Cambridge.
It's just a lot of people at Duke that I knew one way or another. And I knew Paul Griffith, the outgoing occupant of this chair, I knew Reinhard Hütter, various people. So, and of course, Jeremy Begbie is a longtime friend and colleague from Cambridge is also Duke. So yeah, that's happened. And then Norman, I think asked me, and he's organizing a conference at the American society for phenomenology and theology on creation. And I spoke at that and then out of that, he involve me with this project and the project brought me to Duke and out of that came the invitation for the semester. And the rest seems to have slipped into place after that.
TM: That's wonderful. And then I am so glad that you're a part of this community in case our listeners are curious, the book you had originally referenced, the title is metaphor and religious language, that's Oxford press. And I'll just share to you that I've read some excerpts of your... The Kindness of God book, which I found to be phenomenal. Is there anything else that you've done that you are proud of and think people should check out?
JMS: Yeah, I think if your listeners want to get a good spot check, the Kindness of God, which has enjoyed quite a good reception. It's a series of essays, particularly perhaps the first essay love and attention is a good way into seeing the kind of things that have interested me for some time and continue to do so. The intersection of philosophy, theology, spirituality and embodied life as a woman, as a human being, but very proud. I am of a book called sisters of Sinai, which was published about 10 years ago. And this is the true story. It's a of two Scottish twin sisters on memorably named Agnes and Margaret Smith, who when they were widowed in their fifties, went by camel to some Catherine's monastery and Mount Sinai. This was the 1890s, I should say. And they're discovered the world's most ancient manuscript of the New Testament in Syria, which is of course, Aramaic related.
And they became great scholars of Arabic and Syriac Christian manuscripts. And traveling back and forth to the orient, collecting these manuscripts from monasteries and so on and transcribing them. So I wrote a book about these two ladies. They had an amazing life with everything really going against them because they were born in 1840. So before the time when women could go to university or have a trade or anything, and they really married late in life and never had children, either of them and really developed out of this, is marvelous and marvelous love of languages and travel became premier biblical scholars.
So I wrote that book, which was published by random house is had a different, and that's also a good one to begin with. It made a number of best book of the year this in the States when it came out. So I think that's a good read. There's certain chapters there, and I'm quite proud about that achievement. And just as an interest, someone interest in writing and language, it was quite a good experience to write a narrative, having spoken so much about narrative and the gospels or narratives. So to find myself actually writing a narrative, albeit true one, a book like that is narrative was a great experience.
TM: That's great. And I actually remembered, I had the privilege of going to Sinai through a Duke connection and I remember learning about those two sisters. So that's something I'm going to have to check out.
JMS: Yeah. Let me know.
TM: Well, Dr. Soskice, I'd love to, to conclude with something a little different. I'm calling this a lightning round where I'll just give you some brief prompts and I'm just looking for one or two word answers, just to get to know you a little better. The first one being, would you consider yourself a night owl or an early bird?
JMS: Night owl.
TM: Do you have any pets? Are you a dog or a cat person?
JMS: Both, but we've got a dog at the moment.
TM: What's the last movie that you've seen?
JMS: Oh, gosh. You mean in the cinema? I can't remember, it's been so long.
TM: Either in the cinema or at home, either way.
JMS: The last thing I watched last night was called Cormoran Strike and it's a detective novel written by J.K Rowling, which I watched on Netflix in my kitchen with my husband, eating hamburgers.
TM: What's a major difference that you noticed between the UK and the USA.
JMS: I suppose the United States is just so big and disparate and so many different conversations going on that. The UK and Europe in general is more tightly-knit. You can feel you have some sense however, unrealistic it is that you can feel that you know what's going on. Whereas in the States, it's just the vastness of it all is sometimes a bit overwhelming, particularly coming up into an election year.
TM: Yeah. What's some recent music that you've heard?
JMS: We watched on television, the Beethoven, this was a concert of Beethoven “Eroica”. And I think that was the last big piece of music that was a few days ago. That was the last big piece of music that I listened to.
TM: Wonderful. Well, here's the last one. What is a simple pleasure that you love?
JMS: Oh, I love gardening, I love swimming, which I shall do after our phone call and just cooking, pottering around the kitchen, pottering, that kind of thing. Those are simple pleasures, which I think for all of us in lockdown, some of these things have been... If we're lucky enough to be secure in other ways, have been the most important. And I have been lucky in so many other ways, not least with this kind offer from Duke
TM: Wonderful. Well, Dr. Soskice, thank you so much for your time. I'm thrilled that your friendship with Duke seems to have blossomed into an opportunity for you to join us at this stage of your vocation and career. And I look forward to the contributions you'll make to our community and the students in particular that we'll have you.
JMS: Okay. Thank you very much, Todd, and best wishes to you.
TM: Thank you for spending time, listening to the Divcast. Be sure to subscribe to our feed available anywhere you find podcasts. 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-Taminger 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 a fact or interesting aspect about Duke Divinity or Duke University that you may or may not know. Did you know that Washington Duke and his two sons whose bodies now rests in Duke Chapel were not originally buried there? They were originally buried in the Maplewood cemetery in Durham, but then later exhumed once Duke Chapel was completed. I hope you will join us again on the Divcast.