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Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky

Insights The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary

Spring 2011

McGinn • Rigby • Johnson • Farley Cary • Sadongei • Thompson • Sampson 1


The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary



Spring 2011

Volume 126 Number 2

Introduction Theodore J. Wardlaw

Editor: Cynthia L. Rigby Editorial Board: Allan Hugh Cole Jr., David Jensen, and Randal Whittington

Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky

The Faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary John Ahn John E. Alsup Whitney S. Bodman Allan Hugh Cole Jr. Lewis R. Donelson William Greenway David H. Jensen David W. Johnson David L. Jones Timothy D. Lincoln

Jennifer L. Lord Eugene March C. Ellis Nelson K.C. Ptomey Cynthia L. Rigby Kristin Emery Saldine Monya A. Stubbs Theodore J. Wardlaw David Franklin White

Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary is published two times each year by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797. e-mail: Web site:

Entered as non-profit class bulk mail at Austin, Texas, under Permit No. 2473. POSTMASTER: Address service requested. Send to Insights, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797. Printing runs are limited. When available, additional copies may be obtained for $3 per copy. Permission to copy articles from Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary for educational purposes may be given by the editor upon receipt of a written request. Some previous issues of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, are available on microfilm through University Microfilms International, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 (16 mm microfilm, 105 mm microfiche, and article copies are available). Insights is indexed in Religion Index One: Periodicals, Index to Book Reviews in Religion, Religion Indexes: RIO/RIT/IBRR 1975- on CD-ROM, and the ATLA Religion Database on CD-ROM, published by the American Theological Library Association, 300 S. Wacker Dr., Suite 2100, Chicago, IL 60606-6701; telephone: 312-454-5100; e-mail:; web site:; ISSN 1056-0548.

COVER: “Samaritan Woman at the Well,” by He Qi (; 32" x 32," gouache and Japanese stone ink on Korean rice paper, 2001. Reprinted with permission from the artist.


The Intersection of Time and Eternity

Bernard McGinn


Cynthia L. Rigby

Providence and Play

19 St. Monica: An Appreciation David W. Johnson 25

Marguerite Porete: Love, Mystical Marriage, and Beyond Wendy Farley

31 Reminiscences Seminary Memories by Charles M. Cary

Honoring our Histories by Martha Sadongei

History Comes Alive by Leanne B. Thompson

35 Life with Ellen W. Douglas “Sam” Sampson

Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky



Professor Ellen L. Babinsky Professor of Church History 1988 - 2009 The choice of the cover on this issue of Insights is inspired by Ellen Babinsky’s use of the phrase “buckets of grace.” As she teaches church history, Professor Babinsky uses this phrase to convey a sense for how much “grace” is evident in political and ecclesial decisions made by various emperors, bishops, and other assorted dignitaries. We who have put together and contributed to this issue agree that Ellen pours bucket upon bucket of grace into her teaching, advising, ministry to the church, scholarship, and collegial relationships. She draws deeply from the well, dipping from a pool that gathers streams flowing from Beguine spirituality, medieval mysticism, Reformation theologies, and confessional commitments. We intend the cover picture to serve as a window through which Ellen’s grace-full presence may be witnessed yet again. —The Editor 2

he picture on the page opposite is my very favorite picture of our dear colleague and friend Ellen Babinsky. There she stands in the Reading Room of Stitt Library—surrounded by books, safe beneath the tablet near the ceiling that memorializes the name of John Calvin, holding in her arms The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, and flashing that generous smile that I most associate with this remarkable woman who taught Church History here for twenty-two years. I first encountered that smile when I interviewed with the Presidential Search Committee in the summer of 2002 and was introduced to Ellen, who was a committee member. From that day unto this one, it has been my experience that to encounter her is to be embraced always by the very essence of hospitality, bundled as it always is with equal parts of courage and insight. The creation of this particular Insights has been a conspiracy, as all of us here have worked very hard to keep secret the fact that this issue is published in Ellen’s honor. Three persons who know her well—Chuck Cary, a classmate of hers at McCormick, and Austin alums Martha Sadongei and Leanne Thompson—write affectionately and movingly of the impact Ellen has had upon their lives and ministries. An additional person also in a position to know her well, her husband “Sam” Sampson, surveys almost thirtyfive years of marriage and concludes: “Ellen remains the mind I respect most.” Four scholars who have influenced, and been influenced by, Ellen offer thoughtful and incisive essays dedicated to her. Bernard McGinn, an emeritus historian in patristics and medieval theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School, reflects upon images which mystics (namely Gregory the Great, Dante, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart) have used to suggest how eternity intersects with time—how the infinite intersects with the finite. Two Austin Seminary faculty colleagues also make contributions to this issue. Professor Cindy Rigby’s essay explores the “conceptual problem” within Calvin’s understanding of divine providence, and argues that humans have greater agency within such providence than Calvin suggested. Professor David Johnson, working from St. Augustine’s Confessions, explores Augustine’s mother Monica—the Christian half of a Christian/pagan marriage—and describes this wife, mother, mystic, and eventually saint as both “the mother who will not let him go” and the symbol of “not only holy mother church, but the grace of God itself.” Professor Wendy Farley of Emory University reflects upon one of Ellen’s favorite subjects. The works of Marguerite Porete, the medieval contemplative whose tenacious belief in both the worth of her writings and her worth as a woman led to her untimely martyrdom, are accessible to us now in part because of Ellen’s translation of The Mirror of Simple Souls. We smile generous smiles, too, at the thought that this issue of Insights is dedicated to you, Ellen. You are indeed, as Professor McGinn states accurately, “someone who not only has had the courage to make the voyage, but who has also inspired others to set sail.” Theodore J. Wardlaw President, Austin Seminary


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky

The Intersection of Time and Eternity: Some Mystical Musings Bernard McGinn

T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” contain the lines: But to apprehend The point of the intersection of the timeless With time, is an occupation for the saint— No occupation either, but something given And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender (“The Dry Salvages”) Other poets have also been fascinated with the meeting of the timeless and time, or with the beholding within time and space of what transcends temporality and spatiality. Thus, Henry Vaughan begins “The World” with the memorable vision: I saw Eternity the other night Like a great Ring of pure and endless light, All calm, as it was bright … William Blake invites the reader: To see a World in a grain of sand, And a Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour … (“Auguries of Innocence”) The paradoxical intersection of eternity with time is the temporal dimension of a characteristic of mystical discourse, whose spatial dimension is found in images and metaphors

Bernard McGinn is The Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago where he taught for thirty-four years. He has worked primarily in the history of patristic and medieval theology. This essay uses some materials found in Bernard McGinn, “Mysticism Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Intersection of The Timeless with Time,” Tattva. Journal of Philosophy 3.1 (2011): 1-13. 4

McGinn that seek to show how infinity is somehow present within limited space, even within the merest point. Ineffability, that is, the claim that one is trying to speak about something that by definition cannot be spoken, has been the subject of considerable discussion by mystics and mystical theologians over the centuries. In his On Christian Doctrine 1.6.6, Augustine expressed the contradiction with special rigor: Have we spoken anything worthy of God? Rather, I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak. If I have spoken, I have not said what I wanted to say. How do I know this save on the grounds that God is ineffable? If what I have spoken were really ineffable, it could not be spoken. For this reason, God should not even be said to be ineffable, for when this is said, something is said. Hence a kind of contradiction is created, because if the ineffable is what cannot be spoken, then what can be called ineffable is not ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved in words. The contradiction may be passed over in silence, but this does not mean ceasing to speak about God, however partial, misleading, and inherently contradictory the practice may be. Deploying the various topoi of ineffability as strategies for pointing to the God who is beyond all conceiving and speaking is inherent in mystical discourse—what we may call a formal feature, even if it need not be directly present in every mystical enunciation. I have lately been musing about the ways the mystics express the intersection of the timeless with time as another facet of this formal feature of mystical writing—another strategy for saying the unsayable. Expressing the meeting of eternity and time, of boundlessness and the bounded, is more a matter of images and metaphors than of arguments and explanations, in the poets as well as in the mystics. I would like to reflect on a few of the images that mystics have used to suggest how eternity and infinity become present in the world of temporality and discrete space. By no means do I wish to claim that these metaphors all have the same meaning or that they function in the same way, but I think that it is instructive to look at them together as another way of beginning to explore some of the less studied aspects of the mystical discourse that Ellen Babinsky has done so much to illuminate in her writing and teaching. Specifically, I will briefly investigate what may seem initially unlikely candidates for deep mystical wisdom—images like “the chink, or crack” (rima), “the point” (punctum/punto), and “the rim, or circumference” (circumferentia/ umberinge). Nevertheless, some mystics use these as metaphors of disclosure which reveal the infinite and eternal in concrete images of our experience. Gregory the Great (d. 604)—whom Adolph Harnack dismissed as a second-rate Augustine and the avatar of Vulgarkatholiciszmus—has, in the more than a century since Harnack wrote, come to be seen as an original exegete and the spiritual father of medieval Christianity. If Benedict gave Western monasticism a rule, then, as Patrice Sicard has put it, “Gregory the Great gave them a mysticism.” Gregory’s mysticism centers on the term “contemplatio,” understood broadly as attentive regard for God. Adam was created as contemplative by nature, but lost the gift of attention to God through his sin. Christ restores the possibility of turning to the divine “uncircumscribable light” (lumen 5

Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky


incircumscriptivum), inchoately and imperfectly in this life and perfectly in the next. An important aspect of the glimpses of infinite divine light possible in this life, according to Gregory, comes about by way of “the chink of contemplation” (rima contemplationis). The origins of this evocative phrase are in the Bible, specifically in the book of Ezekiel on which Gregory preached a series of mystical sermons. No less than Augustine and other mystics, Gregory had a powerful sense of divine ineffability. In Book 24 of his Moralia on Job, he describes how, when the mind is cleansed by tribulation, it becomes capable of being “suddenly illuminated by the bright coruscations of unbounded Light” (24.6.11). This illumination serves to convince the mind of its limitation in the face of the divine mystery: “The closer the mind approaches the Truth the more it knows it is far from it, because had it not beheld it at least in some way, it would never have realized that it cannot behold it” (ibid.). The subjective aspect of this realization is the experience of being “beaten back” (reverberatio) in the face of infinite unbounded light. “In the very act of directing its attention to the Truth,” Gregory says, “the intellectual soul’s effort is beaten back by the encircling gleam of its immensity; this Truth fills all things, it encircles all things. Therefore, our minds can never be expanded to comprehend the unbounded encircling (incircumscriptam circumstantiam) because it is hemmed in by the imperfection of its own bounded existence” (24.6.12). Although the finite mind can never be expanded to embrace or contain the “unbounded encircling,” it can be enlarged to some degree when the divine light flashes upon it through the chink, or crack, of contemplation. In his Homily on Ezekiel 2.5.17 Gregory comments on the verse from Ezekiel 40:16 which describes the heavenly temple as having “slanting windows in the inner chambers” (et fenestras obliquas in thalamis). For Gregory the crack or chink of these slanting windows represents how infinite divine light enters into bounded space, to flash into and enlarge the mind of the contemplative. “In the slanting windows,” he says, “the part through which the light enters is narrow, but the interior part that receives the light is wide, because the minds of those contemplating, although they see only a bit of the True Light in tenuous fashion, are still enlarged in themselves to a great breadth.” The narrow and finite chink or crack is the place of entry or contact with infinite Light, the liminal space where mystics of the Old Testament (e.g., Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel) and of the New (e.g., John, Paul, etc.) encounter God (see also Homily on Ezekiel 1.8.17; Moralia 5.29.52). A more popular image for the intersection of the timeless and time, the infinite and the finite, is the point or center (punctum/punto, centrum), which can be conceived of either spatially or temporally. A few examples can serve to illustrate how rich mystical reflection on the point has been. A good place to begin is with the Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers, a mysterious piece of axiomatic philosophical theology that first appeared in twelfth-century Europe, though some have argued that its Hermetic flavor indicates an origin in the Greek East as far back as the second or third century C.E. According to the prologue, twenty-four unnamed philosophers assembled and were given the task of defining God. The most famous of the definitions given is the second: “God is the infinite sphere [sometimes “intelligible sphere”] whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This geometrical-theological definition can be seen as a way

of trying to image God’s omnipresent immanence as the point and his apophatic transcendence as the non-locatable circumference. But, of course, the image is impossible to imagine, and therefore “dis-images” more than it illustrates or pictures. The definition was as enigmatic as it was attractive to medieval and early modern thinkers, being explicated both in the two commentaries that circulated with the book in the later Middle Ages and in much subsequent theological and mystical literature. Meister Eckhart, for example, refers to the definition a number of times, both in his Latin works and his preaching. The Dominican’s surviving Latin sermons are often notes or outlines for topics to be expanded upon in actual preaching. Latin Sermon LV.3 (Meister Eckhart. Die lateinischen Werke LW IV: 457) cites the axiom and goes on to summarize the gist of the message it could provide the preacher: “Deal with how the center, that is, the least of God, fills all things and how its breadth is nowhere comprehensible. Hence, it is not to be sought in any place, but rather far above all and beyond all.” In other words, the axiom can serve as point of departure for dis-imaging (entbilden) our conceptions of God. Meister Eckhart’s contemporary Dante Alighieri also appears to have known the famous axiom, and it is possible that it aided his reflections on the “fixed point” (punto fisso) that for the Florentine poet was a favored image for the intersection of the timeless with time at the limit of the created universe. Dante’s Commedia is a journey through space and time towards the infinite and eternal realm of God. It is both a personal story of Dante the pilgrim and a universal portrayal of cosmology and the history of salvation. It is also a mystical account, as Dante makes clear in his letter to Can Grande della Scala, where he claims, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, to have made the journey to the world beyond. Speaking of himself (like Paul) in the third person and citing lines from Canto 1 of the “Paradiso,” he says: “The author … saw certain things which the one who descends from there [i.e., heaven] is powerless to relate,” because “the intellect plunges itself to such a depth in its very longing, which is for God, that the memory cannot follow.” Thus, “memory fails, since it has transcended the range of human faculty” (Letter to Can Grande X.28). The point of this claim (often repeated in the “Paradiso”) is not so much to debate whether or not Dante the author thought he had indeed gone to heaven, but to realize that the poem’s intention is to show its readers how they, too, can participate in the same journey taken by Dante the pilgrim. As the Letter to Can Grande says, “the purpose of the whole poem and the part [“Paradiso”] is to separate those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of heavenly joy” (X.15). The Commedia is a “true fiction” in the sense that it presents the meaning of an individual life as an exemplification of the destiny of humanity realized through the Incarnation. The poem not only contains mystical teaching; it embodies mystical theology throughout. A significant aspect of this mystical message is Dante’s teaching on the punto, the infinitesimal place where the finite creation crosses over into infinity, which is also where time yields to eternity. In his upward movement through space and time, in Canto 28, Dante finally reaches the primum mobile, the first created sphere that gives motion to all the lower spheres. Gazing at the rapidly revolving primum mobile in Canto 28.16-18, Dante says: “I saw a point which radiated a light so keen that the eye on which it blazes



Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky


needs must close because of its great keenness.” As the Dante scholar Christian Moevs has recently shown, this point is God, that is, God in the sense of “the indivisible irreducible unity, a measure of space and time reduced to infinity, to the dimensionless.” The point is where God and the world intersect, where the manifold creation and the divine simplicity are somehow joined. Later in the Canto, for example, Dante says, “from that point … depends heaven and all nature” (28.41-42). He also describes how the angelic choirs sing “to that fixed point which holds and shall ever hold them to the ‘where’ (ubi) in which they have ever been” (28.95-96). The punto is God, but not the Trinitarian God that the pilgrim will not behold until he passes into heaven in Cantos 30-33. The punto is God as the intersection of the timeless with time, the paradoxical coincidence of the dimensionless point and the universe that depends on it (see “Paradiso” 29.1-18). Dante summarizes his teaching in Canto 30.11-12 in words that echo Gregory the Great: “Not otherwise the triumph that ever plays around the point that overcame me, seeming to be embraced by that which it embraces” (parendo inchiuso da quell ch’egli inchiude). Another late-medieval mystic who meditated on the point of the intersection of the finite and the infinite is the late fourteenth-century English anchoress Julian of Norwich. In the account of her third revelation at the outset of Chapter 11 of the Long Version of her text, A Revelation of Love, she says: “And after this I saw God in a point—that is to say, in my understanding—by which sight I saw that he is in all things. I beheld attentively seeing and knowing in that sight that he does all that is done. I marveled in that sight with a soft dread and thought, ‘What is sin?’” The point in which Julian saw God is initially spatial and seems to have some relation to her earlier vision of the world as a small hazelnut (Chap. 7), but her meditation on the meaning of the vision soon moves on to a temporal plane—the difference between God’s seeing of all things simultaneously in eternity and our temporal existence in which things happen serially and often by chance, as it seems. She says, “For the things that are in the foreseeing wisdom of God from without beginning, which rightfully and with dignity and continually he leads to the best end as they come about, fall upon us suddenly, ourselves unknowing.” She concludes this part of her analysis of the vision by insisting that she sees God, but not in God’s self apart from creatures: “For in this time the working of creatures was not showed, but of our Lord in the creature. For he is in the mid-point of all things, and all he does, and I was sure that he does no sin” (Chap. 11.15-17). In other words, Julian is seeing God in creatures, but as it were from God’s perspective as the “mid-point of all things.” The divine mid-point is where time and eternity, finite and infinite, coincide. Henry Vaughan’s vision of Eternity as “a great Ring of pure and endless light” and Gregory the Great’s notion of how the divine light “encircles all things” may help us to explain an unusual image that occurs in one of Meister Eckhart’s sermons and has been a puzzle to commentators, the image of the “rim,” or circumference, of eternity (umberinge der êwichkeit). German Sermon 86 has been seen as one of Eckhart’s most profound homilies, but it has also been a problem due to its obscurity and the differences in vocabulary from his other sermons (the sermon can be found in Meister Eckhart. Die deutschen Werke 3:481-92). In this sermon the Dominican exegetes the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus as recounted in Luke 10. Traditionally, the account had

been read as teaching the superiority of the contemplative life, as represented by Mary, but Eckhart argues for the superiority of the life that combines active, practical service of others and contemplative love of God as figured in Martha. He mounts numerous arguments, exegetical and theological, for the superiority of Martha’s role. Among these is Eckhart’s analysis of why Jesus called out Martha’s name twice (“Martha, Martha”: Luke 10:41). According to Eckhart, the first “Martha” referred to her “perfection in temporal works,” while the second indicated that she did not lack anything needed for eternal happiness. Eckhart praises Martha by saying that she stands in the midst of things but that they do not “reside in her.” Therefore, Martha is one of the “unimpeded people” (âne hindernisse), who “stand in the midst of things but not in things.” Eckhart continues, “They stand very near and yet do not have any less of it [the image of eternal light] than if they stood up there, at the rim of eternity.” This is why it can be said that Martha has “redeemed the times” (see Eph. 5:16), “by continually ascending by means of the mind to God, not according to different images, but by means of living intellectual truth.” Although this ascent might seem to draw her totally out of time and space, its goal is described as “standing above all things, yet under God, on the rim of eternity.” What is this mysterious “rim of eternity,” which appears five times in this sermon, but nowhere else in Eckhart’s preaching? The sermon explains by distinguishing three modes of attaining God. The first is seeking God through creatures. The second is described as a “pathless path … beyond self and all things, beyond will and images.” The final mode is “a path that is yet a being-at-home (heizet wec und ist doch heime). It is to see God in his ‘ownness’ (sînesheit), as Christ did when he said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6).” Eckhart identifies the rim of eternity with the second mode, as a contact with God “beyond self and all images” that is nevertheless lower than the unmediated seeing of the divine “Ownness” expressed by Christ in his proclamation of his divine identity. This is not unlike Dante’s distinction between seeing the divine punto in Canto 28 of the “Paradiso” and the supreme vision of the Trinity in Canto 33. The umberinge der êwichkeit, then, might be said to be another way of expressing the intersection of the timeless and time. The evocation of Jesus in this sermon is also important, because Eckhart, like Gregory, Dante, and Julian, insists that it is only through the mediation of the God Incarnate that this coincidence of opposites is made possible. As he puts it in German Sermon 91: “God brings eternity into time and with himself brings time into eternity. This takes place in the Son, when the Son pours himself out in eternity, then all creatures are poured out with him” (DW 4:96). These brief musings on some mystical images and metaphors merely skim the surface of a vast and deep ocean—the realm of mystical discourse and its ever-renewed attempts, not to capture the ineffable God within words, but to inspire readers to launch out into the depths. I offer them as a tribute to Ellen, someone who not only has had the courage to make the voyage, but who has also inspired others to set sail. i



Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky

Providence and Play Cynthia L. Rigby


his essay is inspired both by my friend Ellen Babinsky’s deep appreciation for Calvin’s theology and by her unflagging confidence that God is in charge, even when circumstances seem to argue to the contrary. In it, I engage Calvin’s understanding of the divine providence, appreciating the merits of the “conceptual problem”1 he establishes by insisting, simultaneously, both that God is sovereign and that we are beloved children playing in the “dazzling theatre . . . of God’s glory.”2 I argue, however, that Calvin fails in at least one crucial way: in insisting that we human beings find “solace”3 in the idea that God has a “secret plan” in relationship to the difficulties of this world, Calvin in fact constrains our playing in the theatre as children before our Father; as secondary agents in relation to God, the primary agent.4 In contrast to Calvin, I think our living as agents of change in this world is supported not by appeal to God’s “secret working,” but by our real and loud naming of the contingency of life’s events as they bump up against our conviction that we are beloved by the sovereign God.


Imagination, Faith, and the Providence of God

s I write this, I hear the pleasant murmuring of my husband’s voice, reading to our children in the next room. His tone moves from lighthearted to serious; from

1. This is a term used by Marilynne Robinson in her introduction to John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant, eds. John F. Thornton and Susan Varenne (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), xvi. 2. This is Calvin’s phrase. See, for example, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), I.V.8. Further references to this work will be indicated parenthetically in the text. 3. This is a common theme in Calvin. See, for example, I.17, passim. 4. Calvin uses the language of primary and secondary agents in the Institutes, I.17.6.

Cynthia L. Rigby is the W. C. Brown Professor of Theology and a member of the Board of Trustees at Austin Seminary. The author of The Promotion of Social Righteousness (Witherspoon Press, 2010), Rigby is currently completing a book titled Renewing Grace (Westminster John Knox, forthcoming) and is working on another, Shaping our Faith: A Christian Feminist Theology (Baker Academic, forthcoming). 10

Rigby urgent to relaxed. He pauses to ask a question; he wants to make sure Alexander (7) and Jessica (5) are really enjoying the story. And they are. From my desk in the other room, I imagine them imagining they are taking the place of Harry Potter himself, discovering they are wizards being dragged off to prepare for life in a new and unusual school where broomsticks aren’t permitted until the second year. I don’t have to go into the next room to know their eyes are open wide; that they are pressed in close—on either side—to Bill; that they wouldn’t even notice me if I did go in, so caught up are they in this world where they have far fewer reasons to trust but far more powers to cope. They listen as they so often play: imagining impossibly difficult scenarios in which they not only survive, but even emerge as heroes. I guess we adults do the same thing. Maybe we’re Jack in “24.” Or one of those finalists on “American Idol.” Or an “overcomer” on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Calvin wants us to live with the child-like confidence that comes with knowing all will be well because we belong to the sovereign God. Faith, as he defines it, “is the firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (III.2.7). He further insists that “there is not a single blade of grass, there is not a color in this world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.”5 The chief pastoral concern of Calvin is that those whom God has claimed as God’s children walk around in this “dazzling theatre of God’s glory” (I.5.8) with a perception of who God really is, and who we really are in relationship to this God.6 We are “not only to be spectators in this beautiful theater but to enjoy the vast bounty and variety of good things which are displayed to us in it.”7 Exercising our freedom as Christian believers, we are called “to use God’s gifts for God’s purposes” (III.19.8), actively engaging the work of God in this world. But our finitude—and especially our sin—impede our perception of both God’s presence and our related place in this glorious theatre. In and of ourselves, Calvin notes, we are incapable of knowing that the God who “measures the waters in the hollow of God’s hand”8 is precisely the same God who calls each of us by name.9 “However much the glory of God shines forth, scarcely one man in a hundred is a true spectator of it!” Calvin laments. (I.V.8). We can’t know God’s presence apart from God’s intervention on our behalf; the work of the Spirit interceding, illuminating, revealing. Calvin implies the elect can give the Spirit a leg up10 in adjusting our perception by developing the discipline of prayer,11 learning to read Scripture,12 and participating consistently in the 5. From Calvin’s Sermon #10 on I Corinthians, as quoted by William J. Bouwsma in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 134-135. 6. Indeed, the very first line of the Institutes is: “Nearly all wisdom we possess … consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (I.1.1). 7. From Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 104:31, as quoted by Bouwsma, 135. 8. See Isaiah 40:12. 9. See Isaiah 43:1 (and chapter). “It is as if we were to propose that that great energy only exists to make possible our miraculously delicate participation in it,” marvels Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and Calvin scholar Marilynne Robinson (Varenne, xvi). 10. This is, of course, not exactly how Calvin puts it—but it helps me to think of it this way! 11. See Institutes III.20. 12. One of the main reasons he writes his Institutes, in fact, is to help people read Scripture


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky worshipping life of the community. With this in mind, he calls members of his parish to be questioned before the consistory13 about their spiritual practices. Contrary to popular stereotypes, he does this not because he is a tyrant, but because he is committed to helping the people of God live with greater perception of God’s presence, that they might enjoy the “firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence” that is, in fact, faith.14 But Calvin is aware that, if it is challenging for us “bleary-eyed” folks to see God “shimmering and shining”15 in the obvious blessings of this created world, it is well-nigh impossible to see what God is up to in relation to the difficult and painful things. It is in relationship to these difficult things that Calvin’s understanding of the divine providence, operative all the time and in circumstances both glorious and ugly, has special significance. Belief that God is present and active even in the worst of circumstances is precisely, for Calvin, what we rely on when (for all intents and purposes) actual perception of God’s benevolence is impossible. “Without certainty in God’s providence, life would be unbearable,” Calvin dramatically comments, launching into a lengthy litany of all the horrible things that might readily happen to us:

Rigby is working all things together for good, even though God’s work is “secret” and “hidden” from us. This, I believe, is where Calvin’s understanding of the divine providence falls short of supporting a “firm and certain” faith that precipitates our playing in the theatre, actively contributing to God’s work in this world. Let me explain this shortcoming and its implications in more detail, and in conversation with other views.

Providence, Play, and the Tension Between Trust and Contingency


If we didn’t know God was sovereign in relationship to the events of our day, Calvin convincingly implies, how could we get out of bed in the morning? And so the Calvin whose work as pastor-theologian is devoted to fostering a perception of God’s dazzling glory also very pastorally accounts for roadblocks to our perception that are impossible to blast away, or climb over, as people of faith. Not wanting us to be in any way compromised in our faith, he makes a somewhat different argument in relationship to the difficult things in life than he makes in relationship to the shimmering and the shining displays of God’s glory. We don’t see the shimmering because we are “stupid,” he says, and in need of assistance. The reason we don’t see God’s hand in the difficult things is because God’s hand generally cannot be seen. And where God’s benevolence can’t be seen, Calvin argues, we simply need to trust. We need to trust that God is nonetheless at work; that nothing can happen that God doesn’t will16; that God

he reflections of Timothy Gorringe, Jürgen Moltmann, and Søren Kierkegaard on the relationship between the divine providence, contingency, and play all shed light on the problem with Calvin’s account of the divine providence, suggesting how it might be amended in ways that more warmly welcome human beings as actors in the theatre of God’s glory. In his book, God’s Theatre: A Theology of Providence, Gorringe explains that “the pulse of faith” is experienced in the tension of knowing God’s providence as both “necessary” and “impossible.”17 Necessary because (as Calvin notes) Christian disciples need to believe God is present and active, somehow, in relation to even the difficult things in this world if we are going to maintain our understanding both that (1) God is sovereign and loving and that (2) we are beloved of God. Impossible, Gorringe insists, because how can it be that a sovereign, loving God is related to horrific events and circumstances that are completely antithetical to “the glory God intends for human beings”?18 Moltmann similarly suggests Christians live in the tension between trust and contingency when it comes to understanding the relationship of God to the events of our lives. We need trust to bear contingency, he seems to say, and we need an honest awareness of contingency to act boldly out of trust. “Without trust in a providence,” Moltmann writes, Christian life “may often seem … a cruel game.”19 Without recognizing the contingency of events in this world, on the other hand, the play-full exercise of human agency before the sovereign God20 is stymied. Moltmann cites E. Fink to support this idea: “The world is unfathomable. We are open to the world, and this openness of human existence is haunted by an awareness of the unfathomableness of the overriding whole. And it is only because of this that we can play at all.”21 Moltmann thinks it is only when we honestly struggle to reconcile our actual circumstances with the whole of God’s sovereign domain that we act to change the world. Certainly, Calvin is no stranger to the world’s unfathomableness. Marveling at the “glo-

better, so they might “know what they ought to look for in it, in order not to wander hither and thither” (see “Subject Matter of the Present Work,” Institutes, 6). 13. That is, the ruling elders of the Reformed church in 16th-century Geneva. 14. Calvin, in calling his parishioners in, would ask very concrete questions that tested their perception, following up with concrete suggestions for how perception might be further developed. Parishioners were asked, for example, questions including whether they were in worship the preceding Sunday, who preached, what the sermon was about, and whether they knew the Lord’s Prayer. 15. This is a phrase my friend and colleague Serene Jones frequently uses when discussing Calvin’s perception of God’s presence in the world. See, for example: Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000). 16. This includes even “wicked” acts engaged by those who do not intend to do God’s will.

Reflecting on the sovereign God’s relationship to an act of transgression, Calvin concludes, “unless God willed it, we would not do it.” Calvin insists God takes actions we have intended for evil and uses them for good, periodically evoking the story of Joseph saying this to his brothers after they have apologized for selling him into slavery (see Gen. 50:20). 17. T. J. Gorringe, God’s Theatre: A Theology of Providence (London: SCM Press, 1991), 4. 18. Gorringe, 4. 19. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), 311. 20. I draw, in this phrasing, from Karl Barth’s comment, in The Church Dogmatics vol. III/4, that our work, “when measured by the work of God which it may attest, cannot be anything but play” (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1985), 553. 21. Moltmann, quoting Fink (Spiel als Weltsymbol, Stuttgart 1960, 237), 310.



Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits … Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you (I.17.10).

Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky rious splendour of God’s kingdom,” he joins the psalmist in recommending “meditation … on the wondrous works of God”22 which may so hold our mental powers suspended in wonderment as at the same time to stir us deeply” (I.5.9). The question is, however, whether Calvin allows a faith-full crying out in the face of this unfathomableness—a genuine appeal that stands in tension with our hope that, really, God has already come through in ways we don’t understand. One of the places where Calvin discourages us from identifying contingencies is in his sermon on Job 38:1-4.23 In this text, according to Calvin, God comes in the whirlwind to “frighten” Job so that he might be “reformed.”24 Job needs to be reminded, says Calvin, of the character of his “master”:25 In general it is well said that God dwells as it were in an obscure cloud, or perhaps that he is surrounded by clearness; and yet we cannot comprehend this … [This is said] in order that we may not presume to inquire too much into his incomprehensible counsel, but that we may thereby relish, what it pleases him to reveal to us, and meanwhile that we know that all our senses are worthless.26 In Calvin’s view, Job asks too many questions. Job is up front about naming the inconsistencies he sees between who he believes God to be and what is actually happening to him. If he had simply trusted in the “secret working of God,” Calvin implies, Job would have asked God either to grant him greater perception of what God is up to, or lessen his interest in understanding God’s inscrutable will. The fact that Job holds God to account throughout the book reflects not only that Job never ceases to trust God, but that Job is concerned enough with the inconsistency of what is happening to him that he recalls God to being who he believes God actually is. This is, according to Calvin, unacceptably presumptuous. At root of Calvin’s resistance to allowing people of faith to live in the tension between trust and contingency, I believe, is his apparent rejection of the idea that God is truly known in God’s acts. Consider his doctrine of the divine accommodation. On the one hand, Calvin beautifully and sensitively conveys the truth that God wants to communicate with us, in our finite existence, simply because God loves and cares for us. On the other hand, however, Calvin’s compelling examples of the forms of the divine accommodation are disturbing insofar as they portray God as stooping to our level rather than entering fully into existence with us. Consider his portrayal of God as nursemaid “lisping” to the child in her care (I.13.1). The question is: for Calvin, does God actually become a nursemaid, or is the “incomprehensible” God in some sense “play acting”— that is, pretending to be whom God is not, for a moment, in order to be understood by we who are beloved? Gorringe points out, and I agree, that one crucial juncture where Karl Barth parts ways with Calvin is on the matter of God’s inscrutability. For Barth, as Gorringe puts it,

22. Psalm 145:5, 11-12. 23. Varenne, 365. 24. Varenne, 363. 25. Varenne, 365. 26. Varenne, 365.


Rigby “there is nothing beyond or behind what we see in Christ.”27 While Calvin is right to remind us that who God is may not be reduced to what God does, Calvin runs into problems when he implies that what God does for our benefit does not necessarily reveal to us who God truly is.28 In contrast to this, Barth insists that the God in whom we put our trust is known truly in God’s acts. We peer over the side of the manger, for example, and see the real God. And we are surprised. We look at the man Jesus, hanging on the cross, and stand in wonderment before the holy God who, in hanging right before our eyes, is in exactly the same moment both truly known and—because we weren’t expecting God to die on a cross—all the more inscrutable. For Barth, the most mysterious thing about God is that God has made Godself known. And trust in a God who is known naturally provokes questions about how God actually operates in, through, and/or over against the contingencies of this world. To invoke the “secret working of God” may well stymie us, as actors in this world. To live in honest engagement with the God who is known truly, on the other hand, is to play on the stage of God’s dazzling theatre, enjoying and taking responsibility for this world God has given us. “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” Jesus tells the disciples, “for I have made known to you everything I have heard from the Father.”29 Being privy to the mystery of God means joining in the play, shaping our characters, and creatively acting out our parts. And joining in the play, as those who know the mystery, has to mean, again, living in the tension between trust and contingency, between necessity and impossibility. This is not because knowing any mystery automatically thrusts us into such a dynamic. It is because the content of this particular mystery, the mystery shared with us by Jesus—the mystery that every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and that lions and lambs will lie down together and be safe—is simply impossible, by even the most optimistic of worldly standards. Gorringe says, along these lines, “every believer knows providence as both necessary and impossible” because “to take the Bible in one hand is to believe in the glory God intends for human beings” and “to take the newspaper in the other is to see this contradicted.”30 How do we live with this contradiction, as people of faith, expecting not only that which is possible, but that which is impossible? How do we embrace an active, free, and even play-full hope—hope that “takes the form of madness” because it holds not that the seemingly impossible is (somehow) possible, but that God will make that which is actually impossible, possible?31 27. Gorringe, 9. 28. One of the places we run into this problem with Calvin is when he describes the emotions of God, as borne witness to in the Scriptures, as mere “anthropomorphisms.” 29. John 15:15. 30. Gorringe, 4. 31. I am playing, here, with a comment Kierkegaard makes in the context of discussing the faith of Abram. “The one who expects the possible is great,” Kierkegaard writes, “but the one who expects the impossible—the one whose hope takes the form of madness—that one is the greatest of all.” Fear and Trembling, eds. Hong and Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 36-37.


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky


Getting Out On the Stage

alvin’s overemphasis on the divine inscrutability, along with its associated collapsing of the tension between trust and contingency in his doctrine of the divine providence, risks relegating human beings to the position of mere observers, in the theatre of God’s glory. God is the sole (and glorious) actor, and we are members of the audience, so overwhelmed by the performance that we, in the inadequacy of our meager perception, can only grab bits and pieces. When there is something we don’t understand in the show, it is a safe bet that the problem is with us, not with the show itself. For the record: I think Calvin, at best, wants human players on the stage. According to Calvin, it is not only God who is glorious and whose works should, therefore, be on “display;” it is human beings—part of God’s glorious creation—who are themselves also glorious. “God made human beings a little lower than God,” Calvin translates Psalm 8:5, challenging the traditional rendering of “Elohim” as “angels” because he thinks the Psalm is all about human beings being featured players in the dazzling theatre. We are, according to Calvin, “secondary agents” who are brought on the stage of God’s play to participate, through our obedience, in what God is up to in the world. But Calvin needs a little help getting us up there and playing on the stage with God. Gorringe explores the metaphor of a theatre as he has adopted it not from Calvin, but from Peter Brook in his classic work, The Empty Space. Like Calvin, Gorringe understands God as the primary agent at work in the world and we as secondary agents. But Gorringe does a better job than Calvin of getting human agents into the show. For Gorringe, God is the director, and we are actors on the stage. Both Brook and Gorringe argue against “deadly theatre,” or theatre “in which there is no real event between players and audience but simply a hollow spectacle.”32 In contrast to this, Gorringe suggests that, while God always holds the script to the play, human actors on the stage have real freedom to decide how they will say their lines and shape their characters, thus contributing directly to the play’s outcome. This “real dialogue” between director and actor even allows for “an element of genuine surprise” on the part of the Creator God as well as on the part of the creature.33 Surprise, in contrast to the “no surprises, since everything has already been taken care of ” paradigm of Calvin. What allows Gorringe to make such a claim without compromising on the divine sovereignty is, again, that he eschews appeal to God’s “secret working” in favor of reflection on what we do know about the God who is self-revealed. In the person of Jesus Christ, God shows Godself to be affected by us. Whatever the divine immutability is about, then, it must reject impassibility as being not true to the life and character of God. God is affected by human creatures, delighting in them, becoming enraged at them, and being blessed by them, according to the biblical witness. Here, a theological rationale for leaving open the possibility of God’s surprise can be seen, since any time we (or God) are open to being affected there is always the possibility we will learn something new by way of the one affecting us. Central to Gorringe’s understanding of how God and human beings work together in the context of “playing on the stage” is the notion that the limitations of the created

32. Gorringe, 78. 33. Gorringe, 80.


Rigby world serve as a “vehicle for both divine and human creativity.” For Gorringe, in contrast to Calvin, the apparent limits to how God operates in this creaturely world cannot be accounted for merely by reference to our inadequate perception. The limits of the created world are not illusory; they are actual. God has entered into the limits of creaturely existence with us, and we together (as Director and actors, respectively) are pushing up against the “roughness” of what we know, beginning ever again to explore “the possibilities” for abundant life.34 In Calvin’s understanding, creativity is thwarted by the fact that there are no real limits to push up against. God, working out God’s plan all on God’s own, certainly has no limits. And, by virtue of the fact that our trust, according to Calvin, is in this unlimited one, neither do we (who rightly exercise our faith) come up against the limits of the created world. We don’t, because the God to whom we belong doesn’t. The only limit we have is the limit of our perception—and our conviction, as those who trust, is that this limit is illusory. When we come up against an impossibility or a contingency, therefore, we come up against something that only seems to be an impossibility or a contingency, in the terms of Calvin’s system. God, by way of God’s secret plan, has everything already worked out. In Gorringe’s paradigm, by contrast, we are working God’s will out together with God, but with no compromise to the divine sovereignty because it is “built in” to how God’s sovereignty works to allow for creaturely contribution. God directs and we act. And, in the context of the play, it is difficult to separate out good directing from good acting, divine actions from human ones. As Kathryn Tanner puts it, “God’s working does not replace human working. When God works in and through human acts these remain genuinely human. Neither does God’s working stop where human working begins. By doing what they do, human agents are the very agents of God’s own intentions for human life.”35 The script is the Coming of God’s Kingdom, and we are making contributions as actors in the play. Up until now I have been discussing how it is that we get on the stage, as players in the theatre. I have argued that emphasis on the “secret working” of God must be laid aside, and that we must, in place of the inscrutability of God, embrace the impossible promises we know are true to who the self-revealed God really is. It is only then—living in the tension between trust and contingency—that we can begin to think creatively about how we can contribute to the coming of the Kingdom, about how we can be engaged in play that transforms. It is important to say something not only about the conditions necessary for our play/the exercise of our agency, but also about the transformative power of play itself. According to Kierkegaard, it is only by way of the exercise of imagination associated with play that we become fully who we are. He writes: “Imagination is what providence uses to take human beings captive in actuality … in existence, in order to get them far enough out, or within, or down into existence. And when imagination has helped them 34. Gorringe, 83. 35. Kathryn Tanner, The Politics of God: Christian Theologies and Social Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 100.


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky get as far out as they should be—then actuality genuinely begins.”36 In the context of us playing in the tension between necessity and impossibility, in the context of becoming people of faith who both trust God and acknowledge real contingencies, imagination takes us captive. It takes us captive not to what we wish the outcome of the play to be, but to what God has in store, to what God has promised, to the impossible things that we—as people of faith—are called to expect. Play is important, then, because it is the context in which we can imagine, and thereby begin participating in the impossible things we trust God to make possible. In addition, it also offers us a context in which we can develop strategic ways ever to keep the newspaper in our hand, as people of faith, facing head-on the contingencies of the world. “It is only in play that human beings can endure the fundamental contingency of the world and adapt to that contingency,” writes Moltmann.37 In my view, continuous adaptation is what it is going to take to face the always-new contingencies of a global world in which it is literally possible and ordinary to have the sufferings of the world piped into one’s iPhone 24/7. How do we live faithfully, in relation to this descriptive reality, maintaining a confident trust in God that refuses to give up on the ever-adjusting play, and so keeps going to practices, looking forward to that final performance?


Conclusion: Having Faith

lexander and Jessica hear the story of Harry Potter and enter into the tension between the necessity of their trust and the impossibility of the circumstances. How will Harry get out of this one? They trust that he will and they simultaneously recognize he is up against some real problems. Pushing up against the limits of the impossible contingencies, they imagine new things that are potentially surprising, potentially transformative. The plot is set; the book has been written; but they nonetheless enter the story as actors, as agents. They imagine the story, and they “play out” versions of the story (with or without the same “Harry Potter”) over and over again, every single day. The search for how to make the impossible possible;38 a search founded in trust that begins again and again. The explorations are endless, and so there is life.39 There is the life of faith founded in a certainty in God’s providence that refuses to place its trust in vagaries, but instead insists on following through with what is known. “Faith is the highest passion in a person,” Kierkegaard claims. “No one goes further.”40 It is the same old game, he says, and no generation knows how to play it any better than the last. As human beings in this world, it behooves us to play with the “enduring earnestness” of children.41 Still, if we are playing the game of faith at all, we are on the stage. We are players in God’s dazzling theatre. We are negotiating this world’s very real contingencies as those whose trust seems often absurd, working to make actual the impossibilities that both preserve, and feed, the hope of the world. i

St Monica: An Appreciation David W. Johnson


I. A Vision

ometime during the year 387, the man who was to become Augustine of Hippo was looking out the window and talking with his mother about the afterlife when they saw God. Almost. What they experienced was beyond description. They were discussing what “the eternal life of the saints” might be, when their conversation became something more: “We proceeded step by step through all bodily things up to that heaven whence shine the sun and the moon and the stars down to earth.”1 They passed through their own minds2 and came to eternal Wisdom: “We attain to it in a slight degree by an effort of our whole heart” (IX.10.24, 222). And that was that. They returned to themselves, with the result that the entire world around them seemed somehow diminished. It is misleading to even call this incident a vision, since, as Augustine described it, it was heard more than seen. It seemed to him, as he reflected on what had happened, that the joy of eternity would be to hear God plainly, “not uttered by a tongue of flesh, nor by an angel’s voice, ‘nor by the sound of thunder,’ nor by the riddle of a similitude” (IX.10.25, 222)—to experience forever what he and his mother has shared for a moment. This became for him more than ineffable experience or abstract speculation, for a few days later, Monica was to die. 1. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions IX. 10. 24. Translated John K. Ryan, (New York: Doubleday Image, 1960), 221. All citations of the Confessions hereafter will be parenthetical in the text, according to book, chapter, section, and page number in the Ryan translation. 2. In Augustine’s neoplatonic metaphysics, minds were superior to all physical objects, including the astronomical bodies he names—the sun, moon, and stars.

David W. Johnson is the director of the Program of Formation in Ministry at

36. Kierkegaard. 37. Moltmann, 310. 38. Kierkegaard. 39. See Gorringe, 83. 40. Kierkegaard, 121-122. 41. Kierkegaard, 121-122.

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has served churches in Texas and New Jersey and served on the faculty of Brite Divinity School. He earned his BA, magna cum laude, from Yale University, his MDiv from Yale Divinity School, and the PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary.



Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky


II. Who was Monica?

urelius Augustinus was born in 354, in what is now northeastern Algeria. In certain respects, his family mirrored the divisions of the time. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, a poor man struggling for respectability. His mother, Monica (or “Monnica” if one uses the native Berber spelling), was raised as a Christian, but it was a Christianity strongly influenced by Donatism, coupled with various elements of local superstition. When Augustine was only a year old, Julian (later dubbed “the Apostate”) was named Caesar in Gaul; he was to become (in 361) the last pagan emperor, and also the last emperor of the line of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Augustine was to live to see Rome conquered and looted in 410, and when he died in 430 his city of Hippo was under siege by the Vandals. The survival of paganism, the church’s struggle to define its own identity in the face of heresy (or at least what the winning side considered to be heresy), and the increasing threat of barbarian tribes, were all a part of Augustine’s world. A family with a Christian mother and a pagan father, such as Augustine’s was, reflected an empire that was only partially Christian and still partially pagan. Augustine had a brother named Navigius, whom he occasionally mentioned, and one or possibly two sisters whom he scarcely mentioned at all.3 His relationship with his father was not a particularly happy one. He apparently considered Patricius something of a lout, subject to fits of anger and given to drinking and adultery. All we know of Monica we learn from Augustine. In his Confessions, written as he was commencing his work as Bishop of Hippo ten years after her death, she is one of three main figures—the other two being God and Augustine himself. This has occasioned some question about how trustworthy the portrait of Monica in the Confessions actually is. As Peter Brown remarks in his seminal biography of Augustine,4 a son might not be the best person to write a biography of his mother. Augustine’s life has become the playground of Freudian historians (or historically oriented Freudians) because of his evident attachment to his mother and his dislike of his father. He has also drawn the ire of feminist historians of theology, who see in him both his own masculine bias and the bias of his time.5 These are important voices of caution, who warn against taking Augustine’s portrait of his mother uncritically. However, the Monica of the Confessions is what we have, and what we have had throughout the ages. There might be a sense in which she is as much a literary figure as a historical one, but I am inclined to give Augustine’s depiction of her some credence. She has a certain uniqueness, as we shall see, and that uniqueness lies outside of what she might be as simply the central figure in an unresolved oedipal complex, an imaginative creation of a male for male purposes. Augustine’s Confessions is a difficult work to characterize. It is simultaneously the story of Augustine’s life, the chronicle of his intellectual struggles, and the account of his pursuit by God. These three strands are woven together throughout the first two-thirds 3. Navagius was present, although not named, at Monica’s last illness: Conf. IX, 11, 27, Ryan 223. 4. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, (New York, New York: Dorset Press, 1986. Original edition U. California Press, 1967), 29. 5. Cf. Rebecca Moore, “O Mother, Where Art Thou? In Search of Saint Monnica,” in Judith Chelius Stark, Feminist Interpretations of St. Augustine, (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007), 147-166.


Johnson of the book, and are so intertwined that simply keeping the story straight can be a difficult task. The first strand tells of his boyhood schooling, his advanced education in Carthage, his career as a teacher of rhetoric in Rome, his service as court orator in Milan (the capitol of the Empire at that time), his conversion and baptism at the hands of Ambrose, and his return to Africa. The second strand leads us from his early (and partial) training in Christianity, his adoption of Manichaeanism, his turning to Neoplatonism, and his final embracing of the teaching of Christianity, all in his attempt to come to some understanding of the nature of evil. The third strand is marked by his conversation with God—for the whole work is addressed to God, as Augustine articulates his realization in retrospect that God had been at work in all the events, opinions, and encounters of his life. Monica does not hold much of a place in the second strand, Augustine’s intellectual development. But she is crucial in the first, as the mother who will not let him go, and the third, as she comes to symbolize not only holy mother church, but the grace of God itself.


III. Monica as Wife

ugustine remarks on his parents’ marriage several times, and gives the credit for its success to Monica. He commends her obedience to her husband, although she was “the better partner” (I.11.17, 54). Even though Patricius had a violent temper, Augustine notes, he did not beat her because of her forbearance: “she had learned to avoid resisting her husband when he was angry, not only by deeds but even by words. When she saw that he had curbed his anger and become calm and that the time was opportune, then she explained what she had done, if he happened to have been inadvertently disturbed” (IX.9.19, 219. Through her efforts, toward the end of his life, Patricius himself was baptized. Augustine unquestionably admired his mother, and in some sense idealized her, pointing to her as a model for the Christian’s obedience and submission to God. In the middle of recounting her virtues, as a kind of epitaph for her, he stopped to ask God to forgive her sins—which he did not specify (IX.13.35, 227). But Augustine never presents her as an ascetic or a martyr. She was not the kind of Christian hero that Gregory of Nyssa presents in writing about his sister, Macrina the Younger. Monica was not a nun. Her sanctity lay elsewhere: She was faithful to the one who was unfaithful to her; she was gentle toward the one who did not always treat her gently, and this combination of fidelity and patience finally brought him to the faith.


IV. Monica as Mother

atricius died sometime around 372, just after Augustine had gone to Carthage to continue his education. From that point until her death, Monica was either with Augustine or chasing after him. He studied rhetoric and became a teacher of rhetoric—which had just as much to do with legal training as it did with public oratory—first in his home town of Thagaste, then in Carthage, then in Rome, and finally in Milan. His intellectual odyssey was equally peripatetic: he learned from a reading of Cicero to seek “wisdom,” a wisdom he


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky did not find in the Christian scriptures—at least not yet. He then became a Manichee,6 much to his mother’s distress, and remained one for a decade. Disillusion with the teaching of the Manichees and disappointment in their leading spokesman, one Faustus, led him to abandon the Manichees. He then found the work of the neoplatonic philosopher, Plotinus, who would remain influential in his thinking from that point on. If Monica was hesitant to resist her husband, she showed no such reluctance with regard to her son. Patricius was determined that his son would get a good education. Monica’s concern was not so much for his mind as for his soul. She was certainly aware of his social acceptability—after she had joined him in Milan, she arranged an advantageous marriage for him and banished his concubine, with whom he had lived and had a son. Augustine’s memory of that event is one of the most poignant in the Confessions: “My heart still clung to her: it was pierced and wounded within me, and the wound drew blood from it. She returned to Africa, vowing she would never know another man” (VI. 15.25, 153). He clearly sometimes chafed at his mother’s dominance. She had intended to accompany him when he had first gone to Rome, but he had lied about the time of his departure and left her weeping on the shore (V.8.15, 123-4).7 Monica was only temporarily thwarted by this: When he went to Milan as the foremost rhetorician in the Empire, she was there, soon cultivating the friendship of its formidable bishop, Ambrose. Her goal was to see him baptized. She believed that she had assurances, both human and divine, that he would become a Christian. When Augustine became a Manichee, she badgered a local bishop (a former Manichee himself ) to come talk to him. This the bishop refused to do, on the grounds that Augustine was not yet ready to listen. She continued to pester him until he became thoroughly annoyed and sent her away, saying, “It is impossible that the son of such tears should perish” (III.12.21, 92). She also had had a dream in which she was assured that where she was, he would be also (III.11.19, 91). Yet, she did not rejoice when, years later, he abandoned the Manichees. Nothing less than his baptism would satisfy her. That baptism, when it finally came, was not simply due to the resolution of his tortured intellectual difficulties. He had become a believer before he was able to take the final step and asked to be baptized. But he was convinced that his baptism would require him to embrace a life of celibacy, and he was unwilling or unable to do so. This was a personal matter for him—he knew perfectly well that the church would allow him to be married. He had the example of his mother constantly before him to prove that. But he was convinced that it was both necessary and impossible for him to live without a sexual partner. Consequently he spent a good deal of time in anguished indecision, wanting to 6. Manichaeism was a synchronistic form of gnosticism that arose in Persia during the third century, and spread both east to China and west to the Roman Empire. It was characterized by an extreme dualism, both with regard to the cosmos and to the human person. 7. Some commentators, noting the similarity of this incident with Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid, have cast doubt on its historicity. However, the fact that there are echoes of Virgil at this point has more to do with the way Augustine is telling the story than with its factuality. A present-day person might express his or her romantic feelings in terms drawn from Romeo and Juliet or Gone With the Wind. This does not negate their truth. In any case, Aeneas was not the only man, fictitious or otherwise, to have run from a woman in the middle of the night.


Johnson follow the example of such people as St. Anthony and seemingly unable to do so.8 This moral paralysis continued until the day when, as he sat weeping in a garden in the house where he was living, he heard a voice saying, “Take up and read.” He opened a book of Paul’s letters at random, and read in Romans 13:14: “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That was enough. His weeping stopped. He went in the house and told his mother that he was now ready to become a Christian. Together with his friend Alypius and his son, Adeodatus, Augustine was baptized by Ambrose on Easter, 387.


V. Monica as Mystic

ugustine had already resigned his teaching post. His health had not been good, and his heart was no longer in his profession. He and his little group of family and friends, including Monica and Adeodatus, had decided to return to Africa and establish a small contemplative community. They left Milan and journeyed to Ostia, where they hoped to catch a boat which would take them home. Monica at this point regarded her life’s work as done. She had previously wanted to be buried in Africa, next to Patricius, in a grave she had prepared. But now she said that she did not care where she was laid to rest. “I need not fear that [God] will not know where to raise me up at the end of the world,” she said (IX.11.28, 224). The vision at Ostia, when it came, had some notable features. It was apparently unexpected. Augustine described it in active verbs: “We proceeded step by step through all bodily things up to that heaven whence shine the sun and the moon and the stars … We ascended higher yet by means of inward thought and discourse and admiration of your works, and we came up to our own minds. We transcended them” (IX.10.24, 221). This does not mean that the vision came through their own efforts. This experience was a gift. They had done nothing to prepare for it. They had simply been talking about what the afterlife might be. They surely responded however they were capable of responding, but it seems clear that Augustine regarded this experience as a gift from God. Second, this vision was shared. It was neither his nor hers; it was theirs. For him, it was something of a confirmation of all that had gone before: his intellectual journey, his struggles with celibacy, the voice in the garden, and his baptism. This vision was the true culmination of his life, and the prelude to his life that was to come. It was also a culmination for Monica: her waiting, her praying, her tears, her sheer persistence in not letting go of her son until he had been brought to the faith. It was fitting that this vision be shared, since their lives had been so thoroughly intertwined. The end of the journey to God was God. God was still transcendent. God was more heard than seen, and even that hearing was partial and fragmentary: “And we sighed for it … and we turned back again to the noise of our mouths, where a word both begins and ends” (IX.10.24, 222). They had heard something of the word of God which neither begins nor ends, and to them that seemed to be a foretaste of heaven.

8. He read of St. Anthony, commonly regarded as the founder of monasticism, in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, which had had a great impact throughout the Empire.


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky


VI. St. Monica

he cult of St. Monica began to appear in the Middle Ages and is still with us. Her name adorns churches, parochial schools, health-care providers, women’s shelters, and a city in California with which she has little in common beside the name. In the early church, noteworthy women—that is, women who were to be emulated—were predominantly martyrs, virgins, or extreme ascetics. Monica was none of those things. She was a wife and mother who died of natural causes, and appears to have been a person of moderation rather than self-imposed extreme deprivation. Contemporary readers of the Confessions are likely to be either suspicious of or repelled by Augustine’s stress on her submissiveness to her husband. Submissive she may have been, but she was not without a spine. Augustine says almost nothing about how she managed the family’s affairs after Patricius’ death, or found the means to follow her son’s path to Milan. But she obviously did find them. Augustine remarks that she was both mother and daughter to the little community that formed around him. Monica’s sanctity was not the sanctity of submission. It was much more the sanctity of tenacity. She took the welfare of her children, both temporal and eternal, as her business, and kept at it until her death. Further, she did this in ways that were utterly ordinary. The combination of presence, prayer, and sheer nagging is one that is familiar to most parents, particularly parents of headstrong and precocious children. The two climactic events of Augustine’s conversion—the voice in the garden and the vision at Ostia—may have had a supernatural or miraculous tinge to them, but they did not come out of the blue. They were preceded by years of searching on Augustine’s part, and years of concern and prayer on Monica’s. There is no doubt that Augustine in retrospect saw God working in and through her, as he saw God working in and through almost every circumstance of his life. She was not only a symbol of the persistent love of God; she was almost a sacrament of it. When Augustine felt far from God he knew he was not far from her, even when he wanted to be. For that, ultimately, he gave thanks. We know of Monica only because we know of Augustine. Her eminence is in some respects a reflection of his. Had there been no Augustine, she would have been one of the millions of people whose influence extended only as far as their immediate circle. But this does not diminish her importance as a symbol and sacrament of something infinitely precious. If we see in her the sanctity of tenacity, we also see the sanctity of the ordinary—the extraordinarily important ordinary. We all are the instruments of each other’s salvation. Whether as parents and children, teachers and students, healers and patients, pastors and lay people, or simply one and other, the God who is love uses love in all its forms to shower grace upon the world. Grace does not necessarily require martyrs, virgins, or ascetics to do its work, but it does require love. That is what we see in Monica, Augustine, and their tenacious God. i

Marguerite Porete: Love, Mystical Marriage, and Beyond Wendy Farley


or many Protestants, faith consists primarily in belief and a commitment to the justice and compassion available to us through divine grace. But Christianity also offers a vision of lives transformed to their roots by and for love. Christian contemplatives in particular dedicate themselves to this desire for deeper relationship with the divine love. A group of women in the Middle Ages called the Beguines created a particularly beautiful and profound literature expressing this intoxicating desire for God, expressed in union and in love for humanity.1 One of the most brilliant of these women is Marguerite Porete, whose writings are readily available for the first time in centuries in part because of Ellen Babinksy’s wonderful translation of The Mirror of Simple Souls. In this essay I would like to reflect on Porete’s work and consider ways in which her description of non-dual union with the divine extends beyond the images of mystical marriage that are characteristic of many other Beguines. Mystical marriage is an enduring metaphor for contemplation; it is rooted in the Song of Solomon, a text used to describe longing for God by Origen in the third century and Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century. It was a favorite image for many Beguines. Romantic love captures so viscerally certain features of human longing. The joy of love comes from two-ness, yet lovers long to bridge the gap between them. The Good Lord in His Mercy provided a method for this. In the moment of the most intimate em-

1. There are many introductions to the Beguine movement, for example the work of Amy Hollywood, including The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeberg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995). The introductions to Mechthild of Magdeburg: The Flowing Light of the Godhead, Frank Tobin, translator (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1998) and Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, Ellen L. Babinsky, translator (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1993) are also very helpful.

Wendy Farley is Professor of Religion and Ethics and Chair of Theologi-

cal Studies at Emory University. The author of The Wounding And Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven And Earth (Westminster John Knox, 2005), her latest work, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation, will be published by Westminster John Knox in the fall of 2011.



Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky brace, separation is fleetingly abolished. Romantic love requires two, but the temporary dissolution of duality is blissful. This very human experience is used by lovers of God to describe the strange mix of two-ness and oneness at the heart of divine desire. The medieval Beguines were particularly good at plumbing erotic metaphors, drawing from them profound theological insight. They wrote of the anguish they experienced in the play of love which vacillated between heights of joy and anguished longing. This imagery also allowed Beguines to re-conceive the nature of divine power. Rather than the sovereignty of an all-mighty king, Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote of divine power perfected in love. Divine Love is a Lord who “surrenders himself to her.”2 When she demanded that her Lover free souls from purgatory, He submits, saying “when two wrestle with each other the weaker must lose. I shall willingly be the weaker, though I am almighty.”3 For Mechthild, God becomes truly divine and truly a redeemer when He renounces omnipotence and is ruled by Lady Love, a theological insight that she uses to criticize church politics. She envisions God castigating a power hungry Pope: “You have nothing left but your trappings; that is, ecclesiastical authority with which you war against God and his chosen intimates.”4 Mechthild’s erotic metaphors express aspects of contemplative experience but they also challenge ideas about divine and ecclesial power. Marguerite Porete was a Beguine and harbored criticisms of church theology and politics. But she was also critical of Beguine piety. She was suspicious of the vacillation between bliss and longing and critical of severe ascetic practices. Contemplative women often tended toward almost violent self-abnegation and penitential practices. Porete described a path emphasizing interior peace and an appropriate self-respect. She offered a sublime vision of the capacity of the human spirit as it rested in the mystery of divine grace. Her vision seems also to evince compassion for her sisters whose wings were cut by conventions of feminine piety. As Amy Hollywood puts it: “in their rejection of bodily asceticism, paramystical phenomena, and, most importantly, special visionary and unitive experiences, Porete and Eckhart are attempting to allay women’s pain.”5 In a period when it was dangerous for women to write theology, some carved out space by accepting the conventions which permitted them a voice. Porete defied those conventions. She did not describe amazing, exotic visions. She did not talk about how she was just a stupid and worthless woman. When her book was condemned and burned she sought three clergy-theologians who would attest to her orthodoxy; she appended their comments in a new conclusion to her book. She asked the bishop if she could circulate the book with these modifications. He responded by handing her over to William of Paris, Philip the Fair’s chief Inquisitor. The Inquisition condemned her, mocking her as a “false woman” as they took her to the stake on June 1, 1310. It is a testimony to the equanimity she describes in her writings that witnesses describe a crowd moved to tears by the nobility with which she met her fate. In thinking about the distinctiveness of Porete’s theology I have been drawn to the 2 Mechthild of Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Godhead Book 1.44. 3. Mechthild of Magdeburg, 6.10. 4. Mechthild of Magdeburg, 6.21. 5. Amy Hollywood, “Suffering Transformed: Marguerite Porete, Mesiter Eckhart, and the Problem of Women’s Spirituality,” in Bernard McGinn, editor, Meister Eckhart and Beguine Mystics: Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechtild of Magdeburg and Marguerite Porete, 110.


Farley witness of her actions as well as in her writings. She described a soul set on a throne of peace unmoved by threats or blandishments, a soul that can be seduced or threatened by nothing in the world. She lived this out in her encounter with the Inquisition. Some scholars, more appalled by a stubborn woman than by the church’s savage methods of control, wonder why she did not cooperate with her jailers. Her writing foreshadowed her fate: “I must hide from them and not speak my language to those who prefer death to the life where I am in peace without moving myself. I must be silent and hide my language which I learned in the secret court of the sweet country in which courtesy is law, and Love moderates, and Goodness is the nourishment. The sweetness draws me, the beauty pleases me, the goodness fills me. What therefore can I do, since I live in peace?”6 I believe her text provides clues to why she thought it so important to stand by her theology of divine love, even at the cost of her life. Her tenacious defense of her writing makes sense if we consider that she belonged to a community for whom her ideas were important. She wrote a book for “sad souls,” that is, those who do everything contemplatives are supposed to do: fast, keep vigils, discipline their bodies, discipline their emotions, pray, do good works, delight in intimacy with God, and yet remain unfulfilled. In the opening pages of her book, Divine Love speaks to her readers: “I have made this book for you so that you might hear in order to be more worthy of the perfection of life and the being of peace to which the creature is able to arrive through the virtue of perfect charity, the gift given by the whole Trinity.”7 Love insists that the foundation of this path is love of God and neighbor: “These commands are of necessity for salvation for all: nobody can have grace in a lesser way.”8 Porete explains herself at the beginning: this is a book to those who might otherwise never find this path of peace, the foundation and the fruit of which is love. She witnesses to these lovers of God a theology and practice of divine love that breaks free from the cycle of pain and pleasure, of ecstasy and abasement. Spiritual ecstasy and attestations of unworthiness are still preoccupied with the ego and its experience. She describes instead a self-forgetfulness in which “there is no one except Him, no one loves except Him, for no one is except Him, and thus He alone loves completely, sees Himself completely alone.”9 In contrast to Mechthild, Porete does not describe moments of bliss when everything dissolves into a kind of orgasmic but excruciatingly brief union. Her book tries to lead her readers to a state in which the soul recovers its divine nature and dwells in the divine presence all the time, whatever is going on around them. This is state of “nonduality” in which the spiritual essence of the human being, the divine image, is not separate from the mysterious depth of the divine life even though it remains enmeshed with all of the ordinary experiences of this world. For Porete, Lady Love and non-dual awareness represent simultaneous aspects of life. Love is the foundation and fruit of grace but it opens up a place beyond words. Porete writes within the paradoxical situation of all negative theologians: she must express the inconceivable depths of divinity 6. Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, Chapter 68. 7. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 3. 8. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 3. 9. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 91.


Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky within the dualistic structure of language. Both ultimate reality and the soul are irreducible to conceptual thought. About God she writes: “everything one can say or write about God, or think about him, God who is greater than what is ever said, everything is thus more like lying than speaking the truth.”10 She says of the Soul: “And when nothingness is, then God sees Himself in such a creature, without any hindrance from his creature.”11 Porete expresses the paradox of writing about something beyond speech: it is something that “one can neither do, nor think, nor say any more than someone could desire to enclose the sea in his eye or carry the world on the end of a reed.”12 She insists that the true writing is on the parchment of the soul and it is the Holy Spirit who writes there: “the divine school is held with the mouth closed, which the human mind cannot express in words.”13 She dwells beyond words and yet writes them to inspire others on this path. Annihilation is her characteristic metaphor for the clearing away of egocentric attachments. It is not that one ceases to exist but that the ego is displaced so one can say with Paul, “it is no longer me but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The soul no longer works “since He Himself works in me.”14 Such a soul neither knows nor works. And yet she writes and acts. Porete wrote her book for other contemplatives whose attachment to spiritual practice became an obstacle to life in God. Attachment, even to God’s will, remains a mark of duality. In a mirror, a wrinkle or mark will distort, however subtly, the image. A simple soul is pure luminosity, nothingness, neither light nor darkness, but absorbed in divine love. When we read Mechthild of Magdeburg or Teresa of Avila, we remain more or less in a world that makes sense to us; for all of their theological wisdom, they do not dismantle a world which is more or less familiar. A marriage, even a mystical one, has a familiar outline to it. Porete takes us to an arena of mind that requires more of us. We have to enter, if only imaginatively, the mind’s capacity for non-dual awareness. Everything but simple awareness is dualistic. Consciousness occurs in language, desire, and thought, and these are essentially structured by duality—by the difference between the self and another. In her writings we inhabit an irretrievably paradoxical space of awareness where the mind points to a capacity in which mind moves into the abyss of divinity beyond concept and experience. For Porete, the point is not to cultivate exotic experiences; it is to integrate non-dual awareness more stably into everyday life. Doing the ordinary things we do or suffering extraordinary hardship, we remain in the immediacy of the divine life. On this throne of peace nothing can disturb her. Porete insists that it is natural and proper to the human mind to enter a mode of reality that is not structured by duality. There is sometimes a concern to consider whether or in what sense we can be the “same” as God. But Porete presses us to recognize that it is only entities that can be the same as or different from one another. Though we use personal metaphors for God, God is not a being among other beings. The “annihila 10. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 119. 11. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 92. 12. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 97. 13. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 66. 14. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 84.

Farley tion” of the will does not mean the soul is the “same” as God but that distinctions like same and different, mutuality and dissolution, are simply inadequate. Bridal mysticism expresses the truth of non-duality in a limited sense: the bride returns from the bed chamber, longing for her lover. For Porete, this fluctuation between bliss and longing can be displaced by a peaceful stability no longer buffeted by attraction and aversion. In theology, we know that our words are inadequate to God and so we are pressed to accept a state beyond naming and negation. In this state the opposition between time and timelessness, between longing and fulfillment, between duality and unity is overcome and awareness rests in “unknowing.”15 In the dialogue of her book, Porete tries to communicate to Reason the path of annihilation, knowing that Reason is in principle not capable of comprehending her. At one point in the narrative Reason dies of shock, only to reappear again and resume the conversation. This is a rather lovely dramatization of her point. Reason can be led to a place where it expires and yet mind continues to function in this world, to talk, write, revise. Reason returns but has become more flexible, less domineering. Reason becomes Love’s servant rather than Her master. The will is also led to its own death. Through the disciplines of medieval asceticism, the will is remorselessly trained to renounce its attachment. But as Porete points out, the will survives these techniques fairly well. It might desire more sublime pleasures and accept the physical discomfort of cold, hunger, fatigue, pain, as well as a tortured abdication of self-worth. But the dualistic and egocentric structures of mind remain intact. Just as the truth about divinity is not apprehended by a more accurate concept, the release of will into divinity is not accomplished by more fitting joys and sorrows. These may be useful at the beginning but they remain in thrall to pain and pleasure, and to the theology that stands behind it—pleasing or offending a deity fundamentally separate from them. Porete ended her original manuscript with a song of the soul in which she sings of mystical marriage: “Divine Love tells me that she has entered within me, and so she can do whatever she wills, Such strength she has given me, from One Lover whom I possess in love, to whom I am betrothed, who wills what he loves and for this I love Him.” But then she unsays her song: “I have said that I will love Him. I lie, for I am not. It is He alone who loves me: He is, and I am not … by this am I impregnated. This is the divine seed and Loyal Love.”16 Love is our last word before we become speechless, but in this speechless wonder we are impregnated with the living reality of Love. We say and unsay the truth of divinity, but we dwell ever more stably in the divine depths. Porete concluded her book with a song to love and she ended her life in flame. Perhaps she thought that a community that deserved a witness to the limits of penitential theology and bridal mysticism also deserved a witness to the limits of terror. Inquisitors could not force into her mouth a lie about the unspeakable goodness of non-dual love. I feel that the tragedy of Porete is less hers than ours. Terror relegated the wisdom of non-duality and the witness of great contemplatives to the far margins of our tradi 15. Various Christian authors use this metaphor of unknowing to describe an awareness that is not simply cognitive, including for example Pseudo-Dionysius and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. 16. Marguerite Porete, Chapter 122.



Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky


tion, an anonymous underground railroad that appears and disappears throughout our history. I am grateful to scholars like Ellen Babinsky. In recovering voices such as Porete’s we recover treasures of our tradition and expand our imagination of what Christian devotion has been and can be. i

Seminary Memories Charles M. Cary


Coming in the Fall 2011 issue:

Professor Kristin Saldine on Preaching Out of Place


recall Ellen Babinsky as a fellow student at McCormick in the early ’70s. Chicago was still adjusting to the police riot and rancor of the 1968 convention of the Democratic Party, and student activism was fervent and sometimes zany. The seminary itself was awash in multiple agendas, and the administration endeavored to steer us in a direction that was faithful and sincere. The late Jack Stotts was a mentor unparalleled to so many, but to Ellen in particular. Ellen was a pioneer in that she was one of the first women to enter seminary as a single parent. Her two daughters were very young at the time, and the realities of childcare, financial burdens, and managing time and energy so as to meet the rigors of her course of study were ever before her. She slept very little in those days, managing nonetheless to excel at these and other challenges. I was impressed that she was forever comfortable with herself as one who engaged the religious questions before us. Seminary was never foreign to her, more a natural environment in which to apply the wisdom of the faith to the pressing matters of society. Ellen also showed sensitivity to those on the periphery of our community and other communities. Her classroom questions would often stop any mad rush toward conformity and invite us to reconsider the status quo. She accomplished this consciousnessraising without jeopardizing trust. Many of us wondered after hearing her analysis of a position why we had not thought of the matter ourselves. Critical inquiry was and remains one of Ellen’s gifts. Another memory: Ellen was almost possessed by her sense of humor. I am not talking about giddy, sentimental laughter of the kind popularized by late night comedy. Hers was more akin to the laughter of Sarah upon hearing that she would bear a child in her old age. Good satire, dripping irony, and inexplicable grace would set Ellen laughing beyond limit. Why? I believe that she had what Robert McAfee Brown called the first cousin of faith: A divine sense of humor which punctured our pretense, and pointed to Continued on page 34

The Reverend Charles M. Cary, a 1975 graduate of McCormick Seminary, serves as senior pastor of the Westhampton Presbyterian Church in Westhampton Beach, New York. Previously he served as the Jean and Frank Mohr Professor of Ministry at McCormick Seminary.




Honoring our Histories

History Comes Alive

Martha D. Sadongei

Leanne B. Thompson


hen I began my journey into the ministry as a Native American, one of the main reasons for choosing Austin Seminary was that I felt that I could attend and not be placed in a box to go into Native American Ministry. I chose Austin because they could prepare me to be a pastor serving in any kind of church to which God would call me. Then I met Ellen. It was the Tuesday morning after Labor Day my first semester at Austin Seminary and my first class was church history. Ellen came in carrying her notebook, and standing tall behind the lectern she smiled at all of us sitting there. As a former elementary school teacher, I could tell that she was eager to teach us and that she loved teaching, but she seemed to be looking straight at me. I attributed this sense to my nervousness about being back in school after some time off. It was about two weeks after the start of classes that she found me by the mailboxes, where she asked if I was Native American. Telling her I was, she then asked if I would meet with her and help her understand some questions she had about Native Americans and some recent discoveries she had made. But she insisted that I first get settled in the new term. That first brief conversation by the mailboxes became the foundation for many conversations and shared experiences over the next three years. It was in her mysticism class that I could hear the words of my Tohono O’odham grandfather and his teachings to me through the words of Julian of Norwich. It was in the second half of church history that I undertook a project she had in mind for me regarding the history and leadership of the Alabama-Coushatta tribes of East Texas. It was through this project that she arranged for me to accompany her on a trip to this community, which led to a summer internship and, after graduation, service there as pastor of the Indian Presbyterian Church. Because Ellen wanted to learn more about me, my cultures, and my understandings, I was able to discover and define my relationship between my cultural understandings and my Christian beliefs. Continued on page 34

The Reverend Martha D. Sadongei (MDiv’96) serves as Church Specialist for the Office of Native American Congregational Support for the General Assembly Mission Council (PCUSA). She also serves as pastor to Central Presbyterian Church, Phoenix, Arizona, an urban Indian congregation.



s a child, I played a game with myself. In history, in a particular time and place, who would I have been? I read about Anne Frank and wondered if I would have had the courage, like Miep Gies, to help hide and care for Anne and her family. I learned about the efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on behalf of women’s suffrage and considered whether or not I would have had the passion and conviction to defy social conventions in the name of justice and equality. Would I have risked setting out across the ocean in search of a better life? Would I have had the mental fortitude to survive as a pioneer traversing the country with a covered wagon? In the fall of 2002, surrounded by other newly matriculated students, I entered into a world of history that I had never considered. There were, suddenly, more names, dates, locations, and relationships than I thought it possible to remember, let alone articulate intelligently in essay format. The Rev. Dr. Ellen Babinsky was clear about her expectations. She explained precisely what would be required of us. I didn’t have time to daydream about the new possibilities for imagined historic identity; I was too busy wondering if I would survive Church History long enough to have a future in ministry. Ellen led us on a journey through history at a demanding pace. She began to introduce us to passionate, flawed, courageous, and devout people who stumbled their way through lives of faith in service to God; she challenged us to look for what God was doing in and through history. As my peers and I immersed ourselves in the lives of our forebears, I began to appreciate Ellen, not only for her knowledge, but for her fairness, consistency, and investment in our lives and our learning. Ellen believed that we had the potential, as well as the obligation, to achieve what she was demanding of us, and she provided every resource possible to help us do so. She could be stern and unyielding in her expectations of academic performance, but these characteristics were tempered by the pastoral sensibilities that allowed her to also be mentor, advisor, counselor, and friend. A generation of young pastors was privileged to learn from Ellen how to look be-

The Reverend Leanne B. Thompson Presbyterian Church in Bridgeport, Nebraska.


(MDiv’06) is co-pastor of First

Reminiscences yond the historical facts to see the significance and consequences of choices and relationships. We were blessed to learn from a woman of knowledge and faith how to be scholar-pastors; we will forever remember October 31, 1517, because Ellen told us not to forget. I am thankful that I don’t have to imagine what it would have been like to be Ellen’s student. Thank you, Ellen, for investing in our future by sharing your love of history and your faith in God. Your tests may no longer be handed down from class to class, but your legacy is still alive in your students who are striving to live faithfully in the histories they are creating. i

Life with Ellen W. Douglas “Sam” Sampson

S Seminary Memories Continued from page 31

a more abundant life. I will never forget an encounter at a church meeting in which we were grading ordination exams. In the very Spartan cafeteria of the Sisters of St Joseph convent, she laughed out loud at the preposterous request of one of us for a libation not on the menu. Disrespectful? Never. Aware of the incongruity of the matter? Of course. I am proud to contribute to this encomium to a dear friend over the years. May the next chapter bring new discoveries and much joy! i

Honoring our Histories Continued from page 32

In addition to the academics Ellen also gave me a home. Between the sharing of Hungarian meals and Indian tacos she shared her life with me as I shared mine with her. Whether eating or watching sports on TV, she gave me a home away from home, a refuge from the dorm and refectory meals. Listening to Dixieland jazz and chicken scratch and going to pow-wows and UT’s Lady Longhorns basketball games, she became my friend. Ellen never put me in a box to do Native American Ministries but she was instrumental in my discerning that God’s call to me would lead me to “a people long silenced” (Brief Statement of Faith, PCUSA). i 34

ome thirty years ago, Ellen invited me to give the charge to her at her installation as Associate Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. I felt this was a great honor, and some might say a rare and fine opportunity. I had similar feelings when I was asked to offer a contribution for this special publication. It is certainly an honor, but a rather daunting opportunity. We have lived together for nearly thirty-five years, and that provides an enormous amount of material. What can be said more or less succinctly? Shortly after being asked to contribute, I read an article in The Core, a supplement to the University of Chicago Magazine. It was about John and Jean Comaroff, distinguished service professors in anthropology at the University of Chicago. John said of Jean, “She remains the mind I respect most.” I echo that. Ellen remains the mind I respect most. The chair of the search committee that brought Ellen to Westminster said, “She thinks in cogent categories.” I am not sure exactly what that means, but I don’t doubt it is true. However, it is only part of her mind. Ellen knows lots of stuff, though she has not always been helpful in offering answers that involve historical or French knowledge when I am trying to solve crossword puzzles. She is always clear on what she knows, and what she does not, as Lewis Donelson testified from when they were co-teachers. He attributed this to the rigor of scholarship acquired at the University of Chicago. Ellen has used this to advantage in challenging students to answer questions she couldn’t by offering them a research possibility. Their work helped her understand the southern churches in the antebellum period, for instance. Thus she has learned from her students as well as teaching them directly. For me, Ellen’s mind is not only knowledge but wisdom. She has the capacity to see through to the heart of issues. She exercises this wisdom with everyone in every situ-

W. Douglas “Sam” Sampson married Ellen Babinsky in 1976. He is a graduate of Iowa State University, McCormick Theological Seminary, and Mankato State University. He was ordained in 1960 and served as a campus pastor at Mankato State. He was an interim ministry specialist for thirty years, serving in Twin Cities Area Presbytery, Chicago, and Texas. 35

Honoring Professor Ellen L. Babinsky ation. She exhibits wonderful caring and wisdom with the six daughters of our merged family. I believe she does the same with faculty colleagues and students. Not least of all, she shares it with me. (One couple told her they had decided to inflict marriage on one another, and wanted her to officiate. Ellen suggested with that understanding, a good deal of pre-marriage counseling had already been done.) Ellen’s clarity in seeing what issues are at stake and her penetrating questions are always useful and helpful, though not always comfortable. Ellen is the least devious person I know. I think she personifies “speaking the truth in love.” Her wisdom represents caring not only about issues but also about the people involved. Part of what she does so well is to enlist the efforts of others in solving whatever problem exists. She is excellent in helping people do the right thing. She has an amazing knack for moving people from debating whether something is solvable to figuring out how it can be solved. When Ellen is clear on goals, she moves with courage and perseverance. The prudent course is seldom her preferred course. Telling Ellen some action, or lack of action, would be the prudent choice is sure to get her ire up. It was not easy for her as a divorced woman to become the first woman candidate for the ministry in her church and presbytery. It was not easy to go to McCormick Seminary as a single mother with two small children. It was not easy to take on a husband and four more daughters, with no clear idea where employment and this family merger would take place. It was not easy to be the first woman pastor called to Westminster Church, and to be the first in the vanguard of women clergy in Twin Cities Area Presbytery. Seven years later Ellen began her doctoral work at the University of Chicago with faith that this would work out economically for us and our children. Ellen’s clear sense of obedience to her call to ministry and teaching prevailed over advice from others to be “prudent.” Her assurance that somehow things would work out helped my own anxiety. She is a strong-minded woman. Since both of us have engaged in ministry over the decades, I have had excellent understanding and support from Ellen, and I am sure she would say the same from me. We have had enough awareness of each other’s ministry to offer useful support, and enough distance from each other’s work to be an objective voice in most cases. God has had the wisdom not to call us to be co-pastors, or engage in some joint professional work. Ellen’s mind is one full of humor, but with strange quirks. She manages to brighten the day of waiters, people standing in line, as well as friends and colleagues. When she was recently in pre-op for knee surgery, the person in the next curtained area was told he would be given something to drink after waking up. He said, “I want scotch or beer.” Ellen immediately said, “Me too!” That lightened the situation for all of us. She can’t help herself from enjoying ridiculous jokes, even ones David Letterman has told three nights in a row. She laughs each time. On the other hand she takes some jokes apart and finds that after the autopsy, they are dead. I once offered a particularly witty comment and she said, “Did you just tell me a joke?” I responded, “Apparently not.” We have a lot of common ground on theology, politics, social issues, the entertainment we enjoy, family, and money. In these and other matters we are on the same page, mostly. In some cases we are not on the same paragraph, which makes for interesting conversation. Ellen is always a challenging person, and what could be better than to share those challenges with the person whose mind I most respect? i 36


Theodore J. Wardlaw, President Board of Trustees Cassandra C. Carr, Chair Karen C. Anderson Thomas L. Are Jr. Susan Beaird F. M. Bellingrath III Elizabeth Christian Joseph J. Clifford James G. Cooper Marvin L. Cooper James B. Crawley Consuelo Donahue (MDiv’96) Elizabeth Blanton Flowers G. Archer Frierson Richard D. Gillham Walter Harris Jr. Bruce G. Herlin Roy M. Kim J Carter King III (MDiv’70)

James H. Lee (MDiv’00) Michael L. Lindvall Catherine O. Lowry Blair R. Monie Lyndon L. Olson Jr. B. W. Payne David Peeples Jeffrey Kyle Richard Cynthia L. Rigby Teresa Chávez Sauceda (MDiv’88) Anne Vickery Stevenson Karl Brian Travis John L. Van Osdall Sallie Sampsell Watson (MDiv’87) Carlton Wilde Jr. Elizabeth Currie Williams

Trustees Emeriti Stephen A. Matthews, Max Sherman, Louis H. Zbinden Jr.

Spring 2011

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Insights: The Faculty Jounal of Austin Seminary, Sp 2011  

An issue honoring the teaching of Ellen Babinsky, Professor Emeritus of Church History at Austin Seminary