Wednesday, August 8, 2012

table talk: listening in on ancient conversations

Clement of Alexandria
I've spent most of today with Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, though I did run into Tertullian unexpectedly in the library stacks. Yesterday it was Augustine, Origen, Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, and — my new buddy — Clement of Alexandria. I got lost in the stacks more than once trying to find all of them, and some are still hiding even today. Monday I listened in on medieval Jewish rabbis as they argued about the proper interpretation of what I'm calling the "name command" (Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11). I feel like an aural archaeologist, listening in on ancient sermons, reading ancient correspondence, digging through pages of books long-forgotten to find treasure.

Part of writing a dissertation is learning to listen. Before I start speaking I need to hear what others have to say. And they've been saying things for a long time. Things I, and all of us, need to hear. None of them wrote in English, so I'm navigating other languages (Greek, Latin, French, German) and a variety of translations, thankful for those who have labored before me. None of them shared my cultural context, so I'm also trying to understand what was important to each of them—what made them say it that way, thankful for friends who have more experience than I do in this strange, old world. By listening I've learned new words like apophaticism (don't ask me to explain that one), found new places in the library (the 270s) and online (, and discovered that I could spend the rest of my life listening and never get anything written.

After another day of digging it will be time to take stock of what I've learned and make a big decision: who will I invite to be part of my first chapter? Who best articulates the various ways God's people (Jewish and Christian) have understood the name command across the ages? There won't be room at the table for everyone, so I'll need to draw up an elite guest list and decide how to moderate this discussion. I'm sure all the church fathers are on pins and needles waiting to find out if they made the cut. Meanwhile, the library workers will all give a deep sigh of relief that Carmen is done digging, for now.


  1. Fun to get your update. Here's my conversation for this morning:

    Reading about Latin syntax: C says, "B. says x." C then inserts a quote from B (who writes in French) where B says y. C then goes on to argue against x. So . . . have I misunderstood B since I don't know how the paragraph quoted fits into the context of his work, or did C misunderstand B? And if the latter, how do I, who have just entered the conversation and am still unaware of all that has been said previously, handle that?

    ....And this is why we go back and read and read and read the pieces of the conversation that have gone before!

  2. Yes, indeed! I wonder if we'll ever feel competent to navigate these ancient conversations.

    As for my first chapter, I'm delighted to extend an invitation to the Shepherd of Hermas. I've been listening to him all morning, and it's all I can do to stay quiet in my study carrel. He is spot on! (In my opinion, that is. And it won't be at all difficult to find dissenting voices to make the conversation interesting. . . )

    Happy studying!