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Library Learnings: Meet the author, appreciate more the book—#2: Joan Chittister…Krista Tippett…Elizabeth MacLaren

Note: This is the second in a series of writings intended to acquaint you with authors…really interesting authors…of books to be found in the SSUC Library, and to pique your interest in reading their works.

Three writers, each a woman, but each very different from the other two. Three books—one written by each of these women—each addressing the same phenomenon, but each from a different and distinct angle: doubtfaithbelief. Each author, and each work, is well worth knowing. You’ll see.



Joan Chittister
“If there is one thing that we have all been taught to fear, it is surely questions.” This is Joan Chittister’s opening sentence in the prologue to her 2004 book, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir. She, in the midst of her life as a Benedictine sister, came to realize that “I would have to dare to ask the questions no one had ever wanted me to ask.” Why? “…because I myself have been caught in the desert of doubt….”

Variously portrayed as “the dissident nun” and “the maverick nun,” eNotes.com says of her, “A controversial figure, she is held in great esteem by those on the left, and is sometimes vilified by those on the right.” It’s because, as Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote for Religion News Service—this was five years ago, when Chittister was 79—she is one “who dares speak her mind to her church.” She is “a strong advocate for women’s ordination, and has spoken out on other issues of social justice, such as rights for homosexuals and environmental concerns.”

She didn’t always. Even as a youngster, Chittister, an only child, knew that “life was not really the way the church said it was,” she allows in her Called to Question. “But she pushed her questions away,” Episcopal deacon Eileen Farmer reported for explorefaith.org, “and began to haunt [and here she quotes Chittister] ‘churches the way other children [haunt] back alleys and open hillsides.’”  

She was the “terrified child of an abused woman, trapped by her husband, her church, and her society,” according to Grossman, and was shaped by these forces; her mother was a “valiant, devoutly Catholic” woman, while her Presbyterian stepfather was an abusive alcoholic. As she told her biographer [Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith], veteran Catholic writer Tom Roberts, her childhood was one of poverty, insecurity, and “ceaseless fear”. 

“Given her religious bent,” Farmer reckons, “it was not a surprise when Joan entered the convent at 16”—this was the Mt. St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. But “within months of moving from the upheaval of her parents’ home,” Grossman reports, she “was struck with polio. The same relentless determination and fierce focus that helped her survive her family,” she adds, “strengthened her through years of therapy until she could walk again.”

And all the while, she “willingly accepted Church teachings,” according to eNotes.com. Including the Rule of St. Benedict: it begins with a command to listen. And it was her own doubts to which she gave ear. She “began to take responsibility for her own spirituality.” “She describes the ensuing journey,” Farmer tells, “as one ‘from the certainties of dogma to that long, slow, personal journey into God.’ …She adopted what she called a ’spirituality of search’.” As she once declared—this in an interview recalling a confrontation with church authority—“You cannot order Catholics not to think.”  

This helped her on her way: she “began to keep a journal…in which she recorded her questions, and what others from a variety of faith traditions had to say about each topic. Then she would record her responses. Excerpts from that journal are included in Called to Question, which expands on her original ideas.” 

“This spiritual memoir is not only the story of how Joan Chittister discovered that she was ‘called to question,’ but a prompting for all of us to discover that vocation within ourselves, as well,” U.S. Catholic affirms. In the book’s acknowledgments, she herself calls her work “an excursion into the questions and soul-searching of one person, but it is not, if it is true, only one person’s story. It is every person’s story. Yours, as well as mine.”  



Krista Tippett
“…faith is as much about questioning as it is about certainties.” Host of a long-running American public radio program, On Being, in which she converses with notables of all stripes, Krista Tippett adds—this in her 2007 book, Speaking of Faith—“It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to nurture a vital identity and to wonder at the identities of others.”  

In a reveal about her (“Krista Tippett: The Wisdom Seeker”), blogger Megan Smith, who calls her both “wickedly smart and keenly observant,” describes her faith journey as “vast and deep and complex.” Indeed.

Born in Oklahoma and raised as a Southern Baptist, Tippett is the daughter of irreligious parents, but the granddaughter of a fundamentalist Baptist minister to whom she was close—she sang solos in church. “…I learned…to survive, growing up in my family,” she recalls in her book, “but I did not learn enough about love.” So, “I keep pursuing faith, if for no other reason than because it is the place in our common life that keeps reminding us of the necessity of love….”  

Upon winning admission to Brown University, she removed herself to New England, and, as The New York Times tells it, “recast herself as an unbeliever.” She spent much of her 20s working in Europe, where she went initially as a Fulbright scholar, as a reporter and diplomatic assistant, only to return to America in her 30s to earn a master’s degree in religious studies at Yale Divinity School, and to become a practicing Episcopalian. 

But it’s what came next that set her on her right-as-rain path as a radio broadcaster. While conducting a global oral history project for the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Tippett developed the idea for her radio show and the approach to interviewing for which she has become famous (she calls her job “a ministry of listening”). “…she saw a black hole”—this is how it’s described on her website—”where intelligent public conversation about the religious, spiritual, and moral aspects of human life might be.” 

In the late 1990s, the vice-president for news at Minnesota Public Radio gave Tippett $500 to produce a pilot. Distributed to about 30 stations throughout the state, it “received vigorous, positive response,” The Times reports. “One listener rounded up donations from 40 friends to keep the show going.” This seat-of-the-pants lift-off led, in 2003, to the launch of Speaking of Faith as a weekly hour-long national public radio program. In the while since, she’s established her own production company, and changed the show’s name: it’s now On Being, and interviews focus “less on religion news and theological topics, and more on spiritual discussion,” as the National Endowment for the Humanities tells it. 

Tippett’s guests have included such figures as the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hanh, Karen Armstrong, Yo-Yo Ma, and Desmond Tutu, and she scatters their notions throughout her book. “I enter into their world, and meet them with questions,” she explains in Speaking of Faith. “Something magical happens in a real conversation, where people bring the nearest words they can muster, the most natural, to matter and meaning.”

Heard on over 330 stations nation-wide, her program “qualifies as a phenomenon,” The Times warrants. For current.org, Tippett explained the show’s success: “There is something about its content that has impacted people’s lives.” In a guest sermon she once delivered in Yale’s Battell Chapel, she affirmed, speaking of the thrust of her show, “This is a part of life where we give ourselves over to essential, exacting, majestic questions that no other discipline quite presses in quite the same way: What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to love?” 

Just so, she, in her book—which Publishers Weekly describes as “part intellectual autobiography, part rumination on the issues of the day”—explains, “I have given myself over to questions—large, hard, loving, full-blooded questions.” For the National Association of Episcopal Schools, writer Ann Mellow declares, “Speaking of Faith eloquently interweaves the story of Tippett’s own spiritual journey with lessons she has learned about ’speaking of faith’.”   



Elizabeth MacLaren
“The only reason for belief—from the believer’s perspective—is its content: the exuberant goodness of the reality the believer believes in.” Considered to be, as The Herald has it, “one of the foremost Scottish theologians of her time,” the late Elizabeth MacLaren, in an early work, The Nature of Belief, went on to explain, “Having my life affected is what it means to believe that God is real….” 

Don’t misunderstand this as an avowal: MacLaren was no zealot. Pictured by a friend as a “lay theologian, unordained, neither hierarch nor a professor of divinity,” she, after spending the first hundred pages of her 115-pages-long 1976 book showing absolute impartiality—is she, or isn’t she, herself a true believer?—writes this on the opening page of her concluding chapter, “The Possibility of Belief”: “The indulgence of a personal statement is not, in this case, likely to embarrass the reader, since it invites him to overhear, not a blushing credo, but a running battle.” 

Peppered with quotations from poets and novelists, The Nature of Belief is the first title in a series of books published by Great Britain’s Sheldon Press, and if John Macquarrie has it right, “The series could not have had a better launching than is provided for it by Elizabeth McLaren’s splendid book. …for some people, presumably including the author, the struggle for understanding will go on, and surely this will be true for many readers of the book, also.” Writing in Theology, Macquarrie points out that, “The many problems of belief are all discussed with remarkable fairness. …the arguments for and against are skillfully set forth….” He concludes, “One can imagine this book provoking endless discussion….” (Once archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has observed, “…there is in all that Elizabeth wrote an unusual honesty….”) 

Equally taken, the Scottish Journal of Theology in its review of the book reports, “Three of its 10 short chapters are in a dialogue form that might have delighted Plato or Hume…. …Evidence for and against religious belief is examined by the courtroom method of cross-questioning the scientist, historian, philosopher, and theologian, by counsels for the prosecution and for the defence, in turn. Counsels then present their summing-up, and the reader is invited to act as the jury.” 

At the age of 69, MacLaren died of liver cancer. “At her funeral in Dunkeld Cathedral in April, 2015, it was as if all Scotland mourned,” Reformation historian Peter Matheson writes, this in an appreciation included in a compilation of her writings, In Your Loving is Your Knowing, published last year. “Often impatient” with her own Church of Scotland, “She was never captured by the establishment; rather, she captivated it,” he states. He tells how she “engaged like Don Quixote in the knight-errantry of the heart. Her being and thought was consistently lived on the edge.”

She, with a conventional orthodox religious upbringing, studied at Glasgow University, where the eminent philosopher Keith Ward described her as the brightest student he ever taught. As The Scotsman reported, “In her student days in Glasgow, she wanted faith to be true, but could not convince herself.” MacLaren went on to study theology at New College in Edinburgh, where, upon graduating, she became the first woman to hold a full-time lecturer post. “She shone as a teacher,” Matheson attests. 

In 1980, she gave up the academic life in order to raise a family—she’d married colleague Douglas Templeton, a New Testament lecturer at New College. Later, “Elizabeth, instead of returning to university teaching, began trying to make theology accessible outside academia,” The Herald points out. In Edinburgh, she founded Threshold, a drop-in centre for theological discussion. “On the face of it, this was a totally unrealistic undertaking,” Matheson admits, “but it was carefully planned, and it really took off.” As MacLaren remarked to a friend, “It’s interesting to work on the margins and at the boundaries, because you’re not so constrained by the agenda at the centre—and you meet a greater variety of people.”  

For her and her husband, life soured when, in 2006, their son, Alan, 25, disappeared. It was not until six years later that his remains were found in the cliffs on Arthur’s Seat, the rocky summit that towers over Edinburgh. During, and even after, this “dreadful time of searching and waiting,” as Matheson remembers it, MacLaren was tireless in supporting the work of the Missing People charity. 

“…but much of the old vibrancy was gone. …Living, simply living, had become an often overwhelming task. Something was lost that could never be found. …in the grief and terror of Alan’s loss,” he tells, with heart, “she and Douglas would sit by a lighted candle in the window of their house…and read together the Psalms.” MacLaren herself once put it this way: “Heresy though it is, I want to affirm that dying of a broken heart is an appropriate response to the death of someone loved.”


Ken Fredrick