The Theologist is your guide to all things writing and publishing in the fields of theology and biblical studies, from finding inspiration for your work to reading the best literature on writing, from overcoming writing obstacles to finding writing mentors, and more. In this newest installation of The Theologist, we interview Esther Lightcap Meek, professor emeritus at Geneva College and author of many books, including Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade, 2011), A Little Manual for Knowing (Cascade, 2014), Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters (Cascade, 2017), and the forthcoming Doorway to Artistry: Attuning Your Philosophy to Enhance Your Creativity (Cascade, 2023).
During graduate school and early in your career, how did you go about landing on particular topics to write about? Has this process of choosing topics changed throughout your career?
Graduate school was engulfed by motherhood, and motherhood by a career in middle age! So I only recall that I have chosen topics which lay close to the heart of what I have been personally, earnestly seeking: understanding of how we know and how we make contact with the real. From age thirteen, I have felt it obvious that these were the most important questions, and I was obligated to work out a response to them.
What is your most favorite part of the book writing process, and why?
Writing is my process of philosophical discovery. Coming to fresh insights is my favorite part. Also, if it can be said to be part of the process, I delight in working through my own books in conversation with others.
How do you deal with frustration in your research and writing, or with experiences of confusion, feeling stuck, etc.?
I’ve learned to resolve to trust the process even if (especially if) I am stuck. It is, after all, an act of coming to know, of discovery—which is my continual philosophical theme. I commend my books as a lengthy response to this question! There is a particular passage about the dark before the dawn of insight, in my Little Manual for Knowing (p 58).
Also, as part of the process, I recommend letting up, and a night of sleep.
Have you experienced researching and writing to be transformative experiences? If so, how have you been transformed through your own writing projects?
Yes definitely. I mean my books to be transformative for the reader; they certainly are for me. My version of research is deep indwelling reading, listening, of, to, another’s work. To understand someone, I have to get to the place where I can express that person’s thought in my own words. And then I can begin to work creatively with and from it. This approach accords with my epistemology.
Also, I continually strive to render my understanding in ordinary language for an audience of everyone. That means I have to think about what matters to others. This too can be transformative.
Why do you write? What compels you?
I write because it is my process of philosophical discovery, to which I feel obligated. I write because it is my opportunity to “bless the nations.” I find that my thinking and writing seems of a piece with my love of God.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever been given about research and writing?
It hasn’t been so much the advice as it has been the encouragement. I recall the first tiny news article I drafted in my post as Director of Publications at Covenant Seminary—an inside hiring job, I felt sure! I felt I knew nothing about writing. I timidly handed the piece across the desk to my supervisor and waited as he read. “Oh my Lord!” he exclaimed! (“Oh no!” I thought!) “What?” I asked. “I can’t believe how good this is!” In that moment I was birthed as a writer!
A few months later, after I had produced a magazine synopsis of some lectures by Dr. David Wells, first, he asked playfully if he could hire me! Then he asked, “When are you going to write your book?” I about fell off my chair. I didn’t think I could possibly do this. In God’s kindness, exactly a decade later, Dr. Wells endorsed that first book.
Over my years at Geneva College, the confident regard of my philosophy colleague and dear friend, Dr. Robert Frazier, has grown me personally and professionally. He has been my ever affirming first reader. I have felt that if Bob approves, I’m good! All along he has creatively guided my work, pointing out next projects. I suspect that I wouldn’t have worked so hard and produced so much otherwise!
And I deeply cherish joyous reports and notes of encouragement I receive from readers.
What writing skills have you most grown in throughout your writing career? Are there any skills you still lack confidence in, or that you would like to further improve?
I have learned to enjoy and place confidence in creative editing of my own writing. I can recall early on being “fragile” about my work—as if it couldn’t be touched without destroying it. I came to realize that I could write it just about any way an editor wants it! I learned to listen to the response of another and allow it to evoke my own better grasp of the thing.
It feels really good to tighten my work in editing. I tend to put too many words into sentences. It’s good to go back and see how many I can cut out.
Apart from a great first-year English teacher, I have had no formal training in writing. (He had us write 100-word essays, and if we used “is,” “are,” or “have” more than once, he failed us!) But I have taught first-year Logic for forty-five years. As a student I felt that it was not the English courses, but the Logic courses, which taught me to write. A thesis ought to be the conclusion of an argument, for which your essay supplies an “aerobically lean” argument. But also, part of my epistemology is that authoritative guides speak in maxims. A ballet teacher has to utter sentences which make the dancer’s body feel what to do. So I incorporate: good writing needs both arguments and maxims.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
When I was actively teaching, I could only write in the summers. Now that I have moved to emeritus status, it’s like endless summer! It’s second nature to me now to rise to coffee, Scripture and prayer, and then sit down to my work. Then, as a body surfer might, each day I ride the wave of thought and momentum as far as it goes. When I have a good rhythm going, I write for, say twenty minutes; then when I see my way to the next step in my thought, I let up to tackle a household task. I return to take that next step.
What have you found helpful in trying to explain your work to family members and friends who might not have much knowledge of philosophy?
Ahh, this is my perennial question! As I said, I feel that this is an essential part of my assignment—else I am not completing my work. And this has shaped my approach significantly.
First comes deep humility: I am utterly dependent on a hearer wanting to listen. So I try to be winsome, but there are plenty who just aren’t interested. It means I’m profoundly grateful for students who “pay for the privilege,” and groups who invite me to speak.
Because of broad anti-philosophical misperceptions in our era, I always fight upstream to persuade people of their own philosophical birthright, that philosophy is for them. But then of course I must render philosophy for them, out of due regard.
But here is a beautiful thing about philosophizing: the beginnings are themselves profoundly philosophical and always interesting! And I believe in philosophy as concrete and felt and lived, in the near and the present.
Over the years I have found that what grabs my hearers and welcomes them in are two things. First, my unstoppable excitement, about them and about the matter at hand. Second, continued assurance from me, only possible in my Michael-Polanyi-based epistemology, that we may—must—accredit half understanding. This means that I ensure that novices may splash in the deep end of philosophy and joyously come away with riches. Part of my strategy here is to grade very generously! No niggling points off from me. I create tests which justifiably may be called, “test feasts.”
Which other writers do you find you model your own writing style after the most? What about their writing do you try to imitate?
I refer you to an earlier response I made, about the strategic value of Logic. So I would name Dr. Larry Mayhew as the Logic prof who most effortlessly modeled verbal reasoning. While I was completing my MA at Western Kentucky University, where I studied with him and worked for him, I came down with mono and lost my voice entirely for two weeks. Dr. Mayhew nevertheless often ate lunch with me, talking to me in a normal voice. I would whisper a question. He typically responded by saying, “Well, I have seven [or some other impossible number] things to say about that . . . First . . .” —! Probably if you look closely at my books, you’ll see that I do something like this.
I would also call attention to Dr. Calvin Seerveld. When I was in college, I chose to write my Senior Thesis on a Christian view of art. His little books fell into my hands and, far more than any other source, helped me in my project. My enthusiastic thesis advisor, an English prof, and I schemed to visit him in person: we organized a field trip to Stratford, Ontario, then took off in the van with a group of us and drove 100 miles to meet with him—which we did at nine pm of an evening. That’s when I witnessed scholarly humility: he had saved the morning’s doughnuts for us, and then he showed slides and talked with us for three hours, ‘til midnight!
In succeeding years as my philosophical and writerly style developed, I have found myself playfully inventing words and expressions. Just after I began on the faculty at Geneva College (I was beginning my career midlife), Dr. Seerveld came to speak. I invited him to dinner at my home, just to say thank you. At that moment I recognized that he is the master of exuberantly creative and catchy wordage; without realizing it, perhaps my own style had developed in aspiration to his.
What is the biggest mistake young writers in the theological academy make? What advice would you give them for overcoming this mistake?
The biggest mistake, I feel, is not in writing per se, but in latent philosophy. It is a travesty if theological study has been myopic with respect to its philosophical underpinnings and commitments. It is also a travesty if its unavoidably inherited, implicit philosophical baggage is modernist epistemology—which fails to accord either with our involvement with God or even with education. As for advice: offering just this epistemological therapy has been my mission in the books I write.
What project, or projects, are you working on next?
My most recent project is about to be birthed: Doorway to Artistry: Attuning Your Philosophy to Enhance Your Creativity (Cascade, 2023 forthcoming). My philosophical proposals about how we know, I argue, make sense of knowing in any area of life and work. So now I envision a series of books working that out in different arenas. Artistry has come first. Next might be business. But this book also further grows my own thought, as I foreground a philosophical account of the real (metaphysics) which accords deeply with how I have come to understand understanding. Human persons are not only philosophical at the core of their being, but we are all also artful. So I mean Doorway to Artistry for all of us.
What book(s) are you currently reading?
In my professional work, I am continually rereading Michael Polanyi, and D. C. Schindler. I consider my recent purchase of seventeen secondhand volumes of Hans Urs von Balthasar my “retirement package”: I’ll be at them for years to come. For my recent book on artistry, I have been indwelling artists’ and others’ accounts of artistry, such as Julia Cameron’s famous The Artist’s Way and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. In this new phase of my life, having set aside fulltime teaching to delight in writing, I have margins of time to read at leisure—wow! So I have reveled in rereading Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown, as well as completing reading all Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership stories. Recently I’ve been introduced to Andrew Peterson’s work, and I have borrowed my grandson’s autographed copies of the Wingfeather Saga to follow him to the Shining Isle. And I have especially enjoyed reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.
Thanks for inviting this interview! For people interested to know more of my work or get in touch, my website is www.estherlightcapmeek.com.
Esther Lightcap Meek is Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Geneva College, in Western Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Steubenville, Ohio. Meek’s books include Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade, 2011); A Little Manual for Knowing (Cascade, 2014); and Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters (Cascade, 2017). Her forthcoming book is Doorway to Artistry: Attuning Your Philosophy to Enhance Your Creativity (Cascade, 2023). An author and public speaker, Meek develops and offers everyday philosophizing that matters to all of us. She especially considers the philosophical questions of what it means to be human, what is real, and how we understand it.