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 Caitlin Smith Gilson, philosopher and author of many books, including As It Is in Heaven: Some Christian Questions on the Nature of Paradise (Cascade, 2022) and Subordinated Ethics: Natural Law and Moral Miscellany in Aquinas and Dostoyevsky (Cascade, 2020).
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I have written seven books, including a book of poetry. At the time of writing, each book is intensively bound up in me, sometimes it’s a recalcitrant lover or a dear friend, always a wrestling partner. I am partial to Subordinated Ethics: Natural Law and Moral Miscellany in Aquinas and Dostoyevsky as it helped me to address my concerns over essential ethical meaning and the problems of a prescriptive based understanding, which removes and alienates at first the erotic and then the agapeic dimensions at root in ethical engagement.
How do you organize your thoughts for a book project?
Thankfully the muses—some nagging idea—starts to take hold and demand pause and attention. I began to meditate on death and the afterlife, almost guiltily, but utterly chastened by it, after my niece died in a tragic accident and my father had come to live with us while he was dying a protracted, agonizing death. Much of these reflections are in my book As It Is in Heaven: Some Christian Questions on the Nature of Paradise.
The idea or thought, sometimes one or two sentences, begins to populate daily conversation, and I organize my thoughts first by talking about it with my husband, then in whatever haphazard way, I write the idea down in note form. It begins to expand into a thesis statement, then there are tentative organizational chapters, many of which do get combined or excised. These are consistent steps in the process.
What habits do you most try to cultivate in your prose?
The inclusion of literature is a habit I find central to my writing. Literature has always been an anchor or thematic guide, particularly a novel as an organizational thread communicating reality in living form, and poetry for those ends in philosophy and theology which find themselves sublated by their own compact mysticism and the regions of the unsaid.
When I write, it is an intensive and unbroken process, at least where I try not to stop for the day until I have accomplished getting a crucial or elusive idea on paper.
What have you found helpful in trying to explain your research to friends and family who are not as familiar with philosophy and theology?
There is always a lacuna or Rubicon when dealing with the hidden exigencies of metaphysics and Christianity. Perhaps though, it is our failure, that our subjects have so removed themselves from the agon of the agora, the marketplace, and found themselves obscured and diminished into irrelevancy by our jargon, by the disconnect of the professional academic as bloodless or armchair revolutionary.
The other day, I spoke with a colleague who can accept God as idea or mystery, but the real, weighted, flesh-and-blood figure of Christ is a perversion for him, full of awful idiosyncrasies and violence, as perpetuated in the sacrifice on Golgotha and in the Mass. The historical and political failures of the Church have for him (and astonishingly so) a disarticulated lineage to Christ’s Last Supper— “eat this flesh and drink this blood.” The faith is a grandiose and violent demand, an enemy to love, and wholly at odds with God.
To explain how it is the Real Presence, that it is no mere idea, that the terrible absurdity and bewildering, stammering nonsense of it, is its beauty—crushing, heartbreaking beauty—one will always be unprepared. That death is life and life is death, what words do we have to convey this reality which demands universal bended knee and yet is radical freedom? That which appears parasitical is in passion itself, from sex to vows, from birth to death, and has its root in the highest form of self-abandonment and love; love that precedes and refuses complete vestiture in the conceptual but demands our carnality. To say such things causes friends and would be opponents a certain relief to be in a practical and useful field such as Business, rather than doddering around in the idiocy of Being!
We have our Anselm, Lewis, and Chesterton, even our Nietzsche to help us navigate the minefield of paradoxes and potential contradictions which loom, threaten, and demand much more from us than our intellects. But neither did these figures come out completely understood or unscathed . . .
Do you see your work as confessional or academic or both? How have you worked out for yourself deciding who you would like to write for?
This question is about the degree of veil the author has during the writing process. My more academic books are still veiled confessionals, for they are preoccupations with my death, possible salvation, eternal happiness, and how these realities stand in relation to others whom I love.
Looking through my books, the academic and confessional styles have a certain dialogic tension, where one pole takes prominence and the other recedes. But neither is fully absent, nor do they exist isolated from the other.
One of my current projects is a re-articulation of the As It Is in Heaven book for a more general and lay audience. Whether I am to succeed in translating my work into greater accessibility, my hope is to reach a wider audience, particularly with this type of book and its message.
What perspectives do you challenge in your work?
If something is true it is always new, and always capable of astonishing the heart and mind. It is fads that are old and uncreative. The relentless search for creativity is part of the glory and folly of the human condition and can lead the writer down into intellectual dishonesty and ideological terror. As writers, one must navigate that line carefully, with a difficult humility that comes from honest critics and friends.
I challenge the impoverishing fad that we are beyond metaphysics, as if one could be beyond Being or think about oneself in and through the world without the natural theology of wonder, wisdom, and surrender. I challenge the idea that Aquinas has no more to give us. I challenge the idea that the Church must be reduced out of its mysticism and into a political appetite.
What motivates you to write, and what do you hope your writing accomplishes?
There is a joy and a spiritual ravishment to writing. The wonder of the Greeks is so much in common parlance that it may lose what its meaning intends to capture. But it is that secretive and universal wonder which motivates me on the most basic level. Writing is a dialogue with the divine both as Person and as Abyss and through each we accomplish a delineation of ourselves in time and memory, a building up and a tearing down. Through word, we connect with the long dead and even those not yet born, as Dickens or Dostoevsky become old friends for us now and for those in future.
How much or little do you prefer to show of yourself (to self-disclose, or to write yourself) in your scholarship? And why do you prefer to either show or veil yourself within your work in this way?
The experience of one’s own personhood is a mysterious and trembling sort of affair. When my father was dying, as in one of Kierkegaard’s parables, his hands were his mirrors and he looked at them front and back, half-mouthing and said: “I am dying.”
There is something that never comes together in personhood except perhaps in death. In my estimate, every self-disclosure is also a veiling, aspects are heightened, other faces we carry are sheltered. When we say we are “disclosing” often in a downgraded therapeutic sense, we are perniciously veiling, or playing games with language.
Christ in the Incarnation teaches us this twofold reality of veiling and disclosure in its authentic sense. He had to veil Himself, make Himself hidden, small, the infant nourished on the breast, for us to be saved. His ultimate disclosure on the Cross began in veiling. I think any intellectually and spiritually honest writing has this sort of struggle with the facets of the human face protracted almost within an immemorial region of Being, and all our lives we seek to collect the facets and the pieces.
I am not sure how much I disclose or veil. I try to write truly, and the words take me up and throw me down often for the count.
Who are your intellectual heroes? Do you have an intellectual “master,” so to speak?
Francois Mauriac’s late-in-life reflections in The Inner Presence as well as Jacques Debout’s My Sins of Omission, have been longtime companions. I can well-remember reading the latter between classes when I taught at the Josephinum seminary. I would stop into the chapel, say a quick prayer, and read. These books can be picked up and put down and one never loses his or her place. Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Huysmans, Unamuno, Edith Stein. Ask me on another day and I would have other names. Charles Peguy, TS Eliot, and at times Auden and Waugh. Still, I always find myself back to Aquinas.
Who is your favorite (still active) scholar to read, and why?
Cyril O’Regan’s work is a flourishing of nuance, wisdom, and painstaking attentive scholarship; the type of scholarship which produces timeless brilliance and takes the muses by the hand. His depth of historical tracing, the sober foundation in research which grounds all intellectual ascents and dizzying heights of wonder, has been a great influence on me. One does not have insight without much labor and intensive, committed love. I am eagerly awaiting his volume on the relationship between Heidegger and von Balthasar.
Have you ever had moments in your education or career in which you considered leaving the academy and doing something different? How did you get through those moments? What made you want to stay in the academy and continue researching and writing?
At present, my university is going through vast and rapid ideological struggles, suppressing intellectual diversity, Catholic identity, academic freedom, and common sense. The fallout of such a heartrending situation is the dismissal of 14 professors all from the College of Arts and Sciences. At a Catholic university, every fulltime member of the Theology Department has been let go. As the only fulltime Philosophy professor, I have also been let go.
Getting through these moments is difficult. Teaching is a constant presence in my life, a source of deep reward and joy. The classroom conversation has always been the fertile ground where many intellectual ideas begin to germinate, where the humility and awe at shaping young hearts and minds centrally forms your person and writing. These are integral gifts I do not want to be without.
I plan to stay in academia, but at present I find myself somewhere between the Old Man and Old Woman in Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs and Marcel’s Homo Viator. In essence, I am navigating the fraught existential tide of spirit and practicality, mystique and politique.
When you’re not researching or writing, what do you like to do with your time?
We live near the bay and it’s temperate enough to swim year-round. Right near the beach is my Church which has Perpetual Adoration. The combination of Adoration and a dip in the water is immensely joyful and peaceful. I enjoy going to coffee and dinners with my husband and college age twin daughters. Having this routine of lovely things is heartrendingly pure and kind, and the very substance for nostalgia in old age. We also love to travel and are particularly fond of Italy!
What book (or books) are you currently reading?
The semester is finally over, and I tend to turn to old chestnuts—Peguy’s The Mystery of the Holy Innocents and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I am traveling to Italy in a few days and have Manzoni’s The Betrothed in my carryon for the plane. I am also re-reading several works of Plato for my graduate course in Rome in the Fall. All favorites!
What project are you working on next?
I am working on a book for the Cambridge Elements series Monotheism and Paradise. This work will provide a tracing of selected Greek views of the afterlife which engage in dynamic tension with the Christian understanding of Paradise as fulfilled in the Resurrected state. One thread is the imposition of justice and the expiation of guilt through suffering as necessary prerequisites to the Christian understanding of the afterlife.
I am also working on a second volume of poetry and a lay version of the key elements of As It Is In Heaven designed for a wider readership. I plan to call it All This and Heaven Too: A Layman’s Guide.
I have a preliminary draft of a work on Aquinas and Postmodernism where I examine the instrumentalization of Being, the power of ideology in place of thought to move the Will. I will also look at the breakdown of personhood into heterogeneous instances of egoity.
Caitlin Smith Gilson earned a PhD in philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome, Italy) and has authored many books, including As It Is in Heaven: Some Christian Questions on the Nature of Paradise (Cascade, 2022), Tregenna Hill: Altars and Allegories (Resource, 2021), and Subordinated Ethics: Natural Law and Moral Miscellany in Aquinas and Dostoyevsky (Cascade, 2020).