The Theologist / Celia E. Deane-Drummond / Writing between Science and Theology

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 Celia Deane-Drummond. Dr. Deane-Drummond’s recent book publications include The Wisdom of the Liminal: Human Nature, Evolution and Other Animals (2014), Ecology in Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology, 2nd edition (Wipf & Stock, 2016), A Primer in Ecotheology: Theology for a Fragile Earth (Cascade, 2017), The Evolution of Wisdom Volume I: Theological Ethics Through a Multispecies Lens (2019), and Shadow Sophia: The Evolution of Wisdom Volume II (2021).

Because your writing is so interdisciplinary, how have you navigated the boundaries and porosities between the disciplines you work with in your writing and publishing, and in your academic life more broadly?

I prefer the term transdisciplinary. By that I mean that each discipline not only recognizes and understands another discipline but also begins to shift as a result of the exchange and dialogue. For me it is often about the people you meet (sometimes by chance) and engage with, and finding areas of common ground where methods and presuppositions are completely different. This may be a deliberate reaching out or more contingent—who happens to be in the same university who might want to start working across disciplines as a way of enlarging their understanding? It has helped, I think, that I have a background in science—scientists are more likely to trust me as I know a little what it is like to be a scientist and publish in this field. My preference has been to work with natural scientists, though more recently social scientists and anthropologists. This is exciting, to me, and means that always and inevitably I am aware of my own ignorance and the need to find out more. If you just keep within one discipline that can happen too, but is less likely. So the boundaries and porosities come to light in that dialogue and help clarify my own position in relation to those I am working with.

How do you navigate the maze of ideas when you are setting down your thoughts for a book? Do you have a system for notes? Do you make outlines before writing?

I like brainstorming with myself and doing a kind of mind map of ideas before I start writing, and then work on a reasonably detailed outline of a few pages for a book, then a few pages for each chapter within it that I work on systematically. I immerse myself in each chapter in terms of reading before writing, and then I also work on an outline for that chapter in terms of a sketch before beginning. I often take handwritten notes for humanities work in particular, and then highlight in those notes the areas which are relevant for the chapter I am working on, perhaps using other areas in later chapters. Where science papers are involved, I also use abstracts and read original articles and have these collected in one place so I can access these easily while I am writing if I forget the fine details. I often do the polishing up in terms of referencing etc. later, after I have the core ideas written down, as this requires a different kind of mental activity.

What spiritual wisdom has helped you in the arena of writing and publishing throughout your career?

I think the spiritual wisdom that has helped me is to offer work in prayer before beginning, and be ready to change my mind if what I am reading does not concur with my original ideas. Writing in this sense is experimental rather than fixed. I often think that while I am writing ideas come to me that seem to be given rather than fully worked out by me, and I have learned to trust that intuition and work with it. It makes writing an enjoyable rather than a burdensome task as that way it starts to flow out from a mental space that I can’t even identify readily myself.

What compels you to write, and to write for publication?

I am not sure what compels me except the inherent pleasure of doing it and the desire to tackle a problem in a new way, and so make a small contribution to knowledge. I am also happy with the thought that other people find what I write interesting and how it helps them to understand just a little bit more about themselves and about who God is in relation to the natural world. I hope, too, that it might also have some influence in how they might act. There are pressing social and ecological problems which drive me to want to influence others in a way that will make the world a better place. The harder part, for me, is the polishing up and making sure all the referencing is done precisely—but I have had wonderful copy editors to help over the years, which has taken the pressure off in this respect.

When it comes to writing and publishing, what was the hardest lesson for you to learn as a young academic? And what helped you to eventually learn that lesson?

As a young academic I had to be prepared to have my work reviewed by others and in some cases rejected for publication. I had to learn that even if I thought something was coherent and worked out, it might not be received like that by others. I also realized that not everyone will understand you, and it is possible to push back where the criticism is unfair. I think determination to keep writing and keep trying helped me through that phase to one where now I often get invited to publish rather than having to seek out a publisher.

What advice about writing and publishing would you give to current PhD students/candidates?

My advice is to be realistic about a doctoral thesis—it is rarely the best work that you will ever do, so it is important to move on quickly after this. The doctorate gives tools in academic thinking, but it does not always permit the free creativity that is possible when the restraints of what is expected by the university faculties are released. Some work will also take years to develop, so it is important to decide early on what might be the priority in writing and publishing and why.

What does your editing process look like? Do you come back and edit your writing before submission? And if so, what does that look like for you?

I do let things sit for a while before looking over them again, then, after a few goes at this, I send it to a copy editor who also knows the area well enough to see if I have made any obvious mistakes. To be honest, I am not very good at editing, I find it tedious. But I have learned the discipline of trying to do this as carefully as possible and collaborating with others to get a text polished up.

What has it been like for you promoting your own scholarship, particularly your books?  

I am not much of a self-publicist and find that part hard. I would rather people had an inherent interest in what I do, rather than me trying to promote it. I have had a few book launches where other scholars have commented on my work in a dialogical process. I think that is the best way to promote my work, see it as a conversation with others. The most insulting thing for an academic is to be ignored, rather than disagreed with. I have colleagues who have done book tours with their work internationally. I have never done that, and I guess that means sometimes my work does not get as high a visibility as it could. However, while I would like to influence others, getting renown has never been top of my list in terms of intentions—it has happened more by accident.

Have there been any demystifying moments throughout your career in your understanding of book publishers? What were those demystifying moments?

I am not sure if I am permitted here to mention publishers, but the publisher who first published my doctoral thesis was not one I would now recommend to others. The sale price was exorbitant, I had to get the book ready for publication, I had no royalties to speak of, and the warehouse which stored my book burned down, so many books were lost.  I was ignorant about differences in publishing houses, and how they can charge far more for the book than is reasonable given any royalties received.

What is one book you wish every scholar of religion would read, and why that book in particular?

This is a very hard question as different scholars of religion will be looking for different things. However, I think Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue must be something worth every scholar knowing about. It makes you think more about the cultural and social influence of science and its practices.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

Where the Crowdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Agrarian Spirit, by Norman Wirzba

The Lamb of God, by Sergii Bulgakov

What project are you working on next?

I am completing the third volume of a three-volume series on The Evolution of Wisdom. This will be on Morality’s Evolution and the Transcendent. I have been working on this since 2019, as I have not had a dedicated period of leave to finish it. After that I hope to write a book on pneumatology and ecology, provisionally entitled The Spirit of Wisdom. Wisdom has been a fascination for me throughout my theological career, and that does not show signs of diminishing yet.

Celia Deane-Drummond is currently Director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute and Senior Research Fellow in theology at Campion Hall, University of Oxford, and Associate member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion. Her work at the interface of theology, ethics, and the biological and human sciences—including particularly ecology, genetics, and anthropology—stems from her prior academic experience as a researcher in plant physiology as well as theology.


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