Cynthia Nielsen (05/09)

Blogger of the Month for May 2009

John Hobbins Interviews Cynthia Nielsen

Cynthia Nielsen authors the Per Caritatem blog at

JH: Cynthia, thank you for allowing to interview you.

CN: Thank you, John, for the opportunity.

JH: Tell us about yourself. It looks like your first university degree was in Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida. How cool is that. New Testament scholar and theologian Albert Schweitzer played Bach on the piano. WWCP? On what instrument? What led you to broaden your academic interests to language, literature, philosophy, and theology?

CN: Yes, my undergraduate degree is in Jazz Studies, and my principal instrument is jazz guitar. Strangely enough, music was kind of my entrance into the academic world. I had made a number of “unwise” choices (which I won’t elaborate on here) during my high school years which resulted in my graduating with pretty low grades. Our family was on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, and no one in my immediate family had higher than a high school education. As a result, I was told early on that, should I decide to enter college/university, I would need to come up with the funding myself. (All of this, by the way is prior to my conversion to Christ, which happened during my last year of undergraduate studies). After making some crucial, and I would say, positive lifestyle changes during my junior year of high school, I became interested in music, particularly blues guitar (Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Eric Clapton etc.) I greatly admired and respected the courage and determination of African American musicians, most of which were treated with grave injustice while excelling their white musical counterparts in musical ability, and I found a kind of spiritual connection with the “soul” of the blues.

To try to make a long story short, after graduating high school and not knowing what to do with my life, I decided to enroll in a jazz improvisation class at a local community college and about three years later I earned a music scholarship at the University of North Florida. During those years, I lived, moved and had my being in jazz, practicing religiously about 6-8 hours per day. Leaving out a ton of interesting details, I’ll jump forward to my conversion, which occurred, as mentioned above, during my last year of my undergraduate studies. I had come to a point in my life where I had lost an important relationship and tried to deal with it by pouring myself into my music. Needless to say, this didn’t work and found myself asking for the first time in my life—What really is the purpose of life? Why am I here? What really lasts? What can one give oneself to completely that won’t end up being fleeting or self-destructive? Interestingly, during this time, I took my first introduction to philosophy class. In that class, one of the assignments was to choose a book from among several on a list provided by the professor, and write a short summary of the book. For whatever reason, I choose Augustine’s Confessions. (Having read the Confessions probably five or so times, I realize now that I really understood very little regarding the intricacies of Augustine’s book; however, I could relate in a very existential way to Augustine’s struggles and his longings for something genuine, something beyond the shadows which had characterized most of his existence up to that point). I suppose I understood precisely what I need to understand from the Confessions at that particular time in my life, as it (the Confessions) as well as, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, were “stepping stones” so to speak toward my own conversion. Many other factors also came together to bring about my embrace of Christ—the loss of important people in my life, music having lost its “savor” in comparison to the role it had played in my life previously, a strong sense of dissatisfaction with my life and relationships etc. —I add these because I don’t want to give the impression that it was a purely “intellectual” thing. After my conversion, I decided that for me personally, music as a way of life, was something that I needed to give up (I certainly do not think that this is a decision that should be universalized, as I know many vibrant jazz and other musicians that are influencing culture Christian-ly, and we certainly need that!). Since I had more or less grown up as a secular person, I decided to devote myself to the study of the Bible, which eventually led to some short-term missionary service in Moscow, Russia and then to formal study in seminary. Studying Russian was my first real attempt to learn a foreign language, and at the time, it was solely for the purpose of being a better missionary. It’s a nice kind of icing-on-cake feature, however, to be able to somewhat (and no doubt with dictionary in hand and much travail) plow through Dostoevsky in Russian.

JH: My guess, from reading your blog, is that you started out reformed Protestant and have become a reformed catholic, if that makes any sense. For the sake of those without any Latin, I will translate the motto of your blog: non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem (St. Augustine): no one has access to the truth except through love. I assume you started out with self-knowledge and knowledge of God shaped by the good news of being chosen in Christ per Eph 1:3-14 and of justification by faith simul iustus et peccator per Rom 5-8, whereas now your chief point of departure is, per 1 John 4:7-12, that caritas is the alpha and omega of true knowledge. How has “the perspective from which (desde)” you read biblical literature changed over the years?

Some people regard “strong readings” of the biblical text as a waste of time or simply inappropriate in an “a-confessional setting.” To be sure, a few exceptions are allowed: feminist, queer, and post-colonial readings among them — though I would wager that these readings, too, are politely ignored more than taken seriously by many members of the guild. The horror of horrors, for a secular biblical scholar, is atheologically strong reading. How would you respond to critics who question the legitimacy of a theologically strong reading of biblical literature in the world of the secular university?

CN: I may be totally missing your question here, so if that’s the case, I apologize in advance. I see myself as an Anglican who was (1) “formed” in the Reformed tradition and thus to this day greatly appreciates, for example, the insights of Calvin and (2) one who has also been hugely influenced by the Roman Catholic tradition, as I have spent the last 5 years studying at a Roman Catholic institution. I suppose in some sense that makes me the “ideal” Anglican, since we love the via media : )

Regarding how I might respond to critics who question the legitimacy of a theologically strong reading of the biblical text in a secular university, I suppose I might turn to the insights of many postmoderns who question the possibility for a “objective/neutral” reading of any text. Gadamer has greatly influenced my thinking in this area, so I would appeal to his claim that we all come to the text with horizons, so why should we expect the Christian to somehow leave her horizon behind? Having foremeanings and biases is simply part and parcel of the hermeneutical experience, which is not to say that our horizons cannot be altered.

JH: It’s unusual for a Society of Biblical Literature member to be a card-carrying member of the other societies to which you belong (in alphabetical order):

  • American Catholic Philosophical Association
  • Calvin Studies Society
  • National Council for Black Studies
  • North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics
  • North Texas Philosophical Association
  • Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology
  • Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World
  • Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy

Is there a meta-perspective, a point of integration, on the basis of which these cognate disciplines can be inter-related?

CN: This doesn’t really answer your question, but I can say that my experience with each of these groups/societies has been incredibly positive. What I’ve found is that each particular society has certain important insights given their different areas of expertise and specific “central questions” upon which they tend focus. Attending conferences, listening to the papers presented, and engaging in dialogue with the scholars who are members of the various groups helps me to connect with their concerns (many of which are my concerns as well, or should be) and keeps me, so to speak, “in check” with regard to making overly hasty judgments about the insights of scholars in fields other than my own. My impression has been that by and large the members these societies are genuinely concerned with truth and the betterment of humanity. (Of course there is wide dis-agreement on precisely what truth is and what the betterment of humanity might entail; nonetheless, I’ve yet to attend any of the conferences hosted by the groups listed above in which I failed to learn something new or have failed to gain a greater appreciation for a position, even one with which I strongly disagree).

JH: Biblical scholars trained to read the texts in terms of the sense they would have had in the context in which and for which they were composed sometimes take a defensive posture over against “strong” readings from “alien” perspectives. At the same time, on closer inspection, it often turns out that these same scholars are simply averse to strong readings other than their own. Is it possible to read the Sacheof the biblical text from (desde) the perspective of a strong reader from inside or outside the guild, Brevard Childs, for example, or Michael Fishbane; Phyllis Trible or Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza; Fyodor Dostoevsky or Mikhail Bakhtin; Norman Gottwald or John Dominic Crossan, and, at the same time, respect the point of view and concerns of the text itself?

CN: You note that often times those who are averse to “strong readings” from “alien perspectives” tend to, upon closer inspection, simply manifest an aversion to strong readings other than their own. Unfortunately, I think this is an issue for all of us (myself, of course, included), and something that we have to constantly be aware of and “repent of.” Given what I said above about Gadamer and the hermeneutic experience always being one of a “fusion of horizons,” I definitely think it is possible to respect the alterity of the text, allowing it to genuinely shape and even change you on a very deep level, while approaching the text from a very specific perspective (an “alien” perspective). Can one take this to an extreme such that the text is more or less completely silenced? Sure, but I don’t see why that has to be the case. I’ve just finished an article for the journal Expositions which addresses some of what you are getting at in your question but from the perspective of interpreting/performing music—in case you’re interested, it’s called, “What Has Mozart to Do with Coltrane? The Dynamism and Built-In Flexibility of Music.”

JH: You have had many mentors over the years. What teachers do you remember with the greatest fondness?

CN: The first teacher who made a huge impact on my life was my junior year English teacher, Ms. Casey. She took a special interest in me at a time when most teachers would have been somewhat justified (in light of my life decisions) in thinking that I might not amount to anything. One day Ms. Casey began the class by reading what she called one of the “best papers in the class.” To my surprise, it happened to be my paper, which was a paper about my “experience” in all its details of an Iron Maiden concert (I’ll let you fill in the blanks about those details)! She didn’t tell the class whose paper it was, but by reading to the class and prefacing it the way she did, she made a lasting, positive impression on me. She also gave me a card with a personal note filled with incredibly encouraging words—words that at the time I couldn’t fully embrace. However, she gave me hope, and I ended up keeping that card in a special place and would regularly pull it out and read it when I became discouraged during my college years. Another professor for whom I deeply grateful is Dr. Timothy Mahoney. Dr. Mahoney took special interest in me as well, dialoging with me regularly outside of class, treating me with respect, and showing genuine concern for my intellectual and personal growth. Two other professors that have likewise gone out of their way to engage and encourage me are Dr. William Frank and Dr. Philipp Rosemann, two of the most excellent professors at my current institution. What I find incredibly interesting in recalling the roles these professors have had in my life is that they are all Roman Catholic, and with the exception of the last two professors, my interaction with them was prior to my shift to Anglicanism—meaning that they had to deal with me either during my pre-conversion days or when I was an arrogant, immature new Christian. Each of them by their actions made abundantly clear to me that they saw their “profession” as a vocation, a calling. Likewise, they all firmly believed (and continue to believe) that education is much more than a mere transference of information—true education is, as Plato says in the Republic, a conversion of the soul to the Good.

JH: What are your plans in terms of research focus at this point? I see that you are working on Paul among other things.

CN: I am very interested in the philosophy/phenomenology of race and am pursuing the possibility of writing my dissertation on this topic. If you are unfamiliar with this subject, check out a recent Blackwell publication edited by Robert Bernasconi, entitled, Race. The book includes both classic texts on race by, for example, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, as well as contemporary race theorists/scholars.

JH: What is it about blogging that appeals to you?

CN: I find it a helpful exercise in “processing” what I’m reading. That is, having to summarize what I’m reading regularly is something that I both enjoy, and it helps me to better understand what I read—especially when good “dialogue” partners decide to interact via comment exchanges. We could all quickly list the drawbacks of blogging (the negative, uncharitable exchanges, a level of mediation that can cause confusion that live, in person conversation might avoid etc.); however, I can honestly say that I’ve met some fantastic people through my blog—people from diverse parts of the world, some of which I’ve met face to face and with whom I’ve formed on-going friendships.

JH: What suggestions do you have for fellow bloggers, things you would like to see discussed?

CN: would love to see more discussions on social justice issues, particularly gender, race and class issues within the Church, especially with a view to how different Christian thinkers throughout the ages treated these issues and the strengths and weaknesses of each position.

JH: What does a day in the life of Cynthia Nielsen look like?

CN: Drinking coffee, reading, attending or teaching classes, learning from and playing with my four year old daughter and being reminded everyday how beautiful she is and how much joy she brings to my life, reading/writing, drinking more coffee, walking, engaging in great discussions in the evening with my husband (over more [decaf since we are now in the evening hours] coffee or perhaps a glass of wine or other assorted beverages) or listening to a lecture series with my husband or watching a great movie with my husband—(right now we are watching movies/film with strong social justice themes).

JH: Do you have talents or hobbies that you want to share with our readers? Have you been able to keep up with your music?

CN: Playing jazz guitar is still something I greatly, though, as the jazzers say, “my chops aren’t what they used to be.”

JH: If you knew you were going to be stranded on an island for six months, and could only take six books with you, what would you take?

CN: The Bible, Augustine’s Confessions, Some kind of Hymn book, Notes from the Underground, Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction: The Making of a Christian Imagination by Rowan Williams (perhaps I would substitute Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago for Notes from The Underground because I haven’t read it yet, but I really, really want to).

JH: Thanks, Cynthia, for putting up with this interview! We appreciate your participation and wish you the best.

CN: It’s been a pleasure, John. Thanks for putting up with me!

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