I got a chance to spend time learning from Dr. Amy Oden in person last year. She has so much wisdom to offer, and she engages with others with humility and grace.
Amy Oden, Independent Scholar, Early Christian History and Spirituality
Why do you love teaching and researching about Christian theology?
I love teaching Christian theology because I get to accompany students on expeditions of discovery. Every day with students is a big exploration into the wide-open spaces of theology and history. Here students encounter new ways of thinking and talking about God, about scripture and the nature of revelation, about church. Often students discover fellow travelers among our siblings in ancient Christianity, like long-lost relatives they didn’t know they had. It helps give students a sense of rootedness even while they grow new branches of theology within their own faith and ministry. It’s inspiring to companion them. I have the best job ever! In my research, I love uncovering and discovering the ways Christians have approached living their lives as Christians: how they think about what makes a Christian life, what practices and common life they pursue and how they understand themselves in relation to their larger culture and context. These are fascinating and endlessly instructive. I find deep wisdom that can illuminate our own time and our own questions.
What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?
One big idea is that women’s voices have always been central to Christian life and witness. While it is sometimes difficult to trace a written record, the presence and ministry of women is evident in every generation and in every location. Unfortunately, much scholarship has assumed women’s agency was completely eclipsed until recent times, rather than looking to see what was actually there. This has been a failure of our tools and our imaginations. My work, and the work of many others, has shown the active presence, ministry and theology of women in every generation of Christians. I want students to pay attention, to give themselves to careful listening that requires an epistemological humility, laying down what we think we know, in order to really listen to the (sometimes faint) voices that have laid the groundwork for the faith we have inherited.
Who is one of your academic heroes?
Roberta Bondi, Professor Emerita of Church History, Candler School of Theology. Dr. Bondi was one of a few women scholars in church history when I came into the field in the 1980’s. She has modeled for me the deep integration of theory and practice, theology and spiritual life, so rare in the academy. Dr Bondi seeks to know not only what happened, but why it happened. She takes ancient Christians seriously as moral agents, making choices and claims within a moral framework they understood as faithful. That means she never patronizes ancient voices or stands in scholarly superiority to them. Moreover, I admire the ways she doesn’t just display knowledge (hers is considerable), but instead, she invites readers and students into ancient, new worlds where they can discover conversations and questions that animate spiritual lives today.
What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?
I was drawn to Augustine early on, first to Confessions and then to his sermons. These opened wide the doorways into early African Christian life that fascinated me and made me want to know more. Augustine pulled me into patristic and matristic literature. Also, In Memory of Her, by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza – when it came out in 1983 I had just begun my PhD program. Her work opened our eyes to women’s and, more broadly, human agency in Christian origins. This, in turn, opened up more rigorous research methods and categories in both history and theology for me. Also, To Pray and To Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church, Roberta Bondi.
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If you ran into me at a conference and didn’t want to talk theology, what would you want to talk about?
Lately I’ve been enjoying watching the sky, just watching the clouds, the wind, the colors. I’d suggest we spend some time watching clouds together instead of talk.
What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?
My latest work on Christian mindfulness has really resonated for many during pandemic. I’m working now with mindfulness as a key practice for anti-racism work as a white person. It’s so helpful to learn to pause, breathe, be present to one’s body and one’s thoughts before speaking or acting. This helps us interrupt deeply learned, unconscious biases and behaviors that reinforce racism.