Interview with Erin Zoutendam for the Goodwin Prize

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?  

I started my master’s degree in theological studies for very pragmatic reasons: I thought I might like to go into academic editing, and a master’s degree seemed like it would help. But I very quickly fell in love with what I was studying, and I had some excellent professors along the way who encouraged me in what I was doing.

I’m now on my third theological degree, and I kept going for the same reason that I think a lot of people keep going: I still had (and have) questions about God.  I’m especially interested in historical theology and retrieving wisdom from the historical church. A lot of my research has focused on women’s theological writing, on the theology of contemplation and prayer, and on how people have historically read and interpreted the Bible. All of those areas touch on my own life; indeed, the questions I have in my own faith have tended to drive and shape my research.

What do you hope to do with your degree? 

I hope to teach someday, particularly at a seminary or divinity school. When I was pursuing my MTS and ThM degrees, I loved being in class with people who were going to be ministers. I’d never been around so many people who love the church and who are so committed to it. My classmates were really a gift, and it gives me great hope to know that someday the church will be in their hands. I would love to teach people like them in the future.

Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life? 

In a beautiful essay called “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” twentieth-century mystic Simone Weil writes that the heart of prayer is attention: focused and unwavering attention to God. School studies, as she calls them, train and develop our faculty of attention. When I first read this essay, it made sense of why I have always loved my studies. Even when I was young, I found myself able to be interested in almost any subject. Part of this was because my parents, who are both very faithful people, did a wonderful job encouraging curiosity, wonder, and age-appropriate kinds of reading and research when I was young.

What my love of learning taught me was a disposition of attentive wonder. I have always had a sense that there is something new to learn just around the bend. That disposition is something that I try to bring to my personal faith. Of course, there is always a danger, at least for me, that study will come to eclipse spiritual practices: it is easy to spend all day reading about prayer and still forget to actually pray. So while I am by no means an “expert” at prayer or faith—and in fact I’m pretty poor at those things—I do try to worship and pray in a state of attentive wonder.

This disposition of wonder, which was nurtured by my studies as a young child and integrated into my faith as an adult, feeds right back into my intellectual work. Sometimes “’academic” theology is stereotyped as dry or abstract, but I find God everywhere in my work. I’m particularly drawn to theological writers whose lives and theology are one, and one place I find that is in medieval female mystics, although certainly it exists among many other theologians.

How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background? 

Crying is something that everyone does—in fact, it is the very first thing you do when you’re born. And yet, scientifically speaking, we don’t know that much about tears. But historically, tears have been understood to possess great power: the power to communicate, the power to persuade, the power to heal, the power to redeem. This was never more the case than in the Middle Ages, when weeping was a common devotional practice. The question underlying my paper is how we might reclaim a theological understanding of tears. I explore this question through the lens of Catherine of Siena’s writing on tears in The Dialogue. Catherine was a fourteenth-century Italian mystic, theologian, and activist.

In my paper, I propose that Catherine viewed tears as an embodiment of individual desires. In other words, tears are a way for what is going on in your soul to become manifest in your body. I also argue that Catherine saw desire not as something bad to be eliminated but rather as something to be redirected. In other words, there is bad desire—greed, envy, the desire for vengeance—but there is also good desire—namely, the love of God. The goal is to convert bad desire into good desire, which is a lifelong process. I think that for Catherine, tears, as an embodiment of desire, could be ordered toward an end: self-knowledge and spiritual formation. I hope that by exploring the spiritual dimension of tears we can better understand how to learn from and be formed by our own tears.

How might this award make a difference in your life? 

First of all, it is affirming on a personal level to know that my work resonates with other people.  This particular paper has been near to my heart since I began writing it, and while I had a few affirming conversations with friends as I was researching it, it is encouraging to know that the work is of interest to others.

From a financial perspective, I hope to use the prize to further my studies. A lot of the research I am interested in is in German (as are some of the primary sources), and my German simply isn’t very strong yet. I hope to use the prize to take a German course in Germany and become much more confident in my language abilities.

How do you spend your time when you are not studying? 

I’ve recently taken up birdwatching. My husband jokes that I like birdwatching because of the “taxonomical potential”—that is, because I’ve always been a sorter, a list-maker, and a bit obsessive. All of those things really pay off in birding! Learning the field markings for different species of sparrows is very exciting to me, which I know sounds odd. So my husband is not wrong, but I also think birdwatching is—like prayer, like studies—fundamentally about attention and expectation. You can’t summon birds, although you can try to put yourself in the right place at the right time.

When I’m not studying or birding, I like to read literary fiction. I enjoyed gardening before we moved to our apartment this year, and I also like traveling with my husband and spending time with our two cats.

Any other comments? 

I would like to thank the professors who helped with this paper. I originally wrote it for an independent study supervised by Dr. Han-luen Kantzer Komline, whose careful reading and sharp eye for argumentation made the paper significantly stronger. And I first read Catherine of Siena’s work with Dr. Frans van Liere, who  took a semester to read through the works of eight medieval women with me—a semester that has profoundly shaped my academic career. It was he who first suggested to me that there might be something of interest in Catherine’s chapter on tears.


To learn more about the Goodwin Prize in Theological Writing, click here.