A reminiscence and request from a former student

At the age of twenty-five, Elizabeth Clark founded the Department of Religion at Mary Washington College. At the age of forty-three, she became the John Carlisle Kilgo Professor (later Professor Emerita) of Religion at Duke University. For the fifty-seven years altogether of her career, she changed what it was possible for people in the academy to do. She will not do this in the same way any more, and the loss her death represents is great. This is as it should be.

Liz received her doctorate from Columbia University in 1964, shortly before starting to teach at Mary Washington. When she was older, she was fond of telling her students and younger colleagues, sometimes as encouragement, sometimes as self-deprecation, that it was not until she reached the age of forty that she finally decided to become the kind of scholar her graduate school mentors and teachers had told her she could be. For those of us who felt clumsy and slow as we progressed through graduate school, and felt even more so in the presence of Liz’s intellect and productivity, this story was reassuring. We too could become scholars slowly if we needed to. “If you have more time,” she once told me, “take more time.” Dutifully, I did. Liz’s graduate students at Duke received grades of “Incomplete” in every class we took from her, because all term papers for Liz were due, by her design, one year after each class was over. In her view, any work of research composed in less time was not worth reading.

I did not realize until later that the story of Liz’s midlife turn and the story of her students’ incompleteness were not really stories about time. They were stories about potential. It can take a long time to see one’s own potential, and even longer to begin the work of living up to it.

The reason it can take a long time to see one’s own potential is that potentials are often strange and always unique; they are, like the people who have them, peculiar. It is hard now to understand or remember how strange Liz’s work was when she was creating it in the 1980s and 1990s. It was full of what were at the time startling juxtapositions: feminism and patristics; queer theory and asceticism; social network analysis (referred to in one review of The Origenist Controversy as “so-called network analysis”) and historical theology; postmodern literary theory and early Christian hagiography. These were not intuitive pairings two or three or four decades ago, and in some places they still are not; that they seem to many of us to be so now is largely because of Liz. Liz’s own peculiarities, her personal history combining youthful Calvinism, uncompromising intelligence, dry wit, terrible shyness, radical activism on many fronts, and mid-twentieth-century New York’s intellectual and cultural dash, had the potential to create a new way of seeing and writing early Christian history. That is what she did, despite the fact that many scholars whose work in the field was a little less unusual did not like or respect it. She was not dissuaded by their disrespect and was usually unimpressed by their criticism. This was the kind of scholar she could be. She was magnificent and pugnacious; generous and demanding; creative, bold, scathing, gentle, unpredictable, and unlike anyone else. Her embrace of all these qualities through decades of work and writing and friendship was how, in the end, she lived up to her potential. She became herself.

The more painful disagreements Liz had with her students and former students also frequently circled around the question of potential. Do you see what it is that you can do? Are you turning away from the gifts you have? Sometimes we were. But sometimes our potentials were simply peculiar: what exists in potentia does not exist yet and is hard to recognize; it is harder still to bring to the surface. Disagreements about things unseen are not easy to settle. We had these disagreements, though, only because Liz gave her students this gift: she saw us as beings full of possibility. We could, like her, outface the world. And for a series of ragtag junior scholars who were women, queer, trans, people of color, from working-class backgrounds, at first blush not to be taken seriously in the largely conservative field of Christian religious studies, this gift was something we needed to be given. It might take a long time to realize all the dimensions of our potential. But to us, Liz’s disrespected magnificence was hope.

Long before the end of her career, she had outshone her early critics. The feminist, queer, intellectual, and political battles Liz fought in the academy, too, if they have not actually been won, have at least been made far less strange, and are now to some degree even outmoded. The ground has shifted, and progress, like scholarship, looks different. I would like to say that these changes mark the success of the causes Liz believed in, the end of one era and the beginning of another, but I am not confident this is true. Endings and beginnings are harder to find than we sometimes think. This is the case for people as well as for eras. And this is why, perhaps unreasonably, I do not believe death, change, or even success can bring any absolute end to Liz’s potential. It is hard to spend decades studying early Christian worlds and not have at least a few thoughts about the afterlife, and for Liz, a thorough materialist, afterlife came in the form of new intellectual and political work created by those whom she supported, work she would not herself have imagined, but work made with the daring and excellence she admired. On the evening before her death, she was working on a tenure letter for a junior scholar. That, too, is as it should be: new work grows. And because new work grows, it is not by doing work like Liz’s that we can make for her an afterlife suited to all her potential. We can make it instead by doing, as she did, the strange work that is living up to our own peculiar abilities, and by inviting those who come after us to try to do the same.

So I will close with some advice that Liz, the consummate graduate advisor, would never have given, but that I think is something I learned from her. It is possibly less a piece of advice than it is a request about an afterlife.

If you have time today, now, to ask yourself these questions, ask them:

What is it that you can do that no one else in the world can do?

What is there in you that, if you do not do it, no one else in the world will?

Please do that.

Liz: Thank you for all of it.

Catherine Michael Chin
September 20, 2021