Don’t know any? Well, allow me to introduce you to one: Elizabeth Stoker.
I came across her writings through a good friend who pointed me to this tweet:
Would always rather argue with a far right Catholic than Evang. At least the way far right Catholics don't slam you for your book learnin'.
— Elizabeth S. Bruenig (@ebruenig) January 6, 2014
We Catholics have to take compliments when we can get them, so I was only too happy to retweet this one!
I then read Elizabeth’s blog and quickly realized she was a remarkable young woman. But I also assumed she was not particularly interested in Catholicism. Wrong! Sometime later I came across this tweet:
— Elizabeth S. Bruenig (@ebruenig) January 25, 2014
See the things you discover on twitter? Excited about this development, I mentioned her in a tweet asking if she would like to do an interview on my blog, and she agreed. So without further ado, here’s Elizabeth:
Elizabeth, thanks for doing this interview. We are interested in learning about your story. Can you tell us about your upbringing? Was your family religious, non-religious?
I’m young — a newly minted 23 — so my story is pretty short! I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in Arlington.
My mom and dad were (and still are) United Methodists, and that’s the church I was raised in. As I got older, around fifteen and sixteen, I was pretty involved with the Methodist church, but as I moved away for college I became somewhat dissatisfied with some of the doctrine — namely, I couldn’t reconcile such an intense focus on free will with what I sensed to be true of human frailty and grace. It seemed to me there was more to be said of the role of communities in salvation, and in looking for a denomination to join while I was away at college, I did focus on concern for others and a highly integrated community. I found the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, and attended meetings while at Brandeis University.
My mom and dad are both very religious people. They encouraged discussion of the Bible, and generally kept Christ at the center of our lives. But, curiously, I never felt suffocated or repressed by it in the way a lot of young people seem to feel. We talked about the Gospels over dinner and during long car trips, and since my folks are both very educated people, it always struck me as a topic that could be turned over endlessly for infinite gain and interest. Talking about books or movies always seemed to get old, but with God there is always something more, something previously undiscovered. So though I didn’t stay with the church my parents brought me up in, I did stay the sort of Christian they brought me up to be.
I was always so often involved in argument. In high school, I was on the debate team, and in college, I coached high schoolers in debate. So argument itself is interesting to me, but by being Christian among typically leftist and highly educated circles (like those I was a part of at Brandeis and remain a part of now) I’m pretty often the odd person out. Hanging around with very smart people usually involves some level of good natured argument, and so I often wound up, as a college kid, defending Christianity — usually Christian ethics.
And I wanted to do that well. By chance I had read Augustine’s Confessions as a high schooler, and I remembered he struck me as just about the smartest guy I’d ever read. So as a college student, I picked up Confessions again, when discussions about Christian sexual ethics were a hot topic among myself and my mostly secular friends. That touched off a whole college career of reading Augustine for me, and through the Fathers I came to be acquainted with the vast intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church.
Some have said we find God and His Church by way of beauty, by way of truth, or by way of goodness. Which of those factors influenced you, and how?
At first, I think, I was moved by the truth of it — especially the way Augustine was able to so clearly render the reality of God’s work in the world. But as I kept reading Augustine, and then moved on to others — Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, Tertullian and many more modern scholars, like Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank — I began to see that truth, goodness, and beauty are very much related — such was the result of my von Balthasar phase, anyhow! But I began to see the elegance and splendor of the communion of saints as I was guided in learning the truth by these many Catholics who had come before me, and through that came to respect the whole economy of salvation as articulated by the Catholic Church.
I felt drawn to the Church also by joy. In the Catholic worldview, I find a relentless positivity, a world filled with purpose, direction, and love. As Julian of Norwich says — Christ suffered and died for us, so how could our relationship with him be anything other than overflowing with love? And in the Catholic vision I do see an abundance of joy, liveliness, and love. I see this especially in the Church’s faithful promotion of a culture of life, which affirms all that is vibrant and resilient and indicative of God’s unwavering love. For me, this was a light illuminating my way to the Church.
What are you studying at Jesus College in Cambridge? What do you hope to do with it?
I’m studying for an MPhil in Christian Theology, which is a master’s degree. I’m here on a Marshall Scholarship, which is a full ride — so I’m very fortunate to come away with quite a lot of freedom to do something different next, as I don’t need to immediately concern myself with student debt as many must. I’ve thought about going on for a PhD in theology, but now I’m thinking I’d rather start working straight away. Of course, I’d like to work with a group engaged in ethical projects I believe in, so I can do good work while still learning, which is my great love in life. There are plenty of exciting opportunities for work with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, which seems perfect for me! So hopefully, one day — something like that.
Where can we find your writings online (e.g. your fascinating blog, salon articles, etc.)?
I’m very lucky to write all over the web! My blog is at www.elizabethstoker.com, but I do so much writing with other venues I rarely have anything to drop there anymore. At the moment I write a weekly column at www.theweek.com, and regularly contribute to www.salon.com. I’ve also struck up a regular relationship with the Boston Review Blog, and sometimes contribute to the Atlantic’s online venue. I feel very blessed that I get to write so often about Christian ethics, and it’s always a pleasure and a joy to have a reason to look further into Church teaching, and to share what I find with others. I’ve had such a kind and supportive readership, and I’ve learned so much from them in the process of writing and sharing my thoughts.
Thanks again for reaching out, and for listening to my thoughts.
I find several aspects of Elizabeth’s story intriguing. I love the fact that her parents fostered a familial culture that placed Christ at the center. How beautiful that they discussed their faith in God often throughout the course of their upbringing. I hope that Katie and I can do the same with our children.
Elizabeth is obviously gifted intellectually. And through her need to defend the Christian Faith in highly educated, secular circles, she encountered the Church Fathers and the unparalleled Catholic intellectual tradition. It seems to me that she has a unique opportunity, and perhaps calling, to bring Christ to those people and places, ones where he is rarely considered.
The USCCB would be blessed to have such a young woman working for them, if that is indeed the direction our Lord leads Elizabeth. Either way, I hope you will join me in prayer for her as she prepares to enter full communion this Easter. Thanks for chatting with us, Elizabeth!