Catherine Chin Focuses on How Late Antique Christian Writers Consider the Past and Future

February 11, 2014
Fragments of the classical past
Early Christian Texts
Catherine M. Chin
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Catherine M. Chin is the ACLS/Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellow in Ancient Studies and an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California in Davis.

What part of the United States did you come from?

I teach at UC Davis, so I came to Rome most immediately from northern California, but I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin.  I’m happy in farm country, whether it’s full of cows or vineyards.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

Well, technically I’m not a Rome Prize fellow; I’m here on funding from an ACLS Burkhardt fellowship, for which I’m very grateful. I was a pre-doctoral Rome Prize fellow in 2003-04, though, and it’s lovely to be back at the Academy in a new way.  In both cases, I wanted to work in Rome because it’s an incredibly stimulating environment for thinking about the transmission of culture through time—which is also to say, the transmission of time through culture.  My work focuses on the way late antique Christian writers think about a variety of pasts and futures:  how, for example, do they position themselves in relation to what we tend to think of as the classical past?  How do they think of themselves as curators of that past, as well as of an apostolic past?  How do they envision those pasts surviving into an eschatological future?  And what do these visions of past and future tell us about the way these people experienced the passage of time, and expected others to experience it? It’s productive to think about these sorts of questions in a place that’s so temporally rich, in the way that Rome is.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

I suppose this whole year counts as a slow-moving (or sometimes very fast-moving) moment, doesn't it? It’s inspiring to be surrounded by this brilliant and eclectic group of fellows.  The intellectual energy here is tremendous.  In many ways it’s especially inspiring to be thrown into the hurly-burly of so many different fields, disciplines, and talents, because what comes out of that is not just a lot of exciting new ideas, but recognition of a shared love of the craft of doing whatever it is that one does.  The fellows here are all very, very good at what they do. Each of them is clearly a master of his or her own craft, and each of them clearly loves that craft in a very particular and passionate way.  It’s amazing to be surrounded by that kind of mastery and that kind of love, and it makes me realize how much I also love the craft of scholarship, in my own particular way.  That’s something that it’s easy to lose sight of in the day-to-day work of a university job, but being at the Academy really brings it out.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

Far too many.  One example: part of my project is on the relationship between late antique theories of cosmology and astrology, and the early Christian idea that human beings will transform into “heavenly” beings in the future.  As it happens, the Academy’s fourth floor terrace is a great place to stargaze when the nights are clear, and I spent a lot of time this Fall watching the traditional planets and constellations make their way across the night sky.  It had never struck me before how seeing something like the retrograde motion of Jupiter, night after night, above the basilica of Maxentius could strongly affect the way that a human person might anticipate becoming a heavenly being: the stars and planets aren’t simply predicting or determining the future—they are what the future is, made visible.  It’s shocking to live in a world in which the future is physically right there in front of you every night, and yet at the same time, it’s completely out of reach.  And it turns out that this problem of the persistent, looming, visible presence of the future is a huge issue in early Christian arguments about what it means to be a human being.  I would never have paid attention to that issue in the same way without having habitually wandered out on to the terrace after dinner in the Fall.

I’d say I’ve had dozens of similar moments since September—not all about cosmology, of course!  But it’s startling how productive these kinds of intellectual accidents can be.

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

Finishing it.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

Finishing it.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

Given that it exists, it’s not too surprising that Rome is as complicated and fascinating as it is.  It’s more perennially surprising to me that a phenomenon like Rome does exist, and that one can, of all things, live in it.  My surprise at this usually crops up when I’m walking along the Tiber, and I think to myself, “There’s the Tiber. I’m walking next to it. How is it possible that the Tiber is not just a complex, millennia-old, fantastical literary invention that we all had to learn about in school?”  Of course the Tiber is also a complex, millennia-old, fantastical literary invention that we had to learn about in school, but then again, it’s right over there.  I’m surprised by that fact nearly every day.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

I’m never sure whether I’m managing it extremely badly or relatively well.  My time at my desk is mostly spent thinking and writing about how early Christian writers spent time at their desks (what were they thinking and writing, and how?).  My time engaging with Rome and Italy is mostly spent thinking about how early Christian writers engaged with Rome and Italy.  So I’m either working all the time, or I should just come out and admit that what I do is fundamentally solipsistic, and I’m not really working much at all.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

That’s hard to say.  Some of the fellows here know that lately I’ve become mildly obsessed with watching it rain in the Pantheon, which has resulted in many wet morning walks during the winter rains.  But probably the place I spend the most time is the fourth floor terrace.  There’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise over the city in the morning, watching the stars come out at night, and having a sense of the city falling headlong into another day.