Obscure liberal theologians of North America: Eveline Kroetsch

First in a series.

Eveline Kroetsch, second cousin of the respected Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch, was born in Cessford, Alberta, on May 2, 1936. As the flat landscape of Alberta’s prairies shaped her cousin’s poetry, so the landscape shaped Kroetsch’s theology. The town of Cessford had never been very large, but it had thrived in the 1920s. In the 1930s, the Depression, locusts, and dust storms cause almost half the population to leave, and as the town shrank it felt increasingly isolated.

Cessford had been settled by Swedes, and some of the older residents still spoke Swedish when Kroetsch was young. The elderly proprietors of the Chinese restaurant in town (no one knew why they had settled in such an isolated place though perhaps they had been laborers working for the railroad) spoke Chinese. Her mother’s mother was a Metis and could still speak Blackfoot with the occasional Siksika who wandered up from the Siksika Indian Reserve, which had been much reduced in area after the federal government gave reserve land to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Her father’s mother spoke mostly German and a little broken English.

She was confirmed in the Anglican Church, although there wasn’t a regular congregation in Cessford. About once a month, a priest would make the fifty mile trip via rail from the church in Hanna, and offer communion to the handful of Anglicans in Cessford. The lack of regular and consistent pastoral supervision may explain why Kroetsch developed such unorthodox views later in her life. But she also seems to have been prone to vaguely mystical experiences. Later in life, Kroetsch talked about visiting the Red Deer River, south of Cessford, to see the carved badlands around the river, and how the sight made her feel at one with God.

After learning that Lydia Gruchy, who, in 1936, was the first woman to be ordained by the United Church of Canada, had attended St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Kroetsch determined to study there. She was sidetracked by an unhappy marriage, which she remained in until her three children were grown. But in 1976, she was finally able to begin her theological studies at St. Andrews.

Her classmates considered her the most brilliant theological mind among the student body, although she doesn’t seem to have made any impact on the professors. She published her most important theological works while at St. Andrews, in a mimeographed publication she typed, illustrated, and printed herself, sneaking in to the administration office late at night to use their mimeograph machine.

Kroetsch produced this publication, the title of which was a visual symbol drawn by her, from around 1976 (the earliest issues are numbered but not dated) until 1981. In the first five issues of her publication (numbers 1 through 5), she included a series of five essays speculating on how aliens might experience God. Beginning with issue 2, she also wrote a series of three essays about what might happen if UFOs brought aliens to Earth to encounter our religious traditions. These essays led many people to brand Kroetsch a science fiction fan. Soon science fiction fans began to write to her, asking to trade their fanzines for her theological publication; most of the letters to the editor (titled “Letters of Comment”) in the publication appear to have been written by science fiction fans. The only known complete collection of her publication is now in the Martin M. (Mike) Horvat Science Fiction Fanzine Collection at the University of Iowa.

In later issues, Kroetsch began to outline her mature theology. In issue 5, she wrote a memoir of growing up in Cessford, and hearing several different languages spoken — Swedish, German, English, Chinese, Blackfoot, etc. Exposed to all these languages, Kroetsch wrote that she began to fantasize about small linguistic islands of people united into a vast continent-wide federation. The next essay in issue 5 is her review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s book “The Word for World Is Forest,” and in the review she writes both about the power of language to shape reality, and the limitations of language.

But it was in the first dated issue, issue 6, dated January, 1977, that Kroetsch first articulates her mature theology. The essay begins with a bold assertion: “God is in signs and symbols, not in words.” Language, she asserts, only exists to sustain relationships in extended family groups or tribes. She proposes that God might be most fully known if humanity reverts to living in small tribes or extended families of no more than a hundred people, each extended family or tribe to speak its own language or mutually unintelligible dialect. To prevent warfare, all these small tribes or extended families would be united in a confederation, and the primary means of communication throughout the confederation would be through a visual language of signs and symbols. This was God’s plan for humanity, she said, and she proved this through an exegesis of those passages in the book of Exodus which deal with the construction of the Ark of the Covenant.

As time went on, Kroetsch became increasingly influenced by the poet bp Nichol, and others in the concrete poetry movement. After she began using photocopying as a printing method in late 1979, she began using collage. Each words in a given short essay might be in a different typeface, cut out of newspapers, magazines, and even books, presumably as a way to emphasize the visual character of words. She made connections between her work in concrete poetry, and the handwritten Torah scrolls used by Jewish congregations. But by 1980 she was using fewer and fewer words, and the publication becomes increasingly hermetic and incomprehensible, until the final issue is entirely images and symbols, with no words or even letters, except in the address label and the date.

Kroetsch officially dropped out of St. Andrews in 1981, but this was merely a formality because she had stopped attending classes in 1979. By late 1979, it appears that she had moved back to Alberta. She stopped all correspondence with her classmates and professors, except through the medium of her publication. Unfortunately, this meant that no one could figure out the meaning of her developing visual symbology. Some clues are offered in the few words that remained in the last issues. On page 5 of the October, 1980, issue, there is a full sentence: “Siksika speaks and the confederation ripples in symbols.” The back page of the April, 1981, issue, is a collage of traffic signs cut out of a Canadian government publication; the words “God Speaks” have been pasted over the actual words of the traffic signs.

During 1979, she wrote that she was coming to believe that you are your images, and your images are you — her exegesis of the imago dei. She also wrote: “Your image will determine your ultimate destination,” apparently a brief statement of her soteriology. By about 1982, she concluded a lengthy effort to obtain and destroy every photograph of her, and no known photograph of her now exists.

After she left theological school, she was rumored to have been working on a visual book, a sort of graphic novel before there were such things, except without the conventions of panels and dialogue bubbles that graphic novels inherited from comic strips, and which provide at least some linear continuity. Other rumors say that it was not a novel at all, but her theological magnum opus. (She was said to have dropped out of theological school because her professors were too hidebound to accept term papers rendered entirely in graphics.) This late work was lost after her death, and nothing of it can now be reconstructed.

Kroetsch corresponded briefly with theologian Max Stackhouse in 1985, after reading his essay “Fundamentalism Around the World” in the September 4, 1984, issue of The Christian Century. In the letter, Kroetsch takes Stackhouse to task for saying that certain fundamentalist orthodoxies are always linked with certain forms of orthopraxis, and she offered the alternative view that fundamentalisms are always linked with static visual representations. From this letter, we learn that she had moved to Hanna, Alberta, to the area of her growing-up years, and that she continued to do significant work in theology. Stackhouse was so impressed with her letter that he wrote to her, but she responded with a series of four or five “letters” that consisted only of graphics. Stackhouse again tried to write to her, only to receive another graphic letter. At this, he gave up, and destroyed all her correspondence but for the first letter. This was Kroetsch’s only contact with another theologian, outside of her contacts at St. Andrews.

Subsequent to 1985, Kroetsch dropped completely from view, although she may have settled in Flin Flon, Manitoba. (Flin Flon was named for a character in science fiction novel by J. E. Preston Muddock, whom Kroetsch was known to have read, and to whom she refers in a footnote of the August 19, 1978, issue, of her publication.) A small article in the December 14, 1992, issue of the Flin Flon Reminder records the death of one Eva Lynn Crutch, born on May 2, 1936, and found dead in her cabin on the shores of Lake Athapapuskow on Saturday, December 12, 1992, by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the article, she had been living alone there for some years, and the RCMP estimated that she had been dead approximately two weeks before she was found.

Update, two years on: I thought it was so obvious that this was a parody. But I guess not. So I had better say so, here: THIS IS AN IMAGINARY PERSON.

2 thoughts on “Obscure liberal theologians of North America: Eveline Kroetsch”

  1. Interesting essay, but in what sense is Kroetsch a “liberal” theologian? Unorthodox, yes, but so was L. Ron Hubbard, and I don’t think he is usually considered a “liberal”. I would think liberal religion, at least for UUs, would have something to do with religion having to do with how we live in this world, and with being compatible with modern science. I don’t see that in Kroetsch’s theology as described here.

  2. Tim, the term “liberal theologian” is not particularly well defined. But Kroetsch is clearly not conservative or orthodox, and her concern for the rights of linguistic minorities (however obscure it may have been) seems to be a good argument for placing her in the liberal camp. As for Hubbard, it seems to me that he was just preaching warmed-over prosperity gospel with a veneer of science fiction world-building — as far as I’m concerned, the prosperity gosepl, in whatever form it may come, cannot be considered liberal.

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