What I’m Doing: Seven Reflections After One Year of PhD Studies

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[why yes, that is the Colosseum in the background. Thanks for asking!]

1) There is very little prestige in doing a PhD in Theology, even if it is funded. People’s responses range from moderate apathy to thinking you may handle snakes. The usual exchange: “I’m doing a PhD…” (impressed eyebrow raise; “he’s a genius!”) “… in Theology.” (furrowed brow; “that’s… interesting.”). I get more traction telling people I’m a youth pastor. That way you get questions more like, “so do you ever want to be a real pastor?”

2) Prospects of finding a teaching job after the PhD tend to be bleak. There are conversations about whether it is ethical for PhD programs to accept so many students knowing that the job market is so flooded with qualified candidates. Thus PhD candidates are invested in an enterprise that will only in a few instances translate into a teaching job. Someone sent me a funny line: PhD students choose to be poor now so that they can be poor later.

3) My concentration, Theology and Culture, gets quizzical responses even from other PhD students. Culture is apparently the second-hardest word to define (nature is the first, and no I don’t know how they made this ranking system). Thus, as I was told tonight, Theology and Culture is “wide enough to drive a truck through”. Often I say, “I am getting a PhD in Theology and Culture, whatever the heck that means.”*

4) On that note, asking a PhD student about his or her research can be an ill-advised enterprise. You may die of boredom if you’re a non-academic (i.e. normal). But this question is especially stressful when a first-year PhD student is asked about their research by, say, a fifth year PhD student. Mainly because you can’t bluff a fifth year. They know when you are name-dropping and spouting catch phrases but in reality you only have a vain inclination of what you’re talking about.

5) Being a PhD student in general means constantly going back and forth between hope and despair. You read dense, abstruse books and maybe they make it into the footnotes of a paper. Are there truly original ideas anymore? What can you write that has not been written about before? And if you write it, will anyone read it? The average academic journal article is read by 1.5 people once it is published (again, not sure where the .5 comes from. Maybe one person fell asleep halfway through).

“O God, Thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” – Winfred Ernest Garrison

6) Because of all this, the only way you make it through with joy as a PhD student in Theology is if you are, in some sense, called to it. Certain questions have gripped your imagination, and you are willing to spend months sifting through mountains of material, being constantly humbled by how much you don’t know, in search of better answers, or at least better questions. Hope wins over despair if you believe that God’s calling to study is not a guarantee of success but is at least the promise that your character will be challenged and formed in the crucible of academic contemplation. Very few are truly called to this; even fewer pastors should seek PhDs. But some are called to do this, and for those who are, no hour of study is wasted. When offered to the Lord, it is holy, it is worship.

7) Thus, all of the above notwithstanding, being a PhD student in Theology can be an exhilarating, joyful, and grace-filled endeavor. Not just because of the occasional funded, completely over-the-top trips to Europe (though it has been amazing). It is because there are moments of such profound humility, moments of unexpected illumination, moments of un-looked-for awe, moments of deep gratitude when you realize that you have been afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to think and wrestle and then maybe to teach the Church that Jesus loved and gave his life for.

And so I will go back to my books
Back to the places where rumors of You abound
My books like small boats that launch out onto the ocean of your immensity
(the boats are so small)
But they may float, and I will row like Reepicheep in his coracle
Paddling towards I know not what,
I pick up the pen and pray
that you will take my paper bills and give me gold.

Amen.

* For nerd-types: A good working definition of culture is “what humans make of God’s creation” (Dyrness). What culture actually means for my research is something like, “the imaginative universe that people inhabit on a pre-theoretical level, focusing on the conditions of belief prior to the beliefs themselves.” The Theology and Culture concentration is engaged in understanding the meaning making taking place in the surrounding culture, discerning the presence and work of God, and learning how to articulate the gospel in an intelligible way. As my mentor says, no culture is so fallen that the Gospel cannot be spoken on its own terms. I have colleagues working on Theology and Fashion, Theology and Literature, Theology and Film, Theology and Work, Theology and the Visual Arts, Theology and Kitsch, Theology and Sport. I’m working on Theology and the Imagination. Because I’m meta like that.

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