Journaling my PhD: The Reason I’ve Begun


(system) #1

I begin this series with some hesitation—unsure, even, if it will be a series. Bonnie Dwyer has suggested and requested it. I hesitate from fear that chronicling my spiritual and intellectual journey down the path of PhD studies may turn into a narcissistic enterprise. I suppose I’m also afraid that no one will be interested.

But maybe, with grace, these journals can be useful to someone. To understand why I’m doing what I am, it’s necessary to speak openly about my background.

I am the product of much more than Adventism, but during my adolescence and university years, it was Adventism that shaped my way of thinking about Christian faith. A strange child, I started attending a local Anglican church in Canada when I was about eight, and shortly thereafter asked for confirmation. One day through a strange turn of events (a prophecy seminar brochure in the mail), I found myself among Christians making a most extraordinary claim: their church was the true church, the remnant church, which alone among the Christian denominations remained faithful to the Word of God. Truth sounded good to me, so I signed up. When my Anglican priest found out I was becoming an Adventist, he offered a gesture that then touched me and now irks me: he sent me a congratulatory card that said something like, “God bless your spiritual journey.” I’ve sometimes wondered why he didn’t fight for me a bit, grab me by the scruff of the neck and ask, “Why are you doing that?”

Spiritually, my teens were a very vivid and varied set of years. Joy and love entered my experience through Maranatha’s annual youth mission trip, the Ultimate Workout. It was authentic; there was real trust there, and a real knowledge of God. But things became problematic when I tried to package that up for expression in the theological language of Adventism. Theology, I’ve since learned, is how we talk about God (or as my new supervisor has written, how God talks to us about himself).[1] From the early days of Christianity, knowledge of God came to the people of God through a process of inward and communal transformation. People talked about the theological journey, which was understood to encompass the spiritual and the intellectual in an undivided whole. Doctrines evolved to both express and shape the faith of the Church, a molding of contemporary intellectual influences (such as Greek philosophy) with the experience of new realities (the Risen Christ).

The problem is that Adventism did not equip me to think theologically. Adventism told me to read the Bible and the Bible only, while curiously still holding nuanced theological statements on the Trinity, creation, salvation and other traditional Christian doctrines. The Adventism I knew vehemently denied any extrabiblical influence on the shape of its teachings, and so I was left with not much knowledge of theological methodology, but with plenty of propositions. I believed that Christian faith was bound up in those propositions, that in fact intimacy with God could only be enjoyed within their context (and all twenty-eight of them on the same level, by the way. Belief a literal six-day creation week was just as important as my doctrine of the incarnation.) Intimacy with God may indeed best develop via good theology, but rootless propositions make for it a rather unstable foundation.

Sure enough, uncertainty over my propositions, when it developed, contributed massively to my struggle with God's absence in college. After all, if I couldn't be sure about the historicity of the book of Genesis, how could I be certain of God at all? (I say that tongue in cheek.)

“How could I be certain?” That question became my quest. Certainty, proof: the darlings of modernity.

My search for certainty was not a solitary journey. I have witnessed few things more painful than the loss of faith in someone you love, in someone who has loved and been loved by God, and who feels he or she must leave that love in order to be intellectually honest. A little knot of us faced that prospect at our Adventist university, and many of the best and brightest had what strikes me in retrospect to be a very curious experience: they “lost” their faith. Reality snatched it away. Reality can’t do that to real theology. God versus reality is a false dichotomy, because God is the origin and source of all reality, and all reality should therefore shape (not ambush) one’s understanding of God. I like the way Judith Merkle puts it: "If we are thinking of reality, God is there. New knowledge never threatens God, since God is a dimension of all human knowledge. Using our minds to understand the world, its future, and our part in it, is a door to union with God.".[2]

I myself came very close to “losing faith.” Well meaning friends tried apologetics on me: “X+Y=God. Don’t you see it?” The problem is that rootless propositions are not sufficient to sustain faith, even if you can forcably close your eyes to science, history, philosophy and believe them. (Faith is so much more than intellectual ascent.) I will not forget the first-hand chill (indeed, the heart-sick terror) of the propositionalist whose propositions have crumbled. Not ever. My own faith had to die before it could be resurrected. It was desire for the God of my experience that carried me through that process. Though many Adventists won’t recognize the term, the old, historic churches call that Friday-Saturday-Sunday sequence the “Paschal Mystery.” It’s what we Adventists (together with all of Christendom) enact in baptism. Baptism is not just a sign walling off the past, but a door to a future it molds and shapes after its own supernatural pattern.

Besides my own desire for God (the response, I believe, of God’s desire for me), two things made the resurrection of faith possible in my life: 1) Good Adventist religion professors who, though perhaps not able to articulate exactly what was shattering me and why, nevertheless encouraged me to trust the love that first touched me as a child 2) The second thing that made resurrection possible for me was exposure to Catholicism. This came quite by accident, through a year I spent abroad between my third and fourth university years. It opened my imagination to fresh ways of thinking about God. Catholicism gave me new theological containers for the desire that still haunted my heart—not just propositions, but mysteries that drew me in and opened onto God.

It’s been five years since resurrection “happened” to me. I still feel like a baby. I want to understand the miracle that healed me and how, and with God’s grace I want the tools to clearly communicate a more coherent theological methodology into the angst and anguish of Adventists like my friends and my former self.

Maybe this is all a bit too transparent. Maybe I shouldn’t be sharing these things in such a public space. I don’t know. Bonnie, is this what you had in mind?

So where am I now? The University of Durham in Northern England! I can hardly believe it, to tell you the truth. Durham has a wonderful theology faculty, and I feel scandalously fortunate to be here. In 2010-2011 I did a Masters degree in London and first read some writings by the Anglican theologian Mark McIntosh on the historic union of spirituality and theology in Christianity, and the tragic divide that has developed between the two. His writings nailed the source of my undergrad struggles right on the head, and when I Googled and found him at Durham, I thought, “That’s where I’m going.” And now that’s where I am. I have loads of hopes and loads of fears. The hopes I’ve already articulated (I hope). The fears are legion: Do I have a firm enough background in theology to really be doing this? (My Adventist BA was strong in biblical studies, but weak in theology.) Will Adventism be interested at all in what I’m studying? Am I really smart enough to do a doctorate, or am I an imposter?

I have already discovered a wonderful faith community here in Durham. There is no Adventist presence in the city, but I worship at Durham Cathedral, an ancient and important site in the history of English Christianity, just a stone’s throw from my residence on the historic Bailey above the River Wear. Incidentally, my supervisor is also a canon there. I’ve discovered that he has dogs and likes Narnia, so we should get along just fine.

There is also a very fun, lively postgraduate community (the members of which sometimes intimidate me with their beautiful brilliance). It seems there’ll be many sources of joy and learning during the years ahead, and I am grateful.

If it seems good to you and to me, I’ll do as Bonnie asked and keep you readers of Spectrum updated now and again. Personally, I think my quest is a fascinating one, and even if you don’t, I’ll be following it with eager interest!

[1] For an excellent introduction to the meaning and source of theology, see Mark McIntosh, Divine Teaching (Blackwell Press), 2008. If I were the instructor of a systematic theology course in an Adventist institution, this is one of the first books my students would read.

[2] Judith Merkle, A Different Touch (Collegeville: Liturgical Press), 1998.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4855