Academic Purgatory

In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor going by the pseudonym of Thomas H. Benton wrote an essay about the reality one faces in attempting to do graduate work in a subject such as English literature. His essay brings to light all of the complex feelings, thoughts, and emotions which clouded my own mind in trying to discern whether to pursue English or theology for my Ph.D work. A year into my seminary education, I still have mixed feelings. I deeply miss the world of literature. I yearn to read and write poetry, to discuss Bakhtin and Dostoevsky, to ponder post-structural literary criticism, to perform works of Shakespeare on a Sunday afternoon (or in Hay-on-Wye, as the case was in 2003). It's not just nostalgia; it's a physical pain, a sense of emptiness where the inscape of Hopkins and the fragmentation of "The Waste Land" once resided. I can only hope and pray that someday I will recover a taste of what I have lost. And hopefully my own graduate work will never extinguish the love for literature that brought me here in the first place.

Comments

John P. said…
why not do a PhD in religion and literatrure? seems like a nice compromise, though i assume a double concentration makes it twice as difficult to truly delve into both topics fully...but worth looking into nonetheless.
D.W. Congdon said…
Such a compromise sounds nice, but it's not a very realistic idea. Programs are generally either theology degrees where you can insert literary themes, or literature degrees where you can insert religious themes. The former is the more appealing, and it might be possible, say, at St. Andrews -- which has a theology and the arts program. But when it comes down to it, I am torn between full-blown dogmatic theology research, and a more literary, theological aesthetics trajectory. Both sound enticing, but at the moment, the former is where I lean. If you have other suggestions, I'd like to hear them. Quite frankly, it comes down to who I want to study with and what schools look good. PTS fits the bill, but it just means I will want to supplement my education later with more research into aesthetics.
Jason said…
I am somewhat new to The Fire and The Rose, so I am not entirely sure what sort of theology you practice -- but given that you were reared among evangelicals and are now at PTS, I imagine I could guess. If I am not too far wrong, then maybe a Barth quote would not be taken amiss:

“At this point we may refer to the fact that if its task is correctly seen and grasped, theology as a whole, in its parts and in their interconnexion, in its content and method, is apart from everything else, a peculiarly beautiful science. Indeed we can confidently say that it is the most beautiful of all the sciences. To find the sciences distasteful is the mark of the Philistine. It is an extreme form of Philistinism to find, or to be able to find, theology distasteful. The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts, and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk – taedium – in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do. But we must know, of course, that it is only God who can keep us from it.”

Karl Barth,
CD II.1.31.3

That is one of my favourite quotes of his, and has meant a lot to me. It is only in the last year or so that the real beauty and joy of theology has hit me -- which has always been my intuition, but has not been born out in my past experience (particularly in evangelical or Reformed theology).

Although I love Barth, I consistently find myself closer to von Balthasar when the two differ, and that might explain my suggestion: would it be possible for you to do theology through literature? This would bring the two into closer relation than merely the conjunctive ('x AND y') or even the 'insertion' (i.e. selective deployment) method that you suggest. Von Balthasar did this to some degree; David S. Cunningham does this as well in his _Reading is Believing_.

I'm not sure if you are a PhD student yet or not, but if you are looking for programs where you might be able to do theology through literature (or some other creative combination), I would encourage you to check out Cambridge. There are supervisors there that might be quite interested in this combination -- especially Ben Quash.

Anyway, sorry about the extensive comment, hope you don't mind.
D.W. Congdon said…
I am not yet a Ph.D student, but I hope to be one in short order. Thank you for your post, Jason. That quote is a favorite of mine as well.

My short response is that I plan to do exactly that, but only in my own personal research and writing. Presently, I am most interested in doing a Ph.D in dogmatic theology, and unfortunate that is also the most realistic option. As much as I love literature, I don't think it would persuade me to do something other than academic theological work on Barth and J√ľngel. Down the road, of course, I would very much like to bring the two disciplines together. I am sure there are professors out there who would encourage a blending of the two, but I think sticking with theology is both more feasible and more desireable at the moment.

That said, I look forward to bringing literature and film to bear on theological subjects.