Skip to main content

tough subject

Image from studyinuk.universiablogs.net
The next milestone in my doctorate is looming on the horizon: the dreaded comprehensive exams. Basically, these exams test the student's general knowledge of their subject and two other related areas.  In my case the three areas of study are 20th century theology, ethics end encounter, and performance studies. I have spent the better part of six months plowing through a reading list of 69 titles in preparation for this exam which has two parts: a 3-hour test and a research paper. To be honest, this was the element of the degree that I most feared when I considered doctoral studies.  I have no problem doing research, writing papers, or even teaching, but being put on the spot with no idea what the questions might be and a very limited time to prove that I know what I am talking about: that's a scary thought. I am afraid I will draw a blank. It has happened before. I am one of those people who comes up with the perfect answer or comeback line the day after a conversation.  
 
Surprisingly, I am a lot less apprehensive about the upcoming exams than I thought I would be. For the most part, it is because I know a lot more about the subject matter than I did a few years ago. But also, I don't scare as easily and I am more accepting of the process I need to submit to in order to get where I want to go. Something I came across in my readings, an article by Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, resonated with my experience of studying theology and the learning journey in general.

Williams observes that difficult texts were highly prized in certain cultures, and he identifies three reasons for placing an elevated value on troublesome subject matter: 1) we do not value that which we discover rapidly or easily, 2) the unraveling of obscurity brings delight, and 3) learning (especially from Scripture) is a process - not a triumphant moment of penetration and mastery; it is an extended play of invitation and exploration. Williams concludes that studying the scriptures is a pilgrimage, a parable of our life.

In my experience as a teacher in both ecclesiastical and academic settings, the valuing of obscure texts and demanding subjects is in short supply. Many students want the easiest way through a class, trying to get maximum marks for minimum effort. Likewise, a good number of people in church settings are looking for simple answers to complex questions. These just don't exist, and Williams gives three good reasons why they shouldn't. I think part of the problem might be that we view understanding the scriptures as a task, an object to master, instead of a loving friendship to give oneself to. Another factor is that we lead such busy lives that many of us no longer have the patience for curiosity, wonder, and play. If you have ever watched a child with a new puzzle or game, you will observe the hours they spend focused on the challenge. If a simple game can garner such a devoted investment of energy, thought, and time, shouldn't the eternal sacred mysteries engage us to an even greater extent? In our fast-paced world, our values seem a bit skewed on this. Perhaps the most important factor here is the relationship between knowledge and love. The Swiss theologian, Balthasar, wrote that love precedes knowledge, and it is believed that Goethe said that one learns nothing except that which one loves. This has proven to be true in my situation. Love opens our hearts, our minds, and our lives. Love offers us a gift, and in return, it asks us to give ourselves. 

So bring on the comprehensive exams. I pray that I will be able to give my answers from a place of both love and knowledge. 

Reference: Rowan Williams, "Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's de Doctrina," Journal of Literature and Theology 3.2 (July 1989), 138-150.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

what does the cross mean?

Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but p…

stained and broken

Recently, I was asked to speak at another church, and the passage of Scripture which was assigned to me was John 1:6-8. "There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-8, Amplified Bible)

The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporati…

the songs we sing

NOTE: I am going to make some pretty strong statements below, but understand that it is my way of taking an honest, hard look at my own worship experience and practice. My desire is not to be overly critical, but to open up dialogue by questioning things I have assumed were totally fine and appropriate. In other words, I am preaching to myself. Feel free to listen in.

---------------------

When I am in a church meeting during the singing time, I sometimes find myself silent, unable to get the words past my lips. At times I just need a moment of stillness, time to listen, but other times, the words make me pause because I don't know that I can sing them honestly or with integrity. This is a good thing. We should never mindlessly or heartlessly sing songs just because everyone else is. We should care deeply about what we say in our sung, communal worship.

At their best, songs sung by the gathered body of Christ call to life what is already in us: the hope, the truth, the longing, t…