Theologizing Alone: Loneliness and Self-Promotion in Academic Theology

This post is for those who are wondering if PhD work is for them. It may be, but it is really important to look before you leap. The first item is an informal conversation with two of my fellow students under Kevin Vanhoozer, Paul Maxwell and Derek Rishmawy, about competitiveness among seminary students. The second is a reflection essay on the same topic that I wrote on the heels of an excellent conference in Houston for The Transdisciplinary Group.


Theology as Gift

Peter Leithart delivered an excellent talk last week in Houston titled “Gifts for Gift Makers,” where he likened the theologian to an artist who gives from what he has received through the participation in the liturgical life of the church. Theology on this view is a creative act of poesis, but one that is dependent on the gifts of God. Leithart encapsulated the theologians reception of these gifts with three words: hear, sing, and eat.

The talk was (for me) the culmination of a fantastic conference laying out a vision for trans-disciplinary scholarship. The conference was promoting a view of all disciplines as oriented toward the knowledge, service, and worship of God. I was greatly moved by a number of the talks, and encouraged to pursue my vocation along this narrow and untraveled path.

But Leithart’s talk also unintentionally introduced a very painful problem for me. It may be appropriate and natural to move from the eucharist to vocation, except that one of the most important aspects of the eucharist is its communal nature, while the theological vocation seems to be a individual sport. I say it “seems to be” descriptively, not prescriptively. It’s perhaps no good complaining at this stage in the game, but an academic vocation has its particular challenges. I have described PhD work as burning the candle at both ends to do something no one wants you to do. But considering vocation as gift gives special poignancy to the situation. I am giving a gift that (seemingly) no one wanted to receive in the first place.

What do I mean by the claim that it “seems to be an individual sport?” There are a constellation of problems that lead to the feeling of giving academic gifts to no one in particular, the feeling of isolation.

The Church and the Theologian

First, there exists an uneasy relationship between the church and the theologian. If a central part of the theologian’s task is to develop theology, then it is worth asking whether anyone else in the church thinks that theology needs to be developed. On the whole, they do not. Theology does not seem to be integral to the church’s own conception of what it is doing. In some segments of evangelicalism, biblical theology is valued, but theology as “biblical reasoning” (Webster) about God and all areas of life, is only theoretically necessary.

The church seems content to get on with the business of “doing ministry”, while the academy is grudgingly allowed to study in exchange for accrediting its ministers. Indeed, some churches seem to have come to see accrediting process itself as arresting to the business of doing church, preferring instead to raise up leaders from the inside. Moreover, the “resident theologian” is still exceedingly rare in the local church.

PhD as a Ticket to Prestige

Second, the allure of getting a PhD creates a complex problem. More people seem to be getting PhDs, and not always for great reasons. Academia has a certain prestige. Intelligence is one of the ways that we rank ourselves against each other. The more highly educated you are, the more intelligent you seem to be. Young people can see this as a ticket to respect (it’s not). This has led to a culture among evangelicals that the serious and important leaders do a PhD. The desire for a PhD can thus be seen as a desire to be important. Who knows you might become the next so-and-so? A PhD can’t hurt, can it? The fashionableness of a PhD produces suspicion about motivation, an intuition that all PhDs are simply out for prestige

The Flooded Market

Third, the combination of the uneasy relationship between the theologian and the church and the fashionableness of a PhD produces a real crisis of a flooded market. This flooded market is owing partly to a more general rise in the water level of education in all fields and partly to the decline of Christianity in Western civilization. In any field, jobless people often go back to school, to bolster up qualifications for another run at it. Young people are told that the masters degree is the new bachelors. Funded by increasing student debt, the industry of higher education is selling hope. Again, it can only help to get more education.

But in addition, jobs in Christian academia are even more scarce. The job market just hasn’t recovered since 2008. Every student has some idea about this coming in, but it is only on the back end that it becomes tangible. It is easy to assure yourself with the thought that the school is training PhDs, so there must be a demand. They let me in, and with funding!

But, there is no necessary relation between a school’s desire to train you, and a subsequent desire for your services. It is easy to climb the mountain of a PhD to find another peak waiting for you—the search for a job either in Christian academia or in an alternate career. Needless to say, it is not a stable time, psychologically speaking, to think about what else you could do in the world. Congratulations, you should never have done this.

Gift Giving and Self-Promotion

All of this leads to the culmination of isolation and my claim: academic ministry feels so little like a gift we give to the church because to survive in it seems to require self-promotion. To be fundamentally oriented toward self-promotion runs psychologically contrary to the proper orientation of gift giving in the context of the church (Rom. 12:3-8, 10; Phil. 2:4; Eph. 4:16; 1 Cor. 12:7). The more panic induces us to promote ourselves, the less we feel we are serving anyone but ourselves.

Because of the scant opportunities, academic ministry often rewards those who are best connected and most vocal at the expense of the pure form. Some of us feel that we are in academia because there was nothing else for us to do. In a world of action and progress, we are “overthinkers.” We are blessed (read: cursed) with the ability to see the problems, but also to envision some way forward.

The pure form is sometimes driven by a desire to help the church with these real problems. It may be motivated by questions and resources that the Christian tradition may offer to answer them. There are some of us who earnestly want to help and have been driven from the very beginning by a clear vision of how our academic labor might be able to. But without a receiver for our gifts, what options do theologians have but resigned frustration or increasing our volume?

So, on behalf of the pure form, I step very cautiously into the liturgical community and ask, what would you have us to do with our gifts?

Oh, Triune God who knows me
You have promised a place for me
That I may be where you are

You have granted me the way, the truth, life
You promised not to leave me orphaned
Your blood, Oh Christ, names you helper

And you have given another helper
Oh, Spirit, be with me, wait with me
Let me know your love
So, against silence I may love

Quotable: Serene Jones

“The question that drives these essays was formulated in those early days of reading trauma theory, and it has remained with me throughout the ten years it took to finish this book. It is simple in form but complex in content: How do people, whose hearts and minds have been wounded by violence, come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s graceAt the heart of this question sits a vexing problem: When people are traumatized, a kind of cognitive/psychic overwhelming breakdown can occur. When this happens, it becomes difficult for victims to experience the healing power of God’s grace because their internal capacities (where one knows and feels) have been broken. It is hard to know God when your knowing faculties have been disabled. It is hard to feel divine love when your capacity to feel anything at all has been shut down. Addressing this vexing challenge is the core aim of the book.”

Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured Word (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), ix.

Dr. Elizabeth Sung, Concerning Method and the Systematic Theologian


“If systematic theologians are to fulfill their distinctive vocation—enabling the people of God to ascertain (supremely from Scripture, subsidiarily from the sources of Christian tradition, reason, and experience) the fitting “conceptual terms and social forms”12 for performing the gospel within the ever-changing conditions of the novel contexts in which they find themselves—such reflection must engage many matters about which the Scriptures speak either negligibly or nothing at all directly.13 In such cases,the available data will underdetermine theory. But given the historical and literary integrity of the biblical writings as instances of specifically situated cultural-linguistic discourse, as well as their primarily religious interest in the restoration of the divine-human relationship and their consequent christological-soteriological focus,14 a relatively slim array of explicit biblical utterances on a given subject is no necessary indicator of its importance as an object for theological analysis. The latter manifests the more occasional and sapiential-existential (as compared to systematic and theoretical) character and orientation of the biblical writings; it does not express an intrinsic disinterest in or devaluation of matters related to human sociality (on which more below).”

12 Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 344.
13 E.g., metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical theories, not to mention the proliferation of complex twenty-first century social phenomena, possibilities and problems.
14 That Christology and soteriology are principal, unifying canonical interests is seen in paradigmatic texts such as Luke 24:26, 44-48, which recounts Jesus’ own practice of typological interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures with reference to his person and work.