Friday, November 22, 2013

tough subject

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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.

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