"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Journey to a PhD Begins

It’s finally happening. A dream that has been present and growing for a few years now is substantially closer to becoming a reality. This coming fall, I will be starting a PhD program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

This has been in the works for some time. It was a possibility that arose while at seminary working on an MDiv a few years back, though it was only a spark of an interest. At that time, I think I imagined doctoral work being a more distant rather than immediate pursuit, as my interest in church/pastoral ministry was also strong.

My experience in China deepened this interest further. And though we moved to Olympia shortly after marriage to plant a church, the possibility still loomed. Many of you know that this church planting endeavor did not pan out, ending with some hurt, confusion, and un-reconciled relationships that still sting.

But the “fallout” from this church experience also confirmed some things for me as far as what I believed and how I wanted to express these beliefs. Despite the pain and just plain weirdness, it was a fruitful experience.

Though, it has made it challenging at times to see where I fit in the world of Christian ministry, given what clarification I’ve found about my own beliefs and values through all this and how my perspective and approach, in some ways, puts me at odds with others in my own tradition.

This process—coupled with 1 ½ years of a very rich and educational experience at an English school that has grown me as a teacher, communicator, and reconciler of people who are different in different ways—has clarified my call to focus more fully on my dream of being a university professor of theology/religion. The obvious and necessary step was to pursue a PhD.

I spent a lot of time this past summer and fall researching schools, studying for the GRE, writing essays, reading books I thought I probably needed to have read, contacting professors, and seeking clarity about what exactly I wanted to study. I applied to five schools, was accepted to three of them (including Fuller and Claremont-Lincoln, both in L.A.), and ultimately chose the school that seemed the best fit, considering all the relevant criteria.

GTU, loosely affiliated with UC Berkeley, is a partnership of several seminaries and grad schools that is known for its excellent interfaith and ecumenical focus and opportunities. You can read more about GTU here: http://www.gtu.edu/about

Part of being accepted meant having a relatively narrow focus. As a chronically broad thinker, this took some work, and I have yet to narrow my focus enough to hone in on a dissertation topic. Fortunately, my proposal—part of my application—was focused enough to warrant my approval for admission and a substantial scholarship.

Here’s an excerpt from my “pitch” to the admissions committee:


I would like to explore and develop a theology and methodology of interfaith formation. The goal of my research (and ultimately book) is twofold: to encourage greater emphasis among Christians on character and moral formation (relying heavily on virtue ethics) and to encourage deeper engagement with other religious faiths as both a reconciliatory practice and a pragmatic means of deepening the character of Christians.

My dissertation would explore the necessary theological underpinnings of interfaith formation. It would involve thorough study of various religions (while heavily exploring one in particular). It would outline an implementable methodology for Christian churches. It would compare and contrast virtues and those saints considered to be morally excellent in their respective traditions and to what extent these moral exemplars can aid the Church. It would explore the ethical reasoning of differing religious and examine how such processes can shed light on issues faced by the Church. It would also explore historical attempts at interfaith spiritual formation and the success or failure of such attempts, critiquing these efforts while gleaning relevant strategies.


Essentially, my work will explore the place where interfaith dialogue intersects with ethics and character formation. Those of you who know me or have read some of the stuff I’ve written here will likely not be surprised by this—it probably sounds very “me.” These are my passions, and now I will get the chance to spend several years studying them and further developing my “voice,” hopefully making an increasingly greater contribution to both the Church and to the practice and “field” of interfaith conversation.

I hope to eventually teach at a university and feel like I would fit in both a more conservative evangelical setting as well as a non-religious school. I feel like my theology, attitude toward other faiths, personality, and philosophy of ministry would all “jive” in both these settings, though the experience would certainly be different in each. I also hope to write and be published...once I have something to say and can say it well enough. J

We’re excited to be moving to California, though it obviously comes at a crazy time with a baby due in late July. We’ll make it work. J It’s also hard to leave our life here in Olympia. When things didn’t work out like we expected in late 2010, I’m not sure we anticipated how attached we’d grow to our communities here—Joann with her Tumwater High School family, and myself with my EF International community of teachers and students. Leaving won’t be easy. But the opportunity being what it is makes it easy to be thrilled with what’s coming.

It’s a dream come true, and the beginning of a new journey. Thanks to all of you—whether you’ve helped me or harmed me—who have brought me to this place. I wouldn’t be here without the aid of others. I may have had some agency in my decision, but I’m indebted to the influences of others who’ve made this choice and decision even a possibility by the ways you've shaped me. Thank you.


Sarah Mazur said...

Congrats Matt! I'm excited for you and your growing family--it's quite an adventure :)

Sara Saxton said...

This is some amazing stuff, Matt. What an exciting time. Coming from a similar (same?) origin, I know it's not easy to reconcile what you truly believe with the established doctrine. I'm super excited about your ideas:).