Why Am I Doing a PhD? (am I crazy?)

Writing a PhD dissertation is hard. First you have to work through the classes and seminars that stretch your perspective through reading thousands of pages, writing hundreds of pages of peer-reviewed papers, engaging in cross-cultural discussion, and submitting to the scrutiny of your professors. Then you must pass language proficiency exams (I failed Theological German twice before I finally passed it the third time). Then, once the course work is done you must pass the Comprehensive exams, or, what I like to call, the pain-stick ritual. I studied a bibliography of over 100 books and then sat in a room all by myself for thirty-two hours over four sequential Thursdays, eight hours each day.

Once you pass all those classes and Comps, then you are given the privilege of submitting a research proposal. You are expected to come up with a compelling question that explores the intersection of sociology and theology, determine a relevant research methodology, give theoretical and theological warrants and frames for why you asked the question. Then, when your research is done, you are expected to contribute something unique to your field of study in the form of a written document that is generally between 250 – 500 pages long.

I have encountered one recurring question over the past 3 years as I have pursued the above list of waypoints. The question is, “Why?” It is usually accompanied by a contorted face that is difficult to discern between a look of “Oh, you poor thing!” and “Oh, you poor idiot!” My guess is that it is a mixture of both. Most people, in my opinion, think it is crazy that I’m doing this. Some of them mildly admire me for making the effort, few of them believe it is really necessary, and most of them just shake their heads and thank God that it isn’t them going through it. None of them, not even my wife, truly understands what it is like to go through it and balance full-time ministry and family along with the process.

“Why?” they ask. Trust me, I ask myself that question often, especially when the stress level gets to the point of near mental breakdown. My answer boils down to one simple word. Love. I love God, the church, and the world.

I realize that this may sound trite, but I truly mean this. Let me explain. First, when I say love, I don’t mean that gushy, sentimental feeling we get when we watch a Hallmark movie or see a cute puppy or go on a first date. If that was my reason, then I would have high-tailed it out of there when I saw my first syllabus on the first day of class. No, love is something so much deeper than that. It is like a root that burrows deep into the core of your being that wraps so tightly inside of you that when it seems that all else has been stripped away by the storms of stress, conflict, and even persecution, the root remains.

I love God. I don’t understand God. In fact, the more I study theology at the PhD level the less I understand God and the more I stand in awe at the complexity, beauty, and incomprehensible love and grace that is the Triune Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of this amazing universe. I have known God’s love since I was a child as it was first manifest through my parents. I have always wanted to live my life in service to and for the glory of God. My understanding of God has been viewed through the Baptist lens, the Mega-church Evangelical lens, the Emerging Church lens, and now is expanding exponentially through the missional/Lutheran lens. The constant throughout all these lenses is my personal experience of God’s love and grace in my own life and the deep sense that God has led me to each place–pain and all–that I have lived and served. The leading usually betrays conventional wisdom, in that it has never involved financial gain or prestige. I have simply felt, and sometimes even heard, God’s voice softly telling me to go and follow that path. Then I have followed, because I love God and trust in God’s love and faithfulness to me and to the world God created.

I love the church. That’s hard to believe after all that I’ve been through in the church. I grew up as a pastor’s kid and watched the church repeatedly abuse my parents. I have been frozen out of one church staff, walked out on by close friends in another church, and have weathered the storms of many nasty church fights. Why would I love the church, let alone stay working in the church? Trust me, I’ve asked myself that question many times, and have tried to run away from the church and make a living as an artist. Each time God calls me back. Why? Because the church is people and people are a wonderful mess that are loved by God and are in the complex process of growing up and growing into the grace of God. I’m just as messed up and hurtful as any of the people that I have perceived to have hurt me in the past. I can’t blame them for what they have done. I can only love them and seek to be a conduit of God’s grace as God works in, with, under, against, and for each of us to deepen us and expand us in God’s grace and mission in the world. With all its faults, the church is the only place where people are gathered around the risen Jesus and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, are sent to be prophetic partners in the world. I love the church, warts and all.

I love the world. I’m not referring to “the world” that the Apostle John noted when he said, “Do not love the world.” He was referring to the “ways of the world” or the distorted thinking of the world that is contrary to the grace of God. Of course I struggle, along with everyone, to (a) discern what is the “ways of the world” in our context, and (b) not love “the ways of the world” rather than the ways of God. But that is not what I mean when I say that I love the world. I love this universe that God created. I no longer have a dualistic view of the universe in which God is completely separated from the universe and will someday wipe it all away, saving only a few of us who “prayed the prayer” and start over from scratch. I believe that this universe is eternally being created by the relationship of the Triune God and that the vast complexity and diversity of the universe is the natural reflection of God and through which God is continually speaking. The apostle Paul indicated that even creation groans for God’s promises to be fulfilled. The metaphorical image of the New Jerusalem in John’s Revelation was not a picture of people being snatched up to an otherworldly place, but was a picture of a city of God descending to earth. The new heaven and new earth that Peter speaks of is not, in my opinion, a physical destruction of the planet/universe, but a transformation of all things into the preferred and promised future that God is continually unfolding and inviting us into. I love the world because I am part of this world and cannot be anything other than that. The world needs to know the grace and love of God that is a peace that passes all understanding, demonstrated through Jesus and made accessible through the Holy Spirit. This is God’s mission in the world and we are invited to join it every day.

Why do I struggle through a PhD? I do it for love. I believe God has called me to do it. I believe that the things I’m learning in this program and through the process of my research are helping me to be a better servant of the church and companion in God’s grace in the world. I hope that my research will encourage others to grow in the grace of God and imagine new ways to be in this world that God loves so much so that we can grow together and live into God’s preferred and promised future.

That’s why I do it.

One thought on “Why Am I Doing a PhD? (am I crazy?)”

  1. Steve,

    I wondered “why” you were “studying” for your PhD. This helps a lot. God needs people like you; The church needs people like you; and communities need people like you.

    I supported my younger daughter through her PhD studies (not at a seminary), so I experienced her journey and got a sense of what is involved in a PhD. Words like perseverance, determination, and stubbornness, seem to capture some of it, but I like the words zeal, fervor, and courage, too.

    I offer up Col. 1: 9–14 in prayer for you as your studies continue.

    I also love the church. That love is one reason I stick with it. I offer up this short definition of church: compassion and transformation in Christ’s community.

    Continued blessings, zeal, fervor, and courage.

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