Since I defended my dissertation, I have begun thinking that it would be helpful to me to try to take stock of what brought me to this point — what influences and convictions have come together in my work — in the form of a “narrative CV.” I’ve invited the other main-page bloggers of AUFS to contribute their own, and I hold out some hope that it might inspire those beyond this blog to write up a similar reflection.
As I look at my dissertation project, I am impressed by how much of my previous work has come together. Influences from as far back as my time studying with Craig Keen at Olivet –namely Barthian theology and “postmodern theory” — have made themselves felt, though significantly displaced by now. Though I remain a great admirer of the work of Barth and hope my theology evinces a certain kind of loyalty to him, I am now much more interested in the later German theology that followed in his wake, as illustrated by my use of Bonhoeffer and Soelle. My interest in “postmodern theory” began with a focus on Derrida but increasingly mutated into an interest in Marxism after my encounter with Zizek, and several core convictions that I would call “Marxian” — convictions surrounding notions of property and community — are very much at work in the dissertation. At the same time, I have followed up on my initial interest in Derrida by using the basic concepts of Jean-Luc Nancy throughout.
The mutations in these initial interests came from my work at the Chicago Theological Seminary. My interest in Bonhoeffer springs from a course taken with Laurel Schneider in my first semester there as a masters student, and the infamous “20th Century” exam provided a kind of trial by fire in getting ahold of the later thinkers as well. My interest in Marxism as in Nancy was inspired primarily by my advisor, Ted Jennings.
CTS added another element as well: a sense that I need to hold myself somehow accountable to the full range of what might be called “liberation theologies.” Unfortunately, in my dissertation this aspect is mainly confined to what in a more traditionally-structured dissertation would be the “review of the literature” section, though the concept of han, drawn from Korean theology, plays a decisive role in my final constructive chapter.
Perhaps the most defining trend of my PhD work at CTS has been my reading of patristic and medieval theology. The initial impetus came from Ted — when I asked what I might study in the “free time” between my MA and PhD, he suggested going through some traditional texts that I might otherwise never get around to. This seemingly innocent suggestion quickly mutated into two massive directed readings in patristic and medieval theology, which then became an exam area as well as a central focus of my dissertation — and probably the most convincing part of that project. That is also where I spent the most concentrated effort developing my teaching competence.
While this emphasis on the tradition is superficially the most recent addition to my repertoire, I believe its roots are actually deepest, stemming from my conversion to Catholicism early in college. My conversion was motivated primarily by idiosyncratic emotional concerns, but it manifested itself mainly intellectually. As a senior in high school I read the full Catechism and thereby became acquainted with the basic outlines of the ancient debates over Trinity and Christology, and in my freshman year I read all of Pelikan’s multi-volume history of Christian doctrine — the first three volumes of which I have subsequently read multiple times. When I turned to the primary texts, therefore, I already had a clear historical framework in place, indeed clear enough that I could begin reading my sources against the grain of the traditional narrative even as my reading enriched my understanding of the debates culminating in the codification of orthodoxy. The end result was a sense of the profound weirdness of the Christian tradition, on the level of both individual figures and the broad strokes.
My distance from the institutional church — already well-established by the time I started my PhD — also helped here, as I could combine a deep intellectual interest in the tradition with a complete freedom from any apologetic or (institution-specific) reformative interest and could therefore let my research take me where it would without fearing that I might either become unorthodox or find that traditional figures would undermine the intellectual basis of a crusade against any particular institutional structure. I feel a profound freedom toward the tradition, and I believe that this is an area where I have at least the potential to make a significant contribution.
So far, the published evidence of my work with the tradition is very thin — though an article on Augustine coming out next year in the Scottish Journal of Theology is among the pieces I’m proudest of. Most of my published work at this point is on continental philosopy, particular as it relates to religion. The most significant work on this front is of course my book Zizek and Theology, but I have also published articles on Butler’s critique of religion and Derrida’s Gift of Death. This reflects the fact that by the time I started my PhD, my work in this area was most “ready to go” and my seminar papers in courses related to this field could most easily be turned into articles.
The article that most directly anticipates my dissertation is “That They Might Have Ontology,” which was originally my contribution to a panel on Theology and the Political, which used that edited volume as a starting point for a wide-ranging assault on Radical Orthodoxy. Perhaps most remarkable in retrospect is that what would become the central claim of my dissertation — that atonement theory must presuppose some form of human solidarity to make sense — is tossed out almost as an aside, and my reference to Gregory of Nyssa anticipates the central role of the devil in the argument of my dissertation. Other elements are already in place as well, such as the reference to Nancy and the need to be in dialogue with liberation theology. Though the critique of Radical Orthodoxy is not overt in my dissertation, I do see myself as taking their basic approach — engaging with the latest European philosophy and political theory and putting it in contact with the tradition — but doing it right: dropping the apologetic stance, completely avoiding the bizarre practice of setting up the contemporary figure as a straw man for the traditional figure to defeat, and above all rejecting the claim that Christianity must be understood in terms of Neoplatonism. My dissertation is an initial attempt to draw an ontology out of the tradition, whereas Radical Orthodoxy simply reasserts the ontology that the tradition has primarily been in dialogue with.
My question now is where to go from here. My initial obligations are to produce more work related to contemporary continental philosophy, in the form of a book chapter and a review essay (and perhaps an additional article), along with a side project on the concept of awkwardness for Zer0 Books, which will also be drawing on continental philosophy. My ultimate goal is to go through all the major loci of systematic theology by means of a close reading of representative texts, as I have already done with atonement theory — all with a focus on developing the social-relational ontology that I believe is implicit in the Christian tradition. Given my social-relational focus, my first step along these lines will most likely be the doctrine of the Trinity, with a particular focus on Augustine’s De trinitate. Yet I believe that I need to enrich the philosophical side of my approach as well, and that will most likely take the form of a book-length study of Jean-Luc Nancy’s ontology.
Since I just finished my dissertation and am still engaged with it as far as pursuing publication, naturally it is difficult for me to think concretely about another major project at the moment — and I am still trying to determine whether it is better to follow up on the philosophical or theological side of my research agenda first. Getting some clarity on the next step in my broader research project will be a primary goal this summer, as I finish up the writings I have already promised and look toward the next round of job applications.