WARNING: In what follows, rather than presenting a polished, well-reasoned blog post, I will be offering up my feelings (ugh, doesn’t that word just ooze yuckiness?), and quite likely reveal my own ignorance on a number of issues pertaining to higher education (theological and otherwise).
In about three weeks, I will walk across a stage at Friendship Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO, and receive my diploma for a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree. Last week I put the finishing touches on my master’s thesis, a socio-rhetorical study of the questions of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, and for the next two weeks I will be focusing all my efforts on clearing two more papers in time for graduation. Overall, seminary has been a satisfying experience. I have had my faith challenged and I have struggled (and continue to struggle) with belief in God, but I have enjoyed the luxury of time devoted to rigorous theological and biblical research.
After spending two years in the MDiv program at my seminary, I chose to switch to the MATS because the latter featured 1) a heavier focus on research, and 2) a more theological approach to seminary education, as opposed to the pastor-as-counselor approach which is fast becoming the norm for MDiv programs everywhere (and churches, too—whatever happened to the pastor-theologian?). I don’t regret my decision. The closer I get to graduation, however, the more I am asked by my friends and family, “So what are you going to do? Are you going to get a PhD?” My gut reaction is usually to say “Yes.”
But saying “Yes” is complicated. My MATS program has brought me to the door of doctoral work but isn’t quite enough to get me over the threshold. The gaping hole in my education is Biblical languages. In a city with so many seminaries, trying to find regular Greek and Hebrew classes in Kansas City is surprisingly akin to looking for water in the desert. I have six hours of Koine (the requirement for the MATS with an emphasis in New Testament), but no Hebrew. Most PhD programs require at least 12 hours of Koine (for NT students) and 6 hours of Hebrew, in addition to competence in Theological French and German. I would need another 1-2 years of language classes alone to even qualify for admission (although I am aware that most doctoral programs typically leave some room for language study during the first year). I would also have to retake the GRE. My seminary’s GRE-score standards for admission are pretty low, so I didn’t have to try too hard the first time in order to be accepted. Now I’m regretting that I didn’t do it right the first time.
I’m also not looking forward to traveling all over God’s green earth for a job, especially when my family has deep roots in the Ozarks of Southeast Missouri. At the risk of sounding whiny, I’m a small-town rural kid; my hometown is less than 400 people, and my entire family lives within a 10-mile radius. I don’t think I’d like to move much farther away than I currently am (though I know this is unrealistic).
A further complication: I am a man of many (let me stress that: many) interests. New Testament is my passion. But so is theology. And ethics. I have a serious inclination toward studying what the biblical narrative has to offer the contemporary struggle for non-human animal liberation (as I type this, a copy of SBL’s new Semeia volume, The Bible and Posthumanism, sits on my bedside shelf). Or maybe this is just a “phase” I’m going through. I don’t know. As an English major, literature is another one of my passions—particular the works of Flannery O’Connor. As I begin to consider PhD programs, I find myself pulled in a lot of directions, and they are all directions I want to go, but without sacrificing the other possible directions. Anyone know of a good PhD program where I can study New Testament, theology, ethics, animal liberation, and the works of Flannery O’Connor? No? I didn’t think so.
While I have considered a number of schools (though several of them are probably a bit out of my range, both in price and academic skill), I have grown disheartened by the extreme specialization of most available PhD programs. For instance, as I mentioned above, my master’s thesis focuses on Lukan rhetoric. During my research, I repeatedly encountered the works of Vernon Robbins and Mikeal Parsons. I would love to study with Parsons at Baylor (if they would have me, of course), but to commit to a program like that would probably be to commit to a very, very narrow discipline: Biblical Studies—New Testament—Luke—Rhetorical Criticism. While Lukan rhetoric is a subject that holds my interest (at least enough for me to write 120 pages on it), it is also not something upon which I would want to “hang out my shingle” as an academic. I am interested in being well-rounded in the humanities, and at the end of the day my greatest passion is being able to teach others about the subjects I have already mentioned.
I have frequently considered returning to seminary following graduation in order to finish my MDiv, which would only require a few more courses, and then entering the ministry. But I struggle with my faith so often that it seems like it would be disingenuous of me to pastor a church, and I don’t have the “CEO/counselor” mentality many churches are looking for these days in a pastor. I don’t think I would enjoy it or find it fulfilling at all. On some romantic, Rev.-inspired level, maybe. But I’d prefer to just be the occasional speaker or pulpit-supply person. In my mind, having the opportunity to really pour your heart into a whiz-bang sermon a couple times a year is a much sweeter gig than having to deal with parishioners and the weekly demand for enlightened guidance and communal introspection all the time.
Right now I’m feeling the crushing weight of anxiety all around: anxiety about my career and my ability to help my spouse pay the bills; theological anxiety; vocational anxiety. I really just want to do what I do best: teaching and speaking. I frequently question what I am doing in academia. I know I can do the work, but sometimes I just get so tired. But then other times I have good days, and I feel intelligent and capable. In the meantime, though, I keep hearing that question over and over: “So what are you going to do? Are you going to get a PhD?”