A PhD in Literature and Theology as an exercise in spiritual discipline

by Anna Blanch on August 10, 2011

I’ve often enjoyed Elizabeth Jay’s writing. She is a fine scholar. I also hope that I fully come to understand the truth of the following paragraph:

The “sheer plod” and relative isolation of advanced study can produce troughs of depression and lack of confidence in even the brightest student, but I have rarely known a student working in “religion/theology and literature” to abandon the task, and this, I think, is because they are getting something more out of the pursuit than a qualification. Whatever the subject-discipline, to commit for three, or in the case of part-time students, five years, necessitates a real interest in the subject studied, but students of “religion/theology and literature” are gaining something more: regular periods of “turning attention” to matters worthy of their deepest concentration — in fact a kind of spiritual discipline. ~ Elizabeth Jay (116)

I strongly encourage those interested in Literature and Religion/Theology to get a copy of Literature and Religion, Volume 41.2. Summer 2009 where this Jay quote is from. The entire issue focuses on an extended discussion on what constitutes the field (and eve if there is a field to discuss).

If you’re engaged in writing a PhD, Have you ever thought of it as spiritual discipline?

Do you think the subject matter changes the way you feel about it?

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  • Matt Moser

    To be perfectly honest, if I didn't think of the PhD as a part of my spiritual discipline and growth, I would have failed. Seeing my work as an act of worship has been (at times) the sole thing to keep me sustained.

  • Rose Bexar

    Yes, actually. In fact, I know that at one point, I half-jokingly referred to working on my dissertation as my Lenten exercise for that year. (We don't observe Lent in my church.) And I do think that the deep spiritual refreshment I got from reading so many good, sound books was the main reason I was able to stick it out. Many times digging into my readings was very much like drinking something cold and sweet after a long, hot day, and I felt like I was making friends with people I'll never meet this side of Heaven.

  • literaryworkshop

    1. I don't know if my field is a spiritual discipline or not, but my dissertation/book has certainly required a great deal of discipline, and the process of writing it, as well as teaching literature that touches on religious and theological themes, has helped me answer a good number of personal, theological questions that have bothered me for years. Like C. S. Lewis once said, I don't get much out of "devotional" books; I'm more likely to gain some spiritual insight while working through a tough bit of theology, or explicating some stanza of Herbert or canto of Dante.

    2. I'm not entirely sure what your second question is driving at. Like any serious scholar, I have a personal investment in my work, and in some way I think it touches on questions of ultimate importance. At the same time, I have to allow for a gap between what I believe personally and what the authors I study and teach believe. For example, one day in class, I found myself adamantly defending the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory as Dante depicts it, not because I believed it personally, but because I was finding that my (mostly protestant) students were dismissing Dante because of it. Afterward, some Catholics in the room asked when I was going to convert. I had to laugh, because I don't personally find the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory compelling or even attractive, but can't appreciate Dante's poetry without taking the doctrine provisionally seriously. In my dissertation on Auden, I tried to explain the rationales for each of Auden's theological positions, and I hoped that my readers would not be able to tell which ones I personally disagreed with. (I think I succeeded, but RRR and DLJ are good at holding their cards close.) I'm trying to do the same in the book. I'm not out to convert anyone in my scholarly work, but I do want to offer a clear, precise, and nuanced explanation of Christianity so that, if a reader is going to reject Christianity, he or she is rejecting the real thing and not a stereotype or a caricature.

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