More Fretting About the PhD

Posted August 11, 2014 @ 9:56am | by Tripp

Amma Syncletica said, "We ought to govern our souls with discretion and to remain in the community, neither following our own will nor seeking our own good. We are like exiles: we have been separated from the things of this world and have given ourselves in one faith to the one Father. We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else."

The above is from Benedicta Ward's Daily Readings with The Desert Fathers. I try to turn to Amma Syncletica from time to time. Her's was a rigorous soul. The last line of this particular story always catches me up. I wrestle with my place in the world. It's an ongoing habit that I have failed to break over the years.

In spite of Jesus' admonition, I do worry for my life. I do. I fret. I'm good at it. I should have a doctorate in fretting rather than liturgics and ethnomusicology.

You want to fret? I'm your guy.

The more recent fretfulness has been focused on reputation and influence, "greatness," if you will. It's been couched in several different aspects of my life, but most recently it has been a question about getting this damn degree.

I call it the "damn degree" now. Why? Cussing has always made me feel better.

Also, hubris. I am awash in it.

"We need nothing of what we have left behind. There we had reputation and plenty to eat; here we have little to eat and little of everything else."

Lordy, but the economics of the academy have come off the rails, especially in the religious academy. I know many will disagree with me. I think that's a good thing. God forbid it that any one of us alone gets to say what is good, right, and true about what we do. That would be a disaster. But I keep thinking about Amma Syncletica and her understanding of the ascetic life and it's relationship to reputation or notoriety. Even if we are not called to the ascetic life, there is a good warning in her wisdom.

Why are you getting a PhD?
Why do you wish to serve in theological education?
What is your understanding of leadership and notoriety?

Because they are gonna come. Stand up in a pulpit in front of people and they come whether you like it or not. The classroom lectern is no different.

The PhD affords me the opportunity to teach in the seminary, in the college or university. I want to get up early and meet with students in a class room and discuss ideas, history, practices, the lives of the faithful so that we too might become more faithful. I want to help facilitate a conversation that can last a lifetime. For me, these are theological concerns and practices.

Temptation arises, of course, in the way this whole endeavor is structured. Who leads the conversation? Who holds power? Who is the "expert" in the room? Authority, hierarchy...there are some utilitarian realities that should be honored, but there is also an interpersonal dynamic at work that I still struggle with.

I want to be recognized without notoriety. I want to speak without bearing the weight of leadership.

I look at my heroes, the women and men who educated me. Sometimes I want to be like them. I do. But more truthfully, I want to help my students be like them. I don't care that much if I become like them.

I want more heroes. I don't want to be one.

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