Thursday night I attended a fairly new Feminist Theology Reading group at a colleague’s home. It is strange. I identify as a feminist. I did a fair bit of work in feminist studies in college. And, yet, I don’t feel called to identify as a “feminist theologian.” I am a theologian who is a feminist. There was an opportunity at this gathering to check in about how it was going being a feminist in the academy, or the church, or whatever… and it occurred to me that I’m not really wearing that hat all that much these days. I had nothing to report. I don’t want to ride on hard-won privileges and fail to admit that there is much hard work yet to be done. But I came here very much wanting a better understanding of the Christian tradition. I wanted to fill in gaping holes in my historical knowledge. I hope that once these holes get filled in, or once I have a better grasp of the wider arc of the history of doctrine, I’ll be able to engage my teaching and research with a feminist consciousness. Really, I hope I’m already doing that. It is a good thing I’m participating in this group, however, because I’m way out of the loop and my consciousness has likely grown dim.
Anyhow, as I was leaving the group a colleague who is farther along in her studies asked me how I was feeling about this semester. When last we checked in, it was early in the previous semester and I was not feeling well at all. I said “Well, I had my last of three classes today and I feel quite good about this semester. I feel that all my classes are going to help me to work on very particular growing edges I know I have and they’re all going to be helpful with exam preparation.” Her eyes bugged out, “Wow,” she said, “No one ever says that about coursework.” This is the same colleague who responded to my declaration that I had fun in my interview for my fellowship program “Wow, no one ever says that about the interviews.” O.K., I’m a freak.
But I honestly believe this. The truth is that I find this prospect simultaneously intimidating and exciting. It might be nice if one of my three classes was a place where I got to work out of my strengths, but… what is Ph.D. coursework for if not to build new intellectual muscles, develop good scholarly habits, cultivate new skills and abilities? Here’s what’s on deck this semester and some thoughts about the ways each class is going to help me to grow. (I’ll check in at the end of the semester to see if it has panned out the way I am anticipating now…)
Monday-Wednesday-Friday- 2nd Semester of the Introductory Theology Class at my university- I’m t.a.ing again. But… it is and will be different. Different prof, first of all, lower keyed expectations. I won’t be grading every week, phew. But this does present growth opportunities. First, the whole focus of the class is on ecclesiology and it is being taught by a comparative theologian who thinks big picture in terms of church. Given that my primary doctrine of interest is ecclesiology, an introductory course taught by someone who will inevitably approach the matter very differently than I would is a GREAT opportunity. Further, I will be lecturing this semester. That scares me, a lot. I’m signed up for, of all things, a lecture on “Eucharist, Racism, and Black Bodies.” I do not feel at all qualified to give this lecture, but I think that given our current ecclesial context this is particularly good work for me to engage. The lecture is late in the semester so I have time to get ready. This is a growing edge for lots of reasons, but a good one… a very good one. I facilitated my first discussion of the semester (this is what I do on Fridays) this past Friday and it went well. I seem to have a very strong group. There are a lot of men in my group, 9 men to 4 women. That’s an unusual balance for this school, and I suspect that facilitating a group with that gender breakdown could also be a growing edge for me.
Tuesdays- A Seminar on Thomas Aquinas- It seems pretty darn important to know a good deal of this man’s thought. If I’m truly interested in the church universal… um… he’s pretty important in many ecclesial circles. This is one of those historical gaps that needs filling for me. That said, am I super excited about slowly working through portions of the Summa? Um, frankly, no. This is not the most scintillating reading ever and it is requiring a lot of backdoor learning of philosophy 101 (but this is good, another growing edge), but the assignments for this course are structured to help improve our skills as readers of important texts and I truly need skills built in that area. Further, Aquinas is one of those figures I need to know for my comprehensive exams. So, hopefully I’ll bone up on my ability to navigate philosophy, learn about Aristotle (backdoor… like I got Plato through the backdoor of Augustine), get a good grasp on Aquinas’ teaching, and become a better reader in the process. All good stuff. This class is being co-taught by the man who may well end up being my advisor and by the historian with whom I worked so closely all last year. Working with the man who may well be my advisor is another growing edge for me. A good one.
Wednesdays- Seminar on Theological Anthropology- this class is fulfilling several requirements for me and it has been designed in a very creative way. The main assignments, other than a big term paper (which itself is a growing edge, I’ll get to that), are all geared to helping us learn to teach for ministry. At some point this semester I need to facilitate a half-hour class period around a particular text with a particular ministry context of one of m.div. field ed students in mind. The first class period we were visited by M.Div. students in field work and read, before class, context statements and case studies from their sites. One guy is working in an institution with profoundly physically and developmentally disabled folks and with less profoundly disabled folks who have been convicted of crimes. I suspect I’ll be working with his context throughout the semester. This allows me to do some more thinking on disability.. something my time in L’Arche led me to do much thinking about, but about which I’ve yet to pursue any formal study. I have a knee-jerk anti-institution mindset. I think that thinking on this context will really stretch me in important ways. I also need to develop a four week syllabus chunk on how I would teach theological anthropology in an M.Div. level class. It feels like this class follows well on my teaching for ministry seminar last semester. I really want to be able teach theology grounded in the real practice of ministry, but I’m not at all confident that I have the first clue how to do that. So… this is a big growing edge. And syllabus design? Gigantic growing edge. And that term paper? It is to be a constructive statement of my own theological anthropology. I need to get much stronger about constructing my own theology. No way around it in this class… gotta find a way to do it. So… big growing edge. Very excited about this class. We’re reading a number of classical texts that I need to read for exam purposes and a number of intriguing contemporary texts as well.
Thursdays- Seminar on 19th Century Theology- a requirement. Not thrilling material for me. But necessary… all of it… GIGANTIC, gaping hole in my knowledge when it comes to the 19th century. I’ve read a bit of Schleiermacher and that’s it. So, it’s all new material to me. And a lot of it is philosophy (working Hume at the moment). And the weekly assignments for this class are going to develop other particular reading and writing skills that truly need developing in me, as will the final paper. This class is also taught by the man who is likely to be my advisor… and, again, it is a growing edge to work with him.
So… wow. That’s a lot. But it’s all really good. It feels like I’ll be doing precisely what I came here to do.
There’s no class tomorrow because of the holiday, but I’ll be busy for much of the day… two writing assignments already and LOTS of reading.
I didn’t get as much done yesterday as I had hoped, but I don’t feel as behind as I did after week one last semester.
One day at a time. Just because I haven’t done it before, doesn’t mean I can’t do it. And just because I’m not good at it now, doesn’t mean I won’t be eventually. I’m here to learn. I’m here to learn. I’m here to learn. And this semester presents excellent opportunities for the fulfillment of that purpose.