“You’re Studying What?” How I Ended Up in Theology

I’m currently in my third year of a PhD program in theology, in the area of systematic theology. When asked for a quick definition of what exactly that is, I usually find myself at a bit of a loss. Perhaps I should simply confess that we’re those awful “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” types. (And despite the name of the field, we’re not even all that systematic about it.) I work a lot with 20th century Protestant and Catholic thought, and my interests include the relationship between grace and human freedom, the challenges posed by religious pluralism, and narrative theology.

I frequently get asked, by both members and non-members, how a Mormon ended up in such a field. It’s certainly not what I planned on doing when I first headed to grad school; I was aiming for a PhD in history, which was what I’d studied at BYU, and at that point it had never even crossed my mind that I might study academic theology. I’d never heard of anyone else doing it, and I’m honestly not sure to what extent I was aware that such a discipline even existed. But as early as my first semester as a grad student in history, I had an uneasy sense that I was doing the wrong thing. I was reluctant to acknowledge that feeling, however, because after going through the immense stress of grad school applications and decision-making and moving to a new place where I didn’t know anyone, I had no desire to start over.

Yet I couldn’t help noticing that I was much more interested in the theology I encountered (my emphasis was on early modern Europe, which meant that I was doing a lot with the Reformation and particularly Martin Luther) than in the more historical side of things. I started thinking more and more about the option of leaving history, and seriously pursuing this theology thing. It seemed like a somewhat crazy idea, especially considering that despite a bit of dabbling in the subject, I didn’t actually know all that much about it. But at the same time, it just felt right, and it was really that sense that gave me the motivation to go through with the process of applying to theology programs despite my uncertainties. I stayed long enough in my history program to complete an MA, and then I headed off to see what doing an MTS (Master of Theological Studies) would be like.

My first year as a theology grad student, I was completely giddy; I fell head-over-heels in love with what I was studying. I was utterly amazed by how something about which I’d previously known so little had turned out to be so exactly what I wanted to do. I’d generally enjoyed school previously, but I’d never felt such overwhelming passion for a subject, and my long-suffering family and friends got to hear probably far more about theological studies than they’d ever wanted to know.

By the time I completed the degree, however, I was seriously questioning whether I should continue in the field. I had not anticipated how difficult it would be to deal with the conflicts I continually encountered between Mormonism and theology, and during my second year in particular, issues related to that had caused me enormous amounts of stress. In addition, I had failed to get accepted to any PhD programs, which left me at a very low point in terms of academic confidence. I talked a lot about doing something else. But I think I always knew underneath that I couldn’t bear to walk away from the study of something I found so compelling, and so I applied again to do doctoral work (this time with happier results).

And here I am. As skeptical as I sometimes am about the possibility of divine intervention in my life, when I look back at my initial decision to venture into theology I find that I can’t not see the hand of God at work, and I feel tremendously grateful to have been encouraged in this direction. It’s true that I have days when I’m so sick of what I’m studying that I don’t want to hear another word about religion, as well as days when I’m plagued by self-doubt and wonder whether I really have what it takes to get through this. I also have more than a little anxiety about the very real concern of whether this degree is ever going to land me a job. But when it all comes down, I find it quite difficult to imagine doing anything else.


  1. Lynnette,

    What an amazing academic journey. I’m so glad that you’re enjoying theorizing on things like “the relationship between grace and human freedom.”

    I can relate to your feeling of divine intervention notwithstanding your stated skepticism of such ethereal experiences. I ended up studying for a PhD in Chemistry–and while during the process of choosing a school I prayed and hoped for a clear-cut answer, it was only after the decision was made (4 years after, actually) that I came to really believe that I was supposed to be at that institution at that time. It’s coming to believe small (or big, depending on your perspective) things like that, that continue to hold me to our religion.

  2. I’ve been grateful to have divine guidance and affirmation in my academic studies as well. It really helps me to deal with all the stress and obstacles I’ve had to deal with while getting this degree.

  3. Lynnette,

    I feel like I should be voted an honorary sister to the ZDs… First it’s Eve, and now it’s you describing circumstances similar to my own (or perhaps it’s just that I’m totally narcissistic and see myself everywhere…hmm…best not to dwell on that just yet…).

    I, too, am drawn to theology, and I, too, found myself studying one thing and finding myself fascinated by the other. In my case, I was in the midst of my MA program in literature when I realized that all of my papers were focused in one way or another on the theology of the characters or authors. I started to seriously consider applying to divinity schools, but somehow ended talked myself into persuing a more “useful” (heh) PhD in lit. I went through the trouble, stress, and expense of applying to literary programs, got accepted, and moved to NYC, and then ultimately decided that it wasn’t what I wanted anymore. It took me a year to realize it, and the waters were significantly muddied by numerous other circumstances, but ultimately, I just didn’t want to pursue it anymore. I seriously felt like something had reached inside me and “turned off” a life-long desire, and I really didn’t know what to do with that.

    I’m still not totally sure what to do with that (though I have a pretty good idea I’m still struggling to act upon), but I know I made the right decision for me. I don’t miss my studies, but whenever I do think of going back to school, I know that the one thing I’d like to pursue would be theology. So…uh…recommend any good programs? 🙂

  4. Aspen, thanks for sharing your experience. I definitely agree that it’s those kinds of things which keep me in the faith despite my struggles with it. As in the situation you describe, I find that it’s often only in looking back that I can detect those traces of divine influence– I rarely get clear-cut answers, and the present tends to feel overwhelmingly murky and ambiguous.

    S, like you, I think that periodic reassurance that God is supportive of this has made a huge difference for me. Sometimes when things have been particularly hard, I admit that I’ve wondered whether I’ve made the whole thing up, but luckily there’s been enough consistency that it’s gotten harder to convince myself of that.

    EmilyS, I would love to vote you an honorary sister! 🙂 I too am intrigued by the parallels of your story to my own, and it’s great to hear from someone else with a real thirst for theology. (If you ever do decide to go back to school, definitely send me an email!)

  5. EmilyS, I think if you (and others who have kindly dropped by) weren’t already established at FMH, we’d try to poach you! (Don’t worry, FMHites; we respect your sovereignty and prior claim, and we’ll be happy just to enjoy her visits.) I’m far too easily distracted by random pursuits, but I’ve settled fairly happily into literature as my first love (although like you, I find that religion keeps popping up.) I sometimes tease Lynnette (and Terebinth, whom I’m trying to lure away from her finals into posting) that they were born to study religion because they took it so seriously as adolescents. In conversations about religion, Lynnette will often mentioning wondering about the nature of God or sin or whatever in Primary or Young Women’s, a stage of life and church activity that for me was dominated by the question, “Will there be treats?”

  6. Aspen, it’s nice to have a scientist around here. I hope you continue to share your experiences–I think you can bring us a valuable perspective that none of us are in a position to offer. And I too like what you say about coming to know that you are where God would have you be. It’s profoundly grounding and comforting.

  7. Lynnette,

    I love this blog! The world can’t have enough feminist Mormon blogs. That’s why I’m currently trying to set one up for Exponent II, and it’s been slow going. Would you mind emailing me at carolinekline@aol.com? I’ve got a few questions about how you set this blog up. Thanks!

  8. Lynnette – I don’t think anyone [Mormon] has ever asked me what you were studying without immediately following it up with “Is she active?” It’s funny on one level and tragic on another, and once I told someone you were six times more active than he was because you go to Sunday School every day.

    I had a similar, though less dramatic, experience at BYU that moved me from English to linguistics. I’m afraid I’m revisiting it now, in my English graduate program, but I think I’ll go on a mission, come back, and then decide.

  9. OK, Melyngoch, here’s the plan. When you arrive at the MTC, you’ll find a cake waiting for you, and baked inside will be a PDA which will transmit directly to this blog….or maybe we could hook a transistor to your nametag… ;>

  10. Melyngoch, I think that people are probably a bit less likely to ask me that to my face, but I’ve occasionally gotten that question, too. Since my activity level seems to depend on the month, I don’t usually have a clear answer–but your “six times more active” response made me laugh!

    That’s really neat that you’re opting for a mission; I have to admire you for what I’m guessing was a difficult decision.

  11. Lynnette,

    I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve gotten responses similar to Melyngoch’s when telling other Mormons that you study theology. Perhaps it’s a bad word for us. One of my friends who is Catholic, though, thinks it’s really cool. (Well, I think it’s cool too, and I’m Mormon, but I probably don’t count.)


    I think it’s great that you’re going to serve a mission. I like the idea of smuggling you some kind of portable electronic device that will allow you to blog to us from Northwest Cheeto Land or wherever it is you’re called. In fact, I think such a device should take dictation so that you can blog simply by talking. The possibilities for fun are endless!

  12. What an exciting journey! I think it’s wonderful that you were able to switch gears and find the field you truly love.

    I had a similar experience in some regards, except that I haven’t been able to get into the field I know is my true calling. I started out in classics and left after my M.A. But life interfered (I married my prof husband)and therefore became geographically limited. I’ve meandered in fields I’m not passionate about (education, library science) but I’m still hoping that somehow, I’ll find a women’s studies program that will work for me.


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