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.