It is a question laid on the backs of those who are possessed with some inkling of promise; and, no doubt, on those who desire to take possession of a title, a status, for some particular end. The question itself presupposes a possibility; without such a possibility the question is superfluous. For the Christian, this possibility is fundamentally rooted in the volition of the Father. A disciple is both free and bound by the love of Christ, and thus cannot take up the question and address it as if she were lord over her own life. Nevertheless, I will attempt to give voice to my heart concerning this apparently important query by positing a series of reasons as to why I think the answer to the question for me is a “no”.
One of the reasons why I don’t believe pursuing a doctorate is on my agenda is because I am disillusioned with the academy. In a letter to Ewin Sutz, a friend from his time in Union Theological Seminary, Bonheoffer echoes what I have been sensing deeply for sometime:
I no longer believe in the University, and never really have believed in it – a fact that used to rile you. The entire training of young theologians belongs today in church, monastic-like schools in which the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship can be taken seriously which is really not the case with all three things at the university and, in present-day circumstances, is impossible.
Bonheoffer, of course, writes this after his many years at university, with two doctorates under his belt. But this historical fact I find compelling: This man, Dietrich, shares these words out of the context of his own experience as an academic; and that this was an insight that was reinforced by his experience in the academy and not birthed from it. In addition, he writes these words before he begins the famed underground seminary – an institution that looked more like a monastic order than the academy.
My disillusionment follows the same contour as Bonheoffer’s thinking, that the essential’s of Christian life and reality are simply not taken seriously in such institutions. In addition, my time within the academy for ten years has furnished me with a series of insights and experiences that fuel my distaste for the academy towards the end of cultivating Christian reflection and scholarship; nay, towards the ends of cultivating critical thinking period! This is not to say that no good can ever come from the academy. This is patently false. But why think it the sole vehicle for serious intellectual growth? Why believe a doctoral program the pinnacle of intellectual training?
Scholarship, the vanguard of the academy, is (amazingly) unimmunized to fads, pop-thinking, and shallow movements. I am unimpressed – perhaps pretentiously so – by the power and veracity of scholarship so called to obtain and secure truth, especially those truths given to the communion of sinners called the church which is the “ground and pillar of the Truth.” This is but a small expression of my disillusionment.
But above this concern regarding the state of the academy in se, I am struck with this historical reality: Though many of the great theological minds were furnished with ‘academic’ training, many were not – at least not on the level we would equate with doctoral studies (without being anachronistic). I just don’t think that serious theological contribution is limited to those who possess doctorates, or to those who have been formally trained. In fact, if the record shows anything, the vast majority of those who flow through the ranks of academic achievement and have experienced the intellectual rigors afforded by the academy (vis-à-vis doctoral studies), have fallen by the wayside of heretical thinking. This is not to say I am in full agreement with the Tertullian maxim to keep the church unpolluted by an “academic” thought-form – but I do believe his question must be asked again and again: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”
Historically, many of the church’s most influential theologians were individuals who were not theologically formally trained – though academically sharp – but were persons of the church (formed and sustained therein and not in a professor/scholar modality). The sharp divide of academic theology and ecclesial theology (pastor-theologian) is due in no small part to historical forces emanating from the scholastic period. Pursuing a doctoral program does not effectively remove one from the possibility of being a pastor-theologian; nevertheless, why think such a path necessary for serious contribution? Indeed, this path may help to facilitate such a goal, but is it required? Is it the best of all possible options? I don’t think it is. Especially given our current literacy, our resources and access, and our already furnished knowledge – things which were lacking in the past and could have only been achieved by way of funded and supported research and study. In other words, it is hard to imagine Martin Luther doing what he did (and discovering what he did) without his doctoral pursuit; such would have been virtually impossible in that socio-economic and ecclesial-political context. We, thank God, are not limited to such a context.
Now, if one’s end is to be an academician, I can’t see how that is achievable without the pursuit of a doctorate. I do think, however, that it is possible to be a scholar, a “respected” one, even though one has not submitted oneself to a doctoral program. My end is not to be an academician, nor do I desire to be a ‘scholar’ in the academic sense – funded by university – and restricted to a particular topic in writing & research. I’ve suspected for some time, and have seen in certain cases, a powerful curtailing effect on the creative process of theologians by way of institutional standards and expectations. Even the mode of scholarship pursued and celebrated in the academy, I find, is lacking pastoral and ecclesiological substance. Such scholarship tends towards abstraction. I do think such scholarship is needed, even for the sake of the church; nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder why it holds dominance as a mode of thought for the church. In addition, much of this scholarship is obsessive about tertiary sources and compulsive about producing something novel, rather than being committed in thinking to primary sources, as well as being committed to the true task of the church-thinking: To reflect via gospel truth and dynamics about those things that concern the church from within and without, being rooted in articulating the ancient faith for a modern era without compromise. Instead I see much novelty in the wrong sense of the word. In essence, I see the church thinking more like the world than the church, especially as she submits her mode of thinking to worldly institutional standards.
But aren’t the skills acquired via doctoral training – the seminar discussions and readings; the prolific amount of writing and revising; the language acquisition and scholarly instruction – necessary in order to be a responsible thinker and producer within the Kingdom? To this I say “yes.” However, why think these skills can only be obtained in an academic program? I believe the best part of doctoral studies – reading, writing, and discussion – could be achieved freely in a community of like minded thinkers. This will be no doubt challenging; it will require a great deal of intrinsic motivation and discipline to pursue that level of study voluntarily and without the support of a ready-made academic community of scholars and thinkers. But it is doable! And, I submit, has been done historically in the church. Sure, you won’t obtain the famed ‘PhD’ behind your name, and you won’t be called “doctor.” But who cares? How many are doctors in the theological sciences but are not Church Doctors? Why not initiate Bonheoffer-like monastic-seminary institutions and dive in?
It belongs to the nature of the world to be title-minded; access and doors of opportunities are granted to those who have appropriated formal training and certification. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Standards help facilitate excellence. However, one’s vocation in the Kingdom is not limited to a scholastic methodology (though it may include it); God, in other words, is not required to use the academy to make a theologian out of a man. Not only does church history show this, but it belongs to God’s typical pattern of volitional expression to use those methods and persons who are least likely to achieve what they do according to worldly standards. I find this fact to be utterly freeing. I also find it very attractive.