Tuesday, March 20, 2007

throwing in the towel - part 2

I need to back up and cover some things that didn't come out in my historical sketch. Shortly before I went off to Bible college, my boss took me out for a steak dinner. He was a professing Christian and a bit eccentric. He always seemed to have some kind of grand idea about ministry, but there could also be a disconnect between his outspoken faith and his behavior in business. The point of our meeting (it turned out) was to try to persuade me that going to a small Bible college was a mistake. He told me that formal education is not about learning (which you can do anywhere) but about credibility. When I graduated, what I most needed was a name that people would recognize. He was speaking from his own experience of going through some sort of training program run by New Tribes Missions, which apparently wasn't quite what most churches were looking for in a pastor. But I was young and idealistic, and his words sounded to me like compromise. I gave them little thought and went ahead with my plan.

Of course, I eventually came to see his point, especially as I went looking for a Ph.D. program, for the sole purpose of winning credibility in the job market I had chosen. I believed firmly that my Th.M. was enough training for the career I wanted; it was because others would expect the doctorate that I had to go on. But another reason that I went on for the Ph.D. (and this is wrapped up with my decision to pursue an academic career in the first place) was a desire to get out of the Evangelical box I found myself in. Both in college and in seminary I went through similar scenarios, where theological debates erupted. In one case, a prominent faculty member lost his job over the position he took (which was not explicitly against the school's doctrinal statement but still ran up against the views of some powerful alumni). In the other, I found myself caught in the controversy and nearly resigned my position over it. I also didn't feel much like dealing with the personal issues that would inevitably plague a local church ministry. I wanted to retreat into academics. So, I didn't want to be a pastor, and although I wanted to teach, I didn't want to be stuck in a Bible college somewhere. The Ph.D. program was supposed to be my way out, without wasting the work I'd put in already.

But it often happens that the attempt to deal with bad decisions short of repentance only makes things worse. It's like the guy who refuses to ask for directions, even though he's thoroughly lost, and continues to drive around until all hope is gone. I found myself stuck in a rut, where the only solution I had to changes in my perspective was to keep going to school and hope things would work themselves out. In the meantime, I was ignoring most other aspects of life, most of them much more important--my relationship with my wife, my own spiritual life, our spiritual life together, having kids, etc. I learned a great deal in seminary and graduate school--there's no question about that--but I was so buried in coursework that I hardly even noticed that life was going on around me. It was also going on inside me (or rather, it wasn't), as my spirit steadily shriveled up without any real nourishment. The great danger of academic work in the areas I was studying is that it can easily pass for a spiritual endeavor without being anything of the sort.

I'm not going to re-hash the intellectual progression that got me to where I am now. I'll simply make the point here that my graduate education (including seminary) has been intertwined with a set of misplaced priorities. Julie wanted to start having kids much earlier than we did, but she sacrificed that goal for my education. She worked full-time while I was in seminary and during the three years of coursework for a Ph.D. She spent her evenings alone--in fact, we spent very little time together over those years--and established patterns that now make it difficult for us to interact substantively. For the most part, we did not pray together, read Scripture together, or interact seriously on spiritual issues. As far as that goes, I did not pray, read Scripture (devotionally, as opposed to assigned work for class), or do much of anything for my own spiritual development. My primary effort for personal development was intellectual--I tried to apply the skills I was acquiring to a more rigorous study of theology--but the conclusions I reached rarely had any impact on my spiritual life.

During my Ph.D. coursework, I started to experiment with various devotional mechanisms--Orthodox fasting, Jewish prayer, etc. I got some benefit out of these things, but they were stop-gap measures and never really went anywhere lasting. Also, by that point Julie and I were in such completely different places spiritually that I didn't even consider involving her in these experiments. When I finally reached the point where I knew I needed to take more drastic measures, there was no common ground on which to address the issues. And even that point didn't come until after I'd finished coursework. In general, my life since then has been about re-acquainting myself with human existence. I got interested in politics for quite a while, which wasn't really on target but at least had more relevance than I'd seen in a long time. Now my interest is in the spiritual life, which has been going on for a few years, and I hope and pray it continues.

Of course, it's also during this time that my focus on academics has reduced to almost nothing. I'm not saying that it couldn't have been otherwise, but the contrasts have awakened me to what I believe are the serious underlying problems. To return to intensive academic work now would mean de-emphasizing my own spiritual development and the strengthening of my family. With another child on the way, I have no desire to give her any less of myself than I've given to Ian. In fact, I'd like to do more with my family. I want to keep working toward some kind of unity and improved interaction on spiritual issues. I want to grow in my interaction with them when we're together (often just together, as in, somewhere in proximity, but all doing our own thing). I try to avoid getting buried in whatever I'm doing when they're around, but the trend is still one of distraction. I also have a long way to go with my own spiritual growth, and a significant increase in the time I'm spending on academic work would detract from that effort.

I should add that my overall outlook on career issues has changed dramatically. I don't need a particularly fulfilling or challenging career, because that's not where I find my identity. It would be nice to do something I enjoy and that challenges me to grow in one way or another. But if I'm doing a job that needs to be done, I'm providing for my family, I'm learning discipline as though working for God, it's enough. It doesn't matter much what specific job I'm doing. Much of this change has come out of my spiritual development. Some of it also comes from what I would call a healthy realism about jobs and living conditions. A lot of people around here have what you might call "good" jobs. They pay well, they have lots of growth potential, the work is fulfilling, etc. But most of them still have double-income families, often with no or few children. Sometimes this is by choice, because both partners have their career goals, and children would just get in the way. Often it is because they feel like they can't afford the life they want without two incomes. And to a great extent, this sentiment is justified. It may be relatively easy to find a job around here that pays $50-100k per year. But when house prices are so high that even with a decent-paying job you still need two incomes to afford a home, what does it really get you? So for instance, in our case, moving back to Western New York would probably mean taking a pay cut, but ending up with less financial stress, better schools, and family close by.

That kind of thinking seriously minimizes the usefulness of a Ph.D., especially in an obscure field, because you're no longer willing to take the steps necessary to get that first steady job. I'm not about to put my family through the uncertainty of playing this game, so common now, where you teach one or two adjunct classes over here, one or two over here, and spend your life running from one campus to another, making little money when it's said and done, and ending up less marketable, because people wonder why you did that for so long. I'm much less likely to take a job in California or Europe, because that's where something is available, but we'll never see family. Add on top of that, that I no longer have the option of teaching in an Evangelical seminary or Bible college, I no longer have such a positive image of studying the Bible as mere literature, and I'm more interested now in other dimensions of the Christian life--the odds are pretty slim that I'd ever find a teaching position to be happy with.

I still want to be challenged intellectually, but I can get that regardless of what I do for a job. That much has become perfectly clear over the past several years. I still want to serve God with my mind, but there are plenty of opportunities for that outside of academia. In fact, my perspective now is that there are significant ways in which such service happens that are superior to strictly academic pursuits. I used to say that, if I didn't end up teaching, at least I'd have a very interesting hobby. I can still have that, since I don't need a degree to apply what I've learned. And in fact, since making the decision not to finish, I have felt free once again to apply my skills to what interests me (and happens to have spiritual value as well), where before I was reluctant to start little side projects, because I felt like any effort I put into that area ought to be on my dissertation.

So on the positive side, I have restored joy in the subject area that I was studying, I can continue pursuing more important things like spiritual growth and family interaction, and I can stop sinking money into a degree that is now of no apparent professional value. The only real negative is the wasted investment of time, energy, and money up to this point. But in that respect, I think we're legitimately cutting our losses. If I continue, we're going to have to spend quite a bit more money before it's all done, and based on my track record so far, it's hard to expect that I'll be able to finish even in the couple of years I have left. If the degree isn't going to be of any professional use, what is it good for? Not much. I don't want the title for its own sake, and I have no intention of hanging the certificate on my wall. So how does the wasted effort and personal sacrifice change, if we have to invest substantially more over the next couple of years, and the outcome is still of little or no use? I do genuinely regret the cost of this program, more so in terms of relationships, time and energy, and especially what it has required of Julie, than in terms of the money involved. Whether I finish or not, the outcomes are not worth the investment. But I can't convince myself that seeing it through to the end is a more productive response than walking away now.

Someone recently raised the objection that it will be hard to tell my kids they need to finish things they've started, even if they don't feel motivated, especially when it's school work that they never wanted to do in the first place. I don't think it will be that much of an obstacle. Teaching kids discipline is important, but they also need to learn right motives and right priorities. They need to learn about repentance and the consequences of mistakes. I hope that my kids can learn from my mistakes, why family and faith are so much more important than academics and careers. I hope they won't have to repeat them but can learn from my example. But if they do get themselves pointed down the wrong road in life, I would be honored to see them walk away from that degree, that high-level job, that special honor, for five more minutes spent meaningfully with their own children. What better way is there to glimpse the true value of people and relationships?

1 comment:

Trevor said...

An interesting assertion from St. Symeon the New Theologian:

104. Anyone who thinks himself intelligent because of his scholarly or scientific learning will never be granted insight into divine mysteries unless he first humbles himself and becomes a fool (cf. 1 Cor 3:18), discarding both his presumption and the knowledge that he has acquired. But if he does this and with unhesitating faith allows himself to be led by those wise in divine matters, he will enter with them into the city of the living God. Guided and illumined by the divine Spirit, he will see and learn what others cannot ever see or learn. He will then be taught by God (cf. John 6:45).

--from the "153 Practical and Theological Texts" in the Philokalia