My journey towards a PhD is probably a different path than many others. I started with a question – a question I have been chewing on since the middle of 2006. Most of the experiences of my life between then and now have been colored by this question.What question is that?
How can the Church allow the Gospel to be perverted into a weapon for blatant harm instead of beautiful hope?
I searched for an answer academically – through papers, conferences and other works. I searched for it personally – interviewing ‘experts’ and casual conversations over coffee with friends. It colored my experiences internationally and domestically. I tried for several years that I could separate the answer to that question from an answer within Northern Ireland. I eventually began to realize that my answer to that question – or at least my grasps at an answer – would only be found in the place which started my journey.
In the beginnings of 2010, I began to look at post-Truett life. Job? School? In America? Overseas? I landed on Queen’s University Belfast for the simple reason that I knew I had to return to Ulster to find my answer. I stared looking at some of their Masters programs – figuring that a PhD was something for smart and disciplined people and not for me who would often rather watch television than read academic journals. Then I had several wise persons encourage me towards the PhD. “Encourage” is gentle for some of them; one professor told me he would not write a recommendation for a Master’s program. The Onion rallied around me, editing my ideas and narrowing my focus. We decided I would attempt to answer the question by studying adolescents and their mental conceptions of religious violence. I submitted proposal to Queen’s with a requested supervisor attached and thought that would be that.
Said supervisor decided to move on from QUB, leaving a void in my academic future. This news came amidst the news that many of my understandings of my program had been false. I thought I wouldn’t take classes – I will actually take 3 formal classes and have 30 days of training over my three years. I thought I was automatically a doctoral student – I will actually have to prepare a large document known as my “differentiation” before I can be considered an official doctoral student.
The biggest change between my understandings and reality, though, has come around my topic. In conversations with my new supervisor – referred to on this blog as Professor Sprocket – it has been decided I will join a new discipline. The Professor is an expert in Sociology of Religion and thus that is the lens through which I will research my new topic. While it certainly still moves towards answering my question (which I recognize will never fully be answered), it moves through it using new language, new points of view, new scholars… everything feels new. It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest. Learning a new discipline was not something I thought would be part of my PhD journey – which may have been naive. My expectations are neither here nor there, however. This is my new reality.
So instead of reading works by Fowler, King, Jacober, Dean and others, I’m reading Davie, Beckford, Morrison, Swinegood, Foucault, Weber and their colleagues. Instead of looking at young people and their faith system development, I’m looking at a specific community within Northern Ireland and how individuals within that community understand God and how that understanding is influenced by violent religious language. Like I said before, it still moves me toward my answer.
After several days of mental course correction, I am incredibly excited about this change. It feels closer to the conversation I want to participate in professionally and there is a definite void within academic scholarship around this particular question. Learning the topic simply feels like drinking from a fire hose at the moment. But, as they say here in my beloved country, “sure, love, it’ll all be all right.”
In the meantime, if you think of me, pop peanut butter in the mail. I’ll need the protein to keep going.