Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why Academia, Part 2(a): Theology -- The Hollins Years

The more I think about this blog series, the more I think of to write, and the longer it potentially becomes.

I left off attempting to explain why I am doing a PhD, broadly speaking. I told you guys that, next, I'd talk about how I ended up choosing to study theology. To do that effectively, I need to rewind to college. So, Part II might itself end up splitting into multiple sub-sections. But I'll try not to get ridiculous about this...!

Many of you reading this will know that I attended Hollins University during my undergraduate years. Founded in 1842, it is a women's liberal arts college tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, near Roanoke. Among other Pulitzer Prizewinners, Annie Dillard attended Hollins, and the school's most significant claims to fame are its programs in Creative Writing and Children's Literature. I went there because I was going to be a writer; I was always going to be a writer. And since I was maybe 14 or so, Hollins was the place where I was going to make that happen.

This post is not going to be about why that didn't happen, or really about Hollins itself. I could analyze my changing identity as a writer another time. Suffice it to say, Hollins is a beautiful place where I was absolutely privileged to study for four years, but it couldn't live up to the idyllic, almost mythical status it attained in my imagination throughout middle and high school. Especially, the English department couldn't and didn't.

Something else happened during my first semester, however. I took a religion class -- Buddhist Traditions. And I started getting to know the university chaplain, the other religion faculty, and the other majors in our tiny department. By November of my freshman year, I had decided to be a Religious Studies major.

I should note, this didn't come out of nowhere. I had had an interest in things religious and theological for many years now. In particular, my interest in theology was sparked by an adolescent preoccupation with Protestant-Catholic polemics -- something that caused no shortage of angst at the time.

As Hollins wasn't a denominationally aligned campus, however, courses in world religions were primarily on offer. I took classes in both Western and Eastern major traditions, with a particular emphasis on history (ancient, medieval, and American) where I could get it. I took courses in Old and New Testament and on feminist theology and ethics.

The real turning point came, though, when I had the opportunity to study for a semester at Scotland's University of Edinburgh in the spring of 2004. Life in Scotland was the fulfillment of pretty much a lifelong dream, and it was a game-changer in that it instilled a love for the academic study of Christian theology.

While I had gotten hints and nudges of this at Hollins, when I opened a Greek New Testament for the first time and wrote my first exegesis paper on Matthew 12, I knew it when Dr. Johnny McDowell read bits of Irenaeus aloud to my class on Edinburgh's Castle Mound. I was 21, I had gotten my first heady whiff of ancient theology, and just like that I knew it mattered, as assuredly for us today as it did when Athanasius was hunkered in desert exile. I couldn't be satisfied doing graduate work on comparative religions, though that has its place in the academic world. I needed to do my work as a Christian, for Christians; I needed to go to divinity school.

Part 2(b) coming soon. :)

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