D that I still think is pretty good
The particular experience I have in mind is that of struggling some years ago with the realisation that one lengthy part of my Ph.D should be deleted. My idea had been to combine a theological study of the work of the American theologian Hans Frei with a study of a particular congregation in Cambridge, in order to show that the concepts and arguments with which this academic theologian was working connected in interesting ways to patterns of practice and habits of thought amongst ‚ordinary’ Christians. Now my commitment to this strange combination was very strong. I put a great deal of effort into it. All sorts of people in the theology faculty, and in the congregation I was studying, knew about and supported my endeavour. I had publicly defended the idea of doing this study in various talks and papers. And I had, with some arrogance (I now realise) cheerfully asserted that what I was doing was new and relevant, and would breathe fresh vitality into theological discussions that were in danger of becoming dry and useless. Over several years, this project had become part of my self-perception, and part of my self-presentation: I was a theologian, but not just any kind of theologian–I was a theologian who also did ethnography; a theologian who paid serious and (I hoped) sophisticated attention to the muddles of ordinary Christian practice. And, by the end of the Ph.D, that’s simply who I was.
D succeed relaxed, I finally admitted that the attempt–interesting and imaginative though I still think it was–had been a failure
And yet–behind the scenes I was finding it persistently difficult to tie the conceptual knots that would bind together my study of Hans Frei and my study of this congregation. I built various conceptual and argumentative bridges between the two, but never quite got to the point where I was completely happy that I had succeeded–never quite got to the point where I felt I had established my case. I worked hard at it, and produced various schemes that looked good on paper–but I was, I think, constantly aware at some level that whenever I had built a bridge that looked firm and usable on paper, I had done so at some loss to the seriousness and attentiveness of my study both of Frei and of the congregation. Those two studies did not want to sit together: they did not want to be made to speak with a common voice, as parts of a single argument–and I felt their resistance as I pushed them together. I didn’t admit this, of course: I had committed so much time, so much effort, so much of my public image–so much of myself to doing the project in this way. I couldn’t admit it to myself, let alone any one else. And so it eventually, despite my misgivings, made it into the final Ph.D; I passed the viva, and was awarded my doctorate. But almost as soon as the viva was over, and one kind of pressure to make the Ph. I had ended up misrepresenting Frei, and I had ended up misrepresenting the congregation, in order to make sure that my argument worked–not maliciously; not with any kind of deliberate falsification; but simply because I had not been brave enough to allow the difficulty of my subject matter to overthrow my neat ideas, and make me start again.
Now, it seems to me that one way of describing what happened there is that I failed to learn. Of course, I learnt all sorts of things, and picked up all sorts of skills–just as anyone who spends four years doing a Ph.D must. There is much in my Ph. And actually, there’s a more subtle point here. It was only because I learnt all sorts of things–only because I read a great deal of ethnographic and social anthropological literature, only because I had read widely and, I hope, deeply in the theology of Hans Frei and in his sources and colleagues and conversation-partners–only because I had accumulated the Ph.D student’s usual bundle of microscopically detailed, massively obscure knowledge, that I was able to register the resistance which threatened to break my PhD in two in the first place. Nevertheless, despite having learnt all that, I still failed to do justice to–to learn–my subject matter, in one quite fundamental way. And that failure can be described as a failure to let myself go; when the realisation finally dawned, it was with a feeling of disillusionment, in the strict sense that I felt an illusion being stripped away: an illusion about my subject matter, but also an illusion about myself. It was an experience of what a certain kind of theology would call un-selfing: an experience of the dying of a small part of my self that I had tended and nurtured for some time. I was left in a far less controllable, far less secure position: determined to re-write the Ph.D in the light of this stark realisation, willing to drop the part that had not worked (despite all that I had invested in it), and committed to doing greater justice to my subject matter–even though that meant letting go of any very clear idea of where I was headed, and (for quite some time) any very clear idea of what kind of a theologian I was; any very clear idea of who I was. And I knew that, if I were to avoid a similar failure to learn, I needed to be willing to be overturned, judged, condemned and remade as I continued to study. I could only learn to the extent that I gave up on security, and on a strong sense of control over my direction. (5)