Wednesday, November 15, 2017

On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was shocked to read how much progress I had made on my own project since July. He asked if I would offer him some tips which I'm glad to do. Of course, these are not the musings of an expert: I'm still in the throes of writing, although I am glad to see I have far more pages behind me than before me. So instead of this being advice about what worked let me frame it as some thoughts about what is working.


  1. Treat writing like your job. Theology students in Boston College's doctoral program have their whole fourth year to write without any teaching obligations. Accordingly, I have treated the task of writing as my full-time job. Monday-Friday, usually 6:50 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon. Lunch breaks, workout time, and a nap are built into this schedule. 
  2. Think, and write, in sections. So I apportion in my mind how long a section should be, make a preliminary sketch of the argumentative moves I need to make, and I execute the section. Each night before I go to bed, I look over my outline and cast my eyes over the relevant texts in order to refresh my memory. 
  3. Don't be frivolous. I often see Twitter posts or Facebook updates from students writing their dissertations and I am shocked at how much time and energy they waste "curating" some type of public image. Every minute you spend thinking about a clever Tweet, or making a meme, is one less minute for you to focus on your project. Frankly, I'm aghast at how many inane tweets I come upon when, after dinner each night, I scroll through social media to see what I've missed throughout the course of the day. 
  4. Learn to say no. Sure, it'd be fun to accept an invitation to review a book that tangentially touches upon your research, but is it going to make a significant contribution? Of course you have a brilliant article idea when you're eye-deep in your central argument, but this does not mean you should undertake writing it. I would apply this to blogging or online contributions: if it is not peer-reviewed and if it is not going to get you a job, the benefit simply doesn't seem to outweigh the cost in time and energy. 
  5. Edit daily and Don't Be Afraid to Kill Your Darlings. This is my practice: each night I re-read the day's writing. On Friday afternoon or, if I'm traveling, I re-read the week's work and edit the hell out of it. Even your most beautifully crafted sentences, not germane to your thesis, should be summarily executed on the charge of treason to thought. 
  6. Know Your Advisor. I have, perhaps, the greatest advisor imaginable: he's kind, brilliant, has a great sense of humor, and knows how to temper criticism with copious encouragement. He is a mentor and a friend, a cheerleader and coach. I'm lucky. But having an open channel of communication has been so helpful. 
  7. Find Balance.  I have found it helpful to balance priestly ministry (on weekends) and musical performance (on weekends) with my writing. Between July and mid-November, I have traveled on about 75% of the weekends and I celebrated Mass 100% of the weekends. This means I work really hard during the week (no drinking, not much television) in order to allow me the time to do things I love on the weekend. 
  8. Buy a Whiteboard. I have a big whiteboard next to my desk with a bunch of dry-erase markers. Sometimes when I'm in the shower, or exercising, something "clicks" in my mind and I need to write it down: whiteboard! Each morning, I put up key words or concepts I need to keep in mind that day: whiteboard! I can then cross these out at the day's end. Not for nothing, there is no feeling more satisfying than being able to erase it at the end of a day, or a chapter, and start all over again. It's downright cathartic. 
  9. You Can't Read Everything. I think I have read just about every word my figure - William Desmond - has written. The secondary literature is also pretty manageable, although it continues to grow. Yet my secondary figures - Pierre Hadot, Charles Taylor, Richard Kearney, John Caputo, Merold Westphal - are vast on their own. So how did I engage? I read and engaged them in a very focused manner. I guess one lesson I've learned is how to discern the value of a given text and assess whether, and how, it might advance my own work. 
  10. Own Feeling Like a Fraud.  Throughout this process, I have swung between feelings of mastery and competence and feelings of being an utter fraud on the verge of being discovered. It's chastening and humbling. Then again, as a theologian, I'm trying to speak of a Mystery beyond human concept. Cool comfort, to be sure, but comfort nonetheless. So I own being a fraud and rest content that I'm not alone in feeling this way. 
So, yeah, there's ten little ideas. As I've said, they are things that are working for me. I think, as of this morning, I've written ~270 pages and I've got, maybe, 50 left to go. Well, I need to do an intro (8-pages) and a conclusion (12-page). In the end, I'm aiming at a 350-page project. Longer than I'd imagined at first but needfully so. At my current pace, from start to finish writing will have taken six months. Prior to this, I read intensively for about six months and I've read, and re-read, many of those works during this time.

Truth be told, I've enjoyed writing. It can be tedious, daunting, and it's a true marathon. But it has been a true privilege to think along with great minds and to try, feebly as I might, to make a contribution to a field.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Glimpse of Light

Every now and again, I feel a pang of guilt for not updating the blog. Just a year ago, I took my PhD comprehensive exams and began preparing to write my dissertation. I then moved to Cleveland - I now live at John Carroll University  - and began writing in July. As of today, I have submitted three chapters to my committee and I'll finish the fourth this week. I'm hoping to have a solid draft of the fifth chapter finished around Christmas and I should get the Intro and Conclusion written in January. With a bit of luck, I'll defend in the Spring and receive my diploma in May.

I say this in order to share one reason for my relative absence from blogging. I treat writing as I would treat a job. Blogging will neither get me my degree nor will it ever get me tenure, so it's not as high on my priority list.

Then again, I'm sort of glad to be out of the blogging loop. I've become dismayed not only by the political rhetoric within the United State but, more acutely, with the way fellow Christians speak to, and about, one another. Years ago, I had the stomach for wading into online debates. I no longer do. In fact, I don't see much point in commenting on blogs/sites and I seldom read the comments boxes on sites because I find them disheartening.

Anyway, the next few weeks are rife with travel. I'm off to Boston tomorrow, then on to Hartford for the New England Oireachtas. I'll spend a week reading and writing in Boston followed by a wedding and then I return to Cleveland for three days. I'll then be off to Orlando for the Southern Region Oireachtas (for Mass). Things should quiet down come December, so I'll be locked away in my room trying to finish my project.

At some point I'm sure I'll share more about my dissertation. The title, for those interested, is "Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: William Desmond's Theological Achievement." It's an essay exploring how the metaxological metaphysics of William Desmond can be read as a series of spiritual exercises (Pierre Hadot in the background here) capable of reawakening the question of the Transcendent.

Heady stuff with lots of pretentious foreign words. I dig it, but it's certainly an acquired taste.

For anyone who still looks at this blog: thanks for hanging in there! I'll try to make it back someday.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Scientific Inquiry and the Catholic School

In September of 2016, a Catholic school in inner city Detroit opened a $15 million STEM building. In a city known more for its economic woes and racial unrest, it is remarkable that a Catholic school would raise such an enormous fund from private donors for a building dedicated to the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Has the Society of Jesus, which sponsors the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, finally recognised what so many of the new atheists would have us believe, that we should abandon the study of theology and dedicate ourselves exclusively to the pursuit of science and technology? More waggishly posed: Why build a chapel when you could build a chemistry lab?

During my years as a secondary school teacher, students were often gob-smacked when I emphasised, over and again, that religion and science, faith and reason, were not at odds with one another. ‘Yes, lads, you can be a thinking believer!’ Indeed, I insisted that both the chapel and the chemistry lab must be seen as integral to Catholic education. Each provides a venue for the rigorous and disciplined exploration of reality in all of its beauty and perplexity. In both settings, the student learns never to settle for facile answers to questions, pressing onward in a quest not merely to acquire information but, more importantly, to understand more deeply the intricacy of creation. At the heart of authentic theological and scientific inquiry, there abides a courageous spirit that does not recoil in fear from asking pointed and incisive questions. Thus, in a sense, we might regard both the liturgy and the laboratory as apprenticeship programmes wherein one is trained to see what to superficial eyes remains otherwise undetected.
                 
The ritual of inquiry
Science teachers know the frustration of trying to guide students through dimensional analysis and Punnett’s squares, of memorising the Krebs Cycle and of deriving physics equations. To instruct them, we lead them through a process: identify the known, isolate the unknown, and employ a strategy to find an answer to our question. We insist students ‘show their work’ and demonstrate that they have gone through all the steps necessary to reliably arrive at the correct answer. Even if they do not recognise it, teachers are indoctrinating students into the ritual of inquiry. By rote practice, memorisation, and some cajoling, we encourage students to adopt as habitual the rituals of disciplined inquiry. But, as we know, repetition is seldom a mark of intellectual excellence: we expect our students to probe deeply and engage creatively with the material. We encourage them to confront what is known with questions that push the boundaries of knowledge, turn up new insights, and make richer the realm of science. Rituals of guided inquiry make possible the work, the liturgy, of science.

Frustration, irritation, some sweat, fruitless and failed searches: these are not limited to the laboratory! Anyone who has spent time in real prayer, anyone who has allowed the ritual of the liturgy to draw his or her spirit more deeply into the depths of prayer, knows that there is no assured formula for success. Neither public liturgy nor private prayer furnishes practitioners with never-fail incantations. Instead, we have as part of our heritage of spiritual inquiry rituals that have reliably guided generations of seekers into a deeper relationship with the Creator. Every now and again, we are given the grace of a Eureka moment of radical insight as the hours of time spent in arid prayer reveal an expanded horizon that gives the individual a renewed appreciation for the power and majesty of the Holy One.

Catholic educators should encourage the study of science for the same reason we hope for frequent participation in the Eucharist: by pushing, prodding our students to peer beneath the surface, by wading into the dark waters of the unknown, we enable them to risk being struck by insight and shaken by revelation. Training our students in the rituals of inquiry – theological and scientific – we empower them to enter into the greater liturgy of creation where they may be ‘caught up’ in the beauty of nature and find inexhaustible delight in their realisation that, no matter how many questions one answers, a new question will arise that will elicit one to explore further.

Both chapel and laboratory
Patient and deliberate inquiry, attentive to ritual and appreciative of the vast liturgy into which we are called: these are traits shared by theologians and scientists. Both the chapel and the laboratory are necessary because both are arenas wherein we can risk an encounter with our Creator. We train our students in the chapel and the laboratory because they complement each other marvelously. Patience, wasted time, and steadfast perseverance are as necessary for obtaining, analysing, and processing data as they are every time we dare to pray. We, as teachers, invite our students to become what we know ourselves to be: apprentices to those who have come before us and who continue to inspire us as we press on in our inquiry. A student need not become another Marie Curie or Richard Dawkins, a Mother Teresa or St Francis for them to be successful. Our students, and our Church, succeed when they see that we are enriched by their investigations and that we, their teachers and fellow seekers, support their unwillingness to accept facile answers to their most pressing questions. Both science and theology encourage students to enter more deeply into the liturgy of creation and to celebrate the richness found therein.

Imagine what might happen if we taught theology, or encouraged students to experience the Eucharist, with the same brio with which we teach biology, chemistry, and physics. We could approach the Eucharist as the moment in the liturgy in which the matter we study actually addresses us and beckons us to approach, to question, and to celebrate the Mystery at the heart of reason itself?  Contrary to the worries of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who fear that religious education clouds human reason, we just may find ourselves graced with our own Athanasius Kirchner and Gregor Mendel: models of faithful reason who consecrated scientific exploration to the greater honour and glory of God.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Homily, Fifth Friday of Lent

Readings:

Jeremiah 20:10-13
Psalm 18:2-3a, 3bc-4, 5-6, 7
John 10:31-42



“Sin,” Fleming Rutledge observes, “is not so much a collection of individual misdeeds as it is an active, malevolent agency bent upon despoiling, imprisonment, and death – the utter undoing of God’s purposes.” Rutledge continues, “misdeeds are signs of that agency at work; they are not the thing itself. It is the ‘thing itself’ that is our cosmic Enemy.”
            Albeit embarrassing, there is something immediately consoling about the enumeration of one’s sins. With little effort, all of us can recall the "usual suspects" heard in the confessional: pornography and masturbation, excessive eating and drinking, anger, gossip, ingratitude, not being faithful to prayer, taking the Lord’s name in vain, etc. You get the picture: we have a whole catalogue we can pick and choose from. Yet I am aware of a temptation to “explain away” sin – within myself and for those who come to the Sacrament of Penance – by describing sin as nothing other than “missing the mark.” How many times have I assured myself, or reassured others, “Well, we all make mistakes” or, "perfect is the enemy of the good.” I am guilty of a self-protective blindness that prevents me from seeing the depths of my complicity in Sin's work in the world. 
            As we draw closer to Holy Week and the silhouette of the Cross becomes clearer on the horizon, tonight’s readings offer us flesh-and-blood illustrations of Sin’s agency as resisting and undoing God’s purposes. Recall the opening words from the first reading. Jeremiah’s enemies whisper against him Terror on every side! Denounce! Let us denounce him! The prophet’s enemies turn his own words against him. Just a few verses earlier, Terror on every side was the name God gave to the priest Pashur. Pashur imprisoned Jeremiah within the Temple, taking God’s message and messenger captive. Note the irony: the high priest who should discern and proclaim God’s word acts in opposition to God. Terror on Every Side testifies to the fate that awaits Israel: Pashur’s resistance to God condemns Judah to its Babylonian exiles. Jeremiah’s enemies do not sin by “missing the mark” but, rather, by allowing themselves to be enslaved to a power, an agency, actively intent on thwarting God’s creative desires for his people.
            This dynamic is at play in the Gospel. Jesus is rejected not simply for speaking on behalf of God but for claiming to be God’s Son. Again, we cannot excuse those around him for misunderstanding Jesus’ point. They grasp full well not only what he is saying but also, and more importantly, what it means for him to claim that he and the Father are one. They, rightly to their mind, reject Jesus as a blasphemer, as one guilty of making himself God. His response to their charges falls on deaf ears. Put simply, Jesus reminds his listeners that the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Look at my works, he says, and tell me what you see. If my deeds do not testify to God’s presence, then ignore me. But if you see the work of the Creator, if you open your eyes and see that my works proclaim the Father’s works, see them and know that I speak the truth: the Father is in me and I am in the Father.
            Jesus is not bragging or pointing to individual deeds: see, look what I did at Cana; and let me remind you of what I did at the Pool of Siloam; don’t forget, I recently fed five thousand people. Instead, Jesus points back to his works as signs of God’s gracious agency at work in history to renew, to liberate, and to restore creation. In effect, he asks the crowd, “Who is made present in and through my life? If you recognize God's presence in my deeds, put down your stones and be part of my work, of the Father’s work, for the two of us are One. Do not arrest the Word but commit yourself to setting it free within the world.”
            Perhaps tonight’s readings may be taken as an opportunity to examine our own consciences. If we place ourselves with Jeremiah and Jesus, what do we see? Do we see ourselves reflected in Pashur’s face: unwilling to welcome God’s creative word, inhospitable to the prophet, reluctant to undergo conversion if it is not convenient? Do we see ourselves in the crowd gathered around Jesus, people who understand what he is saying but are unwilling to undergo the consequences of accepting what they see and following him? Do we have the courage to acknowledge where we are agents of the cosmic enemy, where the enemy of human nature knows us by name, knows us personally and intimately? Instead of fixing on the usual catalogue, do we turn our eyes to things we conveniently pass over: our hidden racism, sexism, prejudices, or biases against people? Our cynicism about the motives of those on the other side of the political aisle or resentment against others? Are we willing to repent of those areas of blindness that keep us from seeing others as human? Can we beg for the grace to renounce friendship with the Enemy to embrace more fully the name God gives us in grace and love: my beloved, my child, my son?  

            When Jesus escapes the attempt to arrest him, he goes across the Jordan to the place where John once baptized. Let us follow him and be reminded of our own baptism when we were drawn into his life, death, and resurrection. Where we have been enslaved by Sin, let us invite healing. Where we are blind to others' needs or deaf to their cries, may our eyes and ears be opened. In those places where we serve as agents of grace and mercy, let us ask for perseverance. And as we follow Jesus this upcoming week from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to his horrifying death on the Cross, let us be true to our call to be Companions of Jesus and remain at the side of the one who delivers us from death, restores us to life, and calls us by name to walk with him as his friends. 


Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Quick Update

St Patrick's Day 2017 at St Colman's in Cleveland
It's now three months since my last post. It's been a quiet period of study (I'm reading like a madman as I research my dissertation topic) and a lot of travel for music and for two funerals.

As an update: I'm moving to John Carroll University in a few weeks (May 24th) where I'll live as I write my dissertation. I'm excited to move home to Cleveland and to be with good friends and family.


And, in case anyone is interested in my academic work, here's a link to my profile on Academia
St Patrick's Day 2017 at St Colman's in Cleveland

Monday, January 09, 2017

Homily on the Epiphany

Every great adventure, every groundbreaking discovery, begins with a question. “Will you marry me?” marks the beginning of the journey of married life. “What if I mix this chemical with that chemical?” or “Hmmm, that’s funny, I wonder why…” kick off scientific explanation. “I wonder if this dish would taste better with bacon?” Well, that question never need be asked: the answer, invariably, is yes.  
         Now, compare the excitement of an inquisitive person with someone who is totally closed off to new things. Such people see no need to ask questions because they are comfortable with the way things are. They have made up their mind, they rest assured in their convictions, and they stand convinced that they see things as they really are. They are fine with the status quo and grow frustrated when people around them ask too many questions or make suggestions that would require them to change their lives in any way. My mind goes, immediately, to a figure like Archie Bunker.
         Matthew’s account of the Magi’s journey should give us pause, because it forces us to question with whom we identify ourselves: the Magi or Herod? As Pope Francis observes, citing St John Chrysostom, “the Magi did not set out because they had seen the star, but they saw the star because they had already set out.” Night after night, the Magi gazed upon the stars and charted their movements. Their hearts and minds were so attentive to the movements of the heavens that, when they detected something different off in the distance, their curiosity was piqued and they set out. It’s not just that they saw something different that night, they saw differently: with eyes open to the new and unimagined. The eye of the human heart, trained through years of waiting and watching, saw what the rest of the world took for granted.
This is prayer, isn’t it? A patient waiting and watching that trains us to be mindful of God’s presence wherever, and whenever, it is to be encountered. The Magi saw the star and, moved by inquisitiveness, followed the star-lit path toward the One through whom all of history would be renewed. They left the security of home confident that the light they followed would direct them and, in their quest, they discovered a truth that continues to confound believers today: the true king of the universe dwells not in a palace but in a humble manger. The Magi discovered what we are called to celebrate in every era: God is encountered in the most unlikely of places.
         Then again, perhaps we are more like Herod. The joyful question of the Magi pierces Herod’s heart. He does not want to change his way of doing things and hears the Good News of Christ’s birth as a threat to his power and prestige. Herod and Jerusalem were “greatly troubled” because if the true king has been born, it means they have to change their lives. If Christ is king, Herod takes second place. All of his building projects, all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding his person…all of this is for nothing if Christ is king. Thus he must be destroyed.
Likewise do the people of Jerusalem fret. If the king resides in a manger in Bethlehem and not a palace, perhaps Jerusalem is not the center of the world its residents think it is. The very city and palace walls meant to give security prove, with Christ’s Advent, stifling. Better to silence the claim, to ignore the Magi’s tidings of joy, than to risk having to change our self-understanding.
         We are, each one of us, called on the Feast of the Epiphany to cast our lot with the Magi. We are called to open the gates of our hearts to the Good News and allow Christ to throw us off balance as we recognize his centrality in history. In this new year, how can our desire to know God, our longing to grow closer to Jesus, break us free from our dull routines and stir us onto a new adventure? Do we have the courage to open the eye of our hearts and allow our desire for God to lead us on a new road or to guide us to a destination we cannot yet see clearly?
Let us, then, be renewed this year by the Good news. Today, let us journey with the Magi and discover with them God’s presence in the most unlikely of places. For then as now, Christ our King is not to be found in glittering towers or gilded palaces. If we truly long to find Jesus, we must strike out to the frontiers and the margins and kneel alongside the Magi before the delicate beauty of a poor and vulnerable child, a perceived threat to the status quo, born amongst cow and sheep, destined to be Israel’s Shepherd.

                                                   

On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was sho...