It was just over a year ago that I completed my coursework and thesis at Duke University’s Divinity School for the Master of Theological Studies program.
At the beginning of that second year, Laura and I were preparing for the October advent of our first daughter (we now have two!), and I was working with my thesis adviser biweekly to chart out on my thesis—On Christian Burial—reading the necessary preliminary work to support the endeavor, and aiming to finish a solid draft of all three chapters, plus an introduction, in my Winter vacation. I knew that it would be a busy break, especially as my wife eyed her own return to work at the new year, but I thought I could secure a few good, long workdays at the library and the draft would be complete by 15 January, just in time for my final semester of courses to begin.
But then I heard back from Saint Thomas More Academy, whom I had contacted earlier in the year and who alerted me to a part-time teaching spot that might very well turn into a full-time position. This position would be lecturing in Classical and Medieval History. Had it be Latin, I would have been quite at home and happy to jump in with little preparation, given that I have taught Latin for seven years prior to my time at Duke. But lecturing in history would be another animal entirely, and even though I was very familiar with Medieval history, especially Church History (which is really just History History, given the place of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages), but I couldn’t just rattle off the cuff a lecture on feudalism or lay investiture or the Hundred Years’ War without some serious preparation and writing out formal lectures for the the overwhelming majority (90%) of the topics in the course.
Since this part-time position might become a full-time one, and since he already resigned myself to the idea that I was not going to pursue doctoral studies after my time at Duke, I knew that this semester at STMA, and the preparation necessary, was the most important matter on my December 2012 docket. In this way, my burial thesis took a quick backseat to laying out and composing history lectures.
My part-time position only required me to teach from 10am-1:15pm every Monday/Wednesday/Friday of each week. I also had a week off for Winter Vacation in February and a full ten-day sabbatical for Holy Week and Easter. At Duke, my classes only required me to be on campus all-day Tuesday/Thursday and in the late afternoon on Wednesday. It was a snug fit, but it was possible, at least on paper.
I had done the lion’s share of lecture writing that December holiday, which meant I only had to give them and grade three classes full of attending tests, quizzes, and essays once the semester began. But I also had a full course load at Duke, featuring Christian Ethics, Theology & Music, Catholic/Protestant Virtues & Vices, and Philosophical Theology, co-taught by Sean Larsen and Stanley Hauerwas. Ethics and Philosophical Theology would require about 300+ pages of reading a week combined, and Virtue/Vice asked for deep and thoughtful readings of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and various works of John Milton, including Paradise Lost. With our first daughter still learning to sleep through the night, moreover, there was very little space for my thesis.
As the semester moved forward, I found myself enamored with teaching again and doubled-down on my decision to pursue a position at STMA. I also found myself very taken by David Aers synthesis of history, theology, and literature into a seamless garment of complexity, along with style of pedagogy was what I wanted to be as an instructor, certainly as a history lecturer. In Philosophical Theology, I was taken by deep readings of Augustine and Aquinas, all under the eye of Hauerwas in his swan-song semester. Alongside, Mary Margaret was becoming a delight to play with in the evenings before going down around 6:30 each night, leaving Laura and I just enough time each night to see each other, eat dinner together and to enjoy each others company, before returning to my own readings and papers around 9pm.
This long list of wonderful occupations is a nice way of inferring that the thesis was not gaining anything close to my fullest attention. And while I had done the preliminary readings, and while it only required thirty pages and approval from my advisor and the program’s director, I knew I would only limp-in with a strong C+/B- effort and commitment.
(Only the cover page; not actual thesis)
In the end, that’s about what the thesis was. Three chapters (Death, Burial, Relics)–needing about 15-pages each to develop and accent–became two longer chapters (Death and Burial); Relics, though completely charted, has been been never written. I had to rethink and rewrite the introduction with only two chapters in hand. My advisor was gracious in his comments, but I knew that he was likely being merciful on me and my familial and occupational situation.
Since leaving Duke, a number of friends, all of whom are now in masters or doctoral programs (two at Boston College, one at Marquette, one at Yale, one at Carnegie Mellon, one finishing up at Duke), as well as a small host of others, have asked to read my “great account of Christian burial and its philosophical, theological purchase on our lives.” In my eyes, for them to read the thesis in its current state would be like asking my wife to read the pubescent poetry I wrote at sixteen years of age. All the same, they have been gracious in giving me their doctoral essays and dissertation abstracts, for commentary and conversation. In truth, I know I should return the favor, but you don’t put new wine into old bottles, but new wine they put into new bottles. To keep such a conversation going, I know I need to revise/rewrite and write anew (especially on Relics) my thesis.
I think Christian burial is a serious topic and is, in fact, a major place of theological reflection and writing. I also think it has great import on current culture, whose opinions on such topics presses a movement past emphases on a good death and a beautiful requiem, and on to the now seemingly ubiquitous celebration of life. Such movements are dangerous.
I believe my theological training at Duke and my years at STMA since have prepared me to write something worthwhile for a good few to read. A book or pamphlet on burial won’t reach the best-seller list, nor would I likely bind such project and gift it to my relatives for Christmas. But there may be something in writing a well-written account of death, burial, alongside a renewed theology of relics, that could and should find a place in the theological conversations we have as our grandparents and even parents begin to move closer to their own (hopefully) peaceful ends.
Closer to the ground, there is something to be said for finishing the task one has started through (perhaps difficult) revival of the original vision of the project and through steady and constant renewal until the project’s completion.
I hope I have more to say on this soon.