As I apply to PhD programs, I’m naturally reflecting a lot on my strengths and weaknesses, wondering whether I’ll be accepted somewhere and how I will do in a demanding course of study at the terminal level. The application process is designed to raise these sorts of questions, so I don’t think they’re too neurotic, though it’s a little comical at thirty-two to feel unsure of whether I can hack it.
Anyway, I’ve been simultaneously working with some theology students on the role of self-awareness in doing theology, using a variety of instruments including the MBTI. In the midst of these discussions, I incidentally happened across this N. T. Wright lecture from last year in which he says exactly what I’ve been thinking about the challenge I will face in doctoral studies. This video is a phenomenal resource that I would want to place on Scripture & Mission regardless—listen to the whole thing!—but for the purpose of this post, it’s just the first few minutes (starting at 1:11) that are squarely on topic.
“In my field, biblical studies, it’s much easier to get a PhD if you like the little details, because that’s what a PhD is really all about—cleaning up this little bit of the field.”
I’m an INTJ, with that crucial N different from the ISTJs Wright mentions. INTJs are often good as academics—I’ve done well so far in this regard—but we are thoroughly big-picture thinkers. As Wright says though, biblical studies is dominated at the doctoral level by S types, so much so that it’s the nature of the game you sign up to play when you enter a doctoral program.
(As it happens, I’ve been saying for years that one of the reasons Wright is so influential is his ability to work with the whole story in a compelling way. This integrative approach to New Testament studies has lacked in biblical theology for the reasons just stated and has thus created a need in broader Christianity, which he has been addressing quite successfully as an academic capable of playing the details game at the highest levels but then bringing those details together in a big picture that matters for the church.)
The MBTI properly applied is about preferences, not strictures. We all “have” introversion and extroversion, etc. So it’s not a matter of being incapable of doing the S work that worries me—those are the muscles I learned to use well in graduate school. What worries me is, on one hand, not getting to work from my strengths and, on the other, not getting to work toward a more N sort of contribution. I’m addressing these two concerns by attempting to buck the specialization trend that marks the whole academy. In keeping with “cleaning up this little bit of the field,” most of academia is about a deep and narrow sort of expertise. These are academic “disciplines,” which tend to have an internally referential epistemology—their ways of knowing are as narrowly specified as the scope of their interests. As the pendulum will swing, however, there is a movement in the academy toward “interdisciplinarity,” which is essentially a intentional dialogue between disciplines for the purpose of reconfiguring otherwise limited modes of knowing.
Interdisciplinary study represents, above all, a denaturalization of knowledge: it means that people working within established modes of thought have to be permanently aware of the intellectual and institutional constraints within which they are working, and open to different ways of structuring and representing their understanding of the world. (Moran, 181)
Before I ever heard of interdisciplinarity, my N was pulling me toward it. In the course of MDiv studies, I was frustrated to perceive that missiology, biblical studies, and constructive theology were often talking about the same things but unable—maybe unwilling—to understand each other, each judging the other to be somehow epistemologically inferior. Interestingly, the MDiv is designed on the assumption that these and other disciplines should be integrated in a given student, but the PhDs that make up most MDiv faculties individually live behind the same disciplinary walls as the institutions that granted their degrees. I remember vividly a New Testament professor, when asked about the “application” of a Pauline doctrine, responding, “I don’t know. Ask your systematics professor.” I mean no disrespect by the example. It actually bespeaks the humility that underlies the formation of disciplines in the first place. “Disciplines may be artificial constructions, but there is a reason for the artifice: no one can know everything” (Moran, 170). To say “I don’t know” in this context is not to say “I don’t have an educated opinion” but to say “I’m not as expert in that kind of knowledge as I am in my own discipline.” Such humility is commendable and, more importantly, is exactly what makes depth possible.
Unfortunately, what the academy does institutionally to foster depth has two majorly problematic implications. First, within the existing framework, the only alternative to narrow and deep seems to be wide and shallow. Indeed, one of the major problems with interdisciplinarity is that it is difficult for its practitioners “to become conversant in the theories, methods and materials of two or more disciplines, without producing significant gaps in their knowledge” (Moran, 170). Significant knowledge gaps are a real danger, but they are not inevitable. Perhaps in order to overcome the prejudice built into the conversation it is necessary to change the description of disciplines from “narrow and deep” to “exclusive and monological,” thereby characterizing interdisciplinarity as “inclusive and dialogical.” Depth is then more clearly seen as a matter of academic integrity, not an innate characteristic of subdisciplinary specialization.
Second, as the descriptors monological and dialogical hint, business as usual in the academy tends to engender a kind of idiomatic incommensurability. Disciplines do not speak each other’s language. But much like people from different cultures, the disciplinary language difference signifies a different “understanding of the world” (borrowing Moran’s words). Even if a biblical scholar learns the idiom of a constructive theologian, the underlying assumptions (theories, methods, and materials) of the disciplines remain exceedingly different, rendering the procedures of one seemingly illogical to the other. The ironic consequence is that the very knowledge a discipline exists to produce becomes inaccessible to disciplinary outsiders. Of course, translation does happen, but it is the result of the kind of disciplinary bilingualism that the academy is structured not to encourage.
Though it makes fit with a doctoral program even more difficult to find, my primary criterion for selecting potential schools has been their openness to interdisciplinary work in biblical hermeneutics and missiology. This is where my N has driven me: a commitment to exploring a bigger hermeneutical picture at the intersection of anthropological missiology, biblical studies, and textual hermeneutics. If I’m accepted into one of the programs I’ve applied to, it will no doubt still be a challenge to do the sort of work necessary; the S still dominates the academy at the end of the day. My hope, though, is that the opportunity to work interdisciplinarily will afford the opportunity to work from my strengths and make a significant contribution in missional hermeneutics that goes beyond cleaning up a little bit of the field, because from where I’m standing, the field is bigger than many seem to think.
Joe Moran, Interdisciplinarity, The New Critical Idiom, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010).