I am now in the middle of my second year in the PhD program at the University of Edinburgh, and it seems appropriate to reflect on my time here thus far. As I write, I am reminded that undertaking this track in my life is a gift, a calling, a privilege, and a blessing. Currently I am typing this while I am sitting in a house across Kampen Theological University, at which Bavinck was a faculty member before moving to the Free University of Amsterdam. This time last year I was preparing a visa to go to Paris for a month long study of French. Edinburgh itself is a beautiful city – to be able to be funded for the program alone, and to receive fellowships to research in such splendid and historically significant locations (at least, for my project) go beyond my wildest expectations. I never thought I could be doing this when I was facing failing grades in the beginning of high school in Indonesia.
Intellectually or academically, I’ve learned so much, despite my principled theological commitments remaining basically identical since I’ve began the program. Some highlights include the critical differences between Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure on illumination and the nature of revelation, the busting of the myth that all forms of idealism are incompatible with philosophical realism (or that there is really only one type of idealism), a deeper understanding of the implications of Kant’s epistemology for theology in general, a growing critical appreciation of analytic theology (and the budding appreciation of contemporary philosophers like John McDowell, Hubert Dreyfus and others from the realistic-phenomenological tradition), the actually practical character of Hegel’s philosophy (the reading seminars with Nicholas Adams on Hegel during my first semester – a bit like baptism by fire! – are unforgettable), the insights that Martin Heidegger can shed on how we should conceive of general revelation (as pre-predicative), a better grasp of Romanticism (and its concrete application in Schleiermacher), the diversity of modern Christology, the complexity of Christian-Muslim dialogue, the historical underpinnings of neo-Calvinism and the trajectories that it began, and, of course, the eclecticism of Herman Bavinck.
Practically, I’ve been forced to think hard about the inevitable and palpable distinction (for better or worse) between the academy and the church, about what ‘scholarly’ work and etiquette would mean, and how to navigate the guild in general. I am thankful also for the countless writing tips and supporting advices I’ve received from my supervisors (James Eglinton’s help and editing are meticulous, and David Fergusson’s constant push to be creatively constructive always challenging). In a lot of ways, the daunting and mentally draining work of research and academia in general make me further doubt that its possible to be a pastor-scholar. One must choose between these two mammoth tasks, simply because we are finite and embodied creatures.
But in all of these ways, it strikes me that the main reason I am thankful for coming here is the way in which one’s character is formed and developed in Edinburgh. The constant awareness that what I write will be read by those who disagree with me principally, the theologically ecumenical and diverse community that the research university embodies, all force me to rethink the way I critique, elaborate upon or defend the theological claims that I make in writing and speech. The environment that Edinburgh provides is an education in character formation in itself. This is not to compromise one’s theological convictions but to have, as Mona Siddiqui memorably said about the purpose of scholarly dialogue, ‘better disagreements’, with others who hold different views. Caricatures are fueled by the lack of dialogue that obtain among academics from differing traditions or systems of beliefs. I’ve been forced also to revisit some control beliefs that I’ve held that I’ve simply taken for granted – and ultimately I think those same control beliefs are fortified because of it; all this serves ultimately to be a better communicator of the Reformed faith to which I am committed. To become a better reader, I think, all of these advancements are necessary.
Being in Edinburgh has thus also made me appreciate the diversity of the Christian faith – when one can sit in many lectures in which the faith is notably absent, meeting a brother or sister in Christ who affirm the resurrection and the importance of Scripture can simply be enough to feel at home again. Not that this aspect has been greatly challenged – in Edinburgh I have found a genuinely tolerant community comprising of many genuine Christians. For that I am grateful – civil disagreement and charitable discussion have never been exemplified so well as when I am in this university context. So much of the academic guild can make one cynical or overly serious – in the community of New College I’ve found it refreshing to meet so many who take the subject matter of theology seriously without taking themselves seriously – there is nothing more unattractive than a theologian (or philosopher) who is overtly aware of his or her own self-importance. Kathryn Tanner’s demeanor, exemplified in the way she delivered this year’s Gifford lectures, is an inspiration against that phenomenon.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve walked up the Mound, past the John Knox statue, and thought to myself how blessed I am to be doing this. I hope to be able to continue to do theology for a long time coming. I’ve written about 38000 words now for the thesis. Here’s to at least 45000 more.