This Monday, I will be in Wake Forest, North Carolina on the campus of Southeastern Seminary to defend my dissertation on “eschatological discipleship.” If all goes well, I will walk into the room as a Ph.D candidate and walk out as Dr. Trevin Wax. In the span of those morning hours, my formal education will come to an end – efforts that extend back to high school, college in Eastern Europe, masters courses both on campus and off, doctoral seminars and, of course, the many months of research and writing a dissertation.
My educational experience may be coming to end, but I expect the good-natured ribbing from friends and coworkers to continue. For years now, friends have called me “Dr. Wax,” in part to tease me for my interminable studying, in part to honor my dedication to the task at hand, knowing I’d eventually get that title. A bit of inaugurated eschatology, maybe? (Sorry, I’ve been in class too long now to resist the corny theological joke.)
My uncles told my daughter to let him know once I have my doctorate because he needs me to take his gall bladder out. She replied, “He’s not that kind of doctor.” No, I’m not. But there have been times when I’d have donated a kidney or something, just to be done.
Right now, my dissertation is sitting on the end of my desk – 350 pages, printed out and punched into a three-ring binder. I don’t know why I printed out this particular copy when the digital version works just fine. But I hope I can be forgiven the environmental excess this once, because frankly, I just like looking at it. Part of my life is in that binder – long days, weeks that stretched on and on, books and magazines and articles I consulted, and let’s not forget the the formatting requirements designed by minions in the underworld to push students to the brink of insanity (Thank you for the help, Cathy!).
Still, no matter how big that stack of paper is, no matter how many years of reading, debating, discussing, and writing (always writing!) are distilled into those pages, it’s just a dissertation, and it’s only a small contribution to my field of study. One of the scariest and most freeing moments during the dissertation stage is when you realize that you could keep working on this until you die and still would not exhaust the subject. Scary, because you know of dozens of additional books you would like to to consult before you finish. Freeing, because you realize those books would lead to dozens more, and if you keep going down that road, you will never finish.
As it stands, a dissertation is both a testament to the sheer willpower needed to persevere and an ever-present reminder that no matter how much time and effort you’ve put into this project, all your knowledge is provisional. The dissertation testifies to human ingenuity and ignorance all at once! The process pounds into you the reality that you don’t have all the answers. But you do have some answers, and thankfully, having some is a good and noble thing.
I may be walking by myself into the room to defend my dissertation next week, but I will not be alone.
In my mind, I will hear the pitter-patter of feet in our house, my kids coming to give me hugs and sit on my lap as they look over my shoulder at what their Daddy is typing. I will be thinking about the days and nights my wife spent alone – with nary a complaint – while I was out of state doing seminars, in the library writing, or in my office reading. I will be grateful for the professors and pastors who have poured into me their wisdom and reflection, sharpening my skills and stretching my intellectual capacities. I’ll be by myself Monday morning, but I won’t really be alone.
Ben Witherington, a scholar I’ve long admired, issues a reminder:
“Research by a Christian is never done just for its own sake, or even just to advance knowledge in a given field. It is done in service to the Lord and to his church.”
That’s where the dissertation becomes less about me and my hard work and more about God’s people and their needs. It’s a gift, not a project. A gift, because I’ve been blessed with educational opportunities that stagger my imagination. A gift, because I’ve been formed and shaped by my brothers and sisters in Christ. A gift, because it’s something to give back to the Church who has shown me Jesus in all His glory.
If you think of it on Monday morning, I’d appreciate your prayers. It’s been an arduous journey of joy, and I hope to build on what I’ve learned and fortify the faith of Jesus’ followers in the days ahead.