Saturday, October 19, 2013

Master's Thesis: Defended + Acknowledgments and Introduction

Image source via Pinterest.
Yesterday afternoon, I successfully defended my Master's thesis, titled:

"Now lay aside all earthly cares": 
Knowledge of God through Christian Worship

Although there is still paperwork to file, the physical degree to confer, and my commencement ceremony to partake of, at the conclusion of my defense I became a Master of Arts in Theology. I am excited about the work I produced, and relieved to have finally accomplished this important milestone. Besides the personal fulfillment it brings, it is also a requirement for applying for both promotion in academic rank and tenure in my position of Assistant Professor on the library faculty at my school. I plan to apply for promotion this year, with the deadline of November 1st for submitting my application materials, so completing and defending my thesis this month was a necessity, and one I am proud to have accomplished.

When I posted the news yesterday on Facebook, first that the defense was occurring later that afternoon, then that my defense was a success, I also included the title of the thesis in my status update, and many people in my life expressed an interest in reading it. I am about 95% sure that I will give my library permission to make the digitized version of the thesis accessible to anyone who knows the link or searches for it in our library catalog. I have a newly developed commitment to open access and to making my work available to be found, read, and engaged with...a commitment which has the freedom to blossom in the wake of having accomplished two publications in blind peer-reviewed journals in my field--publications which unfortunately are not at present openly accessible. I hope to rectify that in some way soon, but in the meantime, I wrote my thesis not just for me, but for anyone who participates in worship, especially in the Orthodox Christian context. I can't justify keeping the work behind an access wall. Which is all to say, unless my mind on this matter changes between now and filing the paperwork for the completed thesis, I will post the link to the full version on my blog once that process is complete. 

All of this being said, there are two short excerpts I want to share now, right here in the body of this blog post. One is my Acknowledgments page, because I want to be able to easily link to and share my thanks to these individuals, so I can share them sooner rather than later. The other is my Introduction, which is around three pages long. This lays out my research question, and my proposed answer to it, and explains how I go about demonstrating the answer over the course of the thesis (i.e., which writers I draw from and to what ends I do so). This second excerpt will be of interest to anyone for whom the title of the work sounds like something you want to read more about. The Introduction also begins with a reflection on my personal experience of worship, from which my research question sprang, so it is also a glimpse into my perspective as a choir singer in an Orthodox Christan parish. So, without further ado, here are the excerpts, to which I invite feedback and response.
I am very grateful to many for the support, prayers, insights, and influence that have led to this completed work. 
To my colleagues and administrators in the Library Department here at The University of Scranton: thank you for your support and flexibility as I completed my coursework, and then researched and wrote this thesis. I couldn’t have done it without you behind me. 
To my instructors in the graduate theology program: thank you for helping to form my thinking throughout the program as I approached this capstone research project; and thank you especially to Dr. Nathan Lefler and Dr. Maria Poggi Johnson, for your time and expertise in reading and offering feedback on this work.  
To my classmates in the program: I truly believe that learning happens in community, and your presence in the classroom with me as we attempted to wrap our feeble minds around the mysteries of God was a gift. Thank you.  
To Dr. Will Cohen: thank you for your time and willingness to guide me through this work, and for your valuable insights that helped me transform a rambling research idea rooted in personal experience into a fully-formed work that manages to maintain its heart.  
To my mother, Celia, my father, Jack (Memory Eternal.), and my brother, John: I wouldn’t be the scholar I am today without your encouragement; thank you for giving me the confidence to pursue what fulfills me and for always making my work feel worthwhile.  
And, to Paul and Anna: thank you for being my reason for sitting down at the computer and cranking this work out. I did it for you, with love. 

As a member of the choir in an Orthodox Christian parish, my experience of the liturgy—from the Greek leitourgia, popularly understood to mean “work of the people”[1]—is at once beautiful and, at times, puzzling. Every Sunday I attend the liturgy, during which I sing and participate, along with my fellow parishioners, in communal worship. The entire service is sung through, with the choir singing the responses on behalf of the faithful, though what I offer here can easily apply to any other manner of service during the liturgy, including simply standing actively at prayer. For the hour and a half or so that I am in church for the service, it often feels like time stands still—or, in some sense, ceases to exist. While singing the prayers and hymns of the liturgy, the most fulfilling moments are when I can’t hear my own voice, when my voice gets absorbed into the greater work of the choir as a whole. These are also the moments when time does not seem to exist in the same way it does when I am focused on singing technique, or paying close attention to how I sound in reference to the singers around me. These moments of timelessness during the liturgy are restful—they are what I look forward to every week when I go to church. And yet, it takes work to achieve them: the work of getting myself and my family to church each Sunday, learning the music, understanding the prayers, developing my vocal instrument, and so on. 
This experience is not unique to me. Hilarion Alfeyev, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk in the Russian Orthodox Church, describes his own experience of worship in the liturgy in the following manner:
Orthodox divine services are characterized by inner integrity and astounding beauty. . . . The entire service is conducted as if in one breath, in one rhythm, like an ever unfolding mystery in which nothing distracts one from prayer. . . . two hours are never sufficient for me, since the time goes by so quickly and the dismissal comes too soon . . . [due to] the sweetness of communion with God and the unearthly stillness and calm that enter the soul while serving the liturgy . . . (n. pag.)
Alfeyev’s experience mirrors mine, but he would be the first to agree that despite this gift we’re given in liturgical worship, the act itself requires much of us if it is to successfully yield to an experience like the one described here. It is this paradox, at once beautiful yet puzzling, that drove the research of my inquiry and defined the question of this thesis: How is this work, rest? 
The simplest form the answer to this question might take is to say: This work is rest because in it and through it we come to know God. The aim of this thesis is to articulate how this occurs, where the Incarnation of God in Christ makes possible man’s participation in the divine through worship and liturgy. To this end, Chapter I focuses on foundational ideas from Plato and Aristotle of how the human soul, containing reason and intellect, can be said to participate in the divine; these ideas are later taken up by Christianity and applied to the act of worship. Chapter II offers the thought of Saints Augustine (354-430 A.D.) and Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662 A.D.) on the topic of how knowledge of God is understood in the Christian context; several key shifts in emphasis from this topic’s treatment in antiquity are identified and developed, including the expansion of man’s participation in the divine to include the human body as well as the soul, and the apophatic character of God where man’s access to true knowledge of God (i.e., “mystical theology”) is mediated by an encounter between God and the Body of Christ (i.e., the community of believers) joined in a dynamic unity through divine worship. Chapter III moves the discussion to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when a generation apart Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper and Eastern Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth engage in questions related to human reason and intellect and how these work together to enable us to achieve our highest humanity: to know God in a manner both human and divine. Chapter IV brings the inquiry full circle, drawing on the above scholars, as well as twentieth century Eastern Orthodox theologians Alexander Schmemann and Georges Florovsky, to demonstrate how worship is both the primary activity through which we come to know God, and, our loving response to that knowledge. 
Before proceeding, a disclaimer must be offered. The irony is not lost on me that I am offering a work that hopes to articulate the nature of how we come to know God, when the “answer” to this question is that, for the Christian believer, this knowledge is made possible in and through divine worship centering on the Eucharist. As my priest is wont to say, the simplest and most effective response to an inquirer’s question, “Who is the Christian God?” is: Come and see (cf. John 1:46), coupled with an invitation to attend liturgy some Sunday morning.[2] That being said, and as will hopefully be made clear in the following work, a rigorous critical engagement with the question has an important purpose to serve, for such inquiries help to prepare and condition the mind toward the restful anticipation required of us to fully enter into divine worship, enabling us to come to know God in and through the process. 
[1] The popularizing of this definition can be traced to the pastorally oriented liturgical theology of Alexander Schmemann; as Stefanos Alexopoulos explains, “Indeed, seeing ritual as a magical act is a real danger in highly ritual traditions, including the Orthodox, and I believe it is this danger that moved Schmemann and others after him to define liturgy as the ‘work of the people.’ While in the North American Protestant and possibly Catholic setting emphasis on this definition might limit or even diminish the understanding of the Eucharist as God’s gift, in an Orthodox setting there is need to emphasize the involvement and role of the community” (see pp. 288-289 of “Did the Work of Fr. Alexander Schmemann Influence Modern Greek Theological Thought? A Preliminary Assessment” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 53 (2009): 273-299). 
[2] The role and function of catechesis in preparing a person for entering fully into the community of faith presents an important tension that exists between the Orthodox Church’s requirement that new adult members receive rational instruction in the faith prior to sacramental initiation, on the one hand, and her practice of baptizing, chrismating, and communing infants who themselves have yet to reach the age of reason and understanding, on the other. It is a tension with significant implications, but which falls outside the scope of this thesis.
UPDATE: I've now posted the link to the full-text of my thesis, for anyone interested in reading it in full.

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