Tag Archives: papers

Home Stretch

I can’t believe that the semester and the school year is over in about a month.  It feels like the semester only just began.  There’s lots of work to do yet before the end of the semester.

I haven’t been diligent with my Hebrew vocabulary, a shortcoming which shows up when we’re asked to translate.  Would you like me parse all the verbs in this sentence?  Sure thing.  Would you like me to translate it? Not just now.

Our Hebrew professor said something interesting last week: she pegged our class as “high achieving”. She didn’t mean this as a compliment so much as simply a fact about our work habits. High achieving, or perhaps over-achieving, means we are perfectionists in our work, perhaps putting more time into it than is necessary (or even healthy).

I would never have considered myself a high achiever, but I think she’s right. I agonize over papers because I want them to be just so. I sometimes spend much more time on my Hebrew translation than I can afford, simply because I want to get it just right.

Part of the motivating factor is that I do not want my assignments to simply be a product I turn out. Production is what I did for the most part in university, I think. I have much more purpose in seminary and I want to learn while doing assignments, rather than just creating a product which meets the professor’s specifications. This is a good thing, but it’s not always achievable (or, again, healthy).

I have a good number of papers to complete by the end of the semester.  Seven, by my count, after I hand one in tomorrow, though 3 of them are short and/or not difficult. What I need to learn is to find the balance between high achieving and simply creating a product. I need to find the median place where I can say “OK, that’s enough” while I’m researching and “that’ll do” as I’m writing.  The goal is not mediocrity, but being realistic with the time available for various assignments, rest, family, etc.

The problem with me is this: I’m a high achiever who lacks discipline. Which means I am an inefficient high achiever. This is doubly problematic.

Throw into this mix three papers for a professor who assigns open-ended papers with no fixed deadlines (other than the end of the semester), and if I’m not careful I face the prospect of having to write three fairly major papers in a space of two weeks or less.

Then it’ll be over for a bit, before I launch into what some might call “suicide Greek”, which is a two-semester course crammed into the month of May. But at least it’ll be the only class I have, so I’ll be able to focus my efforts.

Lord, have mercy.

The Doors of the Sea

Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.

I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.

Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you).  According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)

And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.

He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured  their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)

And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:

…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).

Indeed.  Indeed.

This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer.  I’m fine with that.  That’s my response, too.

But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom.  God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.

I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.

And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast.  How can any response be made in the face of that image?  How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami?  My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.

I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart.  While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind.  And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new.  But how to I reconcile that?

If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God.  And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two?  I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar).  I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming.  In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.

This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts.  I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out.  We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics).  There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.

I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas.  I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does.  But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question.  Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.

I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.

Listen to me whine (and repeat myself)

I have a bad habit of starting research papers with a general topic, but without a specific thesis statement.  Normally I manage to find a thesis somewhere within the reams of notes I’ve taken (on just about everything related to the general topic).  Right now I’m working on a research paper with a general topic of the 5th century Nestorian controversy and, specifically, whether Theotokos (“Mother of God”) or Christotokos (“Mother of Christ”) is the appropriate designation for Mary (it was ultimately a debate about how the divine and human natures in Christ relate to each other).  I’m having a heck of a time coming up with a specific thesis: debating the two terms is not within the scope of this assignment (15 pages), and whether or not Nestorius was actually a Nestorian (and thus a heretic) has been up for debate for 1,500 years, so I won’t be solving that one either.  The syllabus’ specifics are nicely general (one option is examining the importance of a certain event or controversy to the development of orthodoxy), but for some reason I can’t bring myself to write a paper on the importance of the Nestorian controversy to the development of the doctrine of Christ. It’s got to be something more…but what?

It doesn’t help that that whole affair is a confusing mess of poor terminology and misunderstanding.  I’d like to say that it’s a lesson in learning to listen to the other in debate, but I’m not sure if that’s a legitimate point to make for a research paper.

Someone told Dixie that I’d probably overdo things here at seminary and I’m beginning to think this person was right.  I wonder if I’m trying too much to be a scholar of some kind, maybe impress my professors or fulfill certain perceived expectations, rather than simply be a student, wherever I may land in that department.

This paper ain’t going away.  It’s due next Friday (October 30) and I will finish it come hell or high water, even if it’s crap.  I just want this course done already.

The problem is that I continue to have a hard time balancing my time. On Monday I have a midterm in which I have to put on my Bonhoeffer cap and respond to a case study as if I were Bonhoeffer, based on what we’ve covered so far in his Ethics.  But some days Ethics reminds me a bit too much of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (*petuey!*)–it’s full of brilliant ideas, but it’s dense and sometimes it takes a lot of focus and concentration and work to extract that brilliance from the text.  Somehow I have to take Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and turn them into a response to this case study…

And then there’s another paper due a week from Wednesday, but if I hand a draft in on Wednesday the prof will read it and comment on it for improvement before it’s due.  I may have to skip that opportunity this time around.

And I still have to keep up with my Hebrew vocabulary and grammar.

The difficulty is in knowing what to work on when.  I have two problems: 1) I have difficulty with multitasking; 2) I have a hard time working with small intervals of available time.  If I have 20 minutes free my tendency is to not use it for homework, because I think, “Aw, by the time I settle down and get focused, the time’ll be up”.  But I have to capitalize on these moments.  They are precisely when I need to do Hebrew, of course.

But what about that 1.5 hour block in the evening?  Research paper?  Exam prep? Reflection paper?  What?

It’s crippling.

I’m quickly learning (or perhaps reminded) that seminary life is one of constant hope and looking forward: if I make it to Friday, all will be well. Of course, after Friday a whole bunch of other things are due.

It’s interesting how I have never developed much confidence in my academic abilities.  I’m constantly expecting to be “found out”–as if I’m a fraud–and given a failing mark on an assignment.  THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED IN NEARLY 8 YEARS OF POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION.  Why do I still worry about this?  Honestly!  Even when I haven’t started a major paper until 10 o’clock the night before the due date–not even cracking a book until 12 hours before class–I’ve managed to come out with good marks.  So why do I worry?

Maybe that’s precisely it, maybe this way shoddy, mediocre way of doing things won’t work forever.  It’s bound to come back and bite me.  It just hasn’t yet.

Or maybe my subconscious is telling me, “Look, Marc: you’ve lived a whole life being successfully mediocre.  It’s time for you to step it up a notch.”

Or maybe my standards are too high.

Or maybe I need to think better of my abilities.

Keener Guy

I’ve been to 2 out of my 3 regular classes so far (1 class will be a week long affair in October, and the other class is distance learning) and so far so good.

Theological Foundations 1 looks like it will be an engaging course with lots of discussion.  I raised my hand often enough in class to get a “We’ll get to your question in a bit” from the professor (we didn’t get to it).  After class I jokingly asked him if I could lose marks for talking too much in class.  He said I wouldn’t, but that other students need to be given a chance (he didn’t say it rudely–his answer was just fair and direct).  I immediately regretted asking the question, as the joke probably didn’t come across as intended and, instead, sounded more like a sarcastic remark.  Ah, the travails of meeting professors for the first time–feeling nervous, wanting to impress them, the inevitable and immediate regret at having said what you just said.  Good times.

I also suggested that the author of a letter to the editor published in the Winnipeg Free Press, which we discussed in class and to which the professor had written a response, had, in fact, filched the letter verbatim from Richard Dawkins.  I’m not sure if this was helpful or interesting at all to the professor, especially given the fact that he had already submitted his response for publication.

Introductory Hebrew 1 looks like it will be a good class, too, and perhaps not as intense as I had imagined.  The subject matter will take a lot of work to master, but at this stage at least learning a new language is fun.  It turns out that all the work I did yesterday–memorizing the Hebrew alphabet (consonants), the final forms, the gutturals, the begadkephat letters and completing lesson 1 in the workbook–was unnecessary, as we were introduced to that material in today’s class and the assignment (workbook) is not due until the next class.  (I guess it can’t hurt to learn the material before class and then use the class as a review and question time.)

The problem is that all of this–the talking, the bad joke-making, the cross-referencing to Richard Dawkins, the over-preparedness for class–is that it makes me seem like a keener.  Keener Guy.  I don’t want to be that guy.  I want to do well and I want to be prepared for class, but I don’t want to be the annoying know-it-all who won’t shut up.

Christian Ethics‘ first class is on Monday and it is taught by the same professor as Theological Foundations 1, so I’ll have another crack at a more reserved, quietly intelligent approach.

It remains to be seen whether the 4-class plus the Briercrest course schedule will be too much.  Hebrew has the potential, if I let it, to consume all of my time, but the other classes aren’t too bad.  I have no major research papers, other than the one for the Briercrest course.  Unusually, September and early October seem to be the big hurdle to overcome:  I have a critical book review on William Placher’s Narratives of a Vulnerable God due on September 28; a critical book review of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus due on September 30; three other books, plus a paper and assignment must be completed by October 5 for the week-long intensive; and then, almost immediately following the week-long intensive, my Briercrest course is to be completed, which means I have a 15-page research paper, plus a Greek terminology assignment to do before then.  This is all interspersed with Hebrew quizzes.

Now, I’m looking forward to all of these readings and studies.  But will I survive?

If I get to October 13 (a month from Sunday) successfully the rest of the semester will feel like a breeze (pray for me).