I have been asked by a few people to post my PhD proposal, if for no other reason than for a good laugh when it morphs into something completely different. I thought this might be an apt way of un-pausing this blog and getting people talking again. Feel free to comment, question, critique, suggest, laugh or award me an honorary doctorate as you see fit.
First, the one paragraph version for those who are time-starved.
For those with a little more stamina, here is the full proposal (700 words):
“In view of the present distress”How does an experience of severe social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community in its relationship to broader society? Via historical case studies and in dialogue with significant contemporary thinkers, this project will develop a theological perspective integrating insights from ecclesiology, ethics, eschatology and political theology in order to provide suggestions to the contemporary church in its service of and opposition to a society that appears to be entering a time of heightened ecological, economic and cultural distress.
The role of the church in a society in crisis
Obviously, this needs quite a bit more narrowing down, since at the moment I've basically said "I'd like to talk about Jesus and stuff, you know, looking at most of church history and anyone I can think of who's still around and talking about what happens when there's a problem."
“In view of the present distress”The church is not immune from the troubles of the various societies amongst which it exists. How does an experience of extreme social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community? What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be faithful together when the broader society is under dire threat? What scriptural, theological, ethical, emotional or historical resources can the church draw upon at such times?
The role of the church in a society in crisis
The scriptural tradition of both testaments records a number of catastrophes for the people of God and the series of social worlds they inhabited. What was the nature and basis of hope-filled response at such times? How did the structure, practices and beliefs of these communities function to sustain or undermine patterns of human social existence?
These questions are of more than idle interest in our own time. One of the defining features of recent decades has been, at least amongst some groups, a growing awareness of the depth and breadth of a range of ecological, social and resource crises facing an increasingly globalised human society. Numerous interconnected factors cumulatively present a grave and urgent threat to society as it currently exists.
While the global extent and technologically-enhanced degree of environmental degradation are a novelty historically speaking, ours is certainly not the first society to face a crisis that threatens the basis of its continued existence. Over the centuries, Christian communities have found themselves amidst societies undergoing rapid change, foreign invasion, sustained economic and cultural decline or even sudden collapse.
And so I would like to pursue my question through a historical lens in order to see what might be gained from a critical investigation into how the church has responded to instances of social crisis and decline in the past. Possible case studies could include one or more of the following: the response of Augustine and others to the fall of Rome in 410 (and/or the broader pattern of decline in the Western empire around this time); the Eastern response to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (and/or the broader pattern of decline in the Eastern empire); various patterns of ecclesiastical response to the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe; or the trajectories of State and Confessing churches in Nazi Germany. In all these instances, although the nature and origin of the threat varied, the Christian community found itself with the opportunity and responsibility to adopt a variety of functions with respect to the ailing society, from palliative care to armed dissent.
A selection of these case studies will provide material for critical reflection, in order to develop a theological perspective on possibilities open to the contemporary church. This theological perspective will be formed and enriched by integrating insights from ecclesiology, eschatology, ethics and political theology. To complement the various historical theologians associated with the case studies (e.g. Augustine, Gregory Palamas, medieval and reformation advice on dealing with plague, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), this project will also interact with a selection of contemporary writers with significant contributions to discussions of the role of the church in society. Potentially fruitful interlocutors with whom I am already familiar include: Oliver O’Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Jürgen Moltmann, N. T. Wright, John Milbank, William Cavanaugh and Bernd Wannenwetsch.
The theological perspective orienting this proposal may be briefly outlined as follows. The gospel of Christ finds its most faithful expression today in hope-filled communities that subvert the idolatry of our cultural obsession with consumption, as well as the growing panic over ecological doom that is its increasingly likely result. Although there may be no divine promise of cultural continuity or even civilizational survival, a community founded upon belief in a divine word and driven by an eschatological hope of resurrection for human life and its entire created environment is able to engage in open-eyed loving service without fear. Christian hope is not otherworldly, yet by giving an origin to hope that transcends the present ecological and social order, believers are liberated to admire, care for, critique and enrich this order as a sign of trust that God’s purposes for his good world are not thwarted by decay.
The practical outcome of this study will include suggestions to the contemporary church in its service, witness and opposition to a society that appears to be entering a time of heightened ecological, economic and cultural distress.
Since writing the proposal, three further thoughts have helped give it a little more shape. First, I am interested not simply in any old crisis in society (war, famine, pandemic, interest rate rise, celebrity gaining a few kilos), but in a crisis of society, that is, a crisis in sociality, situations in which the fabric of social life is undermined. Second, I think I'd like to look at collective deliberation and resolution, how society discerns and pursues the common good. How is that impeded by the kind of crisis of society I just mentioned and (how) does the gospel (and/or the practices of the church in response to the gospel) shape the possibilities of constructive and creative collective deliberation and resolution? Not that I'm saying that the this is the primary function or purpose of the gospel, but might it be a blessed side-effect? Finally, a few people have expanded my possible case studies, especially with historical and contemporary scenarios from the two-thirds world.
I realise I need to define "crisis" (not to mention "society" and "church"!). I'd love to hear suggestions of books to read, especially if someone has already answered this question.
If you are going to mention the latter, please also supply a replacement topic. Thanks!