The main reason I chose to do a PhD was, as they say in some theology schools, ‘missional’. In this post I will explain this, and also assess the strengths and weaknesses of my answer a few years into my PhD research.
I arrived to study philosophy as an undergraduate to discover that the university (well, the philosophy department at least) was full of people asking some of life’s deepest questions. But as I looked about my department I saw no one trying to answer them from a Christian perspective. That is, I didn’t find any Christians adopting the language of the philosophy department (which, traditionally, had its roots in theology) and attempting to provide satisfying (in the most full sense of the word) answers to these questions. Not only this but I saw friend after friend study philosophy or theology at university and after a few months fall away from the faith. Church was not equipped to deal with the questions that students faced in the university. I thought, ‘Something must be done.’ And so I took it upon myself to be the best philosopher I could be for Christ. Taking ‘every thought captive and making it obedient to him’ (2 Cor. 10:5). Doing PhD research was part of this: to get to know the field well and answer some of the cutting-edge questions from a Christian perspective.
I think there are two great strengths to this strategy. First, it’s realistic. This is a problem facing universities: there’s a lack of Christian engagement at a non-superficial level. Second, it does meet a calling: Christians are called to be engaged in this kind of work. We are called to, as I noted above, take every thought captive.
There are also many weaknesses to this approach, however. First, it can make one cavalier. It might give one an inflated view of oneself. Even if your aim is to take every thought captive and make it obedient, you must remember whom you are making the thought obedient to. Not yourself but Christ. Second, the academy does not, in many respects, welcome one-man armies. The academy is, first and foremost, engaged in a corporate pursuit of truth (or at least it’s supposed to be). This means that research takes a great many people a great many years.
Why do a PhD? ‘To take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ’ is a valid answer but two further things must be asked. (i) Who are we making thoughts obedient to? (ii) How can we go about doing it in a community?