Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal/Theological Notebook: The Dissertation Defense

One week later. Just as I was heading into the dissertation defense a week ago last Friday, I was coming down with my very first sinus infection. I actually had to look it up, since I'd never felt that kind of pressure before, where when you bent over you felt like lead weights were going to fall out your cheeks. Odd. But I knew I was coming down with a cold of some sort, and my voice was starting to squawk as I taught my class the hour before the defense, just laughing at the timing when I thought of my voice blowing out right in the middle of the defense. Mercifully, that didn't happen, though I had to croak through the whole thing rather than speak as clearly as I might have hoped. As it was, I was then pretty drained this last week from the infection, wanting to spend more time with a box of Puffs tissues than is healthy, and finally starting to shake the thing just in time for this last weekend, with its LOMC "mini-reunion" on Friday, and Sophia's 3rd birthday party on Sunday, both of which I'll write about elsewhere.

The defense itself was an interesting experience, if all too brief in retrospect. The main thing was that it was simply gratifying to sit down with five highly accomplished scholars who had all read my book and who wanted to talk about it. Someone had been running late, and with the board needing to have a half hour's meeting beforehand, I ended up waiting in front of the audience for about 25 minutes before the faculty came in, as I passed the time making the occasional one-liner while everyone good-naturedly watched me sweat, speculating on such things as whether if the faculty failed to show whether that meant that I won by forfeit. My parents sat in the front with my Uncle Bill who lives in town (Aunt Helen still teaching during the afternoon, and unable to attend.) Amy represented the largely-absent posse, with the guys all presenting papers at that moment in Minnesota, and Donna staying home to watch all the kids. Bob managed to stretch his schedule and attend, dashing out to get to Minnesota himself as soon as we were done, and Anthony also was able to make it, as he taught the hour before, at the same time as I did. Christine Wood dropped in as well, to check out the proceedings, and three of my current students attended out of curiosity – Felix, Daryn and Mike – even though they admitted afterward that they found it all too thick for their Introduction-To-Theology capacities. Mike Canaris made it in from Fordham University, where he rounds out the trio of us younger scholars, along with Dermot Ryan in Ireland, who are the first to write on Sullivan in a serious way, and so he took in the defense as a bit of a research trip, as well as visiting a favourite aunt here in town.

It's all a bit of a blur, now. I very much wish that I had a recording of the whole thing that was filmed behind my eyes and where I could tune into the inner monologue, listening to the thoughts of the faculty while my own thoughts raced alongside at a mile a minute. There were a pair of awful moments for me when my thoughts skipped so far ahead of what I was saying that I lost track of what I was saying, faltering and privately wondering if that was the prelude to me losing control of the presentation entirely, but those only were what they were: two faltering moments before just gathering my thoughts and plunging back into the specifics of the conversation.

Father Fahey kicked things off as my director, asking me some pretty general questions for summarizing the project and about my intentions for the project, or about the evolution of my thinking on the subject. He had been quite relaxed when treating me to brunch at the Lunda Room earlier in the day, giving me a few pointers about how to proceed during the defense, but so obviously unworried about the outcome that the conversation moved on to things like novels and such light subjects. He did mention that his fellow co-editor of the Ecclesiological Investigations series that T&T Clark is putting out had spoken to him about my dissertation, after hearing about the topic, and saying that that was the sort of thing that the series really wanted to be involved in presenting. As a home for the dissertation, that's about as perfect as I could hope for, and so that will be a line to follow during the summer months, when I'm preparing it for publication. And so during the defense, Fahey's contentedness in the dissertation came through to me, with a sense that he was putting me through my paces, having already determined that everything was going to his satisfaction.

Professor Mattox opened by wondering why he was on the committee, since he was more an expert in the Reformation tradition. Fahey and I had, of course, brought him in because he was well-informed in historical ecclesiology, and so he was speaking lightly or modestly. There was a certain amount of ecumenical content in the dissertation, particularly when I looked at the relationship of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal to Classical Pentecostalism. So we talked for some time about some of my (and Sullivan's) worries about the Renewal's tendencies toward sectarianism. He wondered about some of the language I was using with regard to Protestantism in general, as my observation regarding the tendency for churches in the Protestant tradition to split over theological disagreements. I talked about how there seemed to me to be such a tendency, for the 3 major branches of Protestantism of the sixteenth century – Lutheranism, the Reformed Church and the Anglican Church – to now have some 1700+ specific denominations, and to compare this to Catholicism's tendency to have just as much theological diversity, but to largely be able to retain that within a single communion, despite the tensions that can bring. We spent some time talking, therefore, about my contention that this shared sort of pentecostal experience was a common ground sufficient enough for significant ecumenical connection between Catholicism and Protestant denominations, not least, I also thought, because of its particularly biblical content. It was also interesting with him (I did some follow-up discussion with him last week, too, during my Tuesday office hours) to talk Paul's ecclesiology, and the role of charism in it, since the Reformation's theology, and Luther's in particular, is so very Pauline. The question as to whether this was all "something from the 1970s" or whether it still had bearing in the life of the Church came up. I had certainly never intended to write a "charismatic dissertation," and so I explain why I thought that, despite the particularly 1970s and 1980s character of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal as it manifested in those years, I had come to be convinced that there was still a great deal that it had to offer, perhaps particularly once it had shed some of that historical baggage.

I had a bit of a different moment, then, when Professor Carey opened up his comments with the horrifically ambiguous sentence, "A dissertation defense is about a dissertation that is defensible." For one awful moment, I found myself thinking, "Does that mean he thinks the whole thing is indefensible?!" (Friends in the audience said afterward that my face was a momentary study in shock.) After a pause long enough for this to rattle around my brain, he launched into a few points where he thought I could simply strengthen the over-all defensibility of the argument. (I razzed him about this last week in his office, and he had a good laugh when he asked, "That's how I began?" before going on to just talk with me about the thesis in general.) He had a number of points to make, more in line with his own special interests as one of our great scholars of American Catholic History, which is why he had approached me about serving on my board (I had never actually studied with him). His interest in Francis Sullivan had grown out of and paralleled his interest in Avery Dulles, whose biography he had been working on for a few years (and which is due out this fall, if I recall correctly). So some parallel observations on the role of charism in Dulles's thinking were forthcoming, and which were new to me, since I had missed those in what reading I had done in Dulles. He had a few structural observations of that "defensible" sort, just wanting me to make my "roadmap" more clear in my introduction – that sort of thing. All good suggestions, and even more useful for the book version (and maybe the following book) than for the dissertation itself.

I was in for a bit of a surprise with Professor Wood took her turn, as I had been expecting her to spend time with my section where I compared the ecclesiological proposal I was making to the dominant Catholic school of "communion ecclesiology," in which she is particularly expert. As it turned out, she didn't address the topic at all. (In talking with her at the reception after April 11th's magnificent Pere Marquette Lecture, she said that she thought my treatment of the subject was more tangential, anyway, although I still argued that I needed some kind of acknowledgment of both communion ecclesiology and of Dulles's method of using "models" in ecclesiology, as the two dominant methods of doing ecclesiology in the Catholic Church.) She wanted to nail me down more specifically about my treatment of the relationship of charism and office in the Church, and how these two modes of leadership could co-exist contemporaneously. So she brought the conversation further down out of some of its theoretical heights and made me get specific in terms of actual Church and parish life as to how I thought these two could function together.

Professor Mueller continued in this more specific vein, continuing on some aspects of the charism/office/leadership question. He also pursued some of my historical treatment of the question of charisms in Catholic thinking leading into the Second Vatican Council, catching me on a reference mistake I made off the top of my head about a standard reference text that Sullivan had consulted on charisms leading into his November 1963 meeting with the U.S. Bishops at the North American College in Rome, where he had found no information available on the topic (because it was then so obscure in Catholic thinking). Mueller asked me, with a bit of a note in his voice whether I was sure about that, and I stuck to my guns, only to find him saying that he had looked up and found such information in the text of the time only this very morning. I laughed and acknowledged that perhaps I had the wrong book in mind, but insisted that there had been such an incident that was significant for Sullivan at the time, and Fahey jumped in with a quick, "I think you're thinking of such-and-such." It was trivial, of course, but I still hated to be caught in an error, and the wry look in Mueller's face told me that he knew it, but he also knew that that was just a detail and moved the discussion back on to the real topic.

But before I knew it, the time was up: everyone had had their twenty minutes, and the faculty withdrew for another ten or fifteen to talk (or maybe it only seemed that long) before filing back in to hail me as one of them, which was gratifying, although I found myself thinking, "What? That's it?" because it seemed all so quick after two years of writing. A few of them leaned in and quietly apologized for leaning on me: they apparently had really pushed some of the conversation a bit harder than is usually done in arguing some of my approach, and friends in the audience said afterward that Fahey had seemed a little protective of me or irritated at how combative some of the debate had gotten, but it certainly was no more than I had expected or even hoped for. Then it was off to Uncle Bill and Aunt Helen's for a long celebratory dinner (with Cousin Becca showing up as a surprise guest, home from UW Madison for the weekend) and some downtime with family before the sinuses took over and conspired to do me in.

It's good to have it done, although it hardly feels like the end of the line, given the further work necessary: revisions for the grad school and for the committee, working to publish the dissertation text itself, and then another further book to consider over the next few years, taking the theory as a whole in for a longer treatment. In a way, I've explained to people, it kind of feels like getting my driver's license after I've been driving for years; but then every once in a while it feels more like when you get the big idiot grin of delight on your face when you've fallen in love: one more great thing that has happened to you along the way.
Tags: dissertation, fahey, family, friends-marquette era, marquette, personal, teachers, theological notebook

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