Over last weekend I was privileged to attend a couple sessions for the West Coast Qumran Study Group, which felt like a miniature conference with scholars from the west coast of the U.S. and Canada gathered to share ideas, research, and give tips on utilizing Bible software. Or, at the very least, those were the topics of the sessions I was able to attend (the bulk of the study group was held on Saturday – the same day I had my eight hour class). After the final session on Sunday, we went to the Stickmen Brewery in Lake Oswego for lunch.
What was really cool for me was to see my former professor from U of O, Dr. Daniel Falk, talking with one of my new professors at George Fox – my advisor, in fact, Dr. Steve Delamarter. What I found even cooler, though, was having the opportunity to chat with Falk after everything was over. I had told him that I had just finished my first year of seminary and am hoping to continue on for a PhD thereafter. Somewhat to my surprise, he seemed excited and after sharing a couple tips here and there, we got to talking about how scholarship – that is, the advanced study of a particular subject in a particular field – works. He had told me that if I spent my time researching and presenting a topic that doesn’t get rejected, then I haven’t really done much for scholarship. However, if I were to find something – preferably something that hasn’t been tried before – that does get rejected by other scholars, then I actually have advanced – however minutely – scholarship. By ruling something out, one is actually moving the greater pursuit forward.
As I ruminated on this while heading home, I realized there are a few things that I must focus on even as I pursue my Master’s. First of all, however studied one may be, one must never fall in love with their thesis or their particular methodology. Should this happen and that thesis become utterly rejected, then one will feel that they have failed – even though, as just discussed, one has done something for the field. Ultimately, then, my focus should be on being proven wrong; to do as much research as I can and as well as I can with the hope that it gets knocked down. It will not be for naught; it’ll be an opportunity to try something new.
Secondly, I must never carry myself as though I’m always right. In fact, I ought to do the opposite: invite my professors and fellow students to prove me wrong, even in the littlest of essays. Our culture, of which I am very much a part, has become so engrained and fixated against criticism that we’ve become blind to the benefits of criticism – of our work and ideas being out-rightly proven wrong, unsupported, or too steeped in presuppositions. My first paper for writing 121 in college received an ‘F.’ Had it not received such a low, demoralizing grade (with extensive commentary in the margins), I highly doubt that I’d be as motivated to try harder and rework the incorrect areas until they were right – or at least closer to being right.
Thirdly, I must lower whatever expectations I might have about being an influence in scholarship. As Dr. Falk told me on Sunday, nobody really sends waves throughout the rest of the scholarly world for nearly fifteen or twenty years later. There are the rare exceptions, sure, but they’re the geniuses of the scholarly world. I still ought to strive to change the world, but adjust the scope toward something very, very small with the major focus on being utterly rejected and sent back to the drawing board. This, of course, leads to the last thing I realized.
Enjoy the process. Studying more and more is less about acquiring knowledge and more about creating more questions and unraveling one’s knowledge. My experience in seminary has ultimately been a journey of epistemology – of learning and relearning how I know what I know, which requires unraveling one’s knowledge and asking more questions instead of giving more answers. Such a process seems hopeless, if not annoying. But perhaps, once again, this is because our culture has misled us into believing that success is in finding more answers than questions – in being right more than wrong.
Dr. Falk’s words could not have come at a better time. I just finished my first year, have already signed up for classes this fall, and have begun deciding where I’d like to explore for my Master’s thesis (or if I even want to write a thesis). Having my understanding of what defines successful scholarship flipped around allows me to see that the thirst for understanding thrives in an environment where things are proven wrong rather than right. Even as I head into more coursework and build ideas for a thesis, I am shifting my focus not onto proving my arguments right, but to boldly push small, new ideas to rule them out and keep trying. I mean, after all, it gives me an excuse to read more books.