When I left for Oxford, I more or less had a plan. I was going to study the way that religious experience is represented in the fictions of Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Pratchett. As non-Christian representatives of the fantasy genre who nonetheless dealt outstandingly well with what I would call the spiritual and even religious, I set out to examine how they did so and why it might matter for the public’s conversation about religion, culture, and popular media.
As it turns out, however, do a PhD entails more than just pursuing the idea of a prject that you cooked up in your living room in the hopes of being admitted to a program, no matter how interesting you think that project might be on its face. Here at the end of my first academic year at Oxford, I have found my project ot have evolved considerably. Le Guin and Pratchett are still wandering about through my thought, but as I have transformed a mostly literary project with a theological edge into a theological project with a literary flavor, the questions I am asking and the means by which I am seeking to answer them have changed.
In the theological world, we sometimes use words in different ways to their typical meanings. For instance, most people who know the word “anthropology” take it to have something to do with remote tribes and museums and maybe something to do with culture. Anthropology as it is taught in universities is mostly just that: cultural anthropology, or the study of human cultures and their internal rationales.
Theological anthropology is something different. In theology, “anthropology” doesn’t refer to “the study of people” in the way cultural anthropologists mean it, but rather to “what it is that we mean when we say ‘person’ at all”. Theological anthropology is that branch of theology concerned with the human being considered as such. Like all aspects of theology, this one dimension impinges on all the others, and it is in these overlaps that much of the interest in systematic theology is to be found. My supervisor, Graham Ward, likes to say that doing systematic theology is like tugging on a spiderweb: pull on this point and then see how evertyhing else changes as a result. For example, saying something about what it is to be human immediately has implications for a Christian on what is meant by the Incarnation. And any doctrine of the Incarnation requires answers to questions about the Trinity and Creation and questions of how God reveals herself to her creation. Pull here and see how everything else responds.
It became clear from an early stage in my research that as I was interested religion and literature, with stories and how stories work on the people who read them, hear them, live them out, that I was going to be at the very least brushing up against the idea of myth and mythology: religion an dstories and rituals and ethics. As I began reading about myth and mythology and philosophers’ approaches to langauge and narrative, it soon became clear that the question of myth and myth-making is very much a question of human nature: what is it about people that we are so preoccupied with stories: their making and their telling and their refashioning again? In theological terms, this is a question of anthropology.
In keeping with the spiderweb principle just outlined, it soon also became clear that any question of storytelling is also a question of creativity, and from a Christian theological perspective, any question of human creativity or inventiveness immediately demands situating in proximity to or in relationship with divine creativity. Is human creativity a reflection of divine creativity? Is it a manifestation of or continuation of divine creativity? And if it is any of these things, who cares? What difference would it make?
It is now the gist of my project to explore these questions, with the many and varied personalities of Earthsea and the Discworld as my guides and inspiration, interlocutors and travleing companions. In very different ways, both sets of fictions seem to me to say true things about the human condition that are in now way at odds with the human experience of God that is described in Scripture and the tradition of the faithful. On eway or another, exploring these questions is where I am off to next.