My 3 Books (or The Post Where I Steal Ideas from The Theology Studio)

David Russell Mosley

Second Week of Advent
10 December 2013
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Over at The Theology Studio, run by excellent gents Tony Baker and Scott Bader-Saye, they have a virtual bookshelf of books that have most influenced the writing and thought of the theologians they interview. While I certainly do not even remotely put myself in the same category as the women and men they interview, I nevertheless thought it would an interesting exercise to try to determine what books have most influenced me in my theology (since I’ve not published multiple books or journal articles yet I thought more appropriate to talk about what has more generally influenced my theology). Without further ado, then, here are my three books:

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This book served both as my introduction into patristic theology and my introduction into deification. While Cassian himself never uses the language of deification, it was reading Cassian that led me to the Cappadocians, Augustine, Athanasius, etc. Without this book, and Cassian’s understanding of grace, I probably would not be doing my PhD on deification.

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While I admittedly do very little philosophical theology in my PhD, John’s work in TST on the secular confirmed much for me as well as taught a whole new way of talking about society, secularity, and theology.

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I’m cheating a bit here, but really Tolkien’s work on sub-creation, the purpose and place of fairy stories, and his practice of sub-creation in The Silmarillion have significantly influenced how I think about humanity’s role in the cosmos. Without this article and this book I wouldn’t be doing the work on poetry, faerie, and fantasy I’m doing in some side projects and in my PhD.

Next week, I’ll probably do a runners-up list. What about you? What books have most influenced your thinking/theology? Leave your answers in the comments below.

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley

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The Evolution of the Thesis: Why It’s Alright to Change Your Topic

Dear Friends and Family,

If you were to go back through my old posts, starting with the oldest and working your way up (not that I’d recommend it), you would first find this post. In it I talk about what was at the time my fifth thesis topic. Then, if you kept reading, you’d end up here, where I describe not only my fifth thesis topic shift, but the fact that I’d switched supervisors as well. In the interest of describing what its like to do a PhD, I thought I’d do a post outlining how and why a thesis can change by using my own as a case study. I remember in my Master’s feeling so trapped by topic. I want others out there working to know it’s OK to change your mind, so long as it isn’t too often.

Master’s Degree: Columbanus, Grace, and the Trinity

I came into my Master’s (in Historical Theology) thinking I either wanted to write on C. S. Lewis or “Celtic” Christianity. I quickly settled on “Celtic” Christianity, got in touch with Tom O’Loughlin and decided I was going to the University of Nottingham for my PhD. Then I started my Master’s. With Tom and Bob Rea’s help––Bob being my Major Professor and boss––I decided to write about the theology of one late-sixth, early seventh century Irish monk, Columbanus.

Saint Columbanus.

Saint Columbanus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only problem, I quickly got tired of Columbanus. In the second year of my Master’s, and the first semester of my thesis, I finally took the Early Christian Centuries course and fell in love with patristics as well as Trinitarian theology and deification. But I felt stuck.

PhD Topic #1 Columbanus and Grace

So, I kept at it. I finished my Master’s and came to Nottingham to work with Tom. We quickly settled on the topic of grace in Columbanus. I was particularly interested in how his understanding of grace sounded like the Eastern Orthodox understanding. Tom had suggested that all of  Columbanus’ Eastern Orthodox sounding notions actually came through a fifth century monk and contemporary of Augustine, John Cassian. Cue PhD topic #2.

PhD Topic #2 John Cassian, Columbanus, and Grace

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I had studied Cassian some in my Master’s and since he was the figure my Major Professor from my Master’s had written on, this would make for a good PhD. The idea had been to first show that Cassian’s understanding of grace was in line with Eastern Orthodox thinking. Then, I’d set out to prove that Cassian had a direct influence on Columbanus, thus accounting for Columbanus’ understanding of grace.

From here, some kind of imperceptible change happened. It wasn’t that I no longer wanted to right about grace, it’s just there was more to it than simply what they thought happened when one became a believer, and they thought one could. As I said above, I had, in my Master’s learned about, and become interested in the primarily Eastern Orthodox notion of deification, or theosis (see my post here for a general overview of what deification is).

PhD Topic #3 John Cassian, Columbanus, and Deification

From here I decided that what I wanted to show was first that John Cassian had a notion of deification like the Eastern Church Fathers. Then I would prove Cassian’s influence on Columbanus. After showing Cassian’s influence on Columbanus I would show evidence of a notion deification in Columbanus as well. I quickly realised, however that continued work on Columbanus would lead me into some historical minutiae I didn’t want to deal with.

PhD Topic #4 John Cassian and Deification

This brought to my, hopefully, penultimate thesis topic. I decided to drop Columbanus altogether. The problem? I had come to Nottingham to work with Dr Tom O’Loughlin on Irish Christianity, only there weren’t any Irishmen (or women) in my project at this stage. Still, I plowed on in what was a primarily historical thesis when what I was really wanting to do, had been wanting to do since my Master’s, was theology. I wanted to do theology without divorcing it from history, but I didn’t want to be a historian. Finally, after spending a whole summer reading nothing but patristic and secondary texts on deification when this academic started up back in October, I decided it was time to make a change.

PhD Topic #5 Deification

I’ve already written about the switch to my final (hopefully) topic as well as my switching supervisors. I just want to note here that part of the reason it took me so long was fear. I was afraid of disappointing Tom, even Bob (my Major Professor in my Master’s). I felt locked in by previous decisions. The thing is, I wasn’t locked in. I could’ve changed my mind at any time. Ultimately, I’m glad I did my studies the way I did because it meant I got an excellent grounding in the Tradition before more strictly doing theology.

I just want to encourage anyone, especially young (if not in age then at least to their programs) scholars, that you shouldn’t feel locked in permanently to whatever you initially chose to do. Doing research and writing means that your ideas are going to change, your interests are going to change, you are going to change. You should always temper that desire to change by seeking advice, but still listen to it. I prayed long and hard before switching topics and supervisors. Then I spoke to the perspective supervisors to see if they thought this was a good idea. Finally, I talked to my supervisor before making anything official. It was tough, and a little awkward, but I’m a much happier theologian in training now than I was historian (or at least historical theologian) before.

Have you ever made major shifts like (in any area of life)? Let me know. How did they work out for you? While I still don’t know how this will ultimately work for me, it certainly seems like it was the right thing for me to do.

Yours,
David

What am I Doing? Deification, John Cassian, and My Path to a PhD

Dear Friends,

I thought today, I’d write a short blog about the main thing I’m currently working on, namely, my doctoral thesis. Since I’ve only just finished my first year as a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, my thesis doesn’t have a proper title yet. My general topic, however, is deification, John Cassian, and the contemporary significance. Let me try to distill that briefly.

Deification is a notion (doctrine might be too strong of a word) that part of God’s intent for humanity is for humans to, in some sense, become divine. Athanasius (a fourth century Bishop and theologian from Alexandria) put it most pithily, ‘For He [Jesus] was made man that we might be made God,’ (De Incarnatione 1.54). The idea is that when God became man he deified all humanity giving us the opportunity to become God. Now, this doesn’t mean that we become absorbed into God loosing our distinctiveness, individually or corporately, God is not the Borg. It also, however, doesn’t mean that we become demigods like so many of the heroes of pagan mythology. No, it means that somehow, our identity is inextricably linked with that of Christ’s, but we never cease to be us, nor does He cease to be Himself. I’ll probably write more about what deification is at some other point. For now, suffice it to say that according to deification Christians become as much like God and as much God as it is possible for them to do so.

What I’m seeking to do with deification is, primarily, to define it and its significance for the lives of believers. I’m trying to do this through looking at the works of John Cassian (a fifth century monk and theologian probably from Southern France). Cassian spent a lot of time in the Greek East (Egypt, Israel, Constantinople) which is from where most of our language and definition of deification comes. He is not explicit, so, as well as looking at how Cassian defines the life of believers, I also have to try to show that he had a concept of deification. Clear as mud? Well, I’ll try to write more some other time, but you may simply have to buy my book (if my thesis is lucky enough to get published) to get a fuller idea. In the end, not only do I believe Cassian had a notion of deification, but that his understanding of the monastic life can be helpful for believers in understanding why how they live matters and how they can live out the reality that they are being deified.

I want to leave you with two things: a question and a quotation.

Question: Either based on your own reading, or from my poor definition above, what do you think about the notion of deification?

Quotation: This Comes from Cassian’s work On the Incarnation 5.4

All then, whether patriarchs, or prophets, or apostles, or martyrs, or saints, had every one of them God within him, and were all made sons of God and were all receivers of God (θεοδόχοι), but in a different and distinct way. For all who believe in God are sons of God by adoption: but the only begotten alone is Son by nature: who was begotten of His Father, not of any material substance, for all things, and the substance of all things exist through the only begotten Son of God––and not out of nothing, because He is from the Father: not like birth, for there is nothing in God that is void or mutable, but in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner God the Father, wherein He Himself was ingenerate, begat His only begotten Son; and so from the Most High, Ingenerate, and Eternal Father proceeds the Most High, Only Begotten, and Eternal Son.

Thanks for reading.

Sincerely Yours,

David