2015 GOODWIN PRIZE FOR EXCELLENCE IN THEOLOGICAL WRITING
Your name: David D. Berka
The title of your paper: “Home of the Dispossessed: Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Truth Telling as Confessional Grammar”
What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?
I was inspired to pursue advanced study in theology when I realized that many of my philosophical questions were actually theological questions. As an undergraduate philosophy student, I became curious about what understandings of truth and falsity were at work in various philosophical claims and systems. I did extended research and writing on Nietzsche and his conception of truth. It was only after I finished my undergraduate degree that I really discovered theology as a discipline, finding a wealth of contemporary theological work on truth and language (D. Stephen Long’s Speaking of God: Theology, Language, and Truth was especially helpful). This work introduced me to many theologians who have also wrestled with questions about truth similar to those I’d asked while studying Nietzsche and others. I then had the resources to ask questions I’d asked but didn’t know how to begin answering, like: In what sense can certain theological or biblical claims be called “true”? Upon whom or what do these claims depend? Is there a difference between public and private knowledge? How does something like power influence human knowing or Christian claims to truth? What difference does it make that Jesus calls himself “truth”? Questions like these continue to animate my theological thinking. I’m inspired to continue this kind of work by my conviction that thinking through such questions can be a form of faithful Christian witness, even worship. I’m inspired by those theologians whose work makes Creation a more interesting and, Deo volente, a more beautiful place.
What do you hope to do with your degree?
Like many of my classmates, I hope to teach, preferably at the university level. I have deep gratitude for the teachers in my life who have taught me that asking questions and seeking greater understanding of God is a good thing. I’m grateful for those who’ve shown me that transformed understanding and transformed living are not mutually exclusive but, in many ways, one and the same. I would like to be the same sort of teacher for others.
I also am constantly looking for ways to connect the theology and philosophy I study to the life of the church and communities that I inhabit. There is merit enough in theological reflection and contemplation for its own sake, but I’m driven by questions about how what I learn is connected to how others and I share life together. So I ask, what form does my life already have, and what sorts of theological assumptions contribute to this form, for better or worse? What needs to change about how I live, and what change in theological thinking would this require? Or, conversely, based on how I think theologically, what sort of life does this imply that I should live? What kind of community would such a life require? At present, for instance, these questions have led me to take up community organizing efforts in congregational settings. In such settings I have to think about what kinds of common life I and my fellow congregants want to work toward, both with others in our church community and in our wider communities: neighborhood, city, state, &c. How do we take other people’s differences seriously and hospitably without comprising what makes us, as Christians, different from others? What does Christian hospitality in a liberal democratic political environment look like? How do Christians and church communities work for healing with those whom they have harmed, or been harmed by? These are the kinds of questions that my theological education presently helps me both to ask and to explore.
Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life?
My general approach to life is to consider all of how I live, insofar as I’m able, as a response to God’s gift of love given in the person of Jesus. In this sense, I try to imagine whether the things I do or don’t do could be called a faithful response to that gift. For whatever reason, I have the interests and loves that I do—in theology, in philosophy, with writing, people, music, or anything else. And so I try and use and enjoy these loves and interests and talents as ways to be thankful for and reflective of God’s gift of love. I’m grateful that my intellectual and academic work can help me reflect on and embody what it means to be faithful to God’s gifts and love. My hope is that my work somehow helps others to do that, too.
How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background?
I would summarize my paper as follows: St. Augustine, a theologian, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher, think similarly about truth, and about what it means to tell the truth. They imagine that telling the truth is like making a confession. Confession is something that we learn how to do only in the presence of other people. Since they understand confession and truth telling as similar or even identical activities, they understand truth itself as something basically personal. That is, we can’t know what truth is, or what kinds of things are true, apart from the presence of and relationships with other people. So I take these insights from Wittgenstein and Augustine to explore what it could mean that Jesus claims to be the truth. Jesus doesn’t claim that some set of propositions about him is true, but instead that his very person is truth itself. I then try to show that confession, as Wittgenstein and Augustine understand it, is a practice that helps us see that telling the truth is about giving and receiving something basically personal, rather than claiming, knowing, or reporting something factual. In this way, I imagine that telling the truth is a radically contingent activity—we depend entirely upon others to learn how to do it well. Most importantly, we depend on Christ’s gift of himself as truth to us.
How might this award make a difference in your life?
It’s made a difference in two very practical but distinct ways. First, it’s made a difference as a form of encouragement of theological exploration and contemplation. At the end of much study and writing, students like me can often feel overwhelmed, even defeated, and perhaps left wondering whether or not studying theology is worth our time. The work of Theological Horizons and opportunities like the Goodwin Prize allow us the chance to present and publicly share our research, thought, and work, with the hope that it will be helpful and beneficial to those who engage with it. It’s encouraging to receive an award like this from Theological Horizons, whose work focuses intently on how the work of theology makes a difference for how Christians live, move, and have their being in the world.
Second, it’s made a difference as an aid to my doctoral applications. I hope to continue on to doctoral work next fall in theology and ethics, and the Goodwin Prize will certainly help me with the costs of the application process!
What would you say to prospective donors might fund the Goodwin Writing Prize?
Please do! Theological Horizons and the Goodwin Prize do a great service to the continuation of theological reflection, study, and conversation by creating space for these things to happen. The essay competition is a good way for students like me to get a sense of what sort of work my peers are doing, and how they’re doing it. For me, this helps develop a broader frame of reference and interest for my own theological work. I’m convinced that the most beneficial and credible theology springs from conversation and interaction with many different friends, teachers, peers, and interlocutors—even enemies. I think that Theological Horizons and the Goodwin Prize encourage this kind of theological work.
How do you spend your time when you are not studying?
When I’m not studying, I love to spend my time most with family, friends, and my dogs; by being outdoors; or reading and writing for leisure. I love learning about art, especially iconography, film, and music—particularly jazz, blues, and folk (Tom Waits is a favorite). I also play drums and percussion in a folk band. Taking “Sabbath time” is important to me, which I usually do by rehearsing with the band, going to Mass, or having quiet nights in to watch movies or read. As a Wisconsin native, I also love watching the Brewers and the Packers.
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