The $2,500 prize has been awarded to Stephen D. Lawson of Saint Louis University for his essay, “Only Through Time/Time is Conquered: A Theological Reflection.”
What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology? What do you hope to do with your degree?
As I imagine many children are, I was full of theological questions long before I knew what theology was. I have vivid memories of staying awake late into the night consumed by the questions to which theology responds. I remember my father’s gentle patience as he listened to me (I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight) ask, “why does existence exist?” I knew then that many of the most significant questions in life were not covered in my school. Had I been raised in a different family or a different Christian community then perhaps I would have set aside questions like these, settling for rote memorization of confessional certainties. I’m grateful that I was raised in a family where several times a week the conversation over supper was likely to develop into an hour-long discussion of some biblical or theological topic.
As I matured these questions coalesced with the typical vocational angst of a teenager. Guided by ministers and my parents, I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in ministry and biblical studies at Ozark Christian College. In college I found a place to explore many of the questions that persisted in my mind in the context of a serving community. This experience helped to bring me out of the land of the overly abstract by underscoring the centrality of concrete encounters with others. When I completed my undergraduate degree I was set on continuing my studies in graduate school, but I was unsure whether I would pursue a vocation in parish ministry or academic theology.
Emmanuel Christian Seminary was an ideal place to dwell in this tension between ministry and academic theology. At Emmanuel, I was blessed to be a part of a small but vibrant theological community that overlapped with a faithful ecclesial community. I developed deep relationships and was encouraged to plumb the depths of the Christian tradition in order to discover resources to renew the church today. As I neared the completion of my degree I asked ministers, friends, and my family to pray with me about my future vocation. The result of this discernment was taking the risky step of applying to doctoral programs in theology. I am deeply grateful to have been accepted into my current program in historical theology at Saint Louis University.
Like most people I know who are pursuing PhDs in theology my eventual goal is to teach theology in a university or seminary setting. After serving as a research assistant and teaching assistant at SLU I have now started to solo teach my own undergraduate theology classes. This has been life-giving work for me and has confirmed my vocational passion for teaching. I hope for a position where I can interact with students while also having the space to continue pursuing research and writing.
Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life?
There are many different connections between my work as an aspiring theologian and my life as a disciple. A number of years ago in seminary I read Karl Barth’s classic Evangelical Theology. In that little volume there is a section where he discusses how the theologian in invested in his or her work more than any other kind of researcher because the subject matter of theology, God, is of utmost importance for their personal lives. He cited the Latin phrase tua res agitur (it concerns you) to underscore his point. I wrote that phrase on a note that has sat above my workspace for years. It’s a small reminder that all of the work I do as a student of the Christian theological tradition should not merely satiate my intellectual curiosity but should enliven my soul in enjoyment of God.
When I came to Saint Louis University I was blessed to be welcomed into a Christian intentional community, the Lotus House, in north St. Louis. Situating my study within a community life marked by the rhythms of daily prayer, shared meals, and service has enriched my work in countless ways. My three years among the brothers and sisters of this small place of grace has forever changed the way I conceive of the connection between theology and Christian practice. In May I left the Lotus House to begin a new life with my wonderful wife Emily. We have endeavored to create in our new family a space where our work, study, worship, and service all enrich one another.
How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background?
My paper is a theological exploration of two problems that the nature of time poses for us. First, as humans we all live in finite time; we all live our lives knowing that we are heading toward our own end in death. Though many people try to distract themselves from this truth, it remains on the edge of our experience of everything in this life, an enigma we’re incapable of unlocking ourselves. I look at two different responses humans have to this enigma: we either try to forget that we are creatures and reach out beyond what we’ve been given by God or we embrace the immediate experience of our daily lives and dismiss any questions about what came before us or what happens after. I suggest that the doctrine of the Christ answers our situation by showing that our lives are not surrounded by emptiness stretching infinitely before and after us, but are rather enfolded in God’s infinity, which is pure goodness and delight.
The second movement of the essay offers a reflection on the problem of suffering in time. The persistence of evil in a world Christians believe a loving God created has long been a question posed to the faith. I focus on one aspect of this question: is memory redeemable? I suggest that the cross shows us that salvation is not simply the making whole of what was broken (like a cast on a broken arm). If Jesus Christ really is God then God’s “memory” becomes the victim’s memory in Christ’s suffering on the cross. In this way I suggest that God redeems even our broken past by taking it into himself and raising it anew in his resurrection.
How might this award make a difference in your life?
The news of this award appeared in my inbox one morning while I was quietly translating German at home. I was overjoyed and deeply humbled by the honor; I had to interrupt my wife at work just to tell her the news. It came as a great encouragement to a student who is often beset by worries that all these years in theological higher education might end in unemployment. I have reached the point in my program beyond coursework and comprehensive exams so I do not frequently receive encouraging feedback on my work; this prize is a welcome break from that and it has granted me more confidence to consider submitting other work for publication.
Additionally, being honored with this recognition is a positive sign to colleagues and potential future employers and I am grateful for that.
Finally, this honor is a major practical benefit to my wife and me. We were just married on May 21. In addition to all the unforeseen sundry costs of joining two lives together we also had to move her from South Carolina to St. Louis, which was not a small burden on a graduate student stipend. This additional support comes at a crucial time in our lives and we are both so appreciative to receive it.
How do you spend your time when you are not studying?
If marriage has taught me anything so far it’s that sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves. So I asked my wife, “How do I spend my time when I’m not studying theology?” Her response: “studying other things.” I suppose there is truth in that. I enjoy when I can drift from the field of theology to explore history, philosophy, literature, politics, or music. When I do, I find that I return to theology with fresh insights. I also enjoy hiking, cooking, and exploring the many wonderful museums and parks of St. Louis with my wife. When we have the time and funds, my wife and I love to travel; we’re especially fond of Germany and hope to visit there again soon.
Any other comments?
I would like to thank all of those who have donated their time and resources so that the Goodwin Prize can be offered. I am grateful for those who agreed to serve as judges and for the staff of Theological Horizons for all of the work they do in organizing this and many other theological programs. I also would like to thank Grant Kaplan, who has been a steady friend and theological guide throughout my program at SLU. Finally, I would like to thank my friend David Bentley Hart. David served as a visiting professor of theology at SLU during the 2014–2015 academic year. He generously shared his time and theological insight over many cups of coffee. I’ve been deeply influenced and encouraged through his friendship. I originally wrote this essay for a seminar he offered and his comments have helped improve it.
Through the three annual Goodwin Prizes we recognize and reward the most promising graduate theology students in the world. The Louise and Richard Goodwin Writing Prizes for Excellence in Theological Writing are given to graduate students in recognition of essays that demonstrate: creative theological thinking, excellence in scholarship, faithful witness to the Christian tradition, and engagement with the community of faith.