Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner Chris Hazlaris

Chris Hazlaris (Yale Divinity School) has been awarded $500 for the essay, “Redeeming a Sinful Theology of Nature.” Learn more about the Goodwin Prize in Theological Writing here.

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?  

I have always been deeply passionate about religious studies, spurred on by my own Christian faith, and, in my undergrad at Fordham University, I discovered how particularly interested I was in spirituality as it related to culture. My second degree was in anthropology, and I was fascinated by the different ways the divine could be conceived and worshiped by humans across time and geography (I believe this to be what we Christians call God’s boundless “Grace!”). My interest in theological anthropology reached a high-point when I studied abroad with base ecclesial communities in El Salvador in 2015. From this point onward, whether I obtained a Ph.D. or sought ordination, I had determined that my path would be to try to offer folks alternative conceptions of God that I believed could prevent their own theological understandings from remaining confined “in a box.” 

What do you hope to do with your degree?

I originally entered Yale Divinity School believing that I would either be ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) or pursue a doctoral path in theological anthropology. However, my time in graduate school has convinced me that my vocation lies, at least for the time being, in neither of the two. I am incredibly passionate about the spiritual development of young people, particularly high school and college-aged youth, and accompanying them in their own religious journeys and questions, and it is in this area that I have become convinced that my present gifts can best meet the needs of the world today. I care so deeply about young people growing up with the knowledge that they were uniquely created and are uniquely loved amidst their imperfections (I have been active in youth ministry for over five years), and by continuing to gently walk with teens in their faith lives and to challenge them in their own preconceived notions of religion and Church, it is my hope to be a stepping stone to a more spiritually grounded and compassionate society. I am currently applying to jobs as a youth pastor and campus minister, and rather than seeing these occupations as rudimentary, am quite proud to be dedicating my time and energy to an age group that I think is always in desperate need of intentional pastoral care and guidance.

Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life?

Faith and my intellectual work cannot be separated for me. What I study and research I hope will have tangible effects on my ministry with young people in the near future. For instance, many of the papers I write explore worship and theology in unfamiliar non-Western cultural environments. I do this so that I may continue to better offer teenagers tangible examples of the ways in which God exceeds our human conceptions or norms, offers different individuals and groups different gifts and insights, and communicates divine love uniquely and intimately to all. 

How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background? 

It is my intuition that many Christians have internalized the story of Adam and Eve’s sin to mean that the whole world is fallen and corrupt. I argue that this is sorely mistaken. The world as created by God is full of beauty and goodness and often even the parts that look “messy” to us (“survival of the fittest,” biological death, chance occurrences, etc.) are actually, if seen holistically, a major source of abundant life and diversity in the universe. I use what is called a “process theology” model to explain how I think God permits all of Creation – not only humans – to operate with free will, with some divine guidance. As for “sin,” it should be re-defined as our conscious, human refusal of the highest life of love God wishes for us. (Though I do not have room to go into this in the essay, I believe refusing to deem the natural world as sinful is so important because doing so could have major implications for how we view and treat nature and our bodies.)

How might this award make a difference in your life?  

I am incredibly grateful to have received a Goodwin award. It encourages me to continue to want to challenge the understandings of God that we take for granted in the hopes that such interrogations can make people more in-tune with what it means to be a creature under God. Specifically, I hope my work can help people, particularly young people, to see that inter-dependenceis not sin; having imperfections and needing to support one another is an immaculate way that God has sown us together (this is what I believe Church, the Body of Christ, means at its most basic level!) Sin is something quite different, an intentional willing to disobey God that must be recognized for what it is. If my paper has started to do this then I feel humbled and empowered to continue on this road. 

How do you spend your time when you are not studying? 

I am an avid soccer player and am the captain and coach of my graduate school’s soccer team. Additionally, I love music and always use free time to play cover songs on piano, write guitar music, and sing joyfully throughout my house! Sports and music are two of the most centering activities I have in this world, and I cherish them dearly.