Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner, Jonathan Platter

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?  

I genuinely love the work of theology. Looking back, I think this has to do with childhood experiences in a family that was active in the church and with parents who always took my siblings’ and my questions seriously by offering the best answers they could and helping us to find resources. My dad helped to build and maintain our city’s public library, so I remember spending a lot of time there while he worked. Books and the opportunities for exploration they provide became something of a natural habitat for me because of that. Pursuing an advanced degree in theology in particular springs from the twin convictions that thinking about God so outstrips our reach as to be unending and at the same time it is God’s infinite and generative love that makes all our thought and imagination possible. Consequently, the academic work of thinking about God is about being initiated into a life-long task, one that deserves to be disciplined with appropriate intellectual practices and habits of mind.

What do you hope to do with your degree? 

I hope to teach theology in a university or seminary context.

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

I think life, faith, and intellectual work are mutually implicated, perhaps most explicitly so when one’s intellectual work is theology. For a particularly transparent example, working to interpret and articulate the doctrine of creation is bound up with how one inhabits the world and relates to the Creator. Love and wonder for the world joins naturally with the intellectual work of thinking about the ongoing activity of God to give existence to each creature. And this latter thought doubles back to one’s vision of the world so that each creature can be perceived as the radiance of God’s generous love. In parenting, this also involves joining with my child to enact forms of attention, care, and imagination in relation to the things around us. Love and wonder for God and creation flow into the practices that we try to cultivate as a family, and these practices in turn cultivate new moments of love and wonder, which then further motivates the intellectual work of thinking about God’s creative activity. And so on… In this way, faith, intellectual work, and personal life together form a kind of ongoing spiritual exercise in which each aspect deepens the others.

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

My paper addresses an aspect of the doctrine of God called divine simplicity, which is a concept that has a long tradition in theology but is not as much talked about recently. At its core, the doctrine of divine simplicity holds that God is not made up of parts—God is “simple” in the sense that God is not “composed” of more basic kinds of stuff. The doctrine can be rather philosophical, and most of the debates about it today are concerned with the metaphysics and ontology involved. Exodus 3:14, where God provides the name “I am who I am,” was important for pre-modern articulations of divine simplicity because it was taken to suggest that God is simply being-itself, an unlimited act of existence.

The verse is not typically interpreted this way anymore. This is partly because of some important questions about how to translate the original Hebrew, but it also has to do with the sense that using Exod. 3:14 to defend divine simplicity is an especially egregious example of “proof-texting”—using a verse to make a theological point far removed from the narrative context. I try to argue in my paper that divine simplicity is in fact relevant to the narrative context, because Moses is asking for God’s name in order to confirm that God can be trusted in the mission Moses is being called to and that God is capable of fulfilling the mission in and with Moses. By asking about God’s name, Moses is also asking about God’s reality or nature. The way that divine simplicity expresses the unique mode of God’s reality fits well in this context. If the name, “I am who I am,” resonates with an unlimited, qualitatively different mode of existence (like simply “being-itself”), then the name bears forth God’s reality in such a way as to disrupt the powers by which Egypt kept God’s people enslaved and to enable Moses’ vocation as an act of trust in the God so named.

So, trusting God is bound up with how we think of God’s reality. Divine simplicity, and Exod. 3:14, involve us in a radical vision of God, one that perpetually leads us to see God at the center of all things and beyond all things, to see God as the ultimate object of trust because God is the most intimate source of being.

How might this award make a difference in your life? 

First, it is a significant encouragement. In academia, many of us experience the “imposter syndrome,” and I admit that I almost didn’t submit my essay to the contest because I was all too aware of its weaknesses and limitations. For me, then, this is a reminder to trust friends, peers, mentors, and myself, even when doing so requires an uncomfortable degree of vulnerability.

Second, the award will provide some financial cushion as I conclude my degree program. My wife and I are anticipating a transition period and don’t know what to expect on the other side. The prospect is a little less daunting because of the award money.

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

I am the primary caregiver for our 2.5 year-old son; so when I’m not studying, I’m likely immersed in conversations between an excavator and a dump truck or driving toy fire-engines to extinguish fire on the bookshelves (I wonder why it is that my theology books are often the object of imagined fires…). I also enjoy learning languages, reading (beyond just for studies), and cooking and baking.

Any other comments? 
I am grateful to Theological Horizons for the honor of this award. I’m also grateful for my supervisor, Ian McFarland, and the many friends here in Cambridge and abroad with whom I get to discuss theological matters—their diverse specialisms and willingness to discuss such a seemingly bizarre and archaic doctrine as divine simplicity enrich my thinking greatly. Finally, I want to thank my wife, Janette, for her work to support our family and for discussing (or at least listening to me discuss) things like divine simplicity even without having a personal interest in the subject. I believe that love for God and our sense of God’s own love are shaped by our closest relationships: I’m sure I would know God’s love through a much darker glass apart from daily life with Janette and our son.