Gabby Thomas on ‘The Gift of a PhD’

The Revd Dr Gabby (Gabrielle) Thomas

I recently read a fascinating piece on the excellent Thesis Whisperer blog by a Hindu lady (I presume, since she talks about the Bhagavad Gita), giving her reflections on the spiritual growth she is experiencing in doing a PhD, and that prompted me to wonder aloud on facebook what Christian reflection on the process would look like. A couple of people responded, and have kindly agreed to provide guest blog pieces. This is the first, by the Revd Dr Gabby Thomas, who recently completed a PhD on Gregory Nazianzen on Christology and Pneumatology at the University of Nottingham alongside Anglican ordination training at St John’s College, Nottingham. She’s now serving as curate at St Mary with St Alban, Teddington in west London. Many thanks to Gabby for offering this.

The Gift of a PhD

Recently, Steve Walton invited those of us who had done a PhD to reflect upon what we had learnt through the process. What follows is by no means the summation of my “take-away” from my thesis; rather a few of my most precious gains. At the same time as studying, I have been an ordinand and a curate in the CofE. Without a doubt, writing a thesis is as much a part of my spirituality and formation as anything else I have done in these past five years.

These are my top three learnings:

Encountering Christ

I fell more in love with Jesus through reading Gregory Nazianzen’s writing for the past five years. Through studying his own grapples with Christology and Pneumatology, I encountered Jesus in a new way. Early on a wise man said to me, “Don’t be a curator of the texts.” I heeded his words and through the texts I was opened up to new ways of experiencing Christ; particularly through Gregory’s poetry about his own personal sufferings. In them he cried out in such a moving manner that I was able to see how he expected Christ to respond in love. In turn, I encountered depths of Christ’s love in a fresh way.

Identity in Christ

The identity issue for me represents different aspects of learning. First, my own identity was tested repeatedly. Again and again I asked God, friends, my supervisor and myself “Can I really do this? Am I up to the task?” I found that I had to be able to learn to risk failure in a different way than I had previously. At times, the only thing I could do was bring my fear to the cross using the same prayers that Gregory had prayed. Being willing to surrender pride and concern for what others thought about my work has been such a key learning for me. I don’t think that’s finished by any means, but a pattern of surrendering myself to Jesus is far more part of my life than it was before.

The second key identity “take away” was that Gregory, like many of the early church fathers was a proponent of theosis; the belief that the human being is being made divine through participation in Christ. This gave me, and still gives me hours of food for thought because as it’s a different use of language for me. I have found it a helpful way of thinking about my own “becoming.” There’s far more I could say about this, so I’ll leave it for a further occasion.

Study Works Best in Community

I was so supported through my thesis that I could hardly begin to list everyone who has joined in in some way or another. My husband sacrificed many hours of talking about other things! My family cheered and shouted me on. My supervisor went far, far beyond the call of duty and was incredibly generous with her time and energy. Friends endlessly listened to me harping on about Gregory and about doing a PhD. Established scholars who barely knew me invested in me and encouraged me. I am so grateful for the wonderful people whom I have met through doing the thesis. There are so many humble and amazing hearts and minds doing good theology who are willing to share what they can with me. Too many even to list. I’m grateful for the kind folk who listened to my ideas and critiqued them which sharpened me and my work. And I’m grateful to those who let me sharpen their work.

So, these are my top three “take-away” learnings from my thesis. The list could go on for a very long time as it’s been an amazing experience. My graduation this July will be a celebration; not just of the fact that my work passed, but of all the learning, transformation and fellowship that has occurred these past few years.