About a week ago on Facebook I posted the course description of a class I was hoping to take this Fall. Taking the course was contingent on me getting accepted as an Occasional Student in a grad program at the U of Manitoba. I did not get accepted. Now perhaps I should have had my doubts. On paper I don’t look particularly good, with poor educational institutions on my transcripts and increasingly distant academic references, no recent and ‘serious’ work to produce. Of course I also applied way too late which might have had something to do with it. In any event I have tried now on three separate occasions to work on a PhD program. All three attempts have failed, all for differing reasons (finances, life, outright rejection). I could take this rejection and craft it into a ‘boot-strap-pulling’ type story where I persevere and I am guessing there would much merit and formation that would happen in such a pursuit (and who knows I may end up doing this). But what am I chasing here? While I would like the option of teaching it is not really something I want to pursue actively.
This rejection, like most rejections, has created a space for reflection and this is what has come to me. The reality is that other than a brief period around high school focusing on competitive sports the academic institution has been the site of highest evaluation for my life, higher than economics and higher even, I think, than religion (though it did not start out this way religion became a way of framing an orientation to education). School has from the beginning, from the very beginning, represented this site of evaluation, the omnipotent eye, the judgment seat from which salvation and damnation are accepted as true. I say that this was the case from the very beginning because it is literally my first memory of school. I can still remember what I assume was the first day of school. The image is that of a gymnasium with various stations at which kids are involved in tasks. I was unconsciously able to understand these as evaluations (which I am sure they were; seeing what sort of ‘special needs’ some of the kids might have) because the focal image of this memory is a kid walking across a balance beam raised about six inches off the ground. School established the categories of success and failure.
I have always come back to school or academics as a standard of approval. And despite making some bad choices in terms of academic institutions I had enough momentum that I probably could have carried out and completed a solid PhD program about a decade ago. So while I used to be able to enjoy some of the momentum that young and committed academics receive this is simply not the case anymore (and has not been for a while). The problem is that the compulsion remains and I am becoming tired of the compulsion. I am tired of a pursuit that always leaves me feeling outside the realm of sacred evaluators, outside the rights of true gnosis. But on the other side I am fearful of apathy or complacency. I am fearful of going through the motions of life and losing vitality. Ultimately, though, reflecting on this process I am increasingly aware of how I have bowed to this god, how I have groveled, how it has puffed me up and how it has made me feel inadequate. I never really felt the need to make my biological father feel proud (not in the way I hear it from others anyway). But school has been my father. I can point to mentors, father figures, who I looked up to in college and seminary.
To be clear, I am still by and large a fan of the academic process. Without a doubt I will continue with many academic pursuits. But I need now to acknowledge my lineage, to pronounce the name of my father. The academic institution has established a grid of evaluation, it has intervened with a law. This latest rejection has come more clearly as another scolding, a putting in my place below other siblings. In theology there is renewed attention on exploring the death of the Christian god, but this, I think, is to miss the point in my own scenario. The strings are still being pulled by another. This god is pleased with the dance made around the dead Christian god. It is time to speak more clearly of the need to proclaim the death of this father, of this god.
So what lies ahead? I guess it is what lies ahead for anyone who encounters or acknowledges their dead god. What lies ahead is the daily allowing of disorientation left by the vacancy and the daily practice of paying attention to what surrounds this vacancy and producing tentative evaluations; of feeling and describing what influences us and acknowledging what we influence; of living without a determined eschatology. I still seek and perform many of the practices found in universities of course and will probably be happy to be more involved in the future. I will still look to academics for many aspects of my formation. But my orientation has to change. I have been placed outside the grid of academic evaluation (found wanting by its scales). I have hit my ceiling (again and again). I have experienced a fraction of the rejection, pressure, and anxiety that so many others have faced. Now is the time to live with or without it, as not a god. That what is being sought and what is being encountered is incidental to the institution.