Thursday morning, I was called into the conference room at the Oxford Centre for Missions Studies, to take my Viva Voce, "Live Voice," the traditional oral defense of a doctoral thesis in the British system. Three men were waiting for me inside, none, as it happens, Chinese: Tom Harvey, a Duke-educated theologian and Dean of OCMS, who has studied Chinese thought for many years, and acted as Internal Examiner; Gavin D'Costa, Bristol University professor and a leading Catholic authority on "theology of religions," (and advisor to the Pontifical Council for Other Faiths), acting as External Examiner; and David Singh, the Chair, a specialist in Indian Islam. (The last name "Singh," common among Sikhs in India, is Sanskrit for "lion.")
Wrecklessly passing over my cute panda tie, I had put on a yellow tie with dragons, a power tie if ever there were one. So I was distressed to see D'Costa wearing a bright pink tie, that outshone mine by half an order of magnitude.
And here Daniel Dennett would number us both among the "dims."
Neither examiner asked any of the questions I prepared for, of course. One cannot predict what will occur to a scholar who has been developing his thoughts on a given subject for decades. One of them told me at the beginning of the exam to "Relax and enjoy the conversation," advise perhaps calculated to make an examinee feel more nervous. Anyway, I did "flub" some of the questions. My explanation for why I had not critiqued the inclusivist model of religions as thoroughly as the other two traditional models, seemed weak even to me. When asked the opposite of teleological, I invented a word, which is probably not a good strategy even for someone with jet lag. (Fortunately adding a verbal question mark at the end of my lame answer.) Nor, it turns out, had I included much of an explanation for the key Taoist concept of wuwei in the thesis ("without striving," "going with the flow"), like the detailed historical studies of other key words I'd developed from ancient Chinese sources.
But overall, they seemed to like my thesis, and found some of my answers coherent enough. After an hour and a half, they asked me to leave. I paced back and forth for a while, like a father outside the maternity room -- then they delivered. A few amendments were needed (more on wuwei, more on inclusivism, more on John Farquhar's ideas relate to my own, etc) -- congratulations, Dr. Marshall, and handshakes all around.
So what should I say?
"I came, I spoke, I conquered?"
"This too is vanity and striving after wind . . . As he had come naked from his mother's womb, so will he return as he came . . . exactly as a man is born, thus will he die . So, what advantage to him who toils for the wind? . . . Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and to enjoy oneself in all one's labor in which he toils under the sun . . . (God) has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor: this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart."
Praise God. A little pile of straw it may be, but this long-toiled over stack has finally (aside from a few tweaks, and academic bureaucracy) been gathered into the barn.