Gillian Breckenridge Interview

Featured Interview: Gillian Breckenridge

What were your educational experiences like prior to UVa and what shaped your path in deciding to enroll? 

I got my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and my Master’s degree at Union Seminary in the City of New York (MA Hons. RS and STM respectively). Both places were incredibly exciting and formative for me and in many ways, my current work continues to build on the intersection of interests I learned at both institutions. I fell in love with theology at Edinburgh – they taught me to love reading difficult primary texts, to value gracious and nuanced writing, and they trained me in the ways of Karl Barth! Anyone taught theology through reading a lot of Barth so early on never really lets that go. Barth is so creative – always taking something you thought you already knew, flipping it around, and showing you its complexities. I still find that I approach my own theological work that way and that returning to his writing continues to inspire and motivate what I do. Union Seminary is an extremely dynamic place – they taught me to seek out voices that can be marginalized in mainstream theology and not to be afraid of digging deep into the big ethical questions of our time. Living in community there and taking classes with professors like James Cone really challenged me to develop my theological voice and to take responsibility for my theological perspective. Union taught me that good theology is grounded in real, personal, existential questions – writing a paper is not just a writing exercise but is an opportunity to wrestle with ideas, traditions, contexts, ethics, and to find a way to put that wrestling match on the page. In fact, now I think about it some more, this really came together for me in a class with Peter Ochs during my first year here at UVA. He encouraged us to write our papers from a place of honest questioning. It sounds so simple, but ever since that class I’ve tried to take that seriously. I think it makes writing papers harder, but I also think that it results in work that is more honest and in the end, more fruitful.

What is special about your track within the department? Do you have specific memories that are especially exciting to recall? 

I am in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture track. What’s special about it, I think, is that it combines the chance to really focus on areas that you care about (for me, theology), but to also build in other courses that can help you be a better scholar – and with some great professors. So, for example, I loved taking courses with Paul Jones on Calvin’s Institutes, on the work of Karl Barth, on Theories of the Atonement, and I also had the opportunity to study Political Theology with Charles Mathewes and Phenomenology with Kevin Hart, among others. One of the things I love about our program is that you are surrounded by really brilliant people – professors and fellow graduate students – who work hard and who are just really, really smart. That’s true in other Universities too, no doubt, but what I think is unique about our program is you get that brilliance, but that it is not in a cut-throat atmosphere. People here like each other and we recognize that when our fellow students do well, it reflects well on all of us. Getting a grad degree is a massive investment of your time. These things matter!

In what ways have you connected with the academy outside of UVa, that might not be evident in your CV? What have been some of your favorite experiences in travel for academic work, field study, conference presentations; studying, teaching, or working on other school campuses? 

I’m a total conference geek and I get really inspired by the work of other scholars. I love the annual AAR conference – I go early and leave late and completely fill up my schedule with sessions and talks. I really enjoy going to sessions that border my own studies but are beyond my day-to-day work: sessions on queer theory, liberation theologies, womanist and mujerista theologies. I really loved the sessions last year on the conversation between the disciplines of religious studies and theology. Last summer I also attended the annual Barth conference at Princeton for the first time and I loved it. I had the opportunity to present a paper related to my dissertation, and just being there for the other sessions and conversations reminded me why I love what I do and really acted like a catalyst for my own research. I have also presented papers at an SST conference in the UK (Society for the Study of Theology), at Duke (we have built great friendships between the grad students in our departments), and here at UVA at our annual TEC conference (Theology, Ethics, and Culture). I’ve also been teaching theology this semester at Mary Washington which has been a great experience. The students are smart and being in the classroom gives me such a high. Oh, and I’ll let you in on UVA’s best kept secret: every year I go to the presentations by the DMPs (undergraduate Distinguished Majors Program) at the end of the spring semester. If you care about teaching and about religious studies as a discipline, it is always truly encouraging to see such great work by up and coming scholars being supported and recognized in the department.

How has the mentoring of undergraduates and newer scholars been part of your path? What challenges have arisen and how have you overcome them? For those determined to pursue Religious Studies as a vocation, what advice might you offer? 

Mentoring undergraduate scholars has been a very significant part of my experience at UVA. Obviously, we have great opportunities as Teaching Assistants in our program and I learned a great deal in that environment. I’ve also developed some long-term mentoring relationships with younger scholars. There is a still a lack of women in our field and so many of the students I connect with are young women. Being from the UK and growing up as an atheist and then becoming a part of the church as a young person myself, I really connect with students who are trying to find out how to balance their own ideas and commitments with the things that we are reading – both atheists (and non-religious people) and committed Christians can have a hard time working out how their own ideas and background interacts with their study of theology. I like to address that head on in the classes I teach, bringing in principles I learned in Scriptural Reasoning – that we all bring wells of wisdom to the classroom from our particular perspective; that we respect everyone as such; that our goal in the classroom is not to agree with one another; and that we find unity in our conversations by staying close to the text. I think it’s important that we help students become scholars who can fully integrate themselves in what they are studying. Sometimes this means setting some boundaries, especially in the classroom, but I think they need to be boundaries that still invite the whole person into the conversation, not asking them to leave a part of themselves at the door. Finding a way to invite students into the study of theology – whatever their personal background or beliefs are – is what really motivates me in my teaching.

As far as offering advice to those who are determined to study Religious Studies as a vocation, I would say that gathering advice from a lot of people is really wise. Make sure that you find a program and professors who really understand your interests and who will be great people for you to learn from. Everyone says this, but it is really important to find a department where you want to work with several professors, not just one. If you want to be a scholar, find somewhere that has good placement rates. If you want to get into an alternative career, make sure you are continuing to build that experience through your time in the PhD program. I would also say only do it if you’re sure it is what you love and if you are self-motivated and ready for a marathon: PhDs are hard work and take time and you need to know you can keep going even when things seem impossibly hard – not just intellectually, but also emotionally.

Outside of your own particular specialization, what contribution do you hope your dissertation will make? What audiences might it reach? 

My dissertation is about the way that Christians talk about sin and injustice. I work with an often overlooked part of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and social theorist Michel Foucault in order to think about the way that sin manifests in the contemporary world, particularly in light of personal participation in complex, large-scale injustices (such as white privilege, heteronormativity, income disparity etc.). I talk about things like the obscurity that we often have to our participation in large-scale systemic problems, the constantly evolving nature of injustice and sin, and the way that our participation – even in small and seemingly innocuous ways – forms us and forms our relationships with those around us. Basically, I think our language of sin needs to become much more complex if we want it to keep up with the ways that we have come to think about systemic issues and I think the church needs to find resources not just to think about sin in these more complex ways, but to find ways of talking about sin that encourage Christians and Christian communities to take seriously the ways that theology itself is implicated in these issues.

I think that my dissertation has something to say to theologians and Barth scholars – I draw heavily on Barth’s understanding of sin, which I think is much more complex than many people realize. I think my work speaks to those interested in theology as a discipline: what it is, what its limits are, how theology forms and is formed by culture as well as revelation, reason, and tradition. I am also part of a small (but growing) group of theologians who are interested in the intersection between theology and critical theory. Critical theory is often thought of as a very ‘secular’ discipline that is, well, very critical. But I think that the insights of those who have thought seriously about issues like class and power can offer theology some incredibly useful tools and perspectives for a theology that seeks a critical self-awareness in order to speak more faithfully and responsibly both within the academy and the church.

What are your next steps after defending your dissertation and graduating? If you could design your ideal job position or post-doctoral work, what would it be like? 

I will be defending and graduating this year so this is question is very much on my mind right now! I find that I am someone who gains real energy from the classroom, so I’d love to teach somewhere that really valued their students and wanted faculty to invest in them. I also love my research and writing, so I’d also love to work somewhere that really values and encourages that side of everything too. I have also been very invested in leadership and teaching within the church during my time in Charlottesville, so I think I’d thrive in a seminary position. At the same time, I’ve really loved teaching at the University of Virginia and the University of Mary Washington, so I know that I would find work in liberal arts colleges or research-focused institutions that also put a high value on their teaching equally fulfilling. Wherever I am, I plan on continuing to gain experience teaching, working on several articles and papers that have had to sit on the back-burner during these last few months of my dissertation, and, no doubt, continuing to be a total conference geek.

(Gillian's student profile can be accessed here. -ed.)