Grad School Q & A: Blair Wilner ’13, on studying theology at Duke Divinity School and UVa.

Addison Blair Wilner, a 2013 Bible and religion graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in religious studies at the University of Virginia. He received a Master of Theological Studies in 2015 at Duke Divinity School.

Describe your field of study and research at the University of Virginia and Duke.

I am now enrolled in a Master of Arts in Religious Studies, specifically in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture track.

At Duke, I wrote my thesis with the theologian Willie Jennings (now of Yale) and the chair of the English department, Sarah Beckwith. My thesis looked at the modern concept of race as a way of knowing that judges the meaning, value, and humanity of a body simply based upon skin color and other physical features. My research brought the resources of critical race theory into conversation with Wittgenstein and Cavell’s account of other-mind skepticism as resulting from dissatisfaction with the conditions of knowledge in order to argue that the modern concept of race represents a rejection of ordinary understandings of what it means to know another human being. I then argued that knowing according to race makes it impossible to recognize a raced other to be Christ for oneself.

My research at UVa builds upon my previous research. I am interested in how Christian theology purports that we know and understand our bodies, the natural world, and language. How would understanding the interconnection between bodies, nature, and language change how we think about what it means to be human beings in world created by God? My theological way of thinking is influenced by other disciplines such as linguistic anthropology and cultural geography. My hunch is that because we do not see the connections between our bodies, the natural world, and our ways of knowing and speaking, we are inclined to instrumentalize nature and other human beings. Given the history of theological rationales for violence done to the earth and the callousness with which Christians have displaced countless peoples from their lands, I believe how we think about these subjects matters a great deal.

How did your academic studies and professors at EMU prepare you for your graduate studies/current work?

I came to EMU as a transfer student from Arizona State University, having been out of school for a number of years. When I arrived at EMU, I knew that my goal was to use my time there to prepare for graduate studies in theology and I expressed this to the Bible and Religion department faculty. Having the chance to work closely with  professors Peter Dula, Ted Grimsrud, Christian Early, and Nancy Heisey prepared me for graduate work not only because they were generous with their time, but also because they were willing to offer the rigorous critiques I needed to help hone my academic skills. The Bible and religion faculty were immensely helpful in directing me to critical texts I needed to familiarize myself with–even above and beyond their syllabi–and they were also very amenable to arranging independent studies on specific areas of interest.

I should also mention that EMU does a great job of bringing in important lecturers in a variety of fields. Between the university colloquia, the Justice Lectures, and various other conferences and events, I grew comfortable engaging with top scholars.

What do you think made your application to graduate school stand out among others?

This is a really hard question to answer. First, it strikes me how well-connected the Bible and Religion Department faculty is with the broader academic world. At the American Academy of Religion, Peter Dula seems to know everyone. Many people I met at Duke knew Peter Dula from his time there, and quite a few people had read (at least) one of Ted Grimsrud’s books at some point. Many people in the academic and church world knew Nancy Heisey either from her work with Mennonite Central Committee or Mennonite World Conference.

Second and most importantly, I have been told that many letters of recommendations sound very generic because the constraints of academic life often don’t allow professors to get to know students particularly well. I was confident when I asked for letters from my professors at EMU that they knew my particular interests as well as my strength and weaknesses.

What attracted you to attend EMU as an undergraduate?

I had started my undergraduate studies at another university, but focused most of my time and attention working for a couple of Christian nonprofits. Around the time that I was looking to go back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, I had become very influenced by peace-church theology. I was not personally familiar with the Mennonites, but I had a friend who went to James Madison University and had attended Community Mennonite Church while there. He encouraged me to look into EMU and after chatting with Peter Dula–who I learned had studied with Stanley Hauerwas, a major influence of mine–I decided to apply and commit to EMU. I was looking for a program with a strong faculty in the areas of Biblical studies and theology, but I also did not want to be in a large school. EMU, then, was a perfect fit.

What are some favorite memories of your time at EMU?

Most of my favorite memories from EMU involve time spent with professors, usually in their offices after class talking about this or that book. Probably my favorite memory though, was going on the Quebec cross-cultural with Nancy Heisey. Montreal was such an amazing city to live in for almost a month, and the topics we studied such as secularism and Quebecois class struggles were fascinating. This also afforded me the opportunity to get to know Nancy Heisey better; I took two or three classes with her at EMU, but she we also quite busy as the interim dean.

What do you think makes EMU graduates distinctive?

EMU graduates always have a passion for something interesting and important. I think the combination of academic rigor, commitment to justice and environmental sustainability, and Anabaptist convictions shapes students who care for the broader world but also about the local community. This is why you have EMU grads who go work for Mennonite Central Committee in Iraq as well as those who live in intentional communities and work for neighborhood development organizations. In the academic world, I can say that the EMU grads I’ve known have always had a passion for interesting and important topics. They bring not only their intellects to the academy, but their commitment as activists and educators.