BY JAIMEE VAN GEMERDEN
Ko Ruapehu te maunga
Ko Whanganui te awa
Nō England, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands ōku tūpuna
Ko Alwyn Poole rāua ko Karen van Gemerden ōku mātua
Ko Jaimee van Gemerden tōku ingoa
I have introduced myself here in the tradition of pepeha which is a way of situating our identity in history and in the whenua (land). As a pākehā (non-Māori New Zealander) my identity in Aotearoa is bound to the promise of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the relationship to Māori that this agreement builds. As my research, and this piece of writing, is undertaken in the land of Aotearoa I use pepeha to honour the traditions I live within and to illustrate my own relationship to them.
I am a PhD student at Otago University and working at Carey Baptist College as adjunct faculty. Alongside this, I co-edit a platform called Metanoia (metanoianz.com) which engages in issues of contemporary life and Christian faith in Aotearoa New Zealand.
To answer the question of what I am researching and why is on one level quite simple. I am in the very early stages of a PhD in ontological freedom, reading particularly around the existentialist philosophies of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and hopefully considering these ideas of freedom in light of the theological tradition. I am doing this simply, as I recently told a friend when asked why someone would undertake such a project, because I love it.
To begin to explain, on a complex level, why I am researching is in many ways profoundly difficult. Under the surface of the specific questions that my research addresses there are more general, and impossibly large, questions which I hope I can begin to find answers for. Primarily, these explorations are guided by a teleological itch which has haunted me for some time now. Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, claims that the fundamental question of philosophy is “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To establish an answer to this question of purpose is to be able to begin to ascertain the way in which life is intended to be lived. For some, these may seem like questions with obvious or simple answers, however I would contend that they are the questions that are the most troubling and foundational to Western society today. In the same essay Camus asserts that “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.” To live without a sense of intelligible meaning in life is to live in an experience of absurdity, to feel oneself as an outsider in the universe. I do not think that this is an uncommon experience in the modern world where busy-ness and consumption seem to have filled individual’s lives to the extent that they no longer need experience this feeling of alienation. While I am certainly aware of the enormity of the task of answering teleological questions, the belief that these questions are worthwhile is a significant driving force behind the type of research which I am invested in.
Aside from this being the reason why I am researching in my particular area, there are significant contributing factors to my desire to pursue higher education and a career in academia. My desire to be a theologian is driven by a love for the Church and a passion to serve my local community through educating pastors and other Christians about the fundamentals of their faith. I think that there is better news than the obligation and fear-based faith that seems to be proliferate many Christian circles; particularly among my generation and those younger on social media. When I began studying theology I was immediately struck by the disconnect that seems to exist between what theologians and theological institutes say about Christian faith and what I had been taught in the church growing up. My hope is for theological study to again be valued by more public Christian voices, with the intention that this will further strengthen the Church’s response to key issues facing the world today.
A secondary driving force between my desire to be a theologian is my hope to be the person that I wish I had seen growing up. As a teenager in the church I had big theological questions but I never saw anyone like me pursuing intellectual responses to faith. The female role models in my faith community were pastor’s wives and women’s ministry coordinators (not roles that I would wish to undervalue however not the only roles that women should be seen in). In my master’s research last year I came across Valerie Saiving’s seminal (or perhaps ovarial?) article “The Human Situation: A Feminine View” from 1960 which begins “I am a student of theology; I am also a woman.” I was immediately struck by how ground-breaking it still feels to be writing those words 60 years after Saiving penned them. While there are certainly far more female theologians now than there were in 1960, there is still much progress to be made and I am deeply grateful to Logia for the work that they do in ensuring that women’s voices are valued and heard, and that the barriers to women in higher theological education are being challenged. I hope that in 60 years Saiving’s words will be a reminder of another time and not a relatable sentence that I might type myself.
For me, studying theology is a joy, a privilege, and a daily challenge. A challenge to create a better Church for my peers and future generations. But a joy and a privilege to be able to serve the Church in this incredibly significant capacity.
 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955), 11.
 Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 13.
 Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Journal of Religion 40 (1960): 100.
Jaimee van Gemerden is a pākehā academic in Aotearoa. She is currently pursuing a PhD through Otago University and is engaged in teaching at Carey Baptist College.